"Look at the sunset from the sun's point of view."
- Steven Wright
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July 19. I've had a few comments on medical progress. The basic idea is, there are still a lot of valuable treatments being invented, but they're less universal and more specific. Like, there's never going to be a cure for cancer the way antibiotics were a cure for bacterial infection, but there are powerful new treatments for particular kinds of cancer.
It occurs to me, this is the same long tail that we're seeing in commerce and culture: instead of a few big things for everyone, we have a lot of little things for niche interests. In the 70's, you could name every show on television. Now, even people who work for Netflix can't name every show produced by Netflix.
This has something to do with social complexity, and I'm wondering how much more complex society can get, before it gets simpler.
Related, a long and well-written article about the coming launch of the cosmic crisp apple, with lots of stuff about how the food industry is changing.
"Food has become such a dream world," O'Rourke, the marketing economist, told me recently. He was ruminating on so-called superfoods and on the way food marketing tends to focus on "extrinsic qualities" -- a brand, a logo, a story -- more than the food itself. We want what we eat to save our lives; to reflect our worldliness, the uniqueness of our identities; to fulfill our desire for the new and interesting. One result is that some of the most staple of staples -- things like bread or milk or apples -- are having a hard time competing.
July 16. Bunch o' links. First, Here's What We Know About Mental Fatigue. Mental effort fills your brain with a chemical called adenosine, which makes everything feel harder. But I'm wondering, why does life sometimes feel like an uphill struggle, even when I haven't done anything mentally difficult? Maybe it's because society has gone so far from human nature, that just going through the day doing normal things is mentally difficult.
I haven't watched a full NBA game since the 90's, but I still enjoy reading about it, and this article contains a beautiful sentence: "Lonzo-to-Zion lobs will make for nightly highlight reels."
An article about a 1919 Army Truck Convoy Across the U.S. Only 100 years ago, the roads were so primitive that the trip took two months, and "the convoy was involved in 230 accidents and damaged 88 bridges." So I'm wondering, how different will transportation be in another 100 years? My best guess is that the roads will be crumbling, and long-distance travel will be done by air or very long walks.
The Murakami Effect, a long and smart essay about the Japanese author, and how he cynically reverse-engineered his fiction for translation into the American literary genre, while more interesting Japanese authors remain almost unknown in the west. This seems to be a common thread across all kinds of creative work: the choice to be successful by giving people what they already feel comfortable with, or to follow your own peculiar vision and remain obscure.
Is Medicine Overrated? In the old days, medical interventions did more harm than good. That changed with several "magic bullets": anesthesia, clean surgery, antibiotics, and vaccinations. Since then, we've been expecting more medical miracles, and mostly getting more expensive stuff of dubious value. I want to plug a little-known book called The Health of Nations by Leonard Sagan, which argues that modern increases in health and longevity are mostly because of psychosocial factors.
Is Consciousness Fractal? It's mostly about fractals in art and nature, and why we like them. I think the word "consciousness" can be canceled out of the equation, and we can just say that reality is fractal, and the human-made world has fallen away from that, creating too much disorder and also too much control, and we're trying to get back into balance.
July 12. Two quick happy links for the weekend. A retired teacher found some seahorses off Long Beach. Then he built a secret world for them:
If you get Hanson talking about his seahorses, he'll tell you exactly how many times he's seen them (997), who is dating whom, and describe their personalities with intimate familiarity. Bathsheba is stoic, Daphne a runner. Deep Blue is chill.
And The 50 Best New Board Games, where new means the last five or ten years. I've only played two on the list. Root has highly asymmetrical design (meaning the different factions play differently) and great visual design, but I just didn't think the gameplay was fun. And Spirit Island is my favorite board game. It's both asymmetrical and cooperative, and so complex that you really have to focus. You play nature spirits trying to stop an island from being colonized.
July 10. Continuing from Monday, I want to say more about solipsism and panpsychism. Obviously I'm not a solipsist, or there would be no point in writing for an audience. But I love the Boltzmann brain conjecture. The specific idea is about the physics of entropy, but the general idea is that it's easier to create a brain that dreams a universe, than to create a universe.
Imagine for a minute that you alone are dreaming all of this. You might ask, then why am I not all-powerful? The answer is, that would get boring, especially if you're immortal. So you arranged a bunch of challenges and constraints, and made yourself forget.
But then, who manages all the action behind the scenes? And what's in it for them? It seems like the best way to set it up, is just to split the one mind into many minds, with their own perspectives and motives.
Coming at it from the other side, panpsychism seems silly because we only know what it's like to be a human - and not just any human, but a hyper-individualized modern human. We can't even ask what it's like to be a rock, because our word "be" carries too much baggage. Instead of saying rocks have consciousness, I like to say that consciousness has rocks. Something whose nature is not changed by being broken in two, would not have anything like a self, but it could be part of some kind of mind-matter field.
There's a popular idea that our beliefs and/or desires create reality. But it can't be that simple, because people on drugs, who completely believe they can fly, cannot fly, even when no one is looking. It must be because matter and gravity are looking. I wonder if people who claim to be creating their own reality, are just playing tricks with causality and identity, and what they've really done is aligned their beliefs and desires with what's going to happen anyway.
July 8. Recently posted on the subreddit: Panpsychism is crazy, but it's also most probably true. Well, crazy is relative. The article begins, "Common sense tells us that only living things have an inner life. Rabbits and tigers and mice have feelings, sensations and experiences..." But that's not common sense - it's a particular cultural filter. Nature-based cultures are animist, seeing everything as a person. Descartes went almost to the opposite extreme, seeing everything except humans and God as mindless. That wasn't so long ago, and now we're going through a messy process of adding stuff back.
I think the only two stable positions are panpsychism and solipsism. If you open the door to even other humans having perspectives, there's no good place to draw a line, except maybe between things that are and are not self-organizing.
Two loosely related links, Ancient ritual bundle contained multiple psychotropic plants. And When researchers listen to people who hear voices. It's mainly about the difference between people who are tormented by voices in their heads, and people who find the voices helpful.
Two links in another direction, Tree planting 'has mind-blowing potential' to tackle climate crisis, with "1.7bn hectares of treeless land on which 1.2tn native tree saplings would naturally grow."
And a John Michael Greer post, A Conversation with Nature. It's about how zebra mussels have cleaned up Lake Erie, despite human authorities trying hard to exterminate them.
Read the literature on invasive species, and you'll find scientific objectivity discarded in favor of language usually found in wartime propaganda: peaceful communities menaced by aggressive invaders. Why?
Greer argues that it's because we see nature as static and not resilient. I think it's also ego. Humans want all ecological influence to come from human agency.
July 4. Leigh Ann and I are visiting her family for the holiday, in Florida. Compared to the northwest, the human-made world is more nightmarish and the natural world is more dense and epic. There's a thunderstorm almost every day, and a pond of frogs sounds more beautiful than almost any human music.
I only have my iPad, so posting is tricky, but here's some stuff I pre-wrote. From reddit, a long post with comments, A Historical Perspective on Collapse.
In summary: human civilization is going to collapse, probably soon. It may actually be happening right now. Barring WWIII or an asteroid hitting the earth, it will not be quick. It will be slow, it will be uneven, and it will likely take a century or more before we hit the bottom. The collapse will not be the end.This article is pure black comedy: How We Realized Putting Radium in Everything Was Not the Answer. I wonder what radium-like thing we're doing now.
July 1. So I've been watching the women's World Cup, and this year they're using VAR for the first time. It stands for video assistant referee, and almost everyone hates it. In theory it makes sure the calls on the field are right, but in practice, it breaks the flow of the game, and it allows results to be influenced by things so insignificant that only the machine can see them.
Now goals can be won by drawing the slightest brush of a cleat in the box, or lost by being half an inch offside. The most dramatic defensive play in the game, the saved penalty kick, is now even more rare because the VAR can see the goalkeeper taking her foot off the line a tenth of a second early.
My position is, the rules must serve the game, not the other way around; and the purpose of the game is to be fun for players and audiences. That fun is being lost, because rules that were designed for soft human enforcement are being interpreted by hard machines.
Of course this goes way beyond sports, into our high-tech surveillance society. With machines always watching us, we have to spend a lot of mental energy conforming to rules that were not intended for such strict enforcement, everything from red light cameras to speech codes.
Another rule change in world football, is what the refs look at when there's a handball in the box. They used to consider the player's intention, but now they've been instructed to ignore intention, and only rule on whether one physical object has impacted another. It's like we worship machines so much that we are turning ourselves into machines, devaluing any skill that humans have and machines don't.
Imagine trying to manage a business, or get along with your friends, without ever considering intention. But that seems to be where we're headed. The Supreme Court used to consider the intentions of the authors of laws, but at some point they started to look only at the text. At about the same time, the same thing happened in literary criticism.
I think these trends are part of a larger social trend of disconnection, atomization, stripping away of context. I'm not sure what's behind that trend, but it has to be cyclical, and I'm looking forward to the counter-trend, adding context back.
June 29. Quick note on music. A couple weeks ago I said that Miles Davis's Get Up With It was my new favorite jazz album. Then I started looking into other stuff he did around the same time, and now I'm obsessed with his 1972 album On The Corner. When it came out, the jazz establishment hated it. And if you want to split hairs, you could argue that it's not jazz but psychedelic funk. But to my ear, it's whole evolutionary level beyond Davis's supposed masterpiece, Bitches Brew. The funny thing is, critics at the time thought it was empty of content. But when you understand it, you can hear so many things going on, that it's hard to not be bored by other music.
June 26. Today, some negative links. The Boomers Ruined Everything. The article goes through it issue by issue explaining how they ruined everything, but I'm wondering, why? It's not like one generation, in one country, happened to be born bad people. I think this is a simple case of power corrupting. The most wealthy and powerful generation, in the most wealthy and powerful country, influenced the law to favor the powerful over the weak. Of course they did.
5G Networks Could Throw Weather Forecasting Into Chaos, because 5G uses a frequency that's basically the same as water vapor. Now we won't be able to see hurricanes through the fog of our tweets and memes. More generally, technology continues to turn humanity's attention in the wrong directions.
Long article from the Guardian, How the news took over reality. I would frame this in terms of pseudo-democracy. Everyone wants to make the world better, but the way the news is presented to us, it focuses our attention on giant issues where we have no influence, and it focuses our actions into high-tech shouting into the wind. I'm doing that right now, unless I can convince someone to stop following the news and instead try to make their own tiny world better.
A week ago this video was submitted to the subreddit, What are societies of control? It's dry and brainy, I just skipped through it, but I did notice the conclusion, a quote from Gilles Deleuze, that we need to "look for new weapons." Years ago when I started this blog, my attitude was that society is bad, and we need to go out and fight it. Now I see that strategy as a luxury for people who have actual power, or think they do. Now my attitude is, I'm going to make my own life as good as I can, and if the system doesn't like it, it can come and try to stop me; and I can keep looking, not for new weapons, but for new openings.
June 24. Finishing from last week, 2handband has some thoughts on the subreddit about the culture of metal.
And moving on, some links about how to make the world better. A New Way of Voting That Makes Zealotry Expensive. Instead of one vote per candidate or issue, you get a bunch of voting points to spend, and it costs more to focus them narrowly than to spread them widely.
The Way American Parents Think About Chores Is Bizarre. Kids actually feel motivated help around the house at around 18 months, but normal American parents snuff that urge until the kids don't feel like doing anything, and then pay them for chores, to prepare them for a sad and exhausting life of extrinsic motivation.
Snake Venom Use as a Substitute for Opioids. Getting intentionally bitten by a snake is crude, but I'm wondering how much room there is to make drugs that work the opposite of existing recreational drugs: they make you feel bad for a short time, and then good for a long time.
Finally, Swedish Couple Builds Greenhouse Around Home to Stay Warm and Grow Food All Year Long. This comes from the return to now blog, which has lots of good stuff.
June 21. Continuing on the psychology of music, a reader comments:
I lived through certain situations with certain people in a certain mental/spiritual state that helped me understand and feel - in a visceral level - what metal is about.
I don't think I've ever been able to appreciate music on a visceral level. When I love music that other people don't understand, it's on some kind of non-rational brain level. I feel it in my head, but I still can't explain it.
This leads me into a whole other subject: multiple subconsciouses. We talk about "the subconscious" as if it's one thing. But we also say both "listen to your gut" and "listen to your heart", so already we're talking about at least two sources of insight or perception, other than conscious rational calculation. And inside the head there are even more subconsciouses, like where dreams come from, or the voices that schizophrenics hear, or how I can look at a pot of soup and know whether it will fit in a jar, or what athletes are talking about when they say they perform better when they get their head out of the way.
I mean, those could be all the same thing, but I find it more helpful to imagine a jungle of mind, in which the abstract-thinking brain is only a single animal.
That's all I've got for now on that subject, so back to music. Today is the summer solstice, and here's a twelve minute anthem from 2013: The Rutabega - Turn On The Summer. And looking ahead, I forget where I found this luminous teen ballad, and the internet doesn't even know what year it was recorded, maybe 1970: Dennis Harte - Summer's Over.
June 18. A reader sends a fun little article, Heavy metal fans are happier, more well-adjusted adults than others. It's an interview with a psychology professor and former metalhead, who did the study, and they looked hard for other explanations: "We had an 85 page questionnaire, we tried to figure out every single thing we could, and the only thing that differed was the type of music they liked."
I've also seen reddit threads about which concert goers are the best and worst, and reports of the worst go all the way from hip hop to Dave Matthews -- but everyone agrees that metal fans are the best.
The interviewee speculates that metalheads have formed a tribe that's better for them than their families or society. But fans of other music form tribes too, so we're still left with a strange correlation between sound and emotional profile.
I'd like to see a study where they take depressed people who don't listen to metal, and they listen to a bunch and see if it makes them happier. I wouldn't expect that to work with anyone who doesn't enjoy listening to metal. But it leads to a deeper question: what is it, inside us, that makes us like one kind of music and not another?
You can go beyond music, to subcultures of people who dress a certain way, or talk a certain way, or think or believe or observe a certain way. Our tribe membership is rarely rationally chosen. Either we're just following our parents, or it just feels right to us, as if we were already part of it before we knew it existed.
I imagine vast amoebic life forms, like gods, rising out of deep mind-space and taking form in human culture. And I wonder, when Tony Iommi invented heavy metal, or Tolkien invented modern fantasy, did they feel like they were making it up out of nothing -- or like they were finding something that was already there?
June 14. A few more loose ends on confidence. Here's another good definition from a reader: "I feel like confidence is being totally in the flow with one's personal power." The only time I feel like that is when I'm writing. I'm not sure I've ever been in a social flow state.
Of all the things the word confidence can point to, I have identified one of them with enough precision to work on it: I could use more micro-scale decisiveness.
Another reader says "it's worthwhile distinguishing between confidence and self-respect/esteem/regard." I remember when self-esteem was all the rage. Now I almost never hear about it. Trying to put my finger on the difference, self-esteem seems to be more about being, while confidence is more about doing.
And some music for the weekend. My new favorite jazz album (on weed) is Miles Davis's two hour Get Up With It. This review argues that it was influenced by a cocaine-fueled car crash, and the track recorded soonest after the crash was Billy Preston, twelve minutes of very psychedelic funk.
I haven't heard anything really great yet from 2019, but here's a cool little song that's available only on Spotify, The Walking Riots - WWW.
June 12. As expected, I got some good feeback on the subject of confidence. Matt mentions that the etymology of confidence means "with trust", and on the subreddit, Naringas suggests the definition "self-trust". I like that, because the slipperiness of the "self" gives the definition flexibility. You could have (or lack) trust in your perception, your decision making, your resilience, your sanity, even your luck.
Also from the subreddit, Class and Confidence. I was thinking something similar: when you or I have confidence without skill, we don't get away with it for long, but rich people do.
That post is mostly about getting hired for jobs: "Coming from a posh family emboldens many people to think they can do jobs even if they lack requisite qualifications." But now I'm thinking about the trend of bullshit jobs. As more jobs are not based on doing anything useful, there is less reason for confidence to be based on skill.
Imagine a future dystopia, where everything useful is done by machines, and success is completely a function of social skills. But then, what we're calling confidence is a skill, the skill of getting other people to believe in you. Confidence is just not the best word for it. A better word would be charisma, or bravado.
June 10. This week I want to take on the idea of confidence. I've been watching Gordon Ramsay cooking shows, and the way they talk about confidence, you'd think it's more important than actual skill. To prove it's not, imagine that you're picking a doctor to perform surgery on you, and you can get an honest answer to one question. Do you ask "How confident are you?" Or "How good are you?"
The popular idea of confidence makes two assumptions: 1) that the word "confidence" points to a simple thing that we all understand, and 2) that that thing is strongly correlated with success. I disagree with both.
Taking the second first, there are lots of examples of confidence being negatively correlated with success. For example, People With Greater Intellectual Humility Have Superior General Knowledge.
When I look back over my own life, whenever I was confident and not skilled, I might have gained some temporary advantage, but eventually I always crashed and burned. And when I was skilled but not confident... actually that's never happened. When I'm really good at something, I'm automatically confident.
So now I'm wondering why other people value confidence so highly. I see two possibilities. The first is that they're wrong, and confidence is bullshit for them too and they haven't noticed. I have a crazy theory that confidence is what philosophers call epiphenomenal. It seems to be a cause, but really it's entirely an effect. Confidence is just what it feels like to be in the process of succeeding.
The second possibility is that I'm missing something, which has led me to do some heavy thinking about the definition of confidence, assuming it's a good thing. The popular definition is something like the belief that you will succeed, but I don't think confidence is any kind of intellectual belief. At best, believing you will succeed is a mental trick to generate confidence, which is something deeper and more subtle. My best woo-woo definition is your energy leaning forward.
A more measurable definition is the absence of hesitation. This has led me to wonder if confidence is not a positive but a negative: not a thing that makes you succeed, but the absence of certain things that make you fail.
The words "confidence", "overconfidence", and "underconfidence" make it seem like we're talking about three levels of the same mental state, but I think we're talking about three different mental states. Underconfidence is when feelings about failure make you perform worse, usually by hesitating or not taking important risks. Overconfidence is when thoughts about success prevent you from focusing on the task. And confidence is simply the absence of both.
One more thought. The cult of confidence seems to be mostly an American thing, but I wonder if Americans are just on the cutting edge of a global trend, in which hard skills are being taken away by technology; and the easier the skill you're dealing with, the more success is a matter of mental state rather than practice.