April 1. A nice trick for understanding economics is to factor out money. An economy is just a bunch of people doing stuff that keeps the system going. The strength of an economy is the overlap between what's necessary to keep it going, and what people want to do anyway. By this definition, a weak economy has to threaten people with hunger and homelessness to get them to do their jobs, and at the other extreme, Utopia doesn't even have the concept of freeloading.
This has actually been done. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers mentions tribes where some people do no productive work their whole lives, and nobody cares. Obviously not every tribe has done it, but even if it's just one, that tells us that it's possible.
In a complex high-tech society, the challenge is distribution, getting stuff to people who aren't making stuff. Communism tried it through central management, which didn't work, and capitalism is trying it through money, which is now also failing. I think the failure of capitalism is a slip between two functions of money: 1) a mechanism of exchange, and 2) a source of the meaning of life.
The problem is, money is zero-sum. If you hang meaning on it, then meaning is zero-sum, and it gets sucked up by people at the top. The poor become NPC's in the quests of the rich.
That system is now breaking down. Human motivation is the most powerful force on the planet, and as the economy collapses, there is more and more human motivation languishing, waiting to be tapped.
April 3. I'm envious of the countries that have handled Coronavirus well. As an American, I can't imagine what it's like to have everyone put trust in public institutions, and have them earn that trust. Matt writes:
I wonder what it will take for the people of the United States to stop seeing the British Empire in their own government. Our founding mythos is steeped in rebellion and so there's a tendency, I think, for Americans to define themselves in terms of the rebel. If you think of yourself as a rebel, then there has to be a shadow king.
April 10. Here's an example of how head intelligence can work against us. Compare the Pics subreddit to the No Context Pics subreddit. The latter has a strict rule, that all pics must be titled simply "PIC". The result is that the quality of images is much higher. In the regular Pics subreddit, upvotes are less about the actual images, and more about clickbait titles: symbolic expressions that are rewarded for how well they fit Reddit culture.
April 12. Some quick notes on Easter. I was raised Catholic, and I totally get the idea of God, and of Jesus as a spiritual leader. But the story of Jesus dying for our sins just never clicked for me. Dying and sins have nothing do to with each other. The ancient meaning of the word that the Bible translates as "sin", is "missing the mark". I don't believe in original sin, but I believe that mistakes are inevitable. And the only redemption for making a mistake, is being in the same situation again and doing the right thing.
If there's a message in the death and resurrection of Jesus, it's that each one of us, by completely accepting all the pain the world gives us, can undergo a kind of spiritual renewal.
New subject, still Easter. This time of year, my town is full of rabbits. While I'm against lawns, a nice side effect is that they provide spring forage for rabbits, and the coyotes come in from the hills to eat them. We hear coyotes howling, inside city limits, several times a day now. Because of Coronavirus, there are way more people out walking around, and the coyotes must know something is up.
April 16. Dougald sends this video, a great conversation between Iain McGilchrist and John Vervaeke.
Around the five minute mark, Vervaeke describes four kinds of knowing: propositional, procedural, perspectival, and participatory. Propositional is what philosophers and computers do. It's all about what statements are true and false. Procedural is knowing how to do something, like ride a bicycle. (The examples all seem to be stuff you do with your body, so I wonder how he would categorize mental procedural skills.) Perspectival knowing is tricky, but his examples are about knowing "what it's like to be" in certain states of consciousness, plus the ability to shift perspective. And participatory is "attunement, fundamental connectedness, being at home... the sense you lose when you're in another culture."
Yeah, I don't have that one at all. This whole human-made world feels like an alien culture to me, always has, and that's a common problem of our times. When people seek "meaning", what they're really seeking is participatory knowing -- and because our culture is front-loaded with propositional knowing, people seek meaning and belonging through beliefs. That's why we have flat-earthers and crazy political ideologies.
Framing it as a mechanism of collapse: when a society 1) fails to give its members fundamental connectedness, and 2) is fixated on propositional beliefs, the inevitable result is that people seek connectedness through beliefs; and when they're looking at a belief, the first thing they're looking at is how it satisfies their need for connectedness, rather than how well it fits reality.
This is an even bigger problem if some people have too much power, or not enough power, because in both cases, they suffer no consequences for beliefs that don't fit reality. And right now, we have a lot of people with either too much power or not enough, so there's a lot of room for beliefs to go wrong. And when public policy is driven more by belonging-based propositions, than by doing-based and being-based knowing, there's trouble.
April 22. Stephen Wolfram article, Finally We May Have a Path to the Fundamental Theory of Physics. The basic idea is that you can get an extremely complex system, by applying a simple rule recursively, and he's trying to find the rule that will create our universe.
The kind of rules he's looking at, are rules for transforming a system of relations. This fits with an idea that's strange to western metaphysics, but common outside it: that relations are more fundamental than things.
At the end of the article, after a lot of heavy technical stuff, he concludes:
So what does all this mean for our original goal - of finding a rule to describe our universe? Basically it's saying that any (computation universal) rule will do - if we're prepared to craft the appropriate description language. But the point is that we've basically already defined at least some elements of our description language: they are the kinds of things our senses detect, our measuring devices measure, and our existing physics describes.
This reminds me of Donald Hoffman's work, summarized in this article from last year, The Case Against Reality. The basic idea is that our senses have not evolved to see reality as it is, but to see increasingly useful representations, like how our computer shows us desktop icons, instead of silicon chip schematics. Even physics and astronomy are not seeing reality, only squinting at pixels. From Hoffman's conclusion:
We suppose that the long sweep of spacetime, with its countless stars and planets, is the preexisting stage for an accidental drama in which we are bit players. We think it's faintly mad to suppose otherwise. But we're mistaken. We are the authors of space and time; their myriad contents are our impressive stagecraft.
And from Wolfram's conclusion:
While we view our universe - and reality - through our particular type of description language, there are endless other possible description languages which can lead to descriptions of reality that will seem coherent within themselves, but which will seem to us to correspond to utterly incoherent and meaningless aspects of our universe.
I've always assumed that any entity that exists in our universe must at least "experience the same physics as us". But now I realize that this isn't true. There's actually an almost infinite diversity of different ways to describe and experience our universe, or in effect an almost infinite diversity of different "planes of existence" for entities in the universe.
May 11. Catching up on Coronavirus, of all the experts I've seen on CNN, Laurie Garrett is the most interesting. She mentioned that most of the people who die from Coronavirus have high blood pressure, and that it's turning out to be more of a cardiovascular disease than a respiratory disease. It's also really weird as viruses go, with new vectors of transmission popping up, and an incubation period anywhere from two days to two weeks.
More weirdness: Last month I saw an interview with a nurse at the Seattle-area rest home where it hit early, and she said that not one patient had a runny nose, but that all of them were red around the eyes, like red eye shadow. That's the only time I've heard mention of that symptom.
Garrett says the best case scenario is three years, and that's if we get a slam-dunk vaccine and vaccinate everyone in the world. My comment: as potential vaccines take longer, are more expensive or fiddly, and have more bad effects, we come closer to the best move being global herd immunity, where most of the world gets it, and we just slow it down enough so that hospitals don't get overwhelmed.
Here's a big Reddit thread, What positive effects has the quarantine had for you? Also, Small Farms in N.Y. Are Experiencing a Surprising Boom.