"If observing outer space gives us a view of the past, observing inner space would surely give us a glimpse into the future."
March 31. Another long and thoughtful piece, Reiki Can't Possibly Work. So Why Does It? By "can't possibly work," they mean that our primitive science can't point to a mechanism for how it works, even though there are studies showing that it does. At the same time, lots of medical treatments are no more beneficial than Reiki, and more harmful, but still highly respected because the mechanism is known.
It may turn out that Reiki works in its own particular way that we haven't discovered, or it may turn out to be "just" a placebo. Nick comments:
The way we think about the placebo effect is completely ass-backwards. People hear about the placebo effect and think "this is fake bullshit, let ignore it" when instead they should be thinking "this is a mysterious phenomenon so powerful that it has measurable provable positive effects for literally every disease that's ever been studied; let's figure out how it works!"
About 20 years ago, I took a multi-day Reiki class and got a level 1 attunement. There were people who worked on me, and people who I worked on, who said they felt the energies, but I never did. I also had an injury at the time that didn't seem to heal any faster.
The interesting thing is, I believed that I would see positive results, and I still didn't. Also the instructor was clear that Reiki does not require belief. Put these together, and belief is neither necessary nor sufficient for Reiki to work. This suggests that it's not a placebo... but what if it is?
What I'm getting at is a radical hypothesis: What drives the placebo effect is something other than belief. I've seen studies where people knew they were getting a placebo, so they had no basis for belief, and the placebo still worked. I've also tried other woo-woo practices where the results were a lot less than I expected.
My best guess is, what makes this stuff work is some deeper skill or practice. It's correlated with belief, but it's not belief. Whatever it is, nobody has figured out the instructions yet, and talented people are just doing it intuitively.
March 29. One of the best interviews I've read, from 2014, Sam Fussell, author of Muscle. Fussell rhymes with muscle, and Sam is the son of Paul Fussell, who wrote Class, the definitive book on the cultural aspects of American social class. Like his father, Sam Fussell is at his best when he's writing about the toxicity of status seeking.
He started out in a corporate job, and got disillusioned when he was reprimanded for doing too much useful work instead of fitting in. So he got into bodybuilding, and "my world went from black-and-white to color as soon as I took one step through the gym door."
Iron and muscle are real, and he got totally obsessed. This quote is telling:
If you love yourself (your own glory, your own image, etc) more than you love the pursuit, then the pursuit can get entirely self-destructive.
On the other hand, if you love the pursuit for the sake of the pursuit, that can become self-destructive as well.
He moved to California and started using steroids. "And in the gym, all of a sudden, there are no more limits... The problem is when you are on steroids, your world gets very, very small because all of your friends are also on steroids." He saw that all the top bodybuilders used performance-enhancing drugs, and they lied about it to the public, while doing magazine ads for bullshit nutritional supplements.
Eventually he quit bodybuilding and wrote a book about it, and went on the talk show circuit. Then he saw that the media is also full of bullshit: simplifying, sensationalizing, and turning everything into good vs bad. Related: How U.S. media lost the trust of the public.
My favorite bit in the interview:
In America, you are not real unless you are fake.
In other words, if people see you on television or the movies, they see you as larger (and realer) than life.
The representation becomes the reality.
And, because it is merely representation, it is fraud.
March 25. Bunch o' links. This reddit comment explains why natural disasters are social phenomena. A natural event only becomes a human disaster through mistakes in social policy or infrastructure. I submitted it to Depth Hub and there are a few good examples in this thread.
Posted yesterday to Weird Collapse, The scientists turning the desert green. It's already been done on a plateau in China, and now they want to regreen the Sinai peninsula, which might change weather patterns and increase rainfall over the whole region. This kind of project is the one thing that keeps me from supporting voluntary human extinction.
On the Ask Historians subreddit, this comment tries to figure out why Communist societies have been authoritarian. It's complicated, but the short answer is that when Communists take over a country, they have to become authoritarian to keep from being invaded or toppled.
Fun thread on the Psychonaut subreddit, about cats who know you're tripping.
And a sports article, Hockey Goalies Are Too Big Now. Both the players and the pads are a lot bigger, and the result is that the whole game has changed, with offenses cluttering up in front of the goal so the goalies can't see the shots, which makes the game less fun to play and watch. There's an interesting point about how basketball had a similar problem, which was fixed by the three point shot. The author's suggestion for fixing hockey is simply to make the goal bigger. (One hockey rule that would make basketball a lot better, is if teams only got one time out per game.)
March 23. Busy this week and not a lot of ideas, so I'll just comment on the latest mass shooting. There's no realistic way to stop them. Mass shootings are caused by gun ownership and mental illness, both of which have been rising for years with no end in sight.
One thing that might work, in fifty or a hundred years, is if public opinion shifts enough to get the Supreme Court to reinterpret the second amendment, so that you can't keep and bear arms unless you're a member of a well-regulated militia, and those regulations include careful mental health screening. It's probably more likely that an authoritarian revolution will abolish the Constitution completely.
Americans are willing to accept a certain number of shooting deaths as a cost of keeping their guns. Which is actually more reasonable than the traffic deaths, respiratory disease deaths, climate catastrophe deaths, and lowered quality of life from urban sprawl, that Americans will accept to keep their cars.
March 21. After some feedback on meditation, I want to be as clear as possible:
1) Giving conscious attention to places and processes in your mind and body is a good thing, and most people should do more of it.
2) Of all the practices that could be called meditation or mindfulness or metacognition, one of them is overhyped: sitting still, focusing on your breath, and trying to blank your mind.
3) Even this practice is probably good for a lot of people, if done in moderation. Preliminary science suggests that the line between moderation and excess is at around 30 minutes a day. Some people are doing way too much.
Here are five things that could be called meditation, that I continue to practice and find promising.
1) Conscious walking. Go for walks, continually turning attention to body mechanics, from how the feet land, to how the knees bend, all the way to the top of the head, with the goal of having good posture while staying loose.
2) Breathing like sleep. Focus on the breath, with the goal of having it be deep and completely unforced. Start while lying in bed, and work up to breathing this way during everyday life.
3) Quarantining feelings. Find the boundary between thoughts and emotions. Watch emotions arise, and practice completely feeling them and letting them dissipate, rather than turning them into thoughts. (I think a lot of bad human behavior comes from people turning emotions into thoughts without knowing they're doing it.)
4) Observing without judging. There's a moment between observing something and judging it, where you can stay balanced in letting it be as it is. I think this is easier in the outer world than the inner world. And it occurs to me that a good tool to practice observing without judging is television, because there's a constant stream of things asking to be judged, that don't really matter.
5) Expanding into pain. This is experimental, and might turn out to be a mistake. But I'm at my wits' end with anxiety, so what I'm trying is, when I feel bad, amp it up as soon as I can and as hard as I can, with the hope that pain is finite, and I'll come to the end of it.
March 18. Under the word-umbrella of meditation/mindfulness/metacognition, there must be as many things as there are people, and probably hundreds of things distinct enough to eventually get their own word. One of those things is putting attention on your breath while blanking your mind. And out of all the recreational and self-improvement practices I've tried, none of them have such a bad cost-benefit ratio. It's like video game grinding without leveling up or even scoring points.
Then why is it so popular? I see two answers. One is that other people actually are getting a good cost-benefit ratio, because they have a different kind of brain than I do. Maybe when the science gets better, you can go in for a brain scan and get a detailed program of rewarding incremental steps to fit your personal neural profile.
The other answer is that people have fallen under the spell of beautiful stories, and are doing something that doesn't make sense. Andrew sends this brand new Harper's article, Lost in Thought: The psychological risks of meditation. There are a lot of them. In one study...
...forty-three out of sixty meditators representing Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan traditions -- had experienced moderate to severe impairment in their day-to-day functioning. Ten had required inpatient hospitalization.... For Britton, the takeaway was that adverse effects routinely occur even under optimal conditions, with healthy people meditating correctly under supervision.
And if you look at the history of the practice, it shouldn't be surprising: "According to the Pali suttas, the point of meditation was to cultivate disgust and disenchantment with the everyday world."
It seems to me, people who get in trouble with meditation, and people who do too many drugs, and people who work themselves too hard in the everyday world, have something in common. They're all head-heavy. Their head is seeking something so hard, that they ignore the protests of their body.
March 17. On a completely new subject, I've been wondering: is meditation a placebo? That's a lot to unpack, so let me back up. A practice, like meditation or exercise, cannot be a placebo in the same way that taking a pill is. Also, according to this study, meditation is better than a placebo for at least one thing, reducing physical pain.
But according to this article, Where's the Proof That Mindfulness Meditation Works? "A 2014 review of 47 meditation trials, collectively including over 3500 participants, found essentially no evidence for benefits related to enhancing attention, curtailing substance abuse, aiding sleep or controlling weight."
I also think that what we call "meditation" is best framed as multiple things, with some overlap. One is the traditional Buddhist practice of focusing on your breath and trying to blank your mind. I've spent a lot of time doing this, and the only benefit I can report is that if I need to go to sleep, and my thoughts are spinning, I'm better at stilling them. And it's probably a good foundation for other metacognitive skills.
The practice I've found most helpful is creating a perspective inside my head that has no investment in how things are currently done. (I'm trying to work around the word "ego".) It's like an auditor, dispassionately noticing the machinery of thoughts and feelings, and suggesting adjustments.
What I really want to pick on, is the idea that meditation is a realistic substitute for drugs. This is taken for granted in various woo-woo communities, but I've seen no evidence for it except wild-eyed anecdotal reports. Personally, I can crank up my desktop vaporizer, and not even put any weed in, just use the heat to draw trace THC from the residue inside the wand, and get more of an altered state of consciousness than in all the meditation I've ever done.
My hypothesis is that people who sincerely experience strongly altered states of consciousness through meditation, are highly suggestible. And if the same people did meditation wrong, or if they took a sugar pill, or if they held a crystal upside their head, they could leverage a similar aura of belief into similar results.
I mean, I'm envious, except that suggestibility is a two-edged sword, and I wouldn't want to get similarly swayed by social media influencers or charismatic public figures. Related: Placebo Effect Grows in U.S., Thwarting Development of Painkillers.
March 15. Over on the subreddit there are a couple big comment threads on gender. In my experience, the bigger a discussion, the more people have already made up their minds, and the less fruitful it is.
So I just want to add a couple more things and move on. Alex mentions the Mahu, a third gender in native Hawaiian culture, and comments:
It really only seems to be the Abrahamic religions that are hung up about this. Other societies either don't care or actually need transgender people to have a complete society.And Matt comments:
If the political so-called left has made any serious misstep in recent years, it's arguing for simplicity where complexity rules.
In two hundred years, they'll look at our culture wars and laugh -- not because they've gone back to the 1950's, but because they've gone forward in ways we can't guess, and maybe wouldn't approve of. On gender and other ways of identifying ourselves, I expect a long tail, where most people identify as something common, but there's no end to identities that are personally crafted and hard to explain.
March 12. On a tangent from yesterday's post, there's a thread on the subreddit critiquing the left on transgender issues, and rather than post there, I'll post here. I'm not a specialist on this subject, but this is my understanding of the left's position:
1) Sex is biology; gender is culture.
2) Whether you have one or two X chromosomes is not a choice. Whether you feel male or female is usually also not a choice. This is an evidence-based statement, backed by the testimony of most transgender individuals.
3) This is not a statement of science but a statement of public policy: Everyone should have the right to choose what gender they identify as, and what gender they present themselves to the world as, including by using medical technology to change their bodies.
None of that should be controversial. Then it's just a matter of working out the practical details. The problems are mainly "it'll be anarchy" hypotheticals.
For example, there's a rule now that allows transgender women to compete in women's sports. It's a nice gesture, but nobody wants to see bio-males dominating women's sports, and if that ever happens, they'll just figure out a new rule.
And don't worry, even if you're a straight male, you won't be canceled if you prefer to date women with two X chromosomes.
I have some personal interest in this subject. When I play video games where you can design your own avatar, I always play as female. When I write fiction, my female characters leap off the page and my male characters muddle along. I prefer women's sports, and Netflix seems to think Leigh Ann and I are lesbians. But I feel comfortable in a male body, so my gender identity is straight male with a strong anima.
March 11. How Facebook got addicted to spreading misinformation. It's a long article, but the basic idea, in the context of AI machine learning, is that "models that maximize engagement also favor controversy, misinformation, and extremism."
But Facebook has to maximize engagement. It's a business in late-stage capitalism, so its number one priority has to be growth. Changing the algorithm to reduce engagement is not an option, so instead Facebook has to play whack-a-mole with whatever misinformation and extremism the algorithm calls forth.
On the same subject, a few months back I got an email from Nick about YouTube recommendations:
My YouTube habits skew decidedly left... But my recommendations are full of half-baked alt-right pseudo philosophy trying to justify white supremacist nonsense. If I watch one video about how to resole work boots, suddenly my recommendations are full of Trumpist blue collar propaganda (usually in the "bearded white guy ranting while driving a pickup" genre). I watch one video minidocumentary about a gay christian minister who preaches LGBTQ acceptance, and suddenly my recommendations are nothing but "gay sex causes God to send hurricanes."
Certainly, tech industry insiders do not have a right wing bias. So if the recommendations do, it's happening accidentally through AI. Something about the way right wingers think, or navigate the internet, is a better fit for how the recommendation bots operate.
By the way, I think "left" and "right" are ephemeral. The two sides of the body are a useful metaphor for political divisions, but political divisions change with culture, and eventually the words left and right will mean something completely different.
But at the moment, one of the things the right stands for is resistance to metacognition, to critical self-reflection. Their thinking is more automatic and predictable. The way they trace connections between one thing and another, is easier for bots to model.
Maybe the deeper issue is not AI modeling, but human modeling. The best way to understand the world is to observe it with no bias, figure out what it's doing, and then build our models from that. But our big brains give us the option to do it backwards: to start with a model that makes us feel a certain way, and then go looking for evidence to back it up.
For some reason, over the last few decades, the left has been much better than the right at policing itself against wishful modeling. How this happened, I can only guess, but I blame Ronald Reagan. Conservatives before Reagan were sober serious thinkers, like George Will and William F. Buckley. Reagan started down the road of turning politics into candy for children, and Republicans never looked back. So Democrats were like, "OK, we'll be the adults." I wonder if there's an alternate history, maybe one where the Kennedys survived, where now it's the other way around.
March 9. A footnote on the British royal family. I'm trying to read Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake, and he argues that the Norman invasion of 1066 "was probably the most catastrophic single event in this nation's history," and that in some ways England still hasn't recovered. Two things the Normans brought, that are still around almost a thousand years later, are automatic hereditary monarchy, and extreme concentration of land ownership.
It would be interesting to make a list of all the things in modern society, that are clearly harmful, and that a majority of individuals are against, but there's no realistic way to get rid of them, short of total collapse.
March 8. Today I want to poke the thorny subject of race, and I'll start by saying, if I saw Meghan Markle on the street, I would tag her as white. The fact that so many Brits are hostile to having a non-albino in their royal family, is about as silly as having a royal family in the first place.
This is easy for me to say as a light-skinned person, but race doesn't seem like a big deal to me. And yet, for some reason, it's a very big deal to a lot of light-skinned people. I look forward to more racial equality, more racial ambiguity, and maybe one day a whole different way of thinking about ancestry and identity. In a thousand years, the history books might say something like this:
In 1492, a trans-oceanic explorer wrote in his journal, after meeting the peaceful natives, "With fifty men we could subjugate them all." His people, the Whites, were named after the pale skins of their home region, western Asia. Though emotionally crippled by centuries of plague, famine, and war, they had the best weapons, and would go on to rule the world for 500 years.
Of their last days, little is known, because records at that time were on short-lived and unreadable media; but it is said that the White kings, Rump and Pootin, were defeated on the slopes of Covid, when their troops stood too close together.
Today, the Nords and Merkins trace their ancestry to the Whites, but they are most remembered in the names of sports teams, such as the Washington Palefaces and the Fighting Whities of Florida Island.
March 5. Stray links. The Miyawaki Method: A Better Way to Build Forests? Basically, you plant many species in multiple layers, very densely, and take really good care of them for two or three years. By the way, I'm against planting only natives. The important thing is serving the local ecology, and sometimes a non-native will do a better job.
I think this is a cool use of dangerous technology: Atomic gardening "is a form of mutation breeding where plants are exposed to radioactive sources, typically cobalt-60, in order to generate mutations, some of which have turned out to be useful." The biggest success so far is making grapefruit more pink.
Some good news: Oakland Bans the Use of Combustion Engine-Powered Leaf Blowers and String Trimmers, which typically have no emission controls and are more polluting than multiple SUV's.
And here's a cool photo of a flock of birds in the shape of a bird.
March 3. One more comment on the doomed internet. I'm starting to think that the world of screens is a fad.
I didn't even see a screen until I was three years old. It was a ten inch black and white, and my parents had to limit my hours to keep me from watching all the time, even though there were only four channels. Fifty years later, we have a 40 inch HDTV with Netflix, Hulu, Sling and Prime, and watching it is almost a chore. I mean, I'm glad I saw Queen's Gambit, but I watched it because it was good for me, not because I was excited about it.
I remember when digital watches seemed magical, and when the Atari 2600 was an eternal cure for boredom. Now video games have a million times the pixels and I don't even play them. Billions of dollars are being poured into virtual reality, but in terms of the quality of the experience, the leap from Red Dead Redemption 2 to a full-on Star Trek holodeck, is less than the leap from Mattel electronic football to RDR2, and that's already not enough.
Now my favorite thing to do is walk around looking at tree branches. I found out that tree branches are beautiful from LSD, which is why I think the next frontier of human experience is not VR or space travel, but brain hacking that will make LSD look medieval. Instead of going to strange new worlds, or creating them digitally, we'll discover the strangeness of where we already are.
March 1. Continuing on the subject of technological exhaustion, a reader sends this link, Gopher, Gemini and The Smol Internet, about some really old internet platforms that still work. From the same blogger, The 100 Year Computer is about what it would take, in society and technology, to buy a computer that's still useful in 100 years. I love this paragraph:
There are two reasons to replace a computer. One is an artificially amplified desire for something exciting, new and shiny. The other is the failure of software to run in under 8Gb of RAM. We call this replacement an 'upgrade', when what's really happening is a celebration of sustainability failure.
Related, a Hacker News thread from 2017: Almost everything on computers is perceptually slower than it was in 1983.
I think it's obvious that information technology can't keep going on this path. Not only is the subjective experience of the internet getting worse, it keeps getting worse faster. But I can't see any smooth way to get off the treadmill. My best guess is, the failure of technology to serve human needs, will lead to breakdowns in mental health, which will cause societal breakdowns, which will cause more frequent failures in the infrastructure necessary for a high-tech society.
Or it could be much more sudden, if we get a Giant Solar Flare.
February 25. The internet as we know it is doomed. It's by Annalee Newitz, who wrote that new book about ancient cities. Her argument has two parts. First, that there were two waves of ancient cities, and the first wave failed because it didn't have the right institutions to manage population density, so people got unhappy and left.
Then she argues that the internet is the same way. It's getting bigger and clunkier, and the costs are beginning to outweigh the benefits, so that people are now trying to live without it. Maybe the internet will fade away, and eventually "return in a form we can only guess at."
Chris, who sent the link, comments:
Every time we add extra complexity to our world, there is a decrease in the power of any single person to comprehend the society and technological foundations thereof. It feels psychically unsustainable. The state asks citizens to manage a baseline amount of technical overhead to have a modern life, but no one ever stopped to ask how much overhead it ought to take for our world to be mediated by the internet.
I think this is a big factor in the anxiety epidemic. I've said this before: the prophet of our age is not Orwell or Huxley, but Kafka. Password requirements have become so labyrinthine that I can't possibly remember them all, and I don't trust my computer to keep track of them, because I've seen both software and hardware unexpectedly fail. So I keep them all written down on a piece of paper, and I ever lose it, I might as well go live under a bridge.
In a high-complexity society, I live in the shadow of dread of all the things that could go wrong, that I would be responsible for fixing and have no idea how to fix. The thought of total technological collapse is comforting, because we would all be in the same boat, and our troubles would be comprehensible.