"Each shift into clear vision was a gift that followed total failure to achieve."
July 27. Negative links, starting with this thread from Ask Old People, Was life really worse 30 plus years ago because of the lack of advanced technology? It's mostly about ways that lower technology made life better.
Related? The unsolved mystery attack on internet cables in Paris. I wonder why violent ideologues are always trying to kill people for their cause, instead of doing sabotage. All it will take to destroy the internet, is when enough people hate the internet enough, that they go out and cut fiber optic lines faster than the system can repair them.
Psychologists uncover a surprising and ironic tendency among collective narcissists. "Collective narcissism refers to the belief that one's group is entitled to special treatment and is also superior but underappreciated by others," and the study "found evidence that collective narcissism predicted the willingness to conspire against one's own group."
From a new meta-analysis, A decisive blow to the serotonin hypothesis of depression. Contrary to popular myth, depression is not caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. And yet, a lot of people get good results from SSRI's, and we don't know why.
From 2019, Is Sunscreen the New Margarine? As soon as everyone started quoting that speech, where the only thing we can be sure about is wearing sunscreen, I knew it would turn out that sunscreen, at the very least, is not something we can be sure about. Specifically, vitamin D deficiency kills way more people than skin cancer, and people who get more sun are not only healthier than people who get less sun, they also have less melanoma.
July 25. It's the hottest part of the summer and I'm not good at thinking, but I have some links about people finding better ways to do things.
Teens are rewriting what is possible in the world of competitive Tetris. It used to be impossible to beat level 29 or higher, but a new generation has figured out better ways to tap the buttons, and shared their techniques with other players.
Hunter-gatherer metallurgy in the Early Iron Age of Northern Fennoscandia. That's northern Sweden, a long way from the urban centers of the time. "The evidence presented raises broader questions concerning the presence of intricate metallurgical processes in societies considered less complex or highly mobile."
Electric seagliders could enable short-haul emissions-free air travel this decade. "When an aircraft flies close to a horizontal surface, it disrupts the airflow beneath the wings in such a way that the overall drag on the vehicle is reduced, boosting its fuel efficiency and speed." So this would be used "for linking up coastal cities or island chains."
This small city ditched its buses, replacing them with dirt cheap on-demand minivans. For 25% more money than the old system, it's moving more than twice as many people, and more quickly.
And Spokane laps Seattle, legalizes missing middle housing. Missing middle housing is everything in between detached single-family houses and mid-rise apartment buildings.
July 22. 2022 is shaping up to be a great year for music. I've mentioned Wet Leg, whose debut album I review at the top of my Albums page. Last week I linked to a song by Viagra Boys, from their new album Cave World. The remarkable thing is that it's their third album, and it's better than their first and second. Only a tiny fraction of bands can pull that off. Viagra Boys are from Sweden, but their sound is very American, and the singer is obsessed with American culture, to the point that Cave World is basically a concept album about certain varieties of American craziness.
The catchiest song is Punk Rock Loser, and my favorite is The Cognitive Trade-Off Hypothesis, which features post-punk keyboards and funk vocals. In the current state of music, the best bands are neither inventing new sounds, nor rehashing old sounds, but in the context of old sounds, they're being creative and sounding like themselves.
Have you ever heard a song that didn't impress you when it came out, and then years later you fell in love with it? That's just happened for me with Juice Newton's Angel of the Morning. It inspired me to upgrade my two hour Soft Hits of the 70's Spotify playlist to go seven songs farther into the 1980's -- which still sounded like the 70's until some time in 1981.
July 21. More links, starting with two Reddit threads full of good stuff. Trans people, what was the biggest culture shock you noticed after transitioning to your gender?
And What's a funny memory you have that if you told someone, they'd think you’re lying?
An interesting Reddit comment on the differences between Millennials and Gen Z
I've posted before about Donald Hoffman's book The Case Against Reality. This 2019 article summarizes the main ideas, and Greg sends this new interview of Donald Hoffman by Lex Fridman.
July 19. Bunch o' links about technology. This is a great article on something not well understood in the 90's, but by now we should all understand it: Technology is Not Neutral. There's also some good stuff in the Hacker News thread. From the article:
Early modern technologists worked with what might be called naively optimistic design: design that assumes positive values are intrinsically associated with all technology-human interfaces. This yielded historically unprecedented technological innovations and a complete restructuring of human life around an expanding stack of increasingly complicated technologies. This rapid boom in progress made techno-scientific progress the default religion of the modern world. But naive design has also brought us to the brink of catastrophic risks due to a principled neglect of concern for possible negative second- and third-order effects, in both physical and psycho-social domains.Here are some technologies that seem to be helpful, although time will tell...
Loose ends from last week. Jesse sends the website of Dr. Jeffery Martin, who is surely not the only one trying to reframe "enlightenment" in terms of brain science and not metaphysics, but he has a great term for it: Persistent Non-Symbolic Experience.
Like "inner peace", that's a description that doubles as an instruction. Inner peace means the voices inside you are being nice to each other instead of fighting, and persistent non-symbolic experience means you're stripping the symbolic overlay from your senses, and trying to stay in that state. I like the way George Carlin said it: "The nicest thing about anything is not knowing what it is."
And on the subject of what's not in front of you not being real, Kevin sends this bit from a New Yorker article about a tribe in the Amazon:
...the Pirahã perceive reality solely according to what exists within the boundaries of their direct experience - which Everett defined as anything that they can see and hear, or that someone living has seen and heard. "When someone walks around a bend in the river, the Pirahã say that the person has not simply gone away but xibipio - 'gone out of experience'," Everett said. "They use the same phrase when a candle flame flickers. The light 'goes in and out of experience'."
July 15. Matt comments:
I've been listening to some dharma talks by Joseph Goldstein lately, and he mentions that his meditation practice improved when he stopped reading the sutras as if they contained wisdom, or claims about the universe, and started reading them as instructions.
Food for thought: the Visuddhimmagga, from the 5th century, presents something like 50 different ways of meditating (at a time when paper was expensive), but most modern meditation teachers are teaching the same technique -- as if the same instructions will work for everyone.
When I was eight years old, I took piano lessons. They were a chore, and I went nowhere. Forty years later, I figured out my own way to learn piano, and since then I've been having a great time and making steady progress. Here's a piece I recorded yesterday, improvising on F G G# C.
So I wonder if there's something similar for meditation, that for any given person, if you find the right practice, it will click and you'll get good results. I think what all practices have in common is that you're doing stuff with your attention that you don't habitually do. That could be anything from sitting still and focusing on your breath, to walking around and focusing on your peripheral vision, to watching a movie and focusing on your flow of emotions.
New subject, music for the weekend: Viagra Boys – Troglodyte
July 13. Continuing from Monday, it's nice to know I'm not the only one thinking about solipsism. Adam sends this 2013 essay, Absolute Typhos. Typhos is an ancient word for vapor, and was used by the Cynics "to denote the delirium of popular ideas and conventions." The key paragraph:
Live as though the only people that really exist are those you have met face to face; every other person, from politicians to celebrities, internet acquaintances and the populations of distant lands, are then something like fictions or simulations. Imaginary persons. Clumsy masks. That is, it is not so much that the spectacle, ideology, or what you will distorts their appearance, messages, or reality, but that it constructs it wholesale. To live out this quasi-solipsism, I think, will be an experiment that maximizes my own autonomy.
When I'm being philosophically careful, I try to avoid the concept of objective truth. So, "This is real, that is not real" is better expressed as an instruction: "Pay attention to this and not to that." And if we're talking about instructions, and not truths, it's easier to change them.
That's a good place to draw a line, between people you've met and people you haven't met. But there are two lines I like better. One is between what's in front of me right now, and what's not in front of me right now. A classic essay on this subject is "This is IT" by Alan Watts.
The other is between the human-made world, and the non-human-made world. Since I started framing it that way, I can see things more clearly than I ever saw them with the words "civilization" and "nature". Look around where you are right now. It's likely the only thing you can see that was not made by humans, is your own two arms sticking out from your shirt sleeves.
The spectacle is that part of the human-made world that is designed for the human gaze. And yet a lot of it is ugly. Meanwhile, nothing in the non-human-made world is designed for the human gaze, and a lot of it is beautiful. Sunsets, the rings of Saturn, bare tree branches -- how did they come to look so good, when they don't even know what eyes are?
July 11. One definition of a religion is a belief you get stuck in, a belief that you can't unbelieve for even a moment. This post is about the opposite -- putting on and taking off beliefs like hats, and choosing them for practical reasons. Where this makes the most sense, is in beliefs that can't be tested.
Two weeks ago, I said that you might choose to believe there's no afterlife, because if this life is all there is, you live better. But another person might choose to believe in an afterlife with reward and punishment for this life -- also to help them live better. I won't speculate on what puts somebody in one camp or the other.
Another subject where you might choose a belief for psychological benefit is free will vs determinism. If you don't get stuck in either, you can have determinism in the past and free will in the future. Also, I find determinism helpful if I start thinking I'm better than someone else, because there is no better, only luckier. Even moral superiority comes down to a roll of the dice at the beginning of time.
Lately I've been thinking about solipsism. I don't think it's true, or I wouldn't be writing this, and surely it's dangerous for the mentally ill. But when used well, solipsism can cure you of the need to be understood, to be validated, to be treated fairly. You can't compare yourself to others if it's just you.
If you don't want to go that far, here's something milder. The meaning of life, for you, is to be challenged and learn. For other people, the meaning of life is to remain stupid so they can continue to challenge you.
July 7. Six links from Reddit, the first four from Ask Old People. What is something that was really shocking and/or controversial in the past but seems really tame nowadays?
Conversely, What is something that used to be no big deal but would be shocking today?
To those who have been married to their spouses for decades, are you still in love with them the same way you were in the beginning? Lots of stuff about how relationships survive by changing.
Why do so many old people seem to love just sitting in public and watching the world go by?
Related, from Ask Reddit, Have you ever met someone who just had a natural light to them, who just radiated positivity and sunshine? What was it like and what kind of impression did they leave on you?
And a great post on the Psychonaut subreddit, Don't let thoughts ruin your trip. Condensed:
The instant you identify with any thought, you take on its shape. For example, if you identify with a sad thought you will instantly start experiencing sadness. What thoughts want is your attention; the more attention you give a thought the more it grows and has power over you. It's like feeding pigeons, if you feed them they'll keep coming because you're giving them what they want.
July 5. Yesterday I had a visit from a long-time reader, Ryan. This is some of the stuff we talked about.
Of all the predictions I've ever made, my best was about a song: that when people of the people of the future sing "tonight I'm gonna party like it's 1999," it will have a new meaning for them, looking back at the golden age.
During the decline of Rome, so I'm told, people didn't know they were in a decline. It happened so slowly that every time the roads got worse, they thought they were just going through a rough patch. Right now, I don't know anyone who thinks we're just going through a rough patch, that in a few years the world will return to prosperity and peace, under the same political and economic systems we have now.
It follows that the present decline is happening faster than the decline of Rome, and that future historians will see it as a relatively fast crash -- even though it's still pretty slow to us. The common people of the future will strip it down even farther, imagining a vibrant civilization destroyed by a single event, probably something that hasn't happened yet.
When we imagine the future, our first thought is that either the whole world will be techno-utopia, or the whole world will be postapocalypse. Then we learn to see it with more granularity, with one country in techno-utopia and another in postapocalypse -- or one city, or one neighborhood, or one block.
Now I'm thinking the techno-utopia/postapocalypse divide will be smaller than one person. Surely this has already happened, that someone has used their smart phone to look up how to butcher a road-killed animal, so they don't go hungry.
July 4. So I'm settling into Seattle, and the main thing that strikes me about the city is how much deeper it is into the apocalypse than a college town. But another big thing is its variety.
There's variety in people, including quite a lot of the mentally ill. In Pullman, I was the weirdest person on the walking path. In Seattle, I'm the most normal person on 3rd Avenue.
There's variety in places. On one frequent trip, I walk past the Gates Foundation and then cross a vacant lot right out of the Fallout games.
And there's variety in sounds. One thing I like to do when I'm high is listen to ambient sounds as if they're music. In Spokane, it was all the same instrument: cars and trucks going 30mph on a nearby arterial. Here there are more kinds of vehicles, at more speeds, plus all kinds of hums and clanks and squeaks and voices. It's like going from drone rock to jazz.
June 30. Three links about animals. Just in my lifetime, coyotes have changed from being timid and reclusive, to being bold and comfortable in cities and towns. This makes them more dangerous, and this page, Coyote hazing, is about how to behave around coyotes to minimize danger and make them feel unwelcome.
A biotech startup has raised millions to resurrect woolly mammoths. (Thanks Myles.) It's nice that the article mentions that it's not enough to bring back a species -- it needs an ecosystem where it fits. Update: here's a video about how mammoths could restore an ancient ecosystem and fight climate change.
Mouse Heaven or Mouse Hell? This is the best article I've seen on John Calhoun's rodent utopia experiments, because where most articles are hungry to draw lessons for human society, this takes the opposite path, going through all the lessons people have drawn, and explaining why they apply to these particular rodents and not to humans. More generally, "Calhoun's work functions like a Rorschach blot -- people see what they want to see."
And on its 40th anniversary, two Hacker News threads about Blade Runner, this one more about its influential visual design, and this one more about its weak storytelling.
June 27. This week I want to write about a completely different thing that the word "religion" points to: the afterlife.
I've been on Ask Reddit for a long time, and it used to be a rare question: "What do you think happens after you die?" Lately it's one of the more common questions, and the answers are not that interesting. Reddit is full of philosophical materialists, so the most upvoted answers are different ways of phrasing nothing, and if you sort by controversial you get Christians saying heaven/hell.
I understand why people believe there's no afterlife. If you think this life is all there is, you live better. And given that the question can't be answered from here, it's prudent to choose a belief with practical benefits.
But I prefer to use that uncertainty to choose beliefs that are more fun. A better question is: "What do you wish would happen after you die?" If you think consciousness is fundamental, then it seems likely you'd have some influence over where your bit of consciousness goes next. Even heaven and hell are usually imagined as reflecting your earthly life in the details, the people you meet or the precise torments.
Some consciousness-first thinkers still imagine only two levels of reality: the universal, and where we are now. So when you die, you go straight back to the one mind. But if I were the one mind, or on the way back there, I'd enjoy making some more levels. So I like to think that merging with the Absolute is one option among many.
A growing number of people believe we're living in a simulation. Ok, then think it through. The simulation is first person. The people outside the simulation aren't watching you from the sky -- they're watching you from you. Or, you are one of the people outside the simulation, and when this life is over you'll remember yourself.
If a world exists with the means to simulate this world, what would they use it for? It makes sense that they would use it to filter their own members. If you live well, you get to join them; if not, then back to the great melting pot. This is not that different from original Christianity, in which there is no place of eternal torment, only hanging out with Jesus or nonexistence.
Western metaphysics is awfully vertical. What if we're not being sorted into higher or lower places, just different places? And consider how peculiar it is to be a modern human, compared to, say, being a tree. A tree probably has little sense of what else it could be, except another tree. But not only can we imagine being a tree, or a hawk, or a sea otter, we can imagine being a space pirate, or a wood elf, or a postapocalypse scavenger.
So if there is sorting going on, we seem to be in a great nexus, or concourse, with a huge variety of options for where to go next.
The problem is, we need other people. There's a Twilight Zone episode where a guy thinks he's gone to heaven, because he can have anything he wants, but he soon gets bored with his own ability to entertain himself, and discovers he's in hell.
Suppose, after you die, you want to go to the Harry Potter universe, and because it's popular, you can gather enough other people to create a world. Ok, who wants to be the muggles? Nobody? Maybe we can just fill them in with NPCs.
I don't think there are any NPCs. Someone always has to play them. In your imagination, you play them; in a tabletop RPG, the game master plays them. And in any enduring world, every feature of that world has to be maintained by someone who continues to get something out of it.
That's a pretty severe constraint. So my best guess about the afterlife is, under that constraint, it's whatever you believe it's going to be, or whatever you can get away with.
Coincidentally, in another context, Tim just sent me chapter 50 of the Tao Te Ching. I looked it up in Ellen Chen's translation, and this is part of her commentary:
Death is a phenomenon from the individual's viewpoint. Cut off from the life of the round and standing alone, an individual faces his opponents and arrives at the place and time of his death. However, in the round, which is the eternal life process, productive, and embracing all opposites, there is no death. There is only intense life-producing activity. A person who transcends his individuality, identifying himself with the eternal life process that has no place of death, also has no place of death.