"Each shift into clear vision was a gift that followed total failure to achieve."
August 8. Three bits of practical psychology. The first I'm pretty good at, the second I'm working on, and the third I haven't touched.
Last week I did a dogsit, and it struck me again how similar dealing with dogs is, to dealing with your own mind. If there's some kind of thinking you know is bad for you, then when you notice yourself slipping into it, it's just like noticing your dog messing with some hobo trash, and saying "leave it!" The quicker you can do that, the better your mental health.
I've added a quote to my quotes page. When NFL pass rusher Michael Bennett was asked which offensive linemen were easier to beat, he said, "If you go looking for ducks, you'll never find them. You have to assume they're all ducks." Spelling it out: if you go looking for the situation where it's easy to feel good, you'll never find it. You have to assume you're capable of feeling good anywhere.
A while back I said there's no good definition of enlightenment, but I thought of one, or at least a metaphor. It's like riding a bicycle, but with metacognition. You go from short bursts of awareness of what your attention is on, to being there all the time and steering around. Another metaphor is those magic eye images, where once you learn how to shift your perspective in that way, it becomes easy.
August 5. Music for the weekend. In my search for that one song, I found another song that's better. In 1980, popular music still sounded like the 70's, with rare exceptions like Gary Numan's Cars, and this absolute banger by Suzanne Fellini - Love On The Phone.
August 4. My big project this week has been reading through the last five years of my blog archives to prep for a podcast interview. These are some good short bits I found:
In squirrel heaven, would there still be winter?
"Laziness" means holding out for activities that you find intrinsically enjoyable.
A ritual is an engine for turning activity into motivation.
Your mind is like a web browser, and mindfulness is like changing your preferences.
Right now, the phrase "women's voices" implies voices of the oppressed. Only when it no longer has that meaning, will we know who women are.
Every time the human-made world drifts farther from human nature, there's another group of people who can't deal with it, and they're diagnosed with some disorder that makes it their fault.
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.
What a delicate balance, to be alive enough to set a good example for others, but not so alive that they kill you.
On social media: At the zoo, every cage has a sign: don't tap on the glass. We have yet to give ourselves that protection.
On space travel: The deeper humans go into outer space, the deeper they will go into their own minds.
On Communism: Someone should write a manifesto that refers to humans as players.
On lying: Most liars are not thinking, "Ha ha, I'll fool them all," but "Oh shit, if I don't tell these people what they want to hear, I'll be in so much trouble."
On disinformation: Nobody ever believed anything unless they got something out of it.
On imagination: Maybe humanity's great mistake is trying to make our dreams physically real.
August 1. Still more links than ideas. Today, the senses. Dogs might be able to 'see' with their noses. "The team conducted MRI scans on a number of different dogs and successfully mapped the olfactory bulb (the part of the brain dealing with smell) to the occipital lobe (the visual processing area of the brain)." There's also stuff about blind dogs behaving normally. So dogs probably have a persistent 3D representation of their world, that's filled in with scent.
Is the Silence of the Great Plains to Blame for Prairie Madness? Too little sound is bad for us, but also, too much light. So in the UK, The race to reclaim the dark.
Colorful urban environments promote wellbeing, even if they are just in virtual reality. Meanwhile, a good Hacker News thread, Has the world become less colourful?
Coming back around to what it's like to be something other than a human, a nice long article, Do Trees Talk to Each Other?
Wise old mother trees feed their saplings with liquid sugar and warn the neighbors when danger approaches. Reckless youngsters take foolhardy risks with leaf-shedding, light-chasing and excessive drinking, and usually pay with their lives. Crown princes wait for the old monarchs to fall, so they can take their place in the full glory of sunlight. It's all happening in the ultra-slow motion that is tree time, so that what we see is a freeze-frame of the action.
July 29. If you follow soccer you've already seen this. Cheeky, audacious, outrageous, ridiculous, and filthy are some of the words used to describe this Alessia Russo goal, a backheel strike that sealed England's win in the Euro 22 semifinals. Here's a shorter gif.
New subject, music. There's a song I remember hearing on the radio around 1980, and I can't find it. Surely my memory is distorted after 40 years, and I've had no luck with those AI song identifiers, so I've been going through every song on the Hot 100 Singles Chronology, and listening on YouTube.
When I find it, I'm sure it will be less good than some of the songs I've found while looking, of which the best is Romeo's Tune by Steve Forbert. Another interesting song that's been totally forgotten is Suzi Found a Weapon by Randy VanWarmer.
And I've just been down the rabbit hole of Shadows of the Night. Everyone knows Pat Benatar's version, but three artists recorded it before her. First was the original by D.L. Byron. It's clunky and some of the lyrics are dumb. Then there was Helen Schneider, who performed it better and had a big hit in Europe.
Rachel Sweet's version is by far my favorite. She has a great voice, her style is more 60's than 80's, and she fixed the lyrics, including this awesome line that's in no other version: "Trade your wishes for a kiss tonight, 'Cause the stars can't hold you in the morning light." Rachel Sweet was a major talent who never made it big. Her only hit was a fun duet with Rex Smith, Everlasting Love.
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.