"Each shift into clear vision was a gift that followed total failure to achieve."
August 17. Four quick biology links. Spiders Seem to Have REM-like Sleep and May Even Dream.
All of the bases in DNA and RNA have now been found in meteorites.
But wait. DNA and RNA might not be the origin of life. "The biochemist Nick Lane thinks life first evolved in hydrothermal vents where precursors of metabolism appeared before genetic information."
The Bizarre Bird That's Breaking the Tree of Life. The idea is, there's so much crazy gene-swapping going on that it no longer makes sense to view evolution as a tree.
August 15. After being dormant for a while, the ranprieur subreddit has had a few posts lately. This post, Meditation through the lens of predictive processing, is about the value of clearing your priors, looking at the world as if you've never seen it before. This reminds me of something I found while going through the archives, the strange advice from a Buddhist monk to "remain unmoved by the wind of joy." It's about maintaining your hedonic baseline. If something happens that makes you feel good, don't think of it as the new normal.
Loosely related: Why aren't smart people happier? No, it's not about how smart people become unhappy because they know what's wrong with the world. It's about how they're not all that smart. The author argues that what we call "general intelligence" is still really specific, that all those different cognitive tests are testing the same sort of thing: the ability to solve well-defined problems, with clear boundaries and indisputable answers. Not included, all social problems and many problems of well-being.
My broad definition of intelligence is being better at anything the brain can do. And something that could be added to the standard definition of intelligence, taught and tested for, is the ability to zoom in and zoom out, to fixate and to get out of fixation. I imagine people doing it like yoga: go small and big with your sight, your hearing, your proprioception, your thoughts.
I also think cognitive tests should not be timed. You could say, what would stop someone from taking hours and hours until they get every answer right? Nothing, and that's the point. By not timing tests, you add patience, persistence, and perfectionism to your definition of intelligence, and I'd rather live in a culture where those skills are valued, than the skill of doing stuff fast.
On a tangent, I have an idea for a competitive cooking show called Apocalypse Kitchen. In a normal cooking show, you have a massive pantry, all the best gear, and a very tight time constraint. In Apocalypse Kitchen it's the other way around. You might have a bag of flour, a dead rabbit, some dandelions, and a propane camp stove, and you have all day to make a good meal.
August 12. Three fun links for the weekend. I love this kind of thing: Symphonic Metal Bands: Nerdiness vs Kickassery - A statistical analysis. Conclusion: "As nerdiness increases, kickassery declines. There are, however, notable exceptions such as Sabaton, Windrose, or Powerwolf that managed to maintain significant levels of kickassery relative to their undeniable nerdiness."
I assure you, medieval people bathed. The article is full of cool stuff like bathhouse sex workers and the history of soap.
And I'm not going to complain about the world getting weirder, but wow, the world is getting weird. CryptoDickbutts Ethereum NFTs Surge 690% in Daily Sales Volume. "The floor price of Series 3 CryptoDickButts climbed as prominent influencers shilled their Dickbutt bags..." Sometimes I think the apocalypse already happened and we're in fairyland.
August 10. The interview is up. Here it is on the Hermitix podcast site, and on YouTube. Thanks James for giving me the opportunity to chatter. I tried to not be boring.
At the end, I talk about something that I haven't mentioned yet on the blog, and I want to give it a more careful explantion: bibliomancy. Bibliomancy is a form of divination in which you ask a question, or just state a context in which the result will be framed, and then riffle the pages of a book and drop your finger at random. You can do it with passages, but I like to do it with single words.
Divination is the practice of drawing meaning from randomness, anything from tea leaves to Tarot. The results can be interpreted multiple ways, including these two: 1) You're not getting actual meaning or information, only creating it out of your own imagination. 2) You are tuned into some kind of intelligence that can help you, but only if there's plausible deniability that anything weird is happening.
That's why you don't want to do it too much, or talk about your results. Under objective materialist metaphysics, this idea is crazy, but under mind-based metaphysics, where reality is made of perspectives, it makes perfect sense: the phenomena know who's watching. That singing frog cartoon is how it really works. If that guy had kept the frog to himself, he would have had a cool singing frog.
Also, if you're even a little bit schizophrenic, do not try this. If hearing voices is something you might struggle with, don't start a practice that may come to seem like you're talking to an entity. And if you do it, and you get a jump-out-of-your-seat result, don't get all wide-eyed. Just because you don't know how it works, doesn't mean it's important.
The way I think it works is, divination is an engine for synchronicity. You're tapping into the hidden interconnectedness of all things, and the hidden interconnectedness of all things doesn't think you're special. It's not going to give you the lottery numbers. If you bother it too much, it will either stop working or mess with you. It's sensitive to your intentions, and you may find that it has a sense of humor.
Don't give it too much power over you. A king doesn't ask his advisor, "What should I do?" But he might ask, "What do you think of option one? How about option two?" Suppose for the first option you get "eddy", and for the second you get "flood". (That kind of matching is not uncommon.) You might say, a flood is bigger, so I'll do option two. But an eddy has more precision and elegance. The message might be, if you choose option one, do it in the manner of an eddy, and if you choose option two, do it in the manner of a flood.
Even if you're not getting any special knowledge, it can still be helpful to inject randomness into your life. Some tribal hunters use divination to decide which direction to go for the day's hunt. At the very least, it makes them unpredictable to their prey. I think there's a lot of room to use random decision making in sports.
You could also use it for creative work. I'm pretty sure that Philip K Dick used the I Ching to decide where his crazy plots were going to go next. But the status of the I Ching as a sacred ancient text makes no difference. A comic book might work just as well. It doesn't matter how much you like the book you're using, or what it means to you. The best book is the book with the best variety and distribution of words. For ease of use and clear results, I recommend a pocket thesaurus. A dictionary is a bit harder to interpret, but has room for more complexity.
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.