"So what does it mean to be intelligent? It means to be able to do nothing. Humans do nothing for a living, and that's what it means to be intelligent. So, if you're an AI and you can do nothing like a human, then you're as intelligent as a human."
-Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3
September 9. Continuing on AI, James sends this article from 2018, Deep Reinforcement Learning Doesn't Work Yet. "Reinforcement learning assumes the existence of a reward function.... Importantly, for RL to do the right thing, your reward function must capture exactly what you want. And I mean exactly." This is a lot easier to do with games than with anything real. One problem is that machines tend to get stuck in local optima, behaviors that make sense in the narrow view but not the wide view -- just like humans.
And a new article, Why Does This Horrifying Woman Keep Appearing in AI-Generated Images? "Is Loab some kind of presence within the system, whispers from the AI's datasets given human form? Or is she just AI smoke and mirrors, born of our human desire to see patterns in the noise?"
September 7. Last week there was a cool post on the Psychonaut subreddit. The images on the right were generated by an AI, from this Terence McKenna quote:
This AI that is coming into existence is, to my mind, not artificial at all, not alien at all. What it really is, is: it's a new conformational geometry of the collective Self of humanity.
Now, I don't know what "conformational geometry" means. It sounds like a fancy way of saying form or shape. But I think he's right. The best way to think about AI, is to think of it as human. AI will never go rogue, or "become sentient". It will always do exactly what humans tell it to do -- which will never be quite what we want it to do, and increasingly, not what we expect. But it remains fundamentally an extension of our own story.
Meanwhile, here's a comment thread on the Seattle subreddit about something that's actually non-human, the intelligence of crows.
They see humans give other humans things and get food in return, but don't quite equate that only specific things count. I've seen them try to feed leaves and bits of paper to a vending machine before in hopes of persuading it to give up snacks.
September 5. For Labor Day, I'm thinking about the word "work". One definition is very broad. Work doesn't have to be productive, because Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill, that always rolls back down, is doing work. It doesn't have to be physical, because chess players thinking about their next move are doing work (and burning a lot of calories). Even meditation could be called work, when the literal intructions are to do nothing.
Another definition is narrow: in the context of a society where tokens are exchanged for goods and services, you're doing a service in exchange for some of these tokens. If you're reading an article about "work", this is usually what they mean, and if you practice reading "work" as "work for money", you'll see the subject more clearly.
Humans like to do stuff. But as a means for arranging the stuff we do, wage labor has only been common for a few hundred years. It is now in decline for multiple reasons, but the main one is that it's failing to satisfy our need for meaning, for our actions to be part of something larger that we believe in. We no longer believe that doing wage labor with more intensity (working hard) will make us rich. Employers are openly calling workers "resources" in their quest for higher stock prices.
In response, the phrase "work-life balance" is framing wage labor in opposition to life. Back in 2004, when I wrote "How To Drop Out", people would say, what would happen if everyone dropped out? That's basically happening now. When I go to the drug store, and half the shelves are empty, I can't complain, because filling those shelves requires a long string of shitty jobs.
It's anyone's guess how it will all shake out. I like to think we're still in the early stages of figuring out how to run an ethical society. For the last few hundred years, the organizing principle of people doing things has been how much money can be made by people doing things, where money is the power to make people do things they would not do except for the money. In a better society, the organizing principle of people doing things is what people enjoy doing.
September 3. Three fun links for the weekend. Random Street View is exactly what it sounds like.
How to Estimate Distance Using Just Your Thumb, by using the parallax of your eyes.
And just released, a nice ambient piece, Tree Music.
September 1. Three stray links, starting with a fascinating history article, Pre-Modern Battlefields Were Absolutely Terrifying. Specifically, humans hate deadly hand-to-hand combat. "When you realize just how terrifying it is, much of what we find in the ancient and medieval source starts to make a lot more sense."
The First Small Modular Nuclear Reactor Was Just Approved. I've changed my position on nuclear power. I still think that accidents are inevitable, and there's no good place to put the waste. But it turns out that both of those things, accidents and waste storage, create large areas where humans can't live, and wildlife thrives.
Cool page, AI-Generated Bible Art. I recently noticed that my favorite Bible verse is basically the same as my favorite song verse. From Ecclesiastes 9:7, "Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works." And from Big Blood's Go See Boats, "You've got some fun, speak your own. Creation without us untying to your bone. Promise in this day time, do your things."
August 30. A quick note on language. I don't believe in student loan "forgiveness" -- because borrowing money to go to college is not morally wrong. I believe in student debt cancellation.
This isn't the first time the human brain has got its wires crossed between tokens of exchange, and right and wrong actions. I wonder when Christians started using the metaphor of paying off debt, for forgiveness of sins. Was that invented in the 1500s, or was it there from the beginning?
August 29. Some links about technology. How medieval carpenters are rebuilding Notre Dame. There's a project in experimental archaeology where people build stuff "using only the tools and methods available in the Middle Ages". Carpenters trained at this place have the skills to cut beams that "respect the internal form of the tree", which are stronger and last longer than beams from sawmills.
Why No Roman Industrial Revolution? The idea is, an industrial revolution is really unlikely, because early steam engines are going to be too inefficient for anything useful, and without a use, no one is going to make improvements. The exception was England, where they used primitive steam engines to pump water out of coal mines. So the engines got better, and that might have been the end of it, except that England also had a large textile industry, with loads of raw cotton from the colonies, and the only thing missing was simple rotational motion for spinning. That created an incentive to keep making the engines smaller and more efficient, until they could haul their own fuel, and that's when industrialization really took off.
Related: The best books on the Great Divergence. "After a slow start, why did northwest Europe move ahead of the rest of the world in the early modern period and establish an economic dominance whose effects are felt to this day?"
Moving to our own century, The Coming Tsunami of Fakery. AI is getting so good that "we're on the cusp of breakneck velocity content generation that promises unclear but undoubtedly pernicious consequences."
August 26. Music for the weekend. Revisiting old stuff, I've found that nostalgia is unreliable. I have a lot of nostalgia for Robbie Dupree's "Steal Away", and when I listen to it now, I get nothing. But I've become obsessed with a song I barely remember, Crystal Gayle's Half The Way. I've been doing a deep dive into 1979, listening to at least a verse of every song that made the Billboard Hot 100, and most of them are lame, but sometimes I'll find a forgotten gem. Nancy Brooks released only this one single, which only got to #66 -- but what a voice! I'm Not Gonna Cry Anymore.
August 25. Quiet Quitting and the Death of Office Culture is a rant about a new movement among workers, not to actually quit, but to do only what they're paid to do, and no more.
The Quiet Quitting panic is just another form of victim-blaming and normalized abuse borne of an executive panic attack, and I'd argue it's directly connected to the growth of remote work.
The office was a powerful tool to keep people in line - you were extremely visible at all times, middle managers kept track of everybody, and you were seen as a "hard worker" based on many conditions that didn't relate to work at all.
Related: Remote Startups Will Win the War for Top Talent. "The office has become the enemy of deep, focused work."
You could argue that the Great Resignation is not actually anti-work, but pro-work. It's about the freedom to do useful things, unencumbered by the cruft of management culture.
August 24. Three links from Reddit. From r/Psychonaut, Are we all God? I don't want to say this is the religion of the future, because the word "religion" points to a lot of things. But this is absolutely the theology of the future: that the supreme consciousness is not watching you from the sky, but watching from inside you.
From r/AskReddit, What is something people don't consider when thinking about aliens? There's lots of stuff about aliens being more alien than we expect. "Alien sentience might be so different from ours that we wouldn't even recognize them as being thinking beings in the way we understand it."
And from r/Space, a 174 megapixel photo of the moon, stitched from many smaller photos by two amateur astrophotographers. This article has more about how they did it.
August 22. Continuing on the subject of slowing down to avoid clumsiness, Wesley mentions a William Burroughs essay called The Discipline of Do Easy.
DE is a way of doing. It is a way of doing everything you do. DE simply means doing whatever you do in the easiest most relaxed way you can manage which is also the quickest and most efficient way, as you will find as you advance in DE.
As this article explains it:
Discipline's a word we shirk in a fun-loving culture. Actually though, doing things just so is wonderful! If you can. And you can through practice.
By hurrying through everything we think we must do to get to the fun stuff -- like watching TV shows half-comatose -- we miss out on all the awesome.
There's also an old short film by Gus Van Sant. But this article about the film has an odd quote: "Of course, when anyone knocks something over, or trips over something or breaks anything, they are at that moment thinking of someone they don't like."
Yeah, that's not my experience. I mean, sometimes it is. But all it takes to be clumsy is to focus on anything other than the physical objects in play at this moment. As a very clumsy person, nine times out of ten I'm not thinking of something I like less than what I'm stumbling over, but something I like more.
August 19. Posted yesterday to the subreddit, Why doing your best is sometimes the worst thing you can do. "When I am caught in a loop of misguided striving, I imagine myself as a mechanical bug knocking around inside a box, bouncing off the walls until the battery runs out."
I was just thinking about something similar. "Always do the right thing" is not good advice. It assumes that there is always an objectively right action, and that we know what it is. In practice, there's so much uncertainty that trying to never do anything wrong leads to paralysis.
I try to follow a much easier rule. You can go a long way just by not doing stuff that you're 100% sure is wrong. And if you can manage that, the next step is to either expand not-doing to stuff you're pretty sure is wrong, or focus on smaller things.
That's what I'm working on lately. A hundred times a day I'll do some little thing clumsily and have to do it again. So I'm trying to be slow and smooth. If I can type an entire sentence without having to backspace, that's a big win.
Music for the weekend. From this NY Times article, The Art of Disappearance, I learned about Connie Converse, a folk singer with the same kind of sad minimalist vibe as Nick Drake -- but in the 1950s!
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. 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. 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. 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. 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.