"'Where are the new frontiers?' the Romantics cried, unaware that the frontier of the mind had opened..."
-Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination
October 5. In the Leafbox interview, I was asked "Do you have any religious practices?" I said no, but actually I do. Every year in June I take a long walk, with certain cognitive enhancements, in a good semi-wild area. This year I was too busy moving, but I've arranged to housesit for my stepmom, so I could come back to Pullman in October and take my favorite walk, up the south fork of the Palouse River out of town.
Every time I do this, I get reminded of the same insight, and try again to put it into words. This time I thought of a line from Mike Snider: "It is effulgent, visceral, radiant, and absolutely void of any objectivity or subjectivity whatsoever."
It's God and heaven rolled into one -- but those are loaded words. I'm talking about something genderless, nonhuman, and mostly beyond our perception and understanding. "Nature" is how it appears to us. The world of wild biological life is our primary interface to the one real thing.
Then I see, poking out of that, some ugly building, and I have to wonder: What's the point of humans? Why did we go off on this strange and painful path of disconnection?
There are a hundred stories we could tell. We are a meaningless accident. We're here to spread life to other planets. We're here to bring the carbon to the surface and go extinct. We're baby gods learning to be world builders. We're remedial souls qualifying to rejoin the whole.
The idea I got, this time, is a variation on a common saying, "We are the universe experiencing itself." Sure, but the universe is already experiencing itself all the time. It doesn't need humans for that. What we can do, is see the universe in the third person. A tree knows what it's like to be a tree, but it doesn't know what it's like to look at a tree with eyes tuned for aesthetics.
On my walk I borrowed a hat with the slogan "The Last Frontier". The last frontier is not space -- it's us. Just as we send astronauts into space to see the earth, the mind beneath the earth has sent us into a headspace so isolated that it can look back at itself.
I got the feeling that our job is almost done. Within a thousand years we'll be gone, not through failure but success. Our birthrates will taper to zero as our deeper selves are like, "Humans, been there, done that." But I'm probably wrong. Our brains are so adaptable, surely they're good for more than one thing.
October 2. Stray links, posted early because I'll be busy tomorrow.
Gabriel sends this cool article on Stone Skipping. The most interesting thing is the guy the article focuses on, Kurt Steiner. He's the rarest kind of person: highly eccentric, but competent enough to not be dead or in prison, and also highly motivated.
There's endless choice, but you're not listening. The article is a selection of people explaining why they quit streaming music. I find Spotify a convenient way to share playlists of well-known songs. But even when I listen to those playlists, I do it by getting the mp3s from Soulseek, putting them in a folder on my laptop, and playing them in VLC.
I wonder if AI will ever come up with a really good music recommendation engine. Right now they all work by correlation: what do people who listen to this song also listen to? That never gives me anything surprising. I want one that actually analyzes the sounds, so it could follow an obscure song to an equally obscure song from a different genre.
Interesting Hacker News thread on cheating in chess. A few hints from a computer can make such a big difference, and be so hard to detect, that the standard of "innocent until proven guilty" leaves way too much room for cheaters, and the chess world is still figuring out what to do. I expect they'll eventually make players change out of all their clothes to a tournament uniform, and play without an audience. In 30 years, they'll have to scan for brain implants.
Dense essay, The Pathologies of the Attention Economy, with some interesting stuff about the history of attention as a scarce commodity. The basic argument:
1. We inhabit a techno-social environment manufactured to fracture our attention.
2. The interests served by this environment in turn pathologize the resultant inattention.
3. These same interests devise and enforce new techniques to discipline the inattentive subject.
September 30. In the Leafbox interview I mention my latest obsession: making playlists of hits of the 1970s. A lot of playlists are just a giant heap of songs in no particular order. I like to be selective, not just about the songs, but about how they fit together. And I really enjoy the constraint of making the lists chronological.
For the 70s, I had so many great songs that didn't fit the flow of my first playlist, that I've made a second playlist, which is probably more listenable, and I'm working on a third.
It's interesting, revisiting songs that were in the background when I was growing up, now with ears trained to a half-subjective but clear sense of what sounds good. Before I started this project, I would not have guessed which songs would rise to the top. Afternoon Delight blows my mind. The sonic textures are so beautiful and so tight that I would send this song into space to represent us to aliens. Here's a fun article about it, Skyrockets In Flight.
Also exceptional, and taken for granted, is Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue. That piano lick was not in the original composition. The regular keyboardist had a stroke, so they brought in Hargus "Pig" Robbins, who was blinded by a knife at age four, and he made that shit up on the spot. Then, on the first take, Crystal Gayle laid down a vocal track for the ages. A lot of singers do vibrato like a jackhammer, but she does it like the wings of a bird.
My second 70s playlist is named after Jay Ferguson's Thunder Island, a song that really captures the vibe of that time, and remains underplayed on classic rock radio. Jay Ferguson's most heard composition would come 30 years later: the theme song to The Office.
September 29. Last Friday I did another interview, and it occurs to me: writing a blog post is like recording a song in the studio, and doing an interview is like playing a live show. My blog posts are carefully edited, and often patched together from things written at different times. Then when I do an interview, it's mostly stuff I've said on the blog, but it's all in one raw take.
Last month's Hermitix interview was the first I'd done in a while, so I spent hours preparing, and then I did it sitting down, over Zoom, on a USB headset.
This one I did with no preparation at all, on my phone, while pacing around the roof of my building. So it's more disjointed and headlong, but it's possible that I said more interesting stuff. Thanks Robert for the Ran Prieur Leafbox interview.
September 26. Jupiter is closer today than it's been for 59 years. And I'm wondering, why are the clouds on Jupiter beautiful? More precisely, why does the human brain see beauty there? You could argue that humans find trees beautiful because they're part of our evolutionary environment (although it's hard to think of a survival advantage). But we could not have evolved to see beauty in anything that requires a telescope, or a microscope.
And yet, we see beauty in nebulae, in the rings of Saturn, in micro-photography of insects and beach sand. When you look around, almost everything in the non-human-made world is beautiful. I think we see that beauty because our brains and eyes are also part of the non-human-made world, and they share a kinship on a level we still don't understand.
So why is the human-made world so full of ugliness? This article, The Smartest Website You Haven't Heard of, is about McMaster-Carr, an industrial supply company, and how much better they are at e-commerce than Amazon. At the end, there are two interesting quotes. First, from engineer Dan Gelbart:
If something is 100 percent functional, it is always beautiful... there is no such thing as an ugly nail or an ugly hammer but there's lots of ugly cars, because in a car not everything is functional... sometimes it's very beautiful, if the person who designed it has very good taste, but sometimes it's ugly.
This image is from a 2015 article, Wonderful Widgets. The one on the left, though functional, is totally ugly. But the next two are more beautiful, and that beauty has been achieved purely by making them more functional.
This is what I mean when I say that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature. Human civilization is still like the widget on the left, and in ten thousand years, it might be like the widget on the right.
So human-made ugliness doesn't just come from bad taste -- it also comes from clunky functionality. And I think there's a third cause. From the footnote on the McMaster-Carr article:
Jeff Bezos is an infamous micro-manager. He micro-manages every single pixel of Amazon's retail site. He hired Larry Tesler, Apple's Chief Scientist and probably the very most famous and respected human-computer interaction expert in the entire world, and then ignored every goddamn thing Larry said for three years... Bezos just couldn't let go of those pixels, all those millions of semantics-packed pixels on the landing page. They were like millions of his own precious children.
A lot of the human-made world is designed neither for functionality nor beauty, but for human social reasons, for status and ego. Consider the lawn. Lawns are both less beautiful and less functional than a lightly tended assortment of locally adapted plants. And yet, people spend massive time and resources on lawns, because lawns are a symbol of the cultural drive to impose control.
Our world will continue to be ugly until we change our culture, so that we feel better about allowing things to be good in their own way, than making them be the way we tell them to be.
September 22. I've got nothing this week, so I'll just purge my list of links to post.
From two months ago, a large discussion of solar energy on Hacker News.
Also on Hacker News, What are some of the best documentaries you've seen?
From 2018, Andrew Sullivan on Why We Should Say Yes to Drugs
A great thread on Ask Old People, What did people do before hand sanitizer? We got filthy and strengthened our immune systems, and we liked it!
A nice article about rewilding rivers in the Netherlands
And Ben sends this cool Tree of Life Explorer, with more than a hundred thousand images arranged on one deeply zoomable page.
September 20. A concept I talk about over email, more than on this blog, is the propaganda word: a word that is value-loaded, and not carefully defined. Those two things go together: if everyone agrees that "fascism" is bad, then people are going to leverage that badness to point to whatever they're against.
Lately, one of the big positive-loaded words is "intelligent", or smart. So many products are called "smart" now that it doesn't mean anything except "we want you to think this is better."
This article, The Problem with Intelligence, looks at a variety of things that word points to, and concludes:
Intelligence is always specific to the application. Intelligence for a search engine isn't the same as intelligence for an autonomous vehicle, isn't the same as intelligence for a robotic bird, isn't the same as intelligence for a language model. And it certainly isn't the same as the intelligence for humans or for our unknown colleagues on other planets.
If that's true, then why are we talking about "general intelligence" at all?
September 17. Quick note on Wordle. Yesterday's answer, PARER, is a word I've never used. Meanwhile, PAGER is not on the list of possible answers. That's why I don't do Wordle without referring to this Wordle Words List, which contains all words that might be answers, in alphabetical order. I also keep a running list of words that have been used so far, so I could rule out PAPER. Here's a list of Every Wordle Word So Far.
As the words run out, knowing what words have been used will be a bigger advantage, and eventually the NY Times will have to make a decision: either start recycling words, or add a bunch of obscure words, or run it all the way to the end and start over.
September 16. From the Psychonaut subreddit, an interesting thread about animals on psychedelics.
And music! In looking for that one song, which isn't even that great, I keep finding great songs. The latest is by a musician named John Stewart. In the sixties he was one of the Kingston Trio, and wrote the Monkees classic "Daydream Believer". In 1979 he had his biggest hit with the song "Gold", which you might remember for the chorus, "There's people out there turning music into gold." And later that year, he had a small hit that I missed at the time, but this week it blew my mind: John Stewart - Lost Her in the Sun.
September 15. Three links about growing food. Germany's pioneer 'edible city' on the Rhine. "Andernach's city center has fruit and vegetable gardens that anyone can harvest for free."
Cultivating Subtropical Plants in Freezing Temperatures, mainly about tricks that Russians have used to grow citrus.
And Miracle 'farm dust' pill could prevent childhood allergies.
September 13. Continuing on motivation, yesterday's post was all over the place, and today I have a clean point, inspired by research that shows two kinds of love between couples. The first kind is strong and exciting, and gets the couple together. Later they develop a connection that's not exciting, but deeper and more enduring -- or they don't, and break up.
The word "motivation" points to two different things, which I'm calling aspiration and feedback. Aspiration is how good you feel about doing the task, before actually doing it. Feedback is when you do the task, how much that makes you feel like doing more of it.
My hypothesis is, there is little or no correlation between the two things. So being really excited about doing something, or not, tells you almost nothing about whether you'll be able to keep doing it, or burn out.
If I'm right, then the best life strategy is not to set a goal and sacrifice anything to achieve it. The best life strategy is to cast about trying a bunch of different things until you find what fits you.
September 12. Today's subject is motivation. This is a well-written article, Excuse me but why are you eating so many frogs, where eating frogs means forcing yourself to do stuff you don't feel like doing.
These were students who had eaten enough frogs to get into Princeton and Harvard. Their reward was -- surprise! -- more frogs. So they ate those frogs too. And now they're staring down a whole lifetime of frog-eating and starting to feel like maybe something, somewhere has gone wrong.
There's also good stuff in the Hacker News comment thread. But missing from both is any critique of industrial capitalism. For hundreds of years, machines have been doing more stuff; and when making decisions about whether to replace human workers with machines, the guiding principle has been making money, rather than arranging society so that we enjoy what we're doing.
Mechanization justifies itself with the assumption that useful physical tasks are all tedious chores, which is not at all true. A good book on this subject is Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford.
In thinking about tasks that we should or shouldn't build our lives out of, I've been framing it in terms of tasks we enjoy or don't enjoy. That's not wrong, but this blog post, On being tired, mentions a framing I find more useful: tasks that give back energy vs tasks that drain energy.
This idea gives me the leverage to critique a framing I find less useful: tasks you believe in, vs tasks you don't. That's why I failed as a homesteader. Even though I strongly believed in self-sufficient low-tech living, it turned out that almost all of the actual tasks drained my energy. (The only one that didn't was throwing sticks into piles.)
The culture of motivational speaking assumes that your belief, your attitude, your aspiration are all-important. I think those things are like jump-starting a battery. Then, if doing the actual tasks doesn't give you energy back, your battery is going to die again.
Two related links. Countering the Achievement Society is about reinventing schooling so that it's not about joyless accomplishment, but having the free time to find your place in the world.
And A new way of life: the Marxist, post-capitalist, green manifesto captivating Japan is about how much better life will be if we give up economic growth.
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."