"'Where are the new frontiers?' the Romantics cried, unaware that the frontier of the mind had opened..."
-Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination
October 24. No ideas this week, just links. The Moorish invention that tamed Spain's mountains is about the practice of carefully diverting spring runoff so that it soaks into the local landscape, instead of going to the ocean.
Buzz stops: bus shelter roofs turned into gardens for bees and butterflies
Related, a Hacker News thread for a paywalled article, Why are there so few dead bugs on windshields these days?
Another Hacker News thread, Butterfly wing patterns emerge from ancient 'junk' DNA. It's mainly about how the phrase "junk DNA" is obsolete, but people keep using it because of language inertia.
Related: Bruno Latour has died. He was one of my favorite living philosophers, and mainly wrote about the sociology of science. The main idea that I got from Latour is the "black box" -- a cognitive assumption that, once established, is taken for granted and used to go "downstream" and build bigger black boxes -- but you can also go "upstream" and take black boxes apart.
October 21. Light stuff for the weekend. Back on the 9th, Earth got hit by the largest gamma ray burst ever recorded. I happened to be up on an airplane, so I'm looking forward to my new mutant powers.
A new article, Human hibernation is a real possibility, which reminds me of an old article about how Europeans used to sleep all winter.
In America, cranberries are now appearing in stores, so I want to share my recipe for unsweetened cranberry sauce. First take a 12 oz bag of cranberries and carefully remove all the soft berries. Taste one and you'll know why. Then, in a food processor or powerful blender, mix the berries with one large apple (or two small), one large orange (or two small), and around a cup of tart cherry juice. You could use a different juice, and the exact proportions aren't important, but try to keep the grind somewhat coarse.
October 19. Continuing from Monday, Matt comments:
A lot of social synchrony is like 19th-century group dancing, not upsetting power dynamics, not challenging other people's psychological defenses or pointing out their obvious problems. Some of my deepest moments of connection with people have happened in conscious, careful, respectful asynchrony.
And from the Wikipedia page about flow: "The flow state shares many characteristics with hyperfocus. However, hyperfocus is not always described in a positive light."
Yeah, I don't think flow should be always described in a positive light. Think about people of the enemy political tribe, whatever that is for you, and how dangerous they are when they give up rationality and self-awareness to groove with the crowd.
I wonder about the difference between wide-focus flow and narrow-focus flow. My guess is, it's the same thing happening in different parts of the brain. It's a personal goal of mine to experience wide-focus flow, and I continue to put a lot of effort into widening my perception, but it has yet to pay off, except in preventing me from getting hit by cars.
October 17. I don't identify as being on the autism spectrum, for two reasons. One is that I've taken a few informal tests, and I always come out barely neurotypical. The other is, I don't think the present concept of aspergers/autism is going to last. When we understand it better, we'll discover that it's actually different things that we've been lumping together, like we did with "consumption" or "senility".
But I do have a speculative self-diagnosis. I call it asynchrony, and it's based on the concept of neural synchrony, "the correlation of brain activity across two or more people over time."
I think this happens through mechanisms that we haven't discovered yet, and I think there will turn out to be a huge variation among different brains, in how easily they can "tune in" to other brains.
A few signs that you may be asynchronous:
1) It seems like everyone but you is a mind reader. You ask people how they know to do something a certain way, and they say, "You just know," but you don't.
2) You don't understand what the big deal is with music shows, live sports, or parties. Other people seem to be getting something out of these events that you're not getting.
3) You find popular trends to be more baffling than compelling.
4) When walking in crowded places, you have to devote conscious attention to not bumping into people.
There are a lot of directions to go with this. Are extraversion and introversion causes of high and low synchrony, or are they effects? Are there trade-offs? Does being worse at syncing with humans in real time make you better at syncing with humans in other ways, or with nonhumans? Can you be bad at receiving but good at broadcasting?
I also wonder how this relates to John Vervaeke's concept of participatory knowing, and the concept of the flow state.
October 13. Four happy tech links. An Australian startup is "growing" water for drought-parched California. Yeah, growing is not the right word. What they're doing is capturing the massive amount of water boiled off when tomatoes are turned into paste and ketchup.
Geothermal May Beat Batteries for Energy Storage. Specifically, they can drill down into impermeable rock, blast out underground reservoirs, and pump hot water down, which can later be pumped up to extract the heat.
Nasa invents 'incredible' battery for electric planes. I expect a lot of action this century in materials science, and these batteries use new materials to discharge fast enough to fly a plane.
Airships Rise Again. The new generation of airships are heavier than air, but still light enough to hover.
October 10. Thanks Matt for suggesting a good tangent to last week's post. I've been using the concepts of "first person" and "third person" in the most basic way: first = from the inside; third = from the outside. It's a lot more complicated, and some people have suggested adding a "fourth person". But I'd rather not be constrained by numbers. Here's how I break it down.
The deepest level of "me" is "I am this stream of experience." (Actually you can get even deeper: I am the void that this stream of experience fills.)
The next level is the embodied self: how to interpret raw sense data into stuff like, "This is my leg. That's a tree. That's the sound of rain."
The next level is the reflective self, or what western culture calls the self. It includes stuff like, "My favorite color is orange. I am an introvert. I have a strong imagination." Ego is the stickiness of the reflective self, its resistance to changing and expanding.
The next level is the social self, where I think about what other people think about me. It's complex, but I'll just point out that there's a difference between "I am sensitive to other people's expressions of what they think about me," and "I imagine myself inside another person looking at me."
The latter, we usually call the "second person", and for the first time, you're taking a perspective outside your own skin.
Another way to get outside your own skin, is to shift from I to we. This has usually been done with the local social unit, the family or tribe. When it becomes reflective (this is what my people are like), the multi-person self is more egocentric than the one-person self: more resistant to change, more resistant to expansion, and more sensitive to the expressions of others.
In theory, the multi-person self doesn't need an opponent to define it, and it can be expanded to include all humans, or all beings. In practice, these moves are done by educated people, on an intellectual level, and rarely on the level of feeling.
Now, it's a whole different way of thinking, to look at something and say, "That's not me." And there's a whole range of ways to do it, but they all come down to the habits and values of your constructed self. You can look at a tree like an artist, or like an ecologist, or like a lumberjack.
Also, "not me" raises a peculiar option, which I think is uniquely dominant in western culture: the "view from nowhere." It's an attempt to strip knowing from perspective, to say, "Never mind what you see, this is how things are." Supposedly this is the view of science, and yet the most advanced science refutes it.
On a practical level, the view from nowhere is probably necessary to make a large complex society work. But we don't have to take it so seriously. You can see it even at the level of the reflective self, where instead of saying "This is my favorite song," we're tempted to say, "This is the best song."
October 8. A few fun links for the weekend. The question is often asked on the Psychonaut subreddit, What do you prefer, LSD or Shrooms? But this thread has an unusually good set of answers. In my experience, LSD makes everything luminous and mushrooms make everything peculiar. Or, LSD is major key and mushrooms are minor key.
From Hacker News, a much smarter thread about psychedelics, on an article about LSD-like molecules that counter depression without the trip. Personally, I've never had either one -- hallucinations, or an obvious effect on my mental health. I could always just take a huge dose, but LSD is hard to find, and mushrooms make me nauseated, so I prefer to dink and dunk.
Two relaxing driving simulators, Drivey.js and Nightdrive. If you're interested, here's a page about the Making of Nightdrive, and some other projects by the Drivey.js creator.
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.