"'Where are the new frontiers?' the Romantics cried, unaware that the frontier of the mind had opened..."
-Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination
January 2, 2023.
The new year is a good time for self-improvement, but I don't wait for it. The main thing I've been working on lately is walking. I mentioned in a Reddit thread that my knees are in better shape at age 55 than they were at age 25, because back then I would walk around setting my feet down clumsily. Someone replied: Are you saying it takes 50 years to learn to walk?
No, but it could take hundreds of hours to learn to walk correctly, and not in a million years would my body have figured it out on its own. I'm a bad athlete, but even professional athletes put a lot of time into mechanics. The difference is, they have to focus on mechanics to perform at the highest level; I have to do it to perform with basic competence.
I've always noticed that my shoes develop a worn patch in the center of the right heel, as if I'm setting it down with a slight twist. Only last month did I bother to spend an entire minute actually watching myself walk, and catch that slight twist in action. Now, whenever I go heel-toe, I keep my head down and focus on my right leg, gradually building the habit of setting it down cleanly.
Mostly I walk on the balls of my feet, which is really hard to do without looking like a dweeb. By watching myself in windows along the street, I've discovered that the trick is to put more whip into my steps.
At the same time, I'm noticing exactly how my knees bend, and trying different ways of swinging my hips and arms. Leigh Ann says I either swing my arms too stiffly, or too loosely. She was the fastest runner in her elementary school, so she gives me unhelpful advice like "just feel it." But she can tell at a glance if I'm doing it right or wrong, and she's been helping me practice the George Jefferson walk, which is about as far as you can get from my habitual gait.
December 29. Finishing off the year with some music. I've already mentioned the album of the year, Wet Leg's self-titled debut. It's my favorite non-obscure album since Camper Van Beethoven's Key Lime Pie in 1989. Also great, Viagra Boys' third album, Cave World.
Excluding songs from those albums, or maybe not, the song of the year is Hurray For The Riff Raff - Pierced Arrows. It's an instant classic.
Also, Mattiel had one of the best songs of 2017, Count Your Blessings, and now she's back with a catchy tune called Jeff Goldblum.
And I don't like the arrangement of this song, but I love the "all of the time" chorus: Pillow Queens - Be By Your Side
December 26. Bunch o' links. Findings from 3300-year-old shipwreck reveal complex trade network. "The mining industry appears to have been run by small-scale local communities or free laborers who negotiated this marketplace outside of the control of kings, emperors or other political organizations."
Is The Monty Python 'Silly Walk' Good Exercise? Yes, and the deeper point is that if your goal is not just to get from one place to another, but to get exercise, you might choose to walk inefficiently. I try to walk on the balls of my feet, which is more difficult and less efficient than heel-toe, but easier on my knee joints.
Fun Reddit thread, What's a job you do that barely anyone even knows exists?
How Mental Time Travel Can Make Us Better People, specifically thinking about the future.
Diversity returns to Lakeland stream after restoration puts its bends back. It was straightened in the 1800s, which seemed like a good idea, but "caused a fast flowing stream, removing gravel for fish to spawn in, removing habitats for insects and despite the initial intentions, increasing the risk of flooding as the narrow straight flow led to flash flooding after heavy rainfall."
A Hacker News thread about the pros and cons of mounting solar panels directly on the ground instead of up on racks.
And Mastodon is an emerging alternative to Twitter.
December 22. To polish off the year, I've just gone through the text file where I draft posts, and picked out some half-baked short bits.
Why do drugs feel good? Are there substances that have the same effects on consciousness and perception, without the euphoria? If so, I'm curious to try them. If not, why not? Is there a deeper connection between altered perception and feeling good?
What we call the "mind" is the part of the mind that can go off and do its own thing; what we call the "body" is the part of the mind that's connected to other beings.
If you could spawn as a character in a video game, would you rather be struggling to survive and given an exciting quest? Or would you rather be comfortable, with nothing in particular you have to do? How many of our political conflicts could be explained as seeing the world as more or less gamelike?
IQ tests should not be timed. Someone who finishes in 20 minutes, and someone who finishes in three hours, should get the same score if they get the same number of questions right. You might object, what if someone sits in the testing room for a whole week making sure every answer is perfect? I say, give that person an important job.
The effect of AI on creative work, is that human creatives will have to learn to do stuff that AI can't do. Under this pressure, humans are going to learn a lot about what we're good at.
The great creative works of the 2300's will be fanfic, transparently copying the past. They'll look at our copyright law like we look at feudalism.
December 19. More stray links. Argentina has just won the World Cup, so here's a 2014 piece from FiveThirtyEight, Lionel Messi Is Impossible:
It's not possible to shoot more efficiently from outside the penalty area than many players shoot inside it. It's not possible to lead the world in weak-kick goals and long-range goals. It's not possible to score on unassisted plays as well as the best players in the world score on assisted ones. It's not possible to lead the world's forwards both in taking on defenders and in dishing the ball to others. And it's certainly not possible to do most of these things by insanely wide margins.
They finally found a way that weed is bad for you. Marijuana linked to heart disease; supplement may mitigate risk. The supplement is called genistein, and I've already ordered a bottle.
Study suggests mind-wandering is an underlying dysfunction among children with ADHD. Mind-wandering is not a dysfunction. It's a talent that our society doesn't know how to work with.
Posted to the subreddit, 'Luddite' Teens Don't Want Your Likes. And a no-paywall link.
Also from the NYT, They Fought the Lawn. And the Lawn's Done. "After their homeowner association ordered them to replace their wildlife-friendly plants with turf grass, a Maryland couple sued. They ended up changing state law." (no-paywall link)
I remember when I was growing up, every house in the neighborhood had a regular lawn, except this one house where a weird couple lived. One night, someone stole the "Yard of the Month" sign from whatever yard had won it, and stuck it in their yard. They interpreted it as social pressure, and made a half-assed lawn. Now, in the same neighborhood, at least a third of the front yards have no lawns. Also the trees are less pruned, and the whole vibe is more like a wild area. This is all part of a cultural change, where people take less meaning from imposing their will on nature, and more meaning from giving nature space to do its own thing.
December 16. Stray links. Mike Leach, the most interesting American football coach, unexpectedly died this week. This is a good article about him, Mike Leach, the beautiful mind who saw everything differently.
The Game of Life is a computer thing where cells go light or dark depending on what neighboring cells are doing. Life Universe is a new infinitely zoomable Game of Life.
A fun piece from the New Yorker, I'm thrilled to announce that nothing is going on with me.
For the holiday, an article about the 1964 classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and how it was made in Japan.
And a great Christmas song that's getting some attention from being in a movie, Toni Stante - Mamacita, Donde Esta Santa Claus? There are other versions of this song that are not nearly as good.
December 14. Some feedback from Monday's post, mainly about the motivational value of "deserve". Alex comments that the word "makes more sense when it's a story you tell yourself to reinforce a generally desirable, but intermittently-rewarded behavior." And Wesley comments, "People 'deserve' things when I feel I have an obligation to provide those things to the best of my ability."
Making another attempt to define it, "deserve" is an invocation of an open-ended arbiter of rightness outside the self. That open-endedness is an advantage, if you want to feel good about things being a certain way, without getting into the fiddly details. But I still think in the long term it's better to be precise about why you favor things being one way and not another way.
Tel quotes Ursula Le Guin, from The Dispossessed:
For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free your mind of the idea of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.
December 12. Last week, while thinking about karma, I started thinking about another question: What does deserve mean? If you have a few minutes, bend your brain trying to come up with a non-circular definition.
If you frame the use of the word as an action, "deserve" is an appeal, maybe to human society, maybe to fate, that situation X be tied to result Y.
When you say the word "should", you're at least admitting that things are not the way you want them to be. But when you say the word "deserve", you're talking about how you want things to be, in the language of how things are.
Deserve is a cognitive error, and also a strategic error, because it's a weak way of asking for things. Deserve puts nebulous longing above cause and effect.
For example, "Everyone deserves food and shelter." This conjures up images of all the people without food and shelter, walking around with an aura of wrongness about them. A stronger phrase is "It would be a better world if everyone had food and shelter," which asks us to imagine what that world would look like. Still stronger, "Here is a law that will make sure everyone has food and shelter."
Does Elon Musk deserve his money? Well, he did the necessary actions to get his money. And it would be a better world if he didn't have it.
Do you deserve to be happy? The question does not make sense. Instead ask, what are the actions that will make you happy?
December 9. Five links about animals. Physics study shows that sheep flocks alternate their leader and achieve collective intelligence. Basically, when a bunch of sheep are deciding how to move around, they "give full control of the group to the temporal leader, but there is also a rapid turnover of temporal leaders." When are humans going to finally be as smart as sheep? Seriously, if rich people had to spend most of their lives being poor, they wouldn't be so clueless. And if they knew they had to go back to poverty, they would make sure it doesn't suck.
Two from PsyPost: Encounters with birds linked to improved mental wellbeing for up to approximately 8 hours. And Listening to birdsongs might help to alleviate anxiety and paranoia
Australia: How 'bin chickens' learnt to wash poisonous cane toads
And a thoughtful article, How Rats Are Overturning Decades of Military Norms. The rats are being used to detect land mines, something dogs can also do, but dogs are a good fit for military culture, rats not so much. So the rat personality is percolating up to change the vibe of the human organization.
December 6. Last week I mentioned three questions that philosophers shrug off while religions tell you what to think. The first, "What is the meaning of life?" is too hard, but I will say this: If life is not totally meaningless, part of the meaning must be to feel pain. As Edward Abbey said, the world could not have become so fucked up by chance alone. This leads to the second question: Is there a motive or intelligence behind seemingly random events?
Some people call this karma, and according to the strawman version of karma, some uncanny agency will make sure that everything good you do is rewarded, and everything bad you do is punished. This is easily disproven by common examples like abused children or Henry Kissinger. (In this context, I don't want to even talk about other lives.)
And yet, for me, the intelligence of chance is obvious, so I'm trying to find a way to think about it that's not wrong. First, I think it's a weak and subtle force, like the effect of the moon on the ocean. The moon is not going to save you from a storm, or a sinking ship. And karma is not going to help you in a war zone, or if another person has total power over you. But in good times, you may be able to work with it.
Second, karma doesn't care about good and evil, or reward and punishment. Those are human concepts, and "heaven and earth are not humane." (Tao Te Ching 5.1) What karma does, imperfectly, is make you live in your own value system. If you think jaywalkers deserve to get hit by cars, it's dangerous for you to jaywalk. If it's not wrong for you to steal, it's not wrong for other people to steal from you. Valuing the happiness of others makes it easier for you to be happy.
But when I look at the movement of events, I sense something more than a dispassionate force that keeps balance and gives us what we ask for. I sense a playfulness, a preference for surprises, that makes me prefer the word fate to karma. Fate is like a cat. If you feed it, it might be nice to you, but it has its own motives, and don't tickle its belly.
December 1. This blog is going to fizzle out if I don't start writing about the stuff I've been thinking about. I don't want to call it "theology", but lately I'm interested in questions that are more often faced by priests than philosophers.
Supposedly, philosophy covers everything, and actually tries to figure shit out, while theology covers God and begins with faith. But I have a degree in philosophy, and we barely poked our heads outside of our faith in objective materialism. It was good training in precise thinking, but not unlike a degree in architecture, in that we practiced technical skills on dull hypothetical constructions, while dreaming of castles in the sky.
What is the meaning of life? Is there a motive or intelligence behind seemingly random events, and if so, how can we work with it? What happens after we die? These are questions that academic philosophers shrug off, while religions tell you what to think.
I already wrote about the afterlife five months ago, and today I want to take another shot, with more brevity. The simplest answer is that this life is all there is. That's also the most prudent answer, because it centers you where you are.
But I don't think it's true. Physicists and mystics agree: the apparent physical world is observer-dependent, and mostly empty. You could say mind comes before matter, or perspective comes before being, or relationships come before things.
In that case, whose flesh avatar am I, anyway? In the simplest model, it's just God with a quintillion fingerpuppets. Or you could say we're all waves on the ocean.
But if there are levels between us and the One, that's where faith gets fun, with hierarchies of angels and the machinations of karma. There's a popular idea that we're passing through multiple lives, making progress toward some goal. I prefer a competing idea, that we're already there.
Kurt Vonnegut said he thinks the meaning of life is just farting around. I imagine my life as an episode of a TV show, and the next episode could be another human working out the same issues, or that was cool being human, but now I want to be a tree. What happens when you die? Whether you become a demigod, or a bug, under the hood it's the same dream engine, just God on the couch changing channels.
November 28. Autistic people outperform neurotypicals in a cartoon version of an emotion recognition task. More generally, "people on the autism spectrum show strength with... cognition around nonhumans such as animals, cartoons, robots, or dolls."
This gives me an idea about one of the things that is getting folded into the "autism spectrum". It's a more specific spectrum, of how specialized a given human is for other humans. Neurotypicals have perception and cognition that are highly tuned into other humans and the human-made world. And then, outside that specialization, there are all kinds of other things you could be tuned into. This is why people tagged as autistic can be more different from each other than they are from neurotypicals.
Also from PsyPost, Highly ruminative individuals with depression exhibit abnormalities in the neural processing of gastric interoception. I think what they're saying is, depressed people are circling around in their own heads, and not sensing their gut enough. The causality is not clear. Do depressed people need medical intervention to fix their gut sensing? Or could they reduce depression by building a habit of focusing more on their gut?
November 25. More music, starting with an impressively raucous song from 1966: Goldie and the Gingerbreads - Think About The Good Times
From 1981, a forgotten song with a great polymeter chorus, Prism - Turn On Your Radar
The Mystery of the Blue Whale Songs -- "Earth's largest animals are singing in ever-lower tones, and nobody knows why."
Music Mouse is just what it sounds like, a cool site with a lot of options.
A really good new ambient album, by The Floating Mountain Band, The Third Eye Smear.
If I live long enough, I'm probably going to get bored with everything except field recordings. This is a good one, Swamp Sounds at Night, except I don't think it's real. Instead of going out and recording a swamp, I think they just patched a bunch of sounds together.
More honest, this one was just recorded off somebody's porch, and even includes some vehicle sounds.
November 22. This week I'm just writing about music. Last month I polished off my third 70s playlist -- the sappiest -- and turned to the 80s.
My process is to download mp3s with Soulseek, painstakingly date-tag them, load them on a Sansa Clip player, then get high and walk around the neighborhood listening on full-ear headphones. If you have a good walking route, I totally recommend this. It's like walking inside a video, and the songs line up with the scenery more than you'd expect.
I don't get a lot of nostalgia. Mainly my focus is on evaluating the music. These are all songs I know, but my tastes have developed, and I love to be surprised by which ones sound better or worse after 40 years. I'm still working on an early 80s rock playlist, but my new wave playlist is pretty much finished.
November 18. Four links about work. The Seven Levels of Busy. My goal in life is to spend as much time as possible at level one, and I would rather be homeless than go above level four. But someone in the Hacker News thread pointed out that the higher levels are more tolerable when you're in a position of power.
A thread on Ask Old People about Elon Musk and Twitter. It's normal in the tech world for executives to clumsily clean house and ruin employee morale, but it's usually done internally, and not in the full public eye.
These companies ran an experiment: Pay workers their full salary to work fewer days. And not by bunching the same hours, but actually reducing the workweek from 40 to 32 hours. "Fully 86% said they will likely continue the four-day workweek policy."
New research disputes the "lazy stoner" stereotype. "In short, we found no support for the idea that cannabis use is linked with amotivation." They were testing cannabis users who were not high at the time, so it is "still possible that people find themselves less motivated to do certain things while they are high." But personally, I'm way more motivated when I'm high, as long as I don't do it every day.
November 16. Some practical psychology links. From the Psychonaut subreddit, How do you learn to love yourself?
From Ask Old People, How do you enjoy spending time with yourself?
From Pocket, Rediscovering Boredom in the Age of the Smartphone. "I set myself the challenge of identifying something that I had never noticed before while waiting in public spaces."
And a blog post, Doing what you love when the money won't follow, which links to this 2009 post by the same author, Neither career nor hobby. The idea is, we need a word for something you do that's very important to you, but you have no expectation of making money from it.