"'Where are the new frontiers?' the Romantics cried, unaware that the frontier of the mind had opened..."
-Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination
January 30. On a tangent from one of my favorite subjects, the afterlife: Suppose reincarnation actually happens, that there's an aspect of you that goes through any number of lives as any kind of being. This raises the question: Why be human?
What can we do or experience, as humans, that makes it worthwhile to be human and not something else?
Flying a plane, surely, is not as good as being a bird. Driving a car is not as good as being a wild horse. The internet has made our social world less satisfying, and even without it, human social behavior rarely matches the elegant synchrony of other social animals.
We have large brains, but dolphins have larger brains, and more folds and ridges in their cerebral cortex. Could they develop human-level abilities to live mentally in elaborate worlds of abstraction and imagination? Probably, but they have no reason to, because it's so much fun being a dolphin.
I think what makes humans special is creating our own environment. And this goes hand in hand with our isolation, our separateness from the rest of the living universe. Why did our ancestors do cave paintings? Because they were big-brained animals stuck in a cave all winter, and they got bored looking at a blank wall. And since then, the better we get at creating our own environments, the more time we spend in them, the more separate we get, and the more reason we have to be even more inventive.
When we talk about finding "intelligent" life on other planets, this is what we mean: another creature that has explored separateness and self-created environments in the same way that we have. If we weren't looking for something so specific, we would be trying harder to talk to large-brained animals on our own planet.
This topic can help us think about the meaning of life. Even if you think life has no meaning beyond what we give it, you might still want to play to your strengths. Some people seek to become one with everything, but I think that's what humans are worst at. Why should I spend my human life struggling for something that's part of the package in my next life as a gnat? Meanwhile the gnats are like, I wish I were human so I could write novels and play video games.
January 27. Greg sends this cool page about making fractal images without a computer, through video camera feedback. "Video feedback happens when you point a camera at a monitor that's displaying what the camera sees." So this guy made an elaborate rig to do all the subtle adjustments that enable him to pull colorful animated images out of basically nothing.
Here's his page, The Light Herder, and a YouTube video, Approaching the Infinite: Loops Within Loops. I feel like there's an important philosophical question about where these images actually come from, why they look the way they do and not some other way, and whether different tech substrates would come up with the same stuff. But I'm not smart today, so moving on to more weird tech...
Hacker News thread, What is the weirdest or most surreal recent technology you have seen?
Origami is revolutionizing technology, from medicine to space
The future of space travel might rely on buildings made of mushrooms
And shifting to amateur science, a thread on the Seattle subreddit, full of reports of tinnitus predicting the weather.
January 24. Negative links! The Website Obesity Crisis is from 2015, and since then it's only gotten worse. I try to keep this page under 40 kilobytes, plus occasional images.
FBI warned of neo-Nazi plots as attacks on Northwest grid spiked. This might become a huge trend among all kinds of disaffected groups and individuals. I often wonder why extremists try to kill people, when sabotaging infrastructure is so much easier, and not so obviously immoral.
Posted to the subreddit, The Case for Abolishing Elections. What they suggest instead is democracy by lottery, where citizens are randomly chosen for important positions. I like a system called random ballot voting, where candidates still have to do stuff to get on the ballot, but then, the winner of each race is decided by randomly selecting a single ballot. The nice thing is, there is no incentive for tactical voting, and yet over time, it still reflects the will of the majority.
ADHDers of Reddit, what's the most annoying thing about having ADHD? I might have qualified for ADD before they added the H, but in this thread, to find something I relate to, I have to scroll all the way down to the screaming tunnel comment: the world is coming at me too fast and I don't have the attention bandwidth to keep up.
The contagious visual blandness of Netflix. I hadn't noticed this, but I constantly notice something similar about the writing, in all but the best TV shows and movies. There is no micro-scale creativity or surprise. The large-scale plot contains surprises, typically about which characters are good or evil. But given what a scene is supposed to accomplish, every line of dialogue is conventional, and every emotional reaction is exactly what you expect.
January 20. I've posted my second early 80s playlist on Spotify. Originally my plan was for the first list to be new wave and the second to be rock, but in practice, I have to let go of categories and follow the sound, so now Billy Squier sets up Wall of Voodoo. For the same reason, my 70s list ends in 1981, and this list starts in 1978.
One song is not on Spotify: Suzanne Fellini - Love On The Phone.
Something I noticed, while listening to hair metal, is how much I like Quiet Riot singer Kevin DuBrow. The "growl" of metal singers (I think the technical term is vocal fry) is not that different from vibrato. It's something you can do with your voice, that is required for certain genres, and the mediocre singers just pile it on. But the great singers do it with agility.
By the way, another of my self-improvement projects is learning to sing. I started with the Online Pitch Detector, and it took me a while to get the needle to even stay in one place long enough to be readable. As soon as I could hold an arbitrary frequency for two seconds, I switched to a cool site called Pitchy Ninja. It gives you a series of tones to sing, and grades you A-F on each one. It took me about a hundred tries, over several days, to get a grade other than an F. But now I'm consistently getting non-Fs, and an occasional A on single notes.
Related: At-home musical training improves older adults' short-term memory for faces
January 18. You've probably heard, the 2022 word of the year was gaslighting.
It occurs to me, gaslighting wouldn't work in a culture that doesn't believe in objective truth. The intended victim would be like, cool, I'm splitting off into my own universe. Except that culture wouldn't even have the concept of an out-there physical universe. They would say something like, "Uh-oh, our perspectives are diverging. We need to summon another observer to synchronize with consensus."
Or, if you think the fundamental reality is seeing things differently, it leads to better epistemic discipline, and less freaking out, than if you think there's only one thing to see.
January 17. Quick loose end from yesterday, thanks Gryphon. I haven't read this book, so this isn't where I saw it, but Wade Davis wrote this in The Wayfinders:
Even more remarkable is the navigator's ability to pull islands out of the sea. The truly great navigators such as Mau can identify the presence of distant atolls of islands beyond the visible horizon simply by watching the reverberation of waves across the hull of the canoe, knowing full well that every island group in the Pacific has its own refractive pattern that can be read with the same ease with which a forensic scientist would read a fingerprint.
January 16. So I've been emailing with Matt about the human potential. What's normal in one culture might seem impossible in another. For example, there are cultures where everybody has perfect pitch. Also, the canoe people of the south Pacific can look at the waves around their boat and locate an island over the horizon. I'm not sure where I read either of those, but I think the first was Beatrice Bruteau's The Psychic Grid and the second was Tim Ingold's Perception of the Environment.
Posted recently to the subreddit was a blog post about cult leader Gridley Wright, who claimed to have given LSD to indigenous people all over the world, and none of them hallucinated.
One explanation is that his methodology was so sloppy that the results are meaningless. But let's play along, and suppose that a careful study by scrupulous anthropolgists would find the same thing. What would cause that?
Everybody loves value-loaded thinking, so rather than avoid it, let's bring it to the front. Maybe their culture is better than ours, so they live perpetually in a trippy mental state that we can only achieve temporarily through substances.
Or maybe our culture is better than theirs: Through stuff like TV and video games, or even written fiction, our brains are more receptive to seeing what other people are not seeing.
Neither hypothesis fits me. I've taken as much as a tab and a half of LSD, and 7g of mushrooms, not at the same time, but I've never hallucinated. My speculation is that I'm such an ambitious daydreamer that my brain is like, nope, that's all you get.
I remember around age 13 figuring out that I could see anything I wanted in my imagination, and exploring that. I take pride in my visualization powers, but just the other day I noticed that the images have to be moving. I can turn a doorknob and open a door to outer space, but I can't just stare at a doorknob for even two seconds. So now I'm working on holding still images, and I find that it's easier in early morning, when my mind is still.
Related: a technique for overcoming aphantasia -- for people who can't see mental images, to learn to see them.
January 13. Lots of feedback on weight loss. Matt recommends intermittent fasting, where you start eating later in the day and stop eating sooner. I'm trying this, but rather than draw a line, and say "No eating before or after this time," I'm applying force: Let's see how late I can push breakfast, and how early I can stop evening snacking.
Erik says, "One thing to try is to over-feed yourself once per week, to give your body the signal that there's no lack of food in your environment."
Dan thinks obesity is related to nutrient depleted soils, because now we have to eat more calories to get enough other nutrients. This is supported by the observation that some people who lose weight end up being less healthy overall.
Thaddeus is finishing a book on the theory that weight gain is related to artificial light, so it helps to wear blue blocking lenses and not eat after dark. This is his YouTube channel.
And James mentions that the drug I predicted already exists. It's called Ozempic and it's in high demand, with unknown "side" effects that are now being tested in the wild. Also, as with many other weight loss strategies, if you stop, you tend to gain the weight back.
January 11. I've written before about obesity, and how it isn't correlated with any category of food. Whether you blame sugar, fat, or carbs, there have been populations who ate more of it than we do, and didn't have a problem. The new thing we have is processed food, and something about that processing, or some contaminant in our environment, is throwing off our normally well-tuned sense of how much to eat.
This explains why dieters count calories. They have to use their heads because their bodies are no longer reliable. And whatever is causing it, it's finally caught up with me. This year, without changing anything about my eating habits, and actually walking more, my weight has been creeping up.
When I hit 170 (BMI 24) I said that's enough, I have to go on a diet. But I figure, if my body signaling is off, then I don't have to count calories -- I just have to correct for the error.
Surely it's too simple to say that hunger is what losing weight feels like. But the dieting industry is always trying to cheat that rule, to find a way to lose weight without feeling hungry, and they've had limited success. My strategy is to try to feel hungry. So far it's working, but I'm disappointed at how hungry I had to feel to just drop a few pounds.
But I'm wondering, if a substance can bend a sense one way, another substance can bend it the other way. Suppose we invent a weight loss drug that makes us feel like we're eating too many calories, when really we're not eating enough. "After ruling the earth for a mere ten thousand years, humans died of a mysterious wasting sickess."
January 6. Two weeks ago I wrote, "The effect of AI on creative work, is that human creatives will have to learn to do stuff that AI can't do." It's already happening. Artist banned, told to "find a different style" since his style is too similar to AI-made art. But then, he submitted it to a subreddit with a smaller audience, and it was accepted. So maybe this isn't a problem of AI, but a problem of scale, where more users make a place harder to moderate.
And two helpful Reddit threads. From Psychonaut, What is the difference between self love and ego?
From Ask Old People, How have you made your life easier?
January 4. Continuing from Monday, another trick I use to walk better, is to pretend that my body is an advanced video game avatar that I'm trying out. I'm not sure why this works. My best guess is, it creates a context for observing the body, that offers more novelty and meaning than the one provided by our culture: that the body is a cumbersome meat sack that will give us pain if we don't give it enough attention.
More generally, why are games fun? Why is it that real life tasks, like prepping cilantro or flossing, are tedious chores, while game tasks can be just as fiddly and repetitive and yet we enjoy them? I think it's because games create a tighter context for tasks to feel rewarding.
This is a problem for complex society. As our actions are connected to more things, it becomes harder to grasp the value of whatever we're doing. Valuable actions like sorting trash can feel painful and degrading, while harmful actions can feel fun.
"Gamification" is a word mostly used by people playing a larger game of leveraging power into more power. Let's make it fun for the peasants to give us their data! But in a system that's not based on power over others (coming in about a thousand years) I don't see any reason to hold back from making life more game-like.
Related: Children who play video games show altered brain activity that suggests improved cognitive abilities, and For young adults, more time gaming may mean better executive functioning.
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.