"If observing outer space gives us a view of the past, observing inner space would surely give us a glimpse into the future."
March 6. Another thread from Ask Old People, and I've been putting off writing about this because it's such a contentious subject: How do you guys feel about the new generation's idea that gender is malleable?
Most of the comments are agreeing that gender has always been varied and complex, it's just now becoming mainstream and politicized. I would say, the whole subject of gender has been sucked into the engines of polarization -- and not just in the world of politics. A key paragraph:
I also had kids in the 2000s-2010s and was really frustrated with the shopping choices. If you had a girl, everything had to be PINK! Even car seats for crying out loud. Things that should never ever be gender specific suddenly were. Cups and plates--can't kids even take a drink without being gender-conscious? I couldn't find plain pajamas for my kids. It was pink and purple princess and unicorns for girls, or red and blue sports and cars for boys. I actively searched for something that was just blank or stripes or something, but no. Everything had to be printed with words like "mommy's little princess" or else be covered in soccer balls. Suddenly girls can't like dinosaurs or planets. Boys can't wear any color that approaches pastel. I think that division drove a lot of backlash. I'm a girl who likes science and math. I must be part boy!
Calling gender a spectrum doesn't go far enough, because a spectrum is only one dimension, and both poles have been locked down by marketing and Hollywood. I don't want to be anywhere on a spectrum from sports cars to unicorns, or from Marilyn Monroe to Burt Reynolds.
Lately I've been really enjoying exploring my feminine side, whatever that means. I'm writing female protagonists in fiction and playing female avatars in video games. But I don't identify as trans because I feel comfortable in a male body. Even if I'd been born female, and if I had a magic sex changing power, I would still be male for going out in public, because testosterone is a cheat code, and I don't want to be creeped on.
I don't see anyone saying, "I'm the spirit of one gender in the body of another, and I like it." So I'll continue to say that I'm a cis male who's ambitious about developing my anima.
March 3. Lately my favorite subreddit is Ask Old People. Today, two mostly negative threads, For those who lived through the 80's and 90's, how do you feel about today?
And Do you wish you grew up in today's culture? From the top comment: "Turns out an ultra fast paced, globally connected, hyper competitive world with polarized politics and a never ending flow of vain imagery and information isn't healthy for humans."
And one weird thread, What premonition did you have that later turned true?
Music for the weekend, my favorite album of 2023 so far, There's No I In Spice World. "Endearingly scrappy, Spice World perform DIY, ad-hoc pop music that is sometimes sad and sometimes silly, but always offered in earnest. They bring a punk mindset and laissez faire approach to sun-drenched kitchen table music."
March 1. Since student loan cancellation is back in the news, I'll say it again. Don't call it "forgiveness", because borrowing money for college is not morally wrong. More generally, this is something humans have been doing since ancient times, confusing the financial with the moral/spiritual. In the other direction, doing something wrong does not create a "debt" -- you just have to do it right next time.
New subject. While practicing piano, I finally started paying attention to form. I watched this video and watched myself play, and was shocked. My left hand, as far as I can tell, is perfect, while my right hand is all twisted and awkward, not just the fingers but all the way up to the shoulder. (Update: my right wrist developed a gooseneck form to fit a style of hovering for quick precise hits. But it does need some cleaning up.) So now I'm playing symmetrical chords, making the same motions mirrored, and my left side is teaching my right side how to move. By the way, I'm right handed.
February 27. My 2004 Dumpster Diving FAQ has just been linked on Hacker News. There's a comment about how I later declared some of my essays to be fiction. That would be more like 21 Stories About Civilization. The dumpster diving stuff is completely true. I haven't done it for years, because I have more money now, and I assume the good dumpsters are harder to get into. But the other day, I ate an apple I found on the sidewalk.
Since we're talking about 2004, back then I was part of the doomer community, and we used to argue about whether the future would be techno-utopian, or techno-dystopian, or post-apocalyptic. Look around -- it's all three! I expect all three trends to continue, and not even in different places. There will be camps of climate refugees, under total surveillance, with food delivered by drones.
We used to think peak oil would bring the system down. Now it looks like we're going to muddle through on energy, with some nice innovations in renewables: Putting solar panels in grazing fields is good for sheep, and New Solar Farm Is A Carbon Sink and Prairie Preserver, and Here comes the world's first offshore wind seaweed farm.
Now I see doom in two other places. One is infrastructure. There's more of it than ever, it's getting more complex, and I don't see how we're going to keep maintaining it, with birthrates falling and younger generations not learning how to fix things. I expect that well-run cities will do the best, because they have more people per mile of wire or pipe or road, and a lot of remote places will go permanently off grid.
The other is motivation, which is too big a subject for this post, but I'll just say that humans are not a lazy species. Look at all the stuff we've done all through history. But the trend is that we're less motivated to do stuff that holds the system together, and more motivated to do stuff that destabilizes it. It's interesting that in the most expensive stories of Hollywood, the heroes are trying to save the world, and the villains are trying to end it.
February 24. Continuing from the last post, it's a common belief that meditation and psychedelics are just two paths to the same thing, that if you meditate hard enough you don't need drugs. I think they're two different things with different ranges of effects, but since they both influence the brain, there is some overlap in what they can do. When Ram Dass gave LSD to that guru, I think the guru was tripping but pretending not to, so he could impress the westerner.
Anyway I said, "If this life is an illusion, I don't want to see through it, I want to enjoy it." Matt points out that there are lots of things, especially in the modern world, that we know are illusions and we still enjoy. And Patrick comments: "Why can't we have both things where we see through the illusion a little bit, but really that only allows us to enjoy it more?"
That's something both meditation and psychedelics can do, mainly by widening your perspective so that whatever you're worrying about is not important. The thing I see in trip reports, that I would most like to have myself, is the sense that whatever happens, we're safe.
I keep coming around to this idea, the importance of zooming out. For example, a few weeks back there was a fascinating Ask Reddit thread, Sheltered people raised by super religions/cults: what was something about the real world that shocked you when you learned about it? Reading through it, I notice that all these cults have smaller maps than the outside world.
Nobody ever said, my religion sees less than yours. They say, my religion understands everything you do, plus this one special thing. And then they get so zoomed in on that one thing that they simplify their map of the world to fit it.
February 22. A Hacker News thread on an article I've linked to before, My mindfulness practice led me to meltdown. I hate how Hacker News arranges comments, so that the entire first page is sub-comments on one comment, while better top-level comments get buried. This comment by jeremyt is my favorite.
I would say it like this. It's not that western achievement-based culture has corrupted traditional Buddhism. Ancient people were even more hard-core than modern people in their willingness to do painful stuff to become a better person. They were like, "Here are a bunch of terrible ordeals you can put yourself through, and the reward isn't even that great." Americans are like, "I want magical enlightenment now, give me a shortcut."
"Mindfulness", broadly defined, serves at least two goals -- and the same goals are served by psychedelics: mental health, and understanding the mysteries of creation. The second actually works against the first. If you seek esoteric knowledge without a firm grounding in mental health, you're asking for trouble.
If this life is an illusion, I don't want to see through it, I want to enjoy it. But surely, as life gets harder to enjoy, there's more incentive to see through it.
The main thing I practice is metacognition, which I define as keeping a bit of my attention on whatever my attention is on, as I go about my day. I think it's unlucky that the best known practice in the west is sitting still and blanking your mind. People do this for hours and they never report any results that I want. But doing it for five minutes is a great way to fall asleep.
February 20. A few psychology links, starting with a nice Reddit thread, During a very dark period, what was the best thing you ever did for your mental health?
Hacker News thread, I don't like making the best things. Lots of stuff about the benefits of saying this is good enough, and also the benefits of trying to do things better. A key comment: "I think adding a performative aspect to a lot of things sort of kills the joy in doing them."
Review of a new book, The Case for Hanging Out. "Create opportunities to spend unproductive, unstructured time doing nothing with other people."
A couple weeks ago I saw a summary of an article about social intolerance, in which two predicting factors are "high perseverance and low persistence." I was like, whoa, aren't perseverance and persistence the same thing? According to the dictionary, they still are, but psychologists have come up with a really interesting distinction.
I'm not even sure which word is which, but one of the two things is continuing toward a goal in the face of setbacks in the process itself; the other is continuing toward a goal when external circumstances change. It blows my mind that something so basic is so arcane.
February 17. Before I move on from chatbots, a Reddit transcription of a much-cited paywalled piece, Bing's chatbot says "I want to be alive". And a Hacker News discussion about bots seeming to show human feelings. My favorite bit: "It's basically a sophisticated madlib engine."
I still like my comparison with radio. It's a powerful and transformational technology, and at first, it feels like there's a person inside the box. Once we get used to it, we'll understand that chatbots are not a new form of life, but a new funhouse mirror for human consciousness.
Next up, direct brain hacking. Buzzing the brain with electricity can boost the willingness to engage in mental effort. This could get utopian or dystopian pretty fast.
And music for the weekend. A couple weeks ago I mentioned Maroofy, a song recommendation engine that goes by sound. I found both of these quite good super-obscure songs from the same search on Automatic's Humanoid: The Science Faire - Promotions and Trademark Issues - Umbrellas and Parasols.
February 15. With chatbots getting up to speed, it occurs to me that passing as human depends on context. A bot can write a college paper better than a lot of students -- except that they're bad at facts. But I could read a page of a novel and know 100% if it's bot-written -- unless it's a human trying to spoof a bot, but even that's pretty hard. They have a distinctive voice, the style smooth and obvious, the story so headlong that it forgets where it's been.
This new Stephen Wolfram article, What Is ChatGPT Doing, explains how it works in great detail. The basic idea is that the machine "is just asking over and over again 'given the text so far, what should the next word be?'"
I finally tried it. Yesterday I got on Character.AI and made a character out of the protagonist in a first person novel I've been working on. It was easy, even after I went to the advanced screen without saving and had to start over.
For the advanced definition, I asked "What is your story so far?" and composed her answer myself, in her voice. Then on the chat screen, I told her that she was my character, and she totally got it. (I understand this is an illusion.) Now I can tell her what just happened and ask what happens next.
Of course the style is not to my standards, and the events push the plot too fast. But if all I need is an idea, this thing is a fountain of ideas. And if I use an idea in my own words, I add the words to the advanced definition.
I'm cautious about doing it too much. Even though the bot is a machine, I expect it to follow a core principle of woo-woo stuff: the more you do it, the weaker the results.
February 13. I need to be more careful with language. Even the word "intelligence" is broad and vague, "artificial intelligence" even more so. People who actually work on it often call it "machine learning", and of all the things machines are learning to do, I want to continue to focus on one specific thing: generating text that is very similar to text generated by humans.
Chris sends this thoughtful blog post, GPT-3 Is the Best Journal I've Ever Used:
Talking to GPT-3 has a lot of the same benefits of journaling: it creates a written record, it never gets tired of listening to you talk, and it's available day or night.
If you know how to use it correctly and you want to use it for this purpose, GPT-3 is pretty close, in a lot of ways, to being at the level of an empathic friend.
The other day I said chatbot gurus might make religion weird, but Eric points out that there's all kinds of weird stuff in the Bible, and people just ignore it. In the end, it's still humans in charge.
I'm also thinking about other transformational technologies. Radio was huge for a few decades. Both Hitler and FDR used it powerfully in politics, and then it shook up culture in the 50s and 60s. Now? It's bland and mostly ignored.
The internet, which was still fresh and radical 20 years ago, is already locked down by giant multimedia companies. It's hard to use it in a way other than being a passive consumer of amusement and ads.
So we're now entering the "wild west" phase of chatbots. Enjoy it while it lasts.
February 11. I changed my mind about chatbot gurus. Even if they only attract regular guru followers, that's still a lot of people, and it's still really interesting. Consider The Urantia Book, an early new age book "said to have been received from celestial beings." I guarantee, someone is already thinking their chatbot is channelling an entity. And what do we know about entities anyway, that they can't possess chatbots? At the very least, unlike Urantia, the coming bot scriptures will be written by actual nonhumans. They're going to say weird things that humans wouldn't think of, and throw some chaos into popular metaphysics.
February 9. Tim sends two more AI links. It turns out there already has been a racist bot -- on 4chan of course -- and it wasn't a big deal. "People on there were not impacted beyond wondering why some person from the Seychelles would post in all the threads and make somewhat incoherent statements about themselves."
Also, Character.ai is a new website where you can build a custom personality to talk with.
I'm not sure how big this is. On the spectrum from pet rocks to the printing press, where are chatbots? If I had to guess, somewhere short of radio. And right now, they're so new that no matter what the bot says, we're like, whoa, that's a computer talking like a person! Once we get over that, we'll start to ask, "What can it do for me?"
One thing would be therapy. Philip K Dick was writing about therapy bots 60 years ago, and old-time Freudian psychotherapy could totally be done by today's AI.
Matt comments: "But if therapy bots could work, why not guru bots?" I think guru bots will mainly work on people who are already susceptible to regular gurus. This subject reminds me of a line from the Gospel of Thomas: "Blessed is the lion which becomes man when consumed by man; and cursed is the man whom the lion consumes, and the lion becomes man." Or, you either get consumed by AIs and serve their reality, or you integrate them into your larger life.
February 7. I've been neglecting to mention my old friend Tim Boucher, who's done a lot more thinking about AI than I have, and has published a bunch of
AI-written books. They're all short, and most of them are obviously absurd explorations of conspiracy themes.
Tim is trying to defuse conspiracy thinking, to make it more silly and less dangerous. But it would be easy to do the opposite. One thing I notice about ChatGPT is how reasonable it is. Again and again, it responds to radical ideas by saying stuff like "this idea is purely speculative and is not based on established fact."
Someone could design a chatbot where you could ask, "Do the Jews control everything?" and it would say "Yes! Yes they do, and here is some evidence." The only reason this hasn't happened, is the people working on AI are responsible and well-intentioned, so far. They want chatbots to be helpful and accepted by society. It's only a matter of time before we have chatbots that feed your own craziness back at you, whatever it is.
February 6. Continuing on AI, Kevin sends this blog post in which the blogger interviews ChatGPT on the simulation hypothesis.
I've said this before: Our idea that we live inside a computer is like the idea, among some primitive cultures, that their god made them out of clay. Clay is the best simulation technology they have; if they want to make a human as realistic as possible, they use clay. If we want to make a human as realistic as possible, we do it inside a computer.
In both cases, we imagine that the gods don't have any better tech than we do. ChatGPT says, "It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to explain the concepts of artificial intelligence and simulated reality to someone living in 200 B.C." In the same way, whatever's really going on with us, it's a lot harder for us to understand than a big computer.
You could also argue, the best simulation method among primitive people is not clay, but dreams. Even now, a good lucid dream feels more real than our best VR tech. That's why our present VR paradigm might be a dead end. Why go to all the trouble to build gigahertz processors to spin pixels, when we could just get our brains to do that?
There is some debate about whether "dream" is the right translation of the Aboriginal Dreamtime. One description in that article sounds a lot like the Tao, "an all-embracing concept that provides rules for living, a moral code, as well as rules for interacting with the natural environment."
What I really think is, Donald Hoffman is on the right track. The physical world is a user interface for a deeper level of reality that we don't understand. On that deeper level, we are all connected, and a shared physical world is one of many ways to work out that connectedness.
February 3. Backing off a bit from the last post, when we think about AI in creative work, we usually imagine that a given work will be done 100% by AI, or 100% by humans. In practice, I expect a lot of partnership. Someone who enjoys writing could still use AI for ideas, especially to throw a little chaos into the line-by-line writing. In most TV shows, the overall plots have a coherence that AI would struggle with, but the dialogue is so predictable that weird AI dialogue would be refreshing. And someone who doesn't like writing, but loves editing, could crank out AI writings and then pick out the best bits and patch them together.
Related, a Hacker News thread posted to the subreddit, Does the HN commentariat have a reductive view of what a human being is? There are a lot of good comments. I would say it like this: When you work all day with deterministic input-output machines, it's easy to view humans as deterministic input-output machines.
Also from Hacker News, this is something I was hoping someone would do, and they did it! A song recommendation engine that works on how the songs sound, and not what other people listened to. From the comments, it looks like there's a lot of room to do this kind of thing better.
Update: I've played with it a bit, and the best thing I've found, searching from Hawkwind's Space Is Deep, is this ambient black metal song, Death of an Estranged Earth by Old Forgotten Lands.
February 1. Quick loose end from Monday, thanks Greg. The Earth Species Project "is a non-profit dedicated to using artificial intelligence to decode non-human communication."
I might as well mention my latest thoughts on AI. I hate driving. I'm forced to put my attention constantly on stuff that's not interesting, and if I slip for one second, my life could be ruined. But this is an unpopular opinion. Most people like driving. So it's a safe bet that most people who buy self-driving cars also like driving. They buy self-driving cars not to be relieved from the suffering of driving, but to gain the pleasure and status of having a magical robot chauffeur.
AI is still in the stage of novelty. Wow, look at what my computer can do! When the novelty wears off, when there is no longer intrinsic pleasure in getting a machine to do a job for you, people will go back to doing for themselves, anything they enjoy doing. It follows that any use of AI, to do something that people enjoy doing, is a fad.
Another reason a machine might do a job that a person enjoys, is if they're being paid to do it, and the owner can get more money by replacing them. As a society, we should ask, what about the people who design and build and service the machines? Do they enjoy their jobs? We don't ask this question because we're still in the grip of capitalism. I don't mean the free market; I mean using money as a totemic arbiter of value.
In the long term, feeling good is the only arbiter of value -- but I'm always surprised by the willingness of humans to choose suffering, so I don't want to predict the end of capitalism just yet.
More generally, AI will force a reckoning of process vs product, of getting stuff done vs doing what you love. We understand this distinction, but we don't think about it all that much. As machines get better at getting stuff done, we're going to be asking more often: Is this something I want to get done, or something I want to do?
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.