February 2019

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February 1. From the meditation subreddit, an extended metaphor about hunting baby thoughts. Edited:

To catch baby thoughts, first build a fortress -- normally your own breath, but it can be anything. Soon, the baby thoughts will start knocking on those walls, and the method to kill a baby thought is simple: notice it.

If you don't notice it early, the thought will get older and eventually die after several long minutes. During those minutes, you will be absorbed by that thought, and then another thought will wait for its turn, and another. This is what happens to people in their everyday life: the birth, growth and death of long strings of thoughts.

During meditation, you shorten this cycle and hunt the thoughts as young as possible. After many hours of hunting, as you get better at killing them, they will come more sparsely, until you will find yourself alone, in peace and silence.

February 4. Last week Leigh Ann and I watched the new Netflix Ted Bundy documentary. One thing that struck me was how he talked about his youth. In reality, he was a mediocre student and athlete, a social failure, and was probably beaten by his grandfather. But the story he told was not only false -- it was empty, a bland mask of the all-American boy.

The week before that I read a new novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green. (Thanks Alex for recommending it.) What I like about it is its detailed view of how fame works in the age of social media. It's terrifying! Suddenly your name and face are at the center of a battle, where everyone is busy trying to shape your image for their own motives.

The motive of the public, and anyone who can make money off you, is to make your image simple and bold and familiar, something both exciting and easy to understand. The more you play along with that, the more you're rewarded.

For example, there was just a scandal at Der Spiegel. It turns out the prestigious magazine's star reporter has been making stuff up for years. In the words of the reporter who caught him:

One thing you can learn from reading pieces by Claas Relotius, is that this is an easy world. It's easy to explain. It's easy to understand. And this is what Relotius really offers.

I'm thinking of all of this in terms of social ecology. Modern media have created a niche, which is filled by people who are most willing to build their public image backward from the bullshit the public wants, instead of forward from the reality inside them. So it favors people who don't have much reality inside them in the first place.

It's funny because we all wonder what that celebrity is really like, and not what that random person on the bus is really like. But the person on the bus is probably more interesting.

February 6. Still thinking about religion, and I've decided that religion is not a thing -- it's a confusing word, which points to several different things, which sometimes go together but don't have to. These include: 1) a community for doing any of the below; 2) an idea, that you refuse to doubt, and that serves as a foundation or anchor for your mental models; 3) a set of rituals, where a ritual is a highly familiar activity that turns physical energy into mental energy; and 4) via this article, an existential theory of mind.

The idea is, when you talk to other people, you need to know how they tick, what it's like to be this person, what they want from you, what you should expect each other to do. That's a human theory of mind, and you might have a different theory of mind for dealing with nonhumans, like your dog, or your phone, or the government. An existential theory of mind is about reality itself.

In olden days, the dominant EToM was a bearded man in the sky pulling strings. You would look at things out of your control, and speculate about what God wants. Somewhere in the 1990's, I started to notice a shift, where people still do this, but instead of saying God, they say "the universe". This is full-on pantheism, and I think pantheism is already the dominant EToM of educated non-materialists.

Materialism is an existential theory of mindlessness -- not just wondering, but being certain that there is no mind or meaning beyond what humans create. Rene Descartes, the father of materialism, actually believed that if you torture a dog, its howls of pain are no different from a bell ringing on a machine. The funny thing is, Descartes did believe in God. But he separated God from the world in such a way that God could be easily cut out of the equation.

I think materialism is a useful tool for switching from one EToM to another, like a transmission for the engine of meaning. Whatever you thought was important, is now just bouncing particles and waves, and you're free to decide that something else is important. But you can't keep driving in neutral. The Wikipedia page on nihilism is a good survey of all the ways people have continued to look for meaning after giving up on meaning.

Suddenly I understand the religion of progress -- I'm comfortable in calling progress a religion because it fits all four of my points above. The community is the whole modern economy. The undoubted idea is there is no value, meaning, or motive beyond what is created by human activity. The ritual is that your alarm goes off, you go to a job to make money, and what makes a job important is how much stuff it moves, from the blank world outside humanity, into the realm of human-defined value.

But now progress is dying in the face of ecology. If a dog can feel pain, maybe forests and rivers have intrinsic value, which humans have been destroying. With climate catastrophe looming, even human value is now served by undoing the progress of the past.

That's why the Pope of Progress, Elon Musk, wants to colonize Mars -- because re-terraforming Earth means undoing what humans have done, while terraforming Mars means humans doing more things. Green Mars is more valuable than green Earth, because green Earth happened without us, and green Mars will be something we did.

The other way progress is dying, is that more of us are feeling drained, not energized, by its rituals. That's a whole other subject.

February 8. The World Might Actually Run Out of People. I remember this poster from the 1970's, when we thought overpopulation was the biggest problem facing humanity. It turns out, humans don't just mindlessly reproduce. When we have access to birth control, when society takes care of old people, and when women are educated, we have the opposite problem: birthrates are too low to replace ourselves. According to this article, global population decline will happen sooner than we thought, because now even women in the slums of India have smartphones, and with that expanded perspective, they're pushing back against being baby machines for men.

I think this bit is wrong: "Once that decline begins, it will never end." If it looks like humans are going to die out, society will create stronger incentives to have kids -- or just start growing them in vats and raising them without parents. But before that can happen, the population decline will force us to abandon growth-based economics, and that's such a radical change that all bets are off.

February 11. A few days back the subreddit had a post about religion with several long comments. The main post mentions Julian Jaynes and his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, with a link to this great post about it, Gods, voice-hearing and the bicameral mind.

I don't think I've ever written about Jaynes. I'm sure that ancient people had different consciousness than modern people, but Jaynes thought it was really different: that they were basically all schizophrenic, hearing voices and seeing visions, which they interpreted as gods. Then around the time of Socrates, those voices faded.

Another good explanation, Mr. Jaynes' Wild Ride. It mentions that ancient Greeks had no word for "body". They didn't need one, because they had not yet formed an identity separate from their bodies.

Some people say the distinction between mind and body is an illusion. I think the disembodied mind is a real thing, a living pattern in our brains, which models an external world and a discrete self. You can't make it go away just by disbelieving it. But with good drugs, or really difficult meditation, you can temporarily shut it down, and become one with your stream of experience.

My guess is that prehistoric people weren't schizophrenic, but tripping. And then gradually, our detached, rational, self-reflective mind became more and more dominant, until educated westerners lost the ability to imagine any other way of being.

I think we're already recovering. That's why it seems strange to us that Julian Jaynes used the word "consciousness" for self-conscious introspection, and not the broader way that we use it now. Now we're curious about the subjective experience of wild animals, and we're learning to see the human subconscious, not as a pit of primal terror, but as a helpful resource.

This is a hard subject, so I'll leave it with a hard question. Is the "unconscious" conscious? What is it like to be the voice in your head?

February 13-15. Are Intellectuals Suffering a Crisis of Meaning? The article is full of a word I don't like: gifted. In practice, that word is bestowed on young people who are good at manipulating abstractions. Out of all the things you can be good at, that specific skill is held up like a magic token that makes a person objectively superior.

Some people think the world would be better if we all had higher IQ's. I think it would be worse. People who are good at manipulating abstractions are not wiser or more correct -- they're just better at building intellectual fortresses around the things they're wrong about. If everyone were as smart as Einstein, we would just make bigger and more tragic technological mistakes.

I think that's sort of already happened. Here's a 2007 article by Malcolm Gladwell on the Flynn effect, in which we're all getting better at taking IQ tests. He thinks this is caused by an increase in a detached and abstract style of thinking. I always say that the prophet of our time was not Orwell or Huxley, but Kafka. It's like the people who are better at filling out nightmarish bureaucratic forms, kept making the forms harder, to give themselves a competitive advantage, and now we're all stuck in that world.

Have you ever played a board game, and there was that one guy who was both really good and totally ruthless, so he almost always won, and nobody wanted to play with him? Well, those guys have been winning for thousands of years now, and every time they win, they change the rules to make the game fit their skill-set even better, so they can win even bigger, and the game keeps getting worse for everyone else. But we're all still forced to play.

A short piece from 2011, Neil Postman, Technopoly, and Technological Theology. Postman defines technopoly as "the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology." He lists the beliefs of technological theology, and one of them is: What cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value.

The defenders of progress will point out the many measurable ways the world is getting better, like longer lifespan, and more "wealth", defined as more units of money passing through more people's hands. But these gains come with losses that are hard to measure. That's why we're all unhappy, and our culture doesn't give us the mental tools to understand why, so we think it's our fault.

We think we're lazy, but this article argues that laziness does not exist. "If a person's behavior doesn't make sense to you, it is because you are missing a part of their context." I would say, laziness is an invention of a society that has gone astray from human nature, to morally shame us for its own dependence on tasks that people don't enjoy doing.

Related, from a year ago, a great Hacker News comment about depression:

When an individual's model of reality is broken, and society cannot guide them towards a more accurate one because society itself is still operating on the model that individual has determined to be flawed, then chronic depression is a likely result. Our current societal philosophy, the one our health care system is also based on, sees this individual's suffering not as a transition period in which they form a new model, but a severe disorder. To them, the rejection of the model is a form of insanity, and unclear thinking. This is why you sometimes see people tell a depressed person an obvious platitude in an attempt to cheer them up, only for it to further frustrate the depressed individual: they are aware that the platitude is part of a flawed model.

February 20. Last month I was test-listening to my soft hits of the seventies playlist, and I switched over to Sleep's Dopesmoker, and started wondering about music recommendation engines. Imagine your favorite songs that are farthest apart, and what it would take for an AI to connect them. Right now I think music recommendation uses the same idea that Google used to take over the internet: the computer doesn't even try to understand what you're looking for, but just looks at other people who were looking for the same thing.

Here's my crazy startup idea. Shazam already has code for listening really closely to the actual music. What if you could put that code through some kind of learning loop, where it learned to correlate sounds with personal preferences? How good could it get?

I do see an absolute limit in music recommendation, in that sometimes our favorite songs are situational -- whatever happened to be playing at some important time in our lives. But then, when I was making my seventies list, there were some songs with big nostalgia value, like Robbie Dupree's "Steal Away", that now sound totally lame, and some songs I don't even remember, like Steve Forbert's "Romeo's Tune", that now sound brilliant. When I listen to my favorite songs across genres, they have a raw and epic quality that a well-trained AI should be able to pick up on.

Recommendation engines stretch the long tail of culture. The better they work, the more unpopular something can be, and you can still find it. Imagine if AI recommendation gets so good, that you can plug in your favorite stuff, not just music but illustration, prose, dance, design -- and it can find some unknown person on the other side of the world who's doing exactly what you love. And if you've created something good, it can find you a tiny and far-flung audience.

In the future, everyone will be famous among fifteen people.

February 22. Going back to the subject of intelligence, our culture tells us that intelligence is a thing, and IQ measures it. I disagree with both points. IQ is a test score, and the word "intelligence" points to a lot of different things. Even if we ignore Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, and focus on stuff that's completely inside the head, there are still a lot of things going on.

For example, there's narrow focus, wide focus, and the ability to switch between them. There's the ability to find patterns in apparent noise, and the ability to look outside those patterns. There's the ability to lay down habits, to perform habits smoothly, and to take habits apart. There's creativity, whatever that even means. There's intuition, whatever that means, and the ability to shift between intuitive and rational thinking. There's "rabbitholing", the ability to chase thoughts from one subject to another, and then the ability to remember where you've been and backtrack. There's the ability to hold contradictory ideas at the same time, and to stay sane when ideas get weird.

How many of these are even being tested for? The guy who invented the sewing machine had a dream where the hole was at the tip of the needle. How can they test for that? Suppose you can see a different interpretation of a test question, something that didn't occur to the test makers, and it leads you away from what they think is the right answer. Then you're going to get a lower score for having a higher intelligence. That isn't just a feature of IQ tests, but of all possible tests.

IQ tests are always timed, but what if they weren't? What if you could take as long as you wanted, with no effect on your score? Then IQ tests would start to measure patience, persistence, and the desire for perfection, all arguably measures of intelligence, that are measured badly or not at all in a timed test. Or you could turn it around and ask: what kind of culture would test intelligence without a time limit? A culture that's not in a hurry.

Industrial culture is not only in a hurry, it's also heavy with grindwork. As physical grindwork gets taken over by machines, there is more mental grindwork. That's probably why mentally skilled people are having a crisis of meaning, because of all the things their brains could be doing, they're mostly serving as mental warehouse workers, stacking and unstacking boxes all day. What if we want to dance with the boxes, or break them?

February 25. Two links about work and money. The Religion of Workism Is Making Americans Miserable. I like the article's tidy definition of a religion: something "promising identity, transcendence, and community." Another key sentence: "In the past century, the American conception of work has shifted from jobs to careers to callings -- from necessity to status to meaning."

But the most important point, which the article strangely misses, is that when we talk about "work", we're talking about money. If you just go through the article, and substitute every instance of the word "work" with the words "stuff we do for money," the whole issue becomes a lot more clear. It's not that we're trying to merge activity with meaning -- that's normal for all biological life. The problem is that Americans are trying to merge paid activity with meaning, because they can't let go of money as a measure of transcendent value. That's not "religion" under some weird definition -- it's straight-up Calvinism.

Money is the opposite of love, because if you get money for doing something, you don't care if you don't love it, and if you love doing something, you don't care if you don't get money for it. The attempt to merge money and love is an insane delusion of late-stage capitalism. When we give up on that delusion, the right way to live is obvious: find a way to make just enough money, with as little time and energy as possible. Then, do exactly what you love to do, with no expectation of making money from it.

The Philosopher Redefining Equality. I would say it like this: We think that freedom and equality are opposites, because our authoritarian culture defines freedom as the freedom of the powerful to have their way with the weak. So "economic freedom" is the freedom of whoever has money, to leverage it into more money, at the expense of whoever doesn't have money.

But suppose we defined economic freedom from the perspective of people who don't have money. Then it becomes the freedom to have a good life, to do what you love, to participate in society, despite not having money. So if we want to fix social inequality, the best move is not to redistribute money, but to redesign society so that money is not that important. That's something I don't like abouot the unconditional basic income. I mean, it would be an improvement, but it's better to just make more stuff free. Eventually, money could be like casino chips, or like credits in some multiplayer video game. If you have it, you can do some cool stuff in popular sub-worlds, but it's a realistic option to never have it.

There's an old debate: Is money the root of all evil, or is love of money the root of all evil? I think that money alone is a major root of evil, as long as it gives us the power to make other people do stuff they would prefer not to do. When money stops having that power, it's no longer evil, and we no longer love it.

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