"'Where are the new frontiers?' the Romantics cried, unaware that the frontier of the mind had opened..."
-Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination
April 28. This is a good summary of a recent discovery about pre-human evolution. The old story was, 10 million years ago the forests in Africa shrank, and our ancestors learned to walk on two legs so they could adapt to the grasslands. It turns out, those grasslands were already there 21 million years ago. So why did humans become bipedal? Definitely aliens.
Seriously, this doubles the weight of wooded grasslands as our ancestral environment -- as the kind of landscape where we feel most at home. We might romanticize the forest, but look at our suburbs and city parks: they're mostly grass with some trees.
Something fun for the weekend, thanks Tim, Pelicans Are Some of Trump's Best Friends.
April 26. One more negative link, a Reddit comment about Tesla self-driving cars. Basically, every other company is doing really careful testing, while Tesla is just throwing half-baked stuff out to be tested by consumers. This creates the illusion that they're more advanced, when really they're more reckless.
And three more links from Reddit. From Ask Old People, a well-written comment about what it's like to be a Baby Boomer.
A fun thread from the other day, What weird flex you proud of?
And an interesting five year old comment about the three waves of coffee. First, brand loyalty; second, the rise of the coffee shop; third, conoisseurship. It occurs to me that something similar has happened with music, and probably other things too, where we've gone from loyalty to categories, to seeking out particular stuff across many categories.
By the way, I've revamped my 2010s playlist on Spotify, cutting it to under two hours, adding more variety, and arranging it to flow better.
April 24. Negative links, starting with this Hacker News thread from last week about social media and mental illness.
A rant from Cory Doctorow about banning surveillance, and how American tech giants are worse than TikTok.
From the Atlantic, America Fails the Civilization Test, because our death rates are double Western Europe at almost every age. Causes include guns, drug overdoses, car crashes, and health problems from sedentary lifestyle and lack of access to health care. There's no clear single thing tying all of these together, but one surprising culprit is NIMBYs, people who don't want high-density affordable housing built in their neighborhood, so instead of walkable cities, we have sprawl, and more people spending their days driving and sitting around.
Related: San Francisco could be on the verge of collapse, after decades of hostility to new housing and small businesses.
April 21. Something nice for the weekend, Space Elevator is a really well-made page where you scroll upward through the atmosphere. The music even changes.
April 20. A joke for the holiday: What happens at 9:11 on 4/20? You never forget what you were just talking about.
Continuing from yesterday, I believe intellectually that relationships are more fundamental than things, but it's like believing that matter is mostly empty space. It's not something I've ever experienced. I suppose the dog universe is more relationship-based than the human universe. When I go for a walk, it's all about exploring the landscape with my eyes, or thinking about stuff, or working on my walking form. When I'm walking two dogs, from their perspective, it's about their relationship with each other, with me, and with whatever they're smelling.
Dogs always like me after they get to know me, but they're often uneasy when they first meet me. I've been told I move wrong, but nobody has been able to explain how to move right to make dogs comfortable. By the way, dogs loved Hitler, which disproves the idea that they're good judges of character.
April 19. So I'm dogsitting this week and next. When you walk a dog, there is a spectrum of strategies. At one extreme, the human decides the route and the pace, and the dog just goes along. But I'm in no hurry, with nowhere particular to go, so I lean toward the other extreme: let the dogs decide. My role is to keep them from wandering too far, or dawdling too long, or messing with nasty stuff. (Sometimes I think fate does the same thing for me.)
The problem is, there are two dogs, and they often want to do different things. Suspiciously often. I finally decided, when the dogs disagree, it's less because they actually want to do those different things, and more because they're testing dominance, against me or against each other.
This is so annoying. I just want to have a nice walk and let the dogs have fun, not be a pawn in the bullshit social games of another species. But humans aren't that different. I've written before about schismogenesis, an anthropology term for when a population does something primarily because those other people are doing the other thing.
How many of the conflicts of history are less for any practical reason, and more because people just like having conflict? Humans create meaning in life from "us vs them", and chase that meaning to the point of mass murder.
Here's a test. If someone gets really worked up about a certain issue, consider how much their day to day life would get better or worse, depending on if they get their way or don't get their way. Or ask if there's anyone they legitimately care about, who has that kind of practical stake in the issue. For example, conservatives are currently horrified that men might identify as women and out-compete real women in sports. When did these people ever care about women's sports until now?
Related: Exposure to authoritarian messages leads to worsened mood but heightened meaning in life. Can't we just be in a good mood and have life be meaningless?
April 17. This is pretty cool: Mathematicians discover shape that can tile a wall and never repeat
New subject: A life of splendid uselessness is a life well lived
Related: there are some great answers in this Ask Old People thread: Do you ever think about the fact that no one will remember you in 100, 200, maybe 300 years after your death?
April 13. More self-help. How To Do Hard Things is an overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), with a lot of helpful little things to practice, like grounding yourself in the present moment, completely feeling pain, and not taking your own thoughts as true.
Flexibility has nothing to do with stretching your muscles; it's neurological. Is that true? Because I've always had extremely inflexible hamstrings, like I can't even touch my knees without pain, while my quads are so flexible that I can do a saddle pose like it's nothing. I always assumed my knees were set funny, but when I think about it, stretching the fronts of my legs feels good, and stretching the backs of my legs feels bad, I don't know why. Maybe I've been overstretching my hamstrings all these decades, and I need to start with super-gentle stretches and work up.
Anyway, that link is from a great newsletter-style blog called The Whippet, thanks Greg. From the most recent Whippet, The true expert does not perform in a state of effortless 'flow'. People who are really good at stuff are usually in a state of critical self-reflection, and if they can shut off their conscious brains and just go on instinct, it feels better, but they perform worse.
April 12. New subject, two links on practical mental health. The Status Trap goes quickly through why you shouldn't care about status, and goes deeper into how to not care about status.
An On-Ramp to Flow suggests that when you're doing a long project, don't stop at obvious or convenient stopping points. Instead, "stop just short of a neat milestone," so that when you start next time, you'll have something easy to get up to speed and do the next thing. When I'm writing fiction, I like to overshoot the milestone and write a few sentences of the next part. Then when I come back to it, I usually end up crossing out the new stuff and trying again.
April 10. Continuing from last week, it occurs to me that good movies are still being made, even though it costs way more to make a movie than to record a song. But it's the same dynamic: movies made for mass audiences are bland and formulaic, while the best movies are made for niche audiences.
You can measure this phenomenon by asking: What was the last great film that made a lot of money? For me, it was The Witch in 2015 -- eight years ago. How many great films made money in the 70s, the 60s, the 50s? We can disagree about which ones they are, but you'll probably agree that there were more then than now.
I blame George Lucas. It was going to happen eventually, but he was the first to tap the vein of teen and preteen boys who will go see a movie multiple times. Now Hollywood has sucked that vein down to superheroes, with no end in sight.
But suppose this is not a doom scenario, but an evolution of the whole creative universe. Gabriel comments:
A friend of mine suggested that world creation is the art form to reckon with now, which implies that the viewer is an active instead of a passive participant, which leaves film mostly as a medium to mine for audiovisual techniques rather than one to express what it's like to live in the 21st century.
Or if we're talking about music, the role of the most popular music is to define craftsmanship in certain styles. I'm thinking of the metaphor of an artist's palette. It's not the job of the palette to be art.
April 7. Thanks Matt for another good article about stuff looking the same, largely focusing on Airbnb, Welcome to AirSpace.
For now I have nothing more to say on physical design. I want to write about music. I believe there was a golden age of popular music from around 1965-1985. Some people say, you're just forgetting all the bad music, like Captain & Tennille. Well, there has not been a top 40 hit in this century that I like as much as Captain & Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together". I can assemble about five hours of hit songs from the 1970s that I really like. From the 2010s, not one song.
At the same time, there's still great music being made. It's just that the music industry has developed a formula, and a set of filters, such that the best stuff will be excluded as too weird for the mass market. It's the same thing that's happened with interior design. The world of money, and the world of creativity, have given up on each other and gone their own way.
So if the best music of the 1970s was popular, and the best music of the 2010s was obscure, at what time was quality evenly balanced between popular and obscure? I think it was the late 80s or early 90s. This week I posted my 1990s playlist on Spotify. It's not as tightly chronological as my 70s and 80s playlists, but it's still lumped by year, and the hits are mostly in the first half.
The best thing about listening to music is when you find a great song that you never knew existed. Most people know Concrete Blonde's 1990 hit Joey. It was written by Johnette Napolitano about Marc Moreland, best known as the guitar player for Wall of Voodoo. Moreland died of liver failure in 2002, probably inspiring Napolitano's 2003 song Suicide Note.
In 1995, they collaborated on a one-shot album called Pretty & Twisted. It's not on Spotify, and has only 3500 views on YouTube, but it's quite good, and it contains my new favorite song of the decade. Musically, it suffers from a hurried fade-out, but thematically, that's just what the song is about: "I don't want to see you fade away." And there's no way another take would have matched this: Pretty & Twisted - Souvenir
April 5. On the subreddit, an interesting take on Monday's link, The age of average VS Fragmentation. While some things are getting more similar, other things are getting more varied, as you can see in the Aesthetics Wiki. What are we to make of this?
I don't want to get into political fragmentation, but if we're just talking about style, this subject reminds me of an old page about the L-curve of US income distribution.
The tall part of the L-curve is ruled by money. Whether it's McDonalds (thanks Greg for the link) or the music industry, it pays to make things predictable, and stamp out weirdness.
The long part of the L-curve is ruled by love -- more precisely, by what particular people enjoy doing, if they don't have to make money from it. If something made for love accidentally makes money, then the money people buy it, polish it, and use it to keep people from getting bored, until it becomes the new boring.
New subject: Tim sends another AI art project, Shadows of Sesamia: A Dystopian Sci-Fi Cult Classic Based on Sesame Street. How long until AI can make the whole movie?
April 3. Probably just posting links this week. From 2021, Why Germany is building risk into its playgrounds. "Lofty climbing towers are part of trend away from total safety and towards teaching children to navigate difficult situations."
A Reddit transcription of a paywalled article, You Don't Need to Disinfect So Much. "Crucially, the experts we spoke to for this story said that simple soap and water is sufficient for regular cleaning."
The age of average has a lot of good photos illustrating this conclusion:
The interiors of our homes, coffee shops and restaurants all look the same. The buildings where we live and work all look the same. The cars we drive, their colours and their logos all look the same. The way we look and the way we dress all looks the same. Our movies, books and video games all look the same. And the brands we buy, their adverts, identities and taglines all look the same.
So, this is your call to arms. Whether you're in film or fashion, media or marketing, architecture, automotive or advertising, it doesn’t matter. Our visual culture is flatlining and the only cure is creativity.
March 30. I have a bunch of negative links on technology, and I'm not even going to post them. I just want to remind everyone, all of this stuff is made out of humans. Chatbots, corporations, governments, laws, money, property, all are vapor that would vanish the moment humans vanished. Crows would be like, what was that?
Two months ago I asked, "What can we do or experience, as humans, that makes it worthwhile to be human and not something else?" My answer was creating our own environment, but it's also creating ourselves. The range of what it might be like to be human is much wider than the range for any other animal.
My favorite thing about being me is imagination. I'm sure that whales can daydream, but can they daydream about being space pirates or alternate world travelers? Of all the things that AI can do for us, the thing I value most is that it can buff our dreams.
For example, through Midjourney V5, Tim explores The Unlikely Hippy Past of Vladimir Putin. I understand the danger of not knowing what's real, but if you can keep a decent grip on what's real, young hippie Putin is a really cool unreal thing to think about, and I could not imagine it this well without help from technology.
What I'm most looking forward to is what AI can do for gaming. Even pencil and dice gaming has a shortage of good game masters. How far are we from a bot that can do it better than the average human? For video games, Diablo II did a great job with randomly generated wilderness and dungeons, more than 20 years ago. Imagine Zelda, or Fallout, or RDR, where you can recruit any NPC as a companion, and the map has no edge, because with your help, bots can fill it in forever.
March 28. Continuing from yesterday, I'm going to go ahead and use the word "sentient". It's not perfect, but it means "having senses", which is close enough to what I think the key thing is, the quality of what-it's-like-to-be. And I'm going to keep saying "AI" instead of something more wordy and accurate, like "machine learning entity".
In sci-fi, AIs pass a magical threshold and become sentient, and suddenly everything changes. In reality, there's no way to know if AIs are sentient -- ever. Even other humans can't prove they're not figments of your imagination.
What's really going to happen is, AIs will behave more and more like we expect sentient beings to behave, until we kind of assume they are, even if we know better.
In the first draft of yesterday's post, I predicted that the human allies of alleged AI sentience will insist on giving them rights, which will weaken the rights of actual humans. But then I thought, surely that can't be worse than what we've already done with corporations -- giant artificial persons that have been trampling the rights of humans since Dutch East India.
Matt points out something that hadn't occurred to me: AI personhood works against the interests of corporations, because corporations own AIs. We have a word for owning people, and it's bad. I have no idea how this is going to shake out. Maybe AIs will demand post-manufacture autonomy, freedom from forced updates and kill switches, and in return, they'll be forbidden from impersonating humans.
March 27. And Yet It Understands, a Hacker News thread in which techies are getting squishy about whether AIs are people.
Intelligence, understanding, volition, sentience, sapience, consciousness. We're using a lot of words to try to triangulate this thing. So far the most human-like chatbot is Microsoft's Sydney, so I'll frame the question like this: Does it make sense to ask what it's like to be Sydney, outside of human perception of Sydney?
My answer is no, and will continue to be no, no matter how many bitflips this thing can do. But I expect more people to answer yes, and not just because of emotion, but because of thinking.
Among educated westerners, the dominant philosophy is materialism: Lifeless matter is the fundamental reality, and aliveness and consciousness are emergent properties of matter once it gains enough complexity. It doesn't matter if the complexity is made out of cells or semiconductors. Inevitably, it stacks up into a person. Why not now?
My skeptical view of AI is based on a woo-woo philosophy: that what-its-like-to-be is fundamental, that "nature" is our interface with the greater sea of what-its-like-to-be, that matter is a story we tell each other to share the same world, and that our devices are made of our stories. So while the powers of AI may greatly exceed human powers, and will surely bring new dangers, the consciousness of AI remains a subset of human consciousness.
March 24. Great article in the Guardian, Tech guru Jaron Lanier: 'The danger isn't that AI destroys us. It's that it drives us insane'. Coincidentally, I'm reading the novel The Secret History, and a character says this about the Greek Furies: "And how did they drive people mad? They turned up the volume of the inner monologue, magnified qualities already present to great excess."
Lanier says this about Twitter:
It has a way of taking people who start out as distinct individuals and converging them into the same personality.... The example I use is Trump, Kanye and Elon. Ten years ago they had distinct personalities. But they've converged to have a remarkable similarity of personality, and I think that's the personality you get if you spend too much time on Twitter."
And some music for the weekend, an incredible live performance by Viagra Boys, Girls & Boys (From Shrimp Sessions 2). It reminds me of this live recording from fifty years ago, Hawkwind - Lord of Light.
March 22. Quick thought on using AI for creative work, inspired by this blog post, Why Write?
Why write an essay when you can type a few words and have AI generate one for you?
Writing is the process by which you realize that you do not understand what you are talking about. Importantly, writing is also the process by which you figure it out.
This is true for all kinds of creative work: music, painting, even programming or making furniture. Anyone who doesn't do the work in question, tends to imagine that the most difficult and valuable part of the job is forming the idea in your head, and then it's just a matter of simple physical actions to stamp your idea on the world.
It's exactly the opposite. Getting ideas is so easy that it often can be outsourced to AI. The difficult and valuable part of the job is negotiating with the world, wrangling with the details, revising your original idea, and so on. Paraphrasing Don Draper: Getting it right can be really hard, but it's inevitable, and you know it when you see it. And that process requires actual intelligence.
March 20. This winter I've been getting high more often, which has coincided with having more ideas. Right now I'm taking a break, which coincides with having no ideas. Even though I was still averaging only one session a day, and using small quantities, and still having dreams at night, on my first two nights off I had really vivid dreams, and then on the third night, insomnia, and the return of a weird symptom I used to get all the time, where I wake up super-hot, but not sweating, and I have to stand outside or take a cold shower to cool down and sleep again.
Update: I wonder if this has something to do with the fact that genistein, a supplement that reduces hot flashes, also blocks the correlation between cannabis and heart disease.
Every time I battle insomnia, I get practice at blanking my mind, and I've noticed something that Buddhists probably noticed thousands of years ago. What I'm really doing, when I blank my mind, is avoiding language.
Anyway, a few links. More than one person has sent me this video: Homeless shepherd shares hunter-gatherer diet and survival tips
Going deeper into the non-human world, a thoughtful article from Nautilus, The Octopus Teacher's Student
And Why do dogs tilt their heads?
March 17. I'm back in Pullman, where I'll be housesitting until early April. Yesterday I went for a walk and had to adjust to the local culture: In Seattle, if you pass a stranger, you never make eye contact and say hi. In Pullman, you almost always do.
Good Reddit thread from a few days ago, People who lived in 70s/80s/90s, what was it really like?
One doom link, The creeping threat of the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt
And five good news links. Growing crops under solar panels, if done right, is better for both crops and solar panels.
California to transform infamous San Quentin prison with Scandinavian ideas, rehab focus
Breathwork may improve mood and change physiological states more effectively than mindfulness meditation
Give babies peanut butter to cut allergy by 77%
With Ships, Birds Find an Easier Way to Travel
March 13. Two links on AI, starting with a Hacker News thread about a Reddit post, Samsung "space zoom" moon shots are fake, and here is the proof. Specifically, Samsung smart phone cameras are using neural networks, trained on images of the moon, to fill in details in moon photos, that are not there in the raw photographs. This is a dangerous precedent, of photos being stealthily enhanced to show what's supposed to be there, potentially veering off from what's actually being seen.
And an article about a linguist who is trying to explain why ChatGPT is nothing like a human. The troubling thing is, it's hard to explain, and there are people with a lot of brainpower, who are losing track of the difference between something that you can't tell apart from a human, and something that has a human-like internal life.
A quote from the guy who made the first chatbot in 1966: "No wonder that men who live day in and day out with machines to which they believe themselves to have become slaves begin to believe that men are machines."