"'Where are the new frontiers?' the Romantics cried, unaware that the frontier of the mind had opened..."
-Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination
May 8. Continuing from last week, a thought experiment. What would happen if humans became permanently incapable of doing any task that we don't find intrinsically enjoyable?
First, the global economy would disappear like smoke. Then, over the next few years, billions of people would die -- not because farmers would quit working, but because they'd have to start over without industrial supply chains. By the way, during famines, most people don't die from actual starvation, but from disease and violence that emerge when people are hungry.
A hundred years down the line, would we all be back to the stone age? No way. Unlike stone age people, we would know about all the cool stuff we can do. We would have books and tools and skills. Eventually, enthusiasts in garage workshops would be making everything from transistors to bike tires.
How complex could a society get on a 100% volunteer workforce? How complex is the forest? We wouldn't have big box stores with a hundred thousand items. Instead, there would be ten million items all spread out across the land. Instead of schools forcing everyone to learn the same boring stuff, every student would follow their own peculiar obsession. It would take many generations to work out the details, but eventually a low coercion society is going to have a higher ceiling than a high coercion society.
The problem with this scenario is that it ignores the main reason people do things: not because particular tasks are enjoyable in an absolute sense, but because they fit a social context. People will happily do work to feed their children, where they would revolt against doing exactly the same work to feed strangers.
That's why our system is collapsing. I think in a thousand years, historians will look back and see us, right now, somewhere in a transition more epic than the fall of Rome, and faster. They'll probably blame climate change, but I blame psychosocial factors, one of which is atomization, the stripping away of context. We've become isolated individuals scanning our screens for isolated pleasures. We no longer feel like we are part of anything larger that gives us a reason to do things. And dangerous movements are filling this void.
May 4. I have no ideas this week. This is a post I drafted a while back, that didn't meet my standards, but this week my standards are lower:
Efficiency is a value system, which seeks to minimize the human work that goes into doing something. But if someone is doing work they enjoy, outside the money economy, then it doesn't matter how long it takes. So the value system of efficiency only arises when the person doing the work doesn't enjoy it, or when someone is paying for it.
Imagine there's a factory owner who's obsessed with efficiency. He makes sure that in his factory, everything is done in the smoothest possible way, with no human movement that's not necessary. Then he goes out on weekends and climbs mountains.
Of course, climbing mountains has no practical value at all. It's completely about feeding the owner's hunger for meaning.
So we can't understand motivation and meaning without looking at power. The workers are not allowed to do their jobs in a way that feels more meaningful to them, unless it fits the owner's sense of meaning. And that owner-defined sense of meaning -- quantity of wealth produced per quantity of human activity -- goes hand in hand with economic domination.
I suggest a numerical measure of a society's health. I call it intrinsic-extrinsic overlap, and I can think of two ways to measure it: 1) Of all the people who are really into something, what percent are into something that the economy considers valuable? 2) Of all the people with jobs, what percent would still do their jobs if money was not a factor?
Today's subject is drugs, a word I'm using to include alcohol. There's a set of things that a lot of people say about drugs: they make you numb, they temporarily block the misery of existence, they take you away from reality.
My experience is exactly the opposite, and I'm specifically talking about cannabis a few times a week and psychedelics a few times a year. Drugs take me closer to reality. Edges are sharper, sounds are clearer, social situations are more comprehensible. Emotions are stronger, including unpleasant emotions. I get some anxiety from weed but it's worth it for the benefits. Rather than zoning out on the couch, I pack every experience and activity I can into the magic hours before I return to the padded cell of my thick head.
I think this is related to the fact that I don't like alcohol or opioids. I mean, I won't try heroin, but I've had prescription hydrocodone, and after one pill I'm like, nope, the negatives outweigh the positives.
Last week I took my yearly LSD trip. In Pullman I would always walk up the Palouse River. In Seattle I walked around Westcrest Park, an urban forest that has gone long enough without logging to have trees you can't reach halfway around. And it was nice, but I still like the river better. I feel like the best part of the forest must be up in the treetops where the sun is.
About the drug, I discovered something crazy. Neither LSD nor psilocybin has ever given me visuals, so I thought, I'll try to jump-start some visuals by imagining something. And I couldn't! LSD gives me aphantasia. A substance known for taking people to dreamland, takes me extra hard into my senses. I've poked around online and can't find anyone else reporting this.
I suppose my point is, a lot of what we think drugs do is really down to individual brains.
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.