"The stars burned with a lidless fixity and they drew nearer in the night until toward dawn he was stumbling among the whinstones of the uttermost ridge to heaven, a barren range of rock so enfolded in that gaudy house that stars lay awash at his feet and migratory spalls of burning matter crossed constantly about him on their chartless reckonings."
-Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy, 1933-2023
June 13. So much for taking a week off from blogging. This morning I woke up early, full of words about the death of Reddit. Actually, when this all blows over, Reddit will go on to make a lot of money for people who already have a lot of money, while being an increasingly unsatisfying platform for its users.
Orin comments: "I'm unaware of a 'solution' to this sort of trend where online communities get eaten by... capitalism?"
I think capitalism is the right word. Reddit is preparing itself to go public, to go on the stock market, and everyone knows that stocks do better when the business model is indifferent to the user experience, safely top-down, and in the case of tech stocks, set up to maximize data harvesting. For financial reasons, Reddit has to force users onto its own clunky app, even if that means half the users quit, because the half who stay will do their jobs to keep the system working properly. We're taking longer to get there, but the result is the same as Soviet communism: citizens trudging cynically through their duties.
I don't think this is some kind of natural cycle, like the aging of organisms or the change of the seasons. Google and Amazon and Reddit aren't doomed to become evil -- they become evil without being doomed, through completely optional tragedies of human error. The main error is optimizing systems for the leveraging of power into more power, rather than for human well-being.
Taking a step back, what is it that makes people who already have enough, want more? Personally, if I had the choice of getting half a million dollars, or a billion dollars, I'd take half a million, because I don't want the responsibility, the lifestyle, or the power over others that comes with a billion dollars.
Some people say they're trying to fill the emptiness inside. I don't know what they're talking about. I have exactly the opposite problem: trying to empty the fullness outside -- seeking shelter from the outside world's exhausting barrage of demands on my attention. Now I'm going to go take a nap.
June 11. I was already planning to take a week off from blogging. Conveniently, this coincides with the Reddit blackout. That's the explanation on the ELI5 subreddit, and here's the explanation on my favorite subreddit recently, Ask Old People.
I use Reddit through Firefox on my laptop, but a lot of people use it through phone apps, including independent apps that work better in many ways than the official Reddit app. From ELI5: "Third Party Apps or TPAs have been on reddit for a decade. Reddit gave them 30 days notice of the introduction of a pricing structure set so high no one can afford it."
In protest, many subreddits are either going private or preventing new posts, as of tomorrow. This page, Reddark, is keeping track of them. If the mods of r/ranprieur choose to participate, I support that. And if Reddit doesn't back off from this policy, I might stop using it. This reminds me of the Digg debacle, when they made sweeping interface changes that killed Digg and sent everyone to Reddit. But this time, there's nowhere for people to go, except off the internet, which is probably a good idea.
June 9. For the weekend, drugs and music. This psychedelic cryptography contest challenged people to make videos with a message that can only be seen if you're tripping. All three winners work by using tracers, the visual phenomenon where you keep seeing something for a moment after it's gone.
The Subjective Effect Index "is a set of articles designed to serve as a comprehensive catalogue and reference for the range of subjective effects that may occur under the influence of psychoactive substances and other psychonautic techniques."
And a cool Reddit thread, What can you do better when you're high?
I knew if I kept saying that there has not been one great song on the Billboard hot 100 in this century, one would turn up. Peaking at number 39 (and number 1 in UK singles), an absolute banger from 2008, The Ting Tings - That's Not My Name.
I continue to tweak my Spotify playlists, and I've added two similar songs to my already too long 2010s playlist, Stealing Sheep - Shut Eye and one that's not on Spotify, Cat's Eyes - Face in the Crowd.
June 7. A few psychology links. Helplessness Is Not Learned. There have been a lot of experiments that seem to show learned helplessness, but neuroscience has discovered that helplessness is actually the default. Whatever it is, your brain starts with the assumption that you can't do anything about it, and then learns the sense that you can do something about it.
The top comment in the Hacker News thread is about learning that you can control the clutter in your home. But I'm thinking about the opposite: things that stress us out because we feel like we should do something about them, when we have basically zero influence. This includes everything ever covered on TV news.
Artists must be allowed to make bad work, a short blog post arguing that social media is harmful for creative work, because everything people do is in the public eye, and they're afraid to take risks.
The Proteus effect "describes a phenomenon in which the behavior of an individual, within virtual worlds, is changed by the characteristics of their avatar." The obvious direction to go with this, is that our behavior in the physical world is also heavily influenced by what we look like, and what behavior other people expect from someone who looks like that. So, if someone changes their look, it's probably because they want to act like that kind of person would act, and it's easier if they look like that.
June 5. Good news links. Emissions are no longer following the worst case scenario
A paywalled article about Mississippi schools. Through a set of reforms, they've gone from worst in the nation to above average.
Two PubMed science articles. Ariadne is a non-hallucinogenic analog in the phenylalkylamine chemical class of psychedelics, so it has the therapeutic effects of a good psychedelic, but you don't trip. Personally, I'd rather get the therapeutic effects and also trip.
A Simple Exercise to Eliminate Gastroesophageal Reflux: practice swallowing upside down.
And a thread from Ask Old People, What's a food that was common when you were growing up but you see rarely if ever nowadays? Some of these are good, but most of them are terrible: chicken ala king, jello with marshmallows, chop suey, salisbury steak tv dinners. So this is one way the world is getting better.
June 1. Stray links, starting with doom. Microplastics are falling from the sky. "The predicted downpour will range between 40 and 48 kilograms (88 and 106 pounds) of free-floating plastic bits blanketing greater Paris every 24 hours." Inevitably something will evolve to eat this, but it may take a million years without our help. The sci-fi scenario is that we bioengineer something to eat microplastics and it also eats plastics that we like.
'Farming good, factory bad', a belief that George Monbiot disagrees with, arguing that "storybook farming" cannot feed the world without terrible ecological destruction. Permaculturists would surely argue that super-intensive farming would still work, but Monbiot's solution might be more realistic: "a shift from farming multicellular organisms (plants and animals) to farming unicellular creatures (microbes)."
Good news on urban design, Federal Zoning Bill Would Preempt Local Parking Mandates, and another article on the same subject, This little-known rule shapes parking in America. The rule is that new construction has to have a certain amount of parking. Killing that rule is something both the right and left can get behind, the right because then property owners can do whatever they want, and the left because what they usually want is less parking, which leads to denser and more walkable neighborhoods.
Something fun for the weekend, The Most Underrated Sci-Fi Movies of the 1970s, where underrated means not Star Wars. I've seen more than half of these movies, and this article is right on about how interesting they are, despite their flaws or because of their flaws.
And a ridiculous goal by my favorite footballer, Morgan Weaver. The bigger the moment, the better she performs, and she'll eventually be a key player on the national team.
May 30. Continuing from yesterday, there is one thing I do, where my subconscious mind pulls stuff out of a hat that my conscious mind could never come up with. Of course it's writing. I started reading before I was three years old, and it's not unusual for me to spend an hour a day running words through my head figuring out how to arrange them.
There's a popular belief, maybe just in America, that a simple psychological trick, something like "just let go", will unlock your intuitive superpowers. I think that's mostly backwards. First, you have to grind through the details of actually getting good at something, and then channeling the subconscious is almost inevitable.
May 29. Continuing from last week on brain-body stuff, Matt mentions acting teacher Michael Chekhov and his concept of the "ideal center". Basically, you imagine a place in the center of your chest, and use that to tune into your body, so that your movements come spontaneously from your subconscious instead of from your head. Of course I tried this and completely failed. But then I thought, when I'm doing improvisational stretching, where do those movements come from? The best I can explain it is that my head has a deck of cards with various movements that I've already practiced, and deals them at random to my body, and then if my body likes something, I keep doing it. It's the same thing when I'm playing piano, or dancing. My body never feels like it's moving on its own.
This reminds me of aphantasia, a problem I don't have, but people who have it have developed interesting techniques to overcome it, bootstrapping mental images from the sparkly brown that they see with their eyes closed. This is a distinct level of visualization, in between the mind's eye and regular seeing, that aphantasia has led people to explore, when good daydreamers would have no reason to go there. In the same way, I'm going to persist in trying to get my body to move on its own, and maybe explore some territory unknown to good athletes.
May 25. Today's subject is self-improvement. I wonder if my brain is more of an outlier than I thought. I've already mentioned that weed makes me motivated and LSD gives me aphantasia. Another thing is that most people who engage in self-improvement use the word growth. I've never felt like I'm getting bigger in any way. Instead, I almost feel like I'm getting smaller. I have all these bad habits, physical, mental, emotional, technological, that are spreading me out too much, and as I clean them up, my sense of being me becomes more streamlined.
Someone commented on my piano video, that I should use my thumbs more. The thumb reaches farther and hits harder than any other finger, so of course I should use it, and I do have one spread-out chord that I'm working on. But in general I'm putting off using the thumb because it gives me too many options. The trick to improvisation is constraint, and there are still so many things I want to do inside the tight space of eight fingers on four notes.
Yesterday I had an obvious insight: To make a chore fun, add creativity. Stretching is good for me, but to buy a book about stretches, and go through it doing them, that's a chore. Going to a class where someone tells me how to stretch, also a chore. But making up stretches on the fly, that's fun! I spent an hour standing in front of the blurry mirror of the TV screen, trying to send ripples up my body like break dancers do. It's really hard. I had to isolate the movements, keeping my feet planted and trying to move just my hips or just my shoulders. I'm looking forward to my next session, but I should have started this when I was five.
One bit of advice on changing habits. The first habit you have to change is getting mad at things that are wrong. It might seem like you're getting mad at other people, or at circumstances, but really you're mad at representations of those things in your own head. "Inner peace" is such a common goal of spiritual and emotional practice, that it seems like a cliche. But it's actually not the goal -- it's an instruction for the path: The voices inside you have to be nice to each other. When you catch yourself doing something wrong, a good reaction is, "Cool, now I know how to get better -- I've unlocked an upgrade."
May 22. Stray links. From the New Yorker, It's Time to Embrace Slow Productivity. The article starts with the 32 hour work week, and then it goes more deeply into work volume, "the total number of obligations that you're committed to complete," and how lower volume would reduce burnout and increase the quality of work.
From the Psychonaut subreddit, What weird knowledge did you get from psychedelics? This is why I don't like the saying, "When you get the message, hang up the phone," because look at all the different messages.
Did Scientists Accidentally Invent an Anti-addiction Drug? It's about Ozempic, also known as Semaglutide, Wegovy and Rybelsus. Surely there are bad effects that we still don't know about, but patients "have reported losing interest in a whole range of addictive and compulsive behaviors: drinking, smoking, shopping, biting nails, picking at skin."
And a nice Hacker News thread on Dandelions, how useful they are and why we should stop killing them.
May 19. For the weekend, some personal stuff. Thanks Tim for the inspiration: I've been doing high yoga, and I love it. I've already done enough yoga classes to know the basic moves and poses. Then it's just a matter of trying different stuff and doing more of whatever feels good. Cannabis helps with creativity, and in return, yoga turns cannabis into a means to do something that's good for me.
Also on the subject of improvisation, I've finally rigged a system to make piano videos. I use two different gooseneck phone holders, a thick one clipped to the back of the table and rising up the wall, and then a thinner one to come out over the keyboard for careful positioning. Then I just record it with my iPhone, and use Windows video editor to make an mp4 for uploading.
Recorded earlier this week, a jam in GBCE, meaning I just use those four notes in two octaves. That's the way I like to play, squeezing as much as I can out of one chord, and I still have a lot of room to get better.
May 17. Again, a quick link that fits the previous post, a thread from Ask Old People, Was there anything in your life that you failed at so much that at the end you had to give up or just decided to quit?
Stray links, starting with climate change. From the Guardian, How to halve emissions now analyzes the latest IPCC report:
"First, solar and wind power are by far the best option.... After wind and solar, the biggest prize is stopping the destruction of forests and other wild places.... Nuclear power and carbon capture and storage each have just 10% of the potential of wind and solar, and at far higher cost. The same applies to bioenergy -- burning wood or crops for electricity.
And this article surely overstates the benefits, but it's a cool idea: Seaflooding is a way to mitigate climate change, by opening channels for oceans to fill deserts that are below sea level.
Via No Tech Magazine, These scientists lugged logs on their heads to resolve Chaco Canyon mystery. We'll probably never know how the Chacoans hauled wood from 200,000 trees 70 miles, but this experiment shows that a good way to do it is with "tumplines", where two people walk with a log against their lower backs and the weight carried by straps over their heads.
On the AI front, something unsurprising, a Jesus chatbot that answers silly questions live. I want to see an AI Jesus that looks like a first century Galilean and not a white Millennial.
And something surprising, Scientists Use GPT AI to Passively Read People's Thoughts. I thought this was still decades away. Using an fMRI scanner, GPT-1 was able to learn to associate brainwave patterns with specific language:
For instance, when a subject envisioned the sentence "went on a dirt road through a field of wheat and over a stream and by some log buildings," the decoder produced text that said "he had to walk across a bridge to the other side and a very large building in the distance."
I'm not worried about privacy, because no one can read your brainwaves unless you put your head in an expensive device. But I'm excited about the possibility of doing this with moving images. If you could envision a scene, and that scene could be projected on a screen or recorded, then someone with a strong imagination could make movies without a camera.
May 15. Quick loose end on the last post. Eric comments: "Another cultural bit to explain why certain people like certain music is that it doesn't just say things about them as a person, but it actually transports them to a different cultural place than where they started."
Today's subject, ancient wisdom and living well, starting with a link from the subreddit, a nice article about Diogenes and the Cynics.
Related: 12 Ancient Greek Terms that Should Totally Make a Comeback
I think I've posted this before, a 2017 review of the 1934 book A Life of One's Own by Marion Milner:
I had been continually exhorted to define my purpose in life, but I was now beginning to doubt whether life might not be too complex a thing to be kept within the bounds of a single formulated purpose.... So I began to have an idea of my life, not as the slow shaping of achievement to fit my preconceived purposes, but as the gradual discovery and growth of a purpose which I did not know.
Another take on the same idea, Instead of Your Life's Purpose:
The idea is not that we will participate in one story that can be easily wrapped up by our biographers -- but that there are many adventures and quests that we can pursue. Rather than the attitude of the saint who is given a mission by God, it takes the attitude of the swashbuckling adventurer who goes out to seek his fortune.
When there is only one possible source of meaning in our life, we adapt ourselves for efficiency: our goal might be to be a bed-net maximizer, win souls for Jesus, or stop Skynet. We make ourselves machine-like.... Instead of looking for a cause to devote your life to, you might try to become someone who is useful and level-headed in a crisis, who is well connected and makes friends easily, or who regularly has good ideas.
May 13. For the weekend, music, but don't worry, I'm only writing about it. Baltasar surely speaks for many of you when he says that I have never linked to a song he likes. Musical taste is fascinating, because it varies so widely with no apparent logic behind it.
I think quality is a matter of fit. Musical quality is objective to the extent that our brains are the same. Any human who listens to enough jazz will agree that Miles Davis is better than Kenny G. And yet, the more we listen to Miles Davis, the more we disagree about what his best song is.
I know what I like when I hear it, but I can't explain it in a way that enables anyone to predict what I'll like, including AI. I imagine it's like a fingerprint inside the brain, except unlike actual fingerprints, it gets more complex the more you listen. The listening brain is like a keyhole looking for the right key, and everything has to fit to unlock it. And every time that happens, more keyholes are revealed, as we go deeper into the sound.
There's also a cultural component. People like songs or genres because of what that choice says about them as a person, and I think that's something we have to get over, get out of our personas and into our ears.
May 11. One more link about drugs, a new article on Nautilus, The 19th-Century Trippers Who Probed the Mind.
And an update from a week ago. I knew that post was half-baked and now I know why. I wrote, "the value system of efficiency only arises when the person doing the work doesn't enjoy it, or when someone is paying for it." But Kathryn points out that efficiency can be intrinsically enjoyable:
There can be a great deal of satisfaction in arranging your work efficiently... everything happening in a logical order, no wasted motion, no wasted resources. Think of a chef, and mise en place... chopping and measuring all ingredients first, arranging them in the order they're going to be added to the dish being prepared, making sure that all needed utensils are within reach. The chopping, measuring and arranging can be pleasurable in themselves, and once everything is ready, you can just COOK, paying attention to the sights, sounds and smells of what you're cooking, with nothing to interrupt the process.
Coincidentally, I've been making progress in my lifelong battle against clumsiness, and it came from piano playing. The goal of improv is for your fingers and your ears to get so connected, that you can play stuff that sounds good without your brain getting involved. I've been at that level for a while, and it's a nice plateau, but the only way to get better was to bring my brain back in. So I made the rule that my eye has to touch a key before my finger does, which forces my brain to form precise intentions and my fingers to follow. It's really hard, but it has carried over into stuff like putting forks away.
May 9. Back to my favorite subject lately, altered mental states, starting with this article from Aeon: "Long before it entered the urban playgrounds of the 20th century, the swing was a ritual instrument of healing, punishment and transformation."
Meditation Wasn't for Me -- Until I Tried It While Hiking. I've noticed exactly the same thing: blanking my thoughts and being in the moment is easier and more effective while walking around than while sitting still.
A scientific article, Effect of LSD on reinforcement learning in humans. "Computational modelling revealed that the most pronounced effect of LSD was the enhancement of the reward learning rate." I think we have all kinds of room to use psychedelics for focused practical applications.
And a great Reddit thread, What drug will you never touch again and why? I learned that breathing air dusters is extremely dangerous, and that ambien causes creepy blackouts.
There are many good comments on cocaine, including this one that says "It doesn't do anything for me except make me want more cocaine." And this one by someone whose life and health got ruined, "All for the same effect of four Red Bulls basically."
And some good comments on DMT. This one has a fascinating metaphor: "I felt like a kid who spoiled Christmas by looking at his presents early." A sub-comment has an unusual set of beliefs that I expect to become more common:
Thanks to DMT I'm an atheist who believes in an afterlife, but I don't think a god exists. I just think it's another dimension as natural as this plane of existence. One day maybe science will figure it out. But shit dude, I've been there and it's all math and fractals.
May 8. The other day I suggested 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?
This leads to 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 their enemies.
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.