August - October, 2015

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August 10. A New Physics Theory of Life is about a physicist who thinks that the appearance and development of life is driven by something deeper than evolution. In a system with an external source of energy, like the sun, and a surrounding heat bath, like the ocean or the atmosphere, matter tends to arrange itself into self-replicating units that are good at dissipating heat, which is basically what life does. Also the same process can lead to structures like snowflakes and sand dunes, so "the distinction between living and nonliving matter is not sharp."

August 17. This is by far the best video of the Tianjin port explosion. Not only does it have excellent visuals, it also tells a story: the explosions get bigger, and you can hear the changing emotions of the people watching. This event is a good test case for doom forecasters. Shipping of raw materials, manufacturing, and shipping of finished products have all been set back weeks or months, and by watching how these delays ripple through the global economy, we can get a sense of how fragile or robust the various big systems are. [Update 2020: apparently robust, because no one remembers this.]

August 26. Reddit comment about South Korea's loudspeakers on the North Korea border, and how they subvert North Korea through superior information and culture. I'm wondering how many of the military conquests of history could have been done this way. If you have a stronger military than your opponent, and a stronger culture, then it should be possible to use your military in a purely defensive role to protect a cultural invasion. If a nation uses its military for offense, then the people in charge either believe they're culturally weaker, or they enjoy violence, or they're fighting for economic reasons.

August 31. I've been thinking more about a subject I wrote about four months ago in this post: "If this is a mindless universe of particles and waves in which consciousness appeared by accident, how unlucky are we that pleasant consciousness is so elusive?"

My latest angle is: with all the powers of technology, why have we still failed to "game the system" of human well-being? If I told you there was a pill that simply made you happier, with no other effects, you wouldn't believe it. We do have drugs that will enable someone with severe depression to barely function, or someone with AIDS to not die, but it seems impossible to find shortcuts from average to above average. Why can't I take a pill to be healthy without eating vegetables or exercising? Even vitamin supplements, which seemed like a shortcut to health, have turned out to be mostly useless or harmful.

This is easy to explain with metaphysics: God wants you to be a better person more than He wants you to have a good time. I lean toward Taoism: the physical world is like the surface of a deeper reality that we can never fully understand, but if we can partly understand it and go with the flow, life is better. And I think the Tao wants us to try to game the system. That's what everything alive does, and the history of life on earth is organisms finding temporary hacks.

Humans have been extremely successful at hacking the external world, and it's strange, given how well we have mastered nature, that we have failed to master ourselves. This implies that God, the Tao, the metaphysical frontier, is not out there in the universe, but inside us.

Can we explain this through pure materialism? The nice thing about a random and meaningless universe is that it should be completely hackable. In theory, if you imagine the greatest moment of your life, you could experience that over and over forever. You might object that any level of bliss will just become the new normal, but in theory that's just one more obstacle that we can overcome. (For some good sci-fi on this, read Permutation City by Greg Egan.)

These obstacles, in the materialist model, are on the level of human biology. Our bodies have evolved over tens of millions of years to put survival above everything, and feeling good is how our bodies reward us for doing things that tend to keep the species going. In the ancestral environment, anyone who found a way to game the system tended to die without offspring, so the capacity for taking shortcuts has been bred out of us.

Outside the ancestral environment, I can see why it's still hard to hack health: you can patch a broken machine to make it barely work, but the only way to improve a well-running machine is to invent a whole new machine that runs better. But it seems strange that we haven't been more successful at hacking feeling good. I expect us to keep trying, and I'm curious to see where future hedonic technology works and doesn't work, and if we become more accepting of feeling good for no good reason.

September 2. Some philosophical loose ends from the last post. Just as light can behave like either a particle or a wave, I think that reality can behave either like it's made of matter or like it's made of mind, depending on how you look at it.

Science is what emerges when many perspectives over time observe the same stuff until they reach agreement. If this consensus-building is in its early stages, or if the nature of the experience makes it impossible in the first place, then observations are inconsistent, materialist philosophy is awkward, and it works better to think of reality as a giant dream that's only partially shared.

But the shared part of the dream is where the power is. I don't really believe that reality is mindless, physical, and objective, but that assumption has more practical value than assuming the opposite. You could spend 20 years meditating and not get the same insights (or the same dangers) as if you spent five years studying chemistry to learn to synthesize LSD. Even in parts of the world with a philosophical background that puts mind before matter, they don't have schools teaching telepathy or remote viewing or other mind-based skills that seem like magic; but using the internet to view a color-enhanced image of Pluto seems totally like magic.

What's going to happen when we use increasingly powerful technologies, achieved through an objective materialist view of reality, to explore the subjective idealist internal world?

September 9. After my August 31 post, a reader thought I wanted to fool myself into being happy. I'm going to continue to use the term "feeling good" because it's both broader and clearer than "happiness". And if it makes sense to fool myself into feeling good, then of course I don't want to do it. But what if it doesn't make sense? What's the difference between real feeling good and fake feeling good? It's not the feeling itself. It's that feeling good is supposed to be a secondary effect of living well. Okay, then what is the purpose of living well? I think it ultimately comes back around to feeling good -- or if there's something more than that, it's in the realm of metaphysics.

My thesis, in its most shocking form, is that all morality and meaning are grounded in hedonism or God. But I have to qualify that because "God" implies a human form and I'm thinking of something more like the Tao. And "hedonism" implies feeling good in a short-sighted way -- the hedonist gets drunk without full awareness of the hangover.

But imagine omniscient hedonism: seeking all kinds of feeling good, in all life, for all time, and all in balance. This is my idea of the immanent Divine -- the deeper intelligence or algorithm that is identical with the world. The transcendent Divine, if it exists, would be an unseen larger world served by this world, probably by making it feel good in ways beyond our understanding.

So hedonism and God, if defined broadly enough, overlap into the same thing. Where does this leave other sources of morality and meaning? Well, it's hard to keep track of the good feelings of all life everywhere, so we take shortcuts, like "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Most moral shortcuts are not so benign. Ideology is what happens when our minds get so fixated on an idea that we forget why it's supposed to be valuable. It feels good to focus your mind to a point, but when this mixes with morality or meaning it leads to tragedy. Think of your favorite nutcase fundamentalists and all the harm they would do if they had more power.

Ideology can be deconstructed by "doing the math": explaining precisely how this value or goal leads to feeling good all around. We can never do this perfectly, but just trying to do it keeps us grounded in reality. And it's good to start with our own feelings because we experience them with more accuracy and depth than the feelings of others.

Going back to the original point: if feeling good is the source of all meaning, is there any reason not to game the system, to use drugs or other hedonic shortcuts? One reason is if you're in a position of power, because you need to be tuned into the feelings of the people affected by your decisions. But in the modern political system, who has any power? If you have no power even over your own life, there is no reason not to feel good through drugs. This is why drug addiction is not a moral issue but a political issue: the less socially connected you are, the more likely it is that disconnected good feeling is your best choice.

Even in Utopia, there's a place for good feeling that's disconnected from the outer world, because you're still connected to an inner world. This opens up a whole new subject: the difference between using a drug (a game, a show, a song, a fantasy, an idea) to explore your inner world, or to avoid exploring it. If you trust yourself to make this decision, you have more fun.

September 11. I just wrote this grumpy comment on reddit, about how the world has changed during my life:

More and more products are advertised for what they don't have instead of what they have. Everything is this-free and that-free. It troubles me that the word "free", which is supposed to mean something like wildness, is now used for puritanism. "Woo-hoo, the wind is blowing through my hair because of my dietary restrictions!"

September 11. Why boring cities make for stressed citizens. There's stuff about how we're biologically adapted for complex environments, how rats in stimulating environments are much smarter, and a bit at the end about how boredom might be good for us.

September 14. After Roberta Vinci, a 300-1 underdog, knocked off Serena Williams in the US Open, she gave this great post match interview. The best bit is where the interviewer asks what made her think she could win, and she just says "No." She had already scheduled her flights assuming she would lose. This debunks an annoying motivational doctrine, that success comes from believing in success. More often it's the other way around: success comes from letting go of results and focusing on the process. "Try to enjoy, don't think about Serena, play."

September 21. Wonderful widgets: components become more elegant with software that produces the most efficient shape. This reminds me of the idea that any sufficiently advanced civilization is indistinguishable from nature.

Related: Edward Snowden: we may never spot space aliens thanks to encryption, because when encryption gets good enough, the signals are indistinguishable from random cosmic background radiation. Now I'm thinking, what if all randomness is actually well-encrypted meaning? Maybe our brains are nothing more than decryption keys.

September 25. It's been a while since I've written about entertainment. Leigh Ann and I finally finished watching the entire series of House MD. If I were in charge, at the end of every episode they would find a final anomaly that disproved the diagnosis that cured the patient, and the patient would go home and they would never, ever have an airtight answer. Because that's how reality works.

September 28. Some photos of wild stuff taking over ruins: Nature against Civilization. But I don't view it as a conflict -- I see an artistic collaboration between nature and human builders to create beauty that neither could create alone. Both are trying to create something useful to their world, not with hostility but with indifference to the needs of the other world. But nature knows how to use the human world without actively destroying it, and humans are not good at that yet.

September 28 - October 5. Motivation Part 1: The Hierarchy of Needs. As I get older, motivation is the one psychological skill that doesn't get any easier. It might even be getting harder. I can explain this in terms of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs: the higher you are in the pyramid, the more motivation is a problem. So if you're starving, your only problem is finding food, and the issue of motivation doesn't even arise. But if you're well fed and comfortable and have a decent social role, motivation might be your only problem.

If motivation comes from urgency of need, and you're totally unmotivated to do something, then you should ask yourself whether you really need it. Maybe you just don't fully understand that you need it. For example, you might be unmotivated to eat better and exercise until you almost die of a heart attack.

Or maybe your lazy self is right: you can't motivate yourself to do that thing because it's not something you would actually enjoy, only something your culture tells you is valuable.

The top of Maslow's pyramid is "self-actualization", which sounds like a 1970's fad. Maslow died in 1970 and he had already changed his mind and said the top of the pyramid should be "self-transcendence". A traditional culture might say the top of the pyramid is honoring your ancestors. Elon Musk would say it's colonizing space. Is there a correct answer, or is it pure cultural relativism? Maybe each culture fills the top of the pyramid with whatever best perpetuates that culture, so the top level is just a projection of the respect and belonging levels below it.

Part 2: The End of Poverty. Once your basic needs are met, a good thing to do is help meet the needs of other people. But what happens if we get there? Imagine it's the year 2500 and nobody in the world needs anything. If motivation is driven by necessity, what do we do all day?

One answer is to find increasingly trivial ways to be dissatisfied. There's already a phrase for this, "first world problems", like The Starbucks down the street from me doesn't have drive through, so I had to drive to the one further down the street.

Another answer is to use virtual reality to have the best of both worlds: all our needs are met, but we can enter an illusion of struggling to survive, or fighting for epic goals that don't destabilize the actual system.

Another answer is to see unstructured time as an opportunity. From this week's Guardian: Boredom is not a problem to be solved. It's the last privilege of a free mind. The Hacker News thread has some semantic discussion of the word "boredom", and also a great comment about how animals in the wild have a different spirit than animals in zoos.

We're smarter than lions, and I like to think it's possible for us to have wild spirits without giving up the benefits of modernity. At least not all of them.

Part 3: The Starter and the Engine. So how do we motivate ourselves right now? Everyone wants to look back and say I worked out and got in shape, I learned to play guitar, I wrote a novel, but hardly anyone wants to do that stuff. How do you get yourself to do something that you know is good for you, but you totally don't feel like doing?

The simplest move is to just bite the bullet and force yourself to do it. That's how I brush my teeth every night. But if you try that on a long term project or a deep lifestyle change, you're going to crash and burn.

Motivational speakers and motivational sayings give only a short-term benefit. It's like there are a bunch of cars with faulty engines, and what we call motivation is about jump-starting them so they go for a bit and then break down again.

Except the "engine" is not a feature of individuals. It's a relationship between personality and environment. The right way to apply social motivation is not through the goal but through the process. Goal support would be "I believe in you, you can build a house and everyone will admire you." Process support would be "Nail this board to this other board because I'm your friend and you don't want to let me down."

Process-based social support is so difficult and time-intensive that you almost always have to pay for it, and even then it's usually not that good. Being self-taught is impressive not because learning is hard, but because without social support you can't devote thousands of hours to learning something unless it's something you are made to do.

We're always told to follow our dreams, but committing to an activity that you dream about but haven't really done is like marrying for beauty. It only works out if you're very lucky, because your dreams are in no position to know what you're going to continue to enjoy doing hour after hour, day after day, year after year.

So my answer to motivation is to use brute force for the little things, and for the big things, try a bunch of different stuff until you find what you tend to keep doing. This must be what writing teachers mean by "finding your voice": your voice is whatever kind of writing feeds back into you and keeps you going.

Part 4: Chasing Improvement. A year ago I posted some comments about motivation from a guitar teacher, about how his best students break the practice down into a series of tiny goals, so they're always getting a feeling of reward. And Friday I got this comment from Sheila about how she stuck with working out and losing weight:

What keeps me on target is seeing the positive changes in my life. I think it would be nearly impossible if I were trying to do something where I could not see or feel improvement in some way.

Now I'm thinking you can hack your motivational system by learning to notice smaller and smaller improvements. But there still has to be a context in which the improvements are valuable. And once our physical comfort is guaranteed, what counts as an improvement is mostly a function of personality and culture. If you like listening to music, and your friends are musicians, getting better at playing music will have high value.

But what if you like cutting down trees? Destruction is easier than creation, and I think most of the tragedies of history happened because whole cultures discovered that they could feel good by telling themselves that something easy was an improvement. Masanobu Fukuoka said, "The increasing desolation of nature, the exhaustion of resources, the uneasiness and disintegration of the human spirit, all have been brought about by humanity's trying to accomplish something."

Finally, a comment from Aaron:

It's been a while since I read the Continuum Concept but I remember Jean Liedloff describing the elders of the community and how their focus on life was achieving bliss. From what I understood they were aiming to have a perfectly still mind and to just let bliss wash over them. I know that western eyes see a stone age people as living in a state of extreme deprivation but as far as the Yequana people were concerned they had everything they needed - which is why the elders could indulge themselves by aiming to live in a perpetual state of bliss.

October 19. From the collapse subreddit, Missing the forest for the trees. It reminds me of an insight from Dmitry Orlov: that large-scale collapse, viewed on the scale of ordinary lives, seems like personal failure. But this post goes into more detail, and it adds an even more interesting idea: that collapse can seem like success if our values change so that necessary adaptations are stuff we want to do anyway.

October 21. Correlation, Causation, and Confusion is a long article about that subject, and if you're smarter than me and want to get deeper into causality theory, Andy recommends the book Causality by Judea Pearl. Anyway, the point of the article is that Big Data is based entirely on correlation, and this is bad, because no amount of correlation-based computing can tell us what's going to happen if we intervene in a system. So the more our society uses computers to make decisions without understanding causality, the more often those decisions are going to be wrong.

October 26-30. David Graeber piece, What's the Point If We Can't Have Fun? When industrial age biologists see animals playing, they assume it must have some hidden utilitarian value -- but this assumption is purely cultural, a projection of our selfish and mechanistic society onto nature. Graeber looks at some other perspectives that could put play at the heart of reality:

Unlike a DNA molecule, which we can at least pretend is pursuing some gangster-like project of ruthless self-aggrandizement, an electron simply does not have a material interest to pursue, not even survival. It is in no sense competing with other electrons. If an electron is acting freely -- if it, as Richard Feynman is supposed to have said, "does anything it likes" -- it can only be acting freely as an end in itself. Which would mean that at the very foundations of physical reality, we encounter freedom for its own sake -- which also means we encounter the most rudimentary form of play.

So if electrons are playing, and bacteria and insects and squirrels are playing, and tribal humans are playing most of the time, and modern humans are hardly playing at all, then what happened? One answer is that this is a dead end and we should go back to the stone age or go extinct. I like to think we're a work in progress, an attempt by universal play to manifest at higher levels of complexity, or within our particular mode of consciousness.

Right after reading the Graeber essay, I went with Leigh Ann to a catsit where part of the job was to play with the cat. Watching it jump around chasing a toy on a string, I thought, how often do modern adult humans get to play like this cat?

Basically never. When we're "playing" sports or games we're much more serious, especially at higher levels where winning and losing have heavier consequences. Even board games and card games are more about competitive focus than strict-definition play. One partial exception is Cards Against Humanity -- and that's an interesting name given the idea that modern humans might be the least playful thing in the universe.

Video games can focus and expand our minds in valuable ways, but I can't think of a single one that's truly playful. Is this a failure by human game designers, or is it built into the hardware? How hard would it be to build an AI that could design and improvise a virtual world more creatively than a good human game master? Would we have better artificial intelligence if we judged and improved it by looking at playfulness, instead of using the Turing test which is based on symbolic language? Do we need to start over and build AI from a foundation that cannot be reduced to numbers and logic?

What can we do to make ordinary life more playful? Today I rode my bike to the store, and I noticed that there's a lot more room to playfully ride a bicycle than drive a car. Play is about sudden unpredictable movements, and if you try that in a car you're going to crash. So the most playful society is the one that can tolerate and use the most surprising behavior.

You can read more about this subject in a book called Homo Ludens (pdf link) by Johan Huizinga. Huizinga uses children as an example of what real playing looks like, but that doesn't work in the 21st century because even children's activities are too structured now. I had to use a cat. Maybe that's why so many Millennials have social anxiety.

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