July - August, 2019

previous archive

July 1. So I've been watching the women's World Cup, and this year they're using VAR for the first time. It stands for video assistant referee, and almost everyone hates it. In theory it makes sure the calls on the field are right, but in practice, it breaks the flow of the game, and it allows results to be influenced by things so insignificant that only the machine can see them.

Now goals can be won by drawing the slightest brush of a cleat in the box, or lost by being half an inch offside. The most dramatic defensive play in the game, the saved penalty kick, is now even more rare because the VAR can see the goalkeeper taking her foot off the line a tenth of a second early.

My position is, the rules must serve the game, not the other way around; and the purpose of the game is to be fun for players and audiences. That fun is being lost, because rules that were designed for soft human enforcement are being interpreted by hard machines.

Of course this goes way beyond sports, into our high-tech surveillance society. With machines always watching us, we have to spend a lot of mental energy conforming to rules that were not intended for such strict enforcement, everything from red light cameras to speech codes.

Another rule change in world football, is what the refs look at when there's a handball in the box. They used to consider the player's intention, but now they've been instructed to ignore intention, and only rule on whether one physical object has impacted another. It's like we worship machines so much that we are turning ourselves into machines, devaluing any skill that humans have and machines don't.

Imagine trying to manage a business, or get along with your friends, without ever considering intention. But that seems to be where we're headed. The Supreme Court used to consider the intentions of the authors of laws, but at some point they started to look only at the text. At about the same time, the same thing happened in literary criticism.

I think these trends are part of a larger social trend of disconnection, atomization, stripping away of context. I'm not sure what's behind that trend, but it has to be cyclical, and I'm looking forward to the counter-trend, adding context back.

July 4. It is play, and not work, that gives life meaning. I like this definition of work: "whenever we do something only for the sake of something else." And the conclusion: "Children understand that the really important things in life are the things that are worth doing for their own sake."

There's a famous motivational quote: "Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." I figured out a trick for applying it: the timeframe to do what makes you come alive, is not in your grand plans for your whole life, but in a large number of small moments.

July 10. The other day I wrote, "I think the only two stable positions are panpsychism and solipsism." Obviously I'm not a solipsist, or there would be no point in writing for an audience. But I love the Boltzmann brain conjecture. The specific idea is about the physics of entropy, but the general idea is that it's easier to create a brain that dreams a universe, than to create a universe.

Imagine for a minute that you alone are dreaming all of this. You might ask, then why am I not all-powerful? The answer is, that would get boring, especially if you're immortal. So you arranged a bunch of challenges and constraints, and made yourself forget.

But then, who manages all the action behind the scenes? And what's in it for them? It seems like the best way to set it up, is just to split the one mind into many minds, with their own perspectives and motives.

Coming at it from the other side, panpsychism seems silly because we only know what it's like to be a human -- and not just any human, but a hyper-individualized modern human. We can't even ask what it's like to be a rock, because our word "be" carries too much baggage. Instead of saying rocks have consciousness, I like to say that consciousness has rocks. Something whose nature is not changed by being broken in two, would not have anything like a self, but it could be part of some kind of mind-matter field.

There's a popular idea that our beliefs and/or desires create reality. But it can't be that simple, because people on drugs, who completely believe they can fly, cannot fly, even when no one is looking. It must be because matter and gravity are looking. I wonder if people who claim to be creating their own reality, are just playing tricks with causality and identity, and what they've really done is aligned their beliefs and desires with what's going to happen anyway.

July 16-19. Is Medicine Overrated? In the old days, medical interventions did more harm than good. That changed with several "magic bullets": anesthesia, clean surgery, antibiotics, and vaccinations. Since then, we've been expecting more medical miracles, and instead we're getting massively rising costs, and magic bullets that are increasingly specific. Like, there's never going to be a general cure for cancer, but there are powerful new treatments for particular kinds of cancer.

It occurs to me, this is the same long tail that we're seeing in commerce and culture: instead of a few big things for everyone, we have a lot of little things for niche interests. This has something to do with social complexity, and I'm wondering how much more complex society can get, before it gets simpler.

July 26. I've been listening to a folk singer named Hana Zara. She grew up in Nebraska, moved to Manhattan, then Vermont, and then back to Nebraska. She's a good lyricist with a pretty voice, which is not the same as being a good songwriter, but I've gone through her discography and found three absolute gems.

From her first album in 2010, Little Doll is her catchiest song. I interpret it the same as the book of Ecclesiastes: all human activity is meaningless, but we should enjoy it anyway.

A lot of her songs are rambling, epic, and metaphorical, but You Burnt the Toast is short and down-to-earth, a perfect song about the beauty of small moments.

And from 2017, Hooray Hoorah nails my favorite theme, the yearning for something beyond this world. It could also be about the source that creative people tap into: "jumping right in, and coming up thinner every time."

July 29-31. Today's subject is how to be happy. How strange is it, that for almost any other goal, pursuing that goal makes you more likely to achieve it, but if you set happiness as a goal, you're less likely to achieve it? You could explain this in terms of evolution: as soon as a species figures out a shortcut to feeling good, which does not optimize survival, they feel good to extinction -- and we're the unhappy survivors. Or if you want to get more woo-woo, the Universal will not let us be persistently happy in a way that does not serve the Universal.

Here's a scholarly pdf chapter, The Paradoxical Effects of Pursuing Positive Emotion. From about halfway down, condensed:

The finding that pursuing happiness is associated with negative outcomes may lead us down a pessimistic path. Should we simply give up and resign to being miserable? The success of several happiness-enhancing interventions, however, suggests that pursuing happiness could lead to greater happiness if people do it in the right way.

The authors suggest: 1) setting lower standards for what will make you happy; 2) having more accurate knowledge about what does and does not make you happy; 3) not measuring your emotions against your desired happiness, but accepting your emotions whatever they are; 4) making your happiness-seeking behavior less conscious and more habitual.

And a nice little essay, What Swimming Taught Me About Happiness. As a frequent and mediocre swimmer, I totally know this: if you focus on how many seconds it takes to swim a lap, you end up swimming aggressively with sloppy form. The better strategy is to focus purely on having good form, and not care about your speed, and in the long term, you swim faster.

So what exactly is the good form that leads to happiness? This is a huge subject, with answers everywhere from ancient scriptures to t-shirt slogans. The saying, "Wherever you go, there you are," is basically Ecclesiastes 11:3, "If the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be." It's about not holding tension between the world in front of you and the world in your head.

Matt writes:

Doing mindfulness meditation has made me look at happiness a little differently. Vipassana practices entail focusing on direct raw sensations. When you do this, and get some stability in your concentration, then sensations you might ordinarily consider bad can become either neutral or fascinating.

Once you get away from the stories that spin out of certain emotional experiences, you see that the experiences are just vibrations, pressure, tightness, or whatever. You can clock them rising and fading away. You notice that even though you might be thinking you can't bear the experience, you are bearing it, and that your consciousness does not wholly conform to the wave-forms of the experience.

That pdf chapter says to make happiness-seeking behaviors automatic instead of conscious. That goes against a simple interpretation of mindfulness, where everything should be conscious all the time. Being conscious all the time takes a lot of mental energy, and my new metaphor is reprogramming the autopilot. You can break it into three steps: 1) make your habits conscious, 2) change them, and 3) let them be habits again. Step 1 is the scariest, step 2 takes all the work, and step 3 basically takes care of itself.

August 2. Reddit thread, Despite what you believe or don't believe, what do you WISH happens when we die? The afterlife is a cool subject, because it's untestable, it's wide open for imagination, and yet it tells us a lot about our own world.

What people wish for in the next life, is what they feel is missing in this life -- but it also has to have continuity with this life. It's a different question than what video game you want to step into.

Some people do put a video game spin on reincarnation: they imagine designing a new character to replay the game. But if I could be reincarnated as anything, the last thing I'd want to be is another human. If I were an insect, I would hatch with full knowledge of how to be that insect. But as a human in this world, after more than 50 years, I still feel like I'm struggling with the tutorial.

I like the idea of reliving my life and doing it right. But I wouldn't want to keep my memories, because every time I took a different path, I'd be thinking about what I missed. Instead, I'd like to just have the understanding to make the right choices. I'm actually pretty happy with the big choices I've made, but my micro-scale choices have been terrible.

It puzzles me that some people wish for total nothingness. If even one moment of your life was better than nonexistence, wouldn't you at least want more of that? I think what they really want, is something they don't know how to ask for, because our culture can't imagine it: awareness without existence.

August 8. The star that's older than the universe. I like this because I'm a Big Bang denier. That 2012 post argues that the universe might not be expanding, and even if it is, it need not have a beginning. But what I believe now is even crazier. I think we humans are at the mental center of our own private cosmos, that what we see in the sky is not filled in until we look at it, and it's filled in according to our own culture and expectations.

That explains Velikovsky's evidence that ancient people saw events in the heavens that we now consider impossible. It explains Charles Fort's evidence, mostly in the book New Lands, about the wild variability of observations in early astronomy. And it solves Fermi's paradox, the puzzling absence of aliens, because any other life smart enough to dream a universe, will be dreaming their own.

August 8. Recursive language and modern imagination were acquired simultaneously 70,000 years ago. I'm not going to try to summarize "recursive language". The important thing is that it requires both a certain kind of brain, and a certain kind of culture, which has to be learned in childhood. That means, people must have had the capacity, here and there, but it didn't take off until two children figured it out in the same time and place, built it up by talking to each other, and then taught their own children. What a story!

Related: There's evidence humans didn't actually see blue until modern times. What other cognitive upgrades are lurking in the realm of unknown unknowns? And suppose we've reached a stage where there are multiple upgrades available, that are not consistent with each other. I think biotech makes this even more likely: humanity diverging into many species that, as they get better, have less in common.

August 18. The Population Bust is a review of two books, both arguing that not only will the global population decline, it will happen faster than the UN is predicting.

It's funny, just twenty years ago, this doom scenario wasn't even on my radar: the whole world voluntarily having fewer kids, leading to a collapse of growth-based economies, and a glut of old people without enough young people to take care of them. But that's probably what's going to happen, at the same time as climate change, and whatever crazy stuff happens with AI and biotech.

Into this mess, I want to throw one idea: psycho-geography. Basically, some towns, cities, and neighborhoods, will be more mentally healthy than others, and those places will become magnets for the dwindling population. Meanwhile, the less mentally healthy places will become nasty, and eventually abandoned.

I mean, this is happening already, but now the migrations are more about money, which is sometimes the opposite of mental health. In a post-capitalist economy, developed nations will be preventing famine through social services that you can get almost anywhere. So migrations will be more about culture, or other non-financial measures of quality of life.

Looking farther ahead, the most successful localities could define the next age, maybe in different ways, as nation-states fade.

August 21. How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition. I completely agree with the author's general idea, but I don't quite like the way he frames it. He centers his argument on the word meritocracy, which he defines in terms of "talent and effort." But the crisis he describes is not at all about talent, but about the overvaluing of effort.

Here's a thought experiment. Imagine a society that still describes itself as a meritocracy, but in its definition of merit, it completely factors out the quantity of work you've done. So college admission might be determined by a series of tests, with a generous time limit, and designed so that studying gives you almost no advantage. Then, when you're applying for a job, you could be tested by doing the actual stuff you'll be doing in the job, and your score is simply the quality of your work.

I think that society would be a lot better than this one. Nobody would be in a hurry and everything would be done well. Some kind of balance would be even better. But we're all the way at the opposite extreme. We don't have even one college, or one job, that rewards the quality of your work and doesn't care about quantity.

I've seen some buzz lately about the male-female pay gap. But at least men and women are in the same ballpark. I'd like to close the much wider pay gap between hard workers and lazy people. I'm completely serious. Nobody really wants to do nothing all day. "Laziness" means holding out for activities that you find intrinsically enjoyable.

Another thought experiment. Imagine if the unconditional basic income, and the maximum income, were the same. If there were no connection between how much money you get, and what you do all day, then we'd find out what we really want to do all day. That's how I view the UBI, not as a way to soften the robot takeover of human work, but as a way to rebuild the world of human work, out of what we actually like doing.

August 26. This is the best article I've seen yet about social media, The machine always wins. It might not have any new ideas, but it's a great presentation of what we already know, including the similarities between social media and slot machines.

I've never used Twitter (except to view sports highlights) so I was surprised to read this: "On Twitter, if the replies to your tweet vastly outnumber the likes and retweets, you have gambled and lost." Apparently, if you agree with something on Twitter, you normally just like or retweet, and if you add a comment, it's normally because you disagree. That unwritten rule means that Twitter is a platform for shouting back and forth, and not for exploring or learning.

Imagine a social media site with this code: clicking the downvote button counts your downvote and then closes the tab; only if you first upvote, can you post a reply. Ideally every thread would be building up from the original idea. Of course, someone could easily get around that rule, but I wonder if it would be enough to shift the culture.

The article's next paragraph concludes that Twitter "is a terrible place to idly propose provocative theses." So now I'm thinking, how do we make a good place to idly propose provacative theses? That's basically what I've tried to do with this blog. I've done it by not enabling comments, by avoiding hot-button subjects, and by writing in a dense style that you have to slow down to understand.

August 28. The other day I mentioned how cannabis enables me to hear ambient noise, like traffic or a washing machine, as a symphony. Kyle sends this video, John Cage about silence, in which he says, "If you listen to Beethoven, or to Mozart, you see that they're always the same. But if you listen to traffic, you see it's always different."

John Cage is famous for a piece that's supposedly four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. But that description misses the point. The music in 4'33" is not silence, but whatever subtle ambient sounds the silence reveals.

So then I looked into Cage's solo piano. From 1948, Dream sounds like someone randomly hitting keys, and it's also perfectly beautiful. That's really hard to do. This summer I've been playing lots of piano on a digital keyboard, and I might start by randomly hitting keys, but then I'll narrow it to set of keys that sound good together, and then I'll find a riff and just jam on it. What Cage does is to avoid falling into any seductive pattern, to stay in the chaos of early experimentation, but keep it sounding good.

This is basically the same as meditation, where you avoid falling into patterns of thinking, and just keep your mind loose and wide without getting bored.

Digging deeper, even John Cage's "Dream" is like a pop cover of Erik Satie's Vexations. It's half a page of sheet music, in a weird notation, with instructions to "play the theme 840 times in succession." It was forgotten until Cage published it and organized the first performance, which took 18 hours.

According to this New Yorker essay, A Dangerous and Evil Piano Piece, Vexations is so anti-earworm that "Even after hundreds of repetitions, players are forced to sight-read from the beginning, as if learning for the first time." And from Wikipedia:

Maybe Satie's intent was nothing more than to prove that any harmonic and rhythmic system was only a matter of habit for the hearer: so that after listening 840 times to a chordal system that is at odds with any habitual one, and set in an odd metre, one would possibly start to experience this new system to be as natural as any other."

August 30. Posted the other day to the subreddit, a smart Aeon essay about why intentional communities fail. My comment in the thread picks on one detail. In the list of reasons that communities fail, one of these is not like the others:

Malarial infested swamps, false prophecy, sexual politics, tyrannical founders, charismatic con-men, lack of access to safe drinking water, poor soil quality, unskilled labour, restless dreamer syndrome, land not suitable for farming.

I can find no reference to "restless dreamer syndrome" anywhere else on the internet. The author just made it up, and she neither defines it nor explains why it's bad for communities.

To me it sounds like the voice of a culture that has gone astray from human nature, disparaging two aspects of human nature that it no longer has a place for: nomadism and imagination. Even utopian communities can't make a place for those things, because the surrounding society has property laws that prevent communities from being nomadic, and because they set up rules that limit the ongoing contributions of imagination and creativity -- which is basically another form of nomadism, social or spiritual rather than geographical.

So a deeper reason communities fail is because they imitate the settled nature of the dominant culture. The Aeon essay has a similar conclusion:

Perhaps a more useful construct than intentional community is the idea of 'shadow culture', defined by Taylor as a 'vast unorganised array of discrete individuals who live and think different from the mainstream, but who participate in its daily activities'. Shadow cultures have the potential to hold distinct values, but also utilise the infrastructure and opportunities of mass society.

And the next comment in the thread, by MakeTotalDestr0i:

The most resilient intentional communities are gutter punk types because the conditions they live in are extremely variable. They build community and break apart in geography only, not as much socially, but continue existing and reforming over and over in different places with somewhat varying groups of people but usually enough crossover that there is a consistent feeling of continuity.

September 2, Labor Day. Continuing from last week, Eric comments on what the author of the intentional community piece might have meant by restless dreamer syndrome: "What that phrase conjures for me is the person who floats into a group looking for some ideal experience, then wanders off when it is time to do some heavy lifting."

The more I think about this subject, the more questions I have. Why do we have so little faith in the dominant system, that we expect a better experience from a system that's new and untested?

How can there be a scarcity of people willing to do useful work, in a species that has done such an excess of useful work that we have turned forests into deserts and destabilized the climate?

Why do small communities always have a shortage of workers, while the big economy always has a shortage of jobs?

What if a community actually succeeded in building a way of living that was clearly better? How could they avoid being violently taken out by the dominant system?

Why is there so little overlap between what we feel like doing, and what's good for us to do? Why are humans the only species in the world that has this problem?

next archive