March - May, 2023

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March 6-10. Thread on Ask Old People: How do you guys feel about the new generation's idea that gender is malleable?

Most of the comments are agreeing that gender has always been varied and complex, it's just now becoming mainstream and politicized. I think the current looseness and complexity in gender is not an aberration -- it's been a long time coming. The dominant gender roles that we've been living under -- even if you include stereotypical gay men and lesbians -- are much simpler than the full range of human feeling and expression. Meanwhile, the whole subject of gender has been sucked into the engines of polarization, and not just in the world of politics. A key paragraph:

I also had kids in the 2000s-2010s and was really frustrated with the shopping choices. If you had a girl, everything had to be PINK! Even car seats for crying out loud. Things that should never ever be gender specific suddenly were. Cups and plates--can't kids even take a drink without being gender-conscious? I couldn't find plain pajamas for my kids. It was pink and purple princess and unicorns for girls, or red and blue sports and cars for boys. I actively searched for something that was just blank or stripes or something, but no. Everything had to be printed with words like "mommy's little princess" or else be covered in soccer balls. Suddenly girls can't like dinosaurs or planets. Boys can't wear any color that approaches pastel. I think that division drove a lot of backlash. I'm a girl who likes science and math. I must be part boy!

Calling gender a spectrum doesn't go far enough, because a spectrum is only one dimension, and both poles have been locked down by marketing and Hollywood. I don't want to be anywhere on a spectrum from sports cars to unicorns, or from Marilyn Monroe to Burt Reynolds.

As for where this is going, surely the way we think about gender now will not be the way we think about it in 50 years. My optimistic guess is that chromosomes will mainly be used for medical purposes, and the line between men's and women's sports will be drawn by testosterone testing. And then there will be clusters of common gender categories, not that different from the ones we have now, but more people comfortably outside them.

Matt comments: "Phenomenologically, I can't find any 'masculinity' in pure consciousness. Where should I look? What should I look for?"

If masculinity and femininity are real, but they're not in pure consciousness, nor reliably in DNA, then they must be real on a level between those things. This is what transgender people actually report: even though my chromosomes say one thing, I feel like another thing on a deeper level. We've been talking about this level for thousands of years, from Plato's allegory of the cave to Jung's collective unconscious.

Personally, over the last few years I've been really enjoying exploring my feminine side. I'm writing female protagonists in fiction and playing female avatars in video games. But I don't identify as trans because I feel comfortable in a male body. Even if I'd been born female, and if I had a magic sex changing power, I would still be male for going out in public, because testosterone is a cheat code, and I don't want to be creeped on.

I don't see anyone saying, "I'm the spirit of one gender in the body of another, and I like it." So I'll continue to say that I'm a cis male who's ambitious about developing my anima.

March 10. Three links about work-life balance. The Perks Workers Want Also Make Them More Productive. Specifically, working from home, working fewer hours, and paid leave.

A Reddit thread about why Americans want to move to Germany

And Gabriel sends this tweet from NEETWorldOrder:

It must be nice to live in one of those European countries that peaked 400 years ago. It's like playing the game after you've already finished it. There's no money to be made and nothing to do anymore except sit around and find high quality ingredients for dinner.

March 13. Samsung "space zoom" moon shots are fake, and here is the proof. Specifically, Samsung smart phone cameras are using neural networks, trained on images of the moon, to fill in details in moon photos, that are not there in the raw photographs. This is a dangerous precedent, of photos being stealthily enhanced to show what's supposed to be there, potentially veering off from what's actually being seen.

March 22. Quick thought on using AI for creative work, inspired by this blog post, Why Write?

Why write an essay when you can type a few words and have AI generate one for you?
Writing is the process by which you realize that you do not understand what you are talking about. Importantly, writing is also the process by which you figure it out.

This is true for all kinds of creative work: music, painting, even programming or making furniture. Anyone who doesn't do the work in question, tends to imagine that the most difficult and valuable part of the job is forming the idea in your head, and then it's just a matter of simple physical actions to stamp your idea on the world.

It's exactly the opposite. Getting ideas is so easy that it often can be outsourced to AI. The difficult and valuable part of the job is negotiating with the world, wrangling with the details, revising your original idea, and so on. Paraphrasing Don Draper: Getting it right can be really hard, but it's inevitable, and you know it when you see it.

March 24. Tech guru Jaron Lanier: 'The danger isn't that AI destroys us. It's that it drives us insane'. Coincidentally, I'm reading the novel The Secret History, and a character says this about the Greek Furies: "And how did they drive people mad? They turned up the volume of the inner monologue, magnified qualities already present to great excess."

Lanier says this about Twitter:

It has a way of taking people who start out as distinct individuals and converging them into the same personality.... The example I use is Trump, Kanye and Elon. Ten years ago they had distinct personalities. But they've converged to have a remarkable similarity of personality, and I think that's the personality you get if you spend too much time on Twitter."

March 27. And Yet It Understands, a Hacker News thread in which techies are getting squishy about whether AIs are people.

Intelligence, understanding, volition, sentience, sapience, consciousness. We're using a lot of words to try to triangulate this thing. So far the most human-like chatbot is Microsoft's Sydney, so I'll frame the question like this: Does it make sense to ask what it's like to be Sydney, outside of human perception of Sydney?

My answer is no, and will continue to be no, no matter how many bitflips this thing can do. But I expect more people to answer yes, and not just because of emotion, but because of thinking.

Among educated westerners, the dominant philosophy is materialism: Lifeless matter is the fundamental reality, and aliveness and consciousness are emergent properties of matter once it gains enough complexity. It doesn't matter if the complexity is made out of cells or semiconductors. Inevitably, it stacks up into a person. Why not now?

My skeptical view of AI is based on a woo-woo philosophy: that what-its-like-to-be is fundamental, that "nature" is our interface with the greater sea of what-its-like-to-be, that matter is a story we tell each other to share the same world, and that our devices are made of our stories. So while the powers of AI may greatly exceed human powers, and will surely bring new dangers, the consciousness of AI remains a subset of human consciousness.

March 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.

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.

March 30. 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.

April 3-10. The age of average has a lot of 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.

Another article on the same subject, largely focusing on Airbnb, Welcome to AirSpace.

From the subreddit, an interesting perspective, 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 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.

The place where I really see the age of average is 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 stuff, like Captain & Tennille. Well, there has not been a hit song in this century that I like as much as Captain & Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together". I can assemble about five hours of Billboard hot 100 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. 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.

I'm also thinking about film. 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.

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 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 13. Via The Whippet, an Aeon article, 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 19-20. 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. So often that I wonder: When the dogs disagree, is it because they actually want to do those different things, or is it because they're testing dominance, against me or against each other?

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.

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?

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 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? Probably 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.

May 1. People say that drugs make you numb, that they temporarily block the misery of existence, that 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.

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.

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.

May 9. 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, and some fascinating comments on DMT. This one has a great 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 11. 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 13. 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 17. 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 25-30. 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, 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 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!

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.

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.

One bit of advice on changing habits. The first habit you have to change is getting mad at things that are wrong. "Inner peace" sounds like a cliche about the goal, when really it's an instruction about the process: The voices inside you have to be nice to each other.

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