June - July, 2023

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June 7. 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 13-14. With the Reddit blackout, I was planning to take a week off from blogging, but this morning I woke up full of words. 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 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.

Cory Doctorow describes it as Enshittification. That's an essay from earlier this year where he goes in painful detail through the whole process of how money ruins platforms. Matt summarizes, that it "isn't just the result of extractive capitalism, but a middle-man business model in which tech companies create chokepoints between customers and content creators -- whether the creators are musicians or journalists or advertisers."

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.

June 14-15. Continuing from the last post, I'm more interested in the psychological angle. Why don't the barons of capitalism retire on their first million and chill out, like I would? Where does the mental state come from, that no matter how much money they have, they're not satisfied?

Multiple readers offer reasons, and what it comes down to is, at every level of wealth, there's always some new comfort or benefit available, and then it's easy to feel like you need it. I can't relate to this because the main thing that makes me feel comfortable is free time.

But it occurs to me, these are also reasons that an unconditional basic income would not lead to a nation of people moping by on the minimum. It's just a more honest and efficient safety net. And the knowledge that you could get by on the UBI would lead to more risk-taking, and a more interesting economy.

On the subject of a million dollars not being enough, Cormac McCarthy just died, and he wrote his best novel on a fellowship of $236,000. I think there are thousands of people out there, maybe millions globally, who could produce something equally good if they were able to give all their time to it.

June 19. Today, some cool science. Surges of cosmic radiation from space directly linked to earthquakes. Either cosmic rays are somehow causing earthquakes, or when Earth is getting ready to have a quake, its magnetic fields change, changing the cosmic rays detected on the ground. Either way, this is a robust correlation whose causal mechanism has yet to be filled in.

Landmark study challenges century-old neuroscience paradigm: Brain shape might trump connectivity. "In other words, ripples in a pond may be a more appropriate analogy for large-scale brain function than a telecommunication network." I wonder if this has something to do with the mysteries of musical taste, or misophonia. Something comes in your ear, gets turned into brainwaves, and bounces around in just the right or wrong way.

June 21-23. I've been critical of normal "meditation", in which you sit still, focus on your breath, and attempt to empty your mind of thoughts. If I spend half an hour playing piano, not only do I have a good time, but I make clear progress in whatever little thing I'm working on. Not so with meditation, a tedious chore with no obvious benefit. But I've come to appreciate a subtle benefit, which is that I become nicer at correcting myself.

As a beginner, you're not going to go three seconds with a blank mind, before you slip back into thinking again. Maybe it takes another three seconds to notice and try again. Do the math: that's ten times a minute, or 300 times in half an hour, that you're correcting yourself. It's impossible to get mad at yourself that much. Inevitably, you're going to learn to re-center yourself without making such a fuss. And this is going to rub off on all kinds of other things, not only mistakes you make, but annoying things the world does, like pop-up windows and traffic lights.

Chris comments:

I have been meditating 15 minutes most mornings now for the past couple months, and I have to say I think I finally "get it". It's not about beating my mind into silent submission. It's about cultivating patience with my own hectic thoughts, strengthening the muscle by which I calmly return to a place of intentional equanimity when I notice my mind going astray. And then, just as you say, I carry this muscle with me into the world.

June 21-25. I've said that "enlightenment" is not a thing, but a word that points to many different things, none of which is that impressive by itself. But suppose there is one big thing, that's not too far from what people imagine the word means. Mike Snider has compared it to seeing a magic eye image, where all of a sudden, all of reality reveals a hidden dimension.

I imagine it's similar to a mental state I can achieve by vaping a bit of weed, putting a good playlist on headphones, and going for a walk. This moment, and every mundane detail in it, feels charged with meaning. It's like I'm the POV of a video, or this is the scene that plays over the closing credits of my life.

So I try all kinds of tricks to achieve that mental state sober, and completely fail, but the process is still interesting. I pretend that I'm in a video game, or that I've just noticed I'm dreaming, or that I'm some kind of dimension-shifting traveler, and my normal neighborhood is actually a strange world I've just popped into.

For me, knowing the true nature of reality is like having a billion dollars. That's a lot of responsibility for something I might not actually enjoy. What I really want is less anxiety and more motivation. I'd like to glide smoothly through life instead of using force of will to drag myself around. And I'm making slow progress through centering myself in the present moment. My goal is to go an entire day without doing anything clumsy, and if I can do that, my next goal will be to go an entire day without forgetting where I put something down.

Condensed from a longer email, unwashed mendicant comments:

Awakening or Buddha-mind isn't some esoteric knowledge. Have you ever had a friend come to you with a problem, and you realize it's so fucking simple and obvious, but you know they wouldn't listen even if you told them, so you just keep quiet? It's like that. It's like someone tells you a joke, and you laugh at first but then on your way home you realize the real punch line you laugh so hard you crash your car.

You still think awakening will give you super powers. It's more like learning you've been wearing your shoes backwards the whole time. Except sometimes you forget and you put your shoes on backwards again so you have to remind yourself.

But also once you open the box you can't get mad at anybody or even yourself anymore, because you realize on an intuitive gut instinctual level rather than a cerebral one that you, your best friend, your worst enemy, Miles Davis, Donald Trump, the sun, chocolate cake, and orgasms are all corn kernels in the same dog shit, indivisible and united for all eternity.

June 23. The latest Whippet has an interesting discussion of the Oxford comma. Personally, I ignore rules and treat every sentence as its own puzzle, where the goal is smooth diction and clear communication. Lately, I've even started to like comma splices, I just did one and it's absolutely incorrect, but sometimes it flows better than a period or semicolon.

June 26. On a tangent from last week's subject, I mentioned trying to change my mental state by pretending I'm in a video game. This raises the question: Why do video games feel better than normal life?

I can think of four reasons, and I'll list them in order of increasing difficulty of getting over them.

First is novelty. Getting over novelty is inevitable, and happens with all technologies. Radio was magical when it was new, and now it's mostly boring.

Second is that games have flashier quests. Killing zombies to save the world is more interesting than walking to the store to buy cilantro. But appreciating life's little quests is something we can practice and get better at. And they're usually less stressful.

Third is a denser reward structure. In a game, you're constantly unlocking benefits and upgrades, or at least getting a clear message that you've done something right. How often does this happen in real life? I think this is why people get obsessed with money, because money is a quantitative reward that's at least sort of related to the quality of your actions.

Finally, I don't see any way to get over the fact that games are much easier. How long does it take, in a game, before you understand how stuff works and you feel like you know what you're doing? Minutes for an easy game, and maybe a few weeks for a hard game. In life, even after decades, you're still unlocking new levels of your own incompetence.

This why a good answer to "What is the meaning of life?" is learning. Unlike being happy, learning is something you always have plenty of room to do.

July 3. The other day I picked up the classic 1969 book Altered States of Consciousness, and opened to a section on meditation. Everyone knows that you're supposed to "be here now". But be here now with what? A suggestion was to be here now with whatever you turn your attention to, when someone asks "How are you?"

If you succeed in being present, you can ask yourself this question: What's more troubling? That this moment will be completely forgotten? Or that it will never be forgotten? I'm sure people will answer both ways. The point is that it has to be one or the other, and neither one is something we go around thinking. And either one, if taken as true, will bring your mind into the present moment, whether to appreciate it before it slips away, or because you don't want to look bad in the Akashic records.

July 10. Fascinating Hacker News thread about crossword puzzles with multiple solutions. I wonder if reality works the same way, if the field of whatever, from which we extract sense data and construct the world, could be interpreted as something radically different but still internally consistent.

July 12-17. After years of struggling with posture, I'm making progress. In Tai Chi, they say to pretend there's a string at the top of your head that your body is hanging from. While that's not unhelpful, my body needs something less suggestive and more concrete. A lot of people say to pull your shoulders back, which is the right kind of instruction but completely wrong.

This is what I'm doing. First, stand normally. Second, tilt your pelvis forward as far as you possibly can. Another way to think of it is to tilt your belt buckle upward. Third, raise your breastbone as high as you possibly can. Now, while maintaining those extreme stretches, walk around the room. I wouldn't do this in public, it would be too silly. It's basically the George Jefferson walk. But as an exercise, it's working better than anything I've tried before. Now I just have to remember to do it more of the time, and work on smoothness.

Bob mentions a posture guru named Jonathan FitzGordon. I checked out his stuff and it's funny because he's trying to correct a problem that's the opposite of mine. He says people are leaning back too much and not sticking their butt out enough. My problem is slouching toward a hunchback and not tucking my butt enough. My exercise is good for pushing back against my specific imbalance. But for actual walking around, I can go a long way with a simple instruction: keep my stomach firm all the time.

Matt comments: "From having studied massage therapy, I think the body adapts to whatever the mind is doing with it, for good or ill. If you sit for hours per day, the body learns that's its default position. The body doesn't "know" how to go from sitting hours per day to perfect posture. The body is a dynamic semi-solid system shaped by whatever is done with it.

Update: After more testing, these are my instructions for walking around: 1) firm stomach; 2) tucked chin; 3) be loose.

July 19. Interesting Hacker News thread, Whatever happened to the coming wave of delivery drones? The main answer is that FAA regulations are still catching up, but also, drones don't have a lot of range, they're affected by weather, and they need a place to land. My utopian vision for delivery drones is to make it easy for people to be hermits, like Christopher Knight, whose only problem was that he had to steal food to survive. At this point, the technological challenges are smaller than the legal and cultural challenges, for society to tolerate people having stuff openly delivered to land they're not paying to live on.

July 24. This week, theology, by which I mean, subjects that philosophers avoid while religions tell you what to think. I've been listening to a great lecture series, the Early Middle Ages by Philip Daileader. And I found out there was a guy who thought pretty much what I do, back in the year 400. He was an Irish monk who moved to Rome and called himself Pelagius. In the context of Christianity, he said that there's no original sin, that we're all born clean, and evil is just a bunch of bad habits that humans have fallen into. Jesus didn't save us, but set an example of how to live. We all have free will and personal responsibility for living better, and if we eventually get it right, earth will be a lot like heaven.

Pelagius was strongly opposed by Augustine, who believed that this world is a cesspool of misery, that our only hope for feeling good is in the afterlife, and that we can only get there through the incomprehensible whims of an authoritarian supreme being. He didn't even think you could get to heaven by your own actions, only if God, while fixing the deterministic timeline, decided he liked you. This was too much for Christians at the time, although it was picked up more than a thousand years later by Calvinists, with their idea that you can tell who God already likes, it's the rich people.

July 26. Today, evil. What is it and where does it come from? I don't believe in original sin, but I think mistakes are inevitable, and evil is just a very big mistake that humans have fallen into. I've been thinking about how to define it, and come up with three principles.

1) Evil is defined by the mental state of the evildoer, not the feelings of the victim. Otherwise we have to say tornadoes are evil.

2) Evil is social. It's about the relationship, in the mind of the evildoer, with other people. If you have to say "I don't care about other people," then you care about other people. It would not occur to a hawk to say "I don't care about mice."

More precisely, evil is egocentric and adversarial. It requires a sense of "self" that's not just your stream of experience, but a third person view of who you supposedly are, and a preoccupation with the status or significance of that self, in competition with the not-self, such you can score points by setting apart the self and the not-self, and by bringing the not-self down. But this is all normal for humans. Evil requires something more.

3) Evil is compulsive: not just doing something bad once or twice, but surrendering to a pattern of knowingly doing a harmful thing over and over. This compulsion forms a sub-personality that fights back against attempts to dissolve it, and a useful metaphor is demonic possession, although I don't believe in demons as something real outside of humans.

What can we do about evil? Well, there's nothing you can do about the mental state of another person, sometimes not even if they ask for your help. The best you can do is to protect yourself from the effects of that mental state, and not get caught up in the drama.

If you think there might be some evil in you, there are a lot of things you can do, and I think the best word for the antidote to evil is neither good, nor love, but innocence -- not the absence of wrongdoing, but a mental state of receptive friendliness to whatever comes up. Of course innocence makes pain sharper, and threats more dangerous. You don't have to feel that way all the time. It's just a move you can make to break the grip of the compulsion.

July 28. Continuing on evil, my definition isn't airtight, and surely evil is clever enough to have counter-measures for innocence. I think the main one is compartmentalization. Someone's surface personality could be full-on puppy dog, while they're unaware of a sinister sub-personality that's pulling the strings. Conversely, a person lacking empathy can still be benign, through careful understanding of the effects of their actions.

I'm also thinking about institutional evil, which works by outsourcing compulsive selfishness to the rules of the institution. This happens a million times a day: Our company has to do this bad thing, because to do otherwise would lower the stock value. Can a corporation made up of 100% good people still be evil? I think the key, again, is compartmentalization. One thing evil must do to survive, is block the expansion of awareness.

Matt comments:

When you're intentionally harming others, there are basically two metacognitive options: you can tell yourself a story that the harm has a point, or you can understand it as pointless.

I've seen people choosing the second option, but it's mostly in relation to animals -- people shooting jackrabbits from their trucks for fun, or kids stepping on ants. I have this vague childhood memory of getting upset at my best friend for stomping a bunch of ants on the sidewalk. He got mad at me for getting mad.

Spelling it out: First, there's the motive to feel good. Second, there's the discovery that you can feel good by doing something harmful. Third, there's the challenge to be aware of the harm you're doing. Fourth, there's hostility to that expansion of awareness.

I don't think it makes sense to say a person is evil, only that a person has fallen into a compelling mistake, and they may or may not manage to climb out.

July 31. The latest issue of The Whippet covers something I was already planning to write about: the Parable of the Vineyard Workers. While I'm not Christian, there are two things in the New Testament that I've found more helpful than anything in any other religion. One is "Judge not that you be not judged," and the other is this parable, in which the vineyard owner pays some workers the standard wage for a full day; but then he keeps bringing in more workers, and paying them the same wage for less and less work. The early workers say, that's not fair, they should get less than us. And the owner says, fuck off, I can be generous.

The standard interpretation is that the wage is eternal life in heaven, the early workers are people who were righteous their whole lives, and the late workers are people who repent late in life. Another interpretation is that the wage is making earth more like heaven, and we can't move in that direction unless we agree that people who come later will get a better deal than people who came earlier.

Another interpretation is that the early workers are your past self, the late workers are your future self, and the wage is any beneficial change in your habits. Your present self may resist this change, on behalf of your past self, because you don't want to admit that you've been doing it wrong all this time for no good reason.

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