"I see more of what is going on around me because I am not concerned with finding a parking place."
-Risa Mickenberg, Taxi Driver Wisdom
October 22. Thanks Alex for sending this reddit thread, What are hobbies? It's all about how much better creative activities are if you keep them separate from money, but how the economy is so tight now that few people can afford to do that.
Not to end the week on a low note, this is a rare thing, a song that is really good, popular, and from this century: The Joy Formidable - Whirring
October 20. Stray links, starting with two on transportation. This is the high end of stealthy vehicle living, a studio apartment in a box truck.
And Heavy-Lift Cargo Drone Makes First Public Flight. That link goes to the Hacker News comment thread. It can haul 200kg 40km, or 440 pounds 25 miles. I predict, by 2100, most rural freight and travel will be done by air, because it will turn out to be cheaper than maintaining roads and bridges. Even in places where it is cheaper to maintain roads and bridges, there may not be the political will to do so.
And four medical links, starting with this depressing Reddit thread, What are some of the darker effects Covid-19 has had that we don't talk about?
The Implications of Low Cholesterol in Depression and Suicide. "The brain is the most cholesterol-rich organ in the body, and depriving the brain of essential fatty acids and cholesterol can lead to detrimental health problems."
Black mamba venom is better painkiller than morphine
Psychedelic use associated with lower odds of heart disease and diabetes. "The researchers controlled for age, gender, marital status, race, annual household income, level of education, engagement in risky behavior, and the use of other types of drugs. But... 'The direction of causality remains unknown.'"
October 18. Still continuing on emotions, there's a growing ambition of using AI to detect them. My first question is, what is the context in which this would happen? Why not just ask people what they're feeling and expect them to answer honestly?
Emotion-detecting AI implies a context of mistrust. It would be done by states that don't trust their citizens, or corporations that don't trust their workers, or social media platforms that don't trust their members.
The science is clear: emotions are not the kind of thing that AI can detect. They're so soft-wired that even electrodes in our brains could not unlock their mystery. What AI can detect, and it's getting better, are facial expressions. Facial expressions are not emotions, because they map differently to emotions in different cultures, and because they can be faked.
Ideally, it would be illegal to use AI to detect facial expressions. More realistically, it will be done in special cases, like in the theater of security, detecting shifty eyes in airports. But I want to jump to the worst-case scenario: Everywhere you go, there will be cameras on your face, feeding computers that might reward or punish you for your expression.
Already on social media, everyone is carefully crafting their profile so that they appear to be more happy, successful, and normal than they really are. And in the context of these performances, everyone feels like a weird loser. Expression-detecting AI has the potential to make this nightmare panopticon universal. In the future, everyone will be famous all the time, if "famous" means that your persona is crafted for an audience of strangers.
I see three broad strategies for dealing with this as an individual. 1) Perform the rewarded expressions, and really believe that that's how you're feeling. 2) Perform the rewarded expressions, but keep track of the difference between who you're pretending to be, and who you are. This takes more cognitive energy than the first strategy. 3) Live as if nobody is watching, and accept the punishment.
October 15. Continuing on emotions, this Lisa Feldman Barrett TED talk explains that "emotions are guesses that your brain constructs in the moment," turning vague and simple physical sensations into specific and complex emotional states.
Putting this together with the idea that educated westerners are unusually preoccupied with emotions, and also that we're more sedentary than other societies, this is my hypothesis about modern mental illness: that a lot of it is caused by feedback loops, emotions untethered from physical actions, just chasing each other around the brain and inevitably veering off into places that feel bad and are hard to get out of.
On top of that, for the last fifty years our culture has told us that emotions should never be suppressed, so now they're all running around like unruly children.
This is my new tactic against anxiety: If I'm having an emotion that feels bad, I ask if it's connected to something I'm doing, physically, right now. And if it's not, I rein that sucker in. That makes it sound easy, but fully developed emotions can dig in hard in your brain. The trick is to catch them early, and that might require a lot of time observing their life cycle.
I'm still skeptical of "meditation", when it's defined as blanking your mind and focusing on your breath. All the breath-focusing I've done has never taken me anywhere. But maybe the greater value is not where it takes you, but where it stops you from going. The best way to still an emotion that's not connected to something you're doing right now, is to focus on something you're doing right now, and your breath is always there.
October 13. Another psychology link, posted to the Weird Collapse subreddit, What if emotions aren't universal but specific to each culture? Western academics believed for decades that their own emotional experience was universal, just because of one weak study -- that's all it takes to make people believe that everyone else is like them.
It turns out that there's a lot of variation in how cultures map emotions to facial expressions. Also, educated westerners think and talk about their own emotions way more than anyone else. Some Chinese get depression with only physical symptoms. Some Japanese say it doesn't even make sense to talk about emotions outside a social context. And in one study in Ghana:
"My students would sit there with this one page of emotion terms for 30-40 minutes, just that page. And when I ask them what is happening, they would say: 'Well, I understand all the words... but how am I supposed to know what I feel?'"
And one more psychology link, 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?
Isak Dinesen said, "All suffering is bearable if it is seen as part of a story." That's pretty optimistic. The way it usually works is that people are capable of causing any suffering if it's part of a story.
Taking a stab at putting it all together: All life seeks to be part of something larger. Humans are in the process of trying a bunch of new ways for many people to become one. Most of them are not going to work out. A lot of those failures are breaking down right now. Some older things are filling the gap, the worst of which is to follow the most belligerent ape in fighting the enemy apes.
Personally, I'm not seeing anything I want to be part of, except my own body and all life on earth.
October 11. Two quick tangents from last week. It's funny that some people experience their thoughts as popping into their head out of nowhere, because my thoughts seem to be part of pretty reliable causal chains, while what comes out of nowhere are emotions. I often feel irritable or anxious for no good reason, and I have to remind myself that those feelings are free-floating in my psyche, and not to project them on the external world.
And in the context of the self being an illusion, I finally came up with a good definition of "ego": Ego is when being the same person gets in the way of doing better things.
October 8. Continuing from the last post, over on the subreddit there's a post about Sam Harris, in which sordidbear summarizes Harris as observing his own cognition closely, and discovering that "thoughts, ideas, intentions etc are simply popping into consciousness seemingly out of nowhere and then leaving just as abruptly to be replaced with new ones."
I haven't read Sam Harris, but if someone says, I looked really closely at consciousness and this is how it really is, I'm going to call observer effect, because if there's anything that behaves differently when it's being observed, it's consciousness.
Likewise, advanced meditators and psychedelic trippers have reported that the self is an illusion, that there are no persons, only actions. While I find that a compelling idea, I wonder if they've discovered a universal truth, or just found a local one.
Probably what Harris has discovered, is not how consciousness is, but how he can make it. And where one could see that as a refuation of free will, with the illusory chooser overwhelmed by meaninglessness, I see it as a necessary condition for free will, by getting off the treadmill of cause-and-effect.
So if something pops into your head, and you follow it, is the freedom really yours? It doesn't matter. You're participating in the creativity of the universe. Matt comments:
An idea that I keep coming back to is: the main lever of will is awareness. As awareness expands, our choices expand.... It seems to be the case in multiple spiritual traditions that, as awareness deepens, interconnectivity becomes more obvious. Causation looks more like connection. Your "own" desires are suddenly contextualized within a web of being.
October 5. This is my longest blog post ever. It's about determinism.
Even though we have direct experience of free will, some people believe that's an illusion, and the reason they give is a piece of 18th century pseudoscience. Mechanical devices were getting complex enough that people started thinking, suppose all of reality is as ordered and predictable as this little gadget.
Since then, the clockwork universe has been the foundational assumption that guides science as we know it. It's not a theory, because it was never put up for testing. And it's been falsified at least twice, once by quantum indeterminacy, and again more subtly, by the insight that a system can only be deterministic from the outside, and there is no perspective outside the universal.
Quantum physics is not some weird anomaly that we can brush away. It's the next level down from Newtonian physics, and it only seems weird to cultures that have been looking at reality wrong. Its message to us is that the assumption of a third person universe, if you keep looking, leads to a first person universe.
What's the mechanism for free will? That question might not even make sense, and if it does, we also don't know the mechanism for magnetism, and that's no reason to doubt our direct experience that magnets work.
There's an even deeper assumption that underlies determinism: that every event must have a cause. Yet astronomers say the Big Bang was causeless, a random spike of negative entropy. And theologians say it doesn't make sense to ask where God came from. So if the biggest thing of all can have no cause, it should be possible for anything to have no cause.
Obviously, a lot of things do. But it's an interesting exercise to try to imagine what a causeless event would look like, or feel like.
There is another way to argue for determinism. What does a dog do when a strange person comes to the door? It barks, with such perfect reliability that at that moment the dog has no free will, even if it thinks it does. In the same way, a lot of human behavior is automatic stimulus-and-response. Because humans can expand our consciousness, you can look back at your younger self and say, I thought I was making real choices, when I wasn't. Maybe you still aren't.
I appreciate the moral implications of determinism. It makes you less judgmental, because if you take it seriously, the only difference between Hitler and Mr. Rogers is luck.
If there's a psychological case for determinism, but not a physical case, it leads to a crazy speculation. What if there's more free will in little things than in big things? For example, we all know that our political institutions can't stop climate change. As systems get bigger, their behavior becomes more predictable. In the same way, you might be more predictable than your parts.
Suppose that every electron has free will, in the context of moving between available energy states. Then when you get up to the level of chemical reactions, it all becomes cleaner. But then, when you get to biology, maybe we can have free will again, by channeling the playfulness of the small.
Some nature-based cultures use random divination to decide which direction to go for hunting. Even if they're not tapping into deeper knowledge, they're still shaking up their own routines, and the animals never know when the hunters are coming. Modern people might flip a coin to make a decision. Why not make the decision yourself? Because the autonomous self is an illusion, so let's channel some chaos.
Two tangents: In politics, we could loosen up the machinery of the state with random ballot voting. Over time, it reflects the wishes of the majority, and the best thing about it is, there's no incentive to vote for someone you don't like just because everyone else is.
And this is my latest take on meditation: What I'm doing is not stilling my thoughts, exactly, but stilling the automatic, the habitual, and in that clarity, I might sense the mysterious uncaused.
(Related: Big Blood fans, go to my fan page and scroll to the fifth paragraph past the sun for a new interpretation of Haystack.)
October 1. This is my favorite month. Where I live, it's the month that requires the least heating and cooling, and the month that smells the best. It's also when trees lose their leaves. We're supposed to think that humans look better naked and trees look better clothed, but to me it's the other way around.
Some happy links. The ancient Persian way to keep cool, building towers that draw the warm air up and let the wind blow it away.
Telling the bees "is a traditional custom of many European countries in which bees would be told of important events in their keeper's lives, such as births, marriages, or departures and returns in the household."
And two nice soccer goals, by the same player within five minutes. In the first, Eugenie Le Sommer surprises the goalie with a sudden long strike. In the second, the shot is unremarkable, but it comes from a great run and a spectacular pinball assist. It's funny, in American football, "flag is down" means the score doesn't count, and in world football, it means it does.
September 30. I just want to say a little about the decline of Rome, and how it relates to the present decline. The simplest idea of why Rome fell is that the Visigoths sacked it. Really, the Visigoths just milled around and left, and things went back to about how they were before. The American parallel, so far, is last winter's Capitol insurrection. It would be interesting to compare the politics and cultures of the two marauding groups, but I'm not qualified to do that.
As Rome continued to decline, the roads got worse. Everyone was like, I can't wait until they fix these roads. When those people were gone, new generations saw the crappy roads as normal.
I think that's going to happen with shortages. Some present shortages will be fixed, but new ones will appear, and neither you, nor your children's children, will ever again go to the big box store with 20 things on your list, and all 20 will be in stock.
Eventually, big box stores will be replaced by some new thing, maybe local fabricators that require less social complexity, and make a smaller range of stuff. The fall of Rome was not a fall to previous levels of technology -- even the darkest dark ages saw innovations in plows and water wheels, and also less slavery.
We call them "dark" because few records survive. In that sense, we are already in a dark age, because so much of our data is on ephemeral storage media. 5¼ inch floppy disks are already unreadable, and that was only 30 years ago, without a collapse.
I don't know anything about Biden's infrastructure plan, but I can confidently guess that it will not return American infrastructure to peak integrity. At best, it will slow the decline that's been going on for decades.
One bold prediction: the decay of transportation infrastructure will inspire innovations in lighter-than-air travel. The problem is, the wind blows west to east, and the American west is turning into a desert.
September 29. Short, smart article, Suppose I Wanted to Kill a Lot of Pilots. The idea is, some problems are too hard to approach directly. So instead of asking, how do get the outcome I want, you ask, how do I get the opposite of that outcome? And then do the opposite of those things.
But the process must be iterative -- you have to re-think and re-test your views of how to best destroy your future self. Doing so will continuously refine how you can succeed by avoiding failure. For every action, you can then ask whether you are aligned with a future failure or success.
September 27. I think the reason I'm posting less is I'm hanging out all day with two dogs, and I'm so sick of being the center of attention. Jason comments on web 1.0:
Try this for weird and old web - Rex Research. I think some of the tech there might be workable but all that aside it's all wall of text.
The key here is that old people like us grew up reading. The old web is like a clickable book. No one born in the digital age would make a website that looks like yours because their baseline is a manic screaming bullshit parade.
Related: can you see what's remarkable about this Super Metroid FAQ/Speed Guide? Hint: margins. I learned about it from this Twitter thread by Matt Gemmell, via Hacker News. Answer: the text is completely right justified -- in monospace font! That takes a heroic attention to detail, to choose the words so that every line has exactly the same number of characters.
Gemmell comments: "The thrilling thing is that life is packed with that stuff. Genius and art and ludicrous feats that we don't see because we don't pay attention, or don't have the domain knowledge."
September 22. I'm dogsitting in Seattle, and even though I have more free time than usual, I've been working on other projects and not thinking much about the blog. Today, Keith sends two more links on the small web. Wiby is another search engine for simple non-commercial sites. And the WetLeather Recipe Database has a bunch of recipes without the usual cruff of recipe sites.
I'm wondering, with the microchip shortage that shows no sign of ending, if the small web could be a big part of a slow tech crash, when more people have to revert to old computers as their new ones break and they can't afford to replace them.
September 20. Today, some psychology. This is a smart essay, but the clickbait framing gives the wrong idea: The mind does not exist. That makes it sound like the word "mind" points to nothing, but the argument is that it points to too many things, and that it's confusing to stretch a word so broadly. For starters, the author suggests splitting "mental" into psychological, psychiatric, and cognitive.
I wonder how many other words are overstretched. Probably, every time there's an abstract question where people go around and around with no clear answer, it's because of careless language. For example, "What is the meaning of life?" has two words, meaning and life, with too many definitions, and if you ask the question more precisely, it's easier to answer.
I want to focus on a small subset of "mind" that is still too big for our words: non-cognitive decision-making. I've been at this for more than 50 years, and I still have no clear sense of how to tell the difference between feelings that I should follow and feelings that I should ignore.
When people say they can listen to their heart, or follow their gut, and it's 100% right, I think that's a cognitive fallacy: When a feeling they followed turns out to be correct, they retroactively label it as heart/gut. And if it turns out to be incorrect, they retroactively label it as something like prejudice or fear or craving.
Still, those words are not useless, and some people really are good at acting without thinking. We have a long way to go in developing a vocabulary for people who are good at non-cognitive decision-making, to explain to people who are bad at it, what exactly they're doing.
I did some web searching for "how to follow your gut", and the only article I found that actually tried to answer the question was this: A therapist explains exactly what it feels like to listen to your gut. The idea is, do what feels expansive, and don't do what feels contractive.
I think that's good advice, but the article describes expansiveness as always feeling good, and contractiveness as always feeling bad. In my experience, sometimes it's the other way around, which is one of many reasons that making good decisions requires a commitment to feeling bad.
Related: The pressure to avoid negative emotions might help explain why some approaches to happiness backfire. This reminds me of how drowning people don't call for help, because they're so focused on just getting one more breath. In the same way, people who are always trying to be happy right now, are unable to invest in actions that feel bad right now but lead to feeling good in the future.
September 17. Bunch o' links: Marginalia is a new search engine "that aggressively favors text-heavy websites, and punishes those that have too many modern web design features."
Why is walking so good for the brain?
When we take a walk outside, the fractal rhythms of our heart synchronize with the fractal rhythms of our lungs and our fractal gait. Researchers have also shown that our wandering bodies make our minds wander too. On a walk, our brain waves slow down. The underlying spontaneous fluctuations bubble up more easily, creating experiences of spontaneous thoughts and associations that seem to come from nowhere. We often call them "moments of inspiration."
A proposal for a Lunar Crater Radio Telescope on the far side of the moon, which would be insulated from Earth noise, and also detect long wavelengths that are filtered by Earth's atmosphere. Of course, this could be a solution to Fermi's Paradox: the aliens are only using wavelengths that primitive civilizations like ours can't hear. Or, they could be using something we haven't even imagined. Terence McKenna said, listening for radio waves from other planets is like looking for Italian food on other planets.
A big thread on Ask Old People about video games. It's almost completely positive. Personally I still feel a little bit guilty about gaming. On the one hand, game worlds are not real, and they're rewarding in a way that's probably harmful in navigating the more-real world. On the other hand, we don't know where humans are going, and given that video games are at the cutting edge of interactive world-building, they could be an essential step in our story.
Lots of laughs in this Ask Reddit thread: What is your favorite article from The Onion?
Finally, sports. Morgan Weaver is my favorite soccer player, and not just because she went to college in my hometown, but because there's nobody else like her. She's both tall and fast, both unpredictable and clutch, and plays with a joy that's rare in any sport. Here she is scoring the late winner against Lyon, the European powerhouse, squeaking the ball through the narrowest angle.
September 15. I just got back from a trip. I wouldn't say that I hate traveling; but I hate being busy, and I hate spending money, and I hope one day to take a journey where I do neither of those things.
On the flight home we had some heavy turbulence, and I noticed that they no longer call it turbulence. Apparently the new airline policy is to call it "rough air".
I see why they did it. If English is your second language, or if it's your first language and you're dumb, "turbulence" is a difficult word. If you want passengers to return to their seats, "rough air" is easier to understand. But if a passenger wants to understand why the air is bumpy, "turbulence" points to the explanation.
This is part of a general cultural trend of black-boxification. It's the same reason that computer programs with viewable code, have changed to "apps" with airtight user interfaces. It's the same reason that bicycle bottom brackets have changed from user-serviceable spindles and bearings, to factory-sealed cartridges. These changes make the whole system less robust, because if things go wrong, fewer people know how to fix them.
Related: Norm McDonald has died. One of the principles in the book Finite and Infinite Games is that finite players play within the rules, while infinite players play with the rules. That's why other comedians laugh harder at Norm McDonald than ordinary people do. In his best bits, like the Moth Joke, or the Bob Saget roast, at first you're like, what is this weird thing he's doing? And then you're like, oh wow, he's showing us the machinery behind comedy.
September 7. Today, a quick thought on nostalgia. I like the Ask Old People subreddit because it has good discussions, and I don't like the Gen X subreddit because it's mostly image posts of 70's and 80's pop culture.
And it occurs to me: nostalgia is a new thing. The farther back you go, the slower the pace of change, and the more likely that the culture of your youth would still be dominant when you got old.
Now, I'm glad the Brady Bunch is not in its 53rd season. My point is, a rapid pace of change makes a culture weaker, because most of the stuff that people are really into, is not around any more. On top of that, most of the stuff that people are really into now was never practical in the first place.
It's good that technology has given us the freedom to care about things that are useless. I'm grateful to be living at just the right time to play Starsector. But a robust society needs a lot more overlap between what people love to do, and what they have to do keep the whole thing going.
Imagine if all the attention that is now put into superhero movies, was instead put into woodworking, or agroforestry. Or if all the headspace we now fill with commercial jingles, was used for birdsongs. Taking a step back, a common theme of my fiction and nonfiction is this: I believe, if you put all possible human societies on a scale from 1 to 100, where 1 is worst and 100 is best, we're not even out of the single digits.