"If observing outer space gives us a view of the past, observing inner space would surely give us a glimpse into the future."
April 14. Bunch o' links, starting with a few from the subreddits. Ancient cave painters may have been stoned. More precisely, they would have needed torches, which could have had them tripping on oxygen deprivation. But they didn't know about oxygen, so they probably thought the caves were intrinsically trippy places.
A City for Poets and Pirates is a deep historical piece about some crazy stuff that happened a hundred years ago in Italy:
We cannot understand the events in Fiume (or the subsequent rise of fascism) without making an effort to imagine a world in which hundreds of thousands of young men who had been promised a share in the spoils of victory returned, after years both frightening and exhilarating -- some of them half-blind or deaf, some insomniacs or addicts -- to anxious mothers and wives unwilling to listen to their stories, to jobs in industries where bosses worried about productivity.
Our Brain Typically Overlooks This Brilliant Problem-Solving Strategy: removing things rather than adding them. If, somehow, we could get as good at removing things as we are at adding them, it would greatly prolong the lifespans of our institutions and technologies, which are always getting weighed down and crippled by feature bloat.
Ask Hacker News: What tech job would let me get away with the least real work possible? You can tell our civilization is declining, because the thread is massively upvoted and everyone thinks this is a good idea.
Another Hacker News thread, about a 20% probability for a large satellite collision. It didn't happen this time, but eventually it will, and then we might get a chain reaction satellite apocalypse, where the sky is full of meteors and the TV doesn't work.
This is the best reddit thread I've ever seen about lifehacks. It has everything from how to fight a dog to using chips as kindling.
And I've just done an update of my Favorite Films page, adding a few films and a new interpretation of Terry Gilliam's Tideland.
April 12. Lately I've been allergic to social issues, but today I'll dip a toe in, by way of brain wiring. Diablo 2 Resurrected helped me love my brain. The author is unable to make mental maps, which is a perfect fit for a game with procedurally generated maps where it doesn't matter which way you go.
And a reddit thread, Does it happen to you sometimes when you are driving, you suddenly realize that you are driving normally but not aware of what happened in the past minutes? This has never happened to me, because I have no autopilot. This is also why I'm a terrible athlete, and why I'm always bumping into things. My body can't do anything right without fully conscious micromanagement by my head, and I can't micromanage two things at once, or even one thing if it's going too fast.
As an autopilot-impaired person, I see autopilotry everywhere. That's my only explanation for why there aren't a hundred times as many car crashes, or how certain political movements succeed without any rational basis. People are tuning into mysterious signals, going with flows that I can't feel.
At the same time, I'm better at things that require mental micromanagement. So in middle school, where I never got on base in kickball, I was also the best lathe worker in shop class. And we have a long way to go in understanding these differences. I think every homeless person and every prison inmate has a talent that could serve society, if society knew how to find it and work with it.
Related: U.S. church membership dips below 50% for first time. I think this is because churches formed communities based on ancestry and physical location, which worked well in the old days. But now, with cheap travel and the internet, we can form communities based on what kind of person we are.
April 8. Another deep non-political piece, a long reddit comment about How actors talk about acting. Being believable is the bare minimum, and then there's stuff like understanding your character's motivation, disappearing into a role, "outside-in" technical stuff, and making interesting choices:
For example, actors seem to love Jeff Goldblum, Nic Cage, and John Malkovich. Even in something like Holy Man, or Rounders, or Wicker Man, where they're giving pretty much objectively bad performances, other actors sometimes love those performances. Choices come up a lot in conversations about these. It's just so amazing to see people who naturally make choices that we have to work towards.
My definition of creativity is making a choice that's unpredictable with foresight, and yet, in hindsight it seems inevitable. And as a writer, I respect small-scale surprises more than large-scale surprises. There's lots of bad popular entertainment, where they surprise you about which character is evil, but every character's emotional reaction to every little event is exactly what you expect.
April 7. Continuing from Monday, this new reddit thread is loaded with good stuff: What's something creepy that happened years ago but to this day you can't figure out why it happened?
It's interesting to look at the responses to these kinds of reports. Some people want to explain it all in terms of stuff we already understand, and some people want to go deeper into the unknown. That decision, which of those things to do, is sub-rational and subconscious. Given the scariness of some of these reports, my decision could be wrong. Some people feel that consensus reality is a fortress -- if you see a crack, you'd better seal it up. And I feel that we're in a prison, and cracks should be widened.
Related, reposts of two reddit threads on the afterlife: Despite what you believe or don’t believe, what do you WISH happens when we die? And if you actually go to a paradise after you die, but the paradise automatically is set up in a way which will be the absolute maximum best and pleasing experience for you, how would your paradise be like?
These threads have so many cool ideas, that I wonder if the purpose of this painful human civilization, is to serve as a platform, from which we can imagine a great variety of places to go next.
Last week I saw Soul, a movie with a radical metaphysical foundation. The idea is, down here is our world, and up there is the Universal, God, whatever you want to call it. And in between, there are other worlds. These worlds are not physical, and also not perfect, and we can come and go from them. In the 1600's, you'd get burned at the stake for saying that, and here it is being released by Disney.
April 5. This week I want to continue posting stuff that's thoughtful and not political. Fire in the Sky is about the psychology of exploring weird phenomena.
We seem to have a psychological block that prohibits us from entertaining a class of "strange ideas" outside some personal, identity-based window of acceptable thinking.... Conceptually, the block is related to, but notably different from, the Overton Window, which concerns socially-acceptable speech. Our focus here is not exactly what one can or cannot say for fear of social ostracism, though it likely does contribute to the phenomenon, but is rather what one can or cannot say for actual inability to conceive of a subject.
It's funny, because I'm the opposite. This is probably the one way that I want life to be harder. I'm hungry for stuff that stretches my ability to conceive it, so I've devoured the most challenging woo-woo books I can find, from Charles Fort's The Book of the Damned to Ted Holiday's The Goblin Universe to George Hansen's The Trickster and the Paranormal. My conclusion is that it's our world that's unusual. Reality is a roiling sea of first person perspectives, and we live on an island where the illusion of a third person reality becomes plausible, if you don't look too closely.
Another nice quote from the essay:
On the topic of UFOs, we have often turned to "serious scientists" for understanding, which is our euphemism here for debunking. But "serious scientist" is not a profession, it's a popular identity, and that identity is a plague on knowledge. Why qualify the word "scientist" at all? Presumably one is either doing science, or one is not. One is either a scientist, or one is not. The word "serious" divides inquiry into classes. The prestigious, and popular, is separated from the low, the weird, the socially unacceptable. In this way "serious science" is just a Cerberus that guards consensus reality, and on the question of consensus science is agnostic. Any qualification of the word "science" negates the method, and "serious scientists" are therefore not scientists at all.
April 2. Some feedback on Reiki. A comment in this subreddit thread suggests that it could work on a social level, "by simulating social connections and support, so the body then feels it is worth investing limited resources in healing and immunity." And over email, Alex comments: "Americans generally don't touch each other unless it's fighting, fucking, or obligation. So being touched in a way that can be interpreted as actually caring is a rare thing." It could be like vitamin A, which is good for your eyesight, but only if your eyesight is bad because of a vitamin A deficiency. (Or money, which is only correlated with happiness below a certain income.)
Probably, those factors are stacking with the placebo effect, which works with lots of things other than touch, and remains unexplained. It's interesting that the placebo effect is cultural, and can change. According to this article, placebo responses have been rising in the USA, but not in other places.
If it can change, than it can be trained. Someone who takes a placebo and gets no benefit, can learn to be someone who takes a placebo and gets a huge benefit. So what exactly would you be training in? I said before that it's not belief, but Hani points out that there are levels of belief. Now we're getting into the subconscious. Changing a fully conscious belief is hard enough, and it probably gets harder the deeper you go. And maybe more powerful.
Related: my friend Erik has co-developed a self-improvement practice called Meliora Meditation. Erik has done a lot of work straightening out his own mind and body, and this came out of that. Also, he has a page of good writings on other subjects, Fragments of Pre-History.
March 31. Another long and thoughtful piece, Reiki Can't Possibly Work. So Why Does It? By "can't possibly work," they mean that our primitive science can't point to a mechanism for how it works, even though there are studies showing that it does. At the same time, lots of medical treatments are no more beneficial than Reiki, and more harmful, but still highly respected because the mechanism is known.
It may turn out that Reiki works in its own particular way that we haven't discovered, or it may turn out to be "just" a placebo. Nick comments:
The way we think about the placebo effect is completely ass-backwards. People hear about the placebo effect and think "this is fake bullshit, let ignore it" when instead they should be thinking "this is a mysterious phenomenon so powerful that it has measurable provable positive effects for literally every disease that's ever been studied; let's figure out how it works!"
About 20 years ago, I took a multi-day Reiki class and got a level 1 attunement. There were people who worked on me, and people who I worked on, who said they felt the energies, but I never did. I also had an injury at the time that didn't seem to heal any faster.
The interesting thing is, I believed that I would see positive results, and I still didn't. Also the instructor was clear that Reiki does not require belief. Put these together, and belief is neither necessary nor sufficient for Reiki to work. This suggests that it's not a placebo... but what if it is?
What I'm getting at is a radical hypothesis: What drives the placebo effect is something other than belief. I've seen studies where people knew they were getting a placebo, so they had no basis for belief, and the placebo still worked. I've also tried other woo-woo practices where the results were a lot less than I expected.
My best guess is, what makes this stuff work is some deeper skill or practice. It's correlated with belief, but it's not belief. Whatever it is, nobody has figured out the instructions yet, and talented people are just doing it intuitively.
March 29. One of the best interviews I've read, from 2014, Sam Fussell, author of Muscle. Fussell rhymes with muscle, and Sam is the son of Paul Fussell, who wrote Class, the definitive book on the cultural aspects of American social class. Like his father, Sam Fussell is at his best when he's writing about the toxicity of status seeking.
He started out in a corporate job, and got disillusioned when he was reprimanded for doing too much useful work instead of fitting in. So he got into bodybuilding, and "my world went from black-and-white to color as soon as I took one step through the gym door."
Iron and muscle are real, and he got totally obsessed. This quote is telling:
If you love yourself (your own glory, your own image, etc) more than you love the pursuit, then the pursuit can get entirely self-destructive.
On the other hand, if you love the pursuit for the sake of the pursuit, that can become self-destructive as well.
He moved to California and started using steroids. "And in the gym, all of a sudden, there are no more limits... The problem is when you are on steroids, your world gets very, very small because all of your friends are also on steroids." He saw that all the top bodybuilders used performance-enhancing drugs, and they lied about it to the public, while doing magazine ads for bullshit nutritional supplements.
Eventually he quit bodybuilding and wrote a book about it, and went on the talk show circuit. Then he saw that the media is also full of bullshit: simplifying, sensationalizing, and turning everything into good vs bad. Related: How U.S. media lost the trust of the public.
My favorite bit in the interview:
In America, you are not real unless you are fake.
In other words, if people see you on television or the movies, they see you as larger (and realer) than life.
The representation becomes the reality.
And, because it is merely representation, it is fraud.
March 25. Bunch o' links. This reddit comment explains why natural disasters are social phenomena. A natural event only becomes a human disaster through mistakes in social policy or infrastructure. I submitted it to Depth Hub and there are a few good examples in this thread.
Posted yesterday to Weird Collapse, The scientists turning the desert green. It's already been done on a plateau in China, and now they want to regreen the Sinai peninsula, which might change weather patterns and increase rainfall over the whole region. This kind of project is the one thing that keeps me from supporting voluntary human extinction.
On the Ask Historians subreddit, this comment tries to figure out why Communist societies have been authoritarian. It's complicated, but the short answer is that when Communists take over a country, they have to become authoritarian to keep from being invaded or toppled.
Fun thread on the Psychonaut subreddit, about cats who know you're tripping.
And a sports article, Hockey Goalies Are Too Big Now. Both the players and the pads are a lot bigger, and the result is that the whole game has changed, with offenses cluttering up in front of the goal so the goalies can't see the shots, which makes the game less fun to play and watch. There's an interesting point about how basketball had a similar problem, which was fixed by the three point shot. The author's suggestion for fixing hockey is simply to make the goal bigger. (One hockey rule that would make basketball a lot better, is if teams only got one time out per game.)
March 23. Busy this week and not a lot of ideas, so I'll just comment on the latest mass shooting. There's no realistic way to stop them. Mass shootings are caused by gun ownership and mental illness, both of which have been rising for years with no end in sight.
One thing that might work, in fifty or a hundred years, is if public opinion shifts enough to get the Supreme Court to reinterpret the second amendment, so that you can't keep and bear arms unless you're a member of a well-regulated militia, and those regulations include careful mental health screening. It's probably more likely that an authoritarian revolution will abolish the Constitution completely.
Americans are willing to accept a certain number of shooting deaths as a cost of keeping their guns. Which is actually more reasonable than the traffic deaths, respiratory disease deaths, climate catastrophe deaths, and lowered quality of life from urban sprawl, that Americans will accept to keep their cars.
March 21. After some feedback on meditation, I want to be as clear as possible:
1) Giving conscious attention to places and processes in your mind and body is a good thing, and most people should do more of it.
2) Of all the practices that could be called meditation or mindfulness or metacognition, one of them is overhyped: sitting still, focusing on your breath, and trying to blank your mind.
3) Even this practice is probably good for a lot of people, if done in moderation. Preliminary science suggests that the line between moderation and excess is at around 30 minutes a day. Some people are doing way too much.
Here are five things that could be called meditation, that I continue to practice and find promising.
1) Conscious walking. Go for walks, continually turning attention to body mechanics, from how the feet land, to how the knees bend, all the way to the top of the head, with the goal of having good posture while staying loose.
2) Breathing like sleep. Focus on the breath, with the goal of having it be deep and completely unforced. Start while lying in bed, and work up to breathing this way during everyday life.
3) Quarantining feelings. Find the boundary between thoughts and emotions. Watch emotions arise, and practice completely feeling them and letting them dissipate, rather than turning them into thoughts. (I think a lot of bad human behavior comes from people turning emotions into thoughts without knowing they're doing it.)
4) Observing without judging. There's a moment between observing something and judging it, where you can stay balanced in letting it be as it is. I think this is easier in the outer world than the inner world. And it occurs to me that a good tool to practice observing without judging is television, because there's a constant stream of things asking to be judged, that don't really matter.
5) Expanding into pain. This is experimental, and might turn out to be a mistake. But I'm at my wits' end with anxiety, so what I'm trying is, when I feel bad, amp it up as soon as I can and as hard as I can, with the hope that pain is finite, and I'll come to the end of it.
March 18. Under the word-umbrella of meditation/mindfulness/metacognition, there must be as many things as there are people, and probably hundreds of things distinct enough to eventually get their own word. One of those things is putting attention on your breath while blanking your mind. And out of all the recreational and self-improvement practices I've tried, none of them have such a bad cost-benefit ratio. It's like video game grinding without leveling up or even scoring points.
Then why is it so popular? I see two answers. One is that other people actually are getting a good cost-benefit ratio, because they have a different kind of brain than I do. Maybe when the science gets better, you can go in for a brain scan and get a detailed program of rewarding incremental steps to fit your personal neural profile.
The other answer is that people have fallen under the spell of beautiful stories, and are doing something that doesn't make sense. Andrew sends this brand new Harper's article, Lost in Thought: The psychological risks of meditation. There are a lot of them. In one study...
...forty-three out of sixty meditators representing Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan traditions -- had experienced moderate to severe impairment in their day-to-day functioning. Ten had required inpatient hospitalization.... For Britton, the takeaway was that adverse effects routinely occur even under optimal conditions, with healthy people meditating correctly under supervision.
And if you look at the history of the practice, it shouldn't be surprising: "According to the Pali suttas, the point of meditation was to cultivate disgust and disenchantment with the everyday world."
It seems to me, people who get in trouble with meditation, and people who do too many drugs, and people who work themselves too hard in the everyday world, have something in common. They're all head-heavy. Their head is seeking something so hard, that they ignore the protests of their body.
March 17. I've been wondering: is meditation a placebo? That's a lot to unpack, so let me back up. A practice, like meditation or exercise, cannot be a placebo in the same way that taking a pill is. Also, according to this study, meditation is better than a placebo for at least one thing, reducing physical pain.
But according to this article, Where's the Proof That Mindfulness Meditation Works? "A 2014 review of 47 meditation trials, collectively including over 3500 participants, found essentially no evidence for benefits related to enhancing attention, curtailing substance abuse, aiding sleep or controlling weight."
I also think that what we call "meditation" is best framed as multiple things, with some overlap. One is the traditional Buddhist practice of focusing on your breath and trying to blank your mind. I've spent a lot of time doing this, and the only benefit I can report is that if I need to go to sleep, and my thoughts are spinning, I'm better at stilling them. And it's probably a good foundation for other metacognitive skills.
The practice I've found most helpful is creating a perspective inside my head that has no investment in how things are currently done. (I'm trying to work around the word "ego".) It's like an auditor, dispassionately noticing the machinery of thoughts and feelings, and suggesting adjustments.
What I really want to pick on, is the idea that meditation is a realistic substitute for drugs. This is taken for granted in various woo-woo communities, but I've seen no evidence for it except wild-eyed anecdotal reports. Personally, I can crank up my desktop vaporizer, and not even put any weed in, just use the heat to draw trace THC from the residue inside the wand, and get more of an altered state of consciousness than in all the meditation I've ever done.
My hypothesis is that people who sincerely experience strongly altered states of consciousness through meditation, are highly suggestible. And if the same people did meditation wrong, or if they took a sugar pill, or if they held a crystal upside their head, they could leverage a similar aura of belief into similar results.
I mean, I'm envious, except that suggestibility is a two-edged sword, and I wouldn't want to get similarly swayed by social media influencers or charismatic public figures. Related: Placebo Effect Grows in U.S., Thwarting Development of Painkillers.
March 15. Over on the subreddit there are a couple big comment threads on gender. In my experience, the bigger a discussion, the more people have already made up their minds, and the less fruitful it is.
So I just want to add a couple more things and move on. Alex mentions the Mahu, a third gender in native Hawaiian culture, and comments:
It really only seems to be the Abrahamic religions that are hung up about this. Other societies either don't care or actually need transgender people to have a complete society.And Matt comments:
If the political so-called left has made any serious misstep in recent years, it's arguing for simplicity where complexity rules.
In two hundred years, they'll look at our culture wars and laugh -- not because they've gone back to the 1950's, but because they've gone forward in ways we can't guess, and maybe wouldn't approve of. On gender and other ways of identifying ourselves, I expect a long tail, where most people identify as something common, but there's no end to identities that are personally crafted and hard to explain.
March 12. On a tangent from yesterday's post, there's a thread on the subreddit critiquing the left on transgender issues, and rather than post there, I'll post here. I'm not a specialist on this subject, but this is my understanding of the left's position:
1) Sex is biology; gender is culture.
2) Whether you have one or two X chromosomes is not a choice. Whether you feel male or female is usually also not a choice. This is an evidence-based statement, backed by the testimony of most transgender individuals.
3) This is not a statement of science but a statement of public policy: Everyone should have the right to choose what gender they identify as, and what gender they present themselves to the world as, including by using medical technology to change their bodies.
None of that should be controversial. Then it's just a matter of working out the practical details. The problems are mainly "it'll be anarchy" hypotheticals.
For example, there's a rule now that allows transgender women to compete in women's sports. It's a nice gesture, but nobody wants to see bio-males dominating women's sports, and if that ever happens, they'll just figure out a new rule.
And don't worry, even if you're a straight male, you won't be canceled if you prefer to date women with two X chromosomes.
I have some personal interest in this subject. When I play video games where you can design your own avatar, I always play as female. When I write fiction, my female characters leap off the page and my male characters muddle along. I prefer women's sports, and Netflix seems to think Leigh Ann and I are lesbians. But I feel comfortable in a male body, so my gender identity is straight male with a strong anima.
March 11. How Facebook got addicted to spreading misinformation. It's a long article, but the basic idea, in the context of AI machine learning, is that "models that maximize engagement also favor controversy, misinformation, and extremism."
But Facebook has to maximize engagement. It's a business in late-stage capitalism, so its number one priority has to be growth. Changing the algorithm to reduce engagement is not an option, so instead Facebook has to play whack-a-mole with whatever misinformation and extremism the algorithm calls forth.
On the same subject, a few months back I got an email from Nick about YouTube recommendations:
My YouTube habits skew decidedly left... But my recommendations are full of half-baked alt-right pseudo philosophy trying to justify white supremacist nonsense. If I watch one video about how to resole work boots, suddenly my recommendations are full of Trumpist blue collar propaganda (usually in the "bearded white guy ranting while driving a pickup" genre). I watch one video minidocumentary about a gay christian minister who preaches LGBTQ acceptance, and suddenly my recommendations are nothing but "gay sex causes God to send hurricanes."
Certainly, tech industry insiders do not have a right wing bias. So if the recommendations do, it's happening accidentally through AI. Something about the way right wingers think, or navigate the internet, is a better fit for how the recommendation bots operate.
By the way, I think "left" and "right" are ephemeral. The two sides of the body are a useful metaphor for political divisions, but political divisions change with culture, and eventually the words left and right will mean something completely different.
But at the moment, one of the things the right stands for is resistance to metacognition, to critical self-reflection. Their thinking is more automatic and predictable. The way they trace connections between one thing and another, is easier for bots to model.
Maybe the deeper issue is not AI modeling, but human modeling. The best way to understand the world is to observe it with no bias, figure out what it's doing, and then build our models from that. But our big brains give us the option to do it backwards: to start with a model that makes us feel a certain way, and then go looking for evidence to back it up.
For some reason, over the last few decades, the left has been much better than the right at policing itself against wishful modeling. How this happened, I can only guess, but I blame Ronald Reagan. Conservatives before Reagan were sober serious thinkers, like George Will and William F. Buckley. Reagan started down the road of turning politics into candy for children, and Republicans never looked back. So Democrats were like, "OK, we'll be the adults." I wonder if there's an alternate history, maybe one where the Kennedys survived, where now it's the other way around.