August 31. [permalink] I've been thinking more about a subject I wrote about four months ago in this post: "If this is a mindless universe of particles and waves in which consciousness appeared by accident, how unlucky are we that pleasant consciousness is so elusive?" My latest angle is: with all the powers of technology, why have we still failed to "game the system" of human well-being? If I told you there was a pill that simply made you happier, with no other effects, you wouldn't believe it. We do have drugs that will enable someone with severe depression to barely function, or someone with AIDS to not die, but it seems impossible to find shortcuts from average to above average. Why can't I take a pill to be healthy without eating vegetables or exercising? Even vitamin supplements, which seemed like a shortcut to health, have turned out to be mostly useless or harmful. This is easy to explain with metaphysics: God wants you to be a better person more than He wants you to have a good time. I lean toward Taoism: the physical world is like the surface of a deeper reality that we can never fully understand, but if we can partly understand it and go with the flow, life is better. And I think the Tao wants us to try to game the system. That's what everything alive does, and the history of life on earth is organisms finding temporary hacks. Humans have been extremely successful at hacking the external world, and it's strange, given how well we have mastered nature, that we have failed to master ourselves. This implies that God, the Tao, the metaphysical frontier, is not out there in the universe, but inside us. Can we explain this through pure materialism? The nice thing about a random and meaningless universe is that it should be completely hackable. In theory, if you imagine the greatest moment of your life, you could experience that over and over forever. You might object that any level of bliss will just become the new normal, but in theory that's just one more obstacle that we can overcome. (For some good sci-fi on this, read Permutation City by Greg Egan.) These obstacles, in the materialist model, are on the level of human biology. Our bodies have evolved over tens of millions of years to put survival above everything, and feeling good is how our bodies reward us for doing things that tend to keep the species going. In the ancestral environment, anyone who found a way to game the system tended to die without offspring, so the capacity for taking shortcuts has been bred out of us. Outside the ancestral environment, I can see why it's still hard to hack health: you can patch a broken machine to make it barely work, but the only way to improve a well-running machine is to invent a whole new machine that runs better. But it seems strange that we haven't made more progress at hacking feeling good. I'm avoiding the word "happiness" because that implies a kind of bland good feeling that a lot of people are against, and maybe that's the root of the issue: we're thinking in terms of whole systems, and we're skeptical of feeling good outside the context of living a good life. To quote Gordon Lightfoot: "Sometimes I think it's a sin, when I feel like I'm winning when I'm losing again." This also explains why drug addiction happens to people who have given up all hope of living a good life. I would contribute lots of money to crowd-funded research that promised to quickly reset marijuana tolerance so I could get to a  twice a week -- but only if I could get back to being myself in between. People who don't like being themselves want to be on drugs all the time. Anyway, I expect hedonic technology to improve in the coming decades, and I'm curious to see where it works and doesn't work, and if we become more socially accepting of feeling good for no good reason.
March 2015 - July 2015
August 2015 - ?
August 28. As usual, light stuff for the weekend. My momentary favorite song is Gravenhurst - Black Holes in the Sand. It sounds a lot like Nick Drake or Elliott Smith but more spacy.
The reddit comment page of a spectacular photo, a four minute exposure above Snoqualmie Pass. You can see light from Seattle, a small town, cars on a highway, forest fires, and the Milky Way all at once.
Another striking photo I found on the Most Beautiful subreddit, Man feeding birds in Krakow.
Finally, a nine minute documentary about the genius Warner Brothers cartoon director, Chuck Jones - The Evolution of an Artist.
August 26. Today on Hacker News there's a smart comment thread about Bernie Sanders, including discussion of whether he can win, and why middle America hates socialism. I agree with this reddit comment arguing that Sanders has zero chance to be president, but I'll still support him in next year's Washington caucus if he hasn't dropped out, because the better he does, the sooner his positions will be taken seriously.
On a different political subject, a great reddit comment about South Korea's loudspeakers on the North Korea border. They're loud enough to be heard by all the border troops and even some people in a nearby city, and they establish credibility by reporting weather more accurately than the NK forecasts, and then by reporting trivial news sooner than NK news, and then they start reporting on internal North Korean stuff, and also playing music that's better than North Korea has.
Now I'm wondering how many of the military conquests of history could have been done this way. If you have a stronger military than your opponent, and a stronger culture, it should be possible to use your military in a purely defensive role to protect a physical infrastructure that fights with information and culture. If a nation uses its military for offense, then the people in charge either believe they're culturally weaker, or they're lazy and enjoy violence, or they're fighting for economic reasons.
August 24. Brand new blog post from Anne, Where We Are, explaining the latest stock market crash in terms of diminishing returns in market creation. That is, the more poor people you turn into middle class consumers so you can sell stuff to them, the harder it gets. The stock crash reflects a growing fear that the global economy is falling into a deflationary spiral, a feedback loop where businesses pay people less, those people have less money to spend on products and services that businesses make their money from, and so on. I see a difficult three part solution. The easiest part is an unconditional basic income. Economically the time is already ripe, but there are big cultural obstacles, because nobody likes to see other people get money for doing nothing, especially if those people are richer or lazier. The second part is a zero growth economy. This is impossible in the current economic paradigm, which has growth as its cornerstone. With perpetual growth, you can buy a diverse package of investments and over time it will inevitably get bigger. With zero growth, it will tend to stay the same size but then get smaller because of administration fees. So investment as we know it is finished, and even savings accounts will probably have negative interest. On top of that, growth has great emotional power. If we can't look around and see the numbers getting bigger all the time, a lot more people will feel that their lives have no meaning. The only way to avoid a zero growth economy is a perpetual cycle of booms and busts, and humanity may just prefer that. The third part is a transition from nonrenewable to renewable resources. This is the most painful of all, and also the only one that is guaranteed to happen. Our goal should be to do it as smoothly as possible. The danger I see is not that we will fail and drop into permanent preindustrial poverty, but that we will succeed so well that we get addicted to growth again: more and more of the earth's surface will be used for solar energy, and by the time that gets into diminishing returns, the system will have an even bigger crash with nothing to fall back on.
August 21. From 12 days ago, a good reddit thread about how psychedelics are anti-addictive. They say a mushroom trip is the most awesome thing ever, but so intense that you don't feel like doing it again for a long time. That's exactly how I feel about listening to my favorite song.
Also on the subject of music and drugs, my new favorite jazz album on cannabis is Charles Mingus - The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. It's a lot like Bitches Brew by Miles Davis: loosely structured, mostly improvised, and heavily overdubbed, but Mingus did it seven years sooner, and better. There are bits that sound like proto-metal, and when I mentioned that to Leigh Ann she said, "Charles Mingus invented heavy metal; Bob Dylan invented rap."
August 19. Last week I had a visitor, Erik. Here's his latest blog post, The Iron Law of Story, inspired by some of the stuff we talked about. I told him I think our lives are shaped by creative forces, operating on a level we have not yet discovered, that want good stories.
New subject: last week there was a good reddit comment on political correctness in college. The idea is that students are not making unreasonable demands any more than they were in the 70's or 80's, but that administrators are responding more to these demands. This is the normal behavior of all power structures: to look for excuses to increase their power.
New subject: Why do we turn the music down when parking? Because we're bad at multitasking and music takes attention we need for difficult driving tasks. Personally I avoid listening to music for everything except highway driving. This also reminds me of a bit from Matthew Crawford's book The World Beyond Your Head: that talking on a cell phone, even without hands, makes you more likely to crash your car, but talking to someone in the seat next to you does not, because they can see when the driving gets hard and they shut up or even help you.
August 17. Last week I looked at a bunch of videos of the Tianjin port explosion, and that link goes to the best video by far. (Warning: lots of profanity!) Not only does it have excellent visuals, it also tells a story: the explosions get bigger, and you can hear the changing emotions of the people watching. There are some idiots morally judging them in the comments, but my reactions would be exactly like that, and theirs probably would be too. In actual extreme events people behave in ways that are surprising if you've only seen newscasters and Hollywood actors. Also, this silent dashcam video shows the power of the shock wave. This event is a good test case for doom forecasters. Here's an overview from the Wall Street Journal, Firms Gauge Impact of Devastating Explosions at Tianjin Port. Shipping of raw materials, manufacturing, and shipping of finished products have all been set back weeks or months, and "even minor delays could ripple across supply chains because major ports like Tianjin serve as focal points for global shipping as well as transportation inland." By watching the ripples, we can get a sense of how fragile or robust the various big systems are.
Also on the subject of doom, here's a new comment from Anne, lightly edited:
I highly recommend Jack Weatherford's Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, for three reasons. One, it's very good history. Second, it makes a strong case that most of what we think of as European or Renaissance ideas were imported from Kublai Khan's imperial court. Third, it might get people off this "collapse of the Roman Empire" meme. The Mongols conquered the world, integrated it into a single trading unit, then lost control as an empire when the black death wiped out northern China and Persia, but all the infrastructure and intellectual legacy they left behind was swiftly incorporated into the Ming, Rus, Moghul and Persian empires that grew up from the ruins within a span of three decades.
is a video of some dudes building an awesome double treehouse on beautiful land overlooking the Columbia river. But watching this and thinking you can do the same thing is like watching a moon landing video and thinking you can go to the moon because you don't know how hard it is to build a rocket. The "rocket" is a group of people who all know each other and have abundant money, skills, time, motivation, and supporting friends with most of the above. Who are these guys? The bank robbers from Point Break? The children of the coolest rich people in Portland? I bet they didn't spend much time in public schools, and this kind of thing would be a lot more common if we had an educational system that just supported kids in following whatever excites them and finding friends with the same interests.
August 14. Fun stuff for the weekend. The Cinder Cone is a video of some dudes building an awesome double treehouse on beautiful land overlooking the Columbia river. But watching this and thinking you can do the same thing is like watching a moon landing video and thinking you can go to the moon because you don't know how hard it is to build a rocket. The "rocket" is a group of people who all know each other and have abundant money, skills, time, motivation, and supporting friends with most of the above. Who are these guys? The bank robbers from Point Break? The children of the coolest rich people in Portland? I bet none of them went to public schools, and this kind of thing would be a lot more common if we had an educational system that just supported kids in following whatever excites them and finding friends with the same interests.
Here's something you could build yourself, but it would still be really hard: a slinky escalator.
From the Explain Like I'm Drunk subreddit, The Trans-Pacific Partnership. There should be a rule that you're not allowed to complain about anything unless you can be funny.
I just discovered the Imaginary Cityscapes subreddit. Notice that it's mostly dark blue and cyberpunk. It's strangely hard to find imaginative art that has obvious sci-fi elements and also wild nature -- even though that's really going to happen. Here's one I found on Imaginary Autumnscapes, Time Out by Kait Kybar.