November 25. Yesterday on the subreddit, marsomenos commented on Monday's post with some good insights about the medical system.
Also on the subject of health, a new study shows that strong legs are correlated with healthy brains, and they used identical twins to show that the effect really is caused by exercise and not genetics. This reminds me of another study that found a correlation between how fast old people walk and how much longer they're going to live.
And remember that over on my misc page I have some Thanksgiving recipes.
November 23. Today, everyone's favorite thing: negative links! Are Good Doctors Bad for Your Health? Well, a doctor who is bad for your health is by definition not a good doctor. But a study shows that doctors we think are good are not good: heart patients do better when senior cardiologists are away at conferences. So the high-status doctors are worse than the low-status doctors, which is hardly surprising -- the same thing is true for musicians, authors, actors, politicians, probably everyone except athletes. But I'm wondering, were the high status doctors always bad, or were they once the best doctors, and high status made them worse? If it's the latter, I'm guessing it's because they become both inflexible and overconfident: whatever made them successful, they keep doing it, but less creatively and more aggressively. The article suggests that high status doctors do more tests and treatments, which are often harmful.
Another NY Times piece, and this is the last thing I expected as an endangered resource: Why Sand Is Disappearing. There's plenty of small-grain smooth-edged desert sand, but large-grain rough-edged sand is being used up in beach restoration and concrete.
Thanks Tibor for this speech transcript with images, Haunted By Data. Maciej Ceglowski argues that we should stop thinking of data as a resource, and think of it as a waste product. I think he's exaggerating the danger that intelligence agencies will blackmail us, but I like his examples of how tracked people behave worse than untracked people because of how they game the tracking systems.
Finally, this is the best post ever to the Shower Thoughts subreddit, and it leads to dark thoughts about the social and psychological effects of information technology: My activities on the internet are basically the same things I would do if I were a ghost: Listen in on people's conversations, spy on people having sex, and watch whatever movies and concerts I want for free. One of the comments adds anonymous trolling.
November 20. For the weekend, some practical philosophy. I mentioned last week that I was reading David Abram's book Becoming Animal. Someone would have to be stubborn to read the whole thing, because the point is to use poetic descriptions of sense experience to get readers to stop running words through their heads and go out and fully be in the world. There are also occasional philosophical arguments about how our culture got it wrong: the world is not a remote lifeless place that we understand through mental abstractions, but a living thing in which we participate through sense experience. Anyway, once I got the idea I didn't have to read any more. Then, lying in bed in the morning, I put Abram's idea together with something I wrote back on August 31:
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.
According to modern western metaphysics: 1) The Self is the stream of words and pictures and stories and desires inside your head; 2) the Mystery is the physical world on the outside; and 3) you explore it through your senses. But try thinking this way: 1) The Self is your stream of sense experience, which is already grounded in the physical world; 2) the Mystery is toward the inside; and 3) you explore it by pausing your internal narrative, like holding open a curtain or stilling the ripples on a pond. You can find that last idea in any book about meditation, but putting it together with the other stuff, suddenly I'm meditating a lot better. Framing the practice as fully outside-in works better than framing it as inside to more inside; and I don't know why they always tell you to come back to your breath, because it feels much more powerful to refocus with my entire body.
October 19. From the collapse subreddit, The author seems to think we're fooling ourselves, but I think we were fooling ourselves when we defined success in terms of material wealth, and now we're recovering. But the question remains: without the deep social connections of preindustrial people, and the ever-increasing numbers of the industrial age, what will keep us going day after day?
November 18. From the Shower Thoughts subreddit: People are talking about tragedies the way hipsters talk about bands. "Oh, you're into that trendy tragedy? Whatever. There's this other tragedy I'm into, you probably haven't heard of it..."
I was tempted to keep writing about political violence, but instead I want to write about popularity and fame. The Greatness of William Blake is a review of a book called Those Who Write for Immortality, which argues that there's hardly any connection between the quality of an author and their future reputation, because William Blake would have been forgotten if it weren't for a couple of dedicated fans who published a biography 35 years after his death. I'm wondering how many other people were equally great and not so lucky. At least writers and painters might leave behind a physical artifact, but consider musicians: before recorded music only top orchestra composers had any way for their work to be preserved. Whoever your favorite musical artist is, there was probably someone equally good in every generation going back thousands of years.
Jessica Livingston is a new post by Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, a highly successful company that funds tech startups. Graham is the famous one, but he explains how his wife is the important one, because she's an exceptional judge of character and she always decided which people they were going to fund: "Jessica knows more about the qualities of startup founders than anyone else ever has." But she has this power through an extreme sensitivity to bullshit, which also makes her fame-proof.
Even at my low level of fame I understand this. The famous "Ran Prieur" is a mythologized fictional character loosely based on the real me. If you want to prevent this, it's not enough to be honest -- to prevent people from seeing Jesus in a tortilla, you have to go out of your way to make it not look like Jesus. I would have had to anticipate exactly how I would be mythologized, and carefully craft my writing to directly contradict those myths, and if I'd done it right I would have earned a smaller, smarter audience. Over the last few years I've been trying to gently filter my audience down to that level, and it's like backing out of a thorny bush, where the thorns are emails and subreddit comments chastising me for not being the bullshit me that I never was.
Finally, I think fame defeated Ronda Rousey. If you don't follow UFC or popular culture, Ronda Rousey is such a dominant fighter that she won her last three fights in 16, 14, and 34 seconds, and seemed unbeatable -- but last weekend she got her ass kicked by 12-1 underdog Holly Holm. If both fighters were unknown, I think Rousey would consistently beat Holm by playing to her own strength, waiting for a perfect takedown and then using her elite judo skills to get a submission hold. But that's not what "Ronda Rousey" does now. Rousey the real person was possessed by Rousey the icon, who is no longer content to win by patience and craftiness but has to be some kind of superhero. So she played exactly to Holm's strength, getting into a slugfest with a champion boxer and disciplined hard hitter. If Rousey wants to regain and hold the title, it's not enough for her to improve her boxing -- she has to re-ground herself psychologically.
November 16. I don't want to say too much about the Paris attacks because it's not a subject I want to have a long discussion about. But I'll repost this link from last month, , which I would title more precisely as: "Non-government organizations that attack civilians for political goals are not really acting for political goals, even if they think they are, because as political strategy their behavior makes no sense." Their real motives are Also here's a reddit comment by a Muslim on why they attack, with more discussion below it. To me this seems like a special case of a more general problem: that we are not yet biologically adapted, or even culturally adapted, to living in large complex societies. If your enemy is a hundred warriors with spears, it makes sense to attack those people, but if your enemy is the foreign policy apparatus of western civilization, attacking humans is the wrong move. I'm just curious, hypothetically, what would happen if Islamic extremists attacked the technological infrastructure: power plants, oil refineries, electrical substations, railroads, fiber optic lines, server farms, cell phone towers, container ports. I'm not sure it would help them in the long term, but it would certainly be more disruptive and it could potentially crash the global economy. Why are they not attacking the infrastructure? Because attacking humans feels more meaningful and theatrical. But that's an aspect of culture. A wild speculation: if immersion in technology changes global culture, and we all start thinking about things instead of people when we think about big systems, then sabotage will become the normal action of marginalized groups, which will place a limit on technological complexity. If the control systems want to prevent this, they have to make technology invisible, so that no matter how complex it gets, we still see the world in terms of people.
November 13. As usual, lighter stuff for the weekend. The Best Offense in College Football Is Also the Laziest. This is one reason it's better to follow sports than politics: sports are flexible enough that you can see people think of better ways to do things and then actually do them. In this case, conventional teams tell their players to go all out all the time, while Baylor calls a pass play for only one receiver and the others relax and save their energy -- or sometimes they pretend to relax to fool the defense.
Other reasons sports are better than politics: they're less rigged, more transparent, and honest about the fact that you have no influence. Following the world of politics is like following the weather: it's a vast incomprehensible system in which you are powerless, but you have to keep an eye on it to be prepared for the disasters and opportunities that it creates.
Some happy news: How beekeeping jobs are giving ex-cons in Chicago a second chance. "Graduates of the program have a recidivism rate of only 4%, compared with the national average of 40% and the state average of 55%." Partly this is because the program teaches stuff like how to make a resume, and I think it's also because bees are wild animals, and engaging with nature keeps us sane. Related: yesterday from the library I got David Abram's book Becoming Animal.
And some music! My girlfriend has put together a playlist of her top 100 songs. Her taste is a lot different from mine -- if my songs page had not been influenced by her stuff, the only overlap would be Led Zeppelin.
November 11. I've just read the book A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit. Well, not every word. It's one of those books with fifty good pages of content and hundreds of pages of repetition and filler to get it to book length. I recommend reading the first section on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and skimming the rest.
Anyway, the ideas are important. In the 21st century we still have a 19th century view of how ordinary people behave in a disaster: that they panic, run around aimlessly, are more selfish, and are unhappy. The evidence shows exactly the opposite: people calmly come together and self-organize to help each other out, and the experience of building a social system out of free action, driven by necessity to do things with concrete value, makes them much more happy than in their normal lives doing meaningless chores in a bureaucracy. Some people, like Dorothy Day, have been inspired to spend their lives trying to make ordinary society more like a disaster utopia. And I was surprised to learn that Mexico used to be even more corrupt, before the 1985 earthquake gave people enough sense of their own power that they could make some reforms.
Meanwhile, the ruling powers become more dangerous, because they're threatened by people taking care of each other and making them irrelevant, and also because the chaos gives them room to push their top-down utopian visions. Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine is all about this.
I wish, instead of the boring obligatory sections on 9/11 and Katrina, Solnit had gone deeper into the question of why it's so hard to make a really good society last. She briefly mentions Burning Man and Rainbow Gatherings, and I wonder what exactly is stopping us from making a Rainbow Gathering permanent? If we had sci-fi food fabricators, and no interference from the authorities, would it still fail because of mass psychology? And could we remove that limit by changing our culture?
Brahman is full of all perfections. And to say that Brahman has some purpose in creating the world will mean that it wants to attain through the process of creation something which it has not. And that is impossible. Hence, there can be no purpose of Brahman in creating the world. The world is a mere spontaneous creation of Brahman. It is a Lila, or sport, of Brahman. It is created out of Bliss, by Bliss and for Bliss. Lila indicates a spontaneous sportive activity of Brahman as distinguished from a self-conscious volitional effort. The concept of Lila signifies freedom as distinguished from necessity.
This leads to the big question of all religion: if the root of this world is something good, how did this world get so bad? My speculative answer is that it happened through misunderstanding around play and abuse. Someone thinks they're having fun and causes someone else to feel pain, and if they're friends they work it out; but as we live in bigger systems where our actions ripple farther, these play-pain links remain unresolved and become normal, and finally we all feel like we're just trying to have a good time in a world that's senseless and cruel. Or worse, we suffer so much pain that we can no longer generate actions from playfulness, only from seriousness, which is more dangerous.
Related: a few days ago there was a good reddit comment about how buildings got shitty:
Check out old commercial buildings, and you will notice that many of them have the name of the original owner ornately displayed, often beneath the cornice. The manner in which the ego of upper class individuals manifests itself has changed throughout history, and in the past century it appears that the ego of developers took the form of building something beautiful and slapping your name on it. Developers these days just want the payout so they can spend their money on other things, presumably boats, cars, clothing, etc.
Cars and clothing are middle class goals. I think very rich people see increasing wealth as an end in itself. They're in basically the same mental state that you can experience yourself by playing a good computer strategy game -- I recommend Lords of the Realm II or Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. But even in those games you get to build castles and city improvements, so maybe real estate developers are in an even narrower mental state, more like a slot machine addict.
I'm also thinking about the deeper cultural changes that are leading everyone's values away from the physical world and toward abstractions. This must be an effect of the information age: that when we seek improvement, we seek it in ways that are increasingly unreal.
. After some listening, I've picked out three albums to listen to closely (high) this weekend: Treasure by Cocteau Twins, Souvlaki by Slowdive, and Bloweyelashwish by Lovesliescrushing. [Update: Treasure is excellent, especially Pandora, but I wish they had heavier bass and edgier vocals. Souvlaki has bad mixing that is covered up by the style, and Neil Halstead is a bad singer-songwriter, but I love the near-instrumental Souvlaki Space Station. Bloweyelashwish is pretty but mostly forgettable. My favorite pure shoegaze album remains Yo La Tengo's Painful.]
October 12. Last month there was a piece in the Economist,
November 6. Loose ends on Wednesday's post. Eric has convinced me that it was unfair to accuse uneducated people of being less mentally adaptable. In this context the important thing about low education is that it goes with low social class, which makes life harder in almost every way, including doing more physical work, which leads to chronic pain and dangerous painkilling drugs. And it's no surprise that Prescription painkiller deaths fall in medical marijuana states.
Fun stuff for the weekend: Water Is Scary is a trending subreddit for short videos of stuff like giant waves and floods.
Origami Conspiracy is a recording project of a guy in Oregon. He sounds like Pete Yorn in space, and my favorite track is 1996.
And two weeks ago on reddit there was a massive post about Shoegaze Essentials. After some listening, I've picked out three albums to listen to closely (high) this weekend: Treasure by Cocteau Twins, Souvlaki by Slowdive, and Bloweyelashwish by Lovesliescrushing.