February 29, 2008

MP3 autodidact

Took this photo the other day. It was a torn and faded notice stuck to the side of an old house. The character on the left means 'open' and the one on the right means 'whole' or 'complete'.

When I'm doing housework, grocery shopping or riding my bike I hate being left alone with my thoughts. No doubt I ought to cultivate the Zen of such actions - an empty-headed, ego-less perfection - but I still prefer to listen to things.

The DIY Scholar is a good site that rounds up the 'best' free classes and courses available online [the 'best of page' is actually here], with lots of click explore and download. On a related note, links to some Niall Ferguson talks with a great picture that's mostly bright yellow will be posted tomorrow. Things to look forward to.

February 26, 2008

A methodology for studying alternate reality

A Methodology for Studying Various Interpretations of the DMT-Induced Alternate Reality

An interesting study proposal from May 2006, but haven't been able to find any follow up. Excerpt follows:

This section discusses three interpretations of the DMT-induced alternate reality. These interpretations run the gamut from DMT being a psychoactive molecule that provides a complete hallucination (i.e. a full sensory hallucination) to DMT acting as a gateway to a co-existing alien reality. First, the DMT experience can be interpreted as a hallucination where the human subject synthesizes the elaborate experience each time DMT is administered (i.e. an inconsistent subjective reality). In this sense, the DMT-induced reality is not persistent in that the alternate reality cannot exist without the momentary perception of the DMT inebriant. Furthermore, it is inconsistent in that repeated doses of DMT do not have correlated responses within the individual human subject (e.g. recurrent experiential themes). In this case, the DMT induced perception would be akin to the states perceived while on other psychoactives such as LSD and psilocybin. However, unlike LSD and psilocybin, the subject is experiencing a complete hallucination (i.e. a purely synthetic world) and not simply a distortion of their perceptual mechanisms (e.g. ‘melting walls’ and visual trails).
Second, the alternate reality could be a consistent subjective hallucination in that the DMT experience is persistent only to the individual human subject. This means that the subject may return to the DMT-induced alternate reality and perceive recurrent themes (e.g. same beings, similar conversations), but that perception is privy only to the isolated individual and does not occur across all subjects. This interpretation could imply that there exists some subconscious mechanisms facilitating the persistent personal experience. Whether that mechanism is solely biological (e.g. stimulating particular fundamental, or low-level, areas of the brain associated with the representation of humanoid beings) or psychological (e.g. stimulating high-level cortical regions associated with one’s life experiences) are two potential sub-hypothesis of the falsification of the consistent subjective reality as being a co-existing objective alien reality.

Finally, the DMT-induced alternate reality may be an objective reality that is persistent irrespective of the perceiving individual and therefore is the same reality being experienced by all DMT inebriants (i.e. a co-existing world, a true alternate reality). Though being the most extraordinary interpretation, as will be shown, this interpretation may be the easiest to validate.
The test for the second option is two give the entities a math problem, come out of the trip, and return and get the answer. The test for the third is to go in, give the problem, come out, and then send someone else back in to get the answer. Failure seems assured.

Skeptic / experienced psychonaut James L. Kent comments:
The fact remains that DMT entities do exist, but it is my belief that they represent subjective personifications of alien archetypes within our own minds. We all have the elf/alien archetype embedded within our structure; and we utilize subconscious processes which are so autonomous and foreign to our "executive" consciousness that we cannot even identify them as "self" when we see them. Imagine, for instance, if the neural network responsible for making "snap decisions" -- a little pocket in the medial pre-frontal cortex -- suddenly took visual form due to hyperactive excitation of your visual cortex. Instead of receiving feedback counseling via internal voice or "gut feeling", that voice would suddenly have a body and a face and a costume, and perhaps a fully choreographed dance routine to go along with whatever it was telling you.
Now part of me is a sucker for the sci-fi thrills of another dimension inhabited with intelligent beings existing in the same space as our own, and I certainly think that research on inner space should be undertaken with all the seriousness of research to outer space, but with regard to the search for intelligent life...we have it all around us. Working with cetaceans - in the vein of John Lilley - should be a priority, but also hacking into other life forms, ways of being.

So, being conservative, skeptical and generally in awe of the brain and what how little we know of what it does, I'm inclined to follow Kent, above. I think consciousness is an aggregate of many processes - a society of mind, and from here to DMT elves is not such a leap. Without much reflection I'll pull in Julian Jaynes and his theory about the bicameral mind. Basically this is that long ago humans were not subjectively conscious, and heard voices in their heads giving them orders which they took to be gods, but which in fact came from the subject's own head...it's late, it's complicated, you can find more online if you want to. From what I've read I'm not convinced, although I am certain - as a naive and easily swayed layman working only with the raw material of my own experience - that consciousness is environmentally constructed, and so vastly different societies would produce vastly different minds. But keeping with Jaynes, the bicameral mind, and gods inside the head - does DMT cause a mental split, and does this produce the entitiess? We're hard-wired to find faces in clouds, why not to voices in our head? No homunculi are needed, just whispers and shadows. But at some point I'll have to write some posts about salvia.

Further comment on the study, more sympathetic to the idea of autonomous entities, can be found on another new blog, one rather more devoted to this topic than mine: psychopraxis.blogspot.com

February 25, 2008

Town and country

Howard Bloom suggests that evolution works fast enough for humans to have been genetically influenced by cities. I'm not convinced, but what do I know? Anecdotes and prejudices, easily swayed.

Humans adapt well to cities, that's why we're all moving to one, but I ought to find out how second and third generation hunter-gather immigrants survive in an urban landscape, if they're really at a disadvantage to those born into more connectedness, allowing, of course, for the confounding factors of racism and active social exclusion.

The supposedly ideal community - the hunter-gatherer band of 25 or so - can still exist in the city, circles of colleagues and friends. And like Will Self said, you can make a choice to live in a more natural way, following rhythms that make deep sense, although this is far easier for people not to tied to offices, nine to five. At times like this I love my job, free all day Tuesday until 5pm, working on proof-reading, doing other things.

I grew up on and off in small villages, and don't romanticize the life in a genuinely small community. It's dull to be in the middle of nowhere with no books and no like-minded folk, where everybody feels they have an interest and a part of you. The easy anonymity of the city is for me, with all the facilities and opportunities for satisfaction and pleasure.

A decent city has unplanned diversity at all scales, is an organic, emergent whole, a realization of the prevailing ideologies and practices of the inhabitants, freeze-framed and stilted over time. Human artifacts, especially those which are emergent, the product of a huge mass of choices over time and space, are expressions of human nature. Which is not to say that they're necessarily good or healthy, but only that they're likely to conflict with human drives in the most superficial ways. But that's pretty glib - how could it be otherwise? Well...consider the clear inhumanity of a centrally planned community, the expression of one ideology and vision, as opposed to one that has grown up slowly, reshaped by economic, social and environmental variations at a very fine grade. The former is the standard state architecture of empires and dictatorships, grand slabs with no life. The latter is one of the things I love about Tainan. In my neighborhood of a square kilometer we have restaurants, convenience stores, morning and afternoon markets, schools, bars, supermarkets, parks, a hospital clinics, a university, two movie theaters, two swimming pools, tennis courts, a convent, temples, brothels, tailors, dentists, travel agents, hardware stores, bicycle shops, electrical repairs, plumbers, beauticians, barbers, bookstores and more, all amongst the homes of rich and poor people, crammed together, and there's not a dull part of it, unlike in the newer, more sanitized and planned parts of time, where there's nowhere to walk and all your needs demand motorized transport.

I don't think we needed to evolve to adapt to cities. The city was already inside us, and a need for connections and size that was once met by natural landscapes can now be met by urban spaces.

February 23, 2008

Misguided enthusiasm

I have a lot of experience with misguided emotions, but I'm getting better at channeling my energies and hope the most I can be accused of these days is misguided enthusiasm. I had 18 months, two years, when I was all about cacti and drove my wife crazy with trips to plant markets each weekend and hours spent mooning over the them. But now I've made my peace with cacti, and they're no longer an obsession.

Rode out to the country listening to a Terence McKenna talk from 1995, The State of the Stone. Some good things, but I find his attitude to science annoying, or I would if he wasn't such a good speaker. To be generous, what I take from him is a conscious interplay between fiction and nonfiction, a sci-fi thrill that extrapolates and bends to amaze. There's also no direct references to 2012, which is a plus, as I find that talk tiresome.

John Horgan's Rational Mysticism has a good chapter on McKenna, entitled The Man in the Purple Sparkly Suit, which acknowledges that he's less a philosopher, and far less a scientist, but rather a performance artist, jester and poet. Horgan falls for his charm gets what I think is the essential point of his riffs - that life is weirder and more wonderful than we suppose, that humanity is something interesting, important and good. Which may not be true, but that's no reason not to entertain such lines of thought for the feelings and internal images they inspire, the connections that they set up or uncover.

McKenna presented all of this with a michievous grin, daring us to take him seriously.

February 21, 2008

Self-deception and biology

Working my way through the Edge questions, and I like the quote below from Robert Trivers, whose big idea is the evolutionary importance of self-deception, in that it helps us to deceive others more convincingly.

One thing I never imagined was that the immune system would be a vital component of any science of self-deception, yet two lines of work within psychology make this clear. ...

...the 1980s produced the striking discovery that the maternal half of our genome could act against the paternal, and vice-versa, discoveries beautifully exploited in the 90’s and 00’s by David Haig to produce a range of expected (and demonstrated) internal conflicts which must inevitably interact with self-deception directed toward others. Put differently, internal genetic conflict leads to a quite novel possibility: selves-deception, equally powerful maternal and paternal halves selected to deceive each other (with unknown effects on deception of others). ...

At the same time, James Pennebaker and colleagues have shown that the very act of repressing information from consciousness lowers immune function while sharing information with others (or even a diary) has the opposite effect.
Full text somewhere on this page

Blackest black

From the Washington Post, heavily edited by me:

Researchers in New York reported this month that they have created a paper-thin material that absorbs 99.955 percent of the light that hits it, making it by far the darkest substance ever made......It is made of carbon nanotubes: microscopic, hollow fibers whose walls are just one atom thick. Importantly, the fibers are widely spaced, providing plenty of space to allow light in and almost no surfaces to bounce it back out....By voraciously sucking up all surrounding illumination, it can give those who gaze on it a dizzying sensation of nothingness.

[In addition a] nascent invisibility cloak now being tested is made of a material that bends light rays "backward," a weird phenomenon thought to be impossible just a few years ago.

Known as transformation optics, the phenomenon compels some wavelengths of light to flow around an object like water around a stone. As a result, things behind the object become visible while the object itself disappears from view.

Professor Pendry pioneered much of modern thinking about how to attain full invisibility using "metamaterials" -- substances engineered to manhandle light. Ordinary matter, such as glass or water, slows and bends light as it passes through. Metamaterials contain bits of metal or other substances embedded in precise patterns to make the light bend in an opposite direction from normal paths.

"In a sense you have some negative space," Pendry said. "The light appears to go backward."

February 19, 2008


Humans are very adaptive, but this means that we’re changed by our environment and actions as much as we change it or control them. To quote Spencer Wells, the anthropologist who interviewed Will Self [below]:

We've probably changed more since the dawn of the Neolithic than we did in the hundreds of thousands of years leading up to that. Basically what we're doing is adapting to the culture we created, which is a frightening thing because the culture, in a sense, has become a living organism of its own. It's almost like a virus the way it's taken over. The greatest adaptation seems to have come from the change in diet and the change, perhaps, in shelter and making clothes, and all these things that happened as a result of the Neolithic.

The User Illusion ended with a criticism of our increasingly mediated, screen-based world, noting that we evolved to preconsciously take in, weigh up and act on millions of bits of information. The idea is that we should cut ourselves off from mediation and gain a more direct experience of ourselves and the environment, but more essentially in this context [and this post] to incorporate elements of a Paleolithic lifestyle. A good start on this, beyond walking - which I dislike, I ride a bike - is in terms of diet and exercise.

The summary is this: as few neolithic, agricultural foods as possible, i.e. no grains, lots of fruit, vegetables, nuts, meats, and short, irregular bouts of randomized hard exercise, interspersed with low level physical activity. Keeping things non-linear and faux hunter-gatherer. A good place to start on this is with Art De Vany and his essay on Evolutionary Fitness.

You can make that choice

Will Self interviewed on walking and attaining the hunter-gatherer mindset

I think the only thing I can do is to try and persuade people to walk. Once you walk, it starts to fall into place. [...] A Zen‑like state of absorption into physical geography. Because if you are solely concerned with orientation and movement, then the so‑called higher faculties don't have a lot to do. There isn't a lot of room. You're not tormented by what the Germans call the "earworm" gnawing away at you, or the resentment you had toward the guy at the party in 1985 who spilled the drink on you. That goes after a few miles. And I think then we're probably back in the hunter-gatherer mindset. What I'm saying is, you can be a hunter-gatherer. You can be a hunter-gatherer now. Anybody here in Manhattan, or in any major city, can make that choice to be a hunter-gatherer.
Busy with a stack of proofreading after the new year break, but want to post something. The above really ties in with lots of other things on diet, exercise and consciousness, but for the moment it'll have to stand on its own. At a loss at what to tag it. Toying with some variation of 'cosa nostra', our thing, which I think covers the ill-defined goal of general mental and physical well-being, but for now will make do with 'health', and return to this topic at the weekend.

February 16, 2008

The Book of Disquiet, texts 30 & 29

Two quotes from adjacent sections in The Book of Disquiet

One of my constant preoccupations is trying to understand how it is that other people exist, how it is that there are souls other than mine and consciousnesses not my own [...] I understand perfectly that the man before me uttering words similar to mine and making the same gestures I make, or could make, is in some way my fellow creature. However, I feel just the same about the people in illustrations I dream up, about the characters I see in novels or the dramatis personae on the stage who speak through the actors representing them.
text 30
If only one had not learned, from birth onwards, to give certain accepted meanings to everything, but instead was able to see the meaning inherent in each thing rather than that imposed on it from without. If only one could know the human reality of the woman selling fish and go beyond just labeling her a fishwife. If only one could see the policeman as God sees him [...] ...my vision ... is merely that of a human animal who unwittingly inherited Greek culture, Roman order, Christian morality and all the other illusions that make up the civilization in which I live and feel.
What's become of the living?
text 29
I've been carrying around and dipping in and out of the book for a long time now. It's a series of small journal entries and impressions, no real narrative, perfect for when you want something to think about without reading too much, while waiting in line, say, or for someone who's trying on shoes. The kind of book you're never sure you've finished reading

I like the way that nothing in it is presented as a definitive statement, the way it flows between highs and lows, embracing and rejecting the world. I like the fact that Pessoa was a clerk, like Kafka, not part of the public sphere, with its acclaim and privileges.

I fall for books which appear to be full of empty poses and glaring contradictions, the kind of passages that at different times strike you as profound or trite, crystallized truth or dull platitude. Consistency is something that I have little time for over the long run, and the long run is increasingly short. If by evening I can recall what I thought at breakfast, then I'm doing fine.

February 14, 2008

Things fall apart

Few objects are able to convey as much meaning as the human face. Mine is rapidly falling apart, and there seems little I can do to stop the process.

A staple of profiles of dissolute characters is the before and after picture - see what life has done them. And this is usually very stupid, as most often the person in question has just aged at the normal rate, not much worse than their clean living peers. Now I'm not old, only 38 this year, but was much younger once, and looked it. This wave of reflection is prompted each time I look in the mirror, but set off more specifically by a recent photograph of Martin Amis, not known for being dissolute, below:

When I was in high school, 20 years ago, just before the wave of younger, better looking, more American, and therefore more exciting, US brat pack authors hit the UK shelves, Amis was the go-to guy for the novelist as sex god. At the time he was full of roguish charm and promise, London Fields still ahead and looking something like this:

From my perspective this happened in a short time, albeit several lifetimes, but fast enough to be alarming. What state will I be in 20 years later?

This matters not for those occasions when I meet someone from my past - what happened? - because those seem to be entirely theoretical, the chances standing between zero and less than zero. What worries me more is the general, professional halo effect, how looking one way colors everything people feel about me. In part this is a legitimate concern, and in part pure vanity, which I channel into exercise and healthy diet. Of course, the effect goes both ways, and a strong perceived competence or charisma is able to mitigate the effects of physical decline in the eyes of others, but not in one's own.

Anyway, enough posts tagged 'myself'. Copied and pasted last year's Edge question [100 or so scientists, thinkers respond to "What have you changed your mind about?] into a Word document and had it printed and bound for $100NT and am going through for new ideas to trip out on. It can be read online, but if anyone wants it in a more printable form to get away from the screen then email me.

February 13, 2008

Strange loops and the pleasure of finding things out

I was looking through the stack of books I've set up to read next, and the foolishness of some of my projects really hit home. I think I understand the futility of trying to get smarter. It's a manifestation of two deep set habits. One is that there is a complete answer and truth that'll be revealed at some point - when I grow up, these books are read, this skill is learned, that time arrives - rather than learning more only opening up new areas of ignorance.

There's always the pleasure of finding things out, but I think even with this one can become jaded if it's pursued too vigorously. I have a tendency to get stuck in a loop and work certain behaviors or ideas to death. It took me a long time learn, even only in theory, that if x is good then 2x isn't always better, that nearly all systems of interest are nonlinear. Which is why I jump around between subjects, to keep my brain firing on fun, and why what I know is so shallow. The choice is between knowledge that's either deep or wide, and I keep going for the latter, learning just enough to make confident but foolish pronouncements on a broad range of topics. And this is where my other deep set habit comes in to balance the affair, the retreat into the patterns that reverberate and flow in my head, with the idea that something real is taking place.

Self-similarity is the rule in natural systems, and I see no reason why the mind should be any different. Why shouldn't the same features turn up, with slight variations, at all magnifications of thought?

February 11, 2008

Smog and rust

Check out the smog from China / Taiwan in this NASA image. Tainan is just by the big dirty cloud 3/4 the way down the west coast. This picture makes me want to move to the east.

Had a long bike ride from Tainan city to Salt Mountain in Chigu, which is really just a heap of salt by a salt processing plant that's been turned into a very minor tourist attraction, complete with salty tea, salty coffee and salty popsicles. It's a nice ride to get there but it's not worth visiting.

Came back via Tainan Science Park, which was deserted, with long straight roads past anonymous block buildings in which the future is being dreamed up. The ride was done with a good talk and Q&A by Vernor Vinge on my MP3 player. It's called "What if the Singularity does not happen?", and the text notes can be found here at Vernor's page, while the audio - which is a lot better than the notes - is here. He's a good speaker, perhaps because he's an entertaining sci-fi author aside from being a math professor, although the same is true of Rudy Rucker, and he always sounds slightly dazed, losing his line of thought very easily.

In the Q&A Vinge says that he doesn't really think about the environment, as he thinks there are a) no clear courses of action, and b) the Singularity - which he still thinks is the most likely near future - will be able to address such problems in its own time.

It's interesting that two large groups of smart people have such totally opposing views of the future - environmental breakdown and technological rapture. I enjoy flipping between both positions. I'm getting more and more promiscuous in my thinking, and I think it's a tendency I should encourage.

Having said that, what's the downside of saving energy and keeping things clean?

February 10, 2008

Back to work

The Chinese New Year is almost over, and now I don't know when the next break is. Ten years ago I became an English teacher by default, and ran on the illusion that the entire educational economy in Taiwan was primarily a system to provide me with $$$ and a reason to stay sober before nightfall. I hardly worked at all until I was I was over 30, and when I finally buckled down, about five years ago, to pull myself out of various increasingly bad situations, I worked really hard at a job in which I had very little confidence.

I'm not a natural teacher. I'm not a people person, nor entirely comfortable on stage. Each class used to be a battle between my 'true nature' and events as they unfolded, and so I disliked teaching, and hated myself for what I'd become.

But now things are different. It has been a long process, and I'll keep slipping back to incompetence and doubt, because it's on the edge of those that exhilaration and forgetfulness thrive, the ability to overcome the self and experience the work as something that happens through me, not by me. To do this required years of practice to get enough tacit skills to function smoothly within a loose framework. And even with all that, I don't often rise above the level of basic professional competence.

Last night I was IM'ing a friend in London and whose life is almost entirely opposite to mine. Whatever his problems are, I'm living the answer, and vice versa. Together we've got it made, although it's clear that, as a professional writer, he's been the more faithful and courageous with regard to his dream. The thing is, like Sisyphus I've learned to love my rock, and how much this is good and how much this is bad is something I don't know if it's worth thinking about. This is either the wisdom or the compromises and narrowing dreams that come with age, but even through the form of my ambitions didn't play out as planned the content is doing fine.

February 07, 2008

Mushrooms from dead wood

Above is a picture of some oyster mushrooms growing in my garden. I inoculated the log last summer and then a week ago they started popping out.

The garden is only about 2.5m x 4m, but it has two tall trees - 3m and 5m - and plenty of variety. I worked on it a lot at first and then let it go. The idea is for it be a self-sustaining experiment in permaculture and emergent behavior. Only dead plant material is used for nourishment, I just add water and introduce new species, then let them work it out together. With regard to size and apparent vigor, the yam plants are kings of the patch, but there are various smaller things, a lot smaller, who thrive in the undergrowth, some of which are the fungi I've introduced through spore prints and inoculated wood.

I should make it clear that I don't really know what I'm doing, but I pay attention and let the plants teach me things. The names are not that important, I just need to see what they do, which are fragile and which are unstoppable.

Plants [and fungi, which are different] are highly evolved technology. All the energy we use is at base solar power, and it's plants that are on the front line of using solar energy to convert dirt and water into edible, flammable or wearable material. I'm not up to comprehending animals yet. I still look at our cat and can't quite figure out how it can be so self-contained, to move about with only a piece of fish and handful of biscuits a day as the energy source. Plants seem a lot more tractable, the processes essentially graspable and hence the sense of awe fully owned rather than just default.

February 05, 2008

The Year of the Rat

The rat was welcomed in ancient times as a protector and bringer of material prosperity. It is associated with ambition, wealth, charm, and order, yet also with death, war, the occult, pestilence, and atrocities.
Lifted from Wikipedia. I have no belief and little interest in zodiacs of any kind, but local color and a week's leave are always welcome.

February 02, 2008

Beyond me

Been listening to various Rudy Rucker podcasts and reading his blog, so picked up Infinity and the Mind online, without being able to browse. A mistake, as the math is beyond me. Anything that can't be done on a cell phone calculator leaves me baffled. So far I've been skipping all the pages full of symbols, but maybe I'll sit down and try and find out what they mean. I can probably get only 10% of the whole thing into my head.

Fortunately, 10% of infinity is still infinity.

He quotes Benjamin Blood, who [working before William James] would hold a cloth soaked with ether to his face and slip into unconsciousness, then as his hand fell away he would come to again, moving from trance to full awareness, which in this quote he refers to as sanity:

I think most persons who have tested it will accept this as the central point of the illumination: i) that sanity is not the basic quality of intelligence, but is a mere condition which is variable ... ii) and that only in sanity is formal or contrasting thought, while the naked life is realized outside of sanity altogether; iii) and it is this instant contrast of this 'tasteless water of souls' with formal thought as we 'come to' that leaves the patient an astonishment that the awful mystery of Life is at last but a homely and common thing, and that aside from mere formality the majestic and the absurd are of equal dignity. p217 [my bold]
The problem with transcendent experiences is the difficulty of integrating what's been felt with everyday life. What I like about the line above is that it says that both sides of the experience are equally valid, and that it's in the moment of crossing from one state to the other that something useful is learned. In Rucker's case this is the moving from awareness of the infinite - the one - back to the everyday - the many.

We have to live in the everyday world - get a job of somekind, turn up and perform, ideally with good health and the desired level of human contact. Jeremy Narby, author of The Cosmic Serpent, says this is what he learned from shamans:
...do what you can for those around you (including plants and animals), but don't make a big deal of it. ... I spend my time promoting land titling projects and bilingual education for indigenous people, and thinking about how to move knowledge forward and how to open up understanding between people; I also spend time with my children, and with children in my community (as a soccer coach); and I look after the plants in my garden, without using pesticides and so on. But I do this because I think it needs doing, and because it's all I can do, but not because it's "spiritual."
The challenge is in not getting blitzed on transcendence as an escape from everyday situations that it's possible to overcome or do away with, and instead to use those moments out of time to work toward the change.

The week-long vacation for Chinese New Year starts in 20 hours, and I'll be getting blitzed.