January 29, 2009

Primate ethology / Food porn

  • Function — How does the behaviour impact on the animal's chances of survival and reproduction?
  • Causation — What are the stimuli that elicit the response, and how has it been modified by recent learning?
  • Development — How does the behaviour change with age, and what early experiences are necessary for the behaviour to be shown?
  • Evolutionary history — How does the behaviour compare with similar behaviour in related species, and how might it have arisen through the process of phylogeny?
Back from a few days in Taipei that were 2/3 a lot of fun and 1/3 less so, the latter because of my lingering inability to join the human race and the trouble that this causes with my wife, a matter that, at 38, I really ought to have mastered.

I've arranged my life so most of the time I can be alone and the apparent disconnects between myself and what other people do cause minimal friction all round - the world is happy enough to leave me alone.

It's embarrassing to admit that I have no idea if people socialize in groups only to maximize some later payoff, or is there an immediate reward in the action itself? Because I'm not entirely cynical, I suspect the latter, that people do hang out for the pleasure that it gives, rather than for money, food, sex, status, aid or whatever at a later date. This could be the basis of all my misunderstandings.

Looking at the great apes, I'm like an orangutan and not a chimp, a solitary rather than a social animal. I honestly have no idea what's going on when people get together. Which is rather disconcerting because I am a person, not an alien ethologist or an orangutan, and naturally part of the scenes that I think I'm only observing. My feelings and actions when in groups shouldn't even be second nature, they should be the thing itself, requiring no thought or reflection whatsoever. How much of this is caused by conversations being all in Mandarin rather than English I don't know, but probably less than I think. Like the Taiwanese often say to each other and me: "You think too much."

In Taipei they have more food choices than in Tainan. Because of my habits we always stay in the same small hotel near Shi Da University, and then have breakfast in Grandma Nitti's. The first visit I always have their large bacon cheeseburger, which looks like this:

Inside it's good and pink, and it comes with fries, small salad and a drink:

Grandma Nitti's
Shi Da Road, Lane 93, #8


Pictures from Almost Taiwan

January 27, 2009

The other smartest man in the world

A while ago I had a post of the Errol Morris interview with The Smartest Man in the World. Here's a Morris interview with another contender. Rick Rosner

It wasn't exactly a nervous breakdown

I had an inkling that chicks might dig scars

I tried cat food, but cat food's nasty

That book convinced me I wasn't nearly obnoxious enough in my behavior

I was going out with a very attractive big muscly angry woman

Pain and immobility would help me focus

I've wasted a lot of time trying to retrieve lost time

January 26, 2009

Machines of loving grace

The law of harmonic sounds reappears in the harmonic colors. The granite is differenced in its laws only by the more or less of heat, from the river that wears it away. The river, as it flows, resembles the air that flows over it; the air resembles the light which traverses it with more subtle currents; the light resembles the heat which rides with it through Space. Each creature is only a modification of the other; the likeness in them is more than the difference, and their radical law is one and the same. A rule of one art, or a law of one organization, holds true throughout nature.
RW Emerson, quoted in From Counterculture to Cyberculture, by Fred Turner, p55

January 25, 2009

A long-range view of things

But when I think about it, having the kind of body that puts on weight easily was perhaps a blessing in disguise. In other words, if I don't want to gain weight I have to work out hard every day, watch what I eat, and cut down on indulgences. Life can be tough, but as long as you don't stint on the effort, your metabolism will greatly improve with these habits, and you'll end up much healthier, not to mention stronger. To a certain extent, you can even slow down the effects of aging. But people who naturally keep the weight off no matter what don't need to exercise or watch their diet in order to stay trim. There can't be many of them who would go out of their way to take these troublesome measures when they don't need to. Which is why, in many cases, their physical strength deteriorates as they age. If you don't exercise, your muscles will naturally weaken, as will your bones. Some of my readers may be the kind of people who easily gain weight, but the only way to understand what's really fair is to take the long-range view of things. For the reasons I give above, I think this kind of physical nuisance should be viewed in a positive way, as a blessing. We should consider ourselves lucky that the red light is so clearly visible. Of course, it's not always easy to see things this way.

Confessions of the Masks

I went back to England for three weeks and saw some people - groups and individuals - that I hadn't seen for some time, plus I met some new people entirely out of context, no others, places or roles to be influenced by. It was interesting how old patterns remained, and how new ones were so easily established, but only with entirely new people.

For example, there was one friend who I hadn't seen for 11 years. Back then I used to drink a lot, and especially with this guy. Now I know was a little nervous about meeting him again, as there was history and events, and also I'd been traveling and hadn't eaten anything all day. Still, I drank three pints without pausing for breath, and things were much the same as before, albeit overlaid on certain aspects of my more recent default self [better health and posture, less uncertainty about my place in the world, the general palliative effects of recent history and events]. But mainly that newer at-home-alone self was watching, half detached, at the improv performance another part of me was giving, running on sense memories and the cues that this guy was sending out, no doubt also slipping back into an older [i.e. younger] version of himself. If we'd had more time together things would no doubt have settled down to some more nuanced state, but to get the whole thing done in six hours was a shock to the system, an experience of time travel.

The next night I met someone I'd never met before, and remained lucid and ran through all the charming tricks of my current mask. An automatic performance, one that felt no more or less natural than the night before, but overall better, because there was minimal alcohol and no history to either dwell on or consciously avoid. It made me want to go back and meet people I haven't seen since childhood and then test what the automatic feelings and actions would be, but I don't keep in touch with many people from my past, and none from before university.

The next day it all came together, the past and present modes of being , but I ate something wrong, or got too cold, or was given something bad to smoke, and my system rebelled. I had a great time, but everything inside me broke. [Oddly enough, almost exactly the same thing happened in about the same circumstances two nights ago in a KTV. Everything I've ever learned I had to learn the hard way, many times, and this lesson appears to take some time to master]

The point is that there's no real, authentic self inside me. In addition to all the socially constructed masks that I can adopt without even thinking about it, there's the self-conscious self I slip into when alone and thinking about me, me, me. But that's not the last word, no more real than the others, as it evolves stochastically with events inside and outside. There's nothing to lament in this. Having no one self to hold on to makes dying seem trivial [now, but probably not later] - nothing I can pin down will be lost, just things in the minds of others. I'm not there and never was.


This graphic caught my eye, if only for the fact that Taiwan's in last place. Some details, but not enough, are provided at The Economist, although the comments add more color.

Related post: Guardian sex survey

January 22, 2009

Unattached: the same in heat and cold

I love the man who hates not nor exults, who mourns not nor desires...and who remains unmoved who is the same to friend and foe, [the same] whether he is respected or despised, the same in heat and cold, in pleasure and in pain, who has put away attachment and remains unmoved by praise or blame...contended with whatever comes his way.
Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, quoted on p77 The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt
What would such a person be like? Ram Dass [born Richard Alpert, clip below] has a line about working with dying AIDS patients and keeping himself balanced between the extremes of hope and hopelessness, and managing to get off on the bad ends by seeing everything. I summarize it badly, but essentially he's rewired himself, or allowed the wiring to come loose. Now I can see the appeal of this, in theory and in practice, and it's obviously also an aim, but there is a wondering about how relationships run when you reach this state of non-attachment. Moreover, non-attachment in this field has never been a problem for me, and another aim is to become more attached, as a game, to try on the mask of a truly social animal, find out if it can be done this late in the day. Either way, some rewiring needs to be done, and the trick is in beating yourself, judo style, defeating bad arguments and practices with their own force, so that when they rush at you - thwump! - you end up unharmed on the other side, the strong and bad things overcome.

Here's a story about a time I failed to do this. When I was in London earlier this month I was very cold and felt genuine discomfort. Southern Taiwan has a warm climate - it's tropical -, and I like the weather here very much. I was walking with a friend in London and I would freeze up, shaking, meaning that every 15 minutes or so we had to duck into a bar or someplace and allow my body to reach an acceptable temperature. All this would've been fine, but we weren't really in the condition to be hiding out among people, and I was drawing attention, so we kept on the streets.

My friend tried to get me to change my thermoception submodality. I got down to the condition where I could understand that hot and cold are only physical sensations, that it should be possible to mess with my own responses to such stimuli. I got down to the freezing cold being an abstract notion that could be turned around in my head and viewed dispassionately, like a 3D model of a virus. For a short time I flipped my response to the input from discomfort to comfort, and the harsh cold was interpreted as pleasure, and I could see that the colder I got, the more pleasurable it would be. But very soon the cold came back as cold itself and pain, and a fear that if I kept fooling with my reactions then real damage could be done to my system. That night, probably unrelated, I was very sick in my hotel room.

It was an interesting experience, and going down into rewiring myself I understood extreme S&M practices, how an intensity of feeling could be opened up this way that the more well-used routes cannot offer. Pain leaves a more lasting impression than pleasure, because the consequences are generally so much more significant. If you can exploit the first to trigger the latter, there's whole new lands of delight to be discovered, [in theory].

But then I thought...what's the point? I enjoy living inside my conventional reality, all the more so because I know how fragile it is and how easily I could wreck the controls and cause all kinds of imbalances. I don't want to end up either freezing to death or getting off on genital mutilation.

I'm pretty sure the body is wiser than the mind, and the unconscious is smarter than the self. Anything that has been built up, hard wired over millions of years is to be trusted over something you learned in an afternoon. Still, because I'm idiot a guiding principle is still to tinker, hack the system, see what's possible, f*** up, and then reset most things to default.

Richard Alpert

Related post: The same life as Napoleon [The perils of extreme kicks]

Small and vulgar pleasures

The kind of oppression that threatens democratic peoples does not in any way resemble what preceded it... I want to imagine what aspect despotism could take on in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of men, similar to one another and equal, who gyrate unceasingly to obtain small and vulgar pleasures for themselves with which they fill their souls. Each one of them, isolated at some remove from the others, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his personal friends constitute the entire human species for him: as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he is right next to them, but he doesn't see them; he touches them and doesn't feel them; he exists only within and for himself and, although he still has a family, one may at the least say he no longer has a country. Above all these men rises an immense tutelary power that alone takes care of assuring their enjoyment and watching over their fate. It is absolute, elaborate, regular, calculating, and mild. It would be like paternal power, if - like it - its goal was to prepare men for virile maturity; but, on the contrary, it seeks only to limit them irrevocably to childhood; it likes its citizens to be happy, as long as they dream of nothing other than being happy.
Alexis de Tocqueville, quoted p76 in How the Rich are Destroying the Earth, Herve Kempf

January 21, 2009

No small amount of practice

Mishima and bodybuilding

The reviews of the Murakami book were mixed, but I enjoyed it, and am not a runner. I liked it for the same reasons that I keep going back to Mishima's Sun & Steel - the idea of coupling mental and physical discipline to reach a state of purity and blankness. This idea is with me a lot.

I have this new life wherein I get to set my own hours and do what I want, so long as the amount of work that I choose to accept gets done. I know that many people need to commute and work in offices, or - closer to home - stand up in front of classes of demanding students and perform. I need to be careful that I don't lose this life, which means I need to wake up and reflect on my luck as I make coffee in the morning, because it would be easy enough to lose this, either by performing badly and losing clients, or some greater misbehavior that would jeopardize my permanent visa, with the probability balanced fairly evenly between the two, propped up on either side by whatever discipline I can cultivate and then maintain.

My natural discipline is not so good, but I form habits very easily, and try and focus on good ones rather than bad ones. The last 10 days or so have been a refreshing proof of concept. I wake up early and start work by 07:30, and work until I lose concentration in the early afternoon.

The modafinil was both efficient and effective, with no obvious changes in perception or physical reaction, just clarity and focus. I want to use it to train myself into better habits. The interesting thing will be to see if I can use chemical scaffolding to build something new, and then have it as a free-standing structure, rather than rely on the drug. The values of psychedelics can be internalized and integrated with no small amount of practice, but is this true for other substances?

And on that note, here's two clips of Terence McKenna and Sasha Shulgin walking and talking together:



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January 18, 2009

As healthy as possible

To deal with something unhealthy, a person needs to be as healthy as possible. That's my motto. In other words, an unhealthy soul requires a healthy body. This might sound paradoxical, but it's something I've felt very keenly ever since becoming a professional writer. The healthy and the unhealthy are not necessarily at opposite ends of the spectrum. They don't stand in opposition to each other, but rather complement each other, and in some cases even band together. Sure, many people who are on a healthy track in life think only of good health, while those who are getting unhealthy think only of that. But if you follow this sort of one-sided view, your life won't be fruitful.
Recently I've met a number of people who say they want to die at 60 or 70. Myself, I want to be 90-something and in good health. It probably won't happen, but I want to be as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

Still, dying is not very difficult, it's not something you need to plan 20 or 30 years before the event. It's as easy as getting a haircut. You can open an artery, take an overdose, drive into a wall, jump off a tall building, inhale gas, hang yourself. There are enough ways to die that everyone is sure to find one that they can accept.

Of course, I got into this discussion with between five and eight beers in me, and then rode my bicycle home at 04:30, but at least if I'd been hit by a truck my body would have been working well right up until the moment of impact.

January 15, 2009

Narrative fallacy

Going through my notes from the UK trip, so things may appear to be out of order


Other than occasionally and subconsciously, the past has very little meaning for me. It's an effort to go back there, and rarely worth it. Every five years or so my life starts again, and the people and the places that I knew either leave or are left. I'm out of the habit of dwelling on the past, and now it feels forced and ridiculous, like watching TV after years of not having one.

The future also doesn't really interest me. I try to keep healthy and save money, do things I enjoy. Those things done, the future will take care of itself as best it can, it's not something I need to worry about.

Monroe - this is war

I was back in the UK when I wrote this, staying with my parents, in a place that has no immediate past or future for me, only memories of 20 years ago, and it's hard to connect myself to those events or feelings. What's the point of even trying? I'm fascinated by the idea that there is only now, and that by thinking about the past or the future I'll miss out on what I think and feel now, even though the ideal - which I seem to be approaching with great speed - is perhaps to barely think, to only feel and then move on.

One of my original sicknesses was that when I used to live in the UK I only lived in the past and the future, and it never made me happy.

I don't know if living in the present has made me happier, or if being happier has made me live in the present.

I used to believe in narrative, but now I think it only belongs in fiction. I barely even believe in events. When one thing happens - say a meeting with an old friend - so many things are going on that only a few things can ever be corralled into misrepresenting the whole. More specifically, when and where do things start, when and where do they end?

If /when I get Alzheimer's I don't think much will change. My life [a narrative fallacy] will be a trip to satori / senility, and no doubt a nightmare for my wife.

January 13, 2009

Back in Taiwan


Long time no post, but back from three weeks in the UK and have various things I want to get up in the next week or so. A lot of work waiting for me, which I ought to crack through in the next 36 hrs.

Took some modafinil 90 minutes ago and now feel great, with three more pills to be taken over the next few days to test its supposed efficacy inre. wakefulness and focus. Thank you very much, JT.

January 08, 2009


Nothing can go wrong. The real world, the world of dry-cleaning and money-off, of weddings in tents and pension plans, has, like a fat woman at a pantomime, sat on a chair that isn't there and is looking very silly indeed. For the moment, you're victorious...
William Donaldson on crack cocaine, quoted in You Cannot Live as I Have Lived and Not End Up Like This, p240