February 25, 2009

Homo evolutus

Juan Enrinquez works with Craig Venter. In this talk at TED 2009, he starts off by giving a fairly right-wing assessment of the economic crisis, then moves on to describing the current and near future state of the art in engineering microbes, tissues and robots. The word isn't said, but it's verging on soft take-off Singularity stuff. The cool thing comes in the last third when he draws out the implications. Now, other speakers and writers always cover the last part along the lines of everything will be awesome, without specifying awesome for who. Enriquez states the obvious, unapologetically. One slide in his presentation shows how in our recent evolutionary history is was more common than not for different species of hominid to live at the same time, and he looks forward to next one to share the stage with homo sapiens, homo evolutus - the rich becoming superheroes. It's an interesting talk.

According to Ray Kurzweil, the logarithmic graph of 15 separate lists of paradigm shifts for key events in human history show an exponential trend. Lists prepared by, among others, Carl Sagan, Paul D. Boyer, Encyclopædia Britannica, American Museum of Natural History and University of Arizona; compiled by Kurzweil.

Related posts on this site:
Venter speaking at the Long Now, 2008

February 24, 2009

I knew what I wanted to do

I was working for Dow Chemical Company at the time as a research chemist. I had the good fortune of having seen that they were working on an interesting compound. The person in whose lab I was working at Dow had found a very easy way of making an almost unknown compound. They said, “We’d like to find some use for this,” and I said, “Gee, if you added a methyl group on this side instead of on this side, as well as on this side, and put an amine down there and make the carbamate, you’d probably have an insecticide.” “Oh?” So they put the methyl group over here, and put an amine down here—a dimethylamine— and a carbamate, and it became a commercial insecticide. And the attitude there was, “Gee, if you can predict things like that, you can just go do whatever you want to do!” That was about the time I had first tried mescaline, and I knew what I wanted to do.
Sasha Shulgin, interviewed with Anna by Earth & Fire Erowid at Mind States 2007, two parts in one pdf here

UPDATE: Sasha giving a talk in Amsterdam, 1998, with the title How I go about inventing new drugs, with thanks to Lorenzo at the Psychedelic Salon, which has a great archive of related podcasts.

February 19, 2009

The seemingly irrelevant, mediocre player

Various recent lifestyle choices have left me unable to do what I might want to inre. this blog, with far more freedom granted inre. meat life, and so the next few posts might be hurries to catch up and somewhat less thought out or polished than I'd like.

If you've read Moneyball by Michael Lewis then you need no encouragement to seek out this article he wrote on basketball. I know nothing about baseball [Moneyball] or basketball [that article], but who isn't ready to fall for the revealed truth of the seemingly irrelevant, mediocre player who makes all the difference in a game?

What we're talking about is ideas from emergence, complexity, and so on [what I think of as the psychedelic mindset] filtering down [up?] into real life, with pro sports being the bleeding edge of such things now that high finance's applications of extreme math have been shown to be little more than window dressing in a world that is far more complex than a few men on a court, playing by clear rules for an allotted time.

February 08, 2009

Better husbandry and informed simplicity

Matthew Frederick in 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School (The MIT Press, 2007) after saying how to draw a line, also says that there are three levels of knowing:

- simplicity, is the world view of the child or uninformed adult, fully engaged in his own experience and happily unaware of what lies beneath the surface of immediate reality.

- complexity, characterizes the ordinary adult world view. It is characterized by an awareness of complex system in nature and society but an inability to discern clarifying patterns and connection.

- informed simplicity, is an enlightened view of reality. It is founded upon an ability to discern or create clarifying patterns within complex mixtures.
Text and image lifted from Giorgia Brusadin at density design lab
My wife and I used to be on the same schedule, and then summer 2008 she opened her own workshop and set her own hours, while I kept on working for a boss. This caused some friction, but it rippled through the system and came out in unexpected ways. I tried to deal with seemingly unrelated problems, frustrated by what appeared to be their intractable nature.

Now things are a lot better because I stopped trying to be a clever engineer and made a leap of faith with simplicity. All that was lacking was a confidence in action - changing my routine, going out to bars more, staying out later. My problem now may be drinking too much on an empty stomach, but awareness and general balance - things settling down - should come to arrange that.
1) If the sober life if the alcoholic somehow drives him to drink or proposes the first step toward intoxication, it is not to be expected that any procedure which reinforces his particular style of sobriety will reduce or control his alcoholism.

2) If his style of sobriety drives him to drink, then that style must contain an error or pathology; and intoxication must provide some - at least subjective - correction of this error. In other words, compared with his sobriety, which is in some way "wrong," his intoxication must be in some way "right."
Gregory Bateson, The Cybernetics of 'Self': A Theory of Alcoholism, in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, p310

February 07, 2009

Impelled by convention

...there is a very strong tendency toward symmetry in the normal drinking habits of Occidental culture. Quite apart from addictive alcoholism, two men drinking together are impelled by convention to match each other, drink for drink.
Gregory Bateson, The Cybernetics of 'Self': A Theory of Alcoholism, in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, p325
I like the paper a lot, but I think Bateson never spent much time in Asia or around Asians. I've been in Taiwan for 11 years, and before that a year in China and three in Thailand, and I often drink. In my experience the Asian way of drinking is a lot more symmetrical than that in UK or in the groups of diverse Westerners that I sometimes hang out with. In polite society out here, when you want a sip of your drink you make eye contact with someone else at the table and do a little gesture like you're making a toast, and then you both drink at the same time.

A small point, but things like this - how Asia is so much more spiritual / holistic / healthy / etc than the West - tend to bring me out of whatever I'm reading. Most of the time it's just not true, or not as simple as it seems. The reverse also happens, with Taiwanese people going on about how open Westerners are about sex, when here there are more brothels, love hotels and porn movie stores than I've ever seen outside of Asia. And also Westerners are more free because they don't worry about hard work and money and material things.
The challenge component of alcoholic pride is linked with risk-taking. The principle might be put into words: "I can do something where success is improbable and failure would be disastrous."
The principle of pride-in-risk is ultimately almost suicidal. It is all very well to test once whether the universe is on your side, but to do so again and again, with increasing stringency of proof, is to set out on a project which can only prove that the universe hates you.
Same author, paper, book, p322

February 06, 2009

Fun with zero sums

I don't have a job, but I work. Only back two days after the Chinese New Year break, but it certainly seems slower, and this could be, as everyone thinks, the recession kicking in and people cutting back.

It doesn't really bother me. I've seen this several times before. When times are good I work hard and save money. Then when times are bad I relax and spend money.
Of course, I write the above and save it, cycle out for exercise / lunch and drop off a paper at the university, find a stack waiting for me there and then come home and two more by email, plus a book on Kate Chopin. So much for the days of idling.

My original freelance schedule was getting up early and finishing by noon, and although this works it has a flaw, which is that Tainan is really a night time kind of place, and fading at midnight is no good. The bars open at 10pm and don't pick up until after eleven, then go on until four or five, and there are plenty of restaurants and food stalls open until dawn, when a new set opens up for the tai chi crowd.

So, starting this week I put myself on a different schedule, with the loose aim of sleeping at 4am and getting up at eleven. That way any time I go to bed before four is an early night, and as long as I start work at noon then all's right with the world.

February 04, 2009

All open systems

"Self-sufficiency" is an idea which has done more harm than good. On close conceptual examination it is flawed at the root. More importantly, it works badly in practice.

Anyone who has actually tried to live in total self-sufficiency - there must now be thousands in the recent wave that we helped inspire - knows the mind-numbing labor and loneliness and frustration and real marginless hazard that goes with the attempt. A kind of hysteria...
...self-sufficiency is not to had on any terms, ever. It is a charming woodsy extension of the fatal American mania for privacy....It is a damned lie. There is no discernible self. Ever since there were two organisms life has been a matter of co-evolution, life growing ever more richly on life...
We can ask what kinds of dependency we prefer, but that's our only choice.
Stuart Brand in 1975, quoted in From Counterculture to Cyberculture, by Fred Turner, p121

Read What the Dormouse Said... over Xmas, which is a more journalistic account of about the same story - LSD and the evolution of PCs/ the Internet - with less focus on Brand and his connections. At first I thought From Counterculture was too dry, but [2/3 through] the picture that's emerging is of Brand as a master networker, turning up and being present / setting things in motion at various events that can be seen as key to how things turned out. The cybernetic side of things.

Of course, this is only one story, and very often the supposedly key event or movement could be written off as a dead end, like the move to self-sufficient communes in the Whole Earth Catalog which he's rejecting in the quote above. In the long range view of things, even dead ends have their value as the various permutations of being are played out - how not to live - but it must suck to be stuck in a bad one [e.g. N Korea].

Related post:
Haruki Murakami and a long range view of things

Related link:
The Long Now Foundation, one of Brand's current projects.

February 03, 2009

The thinking system

...we may say that "mind" is immanent in those circuits of the brain which are complete within the brain. Or that mind is immanent in circuits which are complete within the system, brain plus body. Or, finally, that mind is immanent in the larger system - man plus environment.

In principle, if we desire to explain or understand the mental aspect of any biological event, we must take into account the system - that is, the network of closed circuits, within which that biological event is determined. But when we seek to explain the behavior of a man or any other organism, this "system" will usually not have the same limits of the "self" - as this term is commonly (or variously) understood.
...it is important to notice that there are multiple differences between the thinking system and the "self" as popularly conceived"
1) The system is not a transcendent entity as the "self" is commonly supposed to be.
2) The ideas are immanent in a network of causal pathways along which transforms of difference are conducted. The "ideas" of the system are in all cases at least binary in structure. They are not "impulses" but "information."
3) This network of pathways is not bounded with consciousness but extends to include the pathways of all unconscious mentation - both automatic and repressed, neural and hormonal.
4) The network is not bounded by the skin but includes all external pathways along which information can travel. It also included those effective differences which are immanent in the "objects" of such information. It includes the pathways of sound and light along which travel transforms of differences originally immanent in things and other people - and especially in our own actions.

Gregory Bateson, The Cybernetics of 'Self': A Theory of Alcoholism, in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, p317 & 319

The rich on vacation

When the actor David Garrick asked what was the greatest pleasure in life, Johnson “answered fucking and second was drinking. And therefore he wondered why there were not more drunkards, for all could drink though all could not fuck”
Possibly untrue anecdote about Dr Samuel Johnson from here

February 01, 2009

Stories better never told

Over the new year we went to Funky, a Taipei gay bar that gives you eight cans of Budweiser for your NT $500 entrance fee. If that sounds like a good idea, then it's your kind of place.
It is the wine that leads me on, the wild wine
that sets the wisest man to sing at the top of his lungs,
laugh like a fool – it drives the man to dancing…it even
tempts him to blurt out stories better never told.
From The Odyssey, via the NY Times