March 26, 2009

The planetary Other

plant technology
Reestablishing channels of direct communication with the planetary Other, the mind behind nature, through the use of hallucinogenic plants is the best hope for dissolving the steep walls of cultural inflexibility that appear to be channeling us toward true ruin.
Terence McKenna, Plan / plant / planet

March 25, 2009

March 24, 2009

Complex systems and intuition vs rationality

...destruction of the invading disease organisms; chronic infection; destruction of the host; or symbiosis...
James Lovelock's four possible outcomes for humans vs Gaia, quoted in Straw Dogs, p8
Recent interview and Q&A [mp3] with James Lovelock, who has good stories and is cheerily gloomy about the outlook for humanity. He's 90 this year, but sounds decades younger.

Many good things to take away, but one I noted down at the time: There's no use being rational about complex systems, as all models that we'd rationally produce are gross simplifications that make us over-confident in their simplified [i.e. wrong] predictions [cf. recently discredited financial models]. In such cases Lovelock says it's best to observe a lot and then be intuitive.

Related post:

March 23, 2009

Useful without being true

1) It does not always make sense to eradicate stories and customs that do not have inner logical validity. They maybe useful without being inherently true.
2) Seeing people acting correctly, does not show that they know what they are doing.

March 22, 2009

Leap into the void

Nearly all my weaknesses stem from the same optimism / idiocy / arrogance - the belief in fresh starts, the idea that I've neither original sin nor accumulated faults, and an escape is always possible.

In part this is because I reflect on my past very, very little, there are no memories that I'd rather revisit than laze about in now or in meditations / daydreams / empty-headedness. And I don't trust my memories, as soon as I pick one up it becomes a story, and I've no touch for fiction, quickly boring myself with the necessary inventions inre. what happened and why.

Viewed in this distant fashion - I'm a stranger here myself - I'm quite at ease with the idea of a personal eschaton, no problem surrendering free will as things unfold around me. I'm still experiencing it all for the first (and last) time, subconsciously reconstructing things in my head a moment after they've happened in the world as it is outside of me.

Related post:
Narrative fallacy

March 21, 2009

Sarcastic ending

For the utopian mind the defects of every known society are not signs of flaws in human nature. They are marks of universal repression - which, however, will soon be ended. History is a nightmare from which we must awake, and when we do we will find that human possibilities are limitless.
John Gray, Black Mass, p29

March 18, 2009

Moving average

The standard freelance work is famine or feast, and while it'd be nice to have things smoother that'd also take away the random and non 9-to-5 nature of the work, and it's in the peaks and troughs that you get the rushes of doing the right thing with regard to getting lots of work / $ and then having enough loose time to bicycle around town at odd hours and do other things.

Below is one way to smooth things out.

Freelancing income, arbitrary units, June 2008 to February 2009

I plotted my freelancing income for the last nine months as regular numbers and as a cumulative average. What's unsurprising is that wild fluctuations are far more likely to come at the start of the process, and the line gets progressively smoother, with even large changes having little effect.

Now halfway through March, which so far has been less busier than February, although I'm due 200 or so pages of a philosophy thesis [book?] from the UK this Friday, which is supposed to be finished by Monday. No doubt it'll be on Derrida and make no sense, whether well written or not. Accepting jobs like this makes me wish I hadn't eaten all my modafinil long ago, but I charge by the hour and it'll take up the slack of the last few days of doing nothing paid.

Still, halfway through March and the income is not where I'd like it to be, and because I'm relatively new to this game and waiting on general economic collapse there are small episodes of panic...but then plotting it out as a moving average makes it that much easier to relax. [That and the ton of work that came in today after this was written, not posted]

Looking at the figure and thinking back to the stoicism of the last post and whether this can be applied more widely. Wild fluctuations of feeling in youth, and then gradually less buffeted by life's ups and downs. One thing against this is that humans are not rational, and specifically not rational accountants of their own well-being. But then the theory of the hedonic treadmill would support the idea of something like a moving average for happiness (I brain fails when it comes to real stretching).

Abstract from a related paper [pdf] with too many numbers for me to really enjoy
There is consent among psychologists and some economists that satisfaction from some events, like income and marriage, is adaptive. We propose a subtle but vital difference: happiness may itself be adaptive. First we present a model to explain the emergence of adaptive stimuli. We test our hypotheses running dynamic happiness regressions based on data from the German Socio-Economic Panel Study, the British Household Panel Survey and the Swiss Household Panel. Surprisingly, the autoregressive component is positive and significant in most econometric models considered. We propose that the hedonic treadmill may be mixed with what we call the "scale treadmill".
Deconstructing the Hedonic Treadmill Perez, Ricardo and Bottan (2008)

March 16, 2009

The last word with fate

This was sitting with the draft posts and can continue today's theme of suicide.

Thierry de la Villehuchet -- an acquaintance of mine -- just killed himself in the after effects of the Madoff case. He had dragged his clients into investing with Madoff . "Killing himself over money?" I kept hearing. No, it is not about the money -- it was other people's money. It is about dignity. I could not help comparing it to Madoff, pictured walking around Manhattan with a faint smirk --totally insensitive to the harm he caused

This is an aristocratic act coming from an aristocratic character: you take your own life when you believe that you failed somewhere -- and the solution is to inflict the ultimate penalty on yourself.
It is not the money; but the embarrassment, the shame, the guilt that are hard to bear. Someone callous, indifferent to the harm done to others would have lived comfortably ("it is all about money"). A life of shame is not worth living. Christianity never allowed suicide; the stoics did --it allows a man to get the last word with fate.

Entry 106 [On killing oneself] in Nassim Taleb's notebook

Thinking way too much about Seneca on occasions, and fairly simplistic stuff like the deviant thrills of being Nero's tutor and how he made his $ / passed his days compared to how I make mine and pass my own. In addition, he's on the shelf with other long, long dead people, and I'm aware the worlds that their works were intended to acts as guides within were filled with problems that are alien to me in both their concrete horror and wild opportunities. There are no bath house orgies or man vs. hippo fights in my neighborhood, no living gods or slaves.

When you read the classics these are people writing in refined dictatorships ruled by superstition, ritual, intrigue and luck, with arbitrary arrest, exile and death always possibilities, along with the more mundane dental mishaps and trivial accidents / illnesses that get out of hand and prove fatal. In large parts of the world these conditions still prevail, but here I'm safe from nearly everything but traffic and cancer, although on this point I surely lack imagination.

Take all the knowledge now required to be thought of as an educated, informed individual and these writers had almost none of it, and suffered hardly, if at all, for the lack. I don't know what this means for me.

Aren't you rather young to be dying?

'Mr Johnson is a writer of some potential virtue; but this doesn't mean we must yet dote upon his doodles and he does seem perversely bent on making "experiments" of no conclusive, or even incidental interest.'
Guardian review of a B. S. Johnson radio play, 1965, quoted in Like a Fiery Elephant: the story of B. S. Johnson, Jonathan Coe p183
Halfway through the book, which is very good, but know how it ends.

It's a little depressing because there's no posthumous victory. This is true both in general and specifically. 1) You can't enjoy success after death because you're dead. 2) Unlike Kafka, B. S. Johnson's work doesn't rise after his death, and it never will - it's not that good.

More in another post or two, as there's a lot that can be teased out of the story, but expect Coe will do that as Johnson's own narrative begins to unravel.

March 14, 2009

Old systems break before new ones are in place

Interesting piece from Clay Shirky on the decline of newspapers. There's a lot there, but it's not too long [which is good], with three cuts below.

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.

With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.


When someone demands to be told how we can replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

Run with the above and rewrite the first and last paragraphs with the changes in italics .

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving the Washington Consensus demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for economics to replace the one the banking crisis just broke.

When someone demands to be told how we can replace the current system, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that the existing world order isn't in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of assigning capital will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

March 13, 2009

16 - 28, my troubles with women

All Peanuts strips now online here
To any objective observer the situation is clear: here is a somewhat emotionally arrested young man, hungry for sex but unable to separate it from emotion, and so afraid of being abandoned by anyone who loves him that when a woman shows an interest in him - even when it's obviously just physical interest - he clings to her and makes the most absurd promises...

March 11, 2009

What you repeatedly do

Doing a big clean ahead of house guests arriving, listening to two old Mark Pesce talks on the same topic, around the same time [Fall 2002, see links at the end]. He mentions Wolfram's A New Kind of Science [whole book online here] and gives the executive summary as there are no formulas for some processes, but rather only processes that need to be followed from start to end, giving the example of a rose.

The same thing is the basis of wisdom vs. knowledge. Knowledge, as facts, can be downloaded / learned at high speed. For many things it's possible to jump over the process directly to the outcome, which enables people with almost no technological know-how, like myself, to function in a society surrounded by engineering marvels that are essentially black magic boxes. As a user, the process is unimportant and more or less invisible.

So back to Aristotle: "We are what we repeatedly do, Excellence is therefore not an act but a habit."

The first talk, Memes to an End, is slightly more scholarly, while the second, Bios and Logos, is the same material through a psychedelic lens, and several references to Terence McKenna, with my angle reminding me of this idea from somewhere in his work: most people take 40 years or so to see through the shit, if they ever do, that is culture, and now more people are living longer than ever. I don't really believe the supposed implications of this, as I think the mediated reality is so pervasive and deep that the cognitive dissonance of a mass awakening in middle age would be a break down of society, one that may well be happening, but expressed as alienation and substance / behavioral abuse rather than real recognition and communion. At 40 yrs old there's too much skin in the game to throw it all up for something authentic and better. Absurd, until you look around at what people do day after day after day.

The Pesce talks:
Memes to an End, via Future Hi
Bios and Logos from 2002 [text form here]

Slightly related post, on health:
The process not the outcome

cone shell via wikidepia

March 08, 2009

Urban metabolism

Really interesting article from The Atlantic that has this as the trailer:

The crash of 2008 continues to reverberate loudly nationwide—destroying jobs, bankrupting businesses, and displacing homeowners. But already, it has damaged some places much more severely than others. On the other side of the crisis, America’s economic landscape will look very different than it does today. What fate will the coming years hold for New York, Charlotte, Detroit, Las Vegas? Will the suburbs be ineffably changed? Which cities and regions can come back strong? And which will never come back at all?
Goes well with this lengthy piece from the FT, The travails of Detroit.

Air-conditioned nightmare

Alien circadian, thermal, kinetic, sensory, nutritional and social environments. A presentation by Frank Forencich to go with the occasional paleo theme of this page.

The point about light / darkness as cues for body chemistry was something I'd forgotten since I stopped working night shifts, 13 yrs ago. The current regime isn't as jarring, but still unnatural. After watching this talk I've been keeping to lower lux mood lights and making use of dimmer switches, with the idea being that as much as possible the general evening on environment is kept as well lit as a tribal camp site on a moonlit night. I have a very tolerant wife.

Related posts:
The process not the outcome
Big fat lie
Stochastic jerks

March 07, 2009

The appearance of time

For more than a decade, [Carlo Rovelli, a physicist at the University of Marseille in France] has been working with mathematician Alain Connes at the College de France in Paris to understand how a time-free reality could give rise to the appearance of time. Their idea, called the thermal time hypothesis, suggests that time emerges as a statistical effect, in the same way that temperature emerges from averaging the behavior of large groups of molecules.

Imagine gas in a box. In principle we could keep track of the position and momentum of each molecule at every instant and have total knowledge of the microscopic state of our surroundings. In this scenario, no such thing as temperature exists; instead we have an ever-changing arrangement of molecules. Keeping track of all that information is not feasible in practice, but we can average the microscopic behaviour to derive a macroscopic description. We condense all the information about the momenta of the molecules into a single measure, an average that we call temperature.

According to Connes and Rovelli, the same applies to the universe at large. There are many more constituents to keep track of: not only do we have particles of matter to deal with, we also have space itself and therefore gravity. When we average over this vast microscopic arrangement, the macroscopic feature that emerges is not temperature, but time. "It is not reality that has a time flow, it is our very approximate knowledge of reality that has a time flow," says Rovelli. "Time is the effect of our ignorance."
Is time an illusion? New Scientist

The utility of slack

I have a mania for systems, never having given up the childish hope that there's a right way to live and it can be codified and broadly applied. This is not how things appear to be, but appearances can be deceptive, and these things come in waves. On some scales there's chaos, and then you pull back or draw closer and order resolves itself. Further back, closer in, chaos returns, alternating in and out.

My own system broke down either a few weeks or months ago, depending on how the story (fiction) is told, although I didn't really have one to begin with. It was a set of external routines that made little sense on their own, and thus were ready to collapse the moment the external influences (my job) were removed. Left to my own devices I've never stopped being a wayward child, full of hope.

This next stage of the experiment is one that teases out the utility of slack, the need for inefficiency at all points of the system so that the inevitable unexpected stresses can be met without any loss of function. Which means what? More time, energy, money and so on than you 'need'. Just enough is a state of permanent near crisis.

March 03, 2009

Odds & sods

From a good, long and NSFW (language, crude drawings) cartoon called How to not Fail at Life. Damien Hirst has more good advice.
"...if you're having sex with a fourteen-year old girl when you're fourteen you’re always going to find them sexy, but you're not fourteen any more. You've got to change."