How to Take Your Brain Off-Road

The more you read, the more you know how to read, and the harder it is to get lost in reading. When you’ve read only a few things, it is not possible to get very lost because each book, article, blog post or tweet stands in isolation. You are not very sensitized to how infinitely intertwingled everything is. But the more you read, the greater the chances that you will have developed a map that obscures the intertwingling. Even if you resist various subtle map-territory confusions, you will slowly grow blind to many things. Which can be a pleasant state, especially if it endures through the rest of your life.

But if you read a lot in a certain disorderly way, you can retain an ability get lost in your reading and prevent knowledge from turning into blindness. I call this approach taking your brain off-road. With a few exceptions, my brain has been off-road, and lost, for decades. You know when your brain is off-road because you are forced to navigate the world of ideas by gut-feel alone. I used to like the metaphor of the gyroscope for this, but now I like the metaphor of Pacific Islander wave navigation, which combines intrinsic and extrinsic, global and local, in interesting ways.

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Pacific Islander wave pilots used self-made stick maps of swell patterns between islands (like the ones above) to navigate. One of my time-wasting projects is to actually understand how this was done, and perhaps learn to do it myself. Interestingly, this required literally using your gut: lying on your back at the bottom of the canoe to feel the swells through your body.

There is an opposed, more common way of reading a lot, which is much more orderly. Orderly readers unconsciously prioritize things that they know how to read, which means they never get lost. This is mainly because they are doers, and for doers, being lost is a bad thing. Because you don’t know what to do next, which means you are wasting your life.

To disorderly readers, being lost is not a bad thing, because many interesting things can only be seen nestled in disorder. And you can see disorder only when you don’t know how to read it.

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Examining the Accidental Life

I only have two basic moods accounting for most of my waking hours: one marked by mild to severe ennui, and the other by a rushing energy. Refractory state and burst state. I seem to have largely random-walked through an accidental life so far, imposing barely any discipline on this basic, ungoverned, binary life process. I have no thoughtfully constructed scaffolding of habits and rituals in my life, just a few accidentally set ways. My biggest adult achievement in that department is learning to floss regularly.

I do have a rare third state though, one that only seems to appear only when I am in certain kinds of places, like off-season beach resorts. Like Cannon Beach, on the Oregon coast, a couple of weeks ago. Or the Outer Banks several years ago (which inspired my 2009 post, How to Think Like Hercule Poirota personal favorite).

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By definition, off-season means most humans don’t like these places during these times. Most waterfront businesses are closed. There are no peak-season activities on offer. You’re out on a mostly empty, slightly chilly, grey, and cloudy beach. It’s a satisfyingly atemporal environment.

Something about such outings deeply relaxes me. And after years of doing such trips, I think I am beginning to understand why. I think it is because my natural home state is being peacefully lost. Going to a place that, temporarily, doesn’t know what to do with itself,  is one good way to be at peace with being lost. An environment that doesn’t know what to do with itself, and is in no particular hurry to find out, is an an environment that doesn’t know what to do with you. And much of the stress of being lost, after all, comes from the environment pestering you to do stuff.

I like not knowing where I am, where I am going, why, or how I am going to get there. And I like it when the environment leaves me alone in that state.

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Artem vs. Predator

I’m not sure what it was. Might have been the Predator movies, might have been something else.

Heat vision. The ability to see heat was something I wanted for a while.

Back in the old days, however, any sort of a heat vision camera cost more than I’d made in a decade.

You might think “superpower!”, but that’s not what I had in mind.

I had an idea, an image in my mind. Something that is trivial to photoshop, but is absurdly hard to actually see. Things and scenes lit up by the light emitted from a human. The glow of our heat lighting up the scene.

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What would it take to make a picture like that? What makes a camera? And how can you make a heat-seeing camera yourself?

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Dares, Costly Signals, and Psychopaths

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

“Last year I organised to do a stunt with my pals. The stunt was to jump out the window from the 10th floor of a flat onto all these boxes of cardboard and stuff. At the start it was just a laugh and I wasn’t really going to go through with it, but then it got serious and everybody was there so I just had to go through with it.” [H]is participation in the stunt was motivated by “not wanting them [his friends, who were videotaping the ordeal ‘for the internet’] to think that I was a chicken.” He described feeling intense fear immediately before the event (“when I got up to it I thought I was going to die when I leaped”), followed by an equally intense release (“when I got down it was a relief, but I broke my arm”).

Morrissey, S. A. Performing risks: catharsis, carnival and capital in the risk society. Journal of youth studies, 11(4), 413-427 (2008).

F. (8). Dared to eat poison ivy. Did so.
F. (9). A number of girls were playing in an alley which went from one street to the other and had several barns and an undertaking establishment on it. Girls dared Edna to go through when it was dark. She was afraid but took the dare, went through and returned with a feeling of approbation.

Boland, Genevieve. Taking a dare. The Pedagogical Seminary, 17(4), 510-524 (1910).

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Immortality Begins at Forty

I discovered something a couple of years ago: Almost all culture, old or new, is designed for consumption by people under 40. People between 40 and Ω (an indeterminate number defined as “really, just way too old”),  are primarily employed as meaning-makers for the under-40 set. This is because they are mostly good for nothing else, and on average not valuable enough themselves for society to invest meaning in.

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The only culture designed for people between 40 and Ω is prescription drug ads and unreadably dense literary novels. Between age Ω and ∅, the age at which you die, there is only funerary culture. That second link is to an app for managing your own death called Cake. Why cake? Your guess is as good as mine.

But there’s a plus side. Forty is when immortality begins.

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A Framework of Experimental Habit Formation

One of the key challenges of living and working in the future will be continuous learning and experimentation. I’d like to propose a framework for guiding these efforts that is both feasible and focused on the individual: experimental habit formation. I believe it can help resolve one of the fundamental paradoxes of modern life: how to balance our need for stability and routine with our thirst for novelty and exploration.

Experimental habit formation is a precursor and gateway to behavior change. The question “ How do I change?” is not enough, because it presupposes that you know which behaviors to adopt; even if you do, that these behaviors will lead to the outcomes you expect; and even if they do, that these outcomes will remain personally relevant and meaningful forever. By replacing these risky assumptions with tests, experimental habit formation provides a sandbox to “debug” new behaviors before wider deployment.

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A Good Name Points to You

I’m known among my friends and co-workers as the guy to help name your project. Coming up with good names sounds like a trivial talent, but it’s neither trivial nor a talent. It’s a completely understandable skill you can practice. A good name not only helps other people understand what you’re building, the exercise of naming a thing helps you understand why it exists.

It’s not the Wheel. It’s the Carousel.

Things decompose into mechanisms, implications, and consequences. The mechanism is how it works. The implication is what it does. The consequence is what it means for the lives of the audience you’re trying to reach. I choose one of those three to work from and try to tie it back to a simple analogy, soundalike, paradox, cultural reference, or some other hook to evoke an emotional response, which is the only way to get distractible monkeys like us to remember anything. Really make an effort to empathize with your audience and their interests. A name is a pointer to identity, but the arrow goes the other way. A good name doesn’t point to the thing, it points to you.

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Business as Magic

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.


Vienna, late 18th century, alternate timeline.

In the beginning, there was just the tinkerer. One night, after attending a magic show at the palace, he got drunk and made a bet with a rival courtier. A few months later, he unveiled a marvelous contraption before a palace audience.

The contraption was an automaton, dressed as a Turkish sorcerer. It sat at a desk filled with complicated gears and levers, with a chessboard on top. The Turk played a decent game of chess, beating dukes, princes, and visiting American statesmen. Its reputation spread, and with it the reputation of Vienna as a hub of technological development.

Tinkerers from Austria to America set about making their own Mechanical Turks (as well as Mechanical Russians, Yankees, and chess-playing shepherdesses). Only a few succeeded; most were in Vienna. Of those half-dozen that succeeded, all were known to be acquainted with some down-on-his-luck chess master who, incidentally, was not overly tall or rotund.

Vienna’s reputation continued to spread, and it became fashionable for wealthy patrons to support chess automata and exhibit them. Unfortunately, one of the impoverished chess players got the flu. During his performance, such a loud fit of coughing emanated from his automaton’s desk that the audience was scandalized. The Turk, a hoax! The entire reputation of Vienna was on the line. [Read more…]

Human-Complete Problems

Occasionally, I manage to be clever when I am not even trying to be clever, which isn’t often. In a recent conversation about the new class of doomsday scenarios inspired by AlphaGo beating the Korean trash-talker Lee Sedol, I came up with the phrase human complete (HC) to characterize certain kinds of problems: the hardest problems of being human. An example of (what I hypothesize is) an HC problem is earning a living. I think human complete is a very clever phrase that people should use widely, and credit me for, since I can’t find other references to it. I suspect there may be money in it. Maybe even a good living. Here is a picture of the phrase that I will explain in a moment.

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In this post, I want to explore a particular bunny trail: the relationship between being human and the ability to solve infinite game problems in the sense of James Carse. I think this leads to an interesting perspective on the meaning and purpose of AI.

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The Holy Grail of Self-Improvement

The holy grail of self-improvement in modern times is a framework for individual experimentation and learning that can be used by the average person. The key question such a framework would have to answer is “How do people change?”

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In this essay I will suggest possible answers to this question by looking at the recent history and theory of behavior change, the main obstacles this framework would have to address to be feasible, and a few promising directions from research and practice.

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