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.

IMG_3016

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.

[Read more…]

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).

IMG_2872

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.

[Read more…]

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.

Immortality

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.

[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.

File Mar 31, 9 15 11 AM

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.

[Read more…]

Berliners #11: Snowflaking Out

berliners11finaledits

Click here for the Berliners Archives

Berliners #10: Pie-Carving

berliners10finaledits

Click here for the Berliners Archives

The Epic Struggle between Good and Neutral

/* Zapp: prepare to continue the epic struggle between good and neutral */

Let’s say you are a member of the proud Red tribe, enjoying a ritual communal feast. There is mirth and joy in the air. There is eating, dancing, and various other sorts of revelry in progress. Everybody is enjoying the priceless feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves.

Suddenly, a young buck of your tribe runs into the camp ground, exhausted, wounded and bleeding. He delivers news of a grievous insult to your tribe dealt by the chief of the hated Grey tribe, and dies.

Now a different sort of priceless feeling of being part of something bigger descends on your tribe. This feeling is not derived from festive joy, but from infinitely outraged honor. Joy races against rage in every head. Hot heads and cool heads, young bucks and grey eminences, all start talking at once, to process the emotional calculus.

ContendingEmotions

Eventually, a consensus narrative emerges and a course of action develops. The narrative has done its job: helped you decide how to feel, allowing action to cohere and precipitate.

How should we understand the unfolding of this course of events? The answer lies in a principle it’s taken me quite a while to formulate to my satisfaction: narrative abhors a vacuum. 

What sort of vacuum?

[Read more…]

Berliners #9: The Scent of a Yak

berliners9final

Click here for the Berliners Archives

Podcasts with Longform and Farnam Street

I did a couple of podcasts in the last few months.

The first was with Aaron Lammer of Longform in November, at their studio in Brooklyn. We talked about living versus observing gonzo lifestyles, developing an identity as a reader and as a writer, life scripts and going off them, and a lot more.

Longform podcast

The second was with Shane Parrish of Farnam Street, over Skype (so there’s a bit of static in parts). We started off talking about Tempo, various styles of decision-making, staying grounded in reality by maintaining cracks in your mental models, being shaped by the work you do and the books you read, and so forth. I think I rambled a bit in this one. Note to self, chunk it up.

Farnam Street Knowledge Project podcast.

I am recording one more podcast, with Dan and Ian over at Tropical MBA, tomorrow. So you can look out for that in the next few weeks. I’ll try and talk about stuff I haven’t already covered in these two.

Podcasts are interesting. I’ve done a few radio programs and podcasts over the years, but there does seem to be a big spike in the medium (I think the last one I did before this spate of requests was in 2013). Several readers have suggested that I ought to try my hand at the game, but I don’t have any good ideas that lend themselves to the format. Plus it seems like a lot of work, so for the moment, I’ve decided to stay out of the game. Being on others’ podcasts is fun though. For those of you who like audio though, it seems Pocket now offers audio for arbitrary content. I haven’t yet tried it, but maybe you’ll like having ribbonfarm posts read out to you.

I’m having a lot of fun taking a break from writing and playing around with comics, which is why I haven’t yet done a real long-form post yet this year. Also because all the posts in my drafts folder seem to be long and complicated, and are taking forever to finish in the midst of a rather messy start to my year on the consulting side.

In other random news, I also recently upgraded to an iPad Pro with a Pencil, and it’s a life-changer for anyone who makes heavy use of thinking tools. Worth getting. It’s better than pen and paper.

Berliners #8: Red String

berliners8

Click here for the Berliners Archives