The Quest for Immortality

This is a guest post by Greg Linster, a graduate student studying economics at the University of Denver.  He blogs at Coffee Theory about things philosophical and shares aphorisms (almost daily) at Aphoristic Cocktails.  

The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death is the latest book by British political philosopher John Gray, and it explores the intellectual origins of the modern transhumanist movement in painstaking depth.  Be forewarned, the book is not exactly a cheery read.  However, Gray’s analysis is incredibly poignant and of utmost importance if we are to really understand what it means to be human.       

In The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

In a world that has become increasingly secularized, I think Nietzsche presciently understood that science would become heralded as the new religion. Technology, not a traditional deity, would then become the natural place to look for a human Savior and the Singularity would signal the technological Rapture.

The scientific quest for immortality, however, can trace its roots back to the psychical investigations that began in the late nineteenth-century, and the storied history behind this bizarre pursuit to use science in order to cheat death is largely the subject of this book.

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The Calculus of Grit

I find myself feeling strangely uncomfortable when people call me a generalist and imagine that to be a compliment.  My standard response is that I am actually an extremely narrow, hidebound specialist. I just look like a generalist because my path happens to cross many boundaries that are meaningful to others, but not to me. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know the degree to which I keep returning to the same few narrow themes.

I think I now understand the reason I reject the generalist label and resonate far more with the specialist label. The generalist/specialist distinction is an extrinsic coordinate system for mapping human potential.  This system itself is breaking down, so we have to reconstruct whatever meaning the distinction had in intrinsic terms. When I chart my life course using such intrinsic notions, I end up clearly a (reconstructed) specialist.

The keys to this reconstruction project are: the much-abused idea of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, the notion of grit, and an approach to keeping track of your journey through life in terms of an intrinsic coordinate system. Think of it as replacing compass or GPS-based extrinsic navigation with accelerometer and gyroscope-based  inertial navigation.

I call the result “the calculus of grit.” It is my idea of an inertial navigation system for an age of anomie, where the external world has too little usable structure to navigate by.

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On Being an Illegible Person

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Regenerations

I’ve been drifting slowly through California for the past three weeks at about 100 miles/week, and  several times I’ve been asked an apparently simple question that has become nearly impossible for me to answer: “What are you here for?”

Unlike regular travelers, I am not here for anything. I am just here, like area residents. The only difference is that I’ll drift on out of the Bay Area in a week.  The true answer is “I am nomadic for the time being. I just move through places, the way you stay put in places. I am doing things that constant movement enables, just like you do things that staying put enables.” That is of course too bizarre an answer to use in everyday conversation.

My temporary nomadic state is just one aspect of a broader fog of illegibility that is starting to descend on my social identity. And I am not alone. I seem to run into more illegible people every year. And we are not just illegible to the IRS and to regular people whose social identities can be accurately summarized on business cards. We are also illegible to each other. Unlike nomads from previous ages, who wandered in groups within which individuals at least enjoyed mutual legibility, we seem to wander through life as largely solitary creatures. Our scripts and situations are mostly incomprehensible to others.


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The Four Kinds of Economies

I don’t normally do straight-up reblogs here, but the new post, Unifying the Value Universe from Greg Rader at is very relevant to some themes we are starting to attack here. It divides up value exchange into four types of economics: gift, transactional, relationship and attention that can be neatly arranged in a 2×2. As with any 2×2, the identification of the axis variables to use is key, and I think the ones Greg has picked really might be the right ones: relatedness of the parties and refinement of the value-add being exchanged (in the sense of rough vs. polished). Click on and read.  He has a more detailed analysis of how this diagram works and in particular, of transactions that cross quadrant boundaries.

The Las Vegas Rules I: The Slightly Malevolent Universe

Update: Greg Rader pointed out over email that my diagram was messed up in Economics 101 terms: the production frontier is usually convex and the utility/indifference curves concave. I had things the other way around. Total sloppiness on my part. In fixing the picture, an additional insight struck me: the normal outcome of such diagrams usually the achievable optimum somewhere in the middle, where it can “kiss” the most valuable concave utility curve. The interesting thing is that it is much easier to gamble with a surplus of money or a surplus of time, than it is to gamble with an optimal mix. This suggests WHY lifestyle design may be hard: you have to move away from your current optimum in order to gamble effectively. The normal way is to work harder than you want to, in order to accumulate the surplus money to gamble with. Lifestyle design moves away from the optimum in a different direction.

I’ve been thinking  and writing about the idea of lifestyle businesses and lifestyle design for several years now, and attempting to actually play the game for a few months.  It is not easy, and I have not been satisfied with how others have been framing the subject. In particular, I have been disturbed by the “anyone can do this, guaranteed” attitude of cheery optimism around the subject. Unqualified optimism of any sort immediately makes me skeptical.  Perhaps this is because I am an engineer both by training and philosophical inclination. Engineering knowledge is usually expressed in terms of fundamental limits, conservation laws and constraints. So it was natural for me to frame the challenge of lifestyle design for myself with this time-money Pareto frontier diagram. 

I’ve been criticized in the past for talking a lot about lifestyle design, and critiquing others’ ideas, but never actually adopting a definite position myself. So I am about to start taking one. In honor of my new home and the central role of gambling and risk-taking in my model, I am calling it the Las Vegas Rules.

I am going to bite off one little piece at a time, and point out differences compared to other models as I go along. This time, I just want to talk about the role of gambling in lifestyle design.

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Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia

This is a guest post by Stefan King.

In 1990, the art historian Camille Paglia provoked feminists and post-modernists with her controversial book Sexual Personae.  Paglia’s goal was to show the pagan patterns of continuity in western culture, and to expose feminist ideals as misguided wishful thinking. Now, two decades later, it is time to dig Sexual Personae out of the cultural compost heap and see if something interesting has grown there. Paglia has a highly sensitive intuition about great works of art, and she is a talented psychoanalyst of artists. The value of the book lies in those intuitions, which we can now study with the benefit of hindsight.

The Venus of Willendorf

The grand narrative of western archetypes, or “sexual personae” as Paglia calls them, starts with the Venus of Willendorf, a small statuette from the Stone Age. It is a faceless lump of feminine flesh, possibly a fertility talisman. It contrasts perfectly with anything civilized: there is no line, no shape, no stillness, and no Apollonian light. In those times, nature’s domination of humanity was total.

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The Russian Fox and the Evolution of Intelligence

This is a guest post by Brian Potter of  Coarse Grained. It explores a different aspect of some of the ideas in my post, The Return of the Barbarian, and Paula Hay’s guest post, Cognitive Archeology of the West. If you are interested in guest-posting, email me.

Consider the following experiment (the Wason selection task):

You are shown a set of four cards placed on a table, each of which has a number on one side and a colored patch on the other side. The visible faces of the cards show 3, 8, red and brown. Which card(s) should you turn over in order to test the truth of the proposition that if a card shows an even number on one face, then its opposite face is red?

The correct answer is “8” and “brown”, but very few people get the correct answer – between 10-25% depending on the exact formulation of the problem. Even when its expressed in more familiar terms, such as “If a person goes to New York, then he takes the subway”, success rates remain extremely low.

However, consider the exact same problem, rephrased slightly:

You are shown a set of four cards placed on a table, each of which has a number on one side and a statement on the other side. The visible faces of the cards show 16, 25, ‘drinking beer’ and ‘drinking coke’. Which card(s) should you turn over in order to test the truth of the proposition that if “If you are drinking alcohol, then you must be over 21”?

Phrased like this, success rates shoot up to around 75%. But what makes this form different than a question about riding the subway?

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Extroverts, Introverts, Aspies and Codies

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about extroversion (E) and introversion (I). As a fundamental spectrum of personality dispositions, E/I represents a timeless theme in psychology. But it manifests itself differently during different periods in history. Social psychology is the child of a historicist discipline (sociology) and an effectively ahistorical one (psychology).  The reason I’ve been thinking a lot about the E/I spectrum is that a lot of my recent ruminations have been about how the rapid changes in social psychology going on around us might be caused by the drastic changes in how E/I dispositions manifest themselves in the new (online+offline) sociological environment.  Here are just a few of the ideas I’ve been mulling:

  • As more relationships are catalyzed online than offline, a great sorting is taking place: mixed E/I groups are separating into purer groups dominated by one type
  • Each trait is getting exaggerated as a result
  • The emphasis on collaborative creativity, creative capital and teams is disturbing the balance between E-creativity and I-creativity
  • Lifestyle design works out very differently for E’s and I’s
  • The extreme mental conditions (dubiously) associated with each type in the popular imagination, such as Asperger’s syndrome or co-dependency, are exhibiting new social phenomenology

It was the last of these that triggered this train of thought, but I’ll get to that.

I am still working through the arguments for each of these conjectures, but whether or not they are true, I believe we are seeing something historically unprecedented: an intrinsic psychological variable is turning into a watershed sociological variable. Historically, extrinsic and non-psychological variables such as race, class, gender, socio-economic status and nationality have dominated the evolution of societies. Psychology has at best indirectly affected social evolution. For perhaps the first time in history, it is directly shaping society.

So since so many interesting questions hinge on the E/I distinction, I figured it was time to dig a little deeper into it.

Note: Apropos of nothing, I’ll be in Seattle tomorrow through Monday morning. If anyone is interested in meeting up, post on the ribbonfarm Facebook page, and we’ll see if we can work something out.

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How Geniuses Think

Guest post by Michael Michalko

How do geniuses come up with ideas? What is common to the thinking style that produced “Mona Lisa,” as well as the one that spawned the theory of relativity? What characterizes the thinking strategies of the Einsteins, Edisons, da Vincis, Darwins, Picassos, Michelangelos, Galileos, Freuds, and Mozarts of history? What can we learn from them?

For years, scholars and researchers have tried to study genius by giving its vital statistics, as if piles of data somehow illuminated genius. In his 1904 study of genius, Havelock Ellis noted that most geniuses are fathered by men older than 30; had mothers younger than 25 and were usually sickly as children. Other scholars reported that many were celibate (Descartes), others were fatherless (Dickens) or motherless (Darwin). In the end, the piles of data illuminated nothing.

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