24. Biology is Technology

Imagine a spaceship touches down on earth and from it emerges the most advanced technology known by anyone. Tens if not hundreds of millennia advanced compared to our own mastery. A packed cadre of atomic machinery, fitting as much complexity as the the laws of physics will support into as tiny a space as possible. Imagine this technology exists, and we can study it. Imagine it’s biology.

Biology is the most advanced technology around.

Imagine building a robot that does what a dragonfly does. Insecta are the miniature robotic drones of Animalia, and the dragonfly is the helicopter of the insects. It can hover and pitch, yaw and translate. It can track and catch tiny zippy insects using two large composite image sensors. We don’t have the materials to make its wings, or batteries or motors light enough or capable enough to get within an order of magnitude of body mass. Let alone the fact that dragonflies get their energy from the insects they eat. Let alone that pairs of dragonflies can self replicate. We can’t make anything that fly and also self replicate.

Does human technology get anywhere near this? Can we make any biology? We can make a lot of stuff that isn’t an imitation of biology. Bridges, glass skyscrapers, computer chips. Plants in particular are chemical factories, and industrial chemistry can keep up with a whole menagerie of small molecules. The store carries the human-manufactured synthetic almond extract alongside the plant manufactured natural stuff. We can perform minutiae of alchemy, bombarding a nucleus to transform one atom into another, a feat accomplished at scale by nature in the hearts of stars.

Eventually the path of technological progress curves towards biology. Designers talk about biomimicry. Engineers wielding supercomputers and 3d-printers are beginning to explore topological optimization, a way of letting physics sculpt a part to be lighter and stronger that results in in it looking simultaneously more organic and more alien. Like the bones of a flying creature from a different solar system.

Computer chips can be thought of as large crystalline molecules, attempting a silicon-based biology which parallels the carbon based one. Computer chips are the largest projects humanity attempts, the machines and materials and knowledge we use to make these chips beg for scarce chemicals and advanced manufacturing projects, supply chains which link and branch and thread many times around and deep into the planet. All this has such gravity that competitive international politics bends into a game of delicate courtship towards sustaining chip manufacturing.

Computer chips and cutting edge microelectromechanical machines exist at the same scales as biology. Individual atoms in a chip make use of every bit of their own physics to carry the message. But of course even these most magic of human-made devices remain confined to a flat plane, using materials whose dynamics we understand and whose atoms like to stay in one place, thank you very much. Metals lie flat. Chips are sheets of cut-out paper of different properties, laminated together at the atomic level. Pesky carbon and its friends take on shapes in three dimensions, and they all love to jiggle about in ways that leave our x-ray photolithography machines sorely outmatched.

We build computers, and computers help us build biomimetic systems. The synthesis is advanced carbosilicate biocomputers, a computational silicon layer atop and infused into the biological strata. These are fancy words for our existing modern society, with global communications networks connecting organic meat-sacks. We’re at the beginning. Change is always uncomfortable and must be navigated gently and wisely.

Biology is our distant past and our distant future.

To me, dear Reader, this is a useful frame to consider biology. I know more about technology than biology, humanity as a whole knows more about technology than biology. Connecting them together on a long arc puts them in scale, reminds me that a lot of it can be understood, and reminds me how little we know now. It reminds me that what we call biology is an extension of the universe, and what we call artificial is an extension of biology, wrapping around to help the universe come to understand ourself.

23. Hindi Youtube discusses Elon Musk

Yesterday I watched this video about Elon Musk’s Twitter acquisition. The major difference between this video and the droves of similar-seeming content is that this is in Hindi. It’s part of Hindi youtube, discussing Indian politics and topics of particular relevance to the subcontinent, as well as more world-news topics such as Elon’s latest.

I found the video remarkably entertaining, and it has some good insights. I wanted to share some of my experience with this and try to distill some of the reflections I’ve had from encountering this part of youtube.

I mostly only have the sample of this one guy’s channel. I’ve seen a few of his videos so far. I’m quite confident there’s an entire mess of hindi language ‘youtube news’ style channels to be found here.

The channel is called The Deshbhakt, which translates to The Patriot, or the ‘devotee of the country’. The host is a guy named Akash Banerjee. The channel pitches itself as “India’s first and largest political satire channel”, and Akash states clearly that this satire section is missing from the Indian news and Bollywood media complex. It seems pretty close to Some More News or even John Oliver or a whole series of other similar pop news content creators. At time of writing, the channel has 2.44M subscribers on youtube and states that it’s primarily funded by its Patreon. This particular video has 500k views and came out late last month.

I don’t regularly watch or subscribe to a lot of satire-news, but structurally as a youtube channel this is pretty similar to creators I follow: probably-mostly-independent content creators using a combination of Patreon supporters and youtube ad revenue to crank out reasonably engaging videos where the host talks to the camera, interspersed by news video clips, text snippets, video memes, stock footage… you get the picture.

I can mostly understand hindi. When watching this guy’s video I’d say I got about 75% of it without subtitles, and having subtitles on boosted that to 100% comprehension. The interesting thing is that the subtitles often diverge from anything close to a word-for-word translation of what the guy’s saying. The topics and major points are preserved, but most of the colloquialisms and ‘tone’ is lost. The colloquialisms and tone are what I found both entertaining and interesting for different reasons.

For one early example, there’s a line where the subtitle says “CEO Parag Agarwal and board weren’t that interested in the beginning”. But what our host is saying is more animated, and translates closer to something like:

Twitter’s board and Mr Agarwal’s son Parag were saying “oh jeez oh god what are you doing Mr Musk”

Akash

I don’t want to get too in the weeds with translating colloquialisms, but this at least partially illustrates the point that you’re not getting the full picture with just the subs.

Deshbhakt makes several points quickly, including:

  • Twitter really caught Elon’s eye, he’s gotten obsessed
  • It’s pretty common for billionaire moguls to own media companies: Mukesh Ambani and Network 18, Jack Ma and South China Morning Post, Jeff Bezos and Washington Post, Mark Benioff and Time Magazine… and now Elon Musk and twitter.
  • Tesla basically gets the credit for making electric cars cool
  • SpaceX is the most successful rocket company in the world
  • Twitter might distract Musk from these more exciting companies

He says: “How can a social media platform disturb a genius billionaire businessman in his work?”. Akash’s focus on this point starts to give a good cultural read of his audience. There’s a degree of reverence for “good businessman who knows best because otherwise he wouldn’t’ve become a good businessman”. The comments really reflect this too:

Some generally pro-Elon comments

This is already good insight! This reverence for the business magnate, the admiration for the bootstrapped businessman. These are cultural factors that I am familiar with, and also fairly skeptical of.

Akash continues:

  • Jack Dorsey has stated that twitter’s the closest thing we’ve got to a global consciousness
  • But… twitter’s user base is pretty small. It’s smaller than facebook, youtube, but also smaller than snapchat and pinterest.
  • On the other hand it’s true that news travels first and faster on twitter. It really is some kind of high-speed information hub, despite having a relatively small userbase

Musk’s proposed changes:

  • Make twitter’s algorithm open source to increase transparency and trust.
  • Defeat the spam bots, which everyone including twitter knows about but hasn’t acted on.
  • Edit button
  • Verified badge to all humans.

Another translation to show what’s missing in the subs:
Subtitle: “So how many real users does twitter have?”
More direct translation: “After these bot accounts are gotten rid of, twitter reality will become front and center. Meaning: we’ll learn how many real users there are! Because that’ll be even fewer than the current user count, and will show even more clearly how stagnant twitter is.

All real humans getting a verified badge is a pretty cool idea, and I hadn’t heard it before.

From here, Akash gets into free speech absolutism.

Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated. – Musk

The question of course is where does free speech reach its limits?

Along with the fate of Trump’s ban, there’s an Indian actress named Kangana Ranaut who’s account was also banned for violating Twitter’s terms.

In the absolutist version of free speech, where nobody is going to stop any speech, in this situation you can have a ‘no holds barred’ conversation, nobody’s going to police or silence you. This is all good and well. And sure, let’s say you can do personal attacks, ‘below the belt’ punches. But… Doxing? Misogyny? Homophobia? Racist comments? Are these also coming in under the free speech banner? Where are you gonna draw the line, Elon brother?

Akash

He goes on to point out very clearly that having no clear line will only increase the fighting on twitter, and some kind of community guidelines and moderation are the norm on all social media platforms and indeed in all communities. That’s how we get civilized conversation.

This is a great point! It stands out to me in particular that it’s framed outside the kind of culture war language I’m usually used to in American newsmedia.

Even Zuckerberg originally had more absolutist stances towards free speech on facebook, on which he’s since changed tack when faced with the reality of what a truly absolutist view implies.

One of Akash’s big points in this video is that it seems like Musk thinks twitter is a problem to be solved… because it is… but that this problem will be solved with math, science, engineering. Similarly to how he’s successfully approached problems in engineering electric cars and building rockets. But Twitter’s not an engineering problem, primarily. It’s a human problem. Engineering has gone on for years to target CSAM and violent activity, and so on. But the magic solution isn’t in the engineering.

Another big point is that Musk really isn’t as much of a free speech absolutist as he makes out to be. Famously Musk spoke out against the COVID mask mandates in the US, even purposefully ignoring them within tesla factories. He spoke out against the vaccine before it had come out. But… what does musk say in china?

When it comes to China, Musk is such a free speech absolutist, he is such a free speech absolutist… that he says absolutely nothing. Totally silent.

When the Chinese government says ‘shut up, wear masks’, Musk doffs his hat and says “yes sir, thank you sir, right away sir”. Workers will sleep in the factory? Sure. They’ll eat there and live there too, for $63 a day? Sure!

The free speech concerns have a way of evaporating when it comes to getting a slice of that sweet sweet Chinese automobile market.

Twitter too is a global platform, which has deals in various regulatory regimes, including India. Will Musk address the issue of twitter in these countries, whether millions of people get speech at all?

All in all, these aren’t engineering problems! These are social and political and human problems.

Oh, also: Twitter isn’t profitable. Mr Businessman Musk is well aware that this is a $44 billion deal for a company that loses money. The financing he’s received could cost $1 billion/year in debt service alone. Way less than Twitter’s EBITDA. Seems like a bad deal.

When’s he going to make the rockets? When’re we getting to Mars? All this is going to take time and energy. Why not invest that $44B in improving global hunger and thirst, helping with climate change, or anything that might grant him some good will. The video ends on this note, that Musk’s gonna get snared in this web of annoying twitter politics, and that it’s just a big waste of his resources.


Anyways, that’s the video summarized. I thought getting a glimpse of this style of content in Hindi medium was pretty interesting, and the specifically India-specific cultural context and phrasing gives insights to what people are thinking in India.

I watched another couple of his videos that I also thought were interesting and will plan to write up why I found those interesting too, and maybe glean some more insights about what Indian politics are like.

22. Video Notes – Nonlinear wave computing, Vibes, Gestalts and Realms with Andrés Gómez Emilsson

This video is wild. What exactly is Andrés talking about? Let’s get into it a bit. This write-up is meant mostly for my own purposes to try to tack down some of the interesting bits I came across while watching the video. I’ll put some of my meta level thoughts at the end too.

Nonlinearities

video of nonlinear waves

Normally in physics or in daily reality when we think of waves, we think of linear waves. Waves such as sound or ocean waves which can progress through a medium and can overlap additively or subtractively. Linear waves don’t really interact other than this kind of simple constructive/destructive interference. This property is called the superposition principle, which means we can account for all the interactions of the waves in a system by treating them as independent waves which can ‘go through each other’. Fourier transforms operate on linear waves.

In the context of consciousness research, non-linear wave computing falls under the umbrella of qualia computing (i.e. using qualia for information processing). The core idea is that our nervous system uses mediums with specialized wave-propagation dynamics in order to instantiate self-organizing principles that will “solve the problem on their own” in a massively parallel and holistic fashion. In this talk I delve deeply into the way non-linear waves seem to appear in a wide range of phenomenological domains and thus provide a lot of explanatory power.

Lots of waves in nature are nonlinear which means rather than going through each other, the waves interact and can ‘bounce off each other’ or lead to more complex interference patterns. Examples of nonlinear waves include beach waves (which often ‘bounce off’ each-other, solitons, phase conjugate mirrors, and optical self-focusing effects. Mathematical approaches for decomposing and analyzing nonlinear waves are discussed here.

One interesting thing he touched on is that waves with energy characteristics well within the bounds of a given ‘energy regime’ operate as linear waves but as we push the waves to higher and higher energy levels they start to behave nonlinearly towards the edges of the regime. This paper at least also discusses linearity and nonlinearity in wave propagation and uses the term energy regime to express boundary conditions for a given linear process.

An example of a linear wave giving rise to nonlinearities are the experiments with sand being vibrated by a speaker. In these Chladni patterns, the sound waves are linear but give rise to nonlinear sand patterns.

Our experience is made of these waves coming into our sensory organs and being compressed filtered and interpreted by our brains. The simplest example is listening to music, literally linear waves entering the eardrum. The attack/decay/sustain/release properties of these waves manifest as different phenomenological forms and have different moods or feelings attached with them. The fact that the ADSR happens over time indicates that our mental representation in our auditory cortex integrates the incoming wave over time, storing and operating on this incorporated representation.

Emilsson uses the term ‘nonlinearities’ to refer to really any kind of phenomenological form, each has a certain vibe signature: a way in which it appears to you and how it makes you feel.

Vibes

Emilsson calls all of this experience of linear and nonlinear waves ‘vibes’

The thesis of this video is that our world-simulation is constructed with vibes interacting with one another forming gestalts, which in turn form large-scale enduring self-reinforcing attractors aka. “realms”. With an analogy to the construction of a building: vibes are tools, gestalts are raw materials, and realms are the complete resulting buildings.

Vibes have precise valence characteristics (ADSR envelop, dissonance, etc.) – for instance, metta has a soft attack. When vibes are above a certain level of energy they become non-linear and thus they “bounce off each other” to form gestalt (which are the energy minima of vibes interacting with one another). These gestalts function as non-linearities that our brain stores as building blocks, which are then stacked with each other to form complex scenes, and ultimately entire realms of experience.

Importantly, the valence characteristics of vibes and those of the gestalts they give rise to are mutually reinforcing. The valence of our inner representations are thus the CDNS (consonance, dissonance, noise signature) of the vibes making up the gestalts. This allows us to understand how moods work. For example, adrenergic vibes are harsh and thus over time they anneal into gestalts that have unpleasant valence characteristics – the realms embody the vibes of the gestalts that constructed them. So… be wise about your vibes!

Gestalts

Gestalts are integrated collections of sensory waves and nonlinearities, all of which fit to form a mood or a full picture of a scene. Stories are made of series of gestalts strung together like a movie. When crafted skillfully, these gestalts weave together and interact to create nonlinearities across the story as a whole. The story or movie makes sense as a whole. When we imagine a gestalt it’s usually not ‘a subject’ but ‘a subject doing some action’ or interacting in some way.

Realms

Realms are anti-fragile attractors in gestalt space. These are stories woven together which defend themselves and create a lens or worldview from which to make sense of our perceptions. People occupy one or many realms, and we often move between realms in our lives. The core of a realm is how you conceptualize your sense of self and how you interpret reality within the structures constituting that realm.

Emilsson expresses several different realms of perception

  • Hell realm – self-worsening loops of feeling like “it’s all my fault” or “it’s the world’s fault”, or that the world is terrible. If you approach the world with this kind of vibe you self-reinforce that paradigm and can enter deeper into and continue to create a hell world for yourself. When doing any intervention we should always consider that for a given nervous system it can be 10 or 100 or 1000 times worse than it currently is. With a hell realm things can seem all-consuming and often an individual needs a little respite or getting to step back from the realm in order to nucleate and build a sense of identity outside the hell realm. Having a spark of loving kindness in a tiny part of your body… don’t focus on the things that are tense, focus on the things that are calm and relaxed and allow that feeling to expand larger and larger.
  • Titan realm, or the world of the asuras. Feeling like everything is an attack. Very kinetic. Vibes are very sharp, short attack (in the ADSR sense). Trying to strike representations with these attacks. When you’re inside the titan realm, the core or your experience of self is that of being in a weapons depot. All around are tools and arguments and weapons at your disposal to try to destroy or dispel some enemy idea or concept. All are nonlinear gestalts that are powerful that you can point at things to emit a harsh vibe in that direction. There’s some degree of controllability of these tools, but the controllability is driven by these emotions that are themselves hard to control.
  • Animal realm – ignorance, vegging out, being cosy, simple pleasures and immediate gratification. Has a sticky slidey quality to it. You want to just find a cozy comfy part of your existence and just veg out in it. It’s low energy, kinda sleepy, dumb, soporiforous. Lacks the activation energy to get out of it. Core in this realm is a collection of petty likes and dislikes. I like this, i don’t like that… probably similar to the experience of simple animals.
  • Human realm – realm with very complex representations and high resolution accurate information tracking. Kind of like using / conjuring various gestalts and then stacking them together in order to form computing apparatuses or rube-goldberg style causal machines. Generally these structures are largely anhedonic. Internal core attitude is something more calculating and tends towards complexity.
  • God realm – soft and pleasure boosting. Just like in the hell realm the harsh negative vibes stack together and become worse and worse, in the god realm the soothing smooth vibes stack and form increasingly pleasant and pleasure enhancing constructs
  • Equanimity – Perhaps the goal of buddhism or of self-formation is to increase equanimity, to be able to remain unswayed by anything happening around you. Obviously this is not a way to cure all the external problems in the world, but seems critical for having a positive experience in the world despite all its problems. Equanimous vibes are destructive in the sense that they can erase any harsh incoming vibes, and allow you to not be swept up in the negative emotion being thrown at you.
  • Defabrication. Seems to be a kind of unclenching of association between the world and any kind of ownership relation between the point of experience and the world. Buddhism has language about breaking the cycle of re-incarnation. Another way of framing this might be that we can unclench our emotional cognitive bundles and allow them to dissipate rather than try to hold themselves together. An enlightened buddha will be fully equanimous and can defabricate and leave the world peacefully at the end of their life. Boddhisatvas kind of have a foot in both the defabricated realm and other normal realms, allowing themselves a kind of homeostatic vibe controlled environment so they can both participate in the world and also remain unswayed by the vibes or gestalt being given.
  • Dark night of the soul. This is something interesting that I didn’t fully understand from the video but seems to refer to serious existential crises within the self and in the perception of the realms one occupies. Perhaps accompanied by a sense of despair, lack of sense-making, and a feeling of backsliding into an infinitely dark abyss.

Realms in this context might be called ‘narratives’. Memetic tribes might be meta-entities existing as nonlinear interactions across multiple realms. For example, a given political ideology has both titan-realm-style attack/defense weaponry, as well as ideal state empathetic conditions which the proponents of the ideology admire and want to drive towards.

Conclusion

This video was fun to watch and to allow myself to get swept along with. A lot of the phraseology Andrés uses, and my resulting interest in phenomenology is that it invokes the kind of vague profound insights one gets on psychedelics or in moments of deep contemplation. It feels like ‘figuring things out’. I’ve had friends who poo-poo the sense of figuring things out which comes with these kinds of altered states, and for good reason. The difficulty of finding the right words for a given insight allows the insight to roam free and large in one’s mind within the moment, seemingly affecting everything and yielding huge ultimate world-shifting truth, but then just as quickly collapsing into vague nonverbal nothingness. Overpromising and underdelivering.

But if we consider specifically the space of phenomenology, and given the language Andrés and others are developing, we’re starting to get somewhere. There is a kind of phenomenological truth within these kinds of insights, and that the nonverbality is while not quite an anti-feature, at least a well-known property of transcendent insights. At any rate it’s nice to get some words for what’s going on, right?

Phenomenology seems to train one in how to verbalize one’s experience as it appears, and treating that experience as real and expressable rather than needing to prove consensus before expressing one’s perceptions.

21. What is phenomenology?

Imagine I hold up some object to show to you: a hammer. You can see the hammer with your eyes, but you’re never actually seeing the whole hammer at the same time. If I rotate the hammer around, your brain infers and combines the different views of the hammer into a single integrated object in your perception. Not only do you recognize the hammer as a single 3d object integrated over time, but also you recognize the hammer as “a hammer”; an object which has a handle that you could grip with your hand, and a head that’s used for banging things. You inherently experience the object as not only what it looks like, but also what it’s for, what the object is about. Phenomenologists call this about-ness ‘intentionality‘.

On top of all this, recognizing all this when seeing the hammer isn’t a rational experience. You’re not thinking about it as a series of logical inductive steps, such as “ok there is a wooden component which looks like it could be smooth to the touch, which my hand may be able to grasp, as well as a metal component…” and so on. You might, if you’d never seen a hammer before. But if you know what a hammer is, recognizing it is a kind of gestalt all-at-once experience. You see it as what it’s for and what it can do, as a tool in the world.

Let’s expand on this further. When you are using a hammer, you stop noticing the hammer. The hammer ceases to exist as an independent object in your perception. Your consciousness extends around the hammer as an extension of your arm and suited for solving a particular problem at hand. The hammer recedes from your experience, and thus you can focus on the nail and not the hammer itself. Heidegger refers to this experience of the hammer as being ‘ready-to-hand

Similarly when you drive a car: after learning to drive and getting comfortable with the car, you have the experience of knowing how much space the car roughly takes up, what it’s capable of, and how to make it move where you intend. You cease to notice the steering wheel even while continuing to knowledgeably use it. You drive the car as if it were an extension of your body. All this is an object acting as ready-to-hand.

When the car breaks down, it somewhat ceases to be a car. Your perception shifts to the car as an object rather than as an extension of the self. You see the car as a collection of parts to be fiddled with and reconfigured or repaired. Heidegger says in this experience the object becomes ‘present-to-hand‘. It no longer appears as a tool for doing something, but as something to rationally examine.

Similarly, when I’m typing on this keyboard the keyboard fades out of my perception. The entire computer fades out of my perception. I just focus on the text I’m typing out and the thought I’m thinking through. And the second the computer stops working well, the keyboard lags or the program crashes there’s an experience of the lights flicking on and my consciousness expands to consider the computer as an object to be debugged–maybe by restarting the program, or by clicking around to see if the lag clears up, or whatever. I shift from using the tool to trying to fix the tool.

All this explores how our perception of tools fades out as we become comfortable with the tools. It points to how we don’t notice that our body and and appendages are also a tool of sorts, which can fade out of our direct perception while in use, but it all comes rushing back (present-to-hand) when something hurts or breaks.

This is just the beginning of phenomenology, explained through some examples that are the simplest to grasp for our tool-using minds. Expanding from here, phenomenology considers the shape and quality of any part of our experience, including our experience of ourselves as entities which exist over time. Similar to the hammer, we never see all parts of our selves, the self fades out of perception when it’s in use (or until something goes wrong). This inability to recognize the self outside of individual events is both touched on by western philosophers such as Hume and Heidegger, but is also exactly the buddhist idea of anattā. It’s likely that Heidegger was directly influenced by zen and daoist texts.

The self is also only considered in relation to the experience it’s having, there’s no moment of experiencing the self as such, instead there’s moments of experiencing the self in relation to or in reaction to other various experiences. For Heidegger, the self is not only inherently considered in relation to its experiences, but also in relation to others. I understand myself in relation to the world and in relation to other people. My existence necessarily refers to the existence of others.

We’re just scratching the surface of this exploration. I haven’t touched on (or understood yet) concepts like Dasein and exactly what Heidegger is talking about with his focus on Being.

Phenomenology also includes entire swaths of our language when we’re using it to describe our experience or link experience to other past experiences–when describing the flavor notes of a glass of wine or a perfume, for instance. The phenomenology of qualia. Phenomena often appear to us not only with about-ness but also with valence; whether we think they’re good or bad, how they make us feel.

There’s gold in these hills, maybe we can find it.

References

Phenomenology in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Heidegger’s Ways of Being

20. What do I mean by Religion

People famously used to argue that when it comes down to the line, if you’re a soldier taking artillery fire in the bottom of a foxhole, you’ll pray to some higher power to save you. The argument claims that there are no atheists in foxholes.

The implication is that atheism is a kind of fairweather philosophical belief which crumbles when faced with cold hard reality. This is a general form of argument that could be applied to a lot of things, eg “there are no libertarians in hospitals”.

Ultimately there are stated atheists in foxholes. I don’t know if they shout “oh jesus, oh f@k, oh god” when they’re taking fire like I imagine I would, and I don’t know if that implies they’re lying about their (lack of) faith and are actually believers. I think it comes down to a surface level disagreement , and a transcendent-level inherent unapproachable jargon-unsynchronized vagueness. The former is something like: I’m not christian because I don’t go to church and don’t care about the sunday-school children’s version of Christianity. I haven’t studied the theology of the saints enough to know how my internal conceptualization of transcendence meshes with that of the officially stated position of the church, or even if my position aligns more with stated christians that aren’t part of the church, like the Gnostics or Hermeticists or Buddhists)

It’s really hard to tell what even the church means by god, or what a different church might mean, or whether that aligns with my internal ineffable and possibly under-explored conception of the transcendent. I’d call myself atheistic when faced by some kind of academic literalism about the wine literally becoming blood, or about the specifics of isn’t/isn’t/isn’t/is relationship and the conclusions made at Nicaea. I don’t care about how many angels fit on the head of a pin, or how exactly Jesus moved the literal boulder blocking the tomb when he literally stood up exactly how many ever days after dying. Hell as the sunday-school conceptualization was invented by Dante in the 1300s and is no more related to the bible than the Lord of the Rings novels are. The list goes on.

A lot of the christian story really speaks to me, and especially so in terms of really powerful metaphor and conceptualization of the ideal, the importance of the logos, the heroic sacrifice… but evangelical literalism is a huge turn-off, and makes the whole thing seem kooky and exploitative.

But even putting religion-as-such aside: I still have ideals and virtues that I don’t always empirically know to be true but still hold dear and hold above all else in my heart and mind.

Belief in science, and the knowability of the universe is like this. There’s an element of faith in much that we do. Even if I claim that I could go and verify the research done by the physicists, ultimately I do not (and due to lack of mathematical knowledge, cannot), and so I trust what they tell me in a way similar to the trust people place in the priests and monks who’ve studied theology and meditated longer. There are differences, but there are similarities too. Political ideology is like this too. Plenty of people hold the free market as their god (whether or not their idea of it even exists), but wouldn’t call it god.

There’s the ‘common conception’ of what it means to be in a religion, which focuses on dogma, community gatherings, and woo-woo talk about the afterlife. It feels cheap and leaves an unsatisfying taste in the mouth. This is what I’ve been calling the sunday-school version.

There’s a ‘historically accurate’ version of what it meant to be in a religion, which is that it was a way of life, a piece of the community operating system that helped people know what was good and what to do and how the world is. There was no question of “what religion are you?” there was just the way things are, the way we do things here.

And there’s a ‘theosophical’ version, which is trying to get to the bottom of How Things Actually Are, by study and reason. The religion of Meister Eckhart involves questioning and exploration and active pursuit of what’s true and is closer to a kind of metaphysical philosophy than the other versions of religion. It takes a degree of curiosity but I think more people would appreciate some of the transcendental philosophy without the crufty propagandistic trappings of the common conception.

19. Korzybsky, Space and Time

Thanks to Einstein and other physicists and mathematicians at the beginning of the 1900s, we know as a fact about our universe that the concepts of space and time are unified as spacetime. It’s only an illusion and a trick of language and our perspective that we can conceptualize of spacetime as two separate bits.

Korzybsky seizes upon this in in his research on General Semantics to urge us to not make this distinction in language, because the trick played serves not much purpose other than to confuse and blind us.

In other words, Korzybsky wants us to refer to time whenever we refer to space, and vice versa. He calls this “non-elementalism” or “non-additivity”: the refusal to separate verbally what cannot be separated empirically.

This is a pretty cool operationalization of the Dunning Kruger hypothesis, that the language we use affects the way we think. If Dunning-Kruger is true, then we ought to train ourselves towards more correct language. Even if it’s a little awkward at first.

18. Art and Accessibility

Should we not create visual art because there are people who cannot see? Is it morally superior to create written work for this reason?

Something really cool about written works is that thanks to text-to-speech and machine translation tools, a written work is in some sense instantly accessible to almost everyone on the planet: If they can read it as written, they’re set. If they are deaf, they’re set. If they speak another language, a machine translation means they’re set. If they’re blind, a text-to-speech tool can read it aloud for them. If they’re blind and speak another language… you get the idea. This is really cool! Written language is a universal medium in ways that it never has been before.

It’s egregious that Hacker News doesn’t follow the HTML accessibility standards (all they’d have to do is use some H1 tags in the right spot). It’s silly to fall short of this goal. But plenty of art and plenty of content isn’t so easy to make accessible, for instance music to the deaf, or paintings to the blind. One can describe a painting in written words, but something is lost.

I feel a reluctance to claim that we shouldn’t create visual works for accessibility reasons. It’d be a really sad moral conclusion to come to that great artists such as Picasso were bad because they weren’t authors instead. This ‘ought’ would reduce the diversity of human expression and be a net loss, especially considering those of us who can see.

Does population proportionality affect this stance? There are many more people who can see than who can not. Is this the grounds for the argument that it’s OK to produce visual art?

I think no, legibility by the majority is not the prerequisite for producing art. For example, only a minority of the population can read code — but I would not claim that because code is inaccessible or uninteresting to an overwhelming majority of the population, people should not make code-art. An example of code-art is a quine. Most people have never heard of quines, but I’m quite glad they exist and wouldn’t prefer a reality where they don’t exist.

My thesis is that people should make art, and that art is good. The question remains to what degree accessibility should cross the mind of the artist or content creator.

Is there a difference between an artist and a content creator? Artists are content creators, but not all content creators are artists. Plenty of content is research papers, or blog posts, or descriptive youtube videos not intended to be art, or which may only incidentally be considered art. Plenty of content is TikTok videos. TikTok is to my knowledge not accessible to anyone who’s deaf or blind, because they’re videos (though I have seen people add captions). It’s also not accessible to the entire population of India.

Should we always post written blog versions of things, and not post to TikTok because TikTok isn’t accessible?

One solution is to simply not solo-post. Create content in multiple mediums! Expand your audience! This is not so hard to imagine: movies have subtitles!

What’s the relationship between reach and accessibility? By posting a successful video to TikTok one may have an actual audience of 10,000 people, where writing up a blog may only be read by 10 people. TikTok is effectively more accessible to millions of people who use the app rather than reading blogs or books with that same chunk of time. Whether or not those people are physically or intellectually able to read the written media is a little irrelevant.

One example is that Hank Green posts videos about climate change to TikTok, for instance. His goal is to inform people about the environment and topics like carbon credits, human caused CO2 emissions, and give people scientific literacy so they can better understand their world. By posting to TikTok, Hank is able to reach an audience of millions to achieve his goal — even though those with physical disabilities like blindness or deafness would not be able to consume his content.

What about other forms of accessibility? Intelligence affects accessibility of content. The amount of free time one has affects whether and how one accesses content. Writing a research paper or a book could be considered more accessible than making a TikTok. But… how many people will actually read that paper? How many people can understand the paper if they read it? There’s something genuinely gained by making complex topics understandable so that they can be understood by people who are not otherwise experts in the field, or who don’t have the mental or time capacity to sit down and read and understand a research paper.

This is an important aspect of what Hank Green is doing! He’s taking information that would normally be locked up in a complex encoding (though written), and helping to communicate it to many multiple more people than would receive that information without his help. Science communicators are in this way a sort of evangelist or apostle for science.

Takeaways:

  • Make art.
  • Translate your art into multiple mediums, if you can. And don’t worry too much if you can’t! The point of art is not only to be accessible to all.
  • There are types of accessibility other than physical, for instance language barriers, legal barriers, and intelligence/context barriers.
  • Translate other people’s research into more accessible forms, if you can.
  • There’s a difference between art (which perhaps doesn’t have as strict of a moral accessibility requirement) and other forms of content.

17. Writing feels like the opposite of meditation

With certain types of meditating the goal is to notice one’s thoughts but not to cling to them. To notice thoughts as sensations of the mind and to notice the sensations of other parts of the body, feeling your butt and legs against the seat, feeling the wind in your nostrils. It’s easy to catch one’s self several moments later deep down the path of a particular thought, but with this kind of meditation there’s a focus on returning to the noticing. To not follow the thought, or to not allow the thought to consume you without you noticing.

Writing, especially journalling, feels like the opposite. There’s a sense of looking around internally for any interesting threads, and then starting to pull on them intentionally. Putting words on paper as you pull in more thread almost as a sort of byproduct of the internal mental pathfinding. With writing the goal is explicitly to go down a given path and to pursue it as far as it’ll go.

When thinking without writing there’s a tendency to come back to a previous thought, to repeat a thought in little circles, to get stuck. But with writing combined with thinking the written word acts as a scaffold to ensure continued progress. Getting the words on paper helps to break out of thinking the same thought and helps to bring about the next thought.

One way I’ve noticed the interaction between writing and meditation is that getting a thought out onto paper can help me let go of it in my mind. When I’m clinging to a thought it’s usually because the thought feels important, that I want to make sure I save it. After writing something down, there’s a sense of calm knowing that I won’t lose it forever. This whole sense of attachment seems unrelated from how good the thought ‘actually’ is, in terms of whether I come back to it or continue to think the thought was a good thought. We’ve probably all had the experience of jotting down something important before falling asleep only to wake up the next morning and look at it skeptically. “Why’d I think this was so important?”. Nonetheless, jotting it down still allows for a clearing of the attachment feeling and makes it easy to let go of in one’s mind and to relax.

This is not something I’ve reflected on much, the idea came to me last night while falling asleep and I’ve written this mostly in the spirit of ‘pulling on the thread’ as alluded to. I’ve tried a quick google search but haven’t found anyone reflecting on the interaction between writing and meditation in this same kind of way.

16. Reparability and Science Fiction


Something that really stood out to me about Star Wars was how janky everything seems. You have Chewbacca in the back of the Millenium Falcon just banging on stuff with a wrench to get the ‘hypderdrive motivator’ or whatever to work… Han Solo jerry-rigging bits of wire together to bypass the flux modulator. They stop over on a station for replacement parts, finding something that almost fits, but with some elbow grease and duct tape they can get this spaceship back in working business. If we suspend our disbelief for a moment, this spaceship is literal light-years ahead of our current best technology. We’re talking about a craft which can repeatedly land on a planet’s surface and take off again, doesn’t use huge fuel tanks or expendable propellant, can withstand re-entry with no visible heat shields, has “force fields” and faster than light travel, can make the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs, and on and on. The aesthetic is high tech but also low tech.

In contrast: our phones are easily some of the most advanced technology we have today, and are completely opaque devices. Screen and battery replacements might become a reality in the next few years thanks to some governmental right-to-repair legislation, but currently require special tools and cannot be done at home. The componentry on the circuitboard is on another level. The individual microprocessors communicate with each other in hardware-level encoded communications, such that spying on the individual pins would just yield inscrutable noise. Your DVD player (if you have one) even talks to your TV using an encrypted channel.

I’m not opposed to encryption as such, I just want to draw attention to the opacity of our current modern technological world. Less and less is hackable, or user-modifyable than at any point before. This is often fine, because it yields devices that operate seamlessly; that ideally don’t need to be repaired, and it offers protection against hostile snooping (or protection of your IP, if you’re a movie company). But there’s something aesthetic that’s lost.

For this reason, I like the SpaceX Starship rocket and its stainless steel construction. Imagine in the future, a Starship becomes slightly damaged in landing on the moon, or Mars. Any skilled welder could patch it up with some suitable scrap steel. Patching things up is jank, and patching up a rocket ship is straight out of Star Wars.

The word ‘suitable’ is doing a bit of lifting in the previous paragraph. SpaceX is using a specific steel alloy that is light and strong enough at a range of temperatures to withstand the forces a spaceship is subject to. A whole lot of materials science engineering has gone into manufacturing that steel. But once it’s in your hand, it’s still “just” steel. You could pick up a roll of it and load it on to your truck, and not need a clean room or advanced machinery to handle it. It cuts like steel. It welds like steel.

Actually, you probably already have some of the specific 304L stainless steel SpaceX uses in your house, or at least you’ve been within 10 feet of it before in your car or in an elevator. It’s an “off the shelf” material and it works great, why not build space ships out of it?

Compare to if SpaceX had decided to build Starship out of carbon composites, or some advanced polymer materials which wouldn’t necessarily be as reparable or patch-able.

Suitable parts that are advaned but also appear as just another replacement part. This is an important part of the Star Wars aesthetic: Han and Chewie stop off at a spaceport to pick up a used slightly busted hyperdrive motivator. There’s a secondhand market for swappable advanced parts we don’t have in our reality.

In the 2010s computer motherboards would often have a couple capacitors fail. Picking up a couple new electrolytic capacitors online and de/resoldering them yourself is a bit like replacing the hyperflux motivator coil or whatever on a spaceship. It’s jank but also works, thanks to really advanced technology that fill the role of ‘spare parts’.

The broader note of awe here is just how much advanced science and engineering can be poured into a part that appears as if it’s just another part. I was watching a video about aspherical optics, which have much better performance characteristics than spherical optics but are also way harder to manufacture. Aspherical lenses might need oodles of computing power to tune the various curvature parameters, and then advanced robotic manufacturing to grind down bits of glass to the optimal shape. But once you’re holding it in your hand, it’s “just” another lens, one that happens to work way better thanks to all the work behind it.

It’s a kind of black-box effect. If the box is closed it’s “just” a box, one which does whatever it’s supposed to. Our phones are black boxes that are somewhat literally boxes. Aspherical lenses are black boxes in the sense of the engineering behind them, though the result is a hunk of glass. Stainless steel is a black box in terms of the materials engineering and manufacturing techniques etc. I’m fascinated by the sheer amount of complexity behind seemingly simple boxes, or boxes we don’t have to care about in order for them to work.

Takeaways:

  • advanced engineering results in parts that are very similar at first glance, but have super complex underpinnings
  • this still just means we can bandy about advanced parts as if they weren’t
  • reparability is cool and futuristic
  • everything’s a black box. If you want to peer inside and learn more, you can experience the infinite fractal complexity of the universe

15. Doing things in real-time

So much of what I do isn’t in “real time”. I have an undo button available. Pretty much everything I do on the computer (including writing this sentence) has plenty of time for me to pause, edit, deliberate. This affects the way I think.

When I write code, I often follow a path of intending to add a feature, trying out a way to add the feature, and then if it works committing and moving forward. If it doesn’t work, reverting and starting over. This is what I mean by having an ‘undo’ available. If something doesn’t work out, just jump back to the last time where things were OK and try finding a way forward again.

All this isn’t possible with real-time activities. The main real-time activity I do is driving a car. I often feel a sense of doom-slash-awe when I drive. Any mistake in muscle movements could cause irreversible damage or change. Could be as small as a bit of scratched paint from scraping a garbage can as I pull out of a parking spot, or as big as a catastrophic wreck. Things that I can’t undo. Driving a car is in real-time, and is really high-stakes.

I’ve been taking a ceramics class, learning to make things on the pottery wheel. Compared to driving, ceramics is quite low stakes, while still being in real time. There are so many steps, each requiring some different kind of fine muscle movement. With each step the piece could be ruined, or at least altered in some kind of unintended way. But worst case I’ve ruined a pot I spent a while working on. It’s low stakes.

It feels healthy and positive to have this low-stakes real-time activity. It’s giving me experience in doing non real-time activities… taking me out of my undoable-activity comfort zone. Ceramics is stretching my mind, giving me safe practice.