10,433 DSB

We were lucky. At the end of February–weeks before the UK government decided to do something about Covid19–we moved house.

I was lucky, too: the day before the UK pseudo-lockdown was announced, several boxes of books were drawn out of the storage locker known as my parent’s house and returned to me. Additionally, like I have at past addresses, I’ve had a room to read and write in. All this equated to a satisfying lockdown task: organise my “study”.

Of course, some things have been put on pause and I can’t fully complete the task. But I can–and I have–started to wonder about what is going to occupy the wallspace. Being a creator who toils with words, I decided on something non-wordy. But I didn’t want negative space. Not on the walls, anyway.

Art was the first thing that came to mind. But good art tends to be expensive. Plus, I didn’t know the sort of art I wanted. Paintings? Of what? Landscapes? Abstract things? I did think of having a portrait wall, but decided that would be a tad intimidating–for me, and for visitors. How about sculptures? Curios? Objets d’art? No, no, no. Something else.

Whilst sorting my books, I thumbed through Peter Turchi’s A Muse and A Maze and Maps of the Imagination. Aha! Mazes; maps; schematics?

I looked into it. Unfortunately, by nature and by nurture I am not an engineer. Which meant that the schematics and technical drawings I thought to source were not only mundane but entirely lacking in personal salience. I switched back to the idea of maps and my mind began to whir…

In my notebook, I wrote the following:

> Milky Way
>> Solar system
>>> Earth
>>>> Europe
>>>>> UK
… and so on

Like a cinematic intro sequence, the intention was to begin at a far-removed viewpoint and zoom in, ending either on a floor plan of the house we occupy, or da Vinci’s L’Uomo Vitruviano.

I started with the Milky Way, bu after navigating to this NASA page about the solar system, I was stopped in my tracks. Do I go with cartographic/technical representations or artistic ones? I came upon the same question when looking at representations of the Earth, Europe and the UK, too.

I sighed. Several times. Then, for whatever reason, I thought of Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands–which I haven’t actually read. Why don’t I plaster my study’s walls with my own selection of “legendary lands”?

Since asking that question, I’ve put together a shortlist and archived some examples. And as we’re all looking for a bit of light-hearted digression in these strange times, I thought I’d share them with you. In no particular order.

There are a few others. I’d like a reproduction of Herodotus’ Known World. And maybe similar illustrations from Thucydides and Xenophon. A map of the world’s internet infrastructure would be cool, too. Perhaps maps from Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4–two more influential video games. I’d also like to have a well-done rendition of the Barker Alternative Institute of Learning from my own novel, but that can wait.

It’ll probably take me a while to pull all these together and get them up on the walls. In the meantime, it’s worth reminding myself (and you) of the original motive: “escaping reality” doesn’t have to mean fleeing it. It can be a means of enduring it, as well as a way of altering it.

10,421 DSB

“Move fast and break things” can, if one is not careful, become “move too fast and things break you.” I riffed on this recently (see 10,367 DSB) and suggested that a software development ideology perhaps isn’t suited to governance. What I failed to realise is that this is an example of a bigger issue: models becoming morality.

Sticking with MF&BT: the idea is that rapid, repeated iterations of the Build-Measure-Learn cycle will reveal the most viable option(s) for a business to adopt. More crassly, it’s the strategic throwing of shit at walls. The aim is to find what sticks. But here’s the problem:

Move fast > Things break > The strong survive > The survivors are the strong.

The shift from a software-development model to a concept from evolutionary biology, and onwards to the (mistaken) assumption that there’s some sort of cosmic justice in operation can happen terrifyingly fast. Unfortunately, the recognition of “success” results in haloes, so people/orgs that effectively apply a model in an appropriate domain are likely to experiment with its application in other, inappropriate fields. (Additionally, the novel application is unlikely to be attempted at a smaller scale–success tends not to satiate ambition.)

Examples of the misapplication of models abound. A startup founder can cash out and, post-liberation, reinvent him/herself as a nutrition guru; a journalist can refactor him/herself as a practitioner of the hard sciences; a SEO marketer can, after bootstrapping a few parenting blogs, become a developmental psychologist. Heck, I can read some books and write a lot of words and it can appear like I’ve accumulated more insight than the average person–of course, that’s debatable.

Models becoming morality is a subset of the violation of domain dependence. I’ve found the best way to think about this to be the concept of translation.

When foreign literature is translated from its native language to a non-native form, something is irreversibly lost. Language itself is nuanced and every language is nuanced in its own special, spectacularly weird way. I can’t just copy-and-paste a passage of original Dostoevsky into Google translate. Translation is a real skill. Plus, translators unavoidably imbue their work with a piece of their selves in the process.

Another lens to view domain dependence through? Metaphors. A metaphor compares one thing to another in order to emphasise a specific property of the original object. Yet, no-one ever mistakes a metaphor for a literal comparison…

Summa: we all carry models within our minds. These models work better in some domains than others. We need to be increasingly wary of forgetting this in these complex, complicated times.

10,409 DSB

Early on in Dune, Paul Atreides is given the “test of the Gom Jabbar.” As it says on the appropriate Dune fandom page:

“The gom jabbar test would be to determine whether an individual’s awareness was stronger than their instincts. If their awareness of the gom jabbar’s presence was strong enough, it would override their instincts to withdraw from the test, which usually involved great physical pain.”

The idea being that Paul would prove his humanity by overcoming the animal instinct that commands him to flinch away from physical pain.

I’m still reading the Dune trilogy. I’m also reading N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy.

Part of the first volume, The Fifth Season, follows a young girl. She is an “orogene”–meaning she can manipulate the earth around her. In her world, however, orogenes are both feared and reviled. Orogene children, if discovered, are often killed by the communities they inhabit. So a Guardian–a mentor slash overseer–comes to collect this young girl before she can be harmed, or do harm to others. See, when threatened, orogenes reach instinctually for their power to protect themselves.

On the journey to the training centre, this little girl’s Guardian teaches her why she must never, ever lose control. He reminds her of the consequences, takes her hand in his and begins to crush it, little bone by little bone. He wants to see how she reacts. If she reaches. Like the Gom Jabbar, it is a test that pits pain against will.

Reading both Dune and Broken Earth has been thoroughly enjoyable. It has also raised a question: In the absence of an intimate relationship with physical pain, can one claim enlightenment? Like a fair weather friendship, what use a spiritual discipline or philosophy if it’s abandoned in times of extreme physical duress?

Going back to the best/worst case x best/worst self idea of the previous post, surely enlightenment can only assert itself in the lower left quadrant?

10,385 DSB

Inspired by Vinay Gupta’s “fireside chat” with Collin Morris, I’m toying with the idea of thinking on a planetary scale.

During the chat, Gupta mentions how he spent some time war-gaming responses to civilisation-level catastrophes–e.g. an event that shuts down food supply chains worldwide or a pandemic that obliterates a third of the human population.

Gupta explained that, from his perspective and experience, he’s a good fit for such emotionally devastating work. Most would be hamstrung by contemplating mass death and suffering; Gupta was (is) able to keep such sentiments at bay for prolonged periods.

Phrased another way: he is able to bring his best self to the contemplation of the worst case scenario. A rare ability, indeed. Visualised, Gupta occupies the bottom-right quadrant:

Which brings us nicely to my speculation: how does an individual stay in the right-hand quadrants and avoid slipping left? Answering that requires me to dial in what “self” and “case” actually refer to.

For “self”, I’m tempted to lean towards utility: your “best self” is the one that takes the action that 1) does the least harm and maximises options for good. Conversely, your “worst self” is the one that takes the action that 1) does maximum harm and 2) minimises options for good.

What “case” refers to is harder. I’m gonna dodge the question by claiming it’s an amalgamation of physical, mental, spiritual and social health and communal and societal wealth. I’m also going to limit “case” to possible realities–no fluffy utopias or bizarre, speculative dystopias allowed. “Best case” is probably comfortable existence in a western liberal democracy. “Worst case” is pretty bad–a community confined to local means of subsistence due to a breakdown in the global ecosystem.

So, back to the question: how does a person stay right and avoid slipping left? On an individual level, I think the answer is education and relationships. Though I confess I don’t know why I think that. Actually, after further thought, I think I’d strike education altogether.

Relationships provide a grounding in basic humanity. It doesn’t matter how smart a person is, how talented they are, how much of x, y or z they display or possess, relationships with other humans skew them towards the right (though there are outliers). Relationships put your skin in everyone else’s game.

Next question: how does humanity at scale stay right and avoid slipping left. Again, I suspect the answer is relationships (aka culture?).

I’m currently reading The End of History and the Last Man, and Fukuyama distinguishes between peoples and states. The distinction: a state is an abstract community, a people is a concrete community. For humanity to stay right and be its best self, something like localism seems like the best bet.

Final question–this one has a historical tint. If every person, from the start of human history to contemporary times, was a point on the 2×2, what kind of distribution would there be?

I’d like to think that there would be a swing up and right over time, but really I suspect the distribution is quite stable. Best case or worst case, in antiquity or modernity, I reckon humanity is mostly harmless.

10,383 DSB

Edward Snowden’s Permanent Record was interesting for a number of reasons, but the one I want to mention here and now is this: early on in the book, Snowden talks about ideas he expressed on the internet as a teen. He goes on to say that we shouldn’t be penalised in the present (or the future) for ideas we’ve held or expressed in the past.

As far as I can tell, he doesn’t mean we should be excused for rabid racism or tenacious discrimination. His point is that we have, first, the right to be ignorant, and second, the right to leave said ignorance behind. But in a climate void of anonymity, where everyone knows who you are and everyone can find out what you’ve said, our expression and thus our growth is inhibited, stuck in a state of fearful stasis.

Around the same time I was reading Snowden’s book, I also read Aaron Z. Lewis’ post on Ribbonfarm: Being Your Selves. It contains the following passage:

“Much like our IRL social selves, an alt truly comes alive when it’s seen by others. Twitter is a type of echolocation — you learn about who you’re becoming from the followers and replies that bounce back to you. I often see alt accounts asking some version of the question “what’s my brand/vibe?” Without any strategy or forethought, you end up with an indescribable sense of “where you are” in cyberspace by paying attention to who and what shows up in your notifications. There’s a mysterious quality to it all. The algorithm seems to route tweets to the very people who will understand what the hell you’re talking about. You think you’re typing inside jokes to yourself, but it almost always turns out that there are others out there who get you. The more I shared my unfiltered ideas, the more ideas I started having. My random posts sparked thoughtful responses that sent me down months-long research rabbit holes and inspired several substantial writing projects. As @chaosprime — a popular alt — once said, “Cognition is not a discrete process taking place inside your head. It isn’t even a discrete process taking place inside your body. It’s a web extending everywhere, with dense nodes pulling it this way and that, synchronizing and desynchronizing, making models of each other.” My alt account quickly became part of my cognitive ecology, my extended mind.”

The aforementioned extension of self got me thinking…

(SPOILER ALERT) In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort uses a device called a horcrux to store a fragment of his soul. The purpose is to stave off mortality. By splitting his soul, Voldemort ensures he doesn’t have a single point of failure. But what if, by utilising alts, it were possible to do the opposite? Instead of dividing our soul, can we multiply it?

An alt, to be born, requires a sliver of the self. But that sliver, despite starting as a part of our self, can become its own whole. What if, rather like Voldy, we create more than one alt? Say we create seven alts to match Voldy’s seven horcruxes, and they all grow at a similar pace? Further, because those alts remain tethered to the original whole, does the growth in a peripheral node return to the centre? The answer–I think–is, yes. Growth in one node leaks to every other. But then, so does everything else. And this creates a weird dynamic…

In security, an “attack surface of a software environment is the sum of the different points (the “attack vectors”) where an unauthorized user (the “attacker”) can try to enter data to or extract data from an environment. Keeping the attack surface as small as possible is a basic security measure.” The more alts a person has, the greater their attack surface. However, another basic security measure is compartmentalisation: “the limiting of access to information to persons or other entities on a need-to-know basis to perform certain tasks.” The more alts a person has, the more compartmentalised they are.

To me, the conclusion is obvious: the possible gain from one or more alts outweighs the risk. Which clarifies the next action, too: alt it up.

10,377 DSB

December 1st, 1913: the world’s first moving assembly line kicks into operation, thanks to Henry Ford (et al.). The result was nothing less than the transformation of automotive manufacturing, and soon after, the fabric of society. Fast forward a hundred years and an innovation of similar magnitude has taken place, all thanks to tools of thought.

Cloud-storage, notetaking, bookmarking/read-later services, social media, document sharing and collaboration, workflow and task automaters; all these have come to together to alter how we think, what we think, and why.

Before the introduction of Ford’s assembly line, the use of automobiles was confined to the well-to-do; after its introduction, driving was within everyone’s means. Before the proliferation of tools of thought, thinking (speculatively, rigorously, seriously, whatever) was a pursuit of the privileged; after the influx of tools of thought, everyone is an intellectual. Not out of choice, but out of necessity.

Let me explain. Consider this basic process:

  1. Choose a topic and read books about it on my Kindle and articles about it on Instapaper, highlighting salient passages as I go.
  2. Export those highlights to Readwise and curate them.
  3. Export to Evernote, tag them and, like pieces of a puzzle, see which ones slot together.
  4. Copy the pieces to a writing app (like Scrivener or Ulysses), write a short introduction and outro.
  5. Upload and publish the finished piece on a WordPress.com site and (automatically) on social media.

The topic above could be a historical figure, an outdated technological process, postmodernism, or cutting edge microprocessor architecture. Really, it doesn’t matter. The astounding thing is that such a simple process allows anyone (irrespective of class, gender, race, socioeconomic status etc.) to attain basic conceptual clarity about any conceivable subject. With minimal effort, I can become (or position myself as) an expert.

Before tools of thought were developed and democratised, such intellectual bootstrapping was inconceivable. A person’s thoughts were bound by local maxima. A person birthed in an environment of intellectual poverty was likely to die there. Not so anymore. And funnily enough, this revolution of thought has occurred in sync with the onset of the so-called post-truth era. Mere correlation, or causation?

I don’t know. However, considering the link between tools of thought and our post-truth era has caused me to wonder–is it fair to say that the smarter a society becomes in the aggregate, the more stupid its citizens must be as individuals?

Not absolutely, mind you. The average person today probably knows more than the average person one, two or three centuries ago (and has access to much more thought). I’m wondering whether we become relatively more stupid.

Imagine a ratio: what we do know in comparison to what we can know. Thanks to a host of factors, the former is indeed growing. The problem is that the latter isn’t growing so much as exploding. Tools of thought, as mentioned above, may help us maintain the gap as is, but a scary prospect is the possibility that the gap can only ever increase.

10,373 DSB

A strange question: what is the square root of reality?

After toying around with the question in my notebook, I came up with a tentative answer: existence. The simplest way for me to explain why this is so–aside from trawling for an array of sources to provide confirmatory evidence–is to make a statement:

Those who exist create reality and inhabit it.

I think this is true and I hope you do, too. However, it gets trickier. Part of my “toying around” involved writing out the sum that supposedly makes reality. Specifically:

existence x existence = reality

What really draws my attention in that sum, though, is the multiplication sign. What exactly does it symbolise, stand for? Personally, I think it symbolises change. And as I was thinking about square roots, I began to think about root causes. This sprouted another strange question:

Why do things change?

Confession: the idea that we don’t know the fundamental cause of change (a.k.a. “time”) was brought to my attention by a Stephen Hawking book. It’s low-key haunted me since then and I don’t really know what to do about it.

Additional confession: I used to think such second-rate (or third, fourth, even fifth-rate) philosophising was pointless. Banal. Useless. A complete waste of my time, and of yours, dear reader. A part of me still feels that way. But a growing part of me opposes that view. A growing part of me thinks that idle thoughts have the same relation to insight as procrastination does to productivity. The two are inextricably linked, co-dependent upon one another.

In a complex world–a world that houses billions of actors and is susceptible to countless contributing, contradictory forces–who am I to say one idea is idle and another is not? Who am I to presume that, given what we know about higher order effects and network dynamics, x will matter more than y?

10,367 DSB

The “move fast and break things” ideology is likely past its apex in Silicon Valley. However, following the diffusion of innovation theory, it is now spreading to other regions of Planet Earth. Like the UK government. (Take a look at what Stewart Brand says in Pace Layering to see why accelerating the mechanisms of governance may not be a good idea…)

Right now, I don’t want to discuss that–although, I will again state that “tinkering” with mission critical systems (healthcare, social services etc) is REALLY FUCKING STUPID AND WILL RESULT IN PAIN, SUFFERING AND DEATH. No, I want to issue a contraindication for adopters of the “move fast and break things” ideology. It looks something like this:

Move too fast and things will break you.

As a teenager in college, I played basketball. A lot. Twenty-plus hours a week. Two things we were taught relate to the above.

1) When it came to attacking a zone defence, our coach told us the true purpose of ball movement: make the zone defence shift. If we moved the ball too fast–zipped it from one side of the court to another and back–the zone couldn’t react. Therefore it wouldn’t shift. The shifts represented the perfect opportunities for attack, so we had to move the ball slow enough to create them. Counter-intuitive but oh-so true.

2) Immediately after receiving the ball, a player on offence is in the “triple threat” position. It’s called that because the ball handler can either dribble, pass or shoot. Further, the defender is at a disadvantage because he doesn’t know which the ball handler is going to do. Enter the fake. Like moving the ball around a zone defence, our coach taught us that a fake is pointless unless it is sold to the defender. If a player shot fakes or jab steps too fast, the defender can’t process the fake and won’t react. In reality, a slower fake has more probability of being sold than a fast fake.

In both cases, doing something too fast inhibits reaction. Speed disqualifies response, feedback and/or adaptation. Let’s enter another domain: fitness.

Dan John, a bonafide, OG strength coach (read his work) is fond of saying that, in fitness, everything works… for about six weeks. The problem, however, is that most of us don’t stick to the program. We move on too fast because we don’t see the desired results immediately.

The same pattern can be found in other areas too:

  • Companies fail because they abandon iteration on a product which is about to penetrate the market.
  • Hitler and co. called off the Blitz during WWII just as British resistance was about to break.
  • Hitler also held back Rommel’s advance just as the jaws of the Blitzkrieg were about to close on the fleeing Allied forces.
  • Individuals write online for six months and stop because they don’t understand the timeline of impact is measured in years not months.
  • Strategists employing the OODA loop can cannibalise themselves by cycling too rapidly.

Another angle: the scientific method. Specifically, experiment design. I’m no scientist but even I understand that a successful experiment requires enough time for changes to become apparent in the studied variables. Change is, to some degree, dependent on the passage of time.

Last one. Promise. (Also, a warning: the following may be rife with basic errors.)

I’ve been doing some reading concerning the concept of time. I’ve read about string theory and quantum mechanics and gravitational fields and other things which make my brain flatline. Whilst thinking about the above, I began to wander what happens to particles that move too fast in spacetime.

My impression: if spacetime is a huge but exquisitively fine mesh, then particles moving too fast through it will get shredded. On the atomic scale, move too fast and spacetime will shred you.

/end precautionary sermon.

10,364 DSB

Often, I dream. Sometimes, the result of these dreams is terror. Visceral, paralysing, overwhelming terror. Not for long. It fades in a matter of seconds. But anyone who has felt strong negative emotion (so, everybody) knows that one second is enough.

Last night, I had such dreams. Twice. It meant a somewhat sleepless night, and also a revelation. See, I realised what it is about terror that’s so scary: it’s the perceived absence of agency.

In a state of terror, nothing gets through. No word. No gesture. No reasoning. From what I’ve read, even pain is insufficient. The only thing that gets through is time. Specifically, its passage. As the time spent in a state of terror increases, so does the likelihood of escaping its embrace.

In the aftermath of last night’s episodes, however, I began to wonder about the opposite of terror. Which birthed a spectrum of perceived agency and the states associated with it.

Terror–the absolute absence of perceived agency–is contrasted with the feeling of divinity–agency of the omnipotent kind. In between, there are steps.

In a state of fear, perceived agency is significantly curtailed. In a state of caution, it is affected in a minor way. The state referred to as normalcy is where we are ninety percent of the time: we have agency but we are liable to be influenced, too. In a state of optimism, we feel ourselves to be the captain of our ship, albeit with a willful crew. In a state of audacity, we feel ourselves to be masters of our fate.

Naturally, occupying the respective ends of the spectrum isn’t pleasant. Terror is, well, terrifying. Divinity is intoxicating, but it never lasts for more than a moment. Two, if lucky. Its high is followed by a nonlinear low. A regression to the mean that is the feeling of mortality. Funnily enough, though, time is the device that takes us back to the middle, to normalcy. Mostly.

I say “mostly” because I am aware that, throughout history, there have been outliers, people who died a deity in their own universe. I’m also aware that, throughout history, many people’s last taste of life was terror.

About both of these things, I am unsure how to feel. Surprised? Disgusted? Horrified? Indifferent? I don’t know–I’m not fool enough to think I have complete control over my own thoughts.

10,357 DSB

A significant part of the game of Brazilian jiu-jitsu is “passing the guard“. If my opponent is sat on his butt or lying on his back during sparring, the “guard” is his legs. I want to pass them in order to move to a more dominant position (side control, knee-on-belly, mount, reverse mount etc.) and start hunting for submissions. There are numerous ways to do this but all, fundamentally, involve minimising my opponent’s freedom whilst maximising my own.

However, in order to increase my rate of learning I spent a year or so deliberately entangling myself, sacrificing my freedom. That means that, instead of trying to avoid, sidestep, smash through, or redirect my opponent’s guard, I entered it. I offered a leg, an arm–sometimes both–let myself get bogged down, and then tried to free myself and pass.

My reasoning was simple: I figured that to learn the intricacies of the different guards (there are a lot) I had to entangle myself within them. Sure, I could focus on passing using speed, agility, misdirection and precision? But what if someone was faster, more agile, more wily, and more precise than me? How would I match that? I wouldn’t, couldn’t. Not without experience.

The period of entanglement in my BJJ game is over for now, though. I need to go the other way. I need to learn to be more dynamic and audacious in both my attack and defence. This change has coincided with changes in other areas of my life, and I only noticed this the other night after a BJJ session.

Several years ago, I read a whole lot of self-help, business and productivity books. They changed me and they changed my life. The petals of possibility unfurled within me and I was electrified with what loomed on the horizon. I became impatient for progress, scornful of stability, indifferent to the slow and the steady. If the books I read were Brazilian jiu-jitsu players, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that they locked me down, swept me over and led me into submission.

As you can guess, I’m learning the limits of the bold visions I lapped up at a younger age. I’m meeting this thing called Reality and discovering it’s a cunning, unscrupulous negotiator. I have had to revise many things, particularly assumptions and beliefs. Now, I don’t want to turn this into a Dear Diary entry, but these meetings with reality have taught me to think more deeply about entanglement.

Go back to BJJ. Imagine the ability to untangle one’s self from a guard and to entangle one’s self. The combination of the two could be called a “tangle rate”. I don’t want to go overboard and get lost in advancing the intricacies of the tangle rate. There are many different ways to do it, of course. However, what I do want to draw attention to is one’s ability to alter the tangle rate. It is, I believe, critical to learning.

Imagine a vast open world game. The purpose of the game is unknown, as is its lengths. The catch is that as soon as you begin to play, things—animals, plants, the environment, the elements, other players—try to entangle themselves with you. If you stay, things will come to you. If you move, you will meet them. Moving fast will result in shorter but more frequent encounters. If you move slow, the encounters will be less frequent, but longer.

In such a game, what does progress look like? Is it avoiding entanglement? Is it getting so entangled that you become unrecognisable from your past self? Is it notching up as many varieties of entanglement as possible whilst preserving a sense of identity?

What about death in such a game? Is death ultimate entanglement, the complete cessation of motion and the sheer devouring of the self? Or is it coming untangled, voiding one’s contact with any and everything?

Entanglement and its opposite, untangling, are rich concepts. I urge you to look into them, or to join me in thinking more about them. If you want, you can entangle yourself using some of the ideas above. Me? I am off to a Brazilian jiu-jitsu session. There, I’m going to attempt to avoid entanglement and pass the guard.