The measure of a good bicycle, according to me, is that you can’t ride it without opening your mouth in joy and occasionally exclaiming things like ‘fuck yeah bicycle’. This is an idiosyncratic spec, and I had no reason to think that it might be fulfilled by any electric bicycle—a genre I was new to—so while I intended to maybe search through every electric bicycle in The New Wheel for one that produced irrepressible, physically manifest joy, I also expected this to likely fail, and to be meanwhile embarrassingly inexplicable and irritating to bike shop employees—people who often expect one’s regard for bikes to map fairly well to facts about their price, frame shape, and whether the gears are Shimano. But several bikes in, when I uncomfortably explained to a guy there that, while the ones I had tried so far were nice, bicycles had been known to make me, like, very happy, he said of course we should find the bicycle that I loved. So I at least felt somewhat supported in my ongoing disruption of his colleague’s afternoon, with requests that bicycle after bicycle be brought out for me to pedal around the streets of Bernal Heights.
The guy would maneuver each bike out of the crowded shop and to the sidewalk, and adjust it to fit me, and we would chat, often about his suggestion that I maybe ride up to the hill on the other side of the main road. Which I would agree might be a good idea, before riding off, deciding that turning left was too hard, and heading in the other direction, through back streets and around a swooping circle park with a big ring road, where I would loop a few times if the mood took me.
Some bicycles were heavy, and rode like refrigerators. Most bicycles were unsteady, and urged even my cycling-seasoned bottom to the seat while pedaling. Most bicycles added considerable assistance to going up hills. Many bicycles seemed fine.
Bernal Heights, on the other hand, seemed awesome. As I paused before my habitual turn-in-the-wrong-direction one time, the house kitty-corner to me was playing music louder than I recall ever hearing anything play music that wasn’t a large-concert speaker. It was truly not considerate. And a middle-aged guy on my corner was having a great time, laughing, and was like, ‘Welcome to Cortland Avenue’. I pulled up and said that I hadn’t been here before actually, and didn’t know what he was talking about. He explained that Cortland Avenue was some kind of peaceful and placid place, and that they could use more of whatever this was.
The whole street felt old-fashioned-okay somehow, and not really like my sense of modern America. I wanted to say it was a bit like the 80s in Hobart (the capital city of Tasmania, where I grew up) but since I’ve barely experienced the 80s in Hobart, I probably shouldn’t say that. Nothing shiny, nothing preying. Yellow things, sincere things, people who care about rock music, people who bought some vegetables, people talking to friends in streets and outdoor restaurants. So many electric bicycles—do I just not notice all the electric bicycles when I’m not on one? On one outing from the shop, a woman called out to me to say that she had also tried the bicycle that I was now riding, the other day, and wasn’t it good? I pulled up to tell her that I was actually struggling to find the ‘on’ switch, and she showed it to me.
(To be clear, I converse with strangers in streets quite rarely in my normal life about three miles away.)
I got a headache from all the bike-trying, and requested a lunch pause. Then I explored further down the street, and found a dineresque crêperie. I was practicing making imperfect choices fast, so in an uncharacteristic snap of decision I went in to get a lemon sugar crepe (which is only a potentially imperfect choice on axes other than deliciousness). The place was some kind of institution, and the man behind the counter seemed to be savoring the motions of crepe-provision. I had fun ordering, and sat outside. It was so nice there that I repeatedly tried to photograph it, but it wasn’t a kind of niceness that my phone could capture it seemed. Perhaps the fact that I was sitting in the street and didn’t look mildly distressed would convey something to an experienced viewer.
Back at the bike shop, I had a bike in mind for if no amazing bike materialized, and continued working through the tail of the bike options.
Then there was an amazing bike. There was not much visual foreshadowing of this: it was an unsleek thing, painted in an impure grey with questionable red highlights. But it felt like freedom. I could stand up on it. It moved as an extension of my body. An extension full of energy and exhilaration. My smile became round with delight and I swore gleefully. I rocketed up steep streets and to the circle park. I flew around it, elated, bumping over speed bumps, pedaling passionately around the upward side and flying down around the down. Then after quite a relatively long investigation into a bike for which there was no actual open question, I made my way back to the shop.
I said I’d buy it. They looked at their records, and their back storage, and their records and determined that they didn’t have one to sell. This was the floor bike, for trying, and not to be sold. Though they had a slightly bigger red one to sell.
They carefully measured me, with a platform and a springed thing between my thighs and such, and determined that the red one was actually the right size for me, and the one I had ridden was too small. I wasn’t meant to ride the red one because it was a new bike for selling, not a floor model. But they would let me take it out a little anyway.
It was nice. Was it as nice as the other one? I didn’t know—it seemed maybe less nice, but also now that I was obsessively paying attention to signs of ineffable goodness, and worried, I was probably just having less fun, no fault of the bike. It was basically the same as my perfect bike, but the right size, and possible to buy, and more beautiful, and not obviously less awesome, so probably I should get it and stop engaging in such fun-dampening neurosis.
I went back. Then it occurred to me that I could still try that grey bike one more time. I did. It was awesome. It seemed obviously better than the red bike. It didn’t matter if I was caught in some tangle of neuroses: such joy would not be smothered. I stopped by the road and relayed my problem by text to my boyfriend, who wisely started googling for other stores that might have such a bike. Then I took photographs of the bike from all sides in the sun by the park. Then my phone with connectivity died. (For reasons to do with my own forgetfulness re phone charging and complications of phone plans, I had brought two phones: one with power, and one with connectivity.)
I rode around and mentally rehearsed purchasing the floor bike. Did they need a floor bike for which they have no actual corresponding salable bikes? I’d pay as much as for a new bike. I’d pay more. They would be astonished and grateful. I’d talk to the manager, who would be free to disregard floor bike protocol, for such an exceptional case.
I went back to the store. No, they would not sell me the floor bike. It didn’t belong to them. I could buy it in months, when floor bikes get replaced or something. I was also told: don’t do that—I hadn’t seen what the customers did to floor bikes. (What could customers possibly be doing to floor bikes to warrant such fear?) ‘Months’ was also about how long it would take them to order in a new bike.
They let me use their wifi, and I reached my boyfriend again with my charged phone, and he had actually phoned a bunch of bike shops, like some kind of hero (or some kind of superhero with the ability to just talk to people in shops on the phone—if I phoned a bike shop, they might say something like “phh shu anganga mph ghe?” and I’d say I couldn’t hear them, but they wouldn’t hear me, and we’d go back and forth like that a few times, until it became too embarrassing to be borne). He had located a couple of very similar bikes, possibly one of them identical, at other bike shops in San Francisco and nearby Berkeley. I decided to go home and charge my phone, and so ended my and The New Wheel’s long afternoon together.
At home, I charged my phone and acknowledged my failings re phone charging, and bravely acted on my boyfriend’s claim that it would be reasonable to just phone the most promising bike shop back to check it really was the same bike they had, before spending over an hour driving to Berkeley. It also became apparent that my other boyfriend would not hate taking me on a long bicycle-pursuing excursion in his car that evening.
So we set out, me feeling kind of defensive and silly, because I could have got a bike that was better on every front except for ‘ineffable greatness’ hours earlier and with a lot less bothering other people. I vaguely attempted to defend myself as we went over the bridge, but it didn’t seem very necessary, and we got on to more interesting conversation.
The bike shop, it turned out, was a few doors away from a house I used to live in, between a coffee shop with romantic memories, and a bench with different romantic memories, from multiple ancient times. Stepping into the thick past, I left my boyfriend to park the car and walked up to the new shop. It was a big warmly lit warehouse room, which I didn’t remember seeing when I lived here. Friendly: a place of children in baskets and wholesome rolled-up-trouser types. I read out the string identifying my desires to a plump, friendly man: “Gazelle ultimate T10+ 46inch”. He went looking for the corresponding item amidst the central sea of handlebars and frames. He couldn’t find it. Strange. He consulted his records, and the back storage, and his records, and another bike shop man. At last, it was right there—the problem had been that the record said that the bike was ‘dust’ colored, and he understandably hadn’t considered that someone would come up with that name for my beloved bike’s reddish-grey tone.
Relieved but further paranoid for the preservation of the hard-to-measure magic, I got out my photographs from earlier, and asked him if there was anything different between the photograph and this bike. There was! The other bike had had some kind of fancy suspension seat post installed. They had the same for sale, so I asked for it. I rode the bike around half the block and back, and couldn’t tell if it was amazing, but it really was a short and constrained ride, and what more could I reasonably do? I bought it.
We could barely push its giant, heavy body into the back of the car, and it made an alarming cracking sound, which hopefully was just the light changing position. We took it home.
Another day, I took it out for a little ride, and it was great to power up the hills of San Francisco, and shoot along the flats. It’s the kind of bike that only adds power when you pedal, so it seemed that riding was still a lot of exercise, but your exertions got you all around the city, instead of half way up the nearest hill. And while I just meant to have a little ride, I went further around the city than I may have ever been on a single outing. What had been an intractable country of mountainous slopes and distances and intersections like war zones was shrunk to my scale. And I felt safer, though faster, because usually getting out of the way of things requires my own feeble strength, which might be completely overcome by starting on a little bit of a bump or something. Now I could more move when I wanted. And I could go fast enough to feel no guilt riding in the middle of the car lane, rather than the door-prone bicycle lane. I was as about as fast as cars, and nimble.
I had to admit though that it wasn’t the joy I had sought so hard. It was merely mundanely good. And I was tense, and San Francisco was frightening, and cars were everywhere, and it was all exhausting. Maybe now I was just too stressed, and it would be good later? Or maybe the bike was somehow adjusted slightly wrong, and the potential for that same joy could never be found among the myriad possible positional combinations? About twenty minutes from home, I realized that I actually couldn’t leave the bike and walk without my back hurting a lot. So, questionably, I got back on it, which was bearable, and rode home. I spent the next day or so in bed.
Shorter rides favored the hypothesis that it was fun but not extraordinary.
I returned to the first bike shop, and asked a man there to adjust my new bike to be exactly like their floor bike, ignoring the very likely possibility that they had adjusted the floor bike since my visit. He didn’t seem to obviously understand either the situation or my request, but was willing to make some changes, and phone me when done. He also sold me an expensive lock and some neat (and expensive) panniers. I went and tried to buy crepes, but the store was closed. But then I found a cafe and a restaurant next door to each other with back patios, a recent passion of mine, and took a nice iced coffee from one to the other, where I ate fries and read about words for an hour, in the company of a cat, someone else reading a book, and some kind of raw European music. It was pretty good. My phone died, because my life is too complicated and/or I’m an idiot. I went back to the bike store. He had changed some things, such as—promisingly—the angle of the handlebars. I rode home via the circle park, detouring to fly around it, iced coffee lodged in my front gear cables. It seemed amazing. But I’m uncertain, and doesn’t that mean it wasn’t? Well I smiled a lot on the way home, anyway.
Seeking to cross a road on the walk into downtown Lafayette, instead of the normal pedestrian crossing situation, we met a button with a sign, ‘Push button to turn on warning lights’. I wondered, if I pressed it, would it then be my turn to cross? Or would there just be some warning lights? What was the difference? Do traffic buttons normally do something other than change the lights? I clearly believe they do. They make it my turn. But they don’t send a wire into the ‘whose turn is it’ variable deep in the ought-sphere, so what exactly do they do?
I suspected that this button didn’t change whose turn it was, and it felt empty and devoid of some special potence of being a traffic button.
I liked to imagine that it was just a normal traffic button, but taking a more nihilistic view of its role. In which case, its nihilistic view seemed to have practical consequences! It wasn’t being as good a good traffic button while saying that it didn’t change whose turn it is. It genuinely fails to coordinate the traffic so well, because here am I unable to garner the ‘right’ to cross with confidence, and there are the drivers unsure what I’m doing. But shouldn’t a traffic button be able to do its job regardless of its philosophical commitments, or without pretending to have philosophical commitments it doesn’t have?
One might say that the thing going on is that it being ‘my turn’ is a fact about everyone’s expectations. For instance, if the drivers will expect me to cross, then it is ‘my turn’. (I’m tempted to say ‘if the drivers think it is my turn, then it is my turn’, but what are the drivers then thinking?) This doesn’t seem quite right, in that the drivers themselves are asking whether this light means that it is the pedestrian’s turn, and all of us seem to be asking something about the underlying truth, not about each other. Also, if I run erratically into the road, the drivers and I may both come to expect that I am going to cross, but it still isn’t my turn.
I fantasized that I had woken up in a new world which was just like the old world, but where everything was like the traffic light. I would phone the doctor’s office later to ask if it was ok to cancel my appointment this late, they would just say, ‘I’ll change what it says in this schedule’.
‘But is it ok?’
‘I will not record your cancellation.’
‘Should I pay you?’
‘I am not charging you’
‘But is that like a favor, or is it the policy? Have I wronged your medical practice? Do I owe you really? Tell me if I was bad!’
‘I erased your name from this box on my piece of paper.’
My tentative take is that turns are real, and we created them, and traffic buttons have genuine power over them, and if a traffic button doesn’t recognize their existence it is potentially at a real disadvantage, perhaps in a similar way to how a chair maker who doesn’t recognize chairs as a thing is at a disadvantage.
(To be clear, I expect philosophers have much better thought out views on this, and welcome people telling me what they are–this is me thinking aloud, not philosophical advice.)
This week I’m in Lafayette, a town merely twenty-three minutes further from my San Franciscan office than my usual San Franciscan home, thanks to light rail. There are deer in the street and woods on the walk from the train to town.
On this occasion at least, Lafayette doesn’t feel properly like a small town to me. I think it’s the main road. A lot of the town is spread along this single road, but the road itself doesn’t feel like its main deal is being Lafayette’s main road. It feels more focused on being an energetic transitway between somewhere and somewhere else, neither in Lafayette. Which probably isn’t even that true, since there is a perfectly giant highway also spanning Lafayette just North of it. Maybe the problem is that it’s too wide, so that the town feels like it’s tenuously accumulated on the sides of a road like plaque, rather than the road being an organic vessel of the town. Or, you know, I’m imagining things.
I seem to imagine things a lot regarding some kind of road Feng Shui (note: I know nothing about actual Feng Shui). My mind natively reads roads as conduits of some kind of ‘energy’, and tries to apply appropriate intuitive physics. For instance, if you have big flows in and out of a place, relative to the place itself, it won’t feel like its own place. It will feel like a section of a larger place. For instance, the typical random intersection in a big American city can’t be a place with its own local vibe, where you might feel like staying, because it can’t be very separate from the surrounding city that its energy-traffic is constantly being exchanged with. It’s just going to feel like a section of various energetic routes elsewhere.
This intuitive physics is sort of like the physics of streams with leaves and debris in them. For a place to be placelike, and appealing to stay in, it needs to have enough nooks or ponds or complications for the fast flowing streams in and out to eddy around in and slow down and let the debris swirl to a halt. And this main street is a big stream running through a small place.
This is all contradicted by the frequency with which people like to stand in narrow thoroughfares at parties even in the face of literal physical streams of partygoers pressing against them. (My intuition on this case is that the pressure of the partygoer liquid is so high that it somehow makes sense to be stuck in the doorway, but I don’t explicitly see how this model even makes sense.)
I don’t know of any pro evidence for this model, but my brain just keeps on having it.
I’m on holiday. A basic issue with holidays is that it feels more satisfying and meaningful to do purposeful things, but for a thing to actually serve a purpose, it often needs to pass a higher bar than a less purposeful thing does. In particular, you often have to finish a thing and do it well in order for it to achieve its purpose. And finishing things well is generally harder and less fun than starting them, and so in other ways contrary to holidaying.
This isn’t a perfect relationship though, so a natural way to mitigate the trade-off is to just look harder until you find things that serve a worthy purpose while being non-committal and consistently non-arduous. For instance, you can exercise or learn about history or practice guitar or write half-assed blog posts without real conclusions or narrative consistency.
There is also probably good holidaying to be done that doesn’t seem obviously purposeful, and maybe that is more in the spirit of holidaying. Perhaps one should avoid too much purpose, lest one end up not holidaying?
Today I travelled by rowing boat across a lake and back, with my boyfriend and some of his family.
Now we are going to the zoo.
Among people sheltering from covid, I think there is a common thought that being stuck in your home for a year begets a certain sameyness, that it will be nice to be done with.
It’s interesting to me to remember that big chunk of the variety that is missing in life comes from regular encounters with other people, and their mind-blowing tendencies to do and think differently to me, and jump to different conclusions, and not even know what I’m talking about when I mention the most basic of basic assumptions.
And to remember that many of those people are stuck in similar houses, similarly wishing for variety, but being somewhat tired of a whole different set of behaviors and thoughts and framings and assumptions.
Which means that the variety is not fully out of safe reach in the way that, say, a big lick-a-stranger party might be. At least some of it is just informationally inaccessible, like finding the correct answer to a hard math problem. If I could somehow spend a day living like a person stuck in their house across the street lives, I would see all kinds of new things. My home itself—especially with its connection to the internet and Amazon—is capable of vastly more variety than I typically see.
My points for anxiety system continued to help, but was encumbered by the friction of getting my phone out to mark points. Thus I have turned to wearable abaci.
I made this necklace according to very roughly this picture, using knitting wool and beads I bought at one point to use as virtual in-house currency and now found in a box in my room. It works well! The beads don’t shift unless I move them, which is easy and pleasing. It seems clearly more convenient than my phone. (Plus, I can show off to those in the know that I have 4 or 6 or 24 or 26 of something!) I am also for now reminded when I look in a mirror to consider whether I can get a point, which is currently a plus.
You can buy bracelet versions in a very small number of places online, and also keychain or general hanging clip-on versions, but I don’t think I saw necklaces anywhere. This seems striking, given the clear superiority to a phone counter for me so far, and the likely scale of phone counter usage in the world.
I have a secret fiction blog, which I intermittently mean to publish things on, but apparently haven’t now in over ten years, which seems like a reasonable point at which to make it less secret. Here is the start. It’s not very long.
Here is an excerpt inspired by events leading to my first kiss (names changed, coincidence with name of my later partner coincidental):
The main argument for believing other people are conscious is that in all other respects they resemble you. Carrie stared tiredly into the crowd of blurs surrounding her and found this argument uncompelling. She couldn’t actually imagine thinking any of the things that had recently been shouted near her, which strengthened the hypothesis that nobody else was thinking them either. Which pressed the question of why someone was simulating this particular reality for her, and what the significance was of a tall man screeching ‘It’s beer pong o clock!’.
She had the same unease with movies often. Did that scene of the couple driving in their car add something to the plot? Either half the movie was revealing information entirely invisible to her, or film producers went to great expense to make films a certain length despite the fact that no story required it. She liked to think that if she spent years studying this it would all make sense, as she regularly insisted to other people that everything did if you studied it enough. Part of her was terrified that this wasn’t true. When it got too insistent a bigger, more heavily armed part of her would menacingly point out, ‘that doesn’t make sense and you have zero reason to believe it’ and the other part would whimper ‘what if that doesn’t matter?’ and go off to wring its hands in a less conscious corner. A short handsome boy sat down unusually close to Carrie, and she turned to make funny noises at him.
“Paul. How do you do?”
“Uh..I..do..am.. Carrie..fine, actually.. not.. sorry, never mind”, Carrie smiled reassuringly.
“You’re cute. What do you do?” He pretended to be pushed closer to her by someone else sitting on his other side.
When she was younger Carrie had had a reasonably high prior on her having a male partner, or several, in her lifetime. By the time she was eighteen and still didn’t have a single close friend, let alone a male one, ‘kiss someone, ever” was well down her list of unrealistically optimistic goals, between ‘stop global warming’ and ‘build a computer that understands everything’. So the fact that this boy seemed to be coming on to her suggested that she was misunderstanding human mating behaviour even worse than she suspected, or that he was much more drunk than he seemed.
“I try to save the world, but I’m not very good at it. Also I’m not interested in romance at the moment because I’ve just realized that other people probably aren’t conscious, so I think it would be hard to relate to one, and kind of creepy to hang out with them, and other bits would be too much like necrophilia.. so I might go home soon actually”
“You do philosophy?” he smiled.
“You’re fun. Come inside and dance with me.”
“Only if you convince me that you’re probably not a zombie”
He looked deep into her eyes and made a reassuring smile. His eyes were soft, brown, and impenetrable. She felt completely alone. “I promise you I’m not, and I should know.”
Nonplussed, angered by his dismissive stupidity, but sheepishly unable to forgo an opportunity to dance with a male, Carrie followed him inside woozily. She wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or amused at the lack of shattering force with which extremely important philosophical considerations could influence human mating.
(Draft from a while ago, lightly edited.)
There were times when I was younger that I used to fantasize about having a friend at all, let alone a boyfriend. And there were times when I thought that if I could just figure out how to make life consistently bearable, I’d really be onto something. So when I say how great my life is, it means that hard lives can get a lot better, not that mine is likely to be consistently more awesome than yours (I hope).
Today was great. I arrived in the world caught in a bundle of sheets with my boyfriend. Half asleep, I decided to wake him up by incrementally escalated cuddling, which I assume is similar in its benefits to those slowly loudening alarms.
At work I came across a thing that was that most unpleasant combination, of implicitly disrespectful and genuine evidence that I might be bad. Which I dealt with largely with calm, curiosity, and good intent. I thought about it and wrote down considerations. Then I asked a couple of other people about that and about another customarily shameful and distressing question, for good measure. I felt something good in my mind growing in strength, and exercising it made other things blossom: what had been an uncomfortable reserve into a fruitful friendliness.
I had gone to bed last night with a headache, and fallen asleep thinking that on the outside view headaches often disappear by sleeping, but that my intuition said that this one would get worse. By the time I finished making lunch today, it was so bad that I quickly degenerated into an unhappy heap. It was that kind of headache where you feel hot and fragile and your neck aches and you wonder if you have meningitis but you don’t have the strength to get into that kind of inquiry. I lay in my reclining chair and thought that it would be wise to take painkillers, but that would involve doing things.
My boyfriend came and looked after me. He put all the things around me - tea and sugar in a bowl and apple sauce and little packets of MeWe peanut butter and painkillers. He got another table for it all, and rubbed my neck, and looked in my eyes, and talked to me about what I care about in the world. I nibbled at the sugar and sipped the tea. I played Sporcle and learned about historic dates and American presidents, and I didn’t feel like I should be doing something else.
I took some xanax, in case my headache was being worsened by my unease about it. I suppose it knocked out my unease at all levels about anything, because after recovering a bit I just kept wanting to work, until I’d been at work for about 10.5 hours, even having missed two hours to wretchedness in the middle of the day.
I felt communality with the people far away reaching out to me across the internet. My room was full of warm lamps and orange wood, with green leaves here and there. My housemates made me meatballs and pasta and my boyfriend brought them to me with butter and parsley and dill. I was comfortable in my fully-reclined chair. I thought about things and made decisions. Someone sent me a book they were writing, and I liked it.
As a pandemic-era purchaser of foods for a large household of time-thirsty researchers, I can tell you an interesting thing about the demand for cheese in this context:
If you spend a lot of money on a nice cheese, wrapped up in some fancy foreign label, there is a good chance that it will languish sadly in the back of the fridge for months until someone notices that it is moldy and throws it away, or makes a last-ditch attempt to cut up the whole thing and compel the group to eat it. Maybe on the way there, someone will take a single slice of it once, and move it in a zip-loc bag, where it will remain until the end.
If you spend a few dollars on a six-pack of generic single-serve cheese-cubes with nuts, they will fly from the fridge and you will be acknowledged for this triumph of shopping, and more such cheese will be needed by the next grocery order.
It was initially hypothesized by a housemate that this was due to error. The cheese cubes are more expensive per unit of cheese, while also consisting of worse cheese. Which is fairly suggestive of overall worseness. One could further note that they involve substantially more packaging, and take up more space per cheese. So a natural theory is that the cheese-cube eating housemates are erring, due to some kind of short-sighted non-endorsed laziness.
I’m with the cheese-cube eaters, except at least ten times more passionately (for instance, I am writing an essay in favor of the position). It’s not about the quality-adjusted cheese per dollar. Getting out a pre-opened hunk of cheese, examining the color and consistency of its moist edges, awkwardly undressing it further from its tight, torn, damp plastic casing, finding a knife and something to cut it on, cutting some, wrapping the rest again, fitting it back in the fridge, and cleaning up the knife and counter, is an experience. And it’s not a good one. It has all kinds of wetness and ineffectual muscular exertions and tenuous balancing and making hard decisions about risk under uncertainty and washing things. Whereas reaching out your hand for a cheese-cube pack then de-lidding it into the trash—while not an amazing experience—is I’d say overall positive, being substantially comprised of the initial sighting of your desired cheese-cube-pack and then the immediate having of it. At worst it is a very short experience. And it makes perfect sense to prefer twenty seconds of the cheese cube experience to two minutes of the better cheese experience enough to overwhelm the other stakes of the choice.
I have relatively consistent preferences in this direction, whereas the rest of the house seems to vary by food. Others lunch on intermediately aged leftovers ladled from stacked tupperwares, while if I’m not going to make something fresh, I prefer just-add-boiling-water pots of vegetable curry or microwaveable instant rice (I do add butter and herbs though, which is a slight departure from the genre). Others have been known to eat yogurt spooned into a bowl from a giant tub, while I eat from towers of fresh stackable single-serve yogurt pots. Snack foods tend to cater to my interests here better, perhaps because everyone hopes to be more lazy and individualistic for snacks. There are tiny bags of chips and string cheeses and nut butter pouches and apple chips and fruit strips and protein bars.
My boyfriend affectionately refers to these objects of my desire as ‘li’l pots’ (probably a term he grabbed from some gleeful past exclamation of mine) and often offers me ‘some sort of li’l pot?’ for breakfast, whether it be oatmeal or yogurt or rice pudding or mashed potato to be determined.
I claim that this is not about appreciating aesthetic qualities less. It is about appreciating more aesthetic qualities. Packaging can be beautiful and simple and pleasing to use, but it is often painful to behold and also painful to try to open: packets that tear open half way down the side, or can’t be opened at all with normal-range female grip strength, or that naturally explode their contents on nearby objects unless you do something that I haven’t discovered yet, or that cut your hands then leave you holding a small overflowing tub of water.
The arrangement of objects can similarly give pleasure or suffering: my stack of fresh white yogurt bled through with passionfruit, lemon or red berries asks to be reached for, whereas the jumble of giant containers of yogurt and sour cream and cream cheese on top and in front of each other and strewn between with other objects trying to fit somewhere, has no such appeal. String cheeses living upright and individuated are much more appealing than string cheeses attached together in a large string cheese blanket inside another plastic packet horizontally hidden under some other cheeses. Small stacks of different types of protein bar laid out for eating are more pleasing than a rubble of large packages thrown into a drawer.
And actions can be aesthetically pleasing or not. Peeling a grape with your teeth is pleasing. Breaking through the tin-foil-paper on top of a new jar of Caro can be very pleasing. Wrestling an icy firm-like-slightly-decomposing-wood field roast sausage from its skin-tight twisted plastic tubing is not pleasing. Any kind of tearing that is difficult and involves a new liquid appearing that you are not equipped to deal with is not pleasing. Anything that naturally calls for more than two hands is not pleasing unless you are a group of people. Making judgment calls about food safety is not pleasing. Actions that require finding, dirtying, and cleaning multiple objects tend not to be pleasing unless there’s a real payoff.
It’s not just about the time. There are preparation rituals that are beautiful and compelling. I am secretly a bit pleased that our coffee machine is being replaced and we are temporarily relegated to measuring fresh grounds into my beautiful orange French press, then pouring boiling water into the roiling black soup of them, then slowly pressing the mandala-like metal plunger onto them, perhaps watching mysterious currents shooting up the sides of the clear glass tower. I enjoy choosing a cup, and directing a smooth black torrent into its belly. I like shaking the cream carton with vigor, and pouring a dollop of its heavy white cloud into the black depths, to curl and spiral through it.
Which is not to say that others should agree with my evaluation of li’l pots. The same series of actions is probably a very different experience for different people. For one person, there might be a single action ‘get out some cheese’, and in a half-conscious flurry it happens, and they are soon focused on the eating of the cheese. For a different person ‘get out some cheese’ means something more like ‘take out the cream cheese and the yogurt and balance them tenuously near the fridge, then reach in and get the intended cheese from a slightly wet and slimy pool on the shelf, then replace the cream cheese and the yogurt, then try to open the cheese while touching only the dry bits, then be unable to rip the plastic on the first three tries but hurt your finger somewhat, then look for scissors to cut it, then fail to find them and look for a knife instead, then use the knife to somewhat recklessly cut the edge of the packet, then try to rip it again from there, then get it suddenly and nearly lose the cheese (in the process grab the wet package and the cheese and give up on that particular separation), then open a cupboard with the least cheesy part of your hand and take out a chopping board and put the cheese on it, then hope that the pool of liquid running from the cheese doesn’t run onto the counter, then wash your hands because of the fridge slime and the cheese water, then cut off some cheese with the knife, then take out a storage container and move the rest of the cheese from its entire now-useless package into the container, then throw out the bag, then wipe up the cheese water that dripped while moving the bag, then move the yogurt and the cream cheese again, then put the cheese block back in the pool of liquid, then replace the yogurt and the cream cheese, then wipe up the cheese water from the counter, then wash the knife, then take your cheese to your room so that you can lie down for a bit before eating the fucking thing.’
Note: I do have OCD, so my love of indeterminate liquids, contamination, decisions about safety risks, and additional reasons to wash my hands is lower than it might be for a human.
Fiction often asks its readers to get through a whole list of evocative scenery to imagine before telling them anything about the situation that might induce an interest in what the fields and the flies looked like, or what color stuff was. I assume that this is fun if you are somehow more sophisticated than me, but I admit that I don’t enjoy it (yet).
I am well capable of enjoying actual disconnected scenery. But imagining is effort, so the immediate action of staring at the wall, say, seems like a better deal than having to imagine someone else’s wall to be staring at. Plus, a wall is already straining my visual-imaginative capacities, and there are probably going to be all kinds of other things, and some of them are probably going to be called exotic words to hammer in whatever kind of scenic je ne sais quoi is going to come in handy later in the book, so I’m going to have to look them up or think about it while I keep from forgetting the half-built mental panorama constructed so far. It’s a chore.
My boyfriend and I have recently got into reading haikus together. They mostly describe what things look like a bit, and then end. So you might think I would dislike them even more than the descriptive outsets of longer stories. But actually I ask to read them together every night.
I think part of it is just volume. The details of a single glance, rather than a whole landscape survey, I can take in. And combined with my own prior knowledge of the subject, it can be a rich picture. And maybe it is just that I am paying attention to them in a better way, but it seems like the details chosen to bring into focus are better. Haikus are like a three stroke drawing that captures real essence of the subject. My boyfriend also thinks there is often something clean about the images.
Some by Matsuo Bashō from our book The Essential Haiku, edited by Robert Hass [ETA: line positionings not as in original]:
In the fish shop
the gums of the salt-bream
The sea and the rice fields
all one green.
Another year gone—
hat in my hand,
sandals on my feet.
More than ever I want to see
in these blossoms at dawn
the god’s face.
The peasant’s child,
husking rice, stops
and gazes at the moon.
Year after year
On the monkey’s face
A monkey face
Draw on my mind
Cleaner than fifty lines
One time I decided it would be good to learn to play poker. I had probably learned to play some form of poker a couple of other times before, and forgotten. One way to play a game a lot is to play it with a computer rather than other people. An iPad turns Agricola from one of the slowest games that casual board gamers might still be bothered to play to something you can play a few quick rounds of over lunch. I downloaded some kind of poker app, and began. It was maybe 9pm, and I was maybe sitting on my bed, in maybe Berkeley. My memories are pretty unclear. The app was green I think, like some kind of casino table.
In the app there were a series of tables with increasing stakes. The first one was ‘your grandmother’s table’ or something, at which you needed almost no money to play, and were given a lot of advice about what to do. If you won several games there, you could afford a single game at the next table up, and so on. If you lost enough that you could no longer buy in at your higher table, you would drop down, and if you could no longer afford grandmother’s, then you could transfer American dollars to the app-maker in exchange for more fake poker money, and keep going.
I got the hang of the rules and began to play fast. And I got the hang of not losing and bought my way into higher tables. I played faster. I didn’t pause. The ends of games got the same reflexive flash of choice as any other part of the game. Time passed, and lots and lots of games. My mind started to wander, even while I played. It wandered to a memory of long ago, more vivid and detailed than memories that come when I call for them. How strange. I played very fast. And more memories appeared, intense against the smooth background of mindless poker. I don’t usually remember things for pleasure—recollection is a neutral activity, if not about something particularly upsetting or nice. But these were somehow pleasing. Not because they were about anything that would usually inspire happiness—they were mundane scenes, like a road that I crossed once to get to a gas station, and the look of the gas station, and the feeling of the sky and the car and the other passenger waiting and the afternoon (not a real example necessarily; I forget all of the particulars now)—but in their mere pungent existence, they felt somehow satisfying. I drifted between them and frantic yet peaceful poker. Hours passed. I often wondered what I had just done—what cards I had played, or why—and realized that I had no explicit recollection. More hours passed, and more scenes from younger years projected fragrantly into the flickering virtual cards. I don’t think I consciously explored the strange mental landscape, transfixed as I was by the irresistible torrent of poker moves to be made. I took action after action definitively, yet lived dreamlike above it. After nine hours, with morning beginning to establish itself, I stopped.
This evening I became tempted by a YouTube video of an artist painting a portrait, which led me to be tempted by another such video, and then more of them, and then by one of these artists’ websites, and then by my own pencils and paper. (I did not become tempted by YouTube videos advertising breaking news of some sort of crazy Trump riot, since I decided not to ‘check the internet’ until bed time).
Some observations on drawing:
- In my world, art supplies are a kind of archetype of a thing that is viscerally exciting vastly beyond its likelihood of being used (and even further beyond its likelihood of being used well). Like, look at this paper I got! (I did, extensively.) Think of the potential it holds! But actually, for now, it’s sitting under my bed.
- It is sometimes very hard to draw without poking my tongue out. Not in the sense that that without my tongue out, drawing is hard—I mean, while drawing, it seems infeasible to keep my tongue in my mouth. This feels natural and unsurprising, like how if you stand on one leg it is hard to not fall over, not like an epileptic seizure overcoming my tongue. But stated explicitly, it is pretty weird.
- It is also frequently very hard to draw without tilting my head from side to side. I first noticed this in high school art class, where I sat drawing and listening to the other students talk. One of them pointed out to another that looking around the room, students were tilting their heads to and fro all over the place. I also overheard an eye-opening discussion of how awesome it was that we were going to war in Iraq imminently, since that might clear space in the ranks of military helicopter pilots, allowing the excited student to fill it. Drawing and overhearing seem like good complementary activities.
- It’s hard to really get behind my attempts to draw well, because it doesn’t feel like they are leading anywhere. I would be more into it if it was part of a compelling plan to save the world. Perhaps I don’t really believe in leisure enough to wholeheartedly do it, and don’t disbelieve in it enough to work all of the time. Alas.
- Even without the world perhaps needing saving, drawing feels a bit pointless, since we have photography. But this doesn’t make sense: if you want to create an image of a scene, much better to draw it than to have to create it in real life then photograph it. For instance, most of the time, the scene you want probably isn’t realistic in the sense that it looks exactly like some bit of reality. How about computer graphics then? Yes, but even if arbitrary styles of image could be computer generated, doing this is itself basically just another kind of drawing—you still have to understand what patterns on the page would produce what in the minds of viewers, and you still have to invent ideas worth sending to the minds of viewers. It’s just the interface for putting down colors and shapes is different. That said, usually I just draw people, who might be better photographed, so it’s unclear that these thoughts apply. I feel like there are other good things about it that I haven’t captured. For instance, there are lots of great paintings just attempting to capture what is in front of them.
- I feel like I learn to draw faces better over the years via taking in insights about what they look like. For instance, ‘there is that little dip above the lip that you can fill with shadow’, or ‘eyes go half way down’, or the very early, ‘mustaches go under noses, not on top of them’.
- I basically can’t imagine faces, at least to anywhere near the degree of realism with which I can draw them (checking this now, I’m struggling to imagine a generic smiley face, though arguably succeeding). It’s interesting to me that a person can draw what they can’t imagine.
- I have the intuition that you can learn to draw more easily by looking at someone else’s drawing than you can by looking at a photograph of its subject. I decided to test this, and drew three people—one from a painting, one from a photograph, and one from my head. Can you guess which is which? (If so, how?)
I thought it would be interesting to try to write my review of the Diving Bell and the Butterfly in my head without setting pen to paper until the end, and to convey at least some of it by blinking, since I find the fact that the author wrote the whole book in this way astonishing. Perhaps experiencing that process myself would improve my understanding of things, such that I wouldn’t be astonished.
I think trying to do this was an even better exercise than I expected, though by the end I was frustrated to the point of tears, and I’m still feeling kind of annoyed, having just put it up.
(Hopefully this was also a vivid and enlightening experience of signing up for annoying projects, which I do often, but usually the annoyance is months later than the agreeing, so I’m not sure that my intuitive anticipations make the connection.)
Before I go and do something anti-annoying, I figure I should write some notes on the experience, while it is fresh.
- It did feel fairly encumbering. There were nascent sentences that I might have tried to poke in somewhere, then play around with, then look at and move or get rid of, where the prospect of trying to do some equivalent of all that in my head while keeping hold of the broader paragraph was too intimidating, and I watched them go by. And the sentences I did write felt like half my attention was on something like balancing them on the end of a stick and not having them fall on the floor, and really sculpting them would have required too much dexterity.
- Though I think in some sense they were much more sculpted than usual, because I did think about each one for longer, and often hone it into something more succinct and memorable instead of writing down the first ramble that entered my mind. I’m not sure how that fits with the above observation.
- It felt mentally strength-building - as if I was exercising a capability that would improve, which was exciting, and I briefly fantasized about a stronger and defter inner world.
- I started out looking at things around me as I composed, like my resting computer, and the table, and the sea. But after a while, I realized that I was staring intently at a long rug with about as many Persian whorls as paragraphs in my prospective post, and that as I envisaged the current sentence, I was mentally weaving it around some well-placed sub-curls of its paragraph-whorl. Looking away from it, it was harder to remember what I had been saying. (I have noticed before that thinking in the world, I end up appropriating the scenery as some kind of scratch paper - you can’t write on it, but you can actually do a lot with reinterpreting whatever it already contains.)
- For words with lots of synonyms, I kept selecting one, then forgetting which and having to select again (e.g. ‘lively’ or ‘energetic’ or ‘vigorous’?)
- I originally set out to compose the whole thing before writing it, but this was fairly hard and seemed somewhat arbitrary, so after composing the basic outline and a few paragraphs, somewhat discouraged by the likelihood of forgetting them again imminently, I decided that I could instead compose chunks at a time rather than having to do it all at once. In the end I did it in paragraph chunks. Which is probably a much easier task than Bauby had, since if someone was coming to transcribe stuff for hours, one probably wants more than one paragraph relatively well prepared.
- Thinking lots of thoughts without saying or writing them can feel a particular kind of agitating.
- It took about 20 minutes for my boyfriend and I to transcribe a single sentence using roughly the winking method described in the book, for a speed of around 1 word per minute. The scheme was for him to run his finger over an alphabet reorganized by letter frequency, then for me to wink when he reached the desired letter. We added some punctuation, and a ‘pause! let me think!’ signal, and ‘yes’, and ‘no’. These last three got a lot of use. It basically worked as expected, though one time we made an error, and I didn’t know what to do, so I continued from the beginning of the word again, which made the sentence nonsensical, which confused him for a while, but he figured it out.
- I wondered why Bauby and his assistant didn’t use Morse code, or something more efficient. We didn’t try this, but some forum users also wonder this, and one claims that he can wink out about 20 words per minute in Morse code, but that the large amount of blinking involved is ‘pretty tiring’.
- We made a huge amount of use of my boyfriend guessing the rest of the word, from context and the first few letters. In the book, Bauby describes how people frequently mess that up, or fail to check that they have guessed correctly, or refuse to guess and conscientiously coax forth every letter. This all sounds terrible.
- I’m aware that some people probably compose things entirely in their heads all the time (people have all kinds of mental situations - some people can also reliably imagine a triangle without it being more like the feeling of a triangle laid out in a kind of triangle-like space, or breaking apart and becoming a volcano full of red and white flowers), and my notes here probably sound to them like a person saying ‘for a bizarro experience, I tried to walk across the room without holding on to things, but it was obviously a total disaster - knees bending every which way, and imagine balancing a whole floppy and joint-strewn human body on top of two of those things, while moving! Such sympathy I have for those who have lost their walking frames.’ I’m curious to hear from them whether this is what it sounds like.
I made you a link post of things you might find interesting on the internet. (Please don’t feel obliged to look at them!)
Lots of love, Katja oxo
(Picture: Christmas Eve, by Carl Larson, 1904-5)
Test your ability to distinguish real people from AI generated faces (or to just see unreal people, look at thispersondoesnotexist.com)
Julia Galef, probably via Rationally Speaking Podcast
Politics and the English Language: I found the writing ironically uncompelling, but the idea interesting
Happy Christmas! I made you a list of things you might like on the internet. I won’t tell you which of you any was intended for, so feel especially free to skip any that don’t look interesting.
(Picture: nearing Christmas in New York 2017)
Nice buildings that are mostly mosques (click the x when it misleadingly says that you need to log in to see more)
Opulent Joy: my friend’s art blog
Unsong: one of my favorite books that I haven’t finished reading.
How to do what you love: Paul Graham has some other good essays too
AI dungeon: have cutting edge AI write you a story
The oldest video: strange
AI fills in a cat/house/etc if you draw the outline. I thought these buildings were pretty good:
Merry Christmas! I got you a list of things on the internet I thought you might find interesting. No obligation to look at them. (Many things I’ve enjoyed lately are old or about history, so there’s a good chance that you have seen them or seen much better things, but oh well.)
Lots of love from Katja oxo
(Picture: our Christmas tree)
AI dungeon: a text adventure written by AI in response to your responses
AI can also generate coherent completions of photographs (See examples under ‘Completions’)
A lecture about the Bronze Age collapse (I enjoyed this, though your historical understanding being thousands of times greater than mine might make it less good for you)
Slave voyages: a memorial in the form of a database of 36,000 specific slaving expeditions that took place between 1514 and 1866. Perhaps most easily appreciated in the form of this timelapse of the journeys (note that you can click on any dot and see the details of the ship and captives). I’m pretty impressed at them finding this much data.
On the shortness of life (I enjoyed this, though don’t necessarily agree)
The tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, is pretty cool looking:
Rather than be so bold as to give you a further object to take care of, I gathered for you a collection of things I think you might like on the internet. I CC the world, in case they are interested, or want to add anything.
Lots of love, Katja xox
(Picture: Geboorte van Christus, Robert van den Hoecke, after Jan van den Hoecke, 1632 - 1668)
Dance your PhD winner (though perhaps you showed that to me originally..)
Positly: Perhaps you have enough opportunities to interview people, but if you want to run your own surveys of strangerse online, this streamlines the process a lot (i.e. you basically write some questions and put money in the slot and they handle getting strangers to answer your questions and paying them). For instance, I asked some Americans why they voted as they did, and some other things about their experience of the election.
Hamilton the Musical: I know I probably recommended this before, but a) I should note that it might be the strongest artistic recommendation I’ve ever given, and b) if you did listen to it, I recommend listening to it again.
How to live for much longer in expectation (I know you don’t believe in this, but I encourage you to think about it more, because it’s important to me that you avoid dying if feasible.)
Rijksmuseum: the national museum of the Netherlands has a pleasing website for their pleasing art collection.
Here are some that I like today:
Morning Ride along the Beach, Anton Mauve, 1876 Fishing Pinks in Breaking Waves, Hendrik Willem Mesdag, c. 1875 - c. 1885 Landschap in de omgeving van Den Haag, Jacob Maris, 1891 Cellar of the Artist’s Home in The Hague, Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch, 1888
I have an Anki1 deck of things I feel like a failure regarding. Instead of each card having a question that I see if I can remember the answer to, it has a potentially shameful thing that I see if I still feel bad about. Each time I look at one, as well as marking it correct to the extent that I no longer feel bad about it, I briefly do a little bit to make it better. (Learn about the thing I’m embarrassed to not know about, practice the skill that I don’t have, think about whether it’s a real problem, etc). My sense is that one can often feel bad about something for a long time which one could alternatively make marked progress on in a very short time.
This time I drew a card marked, ‘can’t critique food’. Admittedly not the most horrifying of failures, and I don’t currently feel too bad about it, or remember writing it down. But I suppose that what I had in mind is that when people discuss the merits or subtleties of different foods and food establishments, I often feel like the topic is outside my domain, and furthermore suspect that if my strongest views of the moment were revealed—e.g. “good fries > bad fries » not fries”, or “I want to eat something cool and wet and I prefer it involve parsley”, or “pea protein is the worst”—I would seem childish.
So I read online briefly and found that Jonathan Gold is a famous food critic, then read a very small amount of his writing. Now I will have a go at critiquing food at all, which I expect is a decent step toward being passable at it (while also fulfilling my intention to occasionally do things I haven’t done).
On an almost empty teacup of Mary’s Gone crackers I found in my bedroom while cleaning up recently.
Food that you know has been sitting open on your desk for a week can be tainted by a foul flavor of unease. But my expectations for these crackers were cleansed with the fresh-toasted snap and delicate flavor of my first nibble of one.
Crispy things are often light and insubstantial—crunch and heft seem to often overlap in coarse, unyielding foods. Yet this Mary’s Gone cracker had both a pleasing, easy crackle and a real density. And while in no way chewy, it was good to chew: coming apart not into a wheat slurry, but into a textured rubble of seed meal, satisfying and nutty. I wanted to find the fragments lost in the corners of my mouth. I wanted to crush the last seeds with my teeth. All the while the bright taste of toasted herbs lingered, sometimes veering into a burning. Not of chili, but of flavor.
Then my boyfriend became available for chatting, and I chatted with him, ceasing to resist the temptation to eat virtually all of the crackers. I bit them thoughtfully as we spoke, knowing I was eating up the opportunity to critique them, but only sparing enough attention from the conversation to favor this end, on grounds that they were presently delicious.
In sum, Mary’s Gone Crackers are very good crackers, and survive surprisingly well in an uncovered teacup. If you keep a stack of them in a teacup with a somewhat but not much larger diameter, this can also be spatially pleasing.
A spaced repetition flashcard system ↩
Sometimes I really enjoy opening a thesaurus. I don’t know why. It’s just a moment of opening it, anticipating feeling around amongst the meanings of different words, weighing their rightnesses, which seems like a kind of heavenliness, sometimes. I think it was better in 2018, and now I’m mostly remembering that.
23andMe are now willing to guess where one’s ancestors are from at the level of counties. For instance, as well as thinking I have 19% Swedish ancestry, they now guess that it is primarily from Västra Götaland County. Which is in fact where my current Swedish relatives cluster. Their guesses in Ireland center on Cork, with Limerick and Tipperary next door 4th and 8th most likely (of 26 counties), and those two are where the few 17th-19th Century relatives I know about seem to have come from in Ireland, so that also seems pretty good.
Much as I believe all that stuff about one’s body being full of cells that contain genetic code that is shared by one’s relatives, and about historic movement and mixing of populations being low, it’s awesome to actually see someone take a fairly good guess at what part of what country your obscure relatives lived hundreds of years ago by examining your spit.
- Fewer deaths all around
- A giant party at my house
- A portion of the research I feel bad about not doing just becoming irrelevant (e.g. what’s the evidence about surfaces now? Are we badly underestimating the harms of long covid?)
- Leaving my house in an unprepared fashion and seeing where it takes me
- Whatever it was that I used to do in places other than my house, that I actually can’t seem to remember or explicitly pinpoint and plan from a distance, but which I vaguely miss (possibly this is basically just 4)
- Seeing friends who live in faraway places such as Berkeley
- Going on a cross-country train and embracing the general lack of hygiene and space
- Seeing non-household friends without inadvertently spending a fraction of my attention on air dynamics and mask stability
- The stakes of everyday personal choices being lowered enough that people being thoughtless or foolish isn’t a critical threat to friendliness, harmony or anyone’s life
- Helping the economy of restaurants and cafes recover
- Casual minor encounters and non-encounters with strangers in shops, streets and cafes (and these being more of the meeting places of the world, and internet comments being less, for more people)
- Meeting new people regularly
- More distinct places and place-vibes to conveniently be in
- One fewer area to worry that I should be doing something better
- Listening to an audiobook on crowded public transit on the way to my downtown office, and then being at my office
- Reading and writing in notebooks in cafes
- The world feeling so big that you can go to other places and find people thinking about entirely different things
- Being dirty
- Crowded, dimly lit places with atmosphere and mild uncertainty
- Resolution of this episode
- Watching everyone else enjoy things coming back
The idea of art about nature doesn’t sound exciting to me in the abstract. Perhaps I remember that I am evolutionarily supposed to see it and go, ‘oh fantastic, it’s green and blue near each other, maybe I’m in for some reproductive success’, and that doesn’t sound very inspiring. (Yes, I know that simple evolutionary situations can feel inspiring from the inside.)
But a kind of art about nature that I can especially get behind is that which to me evokes some of wild alien vigor of nature, that I sometimes experience for instance sitting in my overgrown back garden, contending with a flock of ascendent giant poppy faces and a stilled frenzy of branches gaining ground and sky about my seat.
It is a sharp exotic aliveness, an electric intent for living that wants to overwhelm the strictures of physical space and come curling and unfolding through the air, with an explosive energy that has no truck with time.
Not alien like an alien mind, but more like an alien spirituality, that doesn’t know anything so mundane as minds. But while you revere under the perfect spires of goodness, it comes in unexpected and unintelligible from the edges and without looking you in the eye, just overwhelms you with how what really made the world is intensely here and intensely not in your understanding. This was always the world.
“Everything wants to live”, my botanist grandfather would explain to me. Perhaps for plants it is often more borderline whether living is in store. Regardless, their unrelenting striving for it is more visceral to me than that of animals. Animals are more placidly set in their bodies. Plants take every opportunity to push outwards, expanding into new limbs and thickening out old ones in their unthinking, unfailing fervor.
A lot of nature in art isn’t like this. Often it is idyllic, or evocative at a landscape level, or sleepy furniture for a human story. But here is some art that does portray it somewhat, for me, though I don’t know if the artists actually meant to:
The Hill Path, Ville d Avray, by Alfred Sisley
Irises, Vincent Van Gogh (1889)
I have some of the same image with these lines:
“Reduced to a Gothic skeleton, the abbey is penetrated by beauty from above and below, open to precisely those elements it had once hoped to frame for pious young men, as an object for their patient contemplation. But that form of holy concentration has now been gone longer than it was ever here. It was already an ancient memory two hundred years ago, when Wordsworth came by. Thistles sprout between the stones. The rain comes in. Roofless, floorless, glassless, “green to the very door”—now Tintern is forced to accept the holiness that is everywhere in everything.” - Zadie Smith, Some notes on Attunement
If you listened to my podcast w/Michael Sandel, you know we have very different views on whether markets are "degrading"
One thing I didn't mention to him: This bit in his book cracked me up – because I remember my friends & I found this aspect of Moneyball SO HEARTWARMING <3 pic.twitter.com/9W6Op30vF8
— Julia Galef (@juliagalef) December 10, 2020
I haven’t actually seen Moneyball, but it does sound heartwarming, and I have had to hide my tears when someone described a payment app their company was working, so I’m probably in Julia’s category here.
If I didn’t feel this way though, reading this I might imagine it as some alien nerdly aberration, and not a way that I could feel from the inside, or that would seem the ‘right’ way to feel unless I became brain-damaged. Which I think is all wrong—such feelings seem to me to be a warm and human response to appreciating the situation in certain ways. So I want to try to describe what seems to be going on in my mind when my heart is warmed by quantitative methods and efficient algorithms.
When using good quantitative methods makes something better, it means that there wasn’t any concrete physical obstacle to it being better in the past. We were just making the wrong choices, because we didn’t know better. And often suffering small losses from it at a scale that is hard to imagine.
Suppose the pricing algorithm for ride sharing isn’t as good as it could be. Then day after day there will be people who decide to walk even though they are tired, people who wait somewhere they don’t feel safe for a bit longer, countless people who stand in their hallway a bit longer, people who save up their health problems a bit more before making the expensive trip to a doctor, people who decide to keep a convenient car and so have a little bit less money for everything else. All while someone who would happily to drive each of them at a price they would happily pay lives nearby, suffering for lack of valuable work.
I’m not too concerned if we make bad choices in baseball, but in lots of areas, I imagine that there are these slow-accreting tragedies, in thousands or millions or billions of small inconveniences and pains accruing each day across the country or the world. And where this is for lack of good algorithms, it feels like it is for absolutely nothing. Just unforced error.
Daily efforts and suffering for nothing are a particular flavor of badness. Like if someone erroneously believed that it was important for them to count to five thousand out loud at 10am each day, and every day they did this—and if they traveled they made sure there would be somewhere non-disturbing to do it, and if they stayed up late they got up by 10am; and if they were doing something they stepped out—there would be a particular elation in them escaping this senseless waste of their life, perhaps mixed with sorrow for what had been senselessly lost.
Also, having found the better method, you can usually just do it at no extra cost forever. So it feels reelingly scalable in a way that a hero fighting a bad guy definitively does not. This feels like suddenly being able to fly, or walk through walls.
So basically, it is some combination of escape from a senseless corrosion of life, effortlessly, at a scale that leaves me reeling.
Another thing that might be going on, is that it is a triumph of what is definitely right over what is definitely wrong. Lots of moral issues are fraught in some way. No humans are absolutely bad and without a side to the story. But worse quantitative methods are just straightforwardly wrong. The only reason for picking baseball players badly is not knowing how to do it better. The only reason for using worse estimates for covid risk is that you don’t have better ones. So a victory for better quantitative methods is an unsullied victory for light over darkness in a way that conflicts between human forces of good and bad can’t be.
Yet another thing is that a victory for quantitative methods is always a victory for people. And if you don’t know who they are, that means that they quietly worked to end some ongoing blight on humanity, and did it, and weren’t even recognized. Often, even the good they did will look like a boring technical detail and won’t look morally important, because saving every American ten seconds doesn’t look like saving a life. And I’m not sure if there is anything more heartwarming than someone working hard to do great good, relieving the world from ongoing suffering, knowing that neither they nor and what they have given will be appreciated.
Today I had three work projects so close to done that I might be able to put something up on each, which would usually encourage work enthusiasm. But when I started on the first, I was struck by a strong inclination to stop and do something else. I didn’t immediately, but the inclination remained. And such inclinations make work worse in themselves, because when each new sentence or next motion engenders a little flinch away from it, the whole thing gets so slow and encumbered and hard to concentrate on that it makes sense to be repelled by it. And the thought of moving to the next little bit on the other projects seemed similarly distasteful.
Sitting in my chair was likewise aversive, and I thought perhaps a walk would help. (Often I find similar work compelling, so it seems a shame to wrestle myself into a slow and encumbered version of it at a time when I don’t.) I also had a package to take to FedEx. If I listened to the Alignment Newsletter Podcast while I walked and delivered the package, I might even be being extra productive instead of extra unproductive.
I took my P100 mask and a packet of snickerdoodle flavored peanut butter and some moderately comfy shoes, in case the three and a half blocks to the pharmacy that FedEx was inside turned out to be too much for flip flops, or I decided to wander around more.
I reached the pharmacy and stood in its small outside queue with my package between my legs and put on my P100. A man at the door let me in and pointed me to a longer inside queue. I waited in it and thought about how hard it was to see the total population of the room, and how much time had passed without the queue moving at all, and how much the San Francisco covid cases were spiking, then decided to try for a different FedEx down the road.
I left my P100 on and walked along faceless, listening to the podcast. Which sounded interesting, but I kept getting distracted. The warm bright sun on every surface sent away my vague image of the locked-down city as wan and enfeebled. Though I wondered if was climatically alarming for San Francisco winter to be such a nice summer.
I enjoyed my mask, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Perhaps having one’s face in the public sphere does call for some ongoing attention and composure and care, that I don’t notice until its absence is a relief. Or perhaps it is nice for ones mouth and nose to be seriously removed from the clouds of covid dust, instead of just covered to the point of social acceptability. At any rate, I walked along with my mouth hanging open.
With the talk of alignment a happy background chatter, I got to thinking about how national policy should deal with different people having different impressions about morality. Morality is hard to detect in a publicly agreeable way. Insofar as a nation reacts to morality, the information reaches the nation via individuals making observations about it. But there are lots of individuals with different observations. People’s policy views are often that the government should enforce morality as they see it. Even though the nation includes people with different morality impressions. The policy game is seen as the game of having your morality implemented. But opinion could instead be at the level of what laws or norms a group of people should have when a subset thinks that doing X is immoral, and another subset wants to do it. Then the answers to object level questions, such as, ‘should people be free to have abortions?’ would fall out of these.
The FedEx place was further than I expected, but a man outside just took the package from me. I waited a moment in case there was any problem with it, and looked at my phone, thinking about where to go next. A man on a bike stopped close to me and said something. I felt protected from having to respond much, due to my giant mask. But I think I gestured friendlily, before walking away. I sensed him watching me. Down the road a bit, I glanced back and saw him still there, looking my way. Then he rolled up next to me. “Can I have your number?” I still lacked the usual compulsion to respond to things people say to me, and my instinctive behavior was somehow akin to a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language. I looked at him vaguely and kept walking. He rolled along, and asked me where I was from, and my name, and if I speak Spanish. He introduced himself. He observed that I was scared of him, and told me that I shouldn’t be. He noted that all men would probably like me, I guess as some kind of point about whether I should be scared of him. I said some things, like ‘Australia’ and ‘I don’t want to talk’. Eventually he rode away, but so slowly I didn’t trust that he was really going. I stepped into the entry of a parking garage and discussed the fact that I was just temporarily hiding from that dude on a bike with a security guard there, who suggested that I call the police.
I decided to go a different way home. I made eye contact with another guy in a car, who seemed to lean down to look at me more through the passenger window as I passed. I wondered whether mini skirt and apocalypse mask are actually an alluring combo. I admit that I enjoy something about the style.
The soles of my feet became blistered, and I did the velcro straps up tighter and thought about pain and suffering. I think I could walk on my feet until they were bleeding and raw pretty easily, if I wanted to. They hurt sharply, but it seems more loosely connected to suffering than other pains. I feel like my walking on them shyly is because I’m unsure whether it is ok to damage your feet that much, and that if I decided to do it, I could do it without flinching. (A recollection of teenagerhood supports this: I vaguely recall my shoes being fairly bloody by about the second day of a four day hike, and marching on fairly unperturbed.)
I wonder if a no-speaking P100 dance party in the park might be fun, but I guess it is illegal now.
I saw a picture of these biscuits (or cookies), and they looked very delicious. So much so that I took the uncharacteristic step of actually making them. They were indeed among the most delicious biscuits of which I am aware. And yet I don’t recall hearing of them before. This seems like a telling sign about something. (The capitalist machinery? Culture? Industrial food production constraints? The vagaries of individual enjoyment?)
Why doesn’t the market offer these delicious biscuits all over the place? Isn’t this just the kind of rival, excludable, information-available, well-internalized good that markets are on top of?
Some explanations that occur to me:
- I am wrong or unusual in my assessment of deliciousness, and for instance most people would find a chocolate chip cookie or an Oreo more delicious.
- They are harder to cook commercially than the ubiquitous biscuits for some reason. e.g. they are most delicious warm.
- They are Swedish, and there are mysterious cultural or linguistic barriers to foods spreading from their original homes. This would also help explain some other observations, to the extent that it counts as an explanation at all.
- Deliciousness is not a central factor in food spread. (Then what is?)
If you want to help investigate, you can do so by carrying out the following recipe and reporting on the percentile of deliciousness of the resulting biscuits. (I do not claim that this is a high priority investigation to take part in, unless you are hungry for delicious biscuits or a firsthand encounter with a moderately interesting sociological puzzle.)
(Or Kolasnittar. Adapted from House & Garden’s account of a recipe in Magnus Nilsson’s “The Nordic Baking Book”. It’s quite plausible that their versions are better than mine, which has undergone pressure for ease plus some random ingredient substitutions. However I offer mine, since it is the one I can really vouch for.)
Takes about fifteen minutes of making, and fifteen further minutes of waiting. Makes enough biscuits for about five people to eat too many biscuits, plus a handful left over. (Other recipe calls it about 40 ‘shortbreads’)
- 200 g melted butter (e.g. microwave it)
- 180 g sugar
- 50 g golden syrup
- 50g honey
- 300 g flour, ideally King Arthur gluten free flour, but wheat flour will also do
- 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
- 2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 2 good pinches of salt
- Preheat oven: 175°C/345°F
- Put everything in a mixing bowl (if you have kitchen scales, put the mixing bowl on them, set scales to zero, add an ingredient, reset scales to zero, add the next ingredient, etc.)
- Taste [warning: public health officials say not to do this because eating raw flour is dangerous]. Adjust mixedness, saltiness, etc. It should be very roughly the consistency of peanut butter, i.e. probably less firm than you expect. (Taste more, as desired. Wonder why we cook biscuits at all. Consider rebellion. Consider Chesterton’s fence. Taste one more time.)
- Cover a big tray or a couple of small trays with baking paper.
- Make the dough into about four logs, around an inch in diameter, spaced several inches from one another and the edges of the paper. They can be misshapen; their shapes are temporary.
- Cook for about 15 minutes, or until golden and spread out into 1-4 giant flat seas of biscuit. When you take them out, they will be very soft and probably not appear to be cooked.
- As soon as they slightly cool and firm up enough to pick up, start chopping them into strips about 1.25 inches wide and eating them.
Bonus mystery: they are gluten free, egg free, and can probably easily be dairy free. The contest with common vegan and/or gluten free biscuit seems even more winnable, so why haven’t they even taken over that market?
A photograph taken during a discussion of how photographs often fail to capture scenes.
It seems to me that photos often don’t capture what the photographer saw in the scene (perhaps especially if the photographer isn’t really a photographer). But it’s kind of amazing that I think of this as ‘the photograph failed to capture what it was really like’, rather than ‘my perception failed to capture what it was really like, as evidenced by this photograph’!
I wonder if it is possible to make a camera that captures scenes the way they look to a person there.
For a mundane example, it would need to make the moon appear big, when a camera might capture it as tiny. Is there a two dimensional set of pixels that can produce the same sense of how big the moon is, without changing other aspects of the picture to be further away from the perception? Is there such a two dimensional image for any perceived scene?
With sufficiently good what-it-seemed-like-to-the-photographer cameras, we could make substantial progress on bridging the gaping gaps between different minds.
For now, I suppose you can always edit the colors a bit.
I attended a friend’s wedding this year, that was in the form of a play which everyone was sent in book form, to read at the same time from different places. There were various interactive interludes, including phone calls with strangers I had been algorithmically matched with, and a big group Zoom. I liked it.
When I was a child, I had a ‘Christmas book’ that I liked, with lots of different nice things in it, like stories about the nativity, and about the Christmas ceasefire in World War I, and songs, and instructions for making foods and decorations, and descriptions of Christmas in other places.
Last Christmas I was mostly alone, since I live in America and my family lives in Australia. I celebrated by myself: I made myself a Christmas stocking full of things like pens and post-it notes and beads and chocolate (with a traditional balloon on it), and had hot chocolate, and opened presents, and then I read a book of essays that I had collected up online beforehand and printed out nicely. The theme was something like, ‘being in touch with far away people, elsewhere and in the past, and in particular trying to see what they are really like, and to remember that they are not like what I think’. There are ways you can be especially close to people by reading their words that are different from the ways you can be close by chatting and eating together, and I hoped to do those ones, I suppose.
This year lots of people are forced to stay at home, so I have plenty of company. But if I were going to celebrate relatively alone at the same time as my friends or family were doing the same thing elsewhere, I like the idea of trying to combine these ideas somehow.
I have an intermittently crippling anxiety disorder, so I recently started trying a new kind of therapy to mitigate it. I’ve been finding sufficiently great so far that even if it doesn’t work long term I will probably think it was worth it. So I’ll tell you about it.
It is based on Reid Wilson’s ideas, I think as described in his book, though I haven’t read it and most of my understanding comes from my therapist, my friend who also does this, and a set of humorous videos on Reid Wilson’s website.
Here is the practice, as I practice it:
If I’m anxious:
- Notice that I am anxious
- ‘Connect with my outcome picture’. Which is to say, imagine a really good version of my life. (Usually focusing on details that parallel currently problematic ones. For instance, if I was distracted by the sense of not being able to breathe while hanging out with a friend, I might imagine a version of my life where I hang out with my friends attentively while confidently brushing off all manner of chest sensations, perhaps in the context of a life more broadly full of confidence and attention on things that matter.)
- Be excited for the current bout of anxiety as an opportunity to exercise skills at living in the ‘outcome picture’ version of life in spite of anxiety. This involves having redrawn the goal as living well even in the context of anxiety rather than not being anxious. It also involves thinking of the route to this goal as developing a skill or strength via repeated practice, similar to learning a language or becoming good at bench press. Then because that practice requires a series of anxiety-filled contexts, you are naturally excited if an occasion comes up. For example, instead of aiming to never have panic attacks while getting lunch with someone, you are trying to become the kind of person who can keep their attention on the finer points of an argument in spite of maybe feeling like they can’t breathe that well. This is only going to happen via a number of practice occasions with arguments and breathing difficulties. So if one of these comes up, you are pumped.
- Go back to what I was doing. It doesn’t necessarily need to be in a non-anxious way even, just treating it as practice.
- Get a point.
If I get ten points, I get a cookie.
I think the clear rules for getting a point, and the dispersal of cookies, are both crucial for my own success with this, though my impression is that they are not included in the classic versions.
Things I like or think might be good about this:
- Imagining how you want things to be ten or twenty times a day is pretty inspiring in general, anxiety aside. (Anxiety reduction techniques that involve doing something virtuous every time you are anxious seem good in general, if you can make them work. I used to play DDR whenever I was anxious, and I got heaps of exercise and very good at DDR.)
- If you can get genuinely excited for being anxious, that alone seems to undermine some of its force.
- Feeling like anxiety is the thing that is meant to happen, that is a key part of the path to your goal (or at least the path to a point), rather than a sign of things going wrong, also makes it easier to deal with.
- Empirically it seems to just make me happy somehow. It might be all the imagining my outcome picture.
This morning my boyfriend and I did an activity where he followed me around for a couple of hours and observed as I started the day and did some tasks. (I’ve also done something like that before with a friend who was trying out anthropology.) I suggested it this time because I often find it enlightening to hear an outside perspective on things that I do, and his in particular. And it seems rarer to hear about the details and tactics, versus very high level questions: I often know what projects another person thinks are good, but rarely know what they would do if they got an email asking to hang out from an acquaintance, or if they were feeling antsy, or how they would decide where to start on the project in question, or when to stop.
I also think that it’s easy to have a somewhat silly habit, but then to deal with its oppressiveness by doing it automatically and fast. But then you barely notice it, so it is harder to remember that it’s a problem and fix it. And yet such things build up. And even having someone else watching can make the details of what you are doing—and their defensibility—briefly vivid. For instance, today I quickly noticed myself that I wash my hands way more than is reasonable while making a sandwich, but I do it pretty habitually and don’t even think about it. I just believe that making sandwiches is somehow arduous.
Another good thing about this activity is that where I am focused on the detail of a problem, a new observer can be confused at why I would even think the thing is a problem, or worthy of my time to solve, or why I would assume the constraints that I’m assuming. Which can all be refreshing.
Overall, I found it helpful and enlightening.
But another virtue of this is in the never-ending effort to see what other people’s worlds are like. In hearing someone describe how your world looks to them, you perhaps get to infer something about the landscape of the place that view is coming from.
I was woken yesterday by cheering and whooping in the streets.
(Which was overall great, though I think replacing the part of the day, [get enough sleep and then wake up and remember who you are and what you were doing and then do some familiar morning rituals while your brain warms up] with [abrupt emergence into city-wide celebration] was disorienting in a way that I failed to shake all day.)
After some music, Champagne, party hats, chatting with the housemates, and putting on our best red-white-and-blue outfits, my boyfriend and I set out for a walk in the city, tentatively toward b. patisserie, legendary and inconveniently distant producer of kouignoù amann.1
Within a few blocks we found cars and pedestrians breaking into rounds of cheering and waving at each other, and a general sense that the whole street was a party to this. We still had our party hats, one with an American flag sticking out of the top, so there was no ambiguity for other street-goers about whether we were.
We took a detour for downtown Castro, to see if it was more exciting. Apparently that was in fact the Schelling point for being excited together. When we got to the intersection with Castro street, cars were still going through it slowly, but each one seemed like an event somehow. While we watched, the crowd overcame the road entirely.
I wasn’t keen to walk through this, due to my poor imagination for how aerosols work in large outdoor crowds, so we turned back up a side street and went around. Roads seemed fuller than they have been since March, I think with people just driving around for the revelry. I soon wished that I had brought a musical instrument, when my hands were tired from clapping. A couple passed us with little bells in each hand to tinkle. We received compliments on our (very minimal) cardboard hats.
Away from the Castro it was a bit more normal. We stopped to get coffee and a woman outside the cafe asked us if we were celebrating the election. “Uh, yes?” “Does that mean it’s been called?” “Yes!” She was glad. She had been aggressively avoiding the election coverage apparently, and I suppose the scene in the park outside the cafe could also be explained by it being a surpassingly pleasant Saturday on normal weather related grounds. The cafe was selling Champagne. We bought a bottle.
The next park we got to was even less celebratory—at a glance, more full of inert young people at very safe distances, engaged in solitary phones and music and such. But over the hill a group of women were playing loud music and called out to us. ‘It’s our fuck Trump playlist! Enjoy!’ We stood a while on the crest of the hill and looked out over the city. A band of dogs frolicked in the sun, the light making a halo in the white mane of a golden retriever.
“What are the chances they actually have kouign amann?” For some reason places generally say they will sell kouignoù amann, but then don’t actually have any, or only have one, or are closed at all of the times you ever want a kouign amann. Philz Coffee has been out of kouignoù amann for at least a month. I had a better feeling about this place though. The one time I went there years ago, it had more of a kouign amann production outlet vibe, and veritable mounds of kouignoù amann of different flavors. Still, approaching the bakery at last, we hardly dared hope. I put 55% on kouignoù amann, but admitted that that probably meant 40%, empirically. He was much less optimistic.
But we reached the bakery, and it had stand after stand of them. We asked if we could really buy like ten of them, or whether this would deprive others. We could. We noticed another case with as many kouignoù amann again. We got eleven, and some cookies and cake too. Then on the way home we stumbled upon another noted kouignoù amann bakery, and got one more.
A kouig amann (plural kouignoù amann) is a kind of French buttery sugary pastry. It’s a bit like toffee with quite a lot of pastry in it. ↩
Today I spent about three hours chatting with eleven of my closer friends who I’ve mostly hardly seen this year, as a virtual birthday party. I thought the discussion was pretty interesting—so I record here some of the questions that came up (aloud or my mind):
- Did various of us err by not doing technical subjects in undergrad? Or should we have tried to do ‘cool’ seeming subjects, technical or not?
- What is ‘coolness’? Is coolness always about power? Why is a big, fast train cool? Can you be cool if you are not relaxed? If you are small and scared? If you are mediocre in every way?
- Is etymology deep? What do people get out of knowing the origins of words?
- What is going on in history, at a high level?
- Can history be understood at a high level, or to have a real understanding of ‘what’s going on’, do you need to know about the detailed circumstances in each case?
- How did nations come about?
- Are various countries evil? What are we even asking here?
- How bad would it be if a ‘bad’ country came to control the world, forever?
- What reasons do we have to not worry about this, in the current situation?
- If history can be considered from various perspectives (a series of wars changing the borders of territories; a sequence of technological discoveries; a sequence of high level changes affecting the nature of technological discovery; a sequence of particular people and their biographies..) why is the version that is all about countries warring for territory always the one taught in ‘history’?
- Why do wars happen? What does IR say about this?
- How do the different theories of how wars happen relate to one another? On the model where it is all about entities exercising and maximizing power, why does it sometimes seem like ideas or institutions are playing a part?
- To the extent history is summarizable at a high level, involving wars between nations say, how too did ‘wars’ come to be a thing (if they are), rather than low level conflict being possible and sometimes realized at all times?
- Why don’t we hear more about the Uyghurs?
- Is improving the discourse an important cause?
- Has the public discourse worsened over time? How could we tell empirically?
- If the public discourse has worsened, why?
- Does public discourse seem worse because it has been more democratized, and listening to everyone means opening the floor to messages sent with less attention to conceptual clarity, or using different discourse norms, or constructed with less philosophical skill than when public expression was inaccessible to most people? Might it in that case be better overall, in a trade-off between representing values and knowledge from across the population, and average skill of expression and thought?
- What would I write if I felt free to express myself online?
- What is good about Hegel? Why do such philosophers feel to some like a campaign to gaslight people? What are our experiences of trying to read Hegel? Is it better understood as a guide to tripping?
- Supposing such philosophy is a way of conveying non-propositional stuff to put in your mind, couldn’t that still be talked about in an open and propositional way? For instance in an introduction that says ‘This book is a sequence of words that I believe will cause you to have a different experience of your relationship with the world if you read them.’
- Why doesn’t someone write a better account of any of these things? Why are we still reading the originals?
It was recently my birthday. I started the celebrations by sleeping in so late that I probably wouldn’t be that sleep deprived. My boyfriend continued the celebrations by making me breakfast in bed and setting aside his work, donning a hat, and singing to me when I woke. He actually always makes me breakfast and it is usually in bed, but that didn’t really detract from it.
I went to work in my own room, and had some success clarifying my thoughts about arguments for catastrophic risk from artificial intelligence in a Google doc. I took a quick walk in the sun. I dropped into a massive online town to have virtual coffee with my colleagues and other passers by.
I went back and discussed some troubling things with my boyfriend while standing on one leg, so that the discussion couldn’t possibly get out of hand and eat a lot of time.
We went out for a leisurely walk, but quickly realized that if we were going to eat cake on this day, we probably wanted to acquire it from a bakery a twelve minute walk away and get back to the house for his next appointment within less than 30 minutes. So it became a brisk walk up a giant hill and down the other side, to the slightly alternate universe of Noe Valley, where there are things like children and farmers markets and good but not fancy restaurants. The bakery had a queue, but we did not give up, and it turned out to be an extremely fast one so we got home with a creamy yellow passionfruit cake before too long.
Alone again, I opened a present I got myself, a giant piece of rope. I keep having some unexplained hankering for hauling myself up a giant piece of rope. So I thought, why not? Now I am only impeded by my total lack of arm strength or general dexterity. (No this fantasy was not based on prior experience of climbing ropes, I think.)
In the midst of various kind offers to make food I like for dinner, I became flustered and couldn’t remember what is good to eat. I thought it might be okonomiyaki, but coludn’t find any for sale in my city. Eventually I happily went with what I always make: crispy fried silken tofu with craisins and nuts and greens. With the possible addition of farro, a recent interest. So we cranked up the music and made it together and drank green apple cider and ordered extra fries and jalapenos and such on the side.
My whole household joined for dinner, and we talked about why it isn’t possible to buy academic papers at prices that someone might plausibly pay, and whether it is generally better for the world if goods like Netflix movies are sold in large bundles (all of Netflix) rather than one at a time (pay per movie).
Then we got out a neat little box of polymer clay in many colors that I recently acquired, and sculpted things while we played a game I remembered from years ago, though still don’t know the name of. You basically try to guess summary statistics of your group for different questions, then reveal the individual answers that let you see who was right. For instance, questions included ‘how many of us can play the tune of happy birthday on two different instruments without sheet music, but with five minutes to think about it?’ and ‘how many of us have kissed someone of our own sex?’
We then briefly played ‘what’s more unlikely?’ a game where you are presented with two very unlikely things, and try to convince a judge that one of them is less likely. For instance, is it more likely that by 2060 a potato has become president of the United States, or that a head of cabbage has? (Favored answer: potato)
We then had a round of ‘Katja is interviewed about things’ (“How do you feel about trees?”)
Then we played askhole, which was tamer and more wholesome than their website led me to expect. It was pretty good.
Eventually everyone went to bed, except for my boyfriend and I, who stayed to clean up a little more. But cleaning quickly turned to dancing, and dancing turned into dancing a lot. At least for me—he got tired and flopped around on a beanbag mostly. (This was arguably the best bit of the day, but I can’t elaborate because I am falling asleep so aggressively while writing this that I just concluded this sentence with apparent nonsense.
In other news, if you don’t have the maximal number of cars in the massive garage of your weirdly proportioned house, and you aren’t allowed to rent out the space to another sub-letter, and you have eaten down some of your quarantine stores, and you mop up all the shards of broken fluorescent tube that fell there, and your housemate kindly lays out the mats, then you can sometimes have a rad private dance floor!
I have almost successfully made and made decent this here my new blog, in spite of little pre-existing familiarity with relevant tools beyond things like persistence in the face of adversity and Googling things. I don’t fully understand how it works, but it is a different and freer non-understanding than with Wordpress or Tumblr. This blog is more mine to have mis-built and to go back and fix. It is like not understanding why your cake is still a liquid rather than like not understanding why your printer isn’t recognized by your computer.
My plan is to blog at worldspiritsockpuppet.com now, and cross-post to my older blogs the subset of posts that fit there.
The main remaining thing is to add comments. If anyone has views about how those should be, er, tweet at me?
One time as I was burping, the thought occurred to me that there would be a last burp in my life; a final silence on that familiar bodily stage. And while I wasn’t a particular burping enthusiast, it was a sad thought. Since then, burping often reminds me of this.
People often tell me that they don’t like San Francisco, especially of late. It’s dirty, or depressing, or has the wrong vibe, or is full of people who think it is reasonable to ban straws, or is the epitome of some kind of sinister social failing. Which are all plausible complaints.
I’m reminded of this thought from Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton, which my boyfriend and I have been meanderingly reading in recent months:
Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing – say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.
Which is not to say either that I think people should pour their energy into awful cities, or that San Francisco is the kind of awful city that might prompt the question of whether they should. But I do wonder if there is something missing in the usual attitude. In everyone moving here, assessing what the city gives them, and finding it either sufficient or lacking.
One thing is that the city is largely people. Who do you expect to make it good? It’s not true that you should stay at parties that aren’t fun, but you are missing something if you show up at parties to sit at the side judging before going on to the next one.
At Burning Man it is clearer that whatever the social scene is, you and others are making it. If it is more others than you, why are you so powerless? Maybe there are just a lot of others, and they don’t want the same things as you. In which case, a fair time to leave for another camp. But if you are an observer puzzled at why ‘they’ don’t do things better, then consider that you are ‘they’, as much as anyone.
I’m open to the possibility that contributing to the goodness of your city is not a worthy use of effort, if you have more important projects going on, and you abide by laws and pay your taxes. But I don’t take it for granted, and similar views seem probably wrong—for instance it seems like an error not to contribute to your household being good, or your family being good, or your friendships and relationships being good. A city is bigger, so it might be tempting to succumb to tragedy of the commons—no helped stranger will likely benefit you enough to make the help worth your while selfishly. But averting tragedies of the commons is better than suffering them, if possible.
On a different and non-prescriptive note, the same place is different if you love it. I have a friend who appears to relentlessly like San Francisco. And San Francisco is better going around with him. It’s a place of bright parks and hidden shops, fresh bread and rich coffee, characters, corridors for riding, singing in the street, culture, stories, poetry. I don’t necessarily recommend people go around loving things they don’t love for the sheer experiential benefits of it, but it seems worth noting.
The other day I had a dentist appointment, and as an alternative to focusing on whether or not it was currently unpleasant, I tried to become interested in American politics.
It’s not that American politics fails to be attention-grabbing. But a casserole falling on the floor is attention grabbing, and I wouldn’t say that I’m interested in falling casseroles. I do read about the political situation, but like a casserole-fall viewer, mostly with curiosity and responsive dismay, not with real intellectual engagement or fertile thinking. Why?
Politics is important, from what I can gather. And detailed. And probably involves all kinds of normally intellectually gratifying constructions such as game theory, strategy and institution design. So shouldn’t it be interesting?
I think it doesn’t seem interesting because I have the impression of it being broadly ridiculous, and as a consequence, somehow not my problem. An analogy: in my current house, I am usually plenty interested in perfecting the finer details of our system of household responsibilities. But if I joined a new house, and they told me that they determined who was going to wash up based on a weekly basketball tournament combined with an astrological reading, I wouldn’t be intellectually gripped by the finer questions of how the basketball tournament should be run, or how different people were doing in the game.
Or relatedly, it feels too far from making sense to me to engage my intellectual curiosity. If someone was trying to find a good route North to Seattle, I’d be more compelled to join them in the question than if they were trying to find a good route North to New Zealand or Mars.
When I say it seems ridiculous or nonsensical, here are some things I’m thinking of:
- if you wanted to determine the best policies to adopt across a huge number of issues, voting to choose a small group of people to decide them all, out of a moderately larger pool of people, based on a combination of a few issues that seem salient at the time, plus the candidate’s vibes, social prowess, and susceptibility to public embarrassment, doesn’t seem like a thing you should even expect to work.
- Continual overt lying isn’t a deal breaker in the highest office
- Debate of the kind where you discuss the answer to some question doesn’t seem to be part of presidential debates
- Things I would usually think of as basic are not assumed in public debate. For instance, that the ‘personal freedom’ we might agree to uphold isn’t prima facie going to include freedom to harm other people by giving them covid.
- Something something QAnon?
This is all an account of my previously unexamined feelings, and on examination, I don’t endorse them.
For one thing, the sense that something isn’t my problem because it is silly doesn’t make sense. Where does it come from? Perhaps that at a smaller scale, if a thing is too silly, it is often best to disengage. If a club has lots of stupid rules, you should usually leave rather than trying to overhaul it; if a restaurant won’t let you eat without discussing the proprietor’s confusing personal conflicts at length, the standard response is to find a different restaurant rather than trying to workshop your relationship with this proprietor. But there aren’t other Americas to go to, and this one has plenty of influence over all kinds of important things, so this heuristic doesn’t apply at all.
But at another level, my sense that things are ridiculous in a way that might negate my identifying with them or caring about them seems wrong. Everything is part of the world, and there are real reasons it came about, that would make sense on the most complete and true theory of things. It is my world, and if I am to contend with and understand it, then that includes the curling of Donald Trump’s lips as much as much as the flocking of swallows, the unfolding of logic, or the spiraling of galaxies.
A draft post from a year ago that I didn’t put up then, about a problem that I had forgotten about:
I recently woke up, and do not appear to be aggressively pursuing anything worthwhile, for instance understanding the future of artificial intelligence, or trading my precariously slung dressing gown for more versatile writing attire. I did make some coffee, but am falling down on actually drinking it, and it is on the other side of the room, so that might be a thing for later.
My impression has been for a while that I am just a worse human in the morning, and then gradually improve toward the evening. Such that I can spend hours incrementally trying to direct my attention toward some task and carefully reflecting on why it’s not working and how to improve the situation in the afternoon, and then just do it without problems after about 8pm.
I’d like to figure out what’s so great about the evening, so I can have more of it in the morning. But a problem with my impressions are that they are very vague. It is pretty unclear to me what exactly goes wrong earlier in the day. I can’t point to things and say ‘aha, five instances of bad thing before noon, and none later in the day’. And looking at my own mind at a particular moment, I can’t easily say it is in one state or another, though I often have the sense over the day that it did get somehow better.
(Mental states are tricky—it seems to me that for some of them you can internally point at a quality of it that is clearly there or not, but for other axes the change is more subtle. Like watching a film you can instantly tell if it changed to being in black and white, but it is harder and slower to tell if it changed to really emphasizing Bob’s point of view at the expense of Sally’s.)
I could perhaps log my time using Toggl and look for patterns in what time of day work blocks are, but there are a lot of confounders, like the fact that official work time is in the day and popularly coordinated on social time is in the evening. Or for whatever reason, it feels a bit hopeless.
Given that it is early in the day and I do at least feel like writing, I thought I’d write down what it is like somewhat, so that I can compare to later.
Here are some features of my experience:
- I can’t easily remember if I finished my morning routine as much as I intended. If I did, there was a long while where I had the sense that there was more of it to do, but wasn’t really focused on it. I have a sense of a stack of things that I have intended to do, and set aside repeatedly, that I should go back to. I woke up and got various messages, which I meant to deal with later, but at least one was a person asking me ‘if I had had a chance to look at’ a thing I should probably look at imminently. Then I was doing my morning routine, which I have probably finished (ok, on consideration, I did finish it), but in the process I made some coffee that I should drink. I saw that I should do washing up and take out the trash. And maybe clean up my room, sometime soon. I started to plan my day, which I do every morning, but for some reason do not consider part of my morning routine. Before I finished planning, I started to write to ask someone to help me with an important thing, but then decided I should do it later and finish planning first. I was feeling unwell a few minutes ago, so maybe I should do something about that. I had intended to go to the other room to work, but now I’m not—should I go back? I had intended to ask my housemate if I could use his desk while he’s away. I need to go to the bathroom. Now I’m writing this. There is another larger scale problem in the back of my mind that I wonder if I should do something about. And another one.
- My heart is beating hard, and at about 110bmp apparently. I can see it moving my stomach. I feel a sense of urgency from nowhere.
- I am cold. The house is bright, but feels uninspiring.
- I don’t know what I want to do next. There are some mundane tasks, which I expect to take a long time for no apparent reason, and which I feel some revulsion around. I expect doing them to waste the day, and leave me with a similarly insurmountable pile of mundane tasks, and one fewer day. There are some more important projects, which I expect to take an obscenely long time for no apparent reason, and be unsatisfying, and then if I finish them, for other people to find them unremarkable, especially since finishing them probably involves lowering my standards a lot. I feel less averse to these, but trepidatious.
During the making of this list I wandered off and did something else multiple times
Seeing what I have written, a natural hypothesis is that too many things are going on and slightly occupy my attention, and I’m responding by being overwhelmed rather than organizing them and focusing on one. If this situation is different to later in the day, it could be that the onslaught of things is different somehow or that my own adeptness at organizing them and picking one is different. My current hypothesis is that the organizing them and picking one task is less natural and harder now, because my attention is hard to keep on one thing, and everything seems a little bit aversive and hard to deal with instead of a little bit appealing.
I’ll check further by trying to organize the tasks.
Ok, well notably I didn’t do that. I put on clothes, then I responded to messages, then I looked at the internet. I will try again.
While planning my day, other notes on what goes wrong:
- I have the background sense that someone expects me to do something, which is encumbering and uncomfortable. I think this might be fairly destructive. (I have previously thought that a nice thing about working at 4am or so is that everyone who might be expecting anything of you is asleep.) My guess is that running an organization doesn’t help with this, because for instance my employees expect me to meet with them, look at their work, be at work, respond to their messages. Also, other people expect my organization to produce useful things. If this were a big deal, it would predict things got radically better between about 5pm and 8pm, when people stop being at work or thinking that you might be, and better again at about 1am when people stop being awake. It would also predict that if I do the things that most obviously someone might be expecting me to do, things get better. I’ll try doing them first.
- The plan for my day would naturally include a bunch of small tasks that I feel averse to, though each in itself doesn’t seem bad. It is more the sense that they will eat the day, and I can’t get into anything. So I got a sheet of paper and wrote down many such things, especially the ones where it doesn’t really matter if it doesn’t happen this time (for instance, tidying my room, doing my laundry). My plan is to do them as breaks, but not for them to be a main focus of attention. This feels better somehow, I think because I can singlemindedly direct myself at one important thing at a time.
Ok, I made a plan. I feel like it took a long time, and involved various drifting off and doing other things. Now I have four or so small aversive tasks to do, and then I can get to the main deal. If I want a break, I have a list of non-compulsory ideas.
Current hypotheses about key intermediate factors between early hours and worseness:
- Number of incoming things to do or attend to
- Tendency to find arbitrary things offputting instead of nice
- Ease of directing attention
- Sense that people are expecting something of me
- Biological factor to do with recency of sleep
I shall consider this again later in the day.
One hope about letting people see bits of my life in detail is that they will notice that particular bits seem much more stupid than in their own lives. Like one time my friend noticed that I didn’t know that WiFi was all around us, and showed me how to turn it on. Or one time, my boyfriend at the time noticed that I don’t know how to cut or chew meat, and showed me how. So comments expressing disbelief that I don’t do things in an obviously better way are especially welcome (in general, not just on this post).
I found a poem in my Google docs from 2012, seemingly pasted there from an obsolete document system of even earlier. I couldn’t find it anywhere else on the internet, and I seem to have multiple slightly different versions of it in my docs, and also some related notes. Which all suggests that I wrote it.
On the other hand, this seems implausible. It’s not just that I don’t remember writing it, which would be pretty unsurprising. But I don’t remember having the thoughts that are in it, or being the kind of person who would write it. For instance, I think the author has substantially more poetry writing skill than me and substantially less desire to be over-the-top existential than early-twenties me. And while it’s unfinished, this appears to be intentional. And there is a kind of person who would call a thing Endless and then not give it an end, and I thought that that person was someone else. Not that I necessarily object to them. One plausible explanation is that one of my ex-boyfriends wrote it, but the only likely candidate doesn’t recognize it either.
I didn’t like it that much at first. It took me several read-throughs to even understand it. But I kept wanting to re-read it and liking it more. And it sticks in my mind. Now I quite like it, and also especially feel like I get the person who wrote it. And I still can’t figure out if it was me. (Do I get them more because they are me? Or I am sympathetic to a writer I imagine might be me? Would I like it more or less if I knew the answer? I think maybe less if it were resolved in either direction.)
Anyway, here’s a poem I like; origin unknown:
I am your photo, un-adore
this laughing play and lively dance
All strands of magic yours before
Perfection through dull mirror glanced
No rapt’rous thing not yours alone
If we meet, binding, one our night.
What wonder radiant eyes enthrone,
In days encrusted by your light,
Can walk this strangled endless scene
Of narrow moments, reaching past
for one to drown them in between
all fleeting stillness, blind their farce.
To not come, resolution waits,
don’t let me near you, to my dream,
It’s all I have,
Being grateful is often suggested as a good and scientific way to raise some kind of wellbeing measure. Probably somehow resulting from that, and from my much greater enjoyment of being grateful than of investigating this claim at all, sometimes I embark on a concerted effort to be grateful for specific things.
However I am sometimes confused about directing gratitude, in a similar way to how I am confused about considering things ‘problems’. Is there a problem—never spoken of but so much bigger than anything that ever is—of everyone not being able to access vast quantities of wisdom and pleasure by pressing their belly buttons?
Maybe I should be grateful that the horsehead nebula isn’t a real horsehead?
I’m inclined to say that something in the vicinity of the problem thing is a real problem, because ways the world could be better that are not ‘problems’ are probably relatively ignored, what with the popularity of solving problems. But that sentence was somewhat self-undermining, in that upon recognizing a way that the world might be better (we might notice ways the world could be better that don’t correspond to ‘problems’) I declared the absence of the good thing a problem. Maybe that’s what people usually do, so in fact any plausible improvement becomes a ‘problem’?
I have the impression that that there is much more interest in healing diseases than in making normal people even better, physically or mentally. Which seems like evidence for attention going to ‘problems’ disproportionately. But I think it could easily be explained by valuing of equality between people, or just by the general ease of progress via fixing broken things over progress via treading new ground.
I tentatively suppose that a trick with gratitude is to not aim for it to be evenly distributed across a sensically understood space of gratitude deserving entities. Instead focus on whatever actually inspires appreciation. It’s ok to be grateful for the horsehead nebula thing, your phone and gravity and to call it quits. That said, I have no idea, and welcome views from anyone more informed about the proper having of gratitude.
Some things I am grateful for tonight:
- Other people putting up with lonely, hard, hopeless-seeming times, and trying to look after themselves even when it doesn’t feel worth much.
- People who take roles where they have to make high stakes decisions in real time, and who are also properly sensible to those stakes.
- Everyone involved in providing me with toast with raspberry jam and butter
- The logical structure of possibility
- Round seals, and whatever inconveniences and deprivations they suffer in gracing the world with round seals.
Today I read about ancient history instead of doing work. Which got me thinking about Santorini.
If you see blue-domed chapels with whitewashed walls perched idyllically over the Aegean sea, there is a good chance you’ve got yourself (a picture of) Santorini.
Such pictures got a new flavor for me when I realized that the wide circular bay these buildings overlook is actually the caldera of a massive volcano. The flavor is similar to the one they would have if the cliffs resolved into the eyelids of a giant looking up beneath the waves.
When I say the volcano is large, I don’t mean I know anything about the usual distribution of volcano sizes. Just that I can zoom out on Google maps almost enough to see the whole of Greece, and still make out the lip of this volcano.
The volcano was responsible for the Minoan eruption, one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in the last twenty thousand years, and possibly the downfall of Minoa. It unsurprisingly destroyed the city of Akrotiri which is actually on Santorini. Very surprisingly to me, it didn’t destroy it that much, such that it is an exciting archeological site (note that I have no expertise, and am going only by my evidently wrong imagination for what happens if melted rock comes out of a hole that big with enough force to go anywhere). Also surprisingly to me, it seems to have been successfully evacuated, with practically nobody killed in the blast.
If you asked me to predict how well I would do living on the island rim of an underwater volcano sixteen hundred years before the birth of Christ, on the unlucky occasion of it erupting intensely, I would have guessed ‘very badly’. Apparently the buildings of Akrotiri were often several stories high and some had indoor water-flushing toilets though, so it seems they had their shit together much more than I would have expected.
EVERYTHING — WORLDLY POSITIONS — METEUPHORIC