Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Creative Focusing


This post will make no sense at all if you don’t know what “Focusing” is. Focusing is a method of making info from squishy automatic cognitive processes accessible to deliberate reasoning processes. Here’s an official brief summary of the full procedure as taught by Gendlin. Here’s a post by Duncan I like a bunch, which describes the Focusing-ish thing he does.


Lauren taught a class at an alumni workshop (last year? I think?) called “Creative Focusing”. It resulted in me using Focusing, or something like it, way more often. I didn’t memorize her class, but here’s how I think of creative focusing myself.

Pick an expressive medium. Could be sketching, poetry, music, whatever.

Then, get in touch with a felt sense. You don’t have to name it. But try to get inside of it.

What is “get inside of it”? Right now there’s a tightness in my solar plexus. I can describe it “from the outside” like so: It’s the bottom of a sort of hot, slightly vibrating rod of sensation that goes from my solar plexus to the middle of my throat. The sensation responds to awareness of my immediate auditory environment (I’m in a coffee shop); the solar plexus tightness gets tighter when I pay attention to the tapping of a metal spoon against a metal jar, and starts to wobble a little when I pay attention to the music in the background.

Rather than describing it from the outside, I can also let the felt sense express itself “from the inside”. This is a kind of attentional trick, I think, which seems to involve setting down my personhood story and letting the felt sense consume awareness.

Then, while “inside” of the felt sense, I can begin to act on my creative medium. If I choose (just a few) words, the solar plexus felt sense types this:

wobble siren sharp and hot fight for warming Persian music hold ready parking alarm to protect changing changing changing nothing safe

If I choose to sketch, the solar plexus felt sense draws this:

I resonate as I go, noticing when a word or line or movement feels dissonant, as though it’s coming from somewhere else, and adjusting to stay true to the felt sense.

Lauren claimed during the class, and I agree, that this is what artists are actually doing when they create things. They’re doing additional stuff too, because what I’ve described is merely expression, and art is a kind of communication. Communication is a refined form of expression that usually involves design and editing in addition to expression. But I think the unrefined expression is at the core of art.

Without any further modifications, I’ve found this approach to focusing (if that’s even what it is?) valuable for its purity.

By “purity” here, I mean purity of observation, as in “observe first, infer later”. I mean that the product of the process — the drawing or the poem-like thing or whatever — retains a lot of info that’s super intimate with what I’m actually feeling, and is relatively uncontaminated by my concepts of emotions or my stories about why I’m feeling a thing.

There’s a lot of room for me to go back afterward to examine my drawing “from the outside”, and perhaps reason about the experiences it expresses, without compromising my original sight of the experience. For example, I can step out of the felt sense, look at the drawing, and recognize “ah yes, this looks like my mind marshaling defenses to protect the soft round parts from the sharp chaos of the outside world”. I didn’t need to boot up anything resembling a hypothesis to make the drawing, so my perceptions weren’t (as) warped by the hypothesis while I drew. Now that the drawing exists, I can look back and reason about it, like having a transcript of an important conversation that happened six months ago.


My use of this method has evolved over time.

I no longer draw stuff on paper very often, or make words or move my body. I do all of that sometimes, especially when I'm having trouble concentrating. But mostly I use my imagination. I go inside of a felt sense, then let it “sketch” on my imagination, using whatever imagined medium it likes. I get images, sounds, other bodily sensations, dance moves, scents, and even concepts and stories.

Doing this with the chest tightness (which is now more in the center of my chest and a bit less in my solar plexus): There’s a cold iron vice squeezing something like mochi, a bee hive with visual imagery and sound of bees, and a fairy woman dressed in blue with her hair in a messy bun and longing body language, who splits into two people, one of whom shifts to resignation and slumps over a table and the other of whom flies upward into warm sunlight.

I also use this at different times than I used to. Originally I mainly used it when I felt “something’s wrong”, and wanted to know what. Now I use it as a very general tool for original seeing, any time I expect my stories and concepts are limiting me. I used it to get much better at smelling, for instance, following the guess that food-concept orientation drastically limited my ability to perceive scents.

But my favorite use is when I “find the felt sense of the ground of a proposition”. For example, the coffee shop I’m in right now is a 501(c)3 non-profit that (somehow) helps refugees. So this proposition has been floating around in my head the whole time I’ve been here: “a non-profit coffee shop must be terribly altruistically inefficient”.

To do (something like) creative focusing on this proposition, I first need to find the “ground” of the proposition. It’s sort of a summary of the proposition that contains nearly all of the oomph. In this case, if I articulate it in words, it’s something like “altruistic coffee shop dumb”.

The ground of a proposition is half-way between a System 2 representation of a belief, and the squishy System 1 stuff where expectations live. This kind of “ground” of a proposition is usually associated with a bodily felt sense. Once I find that felt sense, I can get inside of it. (I’ve found that propositions aren’t always in my body. They’re often near my body but outside of it, especially ones I think are false.)

“Altruistic coffee shop dumb” lives in the back of my head where my skull meets my spine. It’s warm and buzzy with a little pinching. When I go inside of it and let it express itself in my imagination, I get a crab with pinching claws, a bunch of pennies pouring through a sieve, a hot lava flow moving outward from the back of my head in all directions, and a mob of dusty yelling people having a giant fist-fight and trying to climb on top of each other.

I can now ask myself, “what about each of these images feels somehow related to expectations?” For instance, the crab with claws involves precision and uncompromisingness and the ruthless reality of supply and demand.

I also use approximately this method, sometimes, when someone asks me a question and I don’t know how to answer. I’ll often find myself scrabbling for a coherent response that I don’t necessarily believe. When I notice this happening, I stop myself, and instead I say, “When I consider that, I imagine [some crazy imagery].” From there I start analyzing the imagery, and drawing conclusions.

The conclusions may or may not make sense, but at least they have more to do with my genuine thoughts on the subject than with some story I want to tell about how my model of the world is coherent and my mind is unified and consistent.

What is "original seeing"? I'm not sure, but when I consider it right now, I imagine falling apart into a million particles of dust that seep into the crevices of the world.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Person-Framing Language

Starting last weekend and going until March, I’ll be spending every other weekend in yoga teacher training, learning how to be a yoga instructor.

I have a lot of reasons for doing this, one of which is that I would in fact like to teach yoga from time to time. But the reason that really convinced me to finally do it is this: My own yoga practice suggests that yoga relies a lot on original seeing, and I have a strong hunch that yoga instructors are largely in the business of inducing original seeing in their students. I’ve recently been pretty focused on questions like, “What are the most efficient tactics for helping other people see what’s actually in front of them?”. So I’m hoping to mine this teacher training program for pedagogical content knowledge about original seeing.

I think I encountered a real gem in the PCK department last weekend, and I’d like to share it with you.

As yoga instructors, we’re encouraged to avoid pronouns during classes. For example, instead of saying “step your left foot forward”, we should say something like, “step the left foot forward”, or just “step left foot forward”.

The meta-teacher gave a few reasons for this, but one of them felt really shiny to me. He said that part of our job as yoga instructors is to “take students out of their stories”. He didn’t elaborate on this, but I think it reveals a lot about what he thinks it’s like to practice yoga and to teach it.

He seems to think that if a yoga instructor says “your foot”, you’re enabling story-telling (whatever that is) in the student, when the target mental state is something counter to story-telling.

I wanted to investigate this, so I invented and tried the following exercise (which you could try too, if you felt like it).

Choose a topic, and write about it for at least five minutes. Avoid person-framing language: Do not use words like “I”, “my”, “mine”, “he”, “they” or “one”.

Further (optional) instructions:

  • Begin with a concrete non-social topic like “the breakfast I’m eating right now”.
  • If you want to do more, move to some innocuous social thing like “last time I saw my friend Jeff”.
  • Then, if you have the hang of it and really want to apply this as a tool, choose a fraught social topic like “the turmoil going on in my community this past week”.

I noticed some interesting things when I did this.

The first thing I noticed was that merely avoiding specific words wasn’t enough to really sink into it (unsurprisingly). For example, I originally failed to include “one” in my list of words to avoid, and had to recognize in the middle of the exercise that using “one” was cheating. So if you do this, you’ll need to seek the spirit of the thing as you go, and notice when you’re falling out of step with it.

I also noticed that I spoke a lot, at first, in terms of bodies, as though watching from the outside. I said “The body writing is finishing breakfast.” And I perceived a sort of trap there. It’s well and good to write about bodies, but I was aware of a searching-for-my-keys-beneath-the-lamp-post feeling. I would begin to form a sentence like “I am finishing my breakfast,” realize the sentence didn’t follow the rules, and then slide toward describing an entirely different observation that would be easier to express in a rules-adhering way.

Following the spirit of the exercise lead me to directly confront the parts of the world I tend to describe person-ly. When I leaned into that, there was a lot that sounded like Focusing a la Gendlin: “there is tightness in this chest, and a searching sensation”.

When I leaned into it more, the words seemed to reveal a lot about how I implicitly believe human minds work. Instead of “the body writing,” I began to say things like “the agency and composition processes currently active”. I wrote, “It seems as though attention in this brain has drifted toward an association region that involves memories, imaginings, and expectations about restaurants and headaches”.

I also noticed that the more I did this, the more I tended to choose phenomenological terminology. Lots of words like “seem”, “expect”, and “a perception of”, things that only speak of the world in terms of immediate experience.

I shied away from statements that bundled together observation, inference, and claim. For instance, just to test it, I wrote, “How strange this is!”, and indeed that statement felt out of sync with everything else I had written. The claim that “the exercise is strange” is such a high-level summary. Reflecting on this, I wrote, “A claim of strangeness follows an assessment of strangeness, which follows a perception of strangeness, which follows small observations, each accompanied by feelings of non-expectation, or dissonance, or other things that together might be summarized as ‘strange’.”

The exercise as stated didn’t actually require adherence to phenomenological terminology, or careful separation of mental motions. A phrase like “How strange this is!” ought to be permitted. It doesn’t obviously presuppose personhood. But for whatever reason, avoiding person-reifying language led me to write like a phenomenologist.

Writing about other people was stifling, but also liberating. It was terribly difficult to write about “the turmoil in my community” without talking in terms of people. But what I did actually manage to write down was quite satisfying. I asked, “What is the current hoping of the active processes guiding composition about which phrases near-by bodies will emit in a week when the brains piloting them attend to association regions involving concepts of ‘community policy’ and ‘consent’?”

There’s a crisp-ness to that question, though its phrasing be cumbersome. The thoughts summoned by that question needn’t pass through complex social filters. Or at least if they do, it’s not the fault of the question itself. It’s a spacious question. It gives about as much room as possible to think about humans as I think about shingles, or music, or any other thing that exists in the universe and doesn’t carry a giant perception-warping story around with it all the time.

And I know there are good reasons to think about people in terms of those big stories we all help each other carry. That’s part of what I like about this exercise: I became much more aware of what work pershonhood stories are doing. Everyone is sort of naked and exposed without them, and perhaps crippled when it comes to complex multi-human relationships. It’s rude to think about people the same way you think of shingles. And “rude” is an extraordinarily person-reifying word.

I also think that social frames may be the greatest obstacle to original seeing.

“One of the things yoga has given me,” said my meta-teacher last weekend, “is clarity to see the truth of the present moment.” I think it gives me the same, and the way yoga teachers talk is probably part of how. A rare and precious clarity is available when I can move, at any time, to a mental space where it would just never occur to me that “I” could step “my” left foot forward.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Photo Studies

When I was in Indiana, I took dozens of snapshots of a slide. This slide.

It was out in a field with a whole collection of elderly playground equipment, and I found it visually interesting. So I did a study of it.

In painting, a “study” is a sketch (or multiple sketches) done in preparation for the final painting. It’s an exploration of a subject, with attention to the problems you’ll likely encounter while rendering it. If you’re drawn to the way an article of clothing drapes, for example, but you’re not familiar with the fabric, maybe you try a few ways of painting the fabric, to see what happens. You also experiment with design elements like like color, lighting, and composition. You might learn that to illuminate the flower you want to feature, you’ll need the light to come in at a different angle than you first imagined.

The idea is the same in photography, but the execution’s different. In photography, you can’t use a brush stroke to change the shape of the subject. There are filters and focus tricks and so forth, but film is more like a mirror than a canvas. What you see is what you get. If you want a different picture of the same subject, you’ll have to find a new way of seeing it.

I’m not sure how the professionals do it, but my study of the slide was pretty methodical, at least at first.

I began at a distance. I chose a starting position that filled my frame with the subject, focused, and took a picture. Then I moved a few steps to the left, focused, and took another picture. I did this until I’d moved 360 degrees around the slide.

Then I repeated the same procedure, but from my knees instead of my feet, and I started moving closer.

Next I began to explore the visual experiences of playing on the slide. Walking under it, climbing on it, sliding down it.

By the time I was done with that part, my state of mind had shifted considerably. I felt much less like “I want to take a good picture of a slide”, and more like “I want to know this object’s every mode of being”. It was almost like I was in love with the slide.

I started to take photos that had nothing to do with my concept of slides, and everything to do with this particular slide. Photos from unlikely angles, photos of details that don’t suggest a slide at all, photos of unique opportunities this slide presents for perceiving the environment.

I did a few photo studies on my trip, and they all felt to me like a gradual spiraling inward. They always began with a concept called “slide” (or whatever) and a vague interest. They ended with a fountain of fascination, intimacy, and love for something that meant almost nothing to me before I started.

And I bring this up because the approach I take to photo studies seems like the very same approach I take to solving vague problems, or training new skills when there’s nobody to tell me how to do it.

I think the photo study is a ritual for inducing Original Seeing. It can work with any sort of medium, including introspective. The trick is to build the right kind of camera.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

How To Smell

Most of the ideas in this post come from the book Being A Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell by Alexandra Horowitz, which is my favorite nonfiction book I’ve read in a long time. She, in turn, took much of what I discuss from Kate McClean, an artist who makes sensory maps of urban environments. But this is certainly my own take, and the instructions as I present them are at times in conflict with what I think each of those people would suggest.

Smelling is a skill. Unless you make perfume for a living, you probably don’t know how to smell. Here are what I consider to be the basics of good olfactory practice.

  1. Assume that everything has an odor. Assume that every single physical object around you emits volatile compounds that you, personally, can detect. This may not be true, but that doesn’t matter. Pretend, for now, that it is. You’ll learn faster this way.

  2. Practice good sniffing. First and foremost, good sniffing means putting your nose right up against the object you want to sniff. Maybe you’re more comfortable picking things up with your hands and holding them a few inches from your face — most of us are — but that’s poor form. Most odorous compounds are heavier than air, and your nose needs to be where the molecules are to ingest them. Plus, when you pick something up, especially a small bit of something, you’re going to be smelling your hand. So pretend you’re a dog. Get down on your hands and knees, if you have to, and bring your muzzle right to the object, until you can feel its surface with the tip of your nose. Then close your eyes, and sniff.

  3. To dislodge more of the smelly snuff, try a sharp exhalation through your nostrils right before you sniff. If you watch dogs sniffing, you’ll see that they do this all the time. It makes a surprisingly large difference.

  4. You’ll also find more smells by scratching things first, rubbing them, or otherwise disturbing their surfaces.

  5. Associate with what you smell. I recommend narrating your thoughts, either by speaking or by writing them down. Let your mind wander, and don’t worry about making any sense. Nouns, verbs, and adjectives are all fair game. So are images, sounds, and dance moves. Treat the smell like an inkblot test. Take a sniff, and say whatever comes to mind. Give it at least ten seconds, but thirty is better. If you haven’t named five things the smell reminds you of, you’re not done smelling it yet.

  6. Maybe it’s not clear to you that you’re smelling anything at all. Doesn’t matter. Everything has an odor, remember? You’re having an olfactory experience of some kind, even if you haven’t recognized it yet, so just start associating. You’ll learn about what you smell as you go.

  7. “Good” and “bad” are not smells. They’re mostly predictions about whether something is safe to eat. When you judge that something smells “good”, just pass right by that thought, and keep on associating. Same for anything that smells “bad”. If you get stuck at this step, reach for the specific (un)pleasant associations that come to mind while you’re smelling the object.

  8. Don’t worry so much about which things smell like which other things. For example, maybe you’ve just sniffed unwashed socks, and thereby invited a familiar compound into your olfactory system. During its stay, you happened upon an association with parmesan cheese. There really is a chemical similarity between your socks and parmesan cheese — namely butyric acid — but what matters is not that the two items smell similar. What matters is that the experience reminds you of parmesan cheese. If you’re always searching for the known relative of a smell, you’ll miss all the scents you’ve never named before. Recognize that “parmesan cheese” has come to mind while smelling, and leave it at that.

Smell Walks

Now that you know the basics, try going for a smell walk. A smell walk is just a walk, but instead of looking at stuff all the time, you relate to your environment primarily through scent. Here are a few more tips for smell walks in particular.

  1. When you arrive at a new location, take note of the background smells.
  2. Elicit three smells per location.
  3. While moving, watch out for momentary smells.
  4. Bring a bottle of water. Your nasal passages need to be a little damp to catch the particles.
  5. Bring tissues. Some of the particles will irritate your nose.
  6. Bring friends!
  7. When there’s an especially interesting smell, invite others to share it with you.

I really enjoy smell walks. They feel indulgent and exciting to me, and I love watching the constant discovery and surprise of my friends when I bring others along. There’s a lot of intimacy in smelling.

I’ve done enough smell walks in my neighborhood that I think I can probably estimate my location to the nearest street corner (maybe better) just by smell, if I’m within a few blocks of my house. I think my nose is about as good as average, based on my experiences taking people on smell walks. If that sounds unlikely to you, you’re probably drastically underestimating how good you are at smelling. Humans have much better noses than they tend to think.

Scent is so neglected in human experience. I think it’s largely because we walk on two legs, and use our hands to examine things. We just don’t spend much time down where the smells are.

It makes me sad, because there’s a whole world of olfactory experience that’s never instantiated. If I ask someone about their day, people will tell me what they saw, and maybe what they heard, but almost nobody tells me what they smelled.

And if someone does mention smell, it’s almost always because something smelled either disgusting or delicious. The world is so full of smells, of so many kinds, but hardly anybody notices. I’d like it if more people engaged with the world through scent.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Instead of making a resolution,

meditate on…

  • What have I gained in the past year? In what ways do I feel augmented compared to the self I remember from this time last year? How do I feel about that?
  • What have I lost in the past year? In what ways am I diminished compared to the self I remember from this time last year? How do I feel about that?
  • What important things do I believe now that I did not believe at this time last year? What are the practical consequences? What does it mean for the world to be the way that it is, instead of the way that I thought it was?
  • What sort of person might I hope to be, if I knew I had a few centuries to become them? What is standing in my way of being that version of myself? What will I need to gain before I can become them? What will I need to lose?

make a list of…

  • things I need to grieve, but haven’t yet.
  • grudges I’m holding onto.
  • things I’m grateful for from people I haven’t thanked yet.
  • things I’m afraid to ask for.

  • bugs.
  • things about my living or working environment that get in my way, or could be better.
  • things I do mostly because I feel like I’m “supposed to”, or “it’s expected”, or “it’s what I’ve always done”.
  • traits exhibited by the people I admire most.
  • things that make me feel fear and longing at the same time.
  • things I think I’m bad at but have never Actually Tried.
  • good-seeming things that feel impossible, but that I’ve never Actually Tried to cause.
  • skillsets I want to level up in.
  • cognitive habits I might like to install or bolster.
  • limitations, incompetencies, or other obstacles that are in the way of gaining a skill I want.
  • common experiences it might help to be good at noticing.

  • things I would expect from the upcoming year if I were unrealistically pessimistic.
  • things I would expect from the upcoming year if I were unrealistically optimistic.
  • challenges I might encounter in the upcoming year.
  • opportunities available to me now that weren’t available at this time last year.
  • things some part of me wants, but that I feel like I’m not allowed to want.
  • problems I have no idea how to solve.

write a sentence or three describing…

  • what I expect this year will be like.
  • what would happen if I just stopped doing one of the things I’m “supposed to do”.
  • what I love about a cherished interpersonal relationship.
  • what I’d like to change about a cherished interpersonal relationship.
  • how I messed up in one of my projects from the past year.
  • what I learned from one of my projects in the past year.
  • an experience from the past year that reminds me of a way I’d like to grow.
  • an ability that might be unlocked by skills I’ve recently gained.
  • a best version of myself.
  • my current bottleneck.
  • the next act in the story of my life.


Thursday, September 14, 2017

Softs Review: Noise Cancelling Wireless Ear Buds

I want to tell you about my latest cybernetic enhancement: Sony’s new WI1000X noise canceling earbuds. (I’m not getting paid for this, I’m just excited.) Since a bunch of my friends use Bose Quiet Comfort 20 noise canceling ear buds, and that’s what I’ve used for the past year, I’ll do it by comparing the two.

Verdict: I prefer Sony WI1000X ear buds to Bose Quiet Comfort 20 ear buds.

My Sony WI1000X ear buds arrived yesterday. I’ve been traveling around today switching back and forth between them and my old Bose QC20s, deciding whether to keep the Sonys, or return them and stick with Bose.

Notes On Noise Cancellation In General

I’ve tried several over-ear headphones with active noise cancellation, a few over-ear headphones with passive noise cancellation, a couple kinds of high-quality earmuffs, and many brands of ear plugs. For me, in-ear active noise cancellation was best, and the Bose QC20s in particular won out last time I was shopping for noise control (which was a bit over a year ago).

Both the Sony WI1000Xs and the Bose QC20s are in-ear headphones with active noise cancellation (meaning they do some kind of high-tech electronic thing to cancel out incoming sounds, rather than just plugging your ears like, well, earplugs.). The first thing I want to say about both of these is that I find them woefully inadequate for noise cancellation. As far as I can tell, they’re the best options currently available; current tech just isn’t up to the job of granting me sufficient control over my auditory experiences. They do not come close to creating artificial silence, unless the natural soundscape is already nearly silent.

But they do substantially soften audioscapes. A car engine sounds more like an annoying clickety thing and less like a scary monster. A crowd sounds more like an incessant murmur. Screechy bus brakes sound like somewhat quieter screechy bus brakes. And to me, that’s worth a lot.

Bose QC20

The Bose QC20s are The Wirecutter’s top rec, and they’ve gotten quite popular among my friends. They really are shockingly effective, and represent a substantial QOL boost for me. But they are not exactly a delight to interact with, for two main reasons.

First, there’s a battery that hangs at the end of the cord close to my phone. Whenever I move around, and especially when I walk anywhere, the cord tugs on my ears. I find this unpleasant. I’ve always had this problem with wired earbuds, but the battery pack makes it worse. Running with them is nearly impossible, since it’s the same tugging I get with walking, but harder. Worse yet is when I try to use them in a supermarket, because the cord invariably gets caught on the handle of the basket, or on some item I’m trying to put in the basket, and the ear buds are yanked out of my ears. (I’ve actually given up on going to the supermarket, for the most part.)

Second, it makes a quiet high-pitched whine, presumably a result of the active noise cancellation. Which is HORRIBLE. It’s a lot better than the screechy bus brakes I’m trying to block out, but it’s just infuriating that I have to choose between the sounds of my environment, and the awful sound of this device that’s supposed to be keeping me safe. It’s like, “Would you prefer street sounds, or complimentary tinnitus?”. And the only thing you can do about it is exactly what you do if you’ve got tinnitus: Play music or white noise. Again, better than screechy bus brakes, but still not ideal when I’m trying to get away from sound.

For these two reasons - ear-tugging and artificial tinnitus - I’ve taken to carrying the earbuds with me, and only putting them in at the last possible minute, when I just can’t stand the harshness of the environment any longer. (Sometimes that’s five seconds after I leave my house, but I often last much longer.) Which is a hell of a lot better than waiting until the last possible minute and then not having noise-canceling ear buds to rescue me. But it’s a far cry from making me a care-free autistic cyborg.

My other criticism of the QC20s is more minor, but it’s put me back on the market for new noise-canceling ear buds: They’re not super durable.

The rubber stuff that used to cover the battery pack started to tear shortly after I got them, and after a few months it was bad enough that I just removed the covering entirely. The battery pack isn’t as nice to touch anymore, and it makes a slightly louder sound when I set the ear buds on the table. Which is whatever.

What finally did it is the l-shaped connector. The rubber that covers the wires at the neck of the connector has severed, so now the wires are exposed. I covered them with electrical tape, but it’s just a matter of time before the wires themselves give out. Thus, I seek a replacement.

There’s one more thing to note about my experience with the QC20s, and I almost left it out because I can’t put my finger on what’s causing it. But somehow, using them feels… stuffy.

Maybe it’s the specific frequencies they block, or the shape of the ear buds, or the high-pitched whine. I can’t tell. Whatever it is, it feels a little like being under water, and if I use them for very long, especially if I’m not playing music or an audiobook, I start feeling dissociated.

I figured this was just a property of noise control in general, a result of divorcing my audiotory experiences from my other sensory experiences. But so far, I’m not getting this with Sony.

Sony WI1000X

The Sony WI1000Xs are not obviously better at canceling noise. Nor are they obviously worse.

If you told me that you’d measured objectively and found that one blocked more noise than the other, my money would be on Bose. But I wouldn’t bet very much. They’re close enough to equal on that front that despite switching back and forth dozens of times in a few different noisy environments today, I can’t tell if theres a difference in degree of noise cancellation. I suspect they block slightly different frequencies, but I can’t tell which ones. With respect to noise-cancellation, they’re equivalent in practice.

Which is a big deal, since there really weren’t any rivals for the Bose QC20s a year ago. QC20s even outperformed other products in the Bose Quiet Comfort line, including the over-ear QC25s. I haven’t tried the wireless in-ear QC30s myself, but Amazon reviews suggest that people who bought them after owing QC20s were disappointed.

Besides matching the Bose QC20s for noise cancellation, I’m excited about three things with the Sony WI1000Xs.

One, they’re wireless. They’re not as weightless as my ordinary wireless earbuds - I’ve been using Jaybird X3s for running and biking - because there’s still a battery to fuel the noise cancellation. But rather than hanging on the end of a string that tugs at my ears all the time, the battery is a collar that rests comfortably around my neck. It’s very light, and doesn’t bother me at all when I’m walking.

Turns out it’s even light enough that I can pin it to my head with hair clips and use it while working out. It works for inverted yoga poses and everything. Makes me want to replace part of my skull with a battery pack, like a proper cyborg.

Two, THERE’S NO WHINE. There’s a very small static-like noise that I can just make out if I listen for it, but it doesn’t hurt. This tiny static thing is by far the least annoying auditory byproduct of active noise cancellation I’ve encountered so far, and I’m pretty ok with it.

Third, the sound quality is astounding.

High sound quality is something I neither require nor expect in ear buds of any kind, let alone wireless ones with active noise cancellation. But I do care about sound quality; I know it doesn’t matter at all for many people, but I’m one of those music geeks with five hundred dollar audiophile headphones, which I treat like a sacramental religious object. I have a Spottify playlist called “immaculate classical”, and I only listen to those songs on my Sennheiser HD 598s because it sounds blasphemous on any other audio device I regularly encounter.

There’s a specific song I use to test sound quality in headphones: Leopold Stokowsky’s orchestral arrangement of Bach’s Little Fugue in G Minor. (That’s a link to Youtube, where the audio quality is too low and WARNING it will probably auto-play. I actually use the Spottify recording, but not everybody has Spottify.) It’s a perfect song for this, because the orchestra comes in a little at a time, instrument by instrument, weaving a few phrases in and out over and over again. You get to hear how the headphones deliver the same melody in different ranges one after another. Then they all come together at the end and you can listen to the whole range of orchestral frequencies at once.

When evaluating headphones with this song, the main questions I ask are, in chronological order, “Are the oboe and clarinet broad or squished?”, “Is the horn rich or muddy?”, “Are the strings warm or cold?”, “Are the flutes shrill or soft?”, “Does the whole bass section lay flat or rumble?”, and “What is the emotional impact?”.

When I hear this song with broad reeds, rich horns, warm strings, soft winds, and rumbling bass, the impact is the same every time: I giggle, gasp, and shiver with awe. But every part has to be in place. On low-quality headphones, this song does nothing for me.

With the QC20s, the oboes and clarinets are squished, the flutes are sharp, the mi-range instruments are muddy, the bass absolutely does not not rumble, and the whole thing sounds thin. Which is, ya know, par for the course with ear buds. They’re not supposed to be audiophile headphones. The sound quality isn’t bad for ear buds in general - in fact it’s quite good, ordinary $40 earbuds are significantly worse at sound quality - but listening to Little Fugue on them feels sad and empty.

Which is exactly the experience I expected with the WI1000Xs. So when I played Little Fugue on them and found that it sounded more like it does on my Sennheisers than on my QC20s, I was more than a little surprised. It doesn’t match the Sennheiser HD 598s, but honestly it’s not that far behind. I am willing to listen to my immaculate classical list on these, and although that’s not what matters to me in a noise control device, it is certainly the most impressive feature of the WI1000Xs from my perspective. Warm oboes, crisp horns, and god damn rumbly bass on tiny little ear buds! I did not know that was currently possible.

There are only two things I so far disprefer about the Sony WI1000Xs compared to the Bose QC20s. The first is that when the battery cut out, Sony didn’t give me a warning beforehand. Bose says something like “battery level low” around twenty minutes before you actually run out of juice, and while I really wish they’d communicate such info by texting my phone or something rather than saying words directly into my ear, I do appreciate the chance to adjust my plans.

The second is that the audio cuts out sometimes. It happens about as often as with my wireless sports ear buds (I use Jbird X2s). It’s super annoying when it happens, but it depends a lot on how far the phone is from the receiver and what’s in the way, so I have some control. If I keep my phone in my back pocket while I’m wearing a backpack that contains a laptop, the audio glitches multiple times a minute. But if I keep my phone in my front shirt pocket, or in my bra, it never glitches.

Hopes For Future Tech

Here are the things I most want to see in my next auditory cybernetic enhancement.

  1. Better noise cancellation, obviously, especially for the higher frequencies.
  2. Let me turn off spoken announcements from the device, and send the info to my phone as text instead.
  3. Sound recognition. I’d like to be able to point at a particular source of sound, like a single person’s voice, and cancel everything besides that. Which is exactly what Orosound’s Tilde ear buds are supposed to do (though using directionality, not actual sound recognition as I’d like), but I just heard about them for the first time today. I’m pretty skeptical and don’t expect them to measure up to the Sony/Bose standard in noise cancellation overall, but if I try them out I’ll add a note here.
  4. A completely wireless hearing-aid-like design. These exist, but the tech is young and they’re still pretty glitchy.
  5. Precise, highly customizable, speech-focused equalization. Some people’s voices are grating to me, and I hate this because it means I can’t stand bodyspace interactions with certain people I’d otherwise get along with just fine. If I could adjust which frequencies are sent through to my ears, perhaps it would solve this problem. Earbuds with built-in equilizers do exist - Here One looks pretty exciting, plus it’s truly wireless - but so far everything I’ve seen “tunes into speech while tuning out the plane engine”, which doesn’t sound precise enough to control my experience of individual voices.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Tasting Godhood

words: 2477

[Note: This is my take on a thing I’ve been learning from Max Harms. He’s very good at it, from my perspective. I am not.]

When I savor a wine, I am careful and slow. I attend and adjust, listening intently, as though I’m waiting for a very quiet song over an old radio that I have to tune.

What is the song? It’s never “this wine tastes good” or “this wine tastes bad”. The song was composed by someone else, and they were trying to communicate what they were thinking and feeling as they crafted it. My goals and values are not components of their song.

The song of the wine itself is carried on things like “a tingly peppery spice at the tip of my tongue”. It interacts with my own mind, of course, and when it’s filtered through my memories it might come to me as “the time when Grandpa and I were eating oatmeal raisin cookies while he smoked a pipe”. From that I can extract “oatmeal, raisins, and tobacco”, and hold those perceptions against the other sensations created by the wine, to taste the larger shape of its flavor. I sometimes do free-association while drinking wine, to pick up more subtleties like this.

There are lots of subtleties, lots of sensations going on all at once, and I have to listen closely to hear all the parts. I usually have to listen multiple times.

In early college, when I drank wine for the first time outside of Mass, my experience was very different. I was mainly concerned with whether I could tolerate the taste long enough to get drunk.

I don’t mean to say that it’s better to experience food and drink as art. Sometimes wolfing down the nutrients needed to run my body is exactly the right thing to do.

What I’m pointing at, rather, is that my brain is programmed to efficiently assess whether food is safe to eat, and whether it is calorically rich. Chefs, winemakers, and other culinary artists are doing their own thing, which is almost orthogonal to the goals (so to speak) of biological evolution. So, if I want to know what a carefully crafted food actually tastes like, then I have to do something weird with my mind. I have to be an epicure, which I would not do by default, because it’s not part of a human mind’s factory settings.

This is, of course, a metaphor for rationality in general. But I’m going to apply it a bit more precisely than that.


When I struggle to empathize with someone (which is pretty much every time I try, in my case), the main obstacle is the very same thing that originally prevented me from tasting wine.

By default, I’m only perceiving a few blunt fragments of info about how they relate to my goals and values. Are they smart? Do they signal like my in-group? Are they easy to talk to? Do they enjoy the same things as me? Can I tolerate this wine long enough to get drunk?

And I’m filtering the info so quickly that I’m not even aware it’s happening, unless I’m looking right at the process. The thing that makes it to consciousness and feels like “my perception of the person” actually contains more of my song than theirs. I’ve discarded most of their personhood.

Again, I’m not saying that this is always bad. I need to be able to make quick judgments, sometimes, about whether a person is safe or dangerous, friend or enemy, smart or dumb.

But if I want, for whatever reason, to see them for more of what they are than for what I am, I have to do a weird thing with my mind. I have to be an epicure of personhood, to see them as an artistic experience in the midst of creating itself.

I can’t always do it. It’s hard for me. But when I deliberately choose to try, and then it works, here’s how that happens.

First, I take on a mental posture I call “dreaming”. It’s the one I use for brain storming, fiction writing, and solving lateral thinking puzzles. Its central features are disinhibition and creativity. If you want to know what it feels like, name as many animals as you can in the next minute.

When I name as many animals as I can in the next minute, it starts out feeling sort of panicked, then easy and familiar, and then I feel struggle when I begin to run out of dogs, cats, and elephants. And then, often, something shifts, and things start flowing again. I name animals I haven’t thought about for a long time, like tapirs and rat snakes. I describe animals whose names I can’t remember, like those fish with the transparent heads and you can see their brains. I even begin to name things like venus fly traps, and then I go, “wait, that’s not an animal”. Everything after that shift is “dreaming”.

So I start to dream about the person in front of me, using the bits and pieces of what I know of them (and of people in general). They are a prompt, a seed for association.

I dream about what they might have done that day - taking the train to work, Kindle sitting on their lap as the train lurches and roars; meeting their spouse for lunch and receiving a kiss on the cheek; choosing the green shirt they’re wearing from among the other shirts in their closet. I dream about experiences from earlier times in their life - riding in the back seat of a car, boxes crammed in all around them, as their family moved across the country, or the last conversation they had with their best friend from high school. If I know that being a student is important to them, and that they’ve been struggling with the structure and culture of academia, I might imagine them watching the clock during a dull lecture.

Next, I shift into first person perspective while I continue dreaming about them. At first the shift is just outrospective: the arm rest of the couch is under ”my” arm, and I don’t see my own head or face as I make eye contact with “my” best friend from high school.

But then I focus in on the emotions, especially the ones related to what they want in that situation, and I feed in anything I can infer about their values, aspirations, and talents. What might it be like for this person to visit their hometown after a couple years of college, and hang out with someone they used to be close to but has gone their own way since then?

I might get something like pining, and the feeling of familiar ground being suddenly strange. That would be mixed with curiosity and caring. Maybe a little shame that my caring is more “for old time’s sake” than genuine interest in the person in front of me. I try to see the answers from a first-person emotional perspective, just like like the visuals but fleshed out with introspective sensations as well this time. It feels like filling my own body with their experiences.

Then I change the genre from “semi-biographical Earthfic” to something like “semi-biographical far-future utopion sci-fi/fantasy”. I use those emotion-and-value-laden first person experiences from their past and present, and dream about what they might become, what they might do, what it might feel like to be them, if all their current limitations were eliminated. If they could actually get what they wanted. If they lived in a world optimized for their own flourishing. If, basically, they were a god.

(I often set this a couple centuries out in a world with a slow AI takeoff, instead of a foom-type intelligence explosion. The first thing is a lot easier to imagine in concrete detail, and I’m going for richness over accuracy.)

My father is a high school biology teacher. He also raises animals, and loves nurturing things in general. When I did house chores as a kid, he’d have me cover the mesh ceilings of terrariums with ice so that as it melted, his lizards could drink the rain.

^That time the emu got cold so Dad gave it his sweater.

When I imagine his distant future, sometimes I think of a whole planet with nothing but interesting creatures for him to cultivate and love. He doesn’t spend all his time there, but he at least takes long visits.

I think of him exploring an alien forest and finding a crab that shimmers strangely. (Surprise, interest, curiosity, excitement, examination.) He takes it back to his lab - a giant greenhouse in the middle of the forest, packed with all kinds of sciency gadgets. (Adventure, planning, inquiry, caretaking, diligence.) After lots of investigation, perhaps with the help of younger naturalists he mentors, he understands what causes it to shimmer. Then he begins to manipulate pockets of his planet’s ecosystem so that other creatures can shimmer as well. (Creativity, advancement, satisfaction.)

I call this “tasting godhood”. Or, sometimes, “tasting personhood”. They are the same.

At this point in the process, it becomes hard not to see the person as an artistic process. But even so, I might move back and forth between different periods in their lives: their future as it contains their past, and their past as it contains their future. I feel for the similarities between the experiences of the future god and the experience of the present person. Dad’s experience as he makes a comfortable space for the shimmery crab in his forest greenhouse is similar to his experience when he covers the terrariums in his apartment with ice cubes. One is a human, and the other a god, but they are instances of a single person.

^Dad’s sulcata tortoise has a Tile glued to its shell, so he can be found via bluetooth when he wanders off. One day Darwin dislodged the Tile, and then went on a grand adventure. I found out when Dad made a Facebook post asking all his students and friends to keep an eye out for a seventy pound tortoise roaming the countryside. “His tracker isn't working. I've been searching for hours,” he wrote. “He is very friendly, and loves strawberries.” If it had gone on any longer, I think he’d have printed up dozens of “Have you seen this tortoise???” fliers and scattered them about the little towns near his farm. But Darwin came back, all on his own! And Dad fed him fruit to welcome him home.

The specific experiences I imagine are probably quite different from the ones the person actually has/had/will have, but the point is that I’m perceiving them in a different way. I’m looking for the particular notes in the complex bouquet of their personhood, not deciding whether I can tolerate them long enough to collaborate on a project. Not drinking the wine just to get drunk.

It’s a lot easier to empathize with a person when I’m actually paying attention to them, instead of to how they relate to my goals. This is pretty obvious, in retrospect. But unless I do the weird epicurean thing, “how they relate to my goals” just is what “perceiving another person” feels like, even when I’m deliberately focusing on them. And when I’m not deliberately focusing on them, perceiving another person tends to feel like walking past furniture.

Undoubtedly, that’s partially because I’m missing important social software that comes pre-installed for most people. Still, much of what I know about how human minds work suggests that even neurotypicals spend most of their time a lot closer to the “wine is good or bad” side of social perception than the “oatmeal cookies and grandpa’s pipe” side. At the very least, they lack control over their position on that spectrum.

But there’s another way this practice might be used even when empathy is very easy for you: Tasting godhood doesn’t have to be directed at someone else. You are a person as well.


I often look for my own godhood by this method. I go through exactly the same procedure - dreaming about specific experiences, imagining the present, imagining the past, speculating about the future - using myself as a prompt. In some ways it’s easier, because I can draw on memories rather than just imaginings.

Why would I do this, if I already know exactly what it’s like to be me? Well in fact I’m often not aware of what it’s like to be “me”, in the sense of being a complex pattern of values and experiences and decisions, distributed across time. It’s easy to focus in on the pieces of the pattern that are surfacing in the current moment, forgetting that there are many other ways I have been or might become.

And it’s easy to tell a simple story about myself that’s really just a few blunt fragments of info involving whatever happens to be on my mind at the moment. So it’s especially useful to spend some time tasting my godhood when I’m judging myself harshly, when I’m only able to see myself in terms of simple hateful judgments like “I am broken” or “I am stupid and lazy”.

I think this method is an especially good way into self-compassion at those times. When I’ve tried to find self compassion by other methods, the main sticking point has been that they work by denying or at least distracting me from accurate perceptions of weakness or whatever. Telling my shame to just shove it almost never works.

When I taste my godhood, though, I see the truth of those judgements in context. I see the way my struggles result from conflicts between what I most deeply value and the constraints of a broken world. And this happens as a side effect of seeing myself Originally, even if I’m just trying to “remember myself”, as opposed to processing shame in particular.

I don’t feel hatred toward an oak seedling for not being a hundred feet tall, especially when it’s growing in a desert. Even though it’s small and fragile. (Of course it’s small. Of course it’s fragile.) Instead, I feel love and awe, because I can see what it’s trying to become. I want to give it water so it can reach up into the sky. When I see myself Originally, I perceive myself as a god seed just beginning to sprout.

Tasting the personhood of anyone feels this way. A person is a god. Everything else is mere humanity.