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.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Relinquishment Cultivation

word count: 2,727

The second virtue is relinquishment. P. C. Hodgell said: “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.” Do not flinch from experiences that might destroy your beliefs. The thought you cannot think controls you more than thoughts you speak aloud. Submit yourself to ordeals and test yourself in fire. Relinquish the emotion which rests upon a mistaken belief, and seek to feel fully that emotion which fits the facts. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is hot, and it is cool, the Way opposes your fear. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is cool, and it is hot, the Way opposes your calm. Evaluate your beliefs first and then arrive at your emotions. Let yourself say: “If the iron is hot, I desire to believe it is hot, and if it is cool, I desire to believe it is cool.” Beware lest you become attached to beliefs you may not want.


I consider loving-kindness meditation to be a central example of a “cultivation” exercise. If you’re one of the people it fits well and you do it regularly for a long time, it nudges your dominant cognitive patterns into a more compassionate shape. Eventually, you become a more compassionate person, overall.

Some more examples: Shikantaza, and other meditations that go straight for enlightenment, might also be cultivation meditations. If you do daily gratitude journaling, that’s probably a cultivation for gratitude (or some related capacity). Runners who train at slightly greater distances every week cultivate endurance.

Gendlin’s Focusing, by contrast, is not primarily a cultivation.

In exploring the craft of meditation design, one thing I’d like to learn is how to cultivate arbitrary virtues using nothing but my own mind. So I set out to build a meditation that cultivates epistemic relinquishment. And here it is.


It borrows the structure of loving-kindness meditation, but has nothing to do with compassion. To start, you’ll need to tailor the building blocks so they each fit you snugly and don’t chafe. Then I’ll explain how to put them together, and at the end, I’ll suggest variations.

Stuff you’ll need (I’ll discuss each of these in detail):

  • a fixation point
  • a reference experience
  • a mantra
  • a belief it would be very easy to let go of, in the face of counter-evidence
  • a belief it would be a little hard to let go of, in the face of counter-evidence
  • (eventually) a belief it would be very difficult to let go of, in the face of counter-evidence
  • some circumstances that would be counter-evidence against each belief


A fixation point is an external target onto which you can rest all of your attention. The goal is to gather up as many cognitive resources as possible in preparation for the meditation. Some examples include

  • the sound of your breath
  • the visual details of a dime-sized spot on the wall
  • the feeling of your feet touching the ground

The “external” part is important. When you look at a spot on the wall, you can be sure the spot will stay put. If you instead focused on “what you’re feeling right now”, you’d have a moving target. Choose something that will stay put without any effort on your part, so you’re free to devote your whole mind to mere observation.

A note on neuroatypical attention: I expect that fixation may be a wrong move for a lot of people, especially some with ADD. If fixation sounds terribly unpleasant, you should probably skip it. Do whatever will help you engage with the rest of the meditation.

A Reference Experience

During this meditation, you’ll be moving into a mental state where it would be easy to let go of a belief that carries extreme personal significance. What would such a mental state feel like?

You might not get this right, at first, and that’s ok. But try to take a guess. You can call on memories of changing your mind, or imagined experiences from fiction or other people’s lives. Think of a time when you held or even defended a belief fiercely, but then something changed so it became possible fto update easily. That is the kind of state you’re looking for.

In my case, the relevant feeling is a kind of freedom, relaxation, and relief. It’s a letting go, a recognition that I’m not responsible for holding reality by force of will. It’s a relief to feel that all I have to do right now is learn what is true, and a reassurance that I’ll be positioned to respond with greater strength once I’ve done that.

A Mantra

For some people, words will just get in the way. If you think you’re one of those, skip this part. But if you’re not sure, give it a try.

Look for a word, phrase, or series of phrases that can be a System 1 handle for your reference experience. You can adopt someone else’s words, or you can compose your own. To me, using the right mantra feels like speaking the True Name of relinquishment.

My general method of finding mantras is this: I imagine a far-future version of myself who lives in Utopia, is vastly more wise and competent than I am right now, and who remembers exactly what it was like to be me. I imagine them coming to me in a moment where I need to make a specific mental motion, as though they’ve traveled back in time to intervene at a key point in my development. Then I imagine the words they speak to me to guide me through the motion.

When I do this for relinquishment, I get, “First know what is true. Work out what to do about it later.” Those words are my mantra.

Some Beliefs For Visualization

The meditation itself consists of a series of visualizations. For the first visualization, you’ll need a belief with no personal significance.

For example, I currently believe that the pencil I tossed in my book bag this morning is yellow. I’m pretty confident of that, but when I imagine reaching into my bag to find that it’s actually pink, it’s no big deal. I feel no hesitation about observing the pencil, no fear or shame or despair, no feeling that things I care about rest on the color of the pencil. I don’t feel betrayed by reality. I just imagine a brief moment of surprise and mild confusion, followed by a guess at why I was wrong, and then an effortless update. All it takes for me to change my belief from “yellow” to “pink” is picking up the pencil and observing its color.

For the second, you’ll need a belief with moderate personal significance, something you care a little about. You could try completing some of these sentences: * I think that , and would be a little unhappy if it turned out that _. * I think that , and it would be uncomfortable to learn that . * I think , and I hope it’s false that . * I feel mild dread at the idea that __.

A good example of this for me is, “I feel mild dread at the idea that I filed the legal documents incorrectly.” It wouldn’t be huge, just annoying because bureaucracy sucks.

You can keep going with this series, finding beliefs that are increasingly dear to you. But I recommend starting with just these two, to get the hang of the meditation itself before adding more difficult content.

Imaginary Counter-Evidence

For each belief, come up with at least one observation you would count as counter-evidence. For “the pencil is yellow”, counter-evidence could be “when I take the pencil from my bag, it looks pink”. For “I filed the legal documents correctly”, counter-evidence could be “I got a letter from the County Clerk saying I did something wrong”, or “I didn’t hear back from the Clerk when I expected to”. It doesn’t have to be decisive, as long as it would cause some part of you to feel that you should update.

For more personally significant beliefs, look for imaginary counter-evidence in the direction of hesitation or fear. Look for regions of thought-space you would prefer to avoid while holding the belief in mind. Look for the thoughts that hurt.

With filing legal documents, I looked in the directions of “something about paperwork that is already in the mail and out of my control”, “something about red ink”, and “something about judges”. Navigating by the experience of avoidance is key to this exercise.

A Word Of Caution

Bear in mind that relinquishment is not the same as updating away from a belief.

Relinquishment is the mental motion that allows you to update away from a belief that you’ve been clinging to stubbornly. A simple Bayes net can update a belief. It takes a far twistier mind, one with a strange human-like relationship to epistemics, to relinquish one. It is possible to relinquish without updating, and in fact part of the goal here is to divorce those two motions.

The virtue cultivated by this meditation is the freedom to change your map when you notice a discrepancy with the territory. But it can go the other way: If clinging and belief are still tightly bound in your mind, then relaxing your grasp may directly cause an update. That would be like changing your map when it already matches the territory.

So when you do begin to progress to more fraught visualizations, I caution against choosing beliefs that are doing a lot of practical work in your life, at least until you have the hang of the associated mental motions. There is some danger here of actually updating away from beliefs you have no reason to think are false. If you notice your betting odds changing drastically during this meditation, back up and work with an easier visualization.

With that, you now have all the parts you need to put this meditation together.


Relinquishment Cultivation

  1. Perform your fixation (breathing, or whatever). Wait until you feel clear and free of distraction.
  2. Play through your first visualization, in vivid detail if possible. In my example, this would mean closing my eyes to imagine reaching into my backpack, searching for a pencil. Then I find the pencil, take it out, and am met with counter-evidence: it seems to be a different color than I expected.
  3. Pay attention to your subtle psychological responses this whole time. First notice what it’s like to expose yourself to the possibility of counter-evidence. Then notice what it’s like to receive it. Seek your reference experience, or the opportunity to create it, in those responses. In my visualization, the pencil I’m looking at is most certainly pink. There’s an unconcerned openness between me and that fact. Learning I was wrong, I completely submitted to alignment with reality, with no wasted motion. That’s the easy freedom that I’m looking for.
  4. When you find it, focus your attention there, as you did earlier with your fixation object, drinking it in. Then, when the feeling of relinquishment is steady and precise, recite your mantra, either aloud or silently. For me: “First know what is true. Work out what to do about it later.” Repeat it a few times, if you like. Feel it in the context of the visualization. Let its meaning wash over you.
  5. When you’re ready, move on to your next visualization.
  6. At the end of your final visualization, let go of the details. Spend some time basking in the abstract experience of relinquishment. That’s the goal of this exercise: to make pure relinquishment familiar and comfortable. Rest there until you feel satisfied.


Some Variations

The version of this meditation I just described is for routine cultivation. It uses beliefs whose truth values you have no reason to doubt, just to get you familiar with holding them loosely. It’s meant to be done regularly, at the point in your routine when it’s time to meditate.

But a slight adjustment makes it good for acute relinquishment as well. It can be part of a trigger-action plan: “If I notice myself clinging to a belief, I will do a relinquishment meditation, using the belief in question for the second [or third] visualization.” If you’ve done the cultivation version many times, you can probably skip the fixation and even the other visualizations, and move straight into relinquishing the belief.

If you can identify the experiences and mental motions that most often obstruct relinquishment, you can make this meditation the second half of a reflex re-training meditation. I’ll talk about reflex re-training meditations later in this series, but I’ve probably hit on most of it already while writing about how to build cognitive trigger-action plans.

You can also adapt this for cultivation of lightness or evenness, since they’re really just different guises of the same capacity.

With lightness, for instance, I’d do variations on the theme of each visualization. I’d imagine the pencil being pink, then green, then purple. I’d imagine it being a pen instead of a pencil. I’d imagine it being absent all together. I’d imagine seeing that it’s pink, then realizing I’m in unusual lighting and it’s actually yellow after all. I’d look for the feeling of dexterity, rather than the feeling of letting go. I’d say to myself, “I follow where reality leads.”

Finally, this meditation could be used in a Crisis Of Faith.


I’d like to close by inviting you to repair this meditation.

The thesis of my first post on meditation design was that different minds benefit from different meditations, and it is worthwhile to find or even create the ones that serve you best given your circumstances.

There is a larger thesis for this whole line of thought and research: If you are interested in systematic personal growth, you should learn how to wield your own mind.

Yes, you should also learn to mine external resources. You should be intellectually gluttonous, because there’s a lot to learn from others, out in the rest of the world. “The eleventh virtue is scholarship.”

But you should also be prepared to face down important problems that have never been identified, let alone solved. One point of disagreement I seem to have with a lot of my community is that such problems are commonplace. It’s not immodest or arrogant to suspect that you’ve found one. One reason for this is that you are the only person who has ever been you, who has ever experienced the intersection of your circumstances and values. When you walk from where you are to where you want to be, you will encounter problems that nobody but you is likely to solve.

And when you do — when you find yourself in a place that lacks roadsigns, or any trail at all to follow — do not wait to be rescued. You may have followed someone else’s directions, and ended up in a place they never imagined could exist. Part of the territory is your mind, you can’t avoid walking through that region, and nobody’s been there but you.

What do you do when nothing you know is enough? When you don’t expect to find an answer outside of yourself no matter how hard you look? When your parents have failed you, your gods are dead, and your tools have shattered in your hand? This is the question that drives me, when I think about meditation.

So if you try the relinquishment cultivation I’ve outlined, it won’t work. Not exactly as I hope. It won’t take you to the same place it takes me, because I’ve never walked through your mind. Don’t wait for someone else to come along and fix it. Ask yourself, “What went wrong? Why exactly did that happen? What could I try instead?”

Out of these broken pieces I’ve offered you, please build something that is new, and whole, and yours.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Curiosities List 1

words: 827

i keep a list of “curiosities”. my curiosities list contains stuff that at some point made me go, “huh, that’s interesting. i wonder…” but then i realized it wasn’t worth interrupting what i was doing. every now and then, i go through the list and do a bunch of googling. this time i took notes.

why do goats have weird eyes? their main survival strategy is "when there are predators, run away", so they they need to see far in front of them and behind them, without being blinded by the sun overhead. the horizontal pupils give them 280 degree horizontal vision. goat eyes [even rotate]( to stay parallel to the ground when they bend to eat.

why are they called "Mormons"? the prophet who compiled scriptures from ancient America was called “Mormon”, and the book he made is called “the book of Mormon”.

what are “forty-niners”? they’re prospectors who went to California in the gold rush of 1849.

Petra? i heard in an episode of Writing Excuses that there have been two major cities in the history of ever that were founded in the middle of a desert, while it was a desert, and managed to flourish. one is Las Vagas, which managed because of the Hoover Dam. the other is Petra. so far i haven’t had any luck fact-checking that claim, but Petra is in fact very neat nonetheless. it was established in the early 300s BCE in Southern Jordan. there were two main things going for it: one, it was at the crossroads of two major trading routes. second, its citizens developed high-tech water collection methods. also, they were awesome at carving stuff into solid stone, like houses and canals and shit, and the rocks in the area are all rosy red. John William Burgon wrote a poem about the city, with an excellent last line, and it goes like this:

It seems no work of Man's creative hand, by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned; But from the rock as if by magic grown, eternal, silent, beautiful, alone! Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine, where erst Athena held her rites divine; Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane, that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain; But rose-red as if the blush of dawn, that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn; The hues of youth upon a brow of woe, which Man deemed old two thousand years ago, Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime, a rose-red city half as old as time.

why doesn’t China do team sports? this seems pretty odd to me, given that 1) China is enormous, so after sifting through all those people to find the best athletes there must be some damn good athletes, and 2) my impression of East Asian culture generally is that it’s super into something like team spirit. in short, i still have almost no idea. but here are some things various internet people have proposed that may be worth considering.

  • people in China freak out over competitive academics instead of competitive sports.
  • they’re a lot more locally focused so the athletes spend most of their sports time doing intramural stuff rather than rising through every-more-global ranks.
  • the government doesn’t have its shit together in relevant ways so the society lacks necessary infrastructure for well-organized national sports. (except they’re boss at table tennis so??? maybe it’s substantially easier to organize pairs than teams.)
  • they value grit and brains over physical strength, so when people do sports they go for the stuff that relies on loads of training and strategy. however, when i look at the competitions China tends to win in the Olympics, “solo activities” describes the list better than “brains over brawn”: table tennis, badmitton, gymnastics, diving, [weight lifting?], shooting, swimming, fencing, archery, boxing, cycling.
  • this isn’t an explanation, just a complication: their women’s teams seem to do fine in the olympics. the women are good at basketball, volleyball and soccer. bwa?
  • something something athletically gifted kids are taken from their homes and rigorously trained to mechanical excellence, and the ones who aren’t good enough are just thrown out of the system to fend for themselves with no skills but their athletic training. your survival depends on your own athletic ability, so the family-like team coordination stuff isn’t nurtured. (this doesn’t explain women’s volleyball.)
  • i don’t know. i’m still really confused. would love for some of my China-familiar friends to speculate.

Iroquois farming methods? the Iroquois cultivated their main crops by the “three sisters method”. they used raised beds with fish and eels buried for fertilizer, then they’d plant corn, squash, and beans right beside each other in the same plot. the corn stalks work as a trellises for the beans, so there’s no need for poles. the beans provide nitrogen for the corn and squash. the broad leaves of ground-creeping squash vines prevent weeds. nice design! i think i may give this a shot in my garden next year.