America’s Modern Character: Paranoid Loser

“[Columbia professor Adam Tooze, writer of the definitive forensic analysis of the 2008 financial crisis in Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World,] does not buy the line that America is roaring back at the head of a resurgent West, even if the autocracies have suffered a crushing reverse over recent months. ‘I see America as the huge weak link,’ he said.

He broadly subscribes to the Fukuyama thesis that the American body politic is by now so rotten within, so riddled with the cancer of identity politics that it is developing a paranoid loser’s view of the world. The storming of Congress was not so much an aberration under this schema, but rather the character of modern America.”

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, “The world’s financial system is entering dangerous waters again, warns guru of the Lehman crisis.” The Telegraph. May 23, 2022.

Open question: Is the current populism and “paranoid style” of the American character an sign of decline or a trait that becomes more prevalent with populist resurgence?

The paranoid character of U.S. politics is not a new claim, see the Richard J. Hofstadter essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” The online version is Harper’s Magazine is currently behind a paywall. But, I’d imagine most city public libraries have a copy of it.

The paranoid style is a recurring feature of populist movements, right and left, evident from so-called militia/patriot movements to the “woke” left of our time. Nothing is really new about either. But, is there something new in this wave? Is it significantly different than movements that led to prohibition of alcohol and marijuana?

I’m inclined to see the current environment as a variation on a consistent pattern, like the Great Awakenings. Ultimately, these kinds of heated discussions are the strength of democracies, even when they lead to things like the U.S. Civil War. You get your say. If you feel strongly enough, you fight about it. But, in the end, a decision is made and you see how it goes. It’s not dictated by some clown at the top. It’s messy. But, it’s better than the alternative.

Making Friends [on the Internet]

Summarized:

“[1.] follow people you resonate with.

[2.] engage with bigger accounts, support smaller accounts.

[3.] ask questions, offer suggestions, share learnings.

[4.] pay attention to who keeps popping up.

[5.] use the algorithms to your advantage.

[6.] attend virtual events. participate! 

[7.] attend offline events! Be adventerous.

[8.] send that dm / email / offer to connect.

[9.] if they don’t respond, try again in a few months.

[10.] put your thoughts out there.

-Jonathan Borichevskiy, “Making Friends on the Internet.” jon.bo. May 2, 2022.

Open question: How do you make new friends that will help you move in the direction you want your life to move and be fellow travelers?

The thrust is correct. If you want to make offline friends, you need to orient your online presence to make offline connections. However, there’s a bit of an age-bias. When you are 25 and single, it’s a lot easier to go to meeting on a lark. As you get older, it gets more difficult. You have to arrange a babysitter. There’s also the time to consider. Here’s a rough chart of time and quantities of friends a human brain tends to top out at:

  • 5 intimate friends (+200 hours)
  • 15 close friends (80-100 hours)
  • 50 general friends (40-60 hours)
  • 150 acquaintances (10-20 hours)

The problem, as you get older, is: how do you find those hours to spend with someone? The easiest method is some social institution, such as a church. Over a year, it should be possible to pick up a few friends and acquaintances from a church.

So, the above is how to make an initial connection with someone, and it assumes that you bridge these hours in some way. This is much harder, as you get older. But, perhaps something to think about when you start new chapters of your life.

The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant

“Once upon a time, the planet was tyrannized by a giant dragon. The dragon stood taller than the largest cathedral, and it was covered with thick black scales. Its red eyes glowed with hate, and from its terrible jaws flowed an incessant stream of evil-smelling yellowish-green slime. It demanded from humankind a blood-curdling tribute: to satisfy its enormous appetite, ten thousand men and women had to be delivered every evening at the onset of dark to the foot of the mountain where the dragon-tyrant lived. Sometimes the dragon would devour these unfortunate souls upon arrival; sometimes again it would lock them up in the mountain where they would wither away for months or years before eventually being consumed…”

-Nick Bolstrom, “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant.” nickbostrom.com. Originally published in Journal of Medical Ethics, 2005, Vol. 31, No. 5, pp 273-277.

And now, almost 17 years after the publication of this fable, there appears to be the first weapon against the dragon tyrant of the tale:

“Senolytic vaccination also improved normal and pathological phenotypes associated with aging, and extended the male lifespan of progeroid mice. Our results suggest that vaccination targeting seno-antigens could be a potential strategy for new senolytic therapies.”

-Suda, M., Shimizu, I., Katsuumi, G. et al. Senolytic vaccination improves normal and pathological age-related phenotypes and increases lifespan in progeroid mice. Nat Aging 1, 1117–1126 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43587-021-00151-2

I’d guess probably 20 years until this is a regular feature of clinical therapy.

Questions About Technology Investment: CharaCorder

“The CharaChorder is a new kind of typing peripheral that promises to let people type at superhuman speeds. It’s so fast that the website Monkeytype, which lets users participate in typing challenges and maintains its own leaderboard, automatically flagged CharaChorder’s CEO as a cheater when he attempted to post his 500 WPM score on the its leaderboards.

It’s a strange looking device, the kind of thing Keanu Reeves would interface with in Johnny Mnemonic. Your palms rest on two black divots out of which rise nine different finger sized joysticks. These 18 sticks move in every direction and, its website claims, can hit every button you need on a regular keyboard. “CharaChorder switches detect motion in 3 dimensions so users have access to over 300 unique inputs without their fingers breaking contact with the device,” it said.”

-Matthew Gault, “This Keyboard Lets People Type So Fast It’s Banned From Typing Competitions.” Vice. January 6, 2022.

Open Question: What is a good “investment” in technology?

Let’s imagine you have a child that it at the age they are starting to use a computer and a QWERTY style keyboard. Do you spend $250 and get them this kind of peripheral knowing:

  • It’s a new technology that likely will not be around in 20 years
  • It seems likely that in 20 years or so that the main input with computing will be via voice and/or video
  • It is even possible that in 20 years everyone will have a brain-computer interface.

Personally, I think it is useful to learn how to use new devices, even if they turn out to be novelty devices. It’s easy to see that certain popular devices that became obsolete have paved the way for the evolution for the subsequent devices that come later. Examples:

  • Mainframe computing led to personal computing which led to mobile computing
  • Blackberry, PalmOS, iPods were the precursors to Android and iPhones
  • Every few years, someone makes a new chat app, from ICQ and IRC to Telegram and Discord.

Familiarity with the previous version can help you transition to new variants. So, it’s probably a good idea to get familiar with technologies, even if you don’t think they will last.

The Purpose of Dialogue

Open Question: What is the purpose of dialogue?

  • People generally only change their minds when in conversation with someone that loves them. How many conversations are we having with people we love?
  • Maybe the point of conversation is to change our own minds. If we aren’t coming from that place, are we in dialogue at all?
  • Trying to change other people’s mind is often a futile exercise. If true, then why bother having any dialogue at all?

Related: Agree to Disagree or Fight, Really Reading Means Being Open To Change, Arguing for a Different Reality, Celebrating Our Differences, and others.

The Computers Are Out of Their Boxes

“What does that mean? Well, computers haven’t changed much in 40 or 50 years. They’re smaller and faster, but they’re still boxes with processors that run instructions from humans. AI changes that on at least three fronts: how computers are made, how they’re programmed, and how they’re used. Ultimately, it will change what they are for. 

“The core of computing is changing from number-crunching to decision-­making,” says Pradeep Dubey, director of the parallel computing lab at Intel. Or, as MIT CSAIL director Daniela Rus puts it, AI is freeing computers from their boxes…

…AI is even helping to design its own computing infrastructure. In 2020, Google used a reinforcement-­learning algorithm—a type of AI that learns how to solve a task through trial and error—to design the layout of a new TPU. The AI eventually came up with strange new designs that no human would think of—but they worked. This kind of AI could one day develop better, more efficient chips.”

—Will Douglas Heaven, “How AI is reinventing what computers are.” MIT Technology Review. October 22, 2021.

Open Question: As artificial intelligence becomes more pervasive, what limits should we impose as a society and on ourselves on how we use this technology, so it minimizes its negative impact?

The key changes described in this article:

  • Volume, less precise calculations carried out in parallel
  • Defining success by outcomes rather than defining processes
  • Machine autonomy, i.e., artificial intelligence prompts people, acting as surrogate and agent

All to the good. But, there are negative social implications as this technology reaches critical mass among populations, a significant portion of people will off-load a subset of decisions to machines, which may be a net positive. However, easy to imagine that it undermines people’s ability to think for themselves, that the subset creeps into classes of decisions where it shouldn’t, e.g., prison sentences for people, and within the areas where it is commonly used, it will create a decision-making monoculture that crowds out alternative values. For example, if a dominate flavor of A.I. decides that Zojorishi makes the best automated rice cookers, which they do, and only makes that recommendation. Some large percentage of people, only buy Zojorishi. Then, the natural result is it will push other rice cooking options out of the market and make it difficult for new, possibly better, companies to emerge.

Lots of strange network effects that will happen due to this trend that should be given careful consideration. Even on a personal level, it would be good to have a clear idea of what exactly you’d like to use A.I. for, so you don’t undermine your own autonomy, as has happened in other computing eras, such as Microsoft dominating the desktop market.

Live Long & Prosper

“Behavioral scientists have spent a lot of time studying what makes us happy (and what doesn’t). We know happiness can predict health and longevity, and happiness scales can be used to measure social progress and the success of public policies. But happiness isn’t something that just happens to you. Everyone has the power to make small changes in our behavior, our surroundings and our relationships that can help set us on course for a happier life.”

-Tara Parker-Pope, “How To Be Happy.” The New York Times.

Open Question: What does it mean to be “happy”?

In brief, the author seems to take the ideas of Blue Zones:, i.e., places where people tend to be exceptionally long lived, and flesh these concepts out with “happiness” research. The nine key ideas of Blue Zones:

  1. Move naturally, or have a lifestyle that incorporates movement without doing movement for movement’s sake, a.k.a. as exercise.
  2. Have a purpose.
  3. Downshift, take time every day, week, month and year to do nothing or be contemplative.
  4. The 80% Rule for eating. Eat until you are 80% full.
  5. Eat mostly plants.
  6. Drink alcohol in moderation, 1-2 servings a day.
  7. Belong to a community.
  8. Prioritize your relationships.
  9. Make sure the relationships are with good people.

The New York TimesHow to Be Happy” reframes these into categories: Mind, Home, Relationships, Work & Money & Happy Life. Then, it attempts to provide more detailed advice.

Mind

  1. Become acquainted with cognitive behavioral therapy, i.e., become proficient at managing negative thinking.
  2. Boxed breathing for acute situations and breath focused meditation to cultivate a more equanimical disposition.
  3. Rewrite your personal story, positive without the pedestal.
  4. Exercise.
  5. Make an effort to look for the positive in any situation.

Home

  1. Find a good place to live and a good community within it to be part of.
  2. Be out in a natural setting.
  3. Keep what you need, discard the rest.

Relationships

  1. Spend time with happy people. Conversely, avoid the unhappy and the unlucky, the stupid, Hoodoos, toxic people, psychic vampires, and associated others. Obviously, the negative formulation is a hot topic here at cafebedouin.org.
  2. Get a pet. [Editors note: Pets, children and other people aren’t going to make you happy, save you, etc.]
  3. Learn to enjoy being alone. In this historical moment, with fewer communities and relationships mediated through the Internet, it’s an important skill. If you can’t manage it, find ways around it, e.g., join an intentional community. If you are turning on the radio or television to hear human voices and escape your own thoughts, you might want to think about finding ways of being better company to yourself.

Work and Money

  1. Money isn’t going to make you happy. The more money you have past a certain threshold, the more problems you will have. But, being poor is no virtue and is its own source of suffering. Try to avoid the material extremes.
  2. The New York Times wants you to find your purpose at work. Right livelihood is important, but defining ourselves through our work is a major issue post-industrial age. When surnames became necessary, people chose their occupation. Think of all the occupational last names: Smith, Miller, Cooper, etc. The problem with finding purpose at work is it often turns into our life’s purpose. Our life should be about more than work.
  3. Find ways to reclaim your time, which I interpret to mean work less.

Happy Life

  1. Be generous. Show gratitude.
  2. Do things for other people.
  3. Stop being a judgmental prick to yourself and others.

Conclusion

Something about The New York Times presentation leaves much to be desired. Is it the focus on work? Is it because much of it seems like platitudes? I’m not entirely sure. The ideas aren’t bad, particularly the ones that stem directly from Blue Zone suggestions. But, the focus on “nesting” in the bedroom, volunteering (with the implication that it be the modern form and involve some kind of institution) and so forth managed to rub me the wrong way. But, most of this is good advice, when you get down to the nut of it.

L.M. Sacasas’s The Questions Concerning Technology

If you find the list below interesting, you could always subscribe to his newsletter, and as with all Substack newsletters, it can be turned into an RSS feed by adding /feed to the main url, like so: https://theconvivialsociety.substack.com/feed. Don’t know what RSS is? There’s a post for that. h/t to Alan Jacobs for the reminder.

  1. What sort of person will the use of this technology make of me?
  2. What habits will the use of this technology instill?
  3. How will the use of this technology affect my experience of time?
  4. How will the use of this technology affect my experience of place?
  5. How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to other people?
  6. How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to the world around me?
  7. What practices will the use of this technology cultivate?
  8. What practices will the use of this technology displace?
  9. What will the use of this technology encourage me to notice?
  10. What will the use of this technology encourage me to ignore?
  11. What was required of other human beings so that I might be able to use this technology?
  12. What was required of other creatures so that I might be able to use this technology?
  13. What was required of the earth so that I might be able to use this technology?
  14. Does the use of this technology bring me joy? [N.B. This was years before I even heard of Marie Kondo!]
  15. Does the use of this technology arouse anxiety?
  16. How does this technology empower me? At whose expense?
  17. What feelings does the use of this technology generate in me toward others?
  18. Can I imagine living without this technology? Why, or why not?
  19. How does this technology encourage me to allocate my time?
  20. Could the resources used to acquire and use this technology be better deployed?
  21. Does this technology automate or outsource labor or responsibilities that are morally essential?
  22. What desires does the use of this technology generate?
  23. What desires does the use of this technology dissipate?
  24. What possibilities for action does this technology present? Is it good that these actions are now possible?
  25. What possibilities for action does this technology foreclose? Is it good that these actions are no longer possible?
  26. How does the use of this technology shape my vision of a good life?
  27. What limits does the use of this technology impose upon me?
  28. What limits does my use of this technology impose upon others?
  29. What does my use of this technology require of others who would (or must) interact with me?
  30. What assumptions about the world does the use of this technology tacitly encourage?
  31. What knowledge has the use of this technology disclosed to me about myself?
  32. What knowledge has the use of this technology disclosed to me about others? Is it good to have this knowledge?
  33. What are the potential harms to myself, others, or the world that might result from my use of this technology?
  34. Upon what systems, technical or human, does my use of this technology depend? Are these systems just?
  35. Does my use of this technology encourage me to view others as a means to an end?
  36. Does using this technology require me to think more or less?
  37. What would the world be like if everyone used this technology exactly as I use it?
  38. What risks will my use of this technology entail for others? Have they consented?
  39. Can the consequences of my use of this technology be undone? Can I live with those consequences?
  40. Does my use of this technology make it easier to live as if I had no responsibilities toward my neighbor?
  41. Can I be held responsible for the actions which this technology empowers? Would I feel better if I couldn’t?

Deflationary Individualism

“My considerations of inflation have been limited to discussions on index components, labor/wage dynamics, and menu pricing. I liked the exercise of placing preferences surrounding good, services, and activities on the inflation/deflation spectrum.

What are other examples of inflationary/deflationary preferences? And what happens if you place inflation/deflation towards the center of your personal aesthetics? And if you do, which way on the spectrum should you optimize towards?”

-Thomas Frank, “Creating Your Own Deflation.” FranklyThinking.net. July 15, 2021.

Open question: What things are we wasting time, money or energy on that would be better to either do less of or not at all?

This is an aesthetic I have developed over the years. It first started with books, when I realized that I could go to a second-hand book shop and the library to get certain items, where you only have to buy retail when it is something other people in your community truly do not want. Over the years, it turned into a trend, where I look for ways to not buy anything retail. I buy and use computers and cell phones that are decades old and bought second-hand for <20% of their price new. I buy last year’s model of running shoes and buy many clothes second-hand..

But, the true deflation is to go without. How many things are you buying that you don’t really need at all? What things are you paying attention to that you shouldn’t pay any attention to? Questions in this space are among the most useful in life.

The Maximum Human Life Span and Conjecture on Step Counts to Get There (15,000 Steps a Day)

“For the study, Timothy Pyrkov, a researcher at a Singapore-based company called Gero, and his colleagues looked at this “pace of aging” in three large cohorts in the U.S., the U.K. and Russia. To evaluate deviations from stable health, they assessed changes in blood cell counts and the daily number of steps taken and analyzed them by age groups.

For both blood cell and step counts, the pattern was the same: as age increased, some factor beyond disease drove a predictable and incremental decline in the body’s ability to return blood cells or gait to a stable level after a disruption. When Pyrkov and his colleagues in Moscow and Buffalo, N.Y., used this predictable pace of decline to determine when resilience would disappear entirely, leading to death, they found a range of 120 to 150 years…

The researchers also found that with age, the body’s response to insults could increasingly range far from a stable normal, requiring more time for recovery. Whitson says that this result makes sense: A healthy young person can produce a rapid physiological response to adjust to fluctuations and restore a personal norm. But in an older person, she says, “everything is just a little bit dampened, a little slower to respond, and you can get overshoots,” such as when an illness brings on big swings in blood pressure.”

-Emily Willingham, “The Maximum Human Life Span Is 150 Years, New Research Estimates
A study counts blood cells and footsteps to predict a hard limit to our longevity
.” Scientific American. May 25, 2021.

Open Questions: How many steps a day are required for optimum fitness and health? Is there also a strength measurement that can be used to add an additional dimension?

The Nature research article is available online. I think the interesting thing about this study is it is another example where step counts are used as a proxy for health. There are recent studies in JAMA, Journal of Sport and Health Science, and others that suggest that increasing step counts lowers overall morbidity and mortality in older adults.

As an N of 1 thought experiment, I checked my daily step count over the last year. I average just over 10,000 steps a day. There are studies that classify step counts in the following way:

  • sedentary category (<5000 steps/day)
  • low active (5000-7499 steps/day),
  • somewhat active (7500-9999 steps/day)
  • active (≥10,000 steps/day)

The same study also makes the following observation: “We also observed that each 1000 steps/day increase in [physical activity] level over the 6-month follow-up was associated with a 0.26-kg (95% CI −0.29 to −0.23) [or just over 0.5 pounds] decrease in weight.”

The math is pretty easy. Let’s suppose 1,000 steps is about half a mile or a kilometer. That’s about ~60-75 calories, depending on intensity, walking or running. Let’s say 6 months is 182 days. So, 60 calories * 182 days = ~11,000 calories. That’s about 3 pounds or a bit over a kilo. Factor in additional urge to eat, and it sounds about right.

So, as a rule of thumb: Increasing step counts by 1,000 will generally reduce your weight by 1 pound a year, as well as your overall risk of morbidity and mortality. There’s probably some point of negative returns. I’ve seen some reports talking about hunter-gatherer groups walking on average around 7 or 8 miles a day, which would roughly be around 14,000 to 16,000 steps / day, which is probably a good benchmark comparison with humanity over an evolutionary time frame rather than comparing our activity with other people in our historical moment. Which I suppose suggests that I, and practically everyone, have some work to do to get our physical activity to an optimum level.