Sunday, April 30, 2006



What if you could grant somebody control over your sensory organs – for instance, letting them change the amount of time it takes for visual stimuli to reach the optical cortex, or distort your kinesthetic sense for the dimensions and configuration of your body, or rout individual auditory signals through chains of sound effects (pitch-shift, echo, granulation) before you hear them?

If that turned out to be merely disorienting and not intrinsically fun, would you be inclined to further grant them control over your endorphins and opioids?

What if you could grant even more than that, such as, through virtual reality, control over the physical contents of the room you believe you’re in? That is, what if your “trip operator” could cause not only sensory distortions, but full 3-dimensional hallucinations? (“Virtual drugs” might be a better term for such experiences than “cyberdrugs” – “cyber” denotes mechanical modifications of one’s body, while “virtual” denotes an environment that has no existence beyond some computer interface.)

Granted such privileges, some operators would try to induce more elaborate hallucinations (e.g. a Roman army) than they could describe in any sort of programming language in real-time. That limitation could be circumvented, though, if we could alter the speed at which one or both parties’ brains operated.

Such activities would not be for everyone, and a lousy operator could make even the most enthusiastic tripper miserable. But it seems to this speculator that a gentle, well-meaning and skilled operator (perhaps they would need a good sense for cinematography) could create some killer experiences.

We already have the sort of technology that would allow a (suitably determined) person to hand over some rudimentary control of their audiovisual stimuli. I don’t know if the sort of apparatus currently feasible would be any fun, but if progress in understanding the mechanisms of the brain is inexorable, then perhaps cyber-drugs of the sort described above can’t be avoided.

Would they be outlawed? The question of cyberdrugs’ legality would be all tangled up with the question of their medical effects. I have no idea. It’s conceivable that direct neural interfaces would pose a threat of addiction beyond anything yet known. It’s also conceivable, though, that once we know what we’re doing to the brain, the risks currently associated with drug-use will go the way of Kuru (an extinct disease linked to cannibalism). Time and science will tell, if we let them.

Beyond their medical effects, there exists a question of their economic impact. A cyber-drug might leave someone perfectly rational and capable while providing an activity so enjoyable that they choose to pursue it to their economic detriment. If that outcome were prevalent enough, there would be an economic incentive for individual nations to ban the drug, thereby becoming more competitive with their neighbors. I believe this argument has been made against chemical drugs that exist today.

Would a ban be enforceable? I can kind of see how a government might put a blanket ban on any cybernetic enhancements (though they would likely leave exceptions for military and law enforcement). It would be hard, though, to impose a ban virtual reality, because we already have it. Improvements in VR technology are small and cumulative; we won’t be playing Pong one day and have a neural implant that totally supplants awareness of the original (real) world the next day. The line between drug-like VR and video games will be hard to draw, because no obvious single feature distinguishes one from the other. In fact many argue that we have drug-like VR today, with millions of teenage boys addicted already.

As a youth searching for mystical secrets (a pursuit I eventually decided is as productive as polishing horseshit) I was frequently attracted to the notion that each person in society is somehow simultaneously the creator of everyone else. Alas, I had to give up on that idea because no set of mutual co-creators would deliberately make each other so miserable. (Although perhaps Arrow’s paradox lends credence to that vision.) For reasons I’ll skip, I no longer look for God beyond this world.

But if neuroscience, neural interface technology, and virtual reality engines become good enough, we’ll be able to grant to others powers nearly equal to those a god would have. Moreover, the gods that we become for each other could be bound by contract!

I don’t think I’m being unrealistic. Cyberdrugs as sketched above might never happen for political reasons, but so far there’s no scientific law I know of that bars their possibility.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


Court upholds kid’s right to declare “Bong Hits 4 Jesus”

The task of balancing society’s myriad rights and interests is usually subtle and messy. Cases like this one, in which it’s obvious that the justice system has its priorities straight, make me very happy.

Hat tip to Gojomo.


Israeli mother hosts marriage debate

I found a good discussion from 2005 regarding a study that finds more intelligent men more likely to marry and more intelligent women less likely to marry. It also provided my introduction to the English blogs of parents in the Middle East – a fascinating world that I never would have checked out on purpose.

I can’t know whether to be happy about the study. If the low marriage rate among highly intelligent women is due primarily to their own preferences, then that sucks. But if instead it’s due primarily to the choice behavior of males, then that makes me very happy indeed.

Money quote: "... with the advent of birth control, smart people are unfit for survival."

Saturday, April 22, 2006


“You think immigrants are a problem?”

… “Then you must hate all these pregnant Americans!”

Sometimes the truth is better than any joke. This is the sort of argument that drew me to economics.


Nearly effortless posture correction

I just discovered that the secret to keeping one’s back straight is not in the back, but the hips! Try this for yourself: roll the bottom of your hips backward and the top of your hips forward, and see what your back does.

I’m absolutely amazed. This requires almost no strength and feels much better than the posture I’ve always kept. I have tried to “straighten up” before, by sending different commands to my back (rather than my hips), but it never worked – I always got tired and stopped in a few minutes.

Absolutely amazed.

I found this out from Art deVany’s blog. He’s a retired biologist, and uses the term “lordosis” for the hip configuration I’ve described. (I found that amusing, because I had thought lordosis referred to the posture of sexual receptivity adopted by female rats – and I was right.)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006



“Chaos theory” is a lousy name, because “chaos” is supposed to mean the opposite of order. Chaos theory isn’t about randomness, but rather about a weird place between randomness and order. That dichotomy is central to organic life – too much randomness (e.g., a temperature too high) and we die; too much order (e.g., a planet smothered in quartz crystals) and we never could have evolved in the first place. A bunch of really smart people have written a bunch about chaos; I’ve forgotten most of the books I liked, but I can at least recommend Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science.

Chaos is part of the way our minds work. We seek out order and novelty in the world simultaneously. We want things to make sense, but we don’t want to be bored. These are useful qualities for biological organisms: a grasp of order allows one to accomplish more stuff, while a handle on novelty allows one to compete with other organisms. The act of living is fundamentally chaotic (in the mathematical sense, not the original one), and our minds are “designed” to help us live, so it seems reasonable that chaos would be a major property of our minds. (Perhaps in support of that idea, it turns out that individual neurons compete for survival and real estate.)

What’s weird about being a human is that after millions of years of neurological evolution, we’re left with all these bizarre side-effects like aesthetics, or art, or humor. We like to look at flames. Why? I suspect it’s that the patterns that flames and other chaotic systems (inc. various screensavers) send to our brains, unpredictable yet ordered and coherent, ape in a simple way the complex patterns we confront in our attempt to stay alive and produce viable offspring.

One could argue that the human activity where the randomness/order dichotomy is most evident is jazz. Good jazz musicians cultivate a sense of kind-of-in-control, until they can invoke it at will. I can’t evoke it at will, but I often stumble into it, and it’s the most enjoyable thing I know about.


There should be a headphones section of the library!


Thursday, April 06, 2006


Flake awareness

I have generally operated according to the following principle: presume every individual to be a good person until finding evidence to the contrary. I realized yesterday that the principle requires a little bit of modification. From now on, I will assume that every person is (1) a good person, except (2) that they are a flake, until I have evidence to the contrary.

In particular, this means calling up every client who has scheduled an appointment with me before I show up at their house with nobody there. If I show up while the house is empty except for their teenage daughter who is pulling out of the driveway and telling me that her mom is coming in ten minutes, I will call her mom to make sure. Etx.

Thanks God for NPR.

Monday, April 03, 2006


Signs on the road to techno-heaven

For those of us awaiting the arrival of controlled macroeconomic experiments facilitated by MMORGPs (massive multiplayer online role-playing game), this might not exactly qualify as a milestone, but it’s weird enough to be of interest. It’s about a live talk show running inside a video game.


Music theory has hurt us

In my last post, I said that my teachers couldn’t explain music theory any better than a book. I didn’t mean to imply it came easily that way. While the books could be good, there’s only so much any medium can do to make music theory understandable. It is an arbitrary, needlessly complex system. It could be easier, and if it were, we might have a lot more beautiful music. My blood boils at the thought. Music theory is kind of like counting in French or Hindi, only far more crippling to aspiring musicians than those languages seems to be to mathematicians. (In fact, disproportionately many important mathematicians are French or Indian. Um, let’s ignore that.)

It would take a book for me to fully describe what we should use instead of the Western 12-tones-in-seven-tones system, but in a nutshell, the seven tone system (“minor second” = 1 half step, “major second” = 2 half steps, “perfect fifth”=seven half steps, etc.) is garbage. We should instead lay out everything in 12-tone. Seven-tone scales fit perfectly well in a 12-tone system. The colossal avoidable headache of music students is that the reverse is not true: 12 tones do NOT fit uniformly in a seven-tone system.

A good notation should get out of the way quickly. This is why languages with alphabets dominated pictorial ones, and why Arabic numerals dominated Roman ones. Western staff notation is terrible for information theoretic reasons.

One objection is that, given any melody and any tonic center, we would like the relation between any two tones to be immediately apparent. In 12-tone numerical notation, it would be. With the current system, it takes a bunch of mental arithmetic – more than most musicians are willing to do for most of the combinations on the page. This opacity makes it harder than necessary to compose or improvise, which impoverishes the listening public.

Often, band leaders are forced to teach theory to their incoming members. They recognize the failings of music theory, and so they replace it with their own curriculum. This duplication of effort drains productive time from the lives of some of our most creative people. Musicians should be outraged, and move swiftly to replace the system. I guess they’re too busy starving or something.

(Incidentally, the best (traditional) music theory book I know of is the companion booklet to the program Practica Musica. It is a concise and useful exposition (of a needlessly complex system).)


The value of teachers

Though each was brief, I've had a number of music teachers. They always talked, and what they said was generally useless or already familiar, having been laid out more thoroughly in some book. However, my teachers did convey a certain type of valuable information that can't be written down at all well: namely, they showed me what is possible and what not to bother trying.

Certainly, I watched them play, but that sort of learning is already available for less money in live performance settings. What's unique about teaching situations is that the student can see how the teacher talks about music, which terms roll off the tongue and which require a bit of thought to recall, how long it takes them to recognize an interval or transpose a chord they're reading, what they consider difficult, how many notes they can improvise at once, how well they can execute an idea that occurs to them, which errors in the student’s playing they can hear and which they can't … Such facts contribute to a sense of what the brain and body are capable of, and that sense allows one to use one’s time well.

Music students treat teachers as yogis – these weird, other-worldly creatures who knowingly bestow well-delineated gifts which, given enough ponderment, can come to be understood. That's dumb. We should look at our teachers the way stock brokers look at each other's activities: jealously, intending to extract maximum information from an agent who doesn't necessarily recognize, let alone vocalize, all relevant data.

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