The Technium

Weekly Links, 05/17/2024

 
The Technium

Weekly Links, 04/19/2024

 
The Technium

101 Additional Advices

Six years ago I celebrated my 68th birthday by gifting my children 68 bits of advice I wished I had gotten when I was their age. Every birthday after that I added more bits of advice for them until I had a whole book of bits. That book was published a year ago as Excellent Advice for Living, which many people tell me they read very slowly, just one bit per day. In a few days I will turn 73, so again on my birthday, I offer an additional set of 101 bits of advice I wished I had known earlier. None of these appear in the book; they are all new. If you enjoy these, or find they resonate with your own experience, there are 460 more bits in my Excellent Advice book, all neatly bound between hard covers, in a handy size, ready to gift to a person younger than yourself. – KK

• The best way to criticize something is to make something better.

• Admitting that “I don’t know” at least once a day will make you a better person.

• Forget trying to decide what your life’s destiny is. That’s too grand. Instead, just figure out what you should do in the next 2 years.

• Aim to be effective, but unpredictable. That is, you want to act in a way that AIs have trouble modeling or imitating. That makes you irreplaceable.

• Whenever you hug someone, be the last to let go.

• Don’t save up the good stuff (fancy wine, or china) for that rare occasion that will never happen; instead use them whenever you can.

• The best gardening advice: find what you can grow well and grow lots and lots of it. 

• Never hesitate to invest in yourself—to pay for a class, a course, a new skill. These modest expenditures pay outsized dividends.

• Try to define yourself by what you love and embrace, rather than what you hate and refuse.

• Read a lot of history so you can understand how weird the past was; that way you will be comfortable with how weird the future will be.

• To make a room luxurious, remove things, rather than add things.

• Interview your parents while they are still alive. Keep asking questions while you record. You’ll learn amazing things. Or hire someone to make their story into an oral history, or documentary, or book. This will be a tremendous gift to them and to your family. 

• If you think someone is normal, you don’t know them very well. Normalcy is a fiction. Your job is to discover their weird genius.

• When shopping for anything physical (souvenirs, furniture, books, tools, shoes, equipment), ask yourself: where will this go? Don’t buy it unless there is a place it can live. Something may need to leave in order for something else to come in.

• You owe everyone a second chance, but not a third.

• When someone texts you they are running late, double the time they give you. If they say they’ll be there in 5, make that 10; if 10, it’ll be 20; if 20, count on 40.

• Multitasking is a myth. Don’t text while walking, running, biking or driving. Nobody will miss you if you just stop for a minute.

• You can become the world’s best in something primarily by caring more about it than anyone else.

• Asking “what-if?” about your past is a waste of time; asking “what-if?” about your future is tremendously productive.

• Try to make the kind of art and things that will inspire others to make art and things. 

• Once a month take a different route home, enter your house by a different door, and sit in a different chair at dinner. No ruts.

• Where you live—what city, what country—has more impact on your well being than any other factor. Where you live is one of the few things in your life you can choose and change.

• Every now and then throw a memorable party. The price will be steep, but long afterwards you will remember the party, whereas you won’t remember how much is in your checking account.

• Most arguments are not really about the argument, so most arguments can’t be won by arguing.

• The surest way to be successful is to invent your own definition of success. Shoot your arrows first and then paint a bull’s eye around where they land. You’re the winner!

• When remodeling a home interior use big pieces of cardboard to mock-up your alterations at life size. Seeing things, such as counters, at actual size will change your plans, and it is so much easier to make modifications with duct tape and scissors.

• There should be at least one thing in your life you enjoy despite being no good at it. This is your play time, which will keep you young. Never apologize for it.

• Changing your mind about important things is not a consequence of stupidity, but a sign of intelligence.

• You have 5 minutes to act on a new idea before it disappears from your mind.

• What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important. To get the important stuff done, avoid the demands of the urgent.

• Three situations where you’ll never regret ordering too much: when you are pouring concrete, when you are choosing a battery, and when you are getting ice for a party.

• The patience you need for big things, is developed by your patience with the little things.

• Don’t fear failure. Fear average.

• When you are stuck or overwhelmed, focus on the smallest possible thing that moves your project forward.

• In a museum you need to spend at least 10 minutes with an artwork to truly see it. Aim to view 5 pieces at 10 minutes each rather than 100 at 30 seconds each.

• For steady satisfaction, work on improving your worst days, rather than your best days.

• Your decisions will become wiser when you consider these three words: “…and then what?” for each choice.

• If possible, every room should be constructed to provide light from two sides.  Rooms with light from only one side are used less often, so when you have a choice, go with light from two sides.

• Never accept a work meeting until you’ve seen the agenda and know what decisions need to be made. If no decisions need to be made, skip the meeting.

• You have no obligation to like everyone, and you are free to intensely dislike a person. But you owe everyone—even those you dislike—basic respect.

• When you find yourself procrastinating, don’t resist. Instead lean into it. Procrastinate 100%. Try to do absolutely nothing for 5 minutes. Make it your job. You’ll fail. After 5 minutes, you’ll be ready and eager to work.

• If you want to know how good a surgeon is, don’t ask other doctors. Ask the nurses.

• There is a profound difference between thinking less of yourself (not useful), and thinking of yourself less (better).

• Strong opinions, clearly stated, but loosely held is the recipe for an intellectual life. Always ask yourself: what would change my mind?

• You can not truly become yourself, by yourself. Becoming one-of-a-kind is not a solo job. Paradoxically you need everyone else in the world to help make you unique. 

• If you need emergency help from a bystander, command them what to do. By giving them an assignment, you transform them from bewildered bystander to a responsible assistant.

• The most common mistake we make is to do a great job on an unimportant task.

• Don’t work for a company you would not invest money in, because when you are working you are investing the most valuable thing you have: your time.

• Fail fast. Fail often. Fail forward. Failing is not a disgrace if you keep failing better. 

• Doing good is its own reward. When you do good, people will question your motive, and any good you accomplish will soon be forgotten. Do good anyway.

• Best sleep aid: first, get really tired.

• For every success there is a corresponding non-monetary tax of some kind. To maintain success you have to gladly pay these taxes.

• Do not cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it.

• For small tasks the best way to get ready is to do it immediately. 

• If someone is calling you to alert you to fraud, nine out of ten times they are themselves the fraudster. Hang up. Call the source yourself if concerned.

• When you try to accomplish something difficult, surround yourself with friends.

• You should be willing to look foolish at first, in order to look like a genius later.

• Think in terms of decades, and act in terms of days.

• The most selfish thing in the world you can do is to be generous. Your generosity will return you ten fold.

• Discover people whom you love doing “nothing” with, and do nothing with them on a regular basis. The longer you can maintain those relationships, the longer you will live.

• Forget diamonds; explore the worlds hidden in pebbles. Seek the things that everyone else ignores.

• Write your own obituary, the one you’d like to have, and then everyday work towards making it true.

• Avoid making any kind of important decision when you are either hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (HALT). Just halt when you are HALT.

• What others want from you is mostly to be seen. Let others know you see them.

• Working differently is usually more productive than working harder.

• When you try something new, don’t think of it as a matter of success / failure, but as success / learning to succeed.

• If you have a good “why” to live for, no “how” will stop you.

• If you are out of ideas, go for a walk. A good walk empties the mind—and then refills it with new stuff.

• The highest form of wealth is deciding you have enough.

• Education is overly expensive. Gladly pay for it anyway, because ignorance is even more expensive.

• The cheapest therapy is to spend time with people who make you laugh.

• Always be radically honest, but use your honesty as a gift not as a weapon. Your honesty should benefit others.

• A good sign that you are doing the kind of work you should be doing is that you enjoy the tedious parts that other people find tortuous. 

• Being envious is a toxin. Instead take joy in the success of others and treat their success as your gain. Celebrating the success of others costs you nothing, and increases the happiness of everyone, including you.

• The more persistent you are, the more chances you get to be lucky.

• To tell a good story, you must reveal a surprise; otherwise it is just a report.

• Small steps matter more when you play a long game because a long horizon allows you to compound small advances into quite large achievements.

• If you are more fortunate than others, build a longer table rather than a taller fence.

• Many fail to finish, but many more fail to start. The hardest work in any work is to start. You can’t finish until you start, so get good at starting.

• Work on your tone. Often ideas are rejected because of the tone of voice they are wrapped in. Humility covers many blemishes.

• When you are right, you are learning nothing.

• Very small things accumulate until they define your larger life. Carefully choose your everyday things.

• It is impossible to be curious and furious at the same time, so avoid furious.

• College is not about grades. No one cares what grades you got in college. College is about exploring. Just try stuff.

• Weird but true: If you continually give, you will continually have.

• To clean up your city, sweep your doorstep first. 

• Decisions like to present themselves as irreversible, like a one-way door. But most deciding points are two-way. Don’t get bogged down by decisions. You can usually back up if needed. 

• Every mistake is an opportunity to improvise.

• You’ll never meet a very successful pessimistic person. If you want to be remarkable, get better at being optimistic.

• You can’t call it charity unless no one is watching.

• When you think of someone easy to despise—a tyrant, a murderer, a torturer—don’t wish them harm. Wish that they welcome orphans into their home, and share their food with the hungry. Wish them goodness, and by this compassion you will increase your own happiness.

• Get good at being corrected without being offended.

• The week between Christmas and New Years was invented to give you the perfect time to sharpen your kitchen knives, vacuum your car, and tidy the folders on your desktop.

• There is no formula for success, but there are two formulas for failure: not trying and not persisting.

• We tend to overrate the value of intelligence.You need to pair your IQ with other virtues. The most important things in life can not be attained through logic only.

• If you are impressed with someone’s work, you should tell them, but even better, tell their boss. 

• In matters of the heart, one moment of patience can save you years of regret.

• Humility is mostly about being very honest about how much you owe to luck.

• Slow progress is still a million times better than no progress. 

• Recipe for greatness: expect much of yourself and little of others.

• The very best way to win a friend is to be one.

 
Cool Tools

What's in my NOW? — Jessi Stinson

Sign up here to get What’s in my NOW? a week early in your inbox.

I've been a public library reference assistant for over 25 years. I'm a early adopter adopter of new technology, and specialize in teaching tech literacy to the public. I love travel and the outdoors, and all the toys and gadgets that go along with that. During the pandemic I bought an almost 10 acre piece of land and have started the post-apocalypse homestead of my dreams, and have now developed a love of all the cool tools that go with that.
— Jessi Stinson


PHYSICAL

  • MAOYUE Candle Warmer. My partner is scared every time I light a candle in the house, and I hate how quickly my favorite scented candles burn up. I don't burn candles for the light, but for the scent, and this candle warmer works perfectly at releasing the aroma while making sure that the house doesn't accidentally burn down.
  • Medihoney Gel Wound and & Burn Dressing. This stuff is amazing for healing open wounds and burns. I learned about it recently after having open surgical wounds that could not be stitched closed, and had to heal from the inside out (it's a thing!). Medihoney worked better at healing, protecting and soothing than the strong antibiotic gel my physician prescribed. I will keep this in my first aid kit from now on.
  • Removable Freezer Labels. I keep buying these over and over. They are amazing, and I keep finding good uses for them. I make country wine, and these are perfect for keeping my bottles labeled. They come off easily without residue. They can be moved and reused, and what tickles me the most is that when they get run through the dishwasher - they stay on and the marker doesn't wash off! I use them all over the house.


DIGITAL

  • Your library card. Have you seen your local public library's free downloadable movies, music, audiobooks, magazines from services like Overdrive, Kanopy, Hoopla, Flipster, and more? I save hundreds of dollars a year accessing downloadable entertainment with my library card. Here is an example of what my library has to offer, all from the comfort of home. I bet your library is much of the same. 
  • The Prehab App. I broke my ankle, and then of all things my wrist last year - both requiring surgery, plates and pins. I am very athletic and participate in a number of outdoor sports like whitewater kayaking, hiking and cycling. I got very depressed, and faced an identity crisis. I tried a number of rehab folks, but no one was as good as the Prehab app. Very professional and very motivating. This was a huge help in my recovery both physically and mentally.


INVISIBLE

  • As a side gig I help people with self-publishing. Right now I'm working on transcribing a precious civil war diary written by a military surgeon, handed down through the family for many generations. While the description of the war is interesting, I love reading about his daily family life and what he had for breakfast, and how it cost $1 a week to have his laundry done for him, and how he parents his two toddlers. Keep a journal and always remember to write down the mundane. If you can't think of anything to write, just know that future generations 200 years from now just might love to read about what car you drive and what you had for lunch!


What’s in your NOW?

We want to know what’s in your now — a list of 6 things that are significant to you now — 3 physical, 2 digital and 1 invisible. 

If you’re interested in contributing an issue, use this form to submit: https://forms.gle/Pf9BMuombeg1gCid9

If we run your submission in our newsletter and blog, we’ll paypal you $25.

 
The Technium

Weekly Links, 03/22/2024

 
Cool Tools

Safer in the Air/Dead Bodies in Museums/Worldschooling Take 2

A weekly newsletter with four quick bites, edited by Tim Leffel, author of A Better Life for Half the Price and The World’s Cheapest Destinations. See past editions here, where your like-minded friends can subscribe and join you.

A Record Year for Airline Safety

This may be the shortest report we’ve ever linked to but for a good reason: 2023 was officially the safest year for jet travel since… we’ve had jet travel. According to the IATA, “In a significant achievement, 2023 saw no fatal accidents or hull losses for jet aircraft, leading to a record-low fatality risk rate of 0.03 rate per million sectors.” There was one turbo-prop fatal crash, a Yeti Airlines plane in Nepal that went down with 72 people on it, but considering how many planes take off and land each day, this is a remarkable achievement. “Overall, there was an average of one accident for every 880,293 flights.”

The History and Fascination With Dead Bodies on Display

I live in a historic Mexican city that’s a UNESCO World Heritage place, but what’s the #1 tourist attraction? The Mummy Museum of Guanajuato. This BBC article looks into the fascination with bones and bodies and investigates the sordid past and the economic incentives behind the relics displays. The sinister history behind the world’s first tourist sites.

Mexican Rental Cars, Minus the Scams

As a Mexpat without a car, I often need to rent one when going on vacation or taking a road trip. After too many incidents of facing inflated insurance rate scams at the counter with the likes of Budget and Europcar, so far my streak is up to 3 rentals in 3 cities without this hassle with Mex Rent a Car. Their site has this refreshing bit on it: “All of our rates within Mexico include third-party liability up to 750,000.00 MXN and coverage for the vehicle rented in case of an accident or total theft, with a 10% deductible (CDW).” Any good credit card should cover the rest. Their sister company Mas offers the same deal.

A Complete Guide to Worldschooling

A while back we referenced a good article on “worldschooling,” the idea of educating your child in different ways in foreign countries, and reader Jake S. sent us a tip that there’s a whole book on the subject if you want a deep dive. See more here - Wonder Year: A Guide to Long-Term Family Travel and Worldschooling.

 
The Technium

Weekly Links, 03/08/2024

 
Cool Tools

Spill Zone / Norman Mailer: JFK, Superman Comes to the Supermarket

Books That Belong On Paper first appeared on the web as Wink Books and was edited by Carla Sinclair. Sign up here to get the issues a week early in your inbox.


SPILL ZONE WILL HAVE YA READERS WISHING THAT THE GRAPHIC NOVEL WAS RELEASED AS A SERIES

Spill Zone
by Scott Westerfeld, Alex Puvilland (Illustrator)
First Second
2017, 224 pages, 6.4 x 0.8 x 8.8 inches, Hardcover

Buy on Amazon

Before there was binge watching, there was binge reading. Spill Zone will have YA readers wishing that the graphic novel was released as a series, to be devoured eagerly, coming up for air in the seconds between back cover slapping shut and a new front cover flipping open, before diving back in again. Unfortunately, moderation has been forced upon us and we’ll have to wait until next spring for a second helping.

Spill Zone has all the hallmarks of a good story in pacing, narrative, and character for the YA set and keeps readers wanting more with its cliffhanger ending. There’s the artsy, gutsy young woman protagonist, Addison, surviving a post-apocalyptic life in the woods of upstate New York as the sole caretaker for her little sister, Lexa. There’s the creepy, possibly possessed doll, Vespertine, whose intentions are unclear but who is somehow (hopefully revealed in book two) connected to and animated by forces within the spill zone. There’s the rich, sinister art collector whose interest in Addison’s photographs of the spill zone surely (but how?!) go beyond an appreciation for voyeuristic art. And, of course, there’s the spill zone itself, which claimed Addison and Lexa’s parents among its victims, the cause and and full effects of which are still unknown.

Scott Westerfeld does a whole lot of set-up on this book, yet it never feels bogged down or overly expository. Exactly the opposite. Alex Puvivalland’s moody artwork—fast and slow in all the right places—and use of color, perspective, and varied panelling make Spill Zone nearly impossible to put down.

Mk Smith Despres


NORMAN MAILER’S GAME-CHANGING COVERAGE OF JOHN F. KENNEDY’S PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN

Norman Mailer: JFK, Superman Comes to the Supermarket
by Norman Mailer
Taschen
2014, 370 pages, 12.5 x 2.8 x 18 inches, Hardcover

Buy on Amazon

It’s impossible not to imagine what sort of damage Norman Mailer’s pen would have tried to do to candidate Donald J. Trump, especially after reading the “Centennial Edition” of Norman Mailer: JFK, Superman Comes to the Supermarket, (JFK was born on May 29, 1917). When Mailer’s essay was originally published in the November 1960 issue of “Esquire” magazine, three weeks before that year’s presidential election, the writer was, by his own admission, attempting to drum up enthusiasm among skeptical New York City liberal elites for the junior senator from Massachusetts. Had Mailer been around last fall to write a similarly timed piece on Trump, one assumes his angle would have been just a little bit different.

Today, anyone can read Mailer’s essay for free at esquire.com, which is why the Taschen version of Superman Comes to the Supermarket is much more than a reprint. Characteristically, Taschen has packed its weighty volume with scores of photographs from the period, the majority of which capture John Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, on the campaign trail—giving speeches from the hoods of tractors and station wagons, huddling with aides in smoky back rooms, and shaking endless numbers of hands. Naturally, there are lots of views of supermarkets, too—from metaphorical ones (I love the grainy black-and-white by John Bryson of a man from the Maine delegation holding a bunch of balloons at the Democratic National Convention) to literal ones (check out the look on the female checker in a West Virginia grocery store as Kennedy walks past her, licking his lips, a delectable moment preserved for posterity by Hank Walker).

Still, Superman Comes to the Supermarket is Mailer’s book, and it’s surprising—or perhaps not—how many of his words from more than half a century ago still resonate today. Of candidates, he writes, “A man running for President is altogether different from a man elected President: the hazards of the campaign make it impossible for a candidate to be as interesting as he might like to be (assuming he has such a desire).” Of those who make careers of politics, he observes that, “most of the people who nourish themselves in the political life are in the game not to make history but to be diverted from the history which is being made.”

But it’s Mailer’s sketch of voters that rings most true today, and feels like such a punch in the guts. “It was a hero America needed, a hero central to his time, a man whose personality might suggest contradiction and mysteries which could reach into the alienated circuits of the underground, because only a hero can capture the secret imagination of a people… Roosevelt was such a hero, and Churchill, Lenin and DeGaulle; even Hitler, to take the most odious example of this thesis, was a hero, the hero-as-monster, embodying what had become the monstrous fantasy of a people, but the horror upon which the radical mind and liberal temperament foundered was that he gave outlet to the energies of the Germans and so presented the twentieth century with an index of how horrible had become the secret heart of its desire.”

– Ben Marks

 
Cool Tools

Streaming services guide/Revitalize your coffee machine/In the Shadow of the Sword

Sign up here to get Recomendo a week early in your inbox.


Streaming services guide 

How to choose the streaming services that are right for you” is an incredibly helpful breakdown of the major streaming services and their costs. The guide suggests keeping a TV diary for a week to write down what you watch as you watch it to reveal where you direct most of your attention as a viewer. I’ve been slowly getting kicked off of shared streaming services and was surprised to find that I don’t miss Netflix at all. The shows I most enjoy are on Max and Hulu. — CD 

Revitalize your coffee machine

The Impresa coffee machine descaler solution has transformed my coffee machines — a 15-year-old Rancilio Silvia and a 2-year-old Nespresso Inissia — by eliminating built-up residue and oils. I was shocked by the amount of discolored gunk that was flushed out by using this cleaner. It's a game-changer for maintaining coffee quality. — MF

The birth of religions

Classical antiquity is not as far away from us as it might first appear. I’m in love with a newish book about the first millennia called, “In the Shadow of the Sword,”  Inside this elegantly written, sweeping history about the birth of Islam, is hidden a more profound book about the birth of religions in general. Just as the bishops created Christianity from the slim, scarce, and obscure oral teachings of a holy man, so Islam was created from the slim, obscure oral traditions of another holy man. This is one of the densest books I’ve ever read, with more insights per page than I could count. The two greatest forces shaping our lives today are technology and orthodox, dogmatic religion, and this is the biography of the second. — KK

Borrow Kindle books for free

The Library Extension has changed how I find and borrow ebooks. While browsing Amazon or Goodreads, this browser add-on indicates whether a book is available at my local library. With a simple click on the "borrow" button, the book is sent directly to my Kindle. It requires only a library account to use. (Screenshot) — MF

One Minute Focus

The purpose of this website is to increase your mental focus by looking at the dot for 1 minute while breathing. It’s inspired by Dr. Andrew Huberman’s claim that “staring at something for a short time has been proven to improve and boost mental focus on subsequent tasks.” I feel like it “pumps” me up to focus, so I guess it works for me. Along with this recommendation, I also want to share a reminder to practice good eye hygiene when working at your desk. I frequently look out the window, widen my gaze, unfocus my eyes, and close them for short periods of time. Here’s more info on digital eye strain. — CD 

Best music visualization

There have been many many attempts to visualize music over the centuries, but the animations of music done by Stephen Malinowski are the ones that sing to me. Despite the name of Music Animation Machine, this is not AI. This is obsessive craftsmanship of the highest order. As a sample start with this piece of music, the original 1924 recording of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. — KK

 
The Technium

Type 2 Growth

While technology has gotten us into this climate change mess only technology can get us out of it. Only the technium (our technological system) is “big” enough to work at the global scale needed to fix this planetary sized problem. Individual personal virtue (bicycling, using recycling bins) is not enough. However the worry of some environmentalists is that technology can only contribute more to the problem and none to the solution. They believe that tech is incapable of being green because it is the source of relentless consumerism at the expense of diminishing nature, and that our technological civilization requires endless growth to keep the system going. I disagree.

In English there is a curious and unhelpful conflation of the two meanings of the word “growth.”  The most immediate meaning is to increase in size, or increase in girth, to gain in weight, to add numbers, to get bigger. In short, growth means “more.” More dollars, more people, more land, more stuff. More is fundamentally what biological, economic, and technological systems want to do: dandelions and parking lots tend to fill all available empty places. If that is all they did, we’d be well to worry. But there is another equally valid and common use of the word “growth" to mean develop, as in to mature, to ripen, to evolve.  We talk about growing up, or our own personal growth. This kind of growth is not about added pounds, but about betterment. It is what we might call evolutionary or developmental, or type 2 growth. It’s about using the same ingredients in better ways. Over time evolution arranges the same number of atoms in more complex patterns to yield more complex organisms, for instance producing an agile lemur the same size and weight as a jelly fish. We seek the same shift in the technium. Standard economic growth aims to get consumers to drink more wine. Type 2 growth aims to get them to not drink more wine, but better wine. 

The technium, like nature, excels at both meanings of growth. It can produce more, rapidly, and it can produce better, slowly. Individually, corporately and socially, we’ve tended to favor functions that produce more. For instance, to measure (and thus increase) productivity we count up the number of refrigerators manufactured and sold each year. More is generally better. But this counting tends to overlook the fact that refrigerators have gotten better over time. In addition to making cold, they now dispense ice cubes, or self-defrost, and use less energy. And they may cost less in real dollars. This betterment is truly real value, but is not accounted for in the “more” column. Indeed a tremendous amount of the betterment in our lives that is brought about by new technology is difficult to measure, even though it feels evident. This “betterment surplus” is often slow moving, wrapped up with new problems, and usually appears in intangibles, such as increased options, safety, choices, new categories, and self actualization — which like most intangibles, are very hard to pin down.  The benefits only become more obvious when we look back in retrospect to realize what we have gained. Part of our growth as a civilization is moving from a system that favors more barrels of wine, to one that favors the same barrels of better wine.

A major characteristic of sapiens has been our compulsion to invent things, which we have been doing for tens of thousands of years. But for most of history our betterment levels were flatlined, without much evidence of type 2 growth. That changed about 300 years ago when we invented our greatest invention -- the scientific method. Once we had hold of this meta-invention we accelerated evolution. We turned up our growth rate in every dimension, inventing more tools, more food, more surplus, more population, more minds, more ideas, more inventions, in a virtuous spiral. Betterment began to climb. For several hundred years, and especially for the last hundred years, we experience steady betterment. But that betterment — the type 2 growth — has coincided with massive expansion of “moreness.” We’ve exploded our human population by an order of magnitude, we’ve doubled our living space per person, we have rooms full of stuff our ancestors did not. Our betterment, that is our living standards, have increased alongside the expansion of the technium and our economy, and most importantly the expansion of our population. There is obviously some part of a feedback loop where increased living standards enables yearly population increases and more people create the technology for higher living standards, but causation is hard to parse. What we can say for sure is that as a species we don’t have much experience, if any, with increasing living standards and fewer people every year. We’ve only experience increased living standards alongside of increased population.

By their nature demographic changes unroll slowly because they run on generational time. Inspecting the demographic momentum today it is very clear human populations are headed for a reversal on the global scale by the next generation. After a peak population around 2070, the total human population on this planet will start to diminish each year. So far, nothing we have tried has reversed this decline locally. Individual countries can mask this global decline by stealing residents from each other via immigration, but the global total matters for our global economy. This means that it is imperative that we figure out how to shift more of our type 1 growth to type 2 growth, because we won’t be able to keep expanding the usual “more.”  We will have to perfect a system that can keep improving and getting better with fewer customers each year, smaller markets and audiences, and fewer workers. That is a huge shift from the past few centuries where every year there has been more of everything. 

In this respect “degrowthers” are correct in that there are limits to bulk growth — and running out of humans may be one of them. But they don’t seem to understand that evolutionary growth, which includes the expansion of intangibles such as freedom, wisdom, and complexity, doesn’t have similar limits. We can always figure out a way to improve things, even without using more stuff — especially without using more stuff! There is no limit to betterment. We can keep growing (type 2) indefinitely.

The related concern about the adverse impact of the technology on nature is understandable, but I believe, can also be solved. The first phases of agriculture and industrialization did indeed steamroll forests and wreck ecosystems. Industry often required colossal structures of high-temperature, high pressure operations that did not operate at human or biological scale. The work was done behind foot-thick safety walls and chain link fences. But we have "grown.” We’ve learned the importance of the irreplaceable subsidy nature provides our civilizations and we have begun to invent more suitable technologies. Industrial-strength nuclear fission power will eventually give way to less toxic nuclear fusion power. The work of this digital age is more accommodating to biological conditions. As kind of a symbolic example, the raw ingredients for our most valuable products, like chips, require ultra cleanliness, and copious volumes of air and water cleaner than we’d ever need ourselves. The tech is becoming more aligned with our biological scale. In a real sense, much of the commercial work done today is not done by machines that could kill us, but by machines we carry right next to our skin in our pockets. We continue to create new technologies that are more aligned with our biosphere. We know how to make things with less materials. We know how to run things with less energy. We’ve invented energy sources that reduce warming. So far we’ve not invented any technology that we could not successfully make more green.

We have a ways to go before we implement these at scale, economically, with consensus. And it is not inevitable at all that we will grab the political will to make these choices. But it is important to realize that the technium is not inherently contrary to nature; it is inherently derived from evolution and thus inherently capable of being compatible with nature. We can choose to create versions of the technium that are aligned with the natural world. Or not. As a radical optimist, I work towards a civilization full of life-affirming high technology, because I think this is possible, and by imagining "what could be" gives us a much greater chance of making it real.

[This essay began as a response in an email interview with Noah Smith, published in his newsletter, here. His newsletter is great; I am a paying subscriber.]

 
The Technium

Weekly Links, 03/01/2024

 
Cool Tools

Flotsam / Ghosts

Books That Belong On Paper first appeared on the web as Wink Books and was edited by Carla Sinclair. Sign up here to get the issues a week early in your inbox.


WIESNER’S INTRIGUING AND MYSTERIOUSLY GORGEOUS FLOTSAM BEGINS WITH A BOY STUMBLING ONTO AN ANTIQUE CAMERA BY THE SHORE

Flotsam
by David Wiesner
Abrams ComicArts
2017, 240 pages, 6.9 x 1.0 x 9.4 inches, Hardcover

Buy on Amazon

Go to any beach, and odds are that you may have seen flotsam wash onto the shore. Flotsam has become a catch-all term for refuse, but it’s more accurately defined as the wreckage of a ship or its cargo. This is an important distinction. Flotsam is not simply trash, but somebody’s precious possessions, something of enough value that made it worth transporting to begin with. David Wiesner’s intriguing and mysteriously gorgeous Flotsam begins with a boy stumbling onto an antique camera by the shore, but what he discovers far surpasses any material treasure.

After developing a weathered roll of film that he finds inside the camera, the hero of this story finds a series of snapshots that offer tantalizing glimpses of a surreal, compelling underwater microcosm. The reader is treated to the gradual revelation of a strange and wondrous hidden realm below the sea where a family of octopi lounge in their living room, the skin of brilliant red fish peels back to reveal shining clockwork gears, sea tortoises carry entire cities made of seashells upon their backs, a starship full of aliens visits a colony of seahorses and tropical islands are revealed to be the centers of giant starfish that cavort while comparatively diminutive blue whales swim beneath.

The last photo particularly captures the boy’s attention. In it, an Asian girl holds up a photo of a boy in a knit cap, who in turn holds a photo of a blond girl. This discovery prompts our protagonist to further examine the photo with a magnifying glass, gradually revealing even more images of children holding up photos of the previous child to find the camera. Closer examination with a microscope reveals the vivid colors of the present day fading to the black-and-white of earlier times, until all that remains is a photo of one child standing by the shores in clothes that indicate the turn of the past century. Recognizing himself as part of a continuum across generations, our young hero takes a picture of himself holding up the photo with all of the other children, his secret sharers in viewing an enchanted, hidden world below the sea.

The wordless tale ends with the boy throwing the camera back into the ocean. As a school of squid, a whale, a pelican and a team of sea horses carry the camera across the sea for a young girl to find on the shore of another beach across the world, we’re reminded of how all of us can share in wonder and joy, led only by simple curiosity and the willingness to look more closely at the world around us.

With Flotsam, Wiesner provides the reader with exotic fragments of a complex and nuanced inner world beneath the fantastic realms of the ocean and imagination. His compelling book functions very much like a photo album, offering glimpses into the lives of its subjects. These are the memories that Wiesner’s denizens of the deep cherish, the moments that linger in the memory and consciousness of the sea creatures, and, by extension, the reader of this handsome and nuanced book.

– Lee Hollman


GHOSTS — A MOVING AND INSIGHTFUL STORY ABOUT THE POWER OF FAMILY AND FRIENDSHIP

Ghosts
by Raina Telgemeier
GRAPHIX
2016, 256 pages, 5.5 x 0.9 x 7.9 inches, Paperback

Buy on Amazon

Cat’s sister Maya is suffering from cystic fibrosis, which is the reason why her family moved to the Northern Californian town of Bahia De La Luna. Upon meeting Carlos, the girls discover that the new town they must reluctantly call home is filled with ghosts.

Aloof, perpetually annoyed teenager Cat, and her active, curious sister Maya, journey to the haunted town of Bahia De La Luna. They meet local teen Carlos, who takes them on a ghost tour of a spooky abandoned arcade. There they are greeted by shy, familial ghosts. The sisters learn about aspects of Latin culture, including the holiday Dia De Los Muertos. They eventually work out some sibling rivalry, and Cat develops a crush on Carlos, which she denies. After a dramatic health scare, the girls experience a joyful Dia De Los Muertos celebration with music, dancing, and bottles of orange soda.

A bittersweet story of learning to appreciate new cultures and customs, Ghosts features colorful art work, and its lively, engaging dialogue and expressively-drawn images of marigold-strewn altars, dim, foreboding woods, and festively attired, rollicking holiday celebrations keep the story moving along. Focusing mostly on interpersonal relationships, the eponymous spirits are only minor supporting characters, and the plot rarely becomes scary. Ghosts is a charming tale of family, friendship, and bravery.

– SD

 
Cool Tools

Future of Space/Disk Prices/Oldavista

Sign up here to get Recomendo a week early in your inbox.

Future of Space

I have been researching the state of space technology, and the current ambitions of various countries and companies for space exploration and settlement. By far the best source for official plans, programs in progress, and technological breakthroughs has been a stellar YouTube channel called The Space Race. It’s fun, visual, clear, insightful, succinct, and highly informative. Its back list of hundreds of videos have answered all my “future of space” questions. — KK

Hard Drive Shopper

Disk Prices is a bare-bones, text-only website lists the prices of hard drives, solid-state drives, and USB drives available on Amazon. It’s a superior way to search for storage compared to searching directly on Amazon. — MF

Old Internet Search

Oldavista is a search engine that retrieves results from the “internet of yesterday,” sourcing from archived personal web pages such as GeoCities, AOL Hometown, Angelfire, and others. It’s modeled after the now-defunct AltaVista and scraped from the Internet Archive. I love the nostalgia exploration! — CD

Diversion Safes

Diversion safes look like everyday items, ranging from clocks to hairbrushes. They come with hidden compartments that are perfect for stashing money, USB drives, and other small valuables. The variety available on Amazon means there's a style to blend into any room seamlessly. Here’s one built into a soap dispenser. — MF

Industry secrets 

Someone on Reddit asked, “What industry ‘secret’ do you know that most people don’t?” and I wish I had time to read through all the thousands of comments. Many of the revealed secrets are what you might expect, like disinformation, uncleanliness, and high markups, but some are truly frightening! Below is a sample of the top-voted secrets: 

  • “Are we still connected?” most times will get an immediate response from online chat agents.
  • I'm an academic researcher and I can speak for a huge number in my field when I say: If you want access to our studies and they're behind a paywall, you can email us and we will send you the study.
  • Trained artist here. Most oil paints are made with very toxic substances, as are most paint thinners and mediums. Every single one of my teachers was either very sick (Cancer, Ménière's disease) or a bit crazy (eating chalk, licking pallettes). All incredible artists I was privileged to learn from. One lesson I learned very well: I wear gloves and sometimes a mask when I paint.
  • Worked in online community management and social media for years - Admins CAN read all of your PMs. Private only means private from the masses, not from administration, we had to be able to read them to check reports of abuse, grooming, illegal activity etc. 
  • I make wildlife films for big streamers and broadcasters. The sound is all either library or foley.The last one has ruined nature documentaries for me. — CD

Fraud Alert

If someone is calling you to alert you to fraud, nine out of ten times they are themselves the fraudster. These days fraud-alert fraudsters are sophisticated, and they may know information about you like your SSN, address, etc., and are playing a long game not asking for money at first. Warning signs: they prohibit you from talking to anyone else, and you can’t hang up, or call back. This very long account, How I Got Scammed Out of $50,000, by a very savvy financial advice columnist who got scammed by so-called fraud investigators has all the elements of the common tricks. It matches exactly with close friends who have been scammed. Yes, it can happen to you. Learn from others’ mistakes. — KK

 
The Technium

Weekly Links, 02/23/2024

 
Cool Tools

Head Lopper / The Disney Book

Books That Belong On Paper first appeared on the web as Wink Books and was edited by Carla Sinclair. Sign up here to get the issues a week early in your inbox.


HEAD LOPPER — A TALE OF SWORDPLAY, MAGIC, AND TREACHERY

Head Lopper
by Andrew MacLean
Image Comics
2016, 280 pages, 6.6 x 0.9 x 10.1 inches, Paperback

Buy on Amazon

A tale of swordplay, magic, and treachery, Norgal the Head Lopper travels the countryside with the severed head of Agatha the Blue Witch to vanquish the Sorcerer of the Black Bog and rid the land of the Plague of Beasts.

Head Lopper is an action-packed, dynamic, and bloody adventure story of a mighty serpent-slaying swordsman who lugs around the head of a wise-cracking witch, leaving a trail of dead behind him. He battles bat creatures, mega-arachnids, the ghosts of warriors, and the undead giants that devour the ghosts of warriors. Many heads are lopped.

A handy sketchbook details the concepts behind the characters, and a pinup gallery at the back of the novel highlight some covers drawn by noted artists Mike Mignola, Dave Stewart, and Mike and Laura Allred.

Featuring muted colors befitting a dark, cursed land of monsters spread over lively, energetic panels, poetic, Tolkein-esque dialogue, and an epic, Homeric plot, Head Lopper is a funny, exciting read. Hardly a page goes by without swordplay, spellcast, or intrigue. Heroes, villains, and royalty are all run-through with various weaponry, limbs of humans and beasts are amputated, and heads of all styles are decapitated, so those looking for subtlety should probably look elsewhere. Those looking for a ripping adventure are in the right locale.

– SD


THE DISNEY BOOK IS A BEAUTIFUL, VISUAL EXPLORATION OF ALL THINGS DISNEY

The Disney Book
by Jim Fanning
DK
2015, 200 pages, 9.2 x 0.9 x 11.1 inches, Hardcover

Buy on Amazon

The Disney Book bills itself as “A Celebration of the World of Disney,” and boy oh boy is there a lot to celebrate. Essentially an all things Disney history book, in here you can find a complete timeline of Disney’s creations, starting from Walt’s first work at a newspaper all the way up to now. The book has three major sections: “Drawn Disney,” including information and images about the animated classics; “Disney in Action,” a history of live action movies; and “Experience Disney,” concerning the theme parks and Disney’s appeal around the globe. If Disney made it, it’s in this book.

Content within these sections is broken up into smaller topics that cover a specific film or time period each. It follows a chronological order, so over time you can see how the Disney brand shaped itself into what it is today. Every page has multiple images of some kind to decorate or add additional information. Pictures are a mix of movie stills, behind the scenes photos, and pre-production artwork. This third category is the most fascinating for me, giving the opportunity to see what an early version of Snow White looked like, or Tinker Bell, or even classic Pixar characters like Buzz Lightyear and Woody. A Finding Nemo storyboard is a particular standout, showing how detailed they can be, even in the early stages of production.

While there are some great factoids that are sure to surprise even the most diehard Disney fans (for example, did you know there was a Stitch anime in Japan? Because I didn’t!) if you’re getting this book for information I would mainly use as a springboard towards other research. It’s a delightful book to explore a bit of Disney history, but it’s encyclopedic in its approach to information, in that it has so much to cover that you aren’t going to get the full story with every topic. The trade off is that the content here is varied enough to please fans of all ages and obsession levels. The production art and behind the scenes photos from so many films, across such a large period of time, is enough to warrant a purchase on its own. If you love Disney, you will love this book.

– Alex Strine

 
The Technium

Rights / Responsibilities

We tend to talk about rights without ever mentioning their corresponding duties. Every right needs an obligation to support it. At the very least we have a duty to grant the same rights to others, but more consequentially, rights have trade-offs: things we have to do or surrender in order to earn the right. The right to vote entails the duty to pay taxes. The right of free speech entails the duty of using it responsibly, not inciting violence, harm, insurrection.

So it is with rights in our information age. Every cyber right entails a cyber duty.

For example, security. Modern security is an attribute of systems. Your thing, your home, your company, cannot maintain security alone outside of a system. Once a digital device is connected, everything it connects with needs to be secure as well. In fact, any system will only be as secure as the weakest part of that system. If your part is 99% secure, but your colleague is only 90% secure, you are actually only 90% secure as well. This small difference is huge in security. There are documented cases where an insecure baby monitor in a household system became the back door to unauthorized entry into that family’s network. In this way, the lax security of one piece sets the security for the whole system

Therefore, every part of a system has a duty to maintain the required level of security. Since one part’s security in part determines and impacts all parts’ security, every part of the system can rightfully demand that all parts level up. It is therefore the duty of each part (person, organization) to maintain the proper security.  It is not hard to imagine protocols that say you and your devices can’t join this network unless you can demonstrate you have proper security. In short you have the right to connect to the public commons (without permission), but you have the duty to ensure the security of your connection (and the commons as a whole).

This is not much different from what most nations say, which is you have a right to use any public road, but you must demonstrate you are responsible for its safety and security by passing a driver’s test. Your right is mobility on the roads; your duty is drive responsibility (no drinking!), and to get a license to prove it.

There are other rights/duties animated by digital tech, such as your identity. You don’t really need a name yourself. Your name is most useful to other people, so they can identify you, and in turn, trust you. Like your face, your name is at once the most personal thing about you and the most public thing about you. Your name and face are both indisputably “yours” and also indisputably in the commonwealth. Our faces are so peculiarly public that we are spooked about people who hide their face. And legally, many activities require that we keep our face public, like getting a license, flying in a plane, entering a secure facility, or voting. We have a right to look however we like, but we also have an obligation to keep our face public.

Names are similar, both intensely personal and outright public. We can try to hide our names behind pseudonyms and anonymity, but that diminishes some of our powers to affect change in the world, and also reduces trust from others. Privacy is part of a tradeoff. In order to be treated as an individual, with respect, we have to be transparent as an individual. We have a history, we have a story, we have context, we have needs and talents. All this is wrapped in our identity. So in order to be treated as an individual we have to convey that identity. Personalized individuality is a right that demands a duty of transmitting our identity. We also have (and must have) the right to remain opaque, unknown, and hidden, but the tradeoff for that right is the duty to accept that we will be treated generically, as not-an-individual, but as a number. The right of obscurity is the duty of silence; the right of individuality is the duty of transparency.

As more of our lives are connected constantly, the distinction between digital rights and rights in the rest of the world tend to vanish.  I don’t find it useful to separate them. However, there will still be new “rights” and “responsibilities” arising from new technology. They will first appear in high tech, and then as that tech becomes the norm, so will the rights. Currently, generative AIs demand we think about the rights – and responsibilities – of referencing a creation. The right of copy, or copyright, addressed the need to govern copies of a creation. Generative AI does not make copies, so copyright norms are helpless with this. We realize now that there might be the need for articulating a new right/duty around training an intelligence. If my creation is referenced to be used to train a student, or train an AI, that is, an agent that will go to create things themselves influenced by my work, should I not receive something for that? Should I have any control over what is made from my influence? I can imagine an emerging system such that any creation that is granted copyright is duty bound to be available for reference training by others, with the corresponding right for anyone to train upon a creation with a duty to pass some of the credit (status and monetary) back to creators.

The mirroworlds of AR and XR will necessitate further new pairs of rights/responsibilities around the messy concerns of common and shared works, for the mirrorworld is 100% a commons. What do I get from a collaborative creation, and what do I owe the others who contribute, when those boundaries are unclear? Because every new technology generates new possibilities, I expect it to also produce new pairs of duties and rights.

 
The Technium

Weekly Links, 02/16/2024

 
The Technium

The Scarcity of the Long-Term

The chief hurdle in constructing a Death Star is not the energy, materials, or even knowledge needed. It's the long time needed. A society can change their mind mid-way over centuries, and simply move on. The galaxy is likely strewn with abandoned Half-a-Death Stars.

Despite the acceleration of technological progress, indeed because of it, one of the few scarcities in the future will be a long attention span. There will be no shortage of amazing materials that can do magic, astounding sources of energy to make anything happen, and great reserves of knowledge and know-how to accomplish our dreams. But the gating factor for actually completing those big dreams may be the distractions that any society feels over the centuries. What your parents and grandparents found important you may find silly, or even embarrassing.

To build something that extends over multiples of individual lifespans requires a very good mechanism to transmit the priority of that mission. It is much easier to build a rocket that will sail 500 years to the nearest star, then it is to ensure that the future generations of people born on board that 500-year rocket maintain the mission. It is very likely that before it reaches the 250-year halfway point, that the people on board turn it around and head back to a certain future. They did not sign up for this crazy idea!

It is certain that 250 years after the launch of that starship, the society that made it will have wonderous new technologies, new ideas, maybe even new ways to explore, and they could easily change their mind about the importance of sending flesh into space, or decide to explore other frontiers. That is not even to mention how the minds of those onboard could also be changed by new inventions in 250 years.

If let alone, an advanced civilization, could over many millennia, invent AIs and other tools that would allow it to invent almost any material it could imagine. There would be no resource in the universe it could not synthesize at home. In that sense, there would be no material and energy scarcity. Perhaps no knowledge scarcity either. The only real scarcity would be of a long attention span. That is not something you can buy, or download. You'd need some new tools for transmitting values and missions into the future.

There's an ethical dilemma around transmitting a mission into the far future. We don't necessarily want to burden a future generation with obligations they had no choice in; we don't want to rob them of their free will to choose their own destinations. We DO want to transmit them opportunities and tools, but it is very hard to predict which are the gifts and which are the burdens from far away. There’s a high probability, they could come regard our best intentions as misguided, and choose a very different path, leaving our mission behind.

In this way it is easy to break the chain of a long-term mission. one that is far longer than an individual lifespan, and perhaps even one that is longer than a society life-span. It may turn out that the most common scarcity among galactic advanced civilizations is a long-term attention span. Perhaps vanishing few ever complete a project that lasts as long as a 1,000 years. Perhaps few projects remain viable after 500 years.

I am asking myself, what would I need to hear and get from a past generation to convince me to complete a project they began?

 
The Technium

Hill-Making vs Hill-Climbing

There are two modes of learning, two paths to improvement. One is to relentlessly, deliberately improve what you can do already, by trying to perfect your process. Focus on optimizing what works. The other way is to create new areas that can be exploited and perfected. Explore regions that are suboptimal with a hope you can make them work – and sometimes they will – giving you new territory to work in. Most attempts to get better are a mix of these methods, but in their extremes these two functions – exploit and explore – operate in different ways, and require different strategies. 

The first mode, exploiting and perfecting, rewards efficiency and optimization. It has diminishing returns, becoming more difficult as fitness and perfection is increased. But it is reliable and low risk. The second mode, exploring and creating, on the other hand, is highly uncertain, with high risks, yet there is less competition in this mode and the yields by this approach are, in theory, unlimited.

This trade off between exploiting and exploring is present in all domains, from the personal to the biggest systems. Balancing the desire to improve your own skills versus being less productive while you learn new skills is one example at the personal level. The tradeoff between investing heavily in optimizing your production methods instead of investing in new technology that will obsolete your current methods is an example of that tradeoff at the systems level. This particular tradeoff in the corporate world is sometimes called the “innovator's dilemma.” The more efficient and excellent a company becomes, the less it can afford to dabble in some new-fangled idea that is very likely to waste investments that can more profitably be used to maximize their strengths. Since statistically most new inventions will fail, and most experiments will not pan out, this reluctance for the unknown is valid.

More importantly, if new methods do succeed, they will cannibalize the currently optimal products and processes. This dilemma makes it very hard to invest and explore new products, when it is far safer, more profitable, to optimize what already works. Toyota has spent many decades optimizing small efficient gasoline combustion engines; no one in the world is better. They are at the peak of gas car engines. Any money spent on investing into unproven alternative engines, such as electric motors, would reduce their profits. They would be devolving their expertise and becoming less excellent. They cannot afford to be less profitable.

Successful artists, musicians and other creatives have a similar dilemma. Their fans want more of what they did to reach their success. They want them to play their old songs, paint the same style paintings, and make the same kind of great movies. But in order to keep improving, to maintain their reputation as someone creative, the artists need to try new stuff, which means they will make stuff that fails, that is almost crap, that is not excellent. To win future fans the artist has to explore rather than merely exploit. They have to take up a new instrument, or develop a new style, or invent new characters, which is risky. Sequels are just so much more profitable.

But even sequels – if they are to be perfect – are not easy. They take a kind of creativity to perfect. This kind of everyday creativity, the kind of problem solving that any decent art or innovation requires, is what we might call “lower-case” or base creativity. Devising a new logo, if done well, requires creativity. But designing logos is a well-trod domain, with hundreds of thousands of examples, with base creativity as the main ingredient. Designing another great book cover is primarily a matter of exploiting known processes and skills. Occasionally someone will step up and create a book cover so unusual and weird but cool that it creates a whole new way to make covers in the future. This is upper-case, disruptive Creativity.

Upper-case, disruptive Creativity discovers or creates new areas to be creative in. It alters the landscape. Most everyday base creativity is filling in the landscape rather than birthing it. Disruptive Creativity is like the discovery of DNA, or the invention of photography, or Impressionism in art. Rather than just solving for the best possibility, it is enlarging the space of all possibilities.

Both biologists and computer scientists use the same analogy when visualizing this inherent trade-off between optimization and exploration. Imagine a geological landscape with mountains and valleys. The elevation of a place on the landscape is reckoned as its fitness, or its technical perfection. The higher up, the more fit. If an organism, or a product, or an answer is as perfect as it can be, then it registers as being at the very peak of a mountain, because it cannot be any more fit or perfect for its environment. Evolution is pictured as the journey of an organism in this conceptual landscape. Over time, as the organism’s form adapts more and more to its environment, this change is represented as that organism going up (getting better), as it climbs toward a peak. In shorthand, the organism is said to be hill-climbing.

Computer scientists employ the same analog to illustrate how an algorithm can produce the best answer. If higher up in the landscape represents better answers then every slope has a gradient. If your program always rewards any answer higher up the gradient, then over time it will climb the hill, eventually reaching the optimal peak. The idea is that you don’t really have to know what direction to go, as long as you keep moving up. Computer science is filled with shortcuts and all kinds of tricks to speed up this hill-climbing.

In the broadest sense, most every-day creativity, ordinary innovation, and even biological adaptation in evolution is hill climbing. Most new things, new ideas, most improvements are incremental advances, and for most of the time, this optimization is exactly what is needed.

But every now and then an upper-case, disruptive jump occurs, creating a whole new genre, a new territory, or a new way to improve. Instead of incrementally climbing up the gradient, this change is creating a whole new hill to climb. This process is known as hill-making rather than hill climbing.

Hill-making is much harder to do, but far more productive. The difficulty stems from the challenge of finding a territory that is different, yet plausible, inhabitable, coherent, rather than just different and chaotic, untenable, or random nonsense. It is very easy to make drastic change, but most drastic changes do not work. Hill-making entails occupying (or finding*) an area where your work increases the possibilities for more work.

If a musician invents a new instrument, rather than just another song, that new instrument opens up a whole new area to write many new songs in, new ways to make music that could be exploited and explored by many. Inventing the technology of cameras was more than merely an incremental step in optics, it opened up vast realms of visual possibilities, each of those, such as cinema, or photojournalism, became new hills that can be climbed. The first comedians to figure out stand-up comedy, created a whole new hill – a new vocation that could be perfected.

The techniques needed for this upper-case Creativity, this disruptive innovation, this hill-making, are significantly different from the techniques for hill-climbing. To date, generative LLM-AI is capable of generating lower-case base creativity. It can create novel images, novel text, novel solutions that are predominately incremental. These products may not be things we’ve seen or heard before, or even things we would have thought of ourselves, but on average the LLMs do not seem to be creating entirely new ways to approach text, images, and tasks. So far they seem to like the skill of making a new hill.

Hill-making demands huge inefficiencies. There is a lot of wandering around, exploring, with plenty of dead ends, detours, and dry deserts where things die. The cost of exploring is that you only discover something worthwhile occasionally. This is why the kinds of paths that tend toward hill-making such as science, entrepreneurship, art, and frontier exploration are inherently expensive. Most of the time nothing radically new is discovered. Not only is patience needed, but hill-making requires a high tolerance of failure. Wastage is the norm.

At the same time, hill-finding requires the ability to look way beyond current success, current fitness, current peaks. Hill-finding cannot be focused on “going up the gradient” – becoming excellent. In fact it requires going down the gradient, becoming less excellent, and in a certain sense, devolving. The kind of agents that are good at evolving towards excellence are usually horrible in devolving toward possible death. But the only way to reach a new hill – a hill that might potentially grow to be taller than the hill you are currently climbing – is to head down. That is extremely hard for any ambitious, hard working person, organism, organization, or AI.

At the moment generative AI is not good at this. At the moment AI and robots are very good at being efficient, answering questions, and going up gradients towards betterment, but not very good at following hunches, asking questions, and wondering. If, when, they do that, that will be good. My hope it that they will help us humans hill-find better.

 
 

Archives - This site operates under a Creative Commons License.


© 2023