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30 Sep 2009

Yeah, so, Japan

13 days left to go, and about one suitcase-worth of extra stuff to squeeze in somewhere. The baggage allowance is two bags of 50lbs each plus the carryon and personal item, and international shipping is insanely expensive for anything larger than small parcels. While harsh evaluation along the lines of whether any ceramic skull candy dish, no matter how bright and festive, is worth transporting across the Pacific Ocean, has culled my worldly possessions down to slightly less than 100 pounds, the volume of said possessions still exceeds the interior dimensions of my luggage.

In related news, I now have less than two dozen books (books, you may know, are heavy). Anyone who has seen any of my apartments should have some idea what that entailed–about a dozen trips to Half-Price, net result: -4000 books +400 USD (estimated).

So now there is the nightly revacuuming of plastic bags full of clothes and shuffling things between various bags as though this will somehow create a fold in spacetime that will let me get my second-favorite coat or another pair of boots onto the plane.

Oh, but I bet you wanted to know why I’m going, not just details about suitcases.

Filed by shaun at September 30th, 2009 under indifferenthonest
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4 Sep 2009

p s

I’m moving to Japan next month.

Filed by shaun at September 4th, 2009 under indifferenthonest
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3 Sep 2009

I may be very wrong

Daniel N Robinson, at the end of a lecture about psychology and the witch hunts in early modern Europe:

What is the moral tale that I hope to have conveyed with this story about minds possessed?
First, theories come quite easily to us when we seek to explain the aberrant or eccentric behavior of others. Secondly, we tend to describe those who are different from ourselves not in the neutral terms of merely different but in the evaluative terms of sick, diseased, sinful. Thirdly, sometimes in our solicitude we take out after those to cure them of diseases that exist only in our theories, and not in them. Fourthly, as reasonable and judicious people, when we set out to do this we want to be sure that we’re using the right kind of method, that we have the right kind of data, that indeed–if there’s something actually juridical or adjudicative going on–that we even have settled and defensible trial procedures.
I’ve rehearsed the witch panic for you–I shouldn’t call it a panic; it went on for over three centuries–to say that all these consideration were operative at the time, that the motives by and large were probably salutary and even laudable motives, and that the conduct was deplorable, the victims numerous and savaged, the complacency enduring for the better part of three hundred years.
The moral tale is: once you’re absolutely sure what makes Smith tick, you know everything about him you would care to know, look in the mirror and say three times, “I may be wrong, I may be very wrong, I may be hopelessly wrong”, and you’ll probably be right.

Filed by shaun at September 3rd, 2009 under indifferenthonest
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5 Jul 2009

so, this thing

It’s still here, I guess.

Filed by shaun at July 5th, 2009 under indifferenthonest
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10 Dec 2008

and Houston really ain’t that bad a town

I owe you an apology, Houston. I said some things, some, well, I don’t think they were untrue things, exactly, but very unkind, definitely more than you deserved (after all, it’s not like you’re anywhere near as bad as Dallas). I stand by a lot of what I said–you’ve got problems, especially that sprawl thing–but I don’t think, now, more than most places, and you’ve got a lot of good too. The further away from you I get, the more I appreciate the good, and the more obvious it gets that what really bothered me had a lot more to do with my flaws than yours. So all that stuff I said, let’s just chalk it up to projection and me being an asshole again, ok?

Filed by shaun at December 10th, 2008 under indifferenthonest
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30 Nov 2008

Happy happy / joy joy

Thinking a lot about happiness

“For most of my adult life, genuine happiness has been the result of the first month of Zoloft, or the first weeks of Effexor, or the dawn of Paxil.”

I am not depressed, but I know depressed people.

Depression is not sadness. It is the inability to be happy.

Depression makes treatment difficult because of the belief it cannot be changed.

Once treated, lack of depression != happiness.

We don’t know what happiness is

Mostly think it’s cheerfulness, euphoria

It is not possible to feel this way all the time, so we believe we are unhappy

Joy is the temporary blissy feeling

Joy is not sustainable

Joy is not happiness

Happiness is more complicated

Happiness is an emotion, mindset

Sometimes sadness is the result of shitty things going on in life

Happiness is an approach to life

We shouldn’t expect to be happy without working on it

We don’t get to choose our lives entirely, but we do get to choose how we think about them

Depressed people have no experience with happiness, can’t recognize it.

Note: This was drafted several years ago, but never completed, possibly because the level of hubris involved, but more likely because it would have been a lot of work. I’m going through my old drafts now and publishing or deleting them, and I think these are for the most part very good bullet points for a real essay, so I’m publishing it now as written, on the date which it’s totally possible could be the date it was written on. Shaun, 2012/03/13

Filed by shaun at November 30th, 2008 under indifferenthonest, old drafts
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13 Nov 2008


Do you know epiphenomenon? I only learned about the concept recently (thanks to Tim Ferris), describing Ptolemy’s epicycle-intensive universe model, and have been thinking about them a lot. It’s nice to have a word for knowing and describing what something looks like without understanding it (a word other than “physics”, I mean). I desperately need a word for a model for something that is extremely in its basic assumptions but produces correct results, and though epiphenomenon does not exactly mean that, I will briefly coopt it to serve.
This idea–an accurate, incorrect model–has bothered me re: consciousness since I heard a keynote at SXSW by (I think) Raymond Kurzweil a few years ago about artificial intelligence. I didn’t really follow how much of what he said led to his conclusions (it seemed the other way around to me, really, but I was pretty hung over, and also this was four-plus years ago now, and I’m going entirely from memory here.), but he had a rather convoluted metaphorical reductio ad absurdam about a field of wheat waving in the wind. If we take the stalks that are bent by the wind N degrees or more as 1s and the unbent stalks as 0s, the field of wheat can be interpreted as one very long binary number. Since everything on a computer, (presumably including a computer which happened to be sentient because it’s a 1:1 model of the human brain), is a long binary number, or a series of them, then a field (or fields) of wheat sufficiently large to represent the bits of a computer sufficiently complex to reproduce the human brain, then given the right wind, you have to admit that it’s possible for your wheat field, sentient computer, and human brain all have the same data in them right then. Therefore, if consciousness is just a matter of electrons (or, you know, the arrangements of collapsed wave functions that we call electrons) arranged in a certain way in the brain, your model turns Dinge-an-sich and you have a conscious wheat field.
This, while obviously wrong, is hard to concisely (not that I really go in for concision. obviously) and clearly refute if you don’t have my concept of epiphenomena on hand. Once you can start slotting it into analogies as Ptolemy’s model is to planetary motion, it’s much easier to shake the nonsense out of your head and start arguing about the difference between a representation and a real thing, and the ship of Theseus, and all kinds of other all-Greek-to-me stuff.
Of course, my understanding of Buddhism is that it already takes consciousness as something like an epiphenomenon to begin with–just a trick the universe is playing on itself–so this probably has a completely opposite point if you approach it from that angle. More evidence that the wheat field is just as much a conscious self as are you–i.e. not at all. (My understanding of this particular tenet of Buddhist thought, I hasten to point out, is just about as shaky as my memory of Kurzweil’s speech. I have lots of trouble with keeping this idea from seeming like crackpottery on the order of Billy Pilgrim telling that kid not to feel bad because though his father my be dead now he’s still alive in the past, but it seems to have to do with Heraclitic (the Greeks are Buddhist sometimes (I rewrote that twice, flipping the copular around)) rivers, state versus process, and dewdrops on spiderwebs. I think you’re going to have to look this one up for yourself.) Some people took Ptolemy literally, too.
Also, I really need someone to tell all this to Umberto Eco. Probably instead of a wheat field, we’d have to use a book metaphor, say a library with the checked-out books as 0s and the books present as 1s. What with “On the Impossibility of Drawing a Map of the Empire on a Scale of 1 to 1″ (can I mention here how much I enjoy that I’m the first result Google lists for that title?), and his already knowing plenty about epiphenomena I’m sure he could have some real fun with it.

Filed by shaun at November 13th, 2008 under indifferenthonest
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5 Oct 2008


Several people — several friends — have at some point or other criticized (and I mean this mostly in the (de)constructive sense) my perfectionism, my tendency to constantly expect my surroundings and things (and self) to be the best. They’re not wrong, exactly. That is, there’s definitely something wrong with needing the canned goods in the pantry organized in a certain fashion, or packing the moving truck so carefully (and slowly) that absolutely nothing could move or break even in the event of an asteroid strike. I do not, can not, maintain that everything out to be perfect at all times–though why, given the opportunity for improvement without much extra effort, anyone would fail to make said improvement, continues to baffle me. Frequently this is cited in support of some variation on the argument that I’m an android (as though the vast emotional storms inside me could be simple electronics (though I’m sure simple electronics must think the same thing)). The reality, though, seems to be direct evidence against that argued androia. I can count two serious influences in my life as regards perfectionism: my parents, and the honors college.
My parents are amazing people. Maybe all people are amazing, and my parents are not exceptional among them outside of my biased viewpoint, but they do seem special to me, and I think, even subtracting my bias, that they are exceptional. I love them a lot, and am very sorry that I am as much an android as I am, and incapable of really interrelating with them the way my sister does. My father is a miracle of intelligence and strength–so much stronger than me, he burned himself out working for 20 years to provide for us when I’m cracking after 2 (“The son son is rare who measures with his father / and one in a thousand is a better man.” II:276-77)–and my mother starts her day more tolerant than I can get after a couple beers and an hour of the Dalai Lama (not to mention all the years she worked full time and kept up all the cooking-childcare mothery things at the same time). I wish I were wasting less of what I ought to have been getting from them both. I wish I could say anything like this to them without feeling awkward and embarrassed. I think I must be a very difficult child to have, since I am a fairly distant and awkward person, and, sorry as I am at my inability to stay close to my friends, the problem is much worse with my own family.
One thing my parents did not to well is balance quality and price. Generally (and I think this has changed in the past few years, hence the tense) they preferred to buy cheap things rather than high-quality. Sometimes this is an economical choice; the difference in canned corn, for instance (I buy canned myself, though I think we always had frozen growing up) is fairly minimal, and the savings can be in the double-digit percentages (as much as 8¢!). Sometimes, it just means you end up with something two thirds of the price that lasts half as long (and thus costing a third more in the long run). Cheap clothing notoriously wears out and looks bad sooner than more expensive solid-quality cloth will. Making an economical decision means balancing quality vs. price. Blindly spending the least amount possible without regard to durabilty and quality means that a lot of the time you’re going to end up with inferior goods that need to be bought more often (see: road construction, Nickled and Dimed, all kinds of things in my parents’ house). Dealing with makeshifts (Janpack or Eastsport backpacks, say) that started falling apart the second week of school taught me this lesson very well. (Not that, I hasten to add, this meant I ever had to deal with a falling-apart backpack; my mother would never have allowed that. It just meant I had two $15 backpacks that year instead of one $25. My sister and I never lacked for anything (except, you know, coolness, which can hardly have been my parents’ fault).)
The honors college was also filled with some pretty impressive people, and, more relevantly, with a lot of concern for arête. Says the Telegraph of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “If he’d done Greek at school and knew what “arête” meant, we could have been spared most of the 1970s.” (and I think I could add, had I been introduced to the concept through some other agency than ZAMM at the age of 16 I think I might have been spared 10 years of rapprochement with Aristotle). Arête is actually a pretty tricky concept, but my understanding of it was–and more important to the subject at hand, what I took from hearing about it so often was–a sort of ultimate superlative. Arête was the best thing, according to the best definition of what was best (my current reading of the word and its place in philosophy is much more one of ultimate fulfilment than inherent qualities, something like a Platonic ideal). It became, when mixed with loads of other consumer-culture bullshit and too much T S Eliot and High Fidelity and anti-populism, something like a shopping list, for the arêtest books, music, liquor, furniture, whatever.
So I wasted a lot of time and energy getting hold of the absolute best music (Dylan) or philosophy (Aristotle) or novel (Forster) without appreciating it, without enjoying it, and without internalizing it as much as I ought to (to say nothing of all the getting caught up in fancy binding and special edition nonsense I did). It happens that Dylan, Aristotle, and Forster actually produced some pretty awesome stuff that I really do like, and liked right away, for itself, but while that may explain my continued indulgence, it hardly has anything to do with my initial encounters with them.
But now, in my house full of the best music, novels, films, etc, I am actually rather glad for that concern I had at age 19 for the best novels and poetry. I may have (I did) spent too much mental effort justifying reading and recommending William Gibson instead of Evelyn Waugh, and developed too hearty a disdain for many works good but not great, but the legacy of my conspicuous arête consumption is wonderful nights like tonight, moments like now, when, tiring of whisky and Ringworld, I can glance up at my bookshelves, at Fitzgerald’s translation of the Odyssey, and be two books into it before I notice how incredibly lucky I am to have all of these great specimens of human creativity sitting there waiting for me and also the mind and soul to appreciate them.
I had the mind long ago–I actually read and appreciated even this particular Odyssey before–but never before with this swell of joy at the inherent beauty of the thing. As with it’s starting to seem like everything else in life, you need both opportunity and ability. Being handed these great books as an 18-year-old college freshman (or 25-year-old college senior, whatever) gave me the opportunity to enjoy them, and growing up watching my parents dismiss non-obvious quality to their detriment (as well as a packrat nature) kept me from dismissing them when instant pleasure failed to manifest itself. Life, especially the recent non-asshole paying attention to it I’ve been trying to do, is giving me the ability to seize it.
It’s a wonderful, joyous thing to enjoy art. To tie that enjoyment to something 2700 (or 50) years old, to share it with generations, is to magnify it immensely. But this bestness feeling isn’t just about ancient Greeks. I have a notebook with a list of the best songs. There’s only five or six on the list, because the best song isn’t a comparative idea. A song goes on there when it is the best song, when it feels like my entire life is wiped away by a chord change, when a single note (or my god those first two drumbeats of “Like a Rolling Stone”) will shoot my heart out and up past escape velocity so far and fast I’m not sure I’ll ever get it back in place.
Great art–great anything, great books or plants or constellations–are thrilling because of their greatness, but it isn’t just the opportunity to enjoy these beautiful, magnificent things that makes them awesome. The ability to appreciate the greatness is where the awe comes from, and the self-aware, critical appreciation of the experience turns greatness into transcendence.

Filed by shaun at October 5th, 2008 under indifferenthonest
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