AI Image Generators

I just got beta access to DALL-E, OpenAI’s large-language-model-based diffusion image generator. It’s a very interesting tool to play with.

Thomas loves cats and is showing exceptional aptitude at fencing, so I asked DALL-E for a “Vermeer style portrait of a dignified cat posing as an olympic fencer wearing a white vest and holding his saber in one arm and mask in the other.” Here are some of the results:

My war against advertising algorithms

I went to Costco.com to check the price of a vacuum my mom wanted. Now I’m getting ads for it.

I couldn’t figure out how to get a trial of Adobe Creative Cloud off my computer. My search for their hidden uninstall tool now has me getting ads for Adobe services even though I despise them and was only searching how to get rid of them.

Do I click on the ad to make Adobe pay? Or do I not click, even on things that interest me, because I don’t want the algo to win?

The Immortality Key

The Immortality Key is an important book. I had only read the Forward and half of the Introduction when I was convinced of the book’s essential thesis:

  • The human psyche has an innate capacity for a common experience of “transcendence,” which in our cultural terms might be called “seeing or knowing God.” Transcendence can be found across cultures and time in religious archetypes and practices. But most humans can only obtain the real transcendental experience with the aid of entheogenic (a.k.a. psychedelic) chemicals.
  • Humans going back to prehistoric times have made ritualistic use of natural entheogens. Many have emphasized that the transcendence found through these chemically-enhanced rituals is critical to the well-being not only of individuals but also of human society.
  • It appears that a single powerful entheogenic experience is sufficient to convert a person for life. (For example, Greeks who underwent the entheogenic ritual at Eleusis were given the title epoptēs, or “witness.” And ongoing research with entheogens has found that a single dose of psilocybin can relieve major depression.)
  • Spiritual use of entheogens has perhaps been stigmatized by abuse in the 1960s and 1970s. The hippie movement profaned the use of entheogens that were, and probably should be, sacred.
  • Modern organized religions and governments have nefariously eliminated access to entheogens. For example, it is astonishing that chemicals like psilocybin and LSD have been banned under DEA Schedule 1, which is reserved for substances “that have a high chance of being abused or causing addiction, and no FDA-approved medical use,” whereas scientific research has always found them to be non-addictive, with low potential for abuse.

How do you “see God?” As with all human traits, there is a spectrum of capacity. Some people are gifted (or afflicted) with transcendental vision – most likely many of those called prophets. For many more people, transcendent vision can be obtained through devoted fasting, prayer, scourging, or meditation. But it appears that anyone can transcend with the use of entheogenic chemicals. The Immortality Key impresses the notion that Christianity is (in my words) a relatively dead religion: Christian doctrine correctly describes transcendence, but Christian rituals are hollow versions of those that humans have relied on for tens of thousands of years to actually experience transcendence. Yes, these hollow rituals are sufficient for some. For others, like me, they at best offer one fleeting glimpses of transcendence.

The Immortality Key has its shortcomings. After the first few chapters the author bogs down flogging the Pagan Continuity Hypothesis and exulting over his discovery of small scraps of evidence he found in a decade of research. Jerry Brown wrote a good review that should be read to put the book in its proper place.

The book does expound upon a few other worthwhile points. The author is an academic classicist, and along the way he (like all classicists) impresses on the reader how little our culture has evolved from that developed by the Greeks in the first millennium BC. Then he details the shocking efforts by early Christians to try to erase that culture. They nearly did, most unconscionably by burning the library at Alexandria. Today we have only 1% of classical texts known to have existed.

The last chapter is an interesting read: It shows how the concept of “witches” was developed by the middle Catholic Church and used to destroy whatever western folk knowledge of entheogens may have otherwise survived. Then, Christian missionaries in the Americas largely succeeded (often through the force of government) to suppress entheogenic use among indigenous Americans. Hopefully we are now at the end of the war on entheogens and the revival of mainstream acceptance of and access to transcendental experience.

Why We Make Things

I recently listened to Peter Korn’s book Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman. (Like most books, the substance is concentrated in the beginning; and roughly a third of the way in the book becomes relatively unimportant; and the last third often seems like filler to make it long enough to bind and sell as a traditional book.) It is a good exploration of man’s search for meaning, and how man finds meaning in craftsmanship. And I think this is a particularly male struggle: The female psyche finds meaning in the people around her, and particularly in that most powerful and consummate of bonds: between a mother and her children. But the maturing male psyche detaches, leaving him adrift in abject existential loneliness. To become a man he has to discover or build his purpose. He may find meaning in social spheres, but he can also find meaning in the creation or nurturing of things – i.e., he can find meaning as a craftsman.

Korn beautifully describes the nature of craftsmanship – how an artisan develops intuition and connection with materials and processes; the state of “flow” a master can attain practicing his art. And Korn repeats lamentations about how the industrial revolution turned craftsmen into automata, destroying the opportunity for so many working men to find essential meaning in their labor.

My Verbal Degeneration

As something of both a thinker and an archivist, I have always felt compelled to commit my thoughts to writing. I began journaling as a pre-teen and accumulated almost half a million words by age 30, at which point I took a friend’s advice and began blogging instead. When I had an idea I usually found it easy to expound it to my satisfaction in short order. But over the last decade this ability has degenerated. Today I have dozens of notes and drafts that have not made it to a finished post. I struggle to organize, articulate, and elaborate my thoughts. They’re stuck in my head in a state somewhere between jumbled notions and coherent exposition. The posts that do make it onto my blogs are usually the less-than-satisfying product of a long struggle at wordsmithing. I imagine that this is what it feels like to have a debilitating stroke: I remember being able to do something with facility that I can now only do with halting effort. I can see that I have become dumb.

When it comes to things like math and computer programming I have always been considered “smart.” When I interact with people who struggle with those activities I have often wondered how much of what we call “smarts” is the presence of intelligence as opposed to the absence of impairment. My skill in those arts often seems like clarity in comparison to the clouds and confusion that seem to beset those who struggle. From that perspective I do not feel intelligent so much as I feel unimpaired.

Looking at the state of my verbal skills I feel impaired. My awareness of this impairment has been piqued as I have begun reading Scott Alexander’s blog: That is a guy who can draw and weave every thread on a topic into a crisp expositional tapestry. Where my thoughts are a jumble of fraying twine he writes with supreme clarity. Another blogger explained better than I could just how brilliant a writer Alexander is:

At his best, he hits some strange triple point, previously undiscovered by bloggers, where data, theory, and emotion can coexist in equilibrium. Most writing on topics as abstract and technical as his struggles just not to be dry; it takes effort to focus, and I need energy to read them. Scott’s writing flows so well that it somehow generates its own energy, like some sort of perpetual motion machine.

https://jasoncrawford.org/guide-to-scott-alexander-and-slate-star-codex

Fighting Violin

In an earlier post I described beginning to learn to play violin. The difficulty of that process was compounded by my disposition as young boy: Give a boy a stick and his instinct is to grab it and wield it like a sword to whack things into submission. But the fragile wooden bow must be held gingerly. The violin is a singing instrument, and the bow is its breath. The foundation of playing a violin is delicacy and finesse. Everything about an energetic boy is bold and tense. I was given what felt like a weapon and told to, “Relax!” (Even now this is a Sisyphean struggle.)

All I wanted to do was to play loud and fast. At age 12 we went shopping for the full-size instrument I play to this day. I picked a violin with a relatively “bright” and unsophisticated timbre. Then I spent an afternoon in a luthier’s shop looking for a bow, which is the component that determines a player’s range of technical expression. For reference I played some bows priced in the $50,000 range and I could not imagine why professionals would want to use such flimsy sticks. I chose a bow that was so exceptionally rigid that, the luthier joked, it must have been made of titanium. (It’s actually Pernambuco wood, like most fine bows.)

Strength and size offer no advantage on the violin. Search for “violin prodigy” and you will find an endless parade of pre-teen Korean girls who can perform the most difficult violin pieces with robotic precision. Skilled musicians do not wrestle with their instruments no matter how loud or fast the music. Contrast that with this video of me muscling through a “warm-up” exercise at age 17:

Pokemon Go Level 40!

In August 2020 my boys started playing Pokemon Go, so I created my own account to join them. I’ve found the game to be a convenient diversion when stuck waiting for people or lines … and also somewhat addictive … so I have been playing almost daily for the last year. Just last week I hit Level 40. (When I started that was the highest level, but as large numbers of players reached it the game’s developer added another 10 levels.)

It’s somewhat bewildering to see that over this period I have caught almost 20,000 Pokemon….

Book Review: Life at the Bottom, by Theodore Dalrymple

In April, National Review published an entire issue of essays on California exploring the dismal results of the state’s increasingly progressive political experiments. The punchline is that dysfunctional government has managed to make that otherwise attractive geographic region so unlivable that people with the means to leave for other states are doing so in droves.

Among wealthy democratic nations, Great Britain has taken the lead in boldly implementing progressive ideology in both government and culture. Theodore Dalrymple has been documenting the dismal results for years. His cautionary essays are essential reading for anyone who traffics in political ideas. Life at the Bottom is a collection of those essays.