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The Lucilius Parables, Volume I

DIGITAL CARTOGRAPHY

January 13th, 2021

 

We are spatial animals, not encyclopedic.  It’s no surprise that physical health - specifically, how we move or don’t move our body has a tremendous impact on brain health, and these effects only become more and more exaggerated in later years.  The brain is not an island, as much as it can sometimes feel like that: a cage for the mind, strangely separated from the outside world.  We remember the dance but fail to recall the instructions.  We know where that lovely hole-in-the-wall is but the address escapes us.  We operate through narratives of space and its geography.

 

Oddly, and probably sadly, the internet has no geography, at least not in the sense that it can be visualized and navigated.  This is despite the language we use around the internet:

Where do I go to see that?

How do I navigate this site?

 

On an actual website, the problem is concrete, and therefore less of a problem.  Webpages have actual geography because they exist as shapes on a screen.  The literal analogy to geography is all the more appropriate when the occasional problem of redesign is encountered.  Few things are more obnoxious than looking for a button that is no longer where we remember it to be.  Just imagine trying to commute to work via a different route everyday.  In fact, that scenario doesn’t even encapsulate the problem very well because the point of departure and the destination are still in the same absolute relative position.  More appropriate would be: imagine commuting to a different place every day… without directions.  

 

This is why changing an icon or an app or webpage layout can be so infuriating for people who visit regularly.  There’s another vestige of our geographical minds: we do not see websites, we visit them.  But answer this question:  Where is Reddit in relation to Wikipedia?

 

This is an impossible question to answer.  Describing the spatial relationship between two words in a dictionary is easier despite the oddity of the task.  There is no way to see the internet as a whole as it relates to itself, the way we can overlook a city from the top of a tall building.  The internet is encyclopedic, but it’s an encyclopedia that has no definite order.  It appears only in the order that we stumble through it.

 

There is one area of life that has a similar geography or non-geography that is identical to the internet, and that is the mind itself.

 

Thoughts have no order or spatial relation to one another.  One thought might remind us of another related thought, but this isn’t an explicit spatial relation.  It’s the equivalent of a hyperlink on a webpage.  The two are associated but the association is dimensionless.  

 

If time is taken to watch the manner of thought closely, the experience of moving from one thought to the next isn’t like moving at all, it’s straight up teleportation.  Even the Television has more spatial structure than the internet.  Everything exists on a channel and those channels have a numerical order.  But the internet is a sea with no bottom and no surface.  We can easily forget that a website exists just as we can fail to remember that great idea we had while waking up but which now escapes the conscious gaze.

 

Imagine, however, if every time you visited Twitter you had to pass by a meditation app in order to get there, because it was just on the way.  (This might sound like an advertisement, but advertisements are far more fickle and prickly.  If there’s any mental equivalent of advertising, it’s probably that negative self talk, or that evil demon trying to lure you back into bad behavior.). The closest thing we have to this is the placement of apps on a phone.  Notice how we rarely forget where  on the phone a particular app is, but we can forget about a favourite blog that was never bookmarked.  One exists in space, the other only exists in time, and time has a geography more akin to thought than the linear order we try to associate with it.  As much as things may proceed one after another, we don’t remember them that way.  The past is mostly relegated to the same soup as most thought.

The irony of digital geography is that all of this stuff does actually exist within a complicated set of relationships that even do exist spatially, in the physical world, but these microscopic configurations are meaningless to us, meaningful only to the innards of a computer.

 

As the power of hardware increases and areas like Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality become more of a…. reality, It’s worthy if not just merely fun to imagine the entire digital world spatialized.  What if Twitter were suddenly a landscape of hills and mountains, each representing it’s own niche as with Money Twitter or VC Twitter or Tesla Twitter.  Those with the most followers in each of these niches have clambered their way past others by communal merit to top so they can be seen and heard by all who gravitate to that highpoint.  

 

Scrolling then is a bit like a high-speed flyby through the valleys and canyons created by these voiced peaks.

 

Perhaps it should not be a surprise that it’s so easy to get lost in these digital realms.  Like an IKEA which has specifically designed their store to be a maze that requires seeing everything in order to escape, the digital world is a place with no landmarks, and no exit signs.

 

Putting down the phone or getting off the computer is a bit like trying to wake up from a dream on command. It’s a skill more than it is a reliable set of directions, and perhaps this is because - like a dream - there is no definitive and reliable spatial geography.  The “way out” entails a wholly different reality.  It’s not just teleporting, it’s more akin to sobering up at will or remembering that good idea that escapes the mind.

 

In the absence of landmarks and exits, the experience of the digital world highlights more than anything, the importance of attentional navigation.  Like a compass that orients itself based on something that exists on a far larger magnitude than trees, rocks and other landmarks, our attention can be trained to orient in relation to itself, examining it’s own direction and content and placing on offer the chance to choose, something different.


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Podcast Ep. 1004: Digital Cartography

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Tinkered Thinking


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GEARS OF INCENTIVE

January 12th, 2021

 

Large projects can slow and stall.  The enormity of the task paired with the agonizingly distant incentive of life where the project has been realized can make the going slow, and slower.  The marathon can turn into a race that seems to take longer and longer as each step gets shorter and takes more time.

 

Just as it’s wise to work up to large projects by chunking the necessary learning with smaller more bite-sized projects, it can be just as useful and invigorating to pause that huge project in order to sprint on something smaller and easier.

 

A drastic switch of gears can be a reminder that those smaller ones for accelerating still exist.  This applies on multiple levels.  An hour and a half of focused work often gets far more done than a full day of distracted swings at the goal.  

 

Even evolution works in a similar way.  We tend to think of evolution as this gradual process that occurs over the course of tens of thousands of years, but in fact the evolution of organism occurs in fits and spurts, with long periods of stagnant morphology.  Usually it’s a sudden change in the environment that necessitates this jump in evolution.  Suddenly the temperature rises, or falls, and most of the population dies off, unable to cope with the new situation.  But a few outliers who have just the right cocktail of genes and mutations survive and eventually thrive, giving rise to a new direction in the species.

 

Self-motivation boils down to a curation of incentivizing emotions.  But it can be incredibly difficult to constantly bombard that internal mental environment in ways that charge anew those always deflating feelings of determination and ambition.  But just as with the organism evolving in response to situation, we can consciously place ourselves in a new situation to stimulate an evolution in the emotions that incentivize and motivate us.  Whether this be as simple as taking on a short but high-intensity project, or even just going for an hard workout, there are many ways to engineer the conditions for the mind that we need in order to move forward.  What’s important to realize is that the mind isn’t always capable of engineering it’s own conditions alone, but it is always possible to figure out ways to provoke the environment in ways that poke back.


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Podcast Ep. 1003: Gears of Incentive

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Tinkered Thinking


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INFORMATION PROMINENCE

January 11th, 2021

 

There is all sorts of stuff flying around right in front of our eyes that we are entirely blind to.  In the literal sense we can only see a pretty small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, and the sliver of it that we see we call - appropriately - the visual spectrum.  It’s only with the advent of technologies that can pick up other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that we can be sure those frequencies outside of what’s seen even exist.  For a moment just imagine if everything outside of the visible spectrum could be seen.  If infrared and ultraviolet were all merged upon the canvas of the rainbow we see.  And beyond that, the Gamma rays of distant stars visible like a different light, and even the radio waves bouncing against the atmosphere, pulsing from wifi routers.  Imagine if even beyond the electromagnetic spectrum we could the unceasing torrent sea of Neutrinos that bombard every square centimetre of space we fathom.

 

Life would certainly look a bit different.

 

What we understand is a sad function of information prominence and complexity.  Compare two instances: seeing a baseball that’s flying toward your face, and the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.  

 

The baseball is very obvious once noticed, and we generally react very well to this sort of problem.  But what about that carbon?  Can you even see it?  Aside from the quick and deceptively ephemeral blast of black cloud that pours from exhaust pipes, we just can’t see the stuff.  The prominence of the information regarding it’s concentration in the atmosphere is nill compared to the notification flash from your phone, the ding, or that baseball getting larger at an alarming rate.  We have to rely on technology and a decently complex understanding of chemistry in order to gain a sensible picture about what’s going on with the invisible problem up in the sky.  Imagine for a moment if we could actually see that carbon, if the clear blue sky was darker because of it.  Needless to say we probably would have grown alarmed about such a change many decades ago, and our alarm would have rose in pitch like the flight or flight response that initiates at the sight of a baseball on course for an unwholesome kiss.

 

This issue of information prominence extends even to something like learning.  Undertaking any course of study with any reasonable complexity or obscurity is an exercise against information prominence.  It’s often the unnatural and difficult task of avoiding the obvious distraction that tempts a certain kind of fun information, like “what happens next on that show?” in favor of a piece of information that is far less obvious and often difficult to find, like “what does this obscure coding error that turns up no results in Google mean?”

It’s worth wondering what the industry of education could learn from the industry of entertainment.  Unfortunately, the efficacy of one is well tied to incentives, whereas the other is not.  Entertainment is nearly always in a state of being highly tuned to the current culture - it has to be, otherwise it ceases to be interesting and fails to make money.  Education on the other hand has some incentives but they are not nearly as clear cut nor prominent.  The incentive for a teenager to pay attention to the revelations of Euclid are, well, piss poor.  Grades don’t end up having ironclad consequences for how life is going to turn out.  But even paying a kid for good grades fails to meet the point.  We don’t pay viewers to watch the movies.  It’s the other way around.  Imagine what school would have to be like for a teenager to be willing to pay out of their often meagre stash of cash in order to go.  This would require school to be more captivating and fun than socializing, movies, music, drugs, and all other variety of shenanigans that populate those younger years.  Simply put, education has some crushing competition.  But it still begs to wonder.  There are loads of people, and kids who become fascinated by a topic and dive deep, retrieving all manner of information and revelation that is anything but obvious.  Do such people just get lucky with the right mindset at the right time being exposed to just the right variety and amount of material on the subject?  

 

It’s fun to wonder if the future of AI might not be able to read individual psychologies with this exceptionally high degree of sensitivity and tailor the speed, direction and process of an educational program in such a way that it gives rise to a fascination that supersedes all the other superficial nonsense we waste time with.  

 

It’s hard to think the issue of education isn’t simply a matter of the correct information at the right time.  Indeed, this is exactly what much entertainment boils down to.  Be it a video game, or an episodic show.  All of them are telling highly crafted stories which are tailored to pull at our attention and nurture that connection.  It’s not just a matter of making information prominent, but toggling the availability.  If it was just a matter of information than we’d all be just as satisfied with the wikipedia plot synopsis of acclaimed shows and movies.  It’s not the information of the story, but the way the information is revealed.  When it comes to education, the only thought that’s given to the way information is revealed is merely order: algebra is required to learn calculus, certainly, but mere order again fails to tap the nuance that is constantly honed in the world of entertainment.  The best teachers don’t just know the information, they entertain with it.


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Dive in to the Archives

Podcast Ep. 1002: Information Prominence

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Tinkered Thinking


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A LUCILIUS PARABLE: SPLIT THE ANGLE

January 10th, 2021

 

The typewriter finished it’s clack and then zipped as Lucilius pulled the finished page out of the machine.  He wore a placid smile as he glanced over the lines of text.  As he did, a boy in his care watched.  A nearly blank page lay before the kid, a couple of words crossed out on it, a meandering doodle adorning an edge, unfinished and representing nothing.

 

Lucilius unscrewed a pen from it’s cap and held down the page to scratch out a line and scribble in some new thought.  The page was soon marked up and Lucilius leaned back from it.  He took in a large breath and sighed at the sight, then looking at the boy, seeing he was doing nothing he asked,

 

“Well, shall we get some lunch?”

The boy seemed to shrug and nod at the same time.  Lucilius got up and glanced at the boy’s page.

 

“Nice doodle.”

The boy just grimaced, embarrassed by the plain ineptitude.

 

 

The two shaded their eyes from the sunlight as their eyes adjusted and Lucilius lead the way down to the water were there was a a good fish’n chips spot.

Lucilius took in the bright day and it’s fresh air.  Nothing could be better, he thought as they walked along.  He was cognizant of the boy’s mild air of brooding, but what could be more natural for a kid looking around at this odd world, filled with it’s auras of emotion and revelation.  Lucilius pulled the distant strings of his own memory and recalled the sense of that claustrophobic confusion, and from it a sense of compassion arose: he was grateful for his opportunity to give the boy a small example of living.

 

As they waited for their food, the boy was quiet, looking off at the boats in the harbour, squinting the light away to see.  Lucilius was still waiting, knowing the bubble of thought that was multiplying, collapsing and growing as a foam of concern in the boy.

 

Finally he turned to Lucilius.  “How do you write so much?”

 

Lucilius considered the question a moment, a bit surprised, washing an open hand over the his mouth and jaw, considering an answer.

 

“There’s certainly no shortage of material, that’s for sure.”

 

The boy looked mildly insulted.  “Well, I couldn’t think of anything to write.”

 

“Sure you could, you just didn’t write it down.”

 

“Yea, that’s because it wasn’t worth writing down, I was just thinking without having any ideas.”

 

“Ok,” Lucilius said,  “what if I told you that you have to write in order for the thinking to turn into ideas.”

 

“How does that make sense?  Ideas are thoughts.”

 

“Yes, but writing is one way to listen to those thoughts, it’s a way to look at them and make them felt that they are seen.”

The boy wore a doubtful look, shrouding confusion.

 

“Thoughts react differently when you listen to them,” Lucilius continued, “they change.”

 

“But I am listening to my thoughts,” the boy said.  “How can I not?”

 

 

Lucilius paused for a moment, looking away, calling in thought for another way to say what he seemed to feel.  His eyes adjusted from the quick daze of thought and he realized he was looking directly at someone on the other side of the restaurant. 

“Ok,” he said, looking back at the boy.  “Take this for instance, what would happen if I started staring intently at someone else in this restaurant who I don’t know.  Or let’s say someone random started staring at you, what would that be like?”

 

“Well, it’d probably be weird.”

 

“Exactly, and weird is just a little different, which means, something has changed.  Your thoughts are the same.  When you start watching them, and especially when you start writing them down, it’s like they get a little self conscious, as though they’re their own thing, and they react to what’s going on, they change, and if you keep at it, some surprising things can come up.”

The boy was puzzled but interested.

 

“Sometimes, it can be helpful just to write nonsense even, or whatever words or pictures are going through your mind.  Once on the page, your thoughts react to what’s there, and the game changes, it evolves.  Honestly, it’s really just a matter of getting started.”

 

The boy looked off again to let his thoughts digest.  He pictured the books on Lucilius’ shelf.  The task of all those words and pages seemed so alien and otherworldly.

 

“Take this for instance,” Lucilius said, sliding a salt shaker across the table so it was between the two.  “What do you see?”

“A salt shaker,” the boy said.

 

“Is it the same that I see?”

“Yea, of course.”

“Ah but you see that side, and I see this one, so do we really see the same thing?”

“Sure we do, it’s even the same on your side.”

“But it’s not the same side.”

 

“I guess.”

 

Lucilius pulled out his pen, and penned a quick mark on his side of the salt shaker so the boy couldn’t see it.  “What about now?”

“Well, yours has a mark on it now, I guess.”

“So it’s different from your side?”

 

“Yea.”

 

Lucilius spun the shaker.  He hadn’t actually marked it but had only pretended to, and there was nothing there.

 

“It’s the same.”

 

“Yes, and no,” Lucilius said.  “You thought it was different because you saw me pretend to mark it.  So the sides were different in your mind.”

 

The boy seemed to be sticking together some sense in the matter.

 

“We can spin this salt shaker all the way around and get a different look at it.  Or we can turn it just a little, or a little less, or a little less than that.  Any movement really gives us a new perspective on it, now matter how similar it is to the first time we look at it.  Not only is this a physical fact, but each time you look at it, even the same side, you are looking at it during a different point in time, with new thoughts, realizations and experiences to change the way you think about it, like when you saw me pretend to make a mark.”

“So what does this have to do with writing?”

Lucilius looked off for a moment, wondering where his thoughts were leading him, and then they found their mark.

 

“An idea is a perspective.  If you want ideas then you simply need to look at something in a different way.  Sometimes that can be as simple and straight forward as moving around and looking at something from another angle.  Or it can be as subtle as feeling a bit different while thinking about something for a second time.”

The boy pondered all this for a long moment.  Their food arrived and the quiet satisfaction of the meal settled.  As they finished and lingered slower with stray French fries, the boy said,

 

“So every moment is like a new idea?”

Lucilius smiled.  “I like that perspective.”


Check out the Tinkered Thinking   Reading List

or
Dive in to the Archives

Podcast Ep. 1001: A Lucilius Parable: Split the Angle

from
Tinkered Thinking


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Appreciation can be more than a feeling. Toss something in the jar if you find your thinking delightfully tinkered.




WATCHING THOUGHTS

January 9th, 2021

 

The mind is a mill and the world is our grist.  Perspective churns out our near constant stream of thoughts, and without a mechanism like writing, those thoughts are as though written in the water of time.  Perhaps the ripple of a thought here and there echoes into memory, bouncing back eventually to recur anew, something maybe captured on a second pass: an idea, a memory, a whispered realization.

 

Much of life is simply watching thought.  The tenor and tone of thought can be so seductive, so intoxicating that we can be blind to the real world in front of us.  Even the bad thoughts, the self-deprecation, the inane and destructive ideas capture our attention like some doomed drama.  The real world - whatever it might be, is relegated to a world of the mind, the churn of the mill.  The advice to "get out of your own head" is just a prescription to gather more grist for the mill, something fresh for perspective to chew on and gnaw down into pulpy realization.

 

But even with fresh material, the mill of the mind can be an unholy alchemist, turning even the brightest of days into another grey scene of the mental world.  For some mental mills it doesn’t matter how much sunshine they are fed, the configuration is set for a certain output, a certain view and product.

 

Life can be an infernal shift at the production line watching the same painful product rollout again and again.  Each day there’s the hope that some sort of experience, some new chance encounter will become transformative fodder to change the machine - but it’s the other way around.  That docile character watching thought after thought come out of the machine can leave the production line and wander about the factory, checking the mill’s mechanics, and taking some fresh grist - some new information - and decide upon an overhaul, a slow and gargantuan project of retooling.  The mechanics of them mind’s mill can be tinkered with, over and over, and slowly, the output will change.

 

The mill of the mind can be an alchemist of a wholly different configuration.  One that can compress dark days into brilliant jewels of experience, or even halt all processes on command to let the sunshine of great days radiate through unfiltered to warm the raw canvas of the moment.

One of life’s deepest challenges is to break the hypnotism of the production line - to step back from the conveyor belt of thought and see the machine for what it is and fool around with it in virtuous ways.  The analogies for this shackle and break abound, even in the most obvious forms, from blockbuster movies to ancient practice.  We are surrounded with opportunity for realization, but such is the common curse of the mill to transform all of this warning and instruction, these clues and virtuous lures into more banal thought that resembles little of what was fed to the machine.  

 

There is the hope that some speck of reality, by dint of chance bounces through the machine in just the right way, escaping the gnashing teeth of the mill, landing on the conveyor belt with it’s gleam intact - something to draw the eye of the person, to inspire their ability to reach out and pick up that piece of grist with it’s gleam and wonder - what if more of this thought could look like this beauty?

To gain a new hold, it’s necessary to let go, and a break in the trance of thought does just that: it affords each of us the opportunity to grab life anew.  To slough off the intoxication of anger or depression, anxiety and pain in favor of the unfiltered radiance that is always on offer.

 

This is the hope and a sly virtue of words.  If with practice and work they can be knit together in powerful ways, they can function like new configuration files, that when fed into the mill of other minds, override the default churn, like a virtuous virus that allows us to live in the mind of another, to think as they do and watch thoughts as they occurred to someone else.  The written word, far more than speech, gives us the opportunity to wear the eyes of another and new perspective.  And with luck and work those words can be designed to bounce through the mill of other minds in a way that avoids the gnashing teeth and the searing baths to land on the conveyor belt with it’s opportunity intact, as an offer to look up for once, and wonder anew.


Check out the Tinkered Thinking   Reading List

or
Dive in to the Archives

Podcast Ep. 1000: Watching Thoughts

from
Tinkered Thinking


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If you appreciate the work of Tinkered Thinking, please consider lending support. This platform can only continue and flourish with the support of readers and listeners like you.

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Appreciation can be more than a feeling. Toss something in the jar if you find your thinking delightfully tinkered.