Smart privilege

Screenshot anime

“When I grow up, I’m going to be an art club.” Not every aspiration is realistic. (From the anime fittingly named “This Art Club Has a Problem”.)

“Everything has its limit — iron ore cannot be educated into gold” said Mark Twain. Salman Khan seems to disagree: Anyone can become anything, it just takes longer time. Or that is one of the two main points of this TED talk: TED Talk – November 2015.

His first point should be uncontroversial: You don’t start building the first floor until the foundation is finished. If you have teams building at different speed, it makes no sense to tell them to move on to the next phase after the average amount of time has passed. Those who work fast would hang around with nothing to do, and those who work slowly would make a house that would likely fall down before it was even completed. So why are we doing this in school? It is a very good point indeed, and one that Khan himself has struggled to solve by giving students more tools to improve their skills, particularly in math and related disciplines, in a systematic and slightly game-like way. Khan Academy.

Now if people fail algebra because they did not understand basic arithmetic well enough, or fail calculus because they did understand algebra, it makes sense to conclude that there is nothing within the human realm that you cannot master if you just master all the steps leading up to this. Khan makes a comparison between literacy in the time before public school, and imagines asking the literate people of that age how much of the populace could learn to read given the opportunity. He assumes that the answer would be less than twice as many as those who could already read. (I am not sure this would actually happen, but I agree that most likely the answer would fall well short of 100%.) Now if you ask people today how many could become a cancer researcher, the answer will also be fairly modest. So Mr Khan leaps to the conclusion that, in a hypothetical future where robots do most other things, anyone could actually become a cancer researcher if that was what we needed.

This is what I call “smart privilege”. You know, like “white privilege”, “male privilege”, “straight privilege” etc. By all means feed the phrases into Google or one of its inferior competitors if they are unfamiliar to you. It can be quite eye-opening. But the same part of the political spectrum which most fervently embraces knowledge of all these privileges, is generally allergic to the notion of smart privilege.

***

Smart privilege: I have it. I was born with it, although it did not unfold during my childhood, except for my hyperlexia, basically the opposite of dyslexia. But otherwise my brain actually grew up more slowly than other kids my age, just like the rest of my body. As such I had plenty of years in which I was mostly mediocre, unlike my genius brothers. It was a learning experience of sorts, although I was too foolish to learn from it until later. At the time I stuck to my conviction that my early reading skill was a sign of being inherently superior. It is not quite like that, but luckily for me my brain (and the rest of my body) continued to mature for a couple years after my classmates had stopped. And so  from high school onward, I could reliably get top or near top grades simply by listening in class and doing mandatory written homework. I did not need to read, and when I had to read, I could grasp all I needed from a book by reading it straight through once.

Now there are others who are closer to average. They may need to read a book several times, underline, write in the margin, take notes, make mindmaps, reflect on what they read, repeat it later and ask others to explain parts of it. But if they do this, they will understand it just as well as I do, and perhaps it will stick better because of the effort they put into and the time they spent on it. For these, Khan’s statement is perfectly valid, and a good point.

But just like there are some of us who are outliers in one direction, there are others who are just as far on the other side. They can still learn, but it takes much longer time. They may need to work not five but ten times as long with the matter before they “get it”. Sure, in the end they get there. But here’s the thing: Until we discover a way to extend the human lifespan greatly, there just isn’t enough time for these people to come far.

***

Back when my friend “SuperWoman” studied medicine in Germany, there was one guy who just wouldn’t give up. He had no chance of getting into the medicine study in Norway, where the entry requirements are super high. (At the time you need pretty much perfect grades.) In Germany you could start with less, but he had still needed to retake many classes to qualify even for starting, so he was noticeably older than his classmates. Then he failed in university too, so he had to retake each year at least once. But he would not give up. He was firmly decided to become a doctor, whatever the cost.

This is an attitude that we generally praise in our society, and Hollywood assures us that people like this will eventually reach their goal. But was his goal a good one? As “SuperWoman” asked: What about the patients? Even if he eventually got his degree, this was actually only the beginning. The degree would not magically confer upon him the same cognitive capacity as his peers. He would still fail half the time, only now his failures would cost human lives and human suffering. You cannot retake those. You don’t always get second chances.

This guy was not stupid. He was just an ordinary man with an extraordinary aspiration. But there are others who are still less gifted. This does not make them bad people, but it makes them a bad fit for work that requires lots of learning and lots of thinking and the ability to quickly grasp the essence of new situations and solve new problems. There are limits to how much of our life we can dedicate to learning something. The most obvious is lifespan itself, but in practice unless we are born into riches, we will also have to reap the financial rewards of our education at some point. If you go to school for 40 years, there will not be a lot of time left for your career.

For those who are just a bit less privileged with regard to cognitive capacity, there are things we and they can do. Education can be improved. (The science of learning has improved by leaps and bounds in my lifetime, I have written about some of this over the years.) Free time can be spent catching up. We can and should encourage these to stretch that little inch further to reach their goal. But there are others who simply cannot reach their goals by stretching or jumping or climbing. Perhaps some day we will find other ways for them to catch up. Perhaps there will be safe drugs that improve the brain function, or other technologies. (Brainwave entrainment seems to work but only to a modest degree and not equally for all.) But for the time being, telling ordinary people they can be whatever they want to be is SMART PRIVILEGE. It is blaming the victim of circumstance.

Limits of book-happiness

Screenshot anime Hackadolls

We came here to advance you… with books!

Looking back on my entries from around 2010-2012, I can’t help but notice how upbeat and optimistic and confident they (and I) seem to be. A number of things came together to cause that emotional boom. And those things were not of a very personal nature, either.

For some years earlier, I had felt very unique. I was sensing in a shadowy way a great outline of a spiritual reality, or at least a reality of the soul, a pattern beyond the static of everyday flailing and busy-ness. It baffled me that nobody else was seeing this. I felt like when I am passing through town and suddenly see a bright rainbow in the sky. I stop and look at its beauty but at the same time I am aware of the hundreds of people around me who just hurry to their next destination or watch their smartphone or for any other reason never lift their eyes. I guess when they come home, if they were asked about their day, they will say: “I made progress on the contract”, “I had a difficult customer”, “I missed you”; while I would say: “I saw a beautiful rainbow”. So it is not either of us is lying, but we are looking at different things.

But then I found some people who were looking in the same general direction. First only New Age people, and … well, they did not strike me as the brightest candles on the menorah. Kind of positive in a Golden Retriever way, so not bad company but not like me. But then I found One Cosmos, the blog (and the book, which is pretty good actually) and this psychiatrist trying to look at spiritual experiences with fresh eyes, taking them as a primary experience of reality rather than trying to explain them away as being some kind of side effect of something else. But most interesting to me, he was a voracious reader and recommended a number of books on the topic. The books were kind of hard to read, although the more I read his blog, the easier it became to read the books he read. But something else happened at the same time.

I discovered the Japanese new religion Happy Science, founded by the remarkable genius Ryuho Okawa. At the time he had already read thousands of books and also experimented with various forms of contact with the spirit world, and synthesized this into a new religion. Eventually he kind of came the conclusion that he was God, something I found deeply disappointing. (I’ve seen people come to the same conclusion over in the New Age society, and it generally doesn’t end well. As I have said before: I have seen a number of guys say “I am God”, but I have never seen a woman say “My husband is God”. Sure enough, Okawa divorced a while later.) But before then he had written a number of very interesting books, and I was rather shocked to see that he described very clearly many of the things I had seen as if through frosted glass.  There were so many things I recognized when reading about them.

After having read the luminous prose of Mr Okawa, it became easier to read the heavier books by various saints and sages and the people who love them, and I was building myself a “Bookshelf of Happiness”. I had this grand dream that simply by reading enough books, I would become transformed to a higher being. Well, it felt like this process had begun at the time. Nor was it my first experience of that sort. When I met the Christian Church of Brunstad, popularly known as “Smith’s Friends”, I had my first and most important influx of spiritual understanding, in which the Bible came alive to me. (This kind of faded once my income grew, as the Bible had foretold.)

There were a lot of good books, some of which are referenced in my writing during those years, but eventually this phase of my life began to fade. Gradually I started to suspect that reading Books of Timeless Truth and doing Brainwave Entrainment was not enough to transform me into a weakly godlike superintelligence, as I had hoped. There is still this small, dark, noisy, seething little ball of selfishness, the ego or small self, which self-identifies as me and does not want to give me up.

It could certainly be worse. I live a decent life by human standards, but that is not what I was hoping to live and die as. As long as I remain at this stage, I am at great risk of disruption and unraveling, like any mortal. I am protected day to day from great calamity by the undeserved kindness of the Light, like a village idiot being gently but sometimes firmly turned away from danger. Well, that is pretty much the best possible human condition, but I had not expected to end my days as a human.

“I said: You are gods, all of you are children of the Most High. Nevertheless you will die like men, and fall like one of the princes.” -Psalm 82, verse 6-7.

Subjective time

Screenshot anime Nozaki-kun

The time measured by clocks is constant, but the time measured by the soul is bewildering.

Time is something we are all very familiar with, and yet some scientists doubt that it exists: The equations that describe the universe work just as well without time. It seems to be just a name we have put on the increase of chaos: Intuitively if we see a video of a glass assembling itself from scattered shards, we know that it is being played in reverse. And yet, arguably, for most of our lives we are such a thing as that glass coming together. Our memories come together creating a more or less whole and balanced self. Even plants that grow are such things, being assembled from tiny pieces into an impressive whole. Life is like a countercurrent in the stream of time.

Although recent science dismisses time, and classic science presents a clean arrow of time, most humans have a more vague sense of causality. Yes, causes lead to effects, the past creates the present and the present the future. But we also feel that the future is real and influences the present. In English we even use the same word, for instance: “The reason I get paid is that I go to work. The reason I go to work is to get paid.” How can the two things be each other’s reason?

Our mind seems able to travel through time to a certain degree. Through the power of our memory, we can revisit the past and relive the joys and sufferings, although we cannot change it except in our imagination. By the power of anticipation we look into the future, although a future that is less certain than the past, and we take with us information back to the present. We study the outcome of our actions before we even act. And then we decide: “No, it is not worth it” or “Yes, it is worth it” and so the future – which does not yet exist – changes the present, which definitely exists.

Time is weird.

***

Time does not always seem to move at the same speed, either. Objectively it does, or very nearly so. (It slows down slightly when we accelerate, or so the theory of relativity says. But in ordinary life this is not measurable. You won’t live longer by speeding on the highway, possibly quite the opposite!)

When we are children, time seems to move quite slowly. A summer holiday is an ocean of time and we arrive on the other side as a changed person. In old age, the same summer is like a puddle in the road that we step over, barely noticing. Or that is the general tendency. But do all of us experience time the same way? I don’t think so. I have a strong feeling that, for some reason, my subjective time runs less fast than others my age.

“If you are a lifelong bachelor, you may not live till you are 100, but at least it will feel that way” someone said when I was a kid. As a lifelong bachelor, I certainly agree with this, but I don’t see it as a bad thing. “Don’t kill time, it is your life” said the Christian mystic and teacher Elias Aslaksen. I try to not dissolve completely into my habits and obligations, but learn something new and be aware of at least some of what goes on during my day.

Part of my subjective feeling of slow time is that I spend a lot of time observing lower worlds where time moves faster. Most notably, I have read books since I was little, although I read less novels now. The experience of the book’s characters are added to my own, giving me a feeling that I have lived much more than I actually have. (It is not just me: Old people sometimes tell of something that happened to them when they were younger, which the bookish listener will recognize as having happened to a literary character.) I am not sure if the same applies to movies, in which case most people should have this experience. I don’t watch movies much, except for some Japanese animation.

As a (mainly hobby) writer, I create worlds where years pass over the course of weeks of real time. (Not all writers do this – some my spend a year on describing a week.) I also play games such as The Sims series, where simulated humans live, age and eventually die after some days or weeks of real time. Other favorite games of my past are the Civilization series, where entire civilizations rise and fall over the course of a few days. Watching this gave me a subjective feeling of old age, which blends well with my lifelong interest in history and my reading of old books. I know objectively that I was born in 1958, but a part of me feels like I wandered the streets of ancient Uruk before Rome was even a village.

***

Yet another factor that determines subjective time may be how fast you process information. The more data that passes through and is consciously registered by your brain, the more time would seem to have passed. We know that in certain critical moments, the doors of perceptions are thrown wide open and time seems to slow to a crawl. Unfortunately it is usually not possible to make your body speed up to the same degree.

In my fourth dicewriting story, which I stared just after my previous entry, the main character seems set to become a speedster. Not on the scale of The Flash from the TV series that I believe is still ongoing in America, or the comic books of the same name. Just … living faster.

In that story, speed is one of Erlend’s five specializations, and with an expected duration of 6 years this could make a big difference. I look forward to seeing how this will unfold when we reach the borderlands of human experience. How is it like when the world slows down to half speed and a day feels like it has 48 hours? How do you interact with the people around you? If it happens gradually enough, you probably adapt seamlessly, and don’t rock the boat by being too different in everyday life.

As it happens, I have a coworker of sorts – technically his company is the client of ours, but we work together and eat lunch together – and he is highly intelligent, possibly more than me. It is hard to say: While my intelligence is exceptionally wide, reaching into thoughts that most people never consider thinking, his intelligence is fast. Ordinary humans try his patience, because he knows what they are trying to say while they are still beginning to say it, and then they just keep rambling on, unaware that he already understands it better than they do. Usually he spends his lunch break reading his smartphone. The leftover attention is sufficient to keep up with what everyone in the room is saying.  This guy strikes me as a good match for a “near speedster”, someone who lives fast in a slow world. (Of course I won’t borrow any other traits from him. My characters are all unique, not based on real people.)

The clocks keep ticking, but perhaps we each hear them tick at our own speed…

Life. Change. Delta waves??

Sceenshot TED talk change-curve

Change slows down as we age. But not for all of us equally. It seems delta sleep keeps us younger for longer, and we can induce delta waves artificially.

A while ago I watched a TED video with Dan Gilbert which centered on the fact that people poorly estimate their future change. (Not pocket change, but change in values, behavior etc.) A study asked a wide range of people either a) how much they had changed over the last 10 years or b) how much they expected to change over the next ten years. Then they matched the answers by age: The 18 year olds thought they would not change much by the age of 28, but the 28 year olds thought they had changed a lot since they were 18, and so on. This is the focus of the story.

But I noticed the shape of the curve they drew. Three curves actually, but they were very similar for a number of ways in which people change over the course of their life. The change is rapid at first, and declines gradually but with some noticeable steps, then declining greatly in old age. The curve is familiar, but it took me some hours to recognize it, because I had not seen it before, just seen it described in text form. Oh, and I had described it myself too. I often answer basic questions about sleep on Quora, and one of the things I explained was the function of “delta sleep”.

Called NREM stage 3 these days, this deepest sleep is less formally called “slow-wave sleep”, because the brainwaves that dominate the whole brain in this sleep stage are large and slow. The slow, regular brainwaves are called “delta waves” and technically waves below 4 Hz fall in this category. The dominant waves during slow-wave sleep however are usually 1 Hz or less, in other words less than one complete wave per second! They can go as far as 1/3 Hz, where one wave takes 3 seconds.

Despite the slowness of the delta brain waves, the brain is actually doing various useful things. One of them is related to learning. A study shows that people who have been training to learn a 3D maze during the day have increased blood flow in the same brain area during slow-wave sleep, compared to a control group that did not undergo intensive training. Another important thing that happens during this deep sleep phase is the release of Human Growth Hormone. In children this hormone triggers growth, as the name implies, but in adults it triggers regeneration. Basically it keeps us young and healthy.

We know that delta sleep is important, because bad things happen to test animals who are kept away from it. Their learning is impaired, but worse, their immune system is also weakened, and they lose the ability to deal with stress. Eventually they die early. Luckily the body goes very far to recover this type of sleep. If you stay awake for days, the body first recovers delta sleep and also REM sleep, the vivid dream sleep that seems important for memory and sanity. If you become chronically sleep deprived, the body will start running short periods of slow-wave sleep, so-called “microsleep”, while you are awake. Thoughtfully this is done when there seems to be downtime, when nothing particularly challenging is going on. Like at school, at office … or on a long stretch of road. Suddenly 10 seconds are missing from your life. If those seconds should have included some adjustment to the car’s trajectory, they may be the last 10 seconds of your life. So don’t go around missing delta sleep.

***

In babies, delta waves take up much of their sleeping time and some of their waking time. The waking delta fades later in childhood. Delta sleep remains fairly high in teenagers, and may appear in all the sleep cycles. (The first sleep cycle is from falling asleep to the end of the first REM sleep. The later cycles are from the end of one REM period to the end of the next. Each sleep cycle features first a slowing of the brain waves, and later the waves become faster again, until REM – vivid dream sleep – where brainwaves are as fast and irregular as during excited waking activities.) In children and teenagers, the deep delta sleep can occur in all sleep cycles, but is longer in the first cycles. In adults, delta sleep only occurs during the first sleep cycles, and is markedly longer during the first of them. Delta sleep continues to shrink during life, and in the elderly it can cease entirely, especially in men, or occur only some nights and not others.

There is a remarkable parallel between the decline of delta sleep and the complex process we call aging. But is one the cause of the other? Or is there some underlying process that causes them both? This is a very good question. If delta waves keep us young, we could stay young longer by increasing the amount of time our brain spends in delta sleep, or perhaps even in delta waves during waking time, which is rare but possible.

As it happens, there is a drug that can induce delta sleep. It seems to have no serious side effects when used clinically. Apart from the usual conservatism of the medical establishment, there is one big reason why it is not more widespread: It is the best date rape drug on the market. You are not going to get this drug on prescription or walk out of the lab with it in your pocket. All legal sources of the drug are strictly controlled. And as long as humans are the way they are, this is not likely to change, unfortunately. So we won’t know whether people who take this drug regularly live longer and healthier lives, as they would if delta sleep was the “fountain of youth” that some suspect.

And here our story could have ended. But there is another, more cumbersome way to induce delta waves – or any frequency of brain waves that can occur naturally – and I have mentioned it repeatedly over the last few years. It is called brainwave entrainment.

***

Brainwave entrainment means that we use an outside impulse to synchronize brainwaves to a particular frequency. Sound, light and even touch can be used for this, but sound is by far the most common, cheap and convenient. There are several different sound effects that can be used as well. In the beginning, binaural beats were most popular. This is the coolest of the bunch, as you send sound to each ear with a slightly different frequency. The brain starts to resonate to the difference between the frequencies. So you could play back a speech or a piece of music but having altered the frequency slight on one ear, and simply listening to this would gradually induce the specific frequency of brain waves.

Other systems such as monaural beats and isochronic tones exist, and isochronic tones are actually considered the most effective, but they tend to be clearly audible unless masked with other more complex sounds. If you buy pre-packaged sound tracks you will normally find that they have some kind of soundscape like rainfall or other nature sounds that take the edge off the repetitive sounds that trigger the actual entrainment.

At first it takes up to 8 minutes to entrain the brain so that most of the brainwaves resonate to the same frequency across almost the whole brain. With practice this time can be lowered significantly, so that one slips into a familiar frequency more easily.

Brainwave entrainment can happen during sleep or while awake. Because delta waves only occur naturally during sleep, there is a tendency at first to fall asleep when these are induced while you are awake. With practice you become better at staying awake, but that may not necessarily be what you want. Certainly if you use brainwave entrainment as an aid in meditation, then you should practice while you are rested and train yourself to remain awake. But if you want the deep sleep effect, you would want to put on the delta soundtrack when you are going to sleep or taking a nap. If you suffer from insomnia, brainwave entrainment is awesome: If you fall asleep, good. If you stay awake, you still get the deep restful brainwaves.

I should caution here that from my own experience and that of my friends, some trippy and unpleasant side effects can appear if you start doing deep brainwave entrainment suddenly without gradually building up to it with shorter periods and less deep frequencies. Migraines, double vision, nightmares and temporary loss of short-term memory can appear during or after use, although this does not happen to all and is always temporary. For this reason I recommend starting with alpha wave entrainment, which induces waves you normally have during relaxation and when falling asleep. The brain is used to having these experiences, so side effects are likely to be harmless and often pleasant: A feeling of weightlessness, seeing lights while your eyes are closed, sudden bursts of memories or emotions, or sometimes a feeling of “energy” running along your body. But most of the time nothing, or just a sense of peace and relaxation.

With some months of practice, you should be able to use delta wave entrainment with no side effects, like I do. I did not actually get into this for reasons of longevity, and certainly not to change. It was pretty much scientific curiosity that made me try out Holosync, and later Lifeflow, and eventually making my own tracks using Gnaural, a public domain software that is not very intuitive to use but totally free and fairly flexible. After satisfying my curiosity, I continued because it helped with a completely different problem for me: Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome, a situation where the patient does not become sleepy until the morning, and has a hard time staying awake early in the workday. By using delta brainwave entrainment I could go to bed earlier, and if I did not fall asleep I would still get a decent degree of rest from meditating with the entrainment. Ironically, knowing that you don’t  need to fall asleep is the best cure for insomnia.

I remember mentioning around New Years (after I started with delta wave entrainment in spring), that I had changed so much that year. But I was not sure whether it was because of the brainwave entrainment, or the “Happy Science” books by Ryuho Okawa, or the mostly Christian spiritual literature recommended on the One Cosmos blog. All of these things kind of heaped up in that year. But would the books have made the same impression on me if I had less delta waves in my life? I don’t know. I am just a single person (literally so) and there is just too much outside influences for my personal experience to prove or disprove anything. (As skeptics say: The plural of anecdote is not data.) In order to know more, we need many more people to try this course of action.

The way I see it, there is very little to lose. If you have the patience to start easy, there should be no unpleasant side effects, and it is in any case totally harmless. On the other hand there are the benefits of better learning, better health, and a subjective experience of having more time (because time does not just fly by without you learning from it). It may not be a magic pill, but it is close enough that I recommend it. Unless you think change could only be for the worse – after all, perhaps you are already close enough to perfect. ^_^

Sims 4: More human than me?

Screenshot sims 4, two sims playing chess and talking

I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing.

Since the original “The Sims” game in 2000, the little computer people have become more and more like normal humans. With me, however, it seems to be the other way around. This fall it seems that they have become more human than I, in some ways.

Obviously I don’t mean the body. Mine is still flesh and blood, while theirs is pixels on the screen. What I talk about is how well they emulate human behavior, whereas I have my own style that is pretty unusual in some ways where the sims are not.

Specifically, this is about social interactions, social needs, even social wants. As mentioned before, the sims now have a lot of social interactions and they love to use them. Even a sim with the Loner trait rolls around a fourth of his wants about social interactions, like talk to someone, tell a joke, compliment someone, practice talking, use a pick-up line (!) and more. Strangely, these wants cannot be satisfied over the Internet, so the sims need to actually go out (or have others come over) to fulfill their wants.

The social need is borked, if I may say so. In The Sims 3, Loner sims would experience their social need meter go down fairly slowly. Eventually it would go in the red, but it would take its sweet time. This may be simply lazy coding, but in The Sims 4 the meter goes down seemingly as fast as for everyone else, it is just that they don’t suffer any negative effects of it, quite the opposite. But the meter still takes on the orange and eventually red color of impending desperation, and a quick look at the screen will make it seem like the Sim is in danger. Only when you look more closely you see that it is just the social need that is bottoming out.

Of course, I have had this problem with my journal too. When I innocently mention that I don’t have any friends except invisible friends, people get worried as if I was about to jump from the nearest bridge, while I feel quite happy this way. Even when I mention that my last kiss was some 30 years ago (and even that was rather a surprise) people worry about me. Now if they were just worrying about my genes, I would understand it, for they are overall pretty amazing genes. It would almost be too bad to dilute them. Someone should deep freeze some of my blood so I can be cloned when that becomes more trivial. Unfortunately, genes don’t guarantee the same personality, as you can see with identical twins:  Identical twins that grow up together are more different than identical twins that grow up apart. (In the real world, that is. I haven’t tried that in the game yet.)

There is another reason this is on my mind: A MOOC (massive open online course) from BerkeleyX, the electronic arm of Berkeley University, distributed through the EdX platform. Yes, I am MOOCing this year again, and more successfully. But anyway, The Science of Happiness spends an inordinate amount of time elaborating and belaboring how absolutely necessary a rich social life is for human happiness. And I am like WTH you people, but then I think to myself: At least this may be useful for playing The Sims 4, if nothing else.  Actually I guess both the course and The Sims 4 may be useful for understanding ordinary humans, of which I am clearly not one. More about that next time, probably.

I don’t really care for music

Screenshot anime ChuuRen

Growing older brings many changes. Some quite unexpected, even at my age, it seems?

I’ve heard there was a secret chord
that David played, and it pleased the Lord
-but you don’t really care for music, do ya?

-Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah.

When Opera Software introduced a built in server feature in their web browser, I was one of the early adopters, ripping the music from my several shopping bags of CDs to put it on my hard disk, so I could listen to any of my songs from work or wherever else I had Internet access. This is some years ago, and the feature became less and less reliable and was eventually abandoned. I got a home server (NAS – Network Attached Storage) which also promised to let me access my music, photos and video via the Internet. It is usually able to stream music without downloading it, although it does take a little time to buffer it in advance.

Then last month Google Music opened in Norway, and among its more attractive features was the ability to upload my entire music collection to their “cloud” of servers. There is a limit of 20 000 tracks, but I was never that much of a collector. After discarding a few albums I feel sure I never want to listen to again, I uploaded 2644 tracks. That seems kind of paltry compared to the limit. I get the same feeling as when rolling a huge cart through the supermarket with four boxes of yogurt and two bottles of soda. ^_^

Up until that point, I have felt like I actually bought a lot of music. After I got my first CD player, I bought CDs regularly for a while. Sometimes I just passed a shop and heard some likable music so I stopped and bought it. This was how I came across Chris de Burgh for instance, whose lyrics have featured heavily on these pages. Leonard Cohen, however, has been with me longer: I happened to record his song “If It Be Your Will” from radio back in the age of cassette tape, although this was the only song by him I knew for many years. The age of the CD fixed this as well.

Despite the crazy prices (even higher here in Norway than elsewhere), I continued to buy CDs for many years. Sometimes I guess I just took a chance. Often there was only one or two good tracks on a whole CD, but I did not give it much thought. I did not have much money back then – not that I have now, by Norwegian standards, but it was rather pitiful back then and I did not know how to manage it – so the CDs made a noticeable drain on my budget. After the turn of the century, I have almost exclusively bought Japanese pop, and less and less of that too. I don’t download music unless I have already bought it (the mail from Japan takes weeks). But a quiet dislike for the major recording companies and their behavior has grown to the point that I sincerely want them all dismantled and outlawed, so there is that too.

In any case, I uploaded these 2644 tracks eagerly. Now I can listen to them all, anywhere, and in any order. I set about testing the “radio” feature at Google Play Music. Basically I start with a song I like, and the software tries to find other songs that follow naturally. It was during these experiments, which lasted for several days, that I realized something I would not have believed if you told me:  I don’t really care for music.

I kind of knew already that most of the songs I had paid good money for, were just noise. There used to only be a couple good songs on each CD, unless it was Irish. Well, Cohen also had a higher rate, but I still only liked perhaps half his songs. But now I notice that many of the songs I used to like, no longer appeal to me. And those which do, that is not necessarily a good thing either.

The voices in my head, as I playfully call it, in this case the earworms, have a tendency to sing catchy tunes ALL DAY LONG. I am sure you are familiar with this phenomenon, of songs playing and replaying in your head and probably also trying to make you sing along. (That is certainly how it works for me.) It disturbs my other mental processes. I want an off switch. Well, unlike untrained minds, I do have a pause button, but it always comes back on. This is not a bug, it is a feature. After all, I am the one who feeds my soul this music, so it is perfectly natural that the soul takes it and runs with it. But when it does this with songs that are just catchy, without any depth, I kind of regret having listened to them in the first place.

I also rarely, if ever, feel the intense joy from some music like I used to. I am not sure if this is some spiritual development on my part (and if so, whether it is progress or backslide), or just my brain losing capabilities as I slowly transition into old age. I guess it is natural with the path I take that I can not lose myself in beauty the way I did? But given how easily I get distracted in daily life, how easily my thoughts stray, it seems a bit preposterous to think that I have become deeper than the music or some such.

***

Google Music is quite impressive, by the way. It took a few days for it to get used to me, and in the beginning it fed me some songs that really disagreed with me. But after a while it got quite good. For instance I use a Japanese song called “Coloring” as seed for a “radio” function, a random playlist of related tracks. At first it was quite random, but after a while it found out that it could give me Japanese songs with English titles (something that is quite popular in J-pop) and I would accept that. That is further than Spotify came, and I’ve had that since it was fairly new, long before it came to America.

I guess they deserve a better customer than me. Who would have thought I would ever say that. But I don’t really care for music, do I?

1988 and no time for books

Cardboard box that once contained monochrome display

This box once contained a monochrome display. Those were the days, when we had time to read books but did not know where to find them. (There are still a few books in this box, though. All non-fiction.)

Using my amazing powers of mind, I recently traveled to the year 1988, in a timeline very close to this one. OK, so it is not some supernatural power that nobody else has – it is just a combination of imagination, memory and Google. (And occasionally dice.) But it works for me.

One thing that struck me was how different 1988 was from now. On the surface of it, things were much the same. Most people had already begun to work in the post-industrial economy, for instance, and the cars did not look all that different from now. It was already common for men and women both to work outside home, and (in sometimes unrelated news) divorce was already common. All significant political parties had the same names, at least in the western world, and the borders between nations were the same as now with a few exceptions (mainly in the communist world). Ordinary people ate pizza, watched TV and occasionally had sex. It does not really look all that different.

But then there are the computers. Oh, we had computers in 1988 too. The IBM Personal Computer was launched in August 1981. I already had one at home, and we had a few at the office too, as had many other offices in the reasonably rich world. But they were not really the same thing as we have today. They were slow and primitive in every way. Their capacity was very small. The pictures on the screen were blocky and usually in monochrome, typically green and black, although by 1988 there were color monitors and color video cards (typically bought extra). They were still blocky though.

The power of computers double roughly once every one and a half year. Let’s see: 3 years = 4 times, 4.5 years = 8 times, 6 years = 16 times, 7.5 years = 32 times, 9 years = 64 times, 10.5 years = 128 times … Conveniently, this means 5 years is approximately 10 times and 10 years approximately 100 times. So the computer 25 years ago was 100*100*10 times weaker than today, overall. 100,000 times. This kind of explains why my smartphone is fantastically more powerful than all the computers of my workplace back in the day.

In 1988, we still had physical file cabinets to store the vast amount of paper required by the bureaucracy. Bored housewives were hired to store and retrieve these papers, and spent much of the day with their butt in the air because some uncharted law of the universe ensures that most of the papers always end up in the two lower drawers, no matter what sorting your choose in advance. Many of these later developed severe back pain and became disabled, although around the time the physical file cabinets disappeared and were replaced by virtual file cabinets which you can still see on your computer screen. Kids these days probably don’t know that the folder icon is actually a picture of something that once existed in the physical world.

There are still books in the physical world, but Amazon.com has for quite a while now sold more ebooks than the sum of paperbacks and hardbacks, and the proportion keeps sliding toward more e and less paper. Of course, there wasn’t an Amazon.com back then. At a time when there were no awesome computer games, no social networks and no YouTube to distract me, I still did not read thousands of interesting books, because I did not know that they existed. And even had I known, I would have had no idea how to get them. Even if I knew the publisher, chances were small that the books were imported to Norway unless they were extremely mainstream (and therefore not all that interesting to me). Although I think I discovered Piers Anthony around that time? That sounds early, but I had read him for several years when someone made a computer game based on one of his Xanth books, and the game was rather bad and mercifully forgotten by most of the world long ago.

Now, I can get almost anything from Amazon.com, and in many cases download the books instantly to my lightweight Samsung tablet. But now I have so many fun things to do that I end up not reading many books. There is never a time for books, it seems.

 

In praise of sugar

1.5 liter bottle of Pepsi Cola, 3/4 full

This acidic solution of sugar passes quickly through an empty stomach and is absorbed by the body in a matter of minutes. It also tastes quite good. I would not recommend downing a large bottle of the stuff in one sitting, though! One glass at a time is enough.

I notice lately that popular science and health sites brand ordinary table sugar as “toxic” and “white poison”. I hope to convince you, noble reader, that sugar is actually the power of this planet’s yellow sun, stored in crystals that can be readily used even by ordinary humans.

Let me say a few words about myself. I am a (physically) ordinary man in my fifties, with an office job but also an outdoors hobby: The Augmented Reality game “Ingress”, where players have to visit “portals” scattered around town. Because of this, it is normal for me to walk 10 kilometers in a day, some days 20 kilometers or above. (10 miles is about 16 km, for those on that side of the sea.)

When a man my age has walked 10 km, it is normal to feel a bit tired in the legs. I am not actually an athlete, after all, but an office worker. This is when I sit down, drink half a small bottle of Pepsi Cola, and wait for the effects to kick in.

Pepsi contains a small amount of caffeine, which probably helps with feeling a bit more energetic. But it also contains 10% sugar, your supposed “white poison”. Let us take a closer look at this substance, and what happens when it is ingested by the human body.

***

Sucrose or table sugar is at the same time one substance and two: Each molecule of sucrose contains one molecule of glucose and one molecule of fructose, held together by a single atomic bond. The combined molecule is stable when stored, but breaks readily into its two parts early in the digestion. What is absorbed from the small intestine is therefore actually molecules of glucose and fructose. These are treated differently by the body.

The glucose passes directly into the bloodstream and is brought to every cell in the body. Muscles will absorb glucose if they have been used, as they seek to replenish their energy and glucose is the easiest form of energy carrier to be shared through the blood. It can also be used by all other cells, and is the preferred fuel of the brain. (The brain can switch to an alternate fuel source in emergencies such as hunger, but will use glucose if this is found.)

Meanwhile the fructose is held back in the liver, the gatekeeper of the inner body, as all blood from the intestines passes through there. The reason it is held back is that the cells of the body cannot burn fructose directly. But the liver can convert it into any of two other substances. The preferred substance is glycogen, which is the body’s medium-length energy storage. The liver contains enough glycogen to power the body for about 24 hours of normal activity. The more active you are, the more glycogen is stored. If this reserve is not full, the liver will mainly convert fructose to glycogen and put it away. When the body has burned through the glucose from the first sugar rush, and the blood sugar starts to fall below ideal values, glycogen is converted to glucose again and released in the blood. In this way, fructose become glucose by an indirect process, one that only releases the sugar into the blood when needed.

If the glycogen storage is full, the liver will instead seek to convert fructose into triglycerides, the building blocks of fat. These are then released in the bloodstream, and will hopefully find a hungry muscle eventually. If not, they may be put away in fat cells for further use, or if worst comes to worst, they may settle on the walls of arteries. This is widely agreed to be a bad thing, causing angina and heart infarct, blood clots and stroke.

So what happens to the sugar from my half bottle (about one and a half table glass) of Pepsi? Well, I have just walked 10 kilometers and burned about 500 calories. (That corresponds to more than a deciliter — half a glass — of pure white sugar, if you wondered.) It is a safe bet that the fructose will go straight in the liver’s storage this time. Your liver may vary, depending on your activity level.

When the first surge of glucose raises the blood sugar above normal levels, the pancreas releases insulin. This hormone basically declares hunting season on glucose: The muscles open up their membranes and draw in as much glucose as they can handle, burning it instead of fat while supplies last. They can also rebuild their own little storage of glycogen, if they have the time. This storage is local to each muscle cell and is not released in the blood like the liver does.

In addition to muscle cells, fat cells also are invited to the glucose rush. But they are slower and less efficient, and they are not going to get that time: The feedback from the muscles and the brain itself inform me that the sugar rush has begun. My body is now burning with the atomic power from the core of the sun, captured by unsuspecting sugar cane which made the ultimate sacrifice to bring me their precious sugar crystals. It is time to get to my feet again and enlighten the city for another hour or two!

***

And this, noble reader, is why I want to tell overly eager science journalists: It is not sugar which is toxic; it is the passive lifestyle that is toxic. If you don’t make a serious dip in your energy storage, then indeed sugar will do bad things to your body. Your muscles won’t absorb more sugar than they need, your fat cells will grow as fast as they can but the sugar may still linger in the blood for quite a while. The blood pressure will increase, the arterial walls will harden and attract fat made from fructose in the liver. So remember: Friends don’t let friends eat sugar and drive. Let’s go hack some Ingress portals instead … or play in the hay or whatever tide lifts all your boats. ^_^

Ridiculously excited

Screenshot anime

“I’m so excited!” OK, perhaps not quite SO excited, but still.

By midnight, I will be allowed to download the final expansion pack for The Sims 3: Into the Future! I am so excited! This is like my favorite expansion pack EVER!

OK, let’s back up here a little. I’m not normally this kind of guy. I have bought most of the expansion packs for the Sims 3 when they went on sale, months after their release, and even then I had a couple of them lying around for some more months before I installed them. The previous expansion, Island Paradise, I skipped completely. Even with the two previous Sims games, I did not preorder neither the game nor the expansions. So I was taken by surprise when I watched the trailer and producer walk-through for Into the Future and “fell in love”, so much so that I preordered it almost immediately. Since then I have counted the days till the official release (October 24 here in Europe) and now the hours (we can start downloading at midnight).

Of course, I do other things during those days and hours. It is not like I just sit around staring at the clock. But there is an awareness that intrudes in free moments. I suppose it is similar to human infatuation, which I have for some reason never experienced. I have had the same symptoms with computers though. ^_^

Judging from the trailers, the Sims 3 is really going out with a bang. It is a very ambitious expansion, delivering a new world that can be run in parallel with any of the earlier towns, where one or more sims can  travel freely back and forth between the worlds at their own choosing. The new technology is not simply a new skin on old functions (well, except for the hovercars and hoverbikes and some furniture) but completely new ways of doing things. And the variation of plumbots (Sims robots) that can be built is staggering, both in terms of looks (millions of possible combinations, billions if you count colors, trillions if you customize the colors) and the combination of qualities and personality trait chips.

But I think the reason for my excitement is not truly objective. There are others who are not particularly interested in this, including some who were very much into some of the earlier expansions. Rather, I think the game appeals to a part of me from my childhood. The future in the game is similar to that future I dreamed of as a child, not the future we actually got.

Don’t get me wrong, I love living in this future. I carry in my shirt pocket a library with over a million free books, and a bookshop with many more. It also doubles as a concert hall with millions of performances by some of the world’s greatest musicians. It also lets me watch HD movies, and of course it lets me look at photos and even take high-quality photos or record video of my own. It is a newsstand where I can read the news from around the world, most of it for free, and I can also buy magazines of all kinds. It is a telephone that lets me talk cheaply to people anywhere in the world, and a mailbox where I can send them letters or receive letters from them, and we can watch each other’s pictures and listen to music together if we want. It would have strained my imagination when I was a child that such a machine could exist, and I would have expected it to fill a room at least.

But the hovercars, the vaguely humanoid robots, the food synthesizer and holographic computers are the staple of my childhood and youth sci-fi, and it is the child in me that is excited. There is another part of me, which I now think of as my true “I”, who watches this with a sort of detached amusement and also some caution. Although the compass needle of my mind is moving eagerly, there are constraints on how far it is allowed to go. I am not going to where I was many years ago, when I fervently wished that Jesus would not return until after Christmas.

There is a sword that cuts soul and spirit, and the spirit is my true self, the one that belongs in eternity, undisturbed by the oscillations of emotions and desires of the mind. It is this true self that will one day, I hope, return to a Light brighter than any future that man can imagine.

Like a light that grows

Screenshot anime The Golden Laws

I made a trip back to 1986, aided by the mysterious powers of my diary (which at that time was printed on paper). It was kind of embarrassing, partly because back then it was less of a day-ary and more of a night-ary, kind of dark and angsty even compared to how I felt at the time. I remember that much. But also, I turned 28 at the end of that year, and I was still painfully stupid.  Probably still am, but I mean compared to now.

I was already recognizable myself, and I was rather more pious than now, it seems, at least emotionally. But somehow I continued to rack up consumer debt. Credit cards, shop loans, that kind of stuff. It may be argued that at the time, I earned rather less than I do now. We’ve had a phenomenal economic growth here in Norway over the last 20 years, not just the rich but common people, unlike in America and parts of Europe. But it was not dire need that mired me in debt. Although I didn’t write much details about how I got the debt (only about how bad it was), I remember buying various stuff that was not survival-related, to put it mildly. A big electronic organ (which admittedly brought me quite a bit of joy for some years, but which cost me several months’ pay). And then later (or was it first? I think later) an electronic accordion. Because I could, seeing how I got shop credit and all. Various computer related stuff (computers were invented back then, actually, just not the Internet as we know it). I bought the cutting edge stuff, of course. Buy now, pay later!

Taking that trip back to the past, I realize that I wasn’t really that different from ordinary humans. Lots of them still do this. I think most outgrow it, but I am not sure. As I said, here in Norway people have a lot more money now so any debt they have acquired is steadily erased by their rising affluence. But in America, debt still seems to be a big problem.

There were other typical human behaviors too, like in interpersonal relationships. (Not intimate relationships, I had my last kiss in 1984 after all, and even that was pretty accidental as such things go.) But what strikes me is how poorly I understood not just others, but also my own emotions. It probably seemed perfectly normal at the time, though. I don’t recall going around constantly thinking to myself: “You’re an idiot, you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t understand other people and you don’t understand yourself.” Well, I did think that, but mostly late at night when writing my diary, reflecting on myself. But I did not think it in advance, preventing or at least mitigating the dumbness.

Observing myself at half my current age, I am more convinced than ever that the current me is not simply a result of my half-Aspie heritage or Neanderthal genes or some such. I mean, yes, I was never entirely neurotypical, but that didn’t really make me who I am today. Rather it is the light of timeless wisdom that has kept shining relentlessly on me, showing me a little more now and a little more then. I may close my eyes and pretend that I did not see, but in the long run it cannot be unseen as long as the light remains on. Whenever I open my eyes, there it is again.

For me, this light is a religious thing. After all, this experience is foretold in Proverbs 4, verse 18: “But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.” The Norwegian translation, which was often quoted in the Church when I was young, translates it slightly differently (as is often the case with poetic elements of the ancient language): “The path of the righteous is like a radiant light, that becomes clearer and clearer until the full light of day.”

Now, “righteous” may not quite be the best description of me, if I must say so myself. And that is one reason why I think I am probably still an idiot, just less so than I used to be. But I’ve learned some lessons. Like “consumer credit really is a gift – from you, to them”. Or “don’t mix girls and money unless you are ready to lose both”. ^_^ Both of these are prefigured in Ecclesiastes and  the Proverbs of Solomon, by the way, although I should probably leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Although I am a Christian of sorts, I’ll readily admit that I have found timeless wisdom in the Scriptures of other religions and a few works that are not generally considered religious as well. That is great, I think, and perhaps Frithjof Schuon and friends are right about the transcendental unity of religions. But also over time I have found that although I have found wisdom in other religions, I had not really needed to. There is in the religion of my youth a spirit that keeps unpacking the deeper meanings of the Scriptures, so that they would be more than adequate for whatever one were to run into. I won’t deny that the same may well be true for the other great world religions. Those who have dedicated themselves to them would know, I guess. I can only speak for myself. And even then I haven’t earned this. It was given to me, for some reason.

But this is at the core of things, that this Light is alive. It grows, given the chance, becoming brighter and brighter as we admit it is right. Perhaps it is in that sense that “righteousness” is meant in the text I cited. When we admit that the judgment of the Light is right and we were wrong, the judgment turns to brightness. As long as we stand against it, it is like walking along a dark road where the headlights of the meeting cars shining in our face is more blinding than the darkness. But when we turn around and accepts its judgment, the same light brightly lights up the road. Well, that’s just an illustration, but one I know from experience.

So there it is. Looking back across half my life so far, that is the image that comes to mind: A radiant light, starting as the faint light heralding dawn, shining more and more brightly into wonderful daylight, where an entire world opens up around me. Well, it is not full daylight yet,  but so much brighter than in 1986! I wish I could show even one of you this brilliant road to tomorrow.  But judging from my results so far, it may be safer for y’all if I keep writing about The Sims…