Others can’t self-help you

Screenshot anime Aho-girl

Even death can’t cure idiocy! Well, I am not eager to try that. But self-help books have been tried by many people and the effect is sporadic and moderate.

I sometimes say that if self-help books worked, I would be surrounded by demigods, or “weakly godlike superintelligences” as my old comrade in cerebration (and more recently, published author) Alistair Young sometimes says.

Clearly, most of us are not surrounded by that kind of amazing people. Occasionally there is an amazing person, or at least I have met some fairly amazing people. Some of them are not even relatives. One of my coworkers on my old team is fairly amazing. I suspect he is smarter than I am, as he thinks more quickly and accurately within our shared fields of expertise. That said, it is hard to compare since he is a more proactive person by nature and surrounded by experts, while I am deeply introverted and working in isolation. Still, I suspect he may be more intelligent than me. I hope so. We are not spiders, the stronger spider eating the weaker. I have nothing to lose by having smart coworkers, smart friends, and smart relatives.

It would be wonderful if the people around me could simply buy a self-help book and read it, then instantly (or at least quickly) become more intelligent. Or if not more intelligent, then better at using their abilities in their work or in their interpersonal relationships. It would be good also if they could benefit from the books about how to become healthy, or even happy. All of those things would benefit me even if that was not their purpose. When an individual improves, it benefits his or her allies, even if the alliance is remote and accidental. So I wish that all those around me would become healthy, happy, intelligent and productive.

In reality, the world is more like a hospital run by the patients alone, searching in vain for a doctor or even a nurse to help lessen their pains. Even in Norway, where most of us are rich by world standards, and where money is well distributed and there is good health care and education available, there is so much lack and want. People are lonely and insecure at heart, they crave love but often feel disappointed. And when they get more things, they crave even more, their eyes always on something ahead, like the headlights of a car always staying ahead of you no matter how fast you drive.

***

When someone is very successful, he (or occasionally she) always seems to know the reason. But the reason seems to vary from person to person. It is rarely something obvious, like: “I had good parents who gave me smart genes and a wise upbringing.” Actually, I had that, but it makes for a very short and lousy self-help book if that is all you can think of. “I was born white in a good family and had good teachers” is also pretty poor food for self-help books. Instead, people tend to credit certain decisions they made or habits they built.

Certainly, habits contribute a great deal to the outcome of our lives. But a habit can be good for one person and bad for another. For instance, many highly successful people sleep only 4-5 hours a night. And in some cases, it is even true. Scientists have found a gene that let these people thrive with much less sleep than others. When transplanted to mice, that gene caused the mice to also need less sleep. Mice don’t read self-help books, so it is a safe bet that it was the gene. If you try to sleep less without the gene, you will lose willpower and clarity of mind, you will make more errors, your health will worsen and you may fall asleep at the wheel and kill yourself and others. So what brought success to one person brought ruin and death to another.

What I generally see is that even if a very successful person shares the secrets of their success as objectively as they can and in enough detail to fill a book, very few of the people who read the book become successful, and almost never to a high degree. Certainly many of the highly successful people learn from other greats, but usually they adopt useful practices or principles from different sources and keep those that fit, rather than copying one other person in a kind of “apostolic succession”. Even when working together in a direct mentor relationship, it is rare indeed for the disciple to become like his master.

***

I am not opposed to self-help literature in principle. It makes up some of my favorite literature, and works that made an impression on me. Arguably works like the Dhammapada, the Tao Te Ching, and the Analects can all rightly be called self-help books. Improvement of the reader is also a stated goal in much of western religious literature, included holy Scripture. Indeed, the New Testament blatantly aspires to make its followers perfect, in that exact word. Perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect. So not just “weakly godlike” even, but strongly godlike. But alas, those who are surrounded by Christians will probably agree that this has not generally been highly successful. (Although I had the pleasure of spending some of my best years with Christians who had a very positive outcome from their Bible study, which is certainly not something you can take for granted with every denomination. And it still took an almost unimaginable dedication.)

It is said that against stupidity the gods themselves fight in vain (“Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.” -Schiller) and it certainly looks that way when we look at the wider religious communities. So it is no wonder if today’s heroes of thought, from pop psychologists to billionaires, also fail spectacularly at improving the overwhelming majority of their readers.

In the first place, I think most of those who want self-help do not actually want to help themselves but rather to be helped by others. In a metaphor, they want the fish, not learning how to fish. They want the apples, not learning how to grow an apple tree. Those who achieve success usually do it not because they seek the trappings of success (wealth, fame, power) but rather they are desperately dedicated to accomplishing something greater than an ordinary life, even greater than themselves. They want to make the world a better place, or at least a sizable subset of the world. And they want it desperately, to the point that they make sacrifices for it on a regular basis, and make those sacrifices without tears and as a matter of course.

I am not like that, and most likely neither are you, or you would not waste your time on an overly verbose online journal written by some mostly unknown person who, by his own admission, is not entirely neurotypical. But perhaps you see some things more clearly when reading some of my posts. I know I do. So at least I self-help myself. ^_^

Grandmothers speak, autism not so much

Screenshot anime Amanchu, ep.1

Even when autism speaks, people don’t understand it… 

There is reason to think that the human race did not really come into its own until the evolution of the grandmother. I do not know which came first, speech or grandparents, but the two go particularly well together, and the combination made our ancestors superior to every other creature under the sky, including other human races.

But before we travel into the deep past where fossils lie, let me take a quick stop by my old grandmother. She once told me that she believed her son, my uncle, was brain damaged due to the long and hard birth. He was not her firstborn, in fact there were two girls before  him and two after him. But unlike them, he never learned to talk, and whenever I saw him he was simply sitting there rocking back and forth. I grew up thinking he was an idiot. Much later I realized he was almost certainly autistic. And even much later I realized that most likely so was I. A surprising trait often seen in autistic children is that their brain grows faster during their first three years, and in some cases this starts before birth. That would explain the hard birth of my uncle. There is no significant difference is adult brain size though. This implies that if autistic people were a separate race, they would mature faster than mainstream humans, at least in some aspects. But what if autistic people once was a separate race? A race of humans without grandmothers? Let me tell you why that makes sense.

***

We do not know how long humans have been talking. Some think it was related to the sudden spread of humankind all over the world, and the appearance of advanced weapons and art. In old books this is often described as happening as late as 40 000 years ago. This date has been pushed backward with ever new discoveries, which imply that African humans were universally making elaborate weapons and tools at least 65 000 years ago, and there are signs of elaborate tools in some places much earlier. In other places in Africa there are signs of trade (tools made from stone that only exists far away) and symbolic art. Then again, it seems that Neanderthals also had simple art, cared for sick family members, and even sometimes buried them with flowers. This implies symbolic thinking, which is usually associated with speech.

Recent reconstructions of Neanderthal throat and head show that they were physically capable of speech, although not with the same sounds that we use, and they would sound strange to us. The common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans lived half a million years ago, probably a couple hundred thousand years longer than that again. This is attested not only by the fossil record but also the genome, which has been sequenced. If the common ancestor of Neanderthals and African humans was capable of some degree of speech, maybe that was not the magic ingredient after all. Perhaps our ancestors knew how to speak, but only spoke about boring things for hundreds of thousands of years. “Groo kill deer.” “Groo eat now.” “Groo want mate.” Half a million years of Facebook posts, until Heaven had mercy and let creativity descend on humankind.

Be that as it may, advanced speech made grandparents very valuable. Even when you were too brittle to hunt down animals, you still knew where they lived and what they did, because you had decades of hunting experience. You could tell the grandkids all about it so the first time they set out to hunt, they knew exactly what to expect. You could also tell them where to find edible plants, and not least how to avoid the poisonous ones. Suddenly a long childhood wasn’t such a terrible waste of time, because the elders of the tribe basically functioned as a school and a library, teaching you everything you needed to know and a lot you didn’t.

Humans are not entirely unique in having grandparents live to an old age, but it is pretty rare. Elephants have them too, but they tend to stay strong and healthy longer and lead the family. (Elephant blood was recently found to contain some kind of chemical that can overcome infections that antibiotics can’t. Hopefully we will find out what it is before the last of them is killed by poachers.) But the rule of thumb is that parents die pretty soon after they are no longer needed for their own children. Fish and squids basically give up on life once their eggs are hatched, if not before. Mammals need to be around a while to provide milk and protect their young, but that’s it: Menopause is quickly followed by death. Humans, on the other side, live a lot longer, often enough to see their grandchildren grow up unless some unfortunate event occurs. This makes perfect sense given their role as teachers. Only when dementia sets in do they wander off in the night and die in the snow or get lost in the jungle.

***

I don’t know the family structure of Neanderthals, but recent research does not really support the theory that autism comes from Neanderthal genes. It is a bit early to say, but autism seems to be common enough among African-Americans. Admittedly slave owners tended to take sexual liberties with their women slaves, so Neanderthal genes could have come in that way, but there should still be noticeably less of them. It is hard to say how common autism is in African countries, because very few black African countries have enough health care resources to deal with more than the most acute threats to life and limb. This is improving rapidly in the most peaceful countries, though, so we might soon find out how the status is with autism in Africa.

But a more likely hypothesis is that autism has been with us much longer, and may have been inherited from the common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals, Homo Heidelbergensis. While the early Heidelberger man had smaller brains than most of us today, a later variant of the species was visibly larger than modern man both in body and brain. We don’t know the timing of the life cycle of this race, but it seems that Neanderthal children had an early growth spurt which implies that they matured faster than their African cousins. Sounds familiar? It should.

In a world where speech was less important, if it existed at all, you needed to grow your brain quickly, you needed to observe details so you could do the same things you saw your parents do, without them explaining it to you. Being autistic would not be a big deal in that kind of human life. It might even be the default. And with your large brain came acute senses: Being able to hear sounds that modern humans don’t notice, register small changes in the light or details in touch or taste. All of them abilities that are common on the autism spectrum.

But at this point we are well within the realm of speculation. There is no proof or even widespread belief that autism is something we have carried with us from interbreeding with an older race of humans. The common view, I think, is that it appeared as some kind of mutation very long ago. Whatever the case, autism has been preserved in the human race for tens of thousands of years at the very least, since it is found across the world. The reason why it was preserved is surely that it has some positive survival value. Probably not in high dose, as in my low-functioning autistic uncle. I doubt he would have lived long on his own. But take a small dash of autism mixed with the normal non-autistic human, and you get someone with unusual abilities. Perhaps unusual disabilities too, so we don’t usually qualify as supermen. But having that one person who notices an unusual sound before the rest of the tribe? That can be a big help that one time when there is an attack by an enemy tribe or a dangerous beast. And the high-functioning autistic tend to have higher intelligence than the average, possibly because of combining two slightly different sets of brain genes.

Eurasian people do after all still carry around about 2% Neanderthal genes, not a lot but still noticeable. These genes do cause some trouble (like autoimmune diseases) but also add a larger arsenal to our immune system to face new pathogens. It is not unthinkable that we may carry genes from even further back, genes that are not present in everyone but that are needed for humanity as a whole to function at its best. It would be a shame if organizations like “Autiism Speaks” (surely that must be meant ironically) succeed in eliminating autism completely from the world. Because that would not just make people like my uncle disappear, but also my grandmother and me.

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…

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?

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…

Afterlife before death

Screenshot anime Yahari Ore no Seishun Love Com

Heaven, Hell or Limbo? Where do we spend our free time, if any?

There are various ideas about what the afterlife of the soul is like. Some people don’t believe in an afterlife at all. That sounds very convenient, actually. “What you see is what you get.” Except that materialism is kind of insane once you try to spell it out. “My opinions are simply electrical impulses in my brain; if there is a truth, I can never know it, and if I did, I don’t have free will so there would be no connection between the truth and whatever came out of my mouth.” So, most of us like to think that we have some kind of soul or something like that, so that we are not just lumps of protoplasm ambling pointlessly through the world.

With the idea of the soul comes the idea that it may survive death somehow, although that is not really obvious. I could write at length about this, but today I’ll just assume that the soul has an afterlife, probably, and talk about how we can estimate what that might be.

My proposition is that the soul actually gravitates toward one of the realms that make up a possible afterlife. Lately, I have begun to notice how this happens in daily life, when I don’t make an effort in some direction. If I just relax and watch my thoughts as if I were observing something outside myself, eventually the thoughts will gravitate toward something. I would not be surprised if this happens in full after death, when we are no longer recalled to (or by) the body with its interrupts from the outside world. Perchance to daydream, if you will.

Sometimes I will just sit there and wait for my psyche to drift toward something, so I can observe what it is. But often it will start moving on its own simply because it is not strongly tied to something else. Even at work if there is not something going on that grabs and holds attention, the mind may start to drift. Definitely on the bus or other places where boredom might otherwise have been an option. When this happens, it happens while my heart looks another way, so I won’t notice until I have already arrived and my mind is starting to interact with the other world.

So what are these other worlds? For simplicity, we could divide them into Hell, Limbo and Heaven.

***

Hellish thoughts and feelings become obvious as soon as we return to self-awareness. “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness.…” (Jesus Christ, in Mark 7.) “He abused me, he ill-treated me, he got the better of me, he stole my belongings;”… the enmity of those harbouring such thoughts cannot be appeased. (The Buddha, Dhammapada part 1).

You don’t even need to be religious to be aware of this. I read this year about a modern man, a left-thinking man and a would-be feminist, who was deeply disturbed by the fact that he could not see an attractive woman without being assailed by vivid visions of sexual interactions with her. He went in search of various cures, and eventually made progress by making a habit of not allowing such thoughts to linger. This was possible because he became aware of himself quickly. This ability of self-reflection is given to people to various degrees, but can be trained. We can become more aware of our thoughts and feelings by paying attention to them during the moments when we are aware, then there will gradually be more such moments.

***

What I called Limbo is more like the Ghost Realm, in which the world of the mind is much like this world on Earth. It frequently involves traveling in time, either to a past that was or a future that may be, or even to a past that could have been or a future that might have been. “If I had said this instead of that, this could have happened, and then that, and then one thing and then another” is the kind of thought that belong here. This kind of thought is actually very common. A beautiful example of this is found in the ending song for the anime Yahari Ore no Seishun… “Before the plane’s contrail were dissolved in the wind, if I could have said ‘I wanted to see you’ … maybe I could have avoided this endless sadness; maybe I could’ve been here alone with you…” (This is arguably a borderline case as the endless sadness is itself an aspect of Hell, but then Hell is said to be bordering on Limbo or the Ghost Realm.)

***

Above this earth-like limbo lies the first genuine Heaven, the Realm of the Good. In this life we can enter this when we spontaneously think warm, happy thoughts about others, thoughts of friendship or gratitude, thoughts about the joy of seeing others smile, things like that. Probably also thoughts of beauty and pure nature, playing children and animals. If you relax and let your mind wander and find yourself smiling innocently, this Realm of the Good is probably where your soul naturally gravitates. That bodes well for your afterlife, probably. And at the very least for this life!

There is also a second Heaven, different in some ways from the first. This is the Realm of Light, the home of the nurturing love, of those who are born to be teachers or leaders, a world of inspiration. If you relax and your thoughts by themselves go to how you can help others, or how you can improve yourself, or how things can be improved or something new invented … this may be your eternal home, for where your heart is, there also will your afterlife be. Probably.

Where else? Would you spend your eternity as a guest in a place where you could never relax, on the risk of drifting away to somewhere else? After all, without the body to anchor you, are you not yourself the soul that gravitates toward this or that spiritual “location” or state of mind?

***

I am not sure exactly why or how I began to become acutely aware of this recently. I am sure it has been a sobering experience for me. I like to tell myself that my home is in the six-dimensional Realm of Light, but the truth is that this is more like my highest aspiration, a place where a rope is fastened which I might have tried to climb up, or to which I might be pulled up. But it is not really my home in the sense that it is now my center of gravity and the place where my soul naturally finds its rest. I am probably not daydreaming in the sense that neurotypical humans do – I am half Aspie after all – so for the most part I will talk to myself inside, tell myself stories. And this summer they are almost all about time travel. More about that next time, perhaps.