Developing a Healthy News Diet

by James Wallace Harris, 5/21/23

Michael Pollan created a small book about eating healthy called Food Rules. As an analogy, I’d like to create a set of sensible rules about consuming the news. Pollan distilled his list of rules down to three simple sentences, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” but it really takes reading his book to understand that mantra.

What I would like to do is develop a similar simple mantra about my daily news consumption but I’ll have to work out the details first. Pollan emphasized eating whole foods rather than processed foods. Is there such a thing as whole unprocessed news? “Not too much” is an obvious target since we obviously consume too much news. Finding an analogy for “mostly plants” will be interesting.

What would be the equivalent of nutritious news? Experience has taught me that some news is unhealthy, and I often get news indigestion. I also admit I’m bloated and overweight from too much news consumption.

Like whole food and junk food, we prefer junk news over whole news. I spend several hours a day nibbling on news from many sources. Most of which is forgotten immediately. I wonder if my first rule should be:

#1 – Ignore easily forgettable news

We’re used to clicking on anything that catches our fancy while idling away moments on our smartphones. Essentially, this kind of news is gossip and titillation. Basically, we’re bored or restless. We should use that time in better ways, especially if it exercises our minds. Read real news instead. Or, do something active. Playing games, listening to music, or audiobooks, is more nutritious than never-ending bites of clickbait.

Everyone bitches about information overload but who does anything about it? I’ve learned from intermittent fasting that my body appreciates having a good rest each day from eating. I believe I need to apply the same idea to news consumption.

#2 – Limit your hours consuming the news

I find 16:8 fasting works well for eating. I’m thinking of a 22:2 fast for news is what I’m going to aim for at the moment. Two hours of news consumption a day might sound like a lot, but if you add up all the forms of news I consume including television, magazines, online newspapers, YouTube, and news feeds, RSS feeds, I can easily go beyond two hours.

We should also separate news from learning and entertainment. Learning something new could be considered a form of news. I’m not going to count educational pursuits in my news time. And if you enjoy reading nonfiction books or watching documentaries on TV, that shouldn’t count as news either. However, shows like 60 Minutes, CBS Sunday Morning, and The Today Show can be considered informative entertainment news. Some people just prefer news shows for fun rather than watching fictional shows. I’m not sure if they should count or not.

What we really want is to stay informed about the world so that we interact with reality wisely. Humans have an extremely difficult time processing information. We think we’re far smarter than we are. We constantly delude ourselves. And we think our opinions matter when 99.999% of the time they don’t. Most people think they are experts on countless topics after having consumed just a few hours of news. They think they know better than real experts who have put tens of thousands of hours into studying their specialty.

#3 – Stop assuming you know anything

I believe the real key to understanding the news is being able to tell the difference between opinion and significant data. The real goal of news consumption should be finding the best data, and that means getting into statistics.

Unfortunately, the news industry is overwhelmed with talking heads. Everyone wants to be an expert, and all too often most news consumers tend to latch onto self-appointed experts they like. News has become more like a virus than information processing.

I read and watch a lot of columnists and programs about computers, stereo equipment, and other gadgets. Most are based on personal impressions of equipment individuals have bought or been loaned from manufacturers. These tech gurus are a good analogy for what I’m talking about. Most of the news we take in daily is from individuals processing limited amounts of information and giving us their opinion. What we really want is Consumer Reports, Rtings, or the Wirecutter, where large amounts of data are gathered from a variety of sources, and statistically analyzed.

This is just a start on designing my news diet. I want to keep current on a long list of topics, but that’s like learning about all the vitamins and nutrients my body needs. News nutrition will be a vastly more complicated topic. What are the essential vitamins I need every day? Is it politics, national and international affairs, economics, crime, immigration, ecology, etc?

Do I need to know about everything? Is that what an informed citizen needs to do? Take immigration. Is anything I think about immigration affects the situation at the border? Does voting liberal or conservative even affect anything at the border? I can barely maintain order in my house, why should I believe I can organize all of reality on Earth? Maybe my last two rules should be:

#4 – Know my limitations

#5 – Pursue the news I can actually use

Like nutrition, news is a complicated subject that’s hard to understand and can easily confuse.

JWH

Are You in Future Shock Yet?

by James Wallace Harris, 3/24/23

Back in 1970, a nonfiction bestseller, Future Shock by Alvin Toffler, was widely talked about but it’s little remembered today. With atomic bombs in the 1940s, ICBMs, and computers in the 1950s, manned space flight and landing on the Moon in the 1960s, LSD, hippies, the Age of Aquarius, civil rights, gay rights, feminism, as well as a yearly unfolding of new technologies, it was easy to understand why Toffler suggested the pace of change could lead society into a collective state of shock.

But if we could time travel back to 1970 we could quote Al Jolson to Alvin, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” Couldn’t we? Toffler never came close to imagining the years we’ve been living since 1970. And his book was forgotten, but I think his ideas are still valid.

Future shock finally hit me yesterday when I watched the video “‘Sparks of AGI’ – Bombshell GPT-4 Paper: Fully Read w/ 15 Revelations.”

I’ve been playing around with ChatGPT for weeks, and I knew GPT 4 was coming, but I was surprised as hell when it hit so soon. Over the past few weeks, people have been writing and reporting about using ChatGPT and the general consensus was it was impressive but because it made so many mistakes we shouldn’t get too worried. GPT 4 makes far fewer mistakes. Far fewer. But it’s fixing them fast.

Watch the video! Read the report. I’ve been waiting years for general artificial intelligence, and this isn’t it. But it’s so damn close that it doesn’t matter. Starting back in the 1950s when computer scientists first started talking about AI, they kept trying to set the bar that would prove a computer could be called intelligent. An early example was playing chess. But when a computer was built to perform one of these measures and passed, computer scientists would say that test really wasn’t a true measure of intelligence and we should try X instead. Well, we’re running out of things to equate with human-level intelligence.

Most people have expected a human-level intelligent computer would be sentient. I think GPT 4 shows that’s not true. I’m not sure anymore if any feat of human intelligence needs to be tied to sentience. All the fantastic skills we admire about our species are turning out to be skills a computer can perform.

We thought we’d trump computers with our mental skills, but it might be our physical skills that are harder to give machines. Like I said, watch the video. Computers can now write books, compose music, do mathematics, paint pictures, create movies, analyze medical mysteries, understand legal issues, ponder ethics, etc. Right now AI computers configured as robots have difficulty playing basketball, knitting, changing a diaper, and things like that. But that could change just as fast as things have been changing with cognitive creativity.

I believe most people imagined a world of intelligent machines being robots that look like us — like those we see in the movies. Well, the future never unfolds like we imagine. GPT and its kind are invisible to us, but we can easily interact with them. I don’t think science or science fiction imagined how easily that interaction would be, or how quickly it would be rolled out. Because it’s here now.

I don’t think we ever imagined how distributed AI would become. Almost anything you can think of doing, you can aid your efforts right now by getting advice and help from a GPT-type AI. Sure, there are still problems, but watch the video. There are far fewer problems than last week, and who knows how many fewer there will be next week.

Future shock is all about adapting to change. If you can’t handle the change, you’re suffering from future shock. And that’s the thing about the 1970 Toffler book. Most of us kept adapting to change no matter how fast it came. But AI is going to bring about a big change. Much bigger than the internet or computers or even the industrial revolution.

You can easily tell the difference between the people who will handle this change and those who can’t. Those that do are already using AI. They embraced it immediately. We’ve been embracing pieces of AI for years. A spelling and grammar checker is a form of AI. But this new stuff is a quantum leap over everything that’s come before. Put it to use or get left behind.

Do you know about cargo cults? Whenever an advanced society met a primitive society it doesn’t go well for primitive societies. The old cultural divide was between the educated and the uneducated. Expect new divisions. And remember Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” For many people, AI will be magic.

Right now AI can help scholars write books. Soon AI will be able to write better scholarly books than scholars. Will that mean academics giving up writing papers and books? I don’t think so. AIs, as of now, have no desires. Humans will guide them. In the near future, humans will ride jockey on AI horses.

A couple weeks ago Clarkesworld Magazine, a science fiction magazine, shut down submissions because they were being flooded with Chat-GPT-developed stories. The problem was the level of submissions was overwhelming them, but the initial shock I think for most people would be the stories would be crap. That the submitted science fiction wouldn’t be creative in a human sense. That those AI-written stories would be a cheat. But what if humans using GPT start producing science fiction stories that are better than stories only written by humans?

Are you starting to get why I’m asking you if you feel future shock yet? Be sure and watch the video.

Finally, isn’t AI just another example of human intelligence? Maybe when AIs create artificial AIs, we can call them intelligent.

JWH

What the Hell Were Humans Doing in Prehistory?

by James Wallace Harris, 3/8/22

I’m still reading The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow. I’m a member of an online book club that will be discussing the book all during the month of March, so I’ll be discussing it here piece by piece, whenever a particular topic intrigues me.

Here’s the setup for the book. Humans have been around in their present form for about 200,000 years, but recorded history only covers around the last three thousand years — what were we doing for those other 197,000 years? Anthropology and archeology help answer that question to a degree. The Dawn of Everything works to say to what degree is possible. However, most of what anyone can say about those 197,000 years is speculation, and that can cause controversy.

For most people, prehistory is a mixture of the Garden of Eden imagery and fantasies about cave people. Anthropologists study the evidence provided by archaeologists then speculate about that evidence by comparing it to what we learned from ethnographic research on various indigenous societies from the last few hundred years. Unfortunately, what most Americans know about the pre-20th century indigenous people of North America comes from watching westerns. In other words, unless you read a lot of books on anthropology it’s doubtful you think about prehistory at all, and what you do think you know is pop culture deceptions.

David Graeber and David Wengrow, an anthropologist and an archeologist, have caused some political shit storms by angering some of their readers with their discussion of freedom and inequality while analyzing what we know about prehistory. These brouhahas are caused partly because Graeber was an anarchist and was a leader in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and, partly because they challenge the established Western views that speculate on humans in prehistory, and tie ideas about various forms of inequality and freedom to their speculation. They seem to imply humanity made a wrong turn, but I’m not so sure we did, but don’t care to argue it. Graeber and Wengrow do review a lot of speculation that claimed we made a wrong turn when we switched from hunting and gathering to farming, but I’m not sure they believe that idea either, but merely review it too.

First off, there is no introduction, so the first chapter works as an introduction, but I don’t think it’s a good one. So far, I’ve felt every chapter has been self-contained, so it’s hard to assess the book as a whole. They title their first chapter, “Farewell to Humanity’s Childhood: Or why this is not a book about the origins of inequality.” I don’t think some readers took that to heart and feel The Dawn of Everything is harping about inequality. I wonder if conservatives dislike the book for the same reason they don’t like Critical Race Theory, that it smells of liberal thinking, and it asks them to relearn a history they’ve already embraced and memorized.

Here’s the thing about speculating about prehistory — speculation is only speculation. We’ve found some human bones, lots of animal bones, we have some pots and graves, some old cave paintings, remnants of housing, stone monuments, figurines, lots of rock tools, but not much of anything else. Most speculation about prehistory rests on ethnographic studies of primitive cultures that have survived into historical times. What Graeber and Wengrow challenge are generalized ideas we’ve developed about those cultures over the last couple of centuries.

Most of The Dawn of Everything is about the limits of speculation. What we really want to know is what were the people like? What did they think? How did they relate to each other? What kind of societies did they form? How much did they know about nature and reality? It’s one thing to look at old bones and relics and guess what people did, it’s entirely another thing to extrapolate what they thought and believed.

Here’s what I want to ask: Can ideal concepts exist before they are defined? Take inequality? That’s a concept that’s been emerging for a few centuries and a concept that modern society is working on. Even something like freedom is a concept been around for a long time, but has it always existed? What about science? Graeber and Wengrow have a whole chapter dealing with the origin of scientific thinking. Our ancestors might have observed nature and put two and two together but was that really science? I believe a concept like fairness might be very ancient, but I don’t know about inequality. I believe inequality is an emerging concept. There might have been societies in history and prehistory that had more equality but I don’t think they thought about it as a concept.

I think it’s completely insane to suggest humanity took a wrong turn because we don’t like aspects of our present society. The old saying, “the only constant is change” applies here. The variety of ways humans can organize their societies is infinite, and that comes across in this book. I think Graeber and Wengrow are right to say we can’t generalize about the past like Rousseau or Hobbes.

The best we can do is study all the ethnographic studies, examine all the archeological evidence and review all the speculation, and then create our own inner map of what prehistory was like with the jigsaw pieces we have. We also must be willing to constantly update that map as we gather new puzzle pieces.

We must resist philosophers and psychologists who try to characterize humans now or in the past in broad general terms. I believe what Graeber and Wengrow are telling us is not to lump together various stages of human development or societies into convenient pigeonholes. For example, there was no one shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Nor was there one type of nomads or hunting and gatherers. For example, North America had hundreds of different types of Native American cultures, so there is no way to generalize about what they thought about gender or money, or politics.

The trouble is there are places in the first chapter of this book (and I’m only on chapter six) that seem to imply that Graeber and Wengrow are advocating that we should be working towards all the various forms of equality. We can judge modern societies on inequality and even ethnographic studies of primitive societies we have studied, but I believe speculation on inequality in prehistory societies will be based only on our biases, and I think Graeber and Wengrow make that clear even though they keep trying.

Personally, I wonder if Graeber and Wengrow haven’t spoiled the rest of their book with chapter one. Most of the reviews I’ve seen focus on that first chapter. That might be due to the reviewers only reading that chapter, or it might be because it’s the one that pushes buttons. The other chapters I’ve read deal more with what we know, and I’m finding them quite fascinating. It makes me want to read more ethnographic studies — although, as Graeber and Wengrow show, those studies are often colored by their observer’s speculations. If anything, this book shows us time and again how we distort the evidence.

For me, the key to enjoying learning about prehistory is to avoid speculation and focus just on the evidence. The trouble is a certain amount of speculation is good. Nowadays generalizations are considered evil. But we make useful generalizations all the time — it’s called pattern recognition. We just can’t go overboard. Every archeological dig is like a crime scene. You only find so much evidence. Science never knows anything for sure, but works with statistics, looking for a preponderance of convincing evidence.

Most people don’t spend time studying history, much less prehistory. And it’s hard to make a case to get people to care about history and prehistory. For most people, it’s about as useful as studying geometry, cosmology, or particle physics. But consider this. All of us are deluded. We constantly fool ourselves in countless ways that make us see reality distorted by our cultural upbringing. Studying other societies that adapted to our shared external reality in different ways can break us out of the brainwashing of that upbringing. If the book is doing its job it should be stirring things up.

It’s not about whether or not we made a wrong turn, but knowing about all the possible turns we took and could have taken. I think this is scary for some people. If you want to believe the Bible is literally true, then learning about all the societies that existed at the same time as the Bible was being written could be disturbing. If you’re a scholar of Western culture that backed a particular view of history and prehistory, considering what Graeber and Wengrow are saying could also be disturbing. But aren’t all paradigm shifts uncomfortable?

Humans think we’re the crown of creation. And people raised in western culture believe we’re the pinnacle of human intellectual development. Maybe Graeber and Wengrow believe we took a wrong turn because our global society is sailing into an iceberg and they want us to change course. Personally, I don’t think our species has any control over its evolution. It’s not a matter of choice, but playing out all the anti-entropic possibilities. I believe studying history and prehistory shows us some of the many things we’ve already tried.

Knowing where we’ve been might help us know how we can adapt to climate change. Here’s one example. Graeber and Wengrow consider that prehistory societies made the choice between being hunting and gatherers and settling down and that they often chose to stay on the move because it offered more advantages. This video, it shows one modern reason why nomadic people choose to settle down and pursue year-round agriculture. It allows them to build wealth and stability in their lives. This is a very inspiring video.

JWH

2022 Book #4 – The Horse The Wheel and Language by David W. Anthony

by James Wallace Harris, 1/26/22

Reading about the past is calming my anxieties about the future. The Horse The Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony is not a book I recommend to the casual reader. I expected it to be a popular science book about archaeology, but it turned out to be something much heavier. It’s a scientific work, probably used as a supplemental textbook. I found listening and reading the book to be rewarding and inspiring but it’s not fun. However, it has caused me to do a lot of philosophical pondering.

I won’t try to describe the book, Wikipedia has done an extremely detailed job with hyperlinks. If you want to know what the book is like, here is Anthony giving a lecture. This is exactly like listening to the audiobook.

I bought this book years ago and never read it and gave it to the library book sale. Then I read a popular article about linguistic anthology and decided I wanted to try it again and found a used copy. Still, I didn’t read it. Finally, I found an audiobook version that made it more accessible. I’m glad I had the physical book to refer to, because of its many complex charts and illustrations. This was a rewarding read, but I just want people to know it’s real science, not even popular science, and the going is tough. It took me weeks to listen to it all. Mainly, I want to talk about how I reacted to the book.

For years I’ve been troubled, even disturbed that our species lack real effort to combat climate change. For almost thirty years I’ve been waiting for governments and citizens to change their ways. I now realize that was naive of me. People don’t change. Not that I’ve given up complete hope, but all the evidence tells me our global civilization will never do anything significant about climate change.

That has inspired some existential insights. I expected humanity to grab control of reality and do everything it could to freeze the environment to its 1850-1950 weather patterns and maintain that as a steady-state forever. Once I started studying archaeology I realized that weather has always been changing over our species lifetime, and even for the whole lifetime of the Earth. Humans have always adapted to new weather patterns. It’s probably too fantastic to think we’ll control the weather.

Reading The Horse The Wheel and Language showed that humans have never stayed the same either. We’re constantly changing. Civilizations come and go all the time. Reading and watching documentaries about history and archaeology is teaching me that change is constant. That old saying, “the only thing constant is death and taxes” is true.

On its own specific subject The Horse The Wheel and Language is fascinating, but like I said, I not going to recommend you run out and buy it. Most of it is one giant infodump describing several societies around the Russian Steppes from about 4000-1200 BCE. The most interesting chapters were the early ones about the Indo-European languages and how linguists infer what the Proto-Indo-European language was like, and more specifically to this book, where in the world did the speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language lived.

Anthony claims by looking at the array of words in an ancient language and comparing it to the array of objects that archeologists have unearthed, we might pinpoint where those people could have lived. For example, if a language has the word for a wagon, but no wagons are ever found, it’s a not likely match. Or if a language has a lot of words for raising sheep, and lots of sheep bones were found, we might be getting warm. Of course, it’s much more complicated than that. For example, linguists can show how words from adjacent civilizations have passed into a language. I found all this fascinating, but overwhelming.

This is why the words Horse and Wheel are in the title. Only certain early civilizations had horses and wheels. For a long time, horses were only hunted for food. Then they were domesticated for food. Then came riding horses, and finally using horses to pull carts, then wagons. This made me think about how we’ll adapt to climate change. We’ll invent housing, clothing, lifestyles, jobs, political parties, etc. to adapt.

One thing I was amazed to learn was just how many different groups of people existed in a small area in prehistory that we know about. Most people when they think of ancient civilizations think of Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, and a few others. To me, the Russian Steppes and nearby lands sounded like North America before Columbus with countless tribes of nomadic and agrarian peoples.

For a while when reading the book I thought of making a timeline/list of civilizations to memorize but I soon realized that could become a lifetime project. I’ve ordered an archaeology textbook to help me get a bigger picture, but I’m not sure how big of a picture I can manage. Reading this book also made me crave maps, so I ordered a couple of atlases.

Many of these early civilizations lasted hundreds or even thousands of years. That made me think about how often world maps have changed in my lifetime. If the United States of America doesn’t make it to its 300th birthday it won’t be alone. All the descriptions of past changes of civilizations due to climate change, war, technology, disease, etc., make me wonder about what America might be like in the 22nd century. I now understand we can’t keep the weather of the 1950s forever, or the politics of the 1790s, or the technology of the 2020s.

About 85 million people died in the decade before I was born due to WWII, or about 3% of the world’s population. We’ve already put enough CO2 in the atmosphere to kill that many or more by the end of this century. Since we’re not going to stop adding CO2 anytime soon, billions will probably die in the 22nd century. Percentage-wise, civilizations have seen that kind of population reduction before.

I believe conservatives wanted to preserve the social climate of the 1950s, while liberals wanted to keep the weather environment of the 1950s. Neither will get what they want. All the demographics on Americans and America will be so much different in the 22nd century that we wouldn’t recognize either.

I need to stop speculating or worrying so about the future. Studying the past is philosophical liberating for me, but I’m not sure how much I should pursue it either, but I will. Living in the now is what’s important. And that’s why most people don’t worry about the future. I doubt for most of humanity’s existence the future was even a concept. I also assume the reason why so many people embrace various forms of denial is they don’t want to know the future because deep down they fear change. But change is coming. We can’t stop it.

JWH

2022 Book #1 – The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

by James Wallace Harris

My old buddy Connell and I often talk about the unexpected scientific discoveries made in our lifetime. Back in the 1960s, we both grew up reading science fiction and we had certain expectations about the 21st-century. Now that we’re in our seventies living in that century we realized that science fiction missed so much, and so did our imaginations.

Because we grew up thinking the black and white astronomical photos made by the Mt. Palomar 200″ telescope were the pinnacle of astronomical awareness, we never imagined what the Hubble Space Telescope would show us in color. We never dreamed that astronomers would discover exoplanets or robots would roam the solar system. We thought people had to go to all those places.

Nor did we imagine society being transformed by computers and networks. I never pictured the computer I’m typing on now, or what I could do with my iPhone or iPad.

But one of the biggest discoveries we missed was about animal consciousness. We expected that we’d have to wait for interstellar spaceships to be developed before we’d meet another form of intelligent life. We never realized it was all around us on Earth and in the oceans.

Intelligence and sentience are on a spectrum. We grew up in a time when people believed they were the crown of creation, and all life below us was unconscious and stupid. We’re finally realizing just how stupid we were. See The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.

There are so many books to read to illustrate what I mean. The Soul of an Octopus is just one, but a beautiful work by a woman that has learned so much about animals by spending time with them. Sy Montgomery writes in a way that we follow her around as she makes her discoveries. You will fall in love with four beautiful creatures, Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma. You will cry when some of them die, but you will also get to meet intelligent alien lifeforms.

I still read a lot of science fiction, I can’t help myself, it’s a lifelong addiction that I no longer try to escape from. But I’ve learned if I really want to experience the far-out I need to read science books, books like The Soul of an Octopus.

My reading goal for 2022 is to read as many intensely great books as I can find. The Soul of an Octopus starts the year with a bang.

JWH

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