Disembodiment & Dreams

Everything's been hazy, recently.

Increasingly I feel like a disembodied mind in front of a series of screens. Last week I logged 125 hours across my laptop, phone, and tablet, almost 18 hours a day. Last week was exceptional, I tell myself, but really it's not - my waking hours can be approximated by screentime. This is why being back home with my family in my childhood home since May has felt fine. I've been able to fully live out my workaholic tendencies, with no social or even subsistence distractions. I don’t think this is good, though, this way of being that means it scarcely matters where I physically am, as long as I have my monitor and ergonomic keyboard properly set up and strong WiFi. It feels awfully reminiscent of the dark picture painted in 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep.

My life is the exact opposite, at least at the surface, of Nietzsche's master morality. The life he describes as natural and good is a physical, active, decisive, sensory. I’ve sought this in small ways. I've taken up weightlifting, and the feeling of my body straining against the bar reminds me I’m real. I bought myself a grand piano recently and my piano teacher keeps telling me to stroke the keys the way an Impressionist painter would lay his brush on the canvas. I still don't understand the magic of the keyboard; one would think that the range of motion is one-dimensional, just an up and down against the hammer. An engineer friend of mine asked me how it worked, in a sort of disbelief that multidimensional touch mattered on such a brute instrument (angle and sustain and distribution!), and I couldn't explain the mechanics, but I've never been more sure of something. Lately, I've been fantasizing about moving to Thailand next year and undergoing intensive Muay Thai training, partly because I would dearly love to emerge from this age of horrors as a ninja, and partly because I deeply want to try on a sensuous life. This year was the first year I've prioritized my health, and seeing my body composition shift has been the most compelling and interesting feedback loop. I'm fascinated by extremes and I want to see what my body can do.

On a side note, I'm very proud of myself for buying myself this grand piano — a beautiful 6'1 Yamaha CX3 with incredible bass. It's so completely irrational considering the cost of a large house in places I'd like to live, but it's rational if I consider my personal identity to be a closed system of commitments (which .. I’m unsure about). Ten years ago, I made my first serious promise to myself that I'd buy myself a grand piano someday. It was the first promise I made myself with the full consciousness of what a promise meant, and I trust myself more now that I've fulfilled on it. It felt like an act of self-creation. Playing it for the first time made my heart open abruptly in a way that only has happened for me one other time, when I first saw the leaves of a tree, really saw them, after getting LASIK two years ago.

In some way, I have inverted Kierkegaard's pyramid of the sensuous, ethical, and spiritual — I am so happy right now at home, split between my screens, my books, my piano, and my rack of weights, and have made in my own way my own peace with the eternal — but I yearn for a return to what Kierkegaard regards as base. I want to hit things! I want to dance. I want to eat food with my hands. I want to see colours that haven’t been picked out for me by some designer, leap onto cars, experience the poetic cosmos of the breath.

My therapist is training me to lucid dream. The very first question he asked me was, “How do you know you're not dreaming, right now? That the world around you is real?" I was on the phone with him, walking around outside, and I immediately knelt and ran my hands over the sidewalk I was walking on. “The granularity of the feeling of the pebbles," I replied, and scooped a couple into my hand. No lucid dreams yet, but in the meantime, you’ll find me fact-checking the earth.

I've been playing a lot with GPT-3, like everybody else, and it's become for me an excellent optimizing function to fight against. Don't be GPT-3, I remind myself, in conversation. Be surprising! Be (more) generative! GPT-3 can move slightly beyond sentences in its corpus, past sentences humans have conceived or and spoken, but it can't leap beyond us, not us. But you can leap beyond yourself, say something that has never been spoken before.

Take the following descriptors of a kitchen:

The yellow kitchen

The kitchen was the colour of sunlight

The kitchen was the color of midsummer suns

The kitchen was the color of urine

The butter-colored kitchen

The yellow walls made Jason look sickly

The yellow walls turned Jason's eyes a muddy, inconclusive gray

This is what GPT-3 generated:

The yellow woodwork burned Jason's brown eyes

Not even the yellow kitchen light could brighten the day

Not even the butter-colored kitchen glowed with gaiety any more

Not even the yellow house held out any hope for the future

The kitchen was a butter-colored prison

Beat that! Let’s up the bar for future Turing tests.

A few quick life updates:

  • I've started a new role as a Research Fellow at the Partnership on AI working on Publication Norms. I'm working on case studies starting with H5N1, and now looking at cybersecurity. Send me your favorite stories of security researchers and hackers!

  • I'm working on some classical piano repertoire that I'd like to record at home. If you're a sound engineer/hobbyist, let me know, would love to chat about what to set up!

A few pieces of music:

  • I listened to Max Richter's Recomposition of Vivaldi's Four Seasons and

    Andreas Vollenweider for the first time recently

  • Have been digging Kishi Bashi

  • I've been listening to all my music with Tidal (Masters is lossless and 360 mode is something else with Sony WH-1000XM4s); highly recommend! It’s an experience.

  • I am SO excited for my first live concert after this, and am thinking about what it’d be like to live in Taiwan for this reason.. I can’t imagine not hearing any live music in 2021.

Hope you’re taking care of yourself. I would love to know what music you’ve been listening to, and see any photos from your camera roll you’d want to share! 🌱

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