Friday, January 16, 2015


Core Frameworks

Peripheral Frameworks



Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Guide to Overcoming the Paranoia Symptom of Cannabis for Nerds

There is probably no drug as well-suited to exploring cognition as marijuana. In addition to being one of the least toxic of all psychoactive substances, cannabis has the nerd-friendly property of offering a backstage view of human mental processes.

Unfortunately, many people find themselves unable to experience the cognitive adventures that marijuana offers, because when they get high they quickly slide toward intense negative emotions, commonly referred to as the "paranoia" side effect of marijuana. I have experienced this symptom myself - it sucks! It was so unpleasant that it caused me to quit using marijuana for years, until I learned, with no small difficulty, to have pleasant experiences while high on marijuana that enriched even the sober parts of my life. I offer this guide to overcoming and troubleshooting paranoia and painful emotions as a side effect of marijuana.

1. It's Okay To Be Kind Of Retarded

Marijuana causes intense temporary changes in cognition. Memory and the experience of time are altered, so that the more stoned you are, the smaller the window of time that you can remember. An extremely baked person may be living in a time window of only a few seconds. Since it can take twenty or more seconds to formulate and speak a sentence, and thirty seconds more to hear the reply, a (novice) stoned person living in a five-second window will not be able to communicate coherently. Sentences trail off, responses are bizarre, and generally a stoned person might seem really stupid. (This can be experienced when alone, but it's especially vivid in conversation.)

For most of us nerds, a lot of our self-image is wrapped up in being intelligent. To be rendered suddenly stupid can be terrifying. The most important step toward the valuable cognitive experiences of marijuana is to learn to accept yourself for being totally retarded. (In fact, this experience is valuable in itself.)

Of course, you're not really stupid - you've chosen to have an experience in which some of your ordinary capacities are lost. But what if you really were stupid? So what? Actually it's kind of awesome.

Think about a person who is literally developmentally delayed or a person with severe dementia - ideally a person you have met. Would you make fun of this person? Do they have something to be ashamed of? Or are you inclined to be kind to the person and to recognize your common humanity? Try being that kind to yourself. People are worthy of kindness no matter what their intellectual capacities, and you have nothing to be ashamed of when you are temporarily without your capacity to produce coherent sentences. Instead of accepting feelings of shame and embarrassment, you might learn to be more compassionate toward people who have permanently lost (or never developed) the ability to communicate in coherent sentences.

Losing the ability to communicate is a form of social death. If you can't form sentences, you are cut off from human contact; it's not surprising that it's frightening. Those who have undergone waterboarding find it terrifying even though they consciously realize they are in no danger of drowning. Perhaps losing the ability to communicate triggers a similar deep fear. If you can overcome the fear, though, the novice, uncommunicative stage of marijuana use can provide insight into a condition we otherwise would not be able to access.

To realize that you are still a worthy human being even if you're stupid is a very safe feeling - especially if your self-worth has heavily relied on your intelligence. Being stupid for a while is kind of freeing. Be aware, however, that this feeling of being stupid when high fades with time as you become more skilled in riding this cognitive state.

2. Establish Communication With Your Sober Self

This is the most important part.

To make the stoned state more of a genuine part of your life and less uncanny, the stoned state must be linked up with the sober state. Just as different modules of the brain must communicate with each other, you can benefit when different states of consciousness can communicate with each other.

The cognitive changes marijuana causes can be fun or scary, depending on how you learn to experience them. You might think of something while high and be unable to guess whether it is obvious, normal, incorrect, or totally crazy. A great way to resolve this is to write your thoughts down, to the best of your ability, as questions for your sober self.

Before getting high, you might set aside a piece of paper and a pen (or perhaps an open word processor document, but I like pen and paper) and address it, "Dear sober self," at the top. Then, when you're high, fill it in with questions, observations, and anything else you'd like to communicate to your sober self. Don't worry if it sounds stupid or crazy - that's funny and totally fine, not something to be ashamed of, remember?

This process is heroically difficult at the beginning, but gets exponentially easier with time. The first communication is the hardest.

The most important advice is to take your time. You might get two words written down and then forget what you were thinking about. That's fine! Chill out and wait, calmly retrace your thought process, and see if it comes back to you. It might - or something else neat might come to mind for you to try to write down. You might get three words down this time - etc.

This exercise is especially fun to do in a pair or group, in which case a joint document labeled "Dear sober selves," is recommended.

The holy grail is achieved when you manage to remember a stoned insight when you're sober. Three techniques are useful: focus on the insight, repeat and rehearse it in your mind, and anchor the insight to something you'll think about when sober. (For some reason, the image of an anchor often works for me.) Practice mentally tracing the path from your anchoring image to the insight many times.

3. Mindfulness Perspective

Instead of getting caught up in the sensations and emotions you're experiencing, adopt a perspective of curious mindfulness about how you feel and think. Practicing mindfulness meditation while sober is great preparation.

For instance, marijuana often causes rapid heartbeat. Without a mindfulness perspective, you might assume that your heart is beating fast because you are scared or anxious, and as a result begin to feel scared or anxious. From a mindfulness perspective, you can simply notice that your heart is beating fast. No action or fear is necessary.

If you start to have a painful experience, notice that this is so. You may either investigate this feeling from a perspective of curiosity, or choose to focus on something else instead. However, most of the experiences you have will probably be ambiguous rather than painful, and mindful awareness can prevent them from becoming painful and instead make them merely interesting.

4. Eating Is For Pros

Smoking or vaping is the best method for novices to use marijuana, as they can easily control the dosage. Eating marijuana or drinking alcohol extract makes it much harder to figure out the proper dose, increasing the risk that you will accidentally get so high that, as my friend puts it, you forget which way is front.

If you accidentally take too much, remember that marijuana is an incredibly safe drug and you're not in any real danger. Laugh at yourself and take a nap.

5. Protect Yourself Ahead Of Time And Trust Your Sober Self

When you're high and experiencing those negative emotions, what is it you most dread? Before you get high, take reasonable precautions against these fears becoming real, then remind yourself of this when you are high. For instance, if your fears are social, then before you get high, you might make sure the only people you'll have to talk to are other high people that you like.

When you're high, do reality checks and trust your sober self - remember that when you were sober, with all your cognitive resources present, you thought about and took care of everything, so that stoned you can just relax.

6. Prepare To Interrogate Your Fears

Prepare a short list of questions used in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy to do "reality checks" against painful emotions in real life. Have this list close by so you can go through the questions if you experience fear or other negative emotions while high. The wik on cognitive distortions may help. Here is a sample list:

  • Is this thought or fear realistic?
  • What is the evidence for and against?
  • Have I had this thought before? How long have I been having this thought?
  • In my life, what are the sources of the messages in this thought?
  • Is this all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking? Is there room for grey?
  • If what I fear came to pass, then what would happen?
  • Am I focusing only on the negative? Are there positive aspects I'm ignoring?
  • What are the costs and benefits of this thought?
  • Can I reach for a different thought that feels better?

7. Stoner Music

Listen to music made by and for proudly high people, like MF DOOM or Cody ChestnuTT. This will remind you that being high is something that lots of people do and enjoy; social proof is powerful. This music is also optimized for the stoned state. Alternatively, listen to symphonies and other music with enough complexity and structure to reward being the sole focus of a stoned mind.

Some people find that when giving or receiving massages while high and listening to music, they have beautiful synesthetic visions building from the combination of touch and music.

8. Have Orgasms

It's rad, and it's hard to be scared while coming.

9. Sensory Deprivation

To highlight the cognitive part of the marijuana experience, remove most sensory stimulation. You might take a warm bath by dim light, or lie in bed or on a yoga mat in the dark in a familiar room. Then just watch your mind turn its pages. What's going on in your head? Where do your thoughts originate? What connects to what? Can you hear different modules of your brain communicating with each other? How do they communicate - in words, in jolts of feeling as if in chemicals, or in some other way? Who is in charge? What do the factions look like? Are any patterns of thought familiar? Think about the questions and projects you're most interested in and see what your mind does.

Running, with its motion and repetitive rhythm, is another route to something like hypnotic sensory deprivation to highlight cognition, and it feels amazingly good.

That said, you should of course also eat peanut butter pie ice cream and play Super Smash Bros. You never know what will trigger a glorious insight cascade.

10. Grow A Pair

If all else fails, you could try not being such a pussy. Some people intentionally seek out scary, disturbing music and images when on drugs in order to test themselves against their fears. Like a roller coaster or a haunted house, scary experiences can be thrilling. Just deciding to be brave despite fear can give you the perspective to have a growth experience on drugs.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Fungibility and the Loss of Demandingness

Certain items demand a great deal from their owners. Significant non-monetary costs must be incurred in order to locate, choose, use, and care for these goods.  Knowledge, aesthetic sensitivity, carefulness, work, membership in an insider community (as with black-market goods or single-tree tea), openness to experience, and even pain (as with tattoos) may be demanded in order to own these items; not just anyone with money may own them.

In return, many of these items - more than items that have only monetary costs - increase the value of their owners. Not only does their ownership and use signal carefulness, expertise, and other values, but owning and using these items actually does increase the owner's value to his group, realized in terms of sociometric status

From objects as well as work, we want not only surface-level "use" or money, but we also want to increase our own value, and we want positive and reliable feedback about this increasing value in ourselves. To the extent that our objects are purchasable and usable by anyone in exchange for the ultimate fungible commodity (money), with few non-monetary costs, they are incapable of increasing our value and delivering reliable messages that they increase our value.

This last point explains an important exception to the overjustification effect. Ordinarily, to the extent that people are given extrinsic rewards for a desirable behavior, they will tend to engage in the behavior less in the absence of rewards, indicating less enjoyment of the behavior. The important exception is if the extrinsic rewards provide reliable, positive information about the self. One interpretation of this exception is that a major desire of humans, not satisfied by extrinsic rewards, is to increase their value and track this increase of value.

The intuition that demandingness creates value is illustrated in two other contexts. First, the longevity of nineteenth-century religious communes has been found to correlate with their degree of demandingness from their members, supporting a costly signaling theory of religious memes. Costly signaling here is not "mere signaling" but, rather, a solution to the problem of how to actually solve complex coordination problems and increase value delivered to all members. Similarly, organizations that use hazing are often of long duration and excite substantial loyalty, supporting the theory that demandingness can create value in this context. Second, demandingness within relationships can increase bonding, a fact that is often explained as an application of the consistency bias, but which is probably more properly seen in light of costly signaling as a solution to a coordination problem.

To sum up, the modern economy is primarily composed of things and services available for money, ratcheting to allow fewer and fewer non-monetary costs. When things are available for money, anyone can acquire them; this dilutes the information about the self that can be contained in the ownership. Similarly, a major trend in the labor market is toward fungible skills that anyone can supply, reducing opportunities for virtuosity and positive information about the self through work. Everything is increasingly available for money, except, I will argue, a major thing we all want to buy that gives us the feeling of meaning: our own value and specialness. 

This is not to say that money has no value to signal about the self. Those without adequate money may experience their deprivation as negative messages about the self. However, someone with adequate money is less likely to get enough positive messages about the self from simply spending money. He will increasingly desire,and increasingly fail to find, outlets that genuinely let him build his value - although expensive illusions about this, as well as escapes from this dilemma, are plentifully supplied.

Work and Virtuosity in the EEA

In the environments in which humans adapted, everyone would have spent a hundred thousand hours doing something demanding that added value to the self in the eyes of the tribe. Everyone would have realized the pleasure of virtuosity. 

None of the ancestral patterns involved email or swivel chairs or levers to pull on machines or cash registers. These modern items of work infrastructure do not invite virtuosity - in fact, they are specifically designed to obviate the need for it! When Robin Hanson suggests that work can be pleasurable enough to give meaning to life, he points to a sushi chef - an example of virtuosity that is so rare and desirable as to be oversupplied even now. How many options for virtuosity in work are actually available in the modern economy? And, more ominously, how many will be available in the future, given present trends? Given that this kind of demanded virtuosity is actively pleasurable, it seems likely that these skills will increasingly turn into costly hobbies, rather than the kind of work one can expect to be paid to do.

The non-fungible skills demanded by EEA work (gathering, hunting, cooking, creating goods and tools and collectible proto-money) and a decreasing fraction of modern work are, in my model, analogous to the non-monetary costs of goods. They are examples of rewarded demandingness. 

I will now turn to certain examples of phenomena and classes of goods in an attempt to hermeneutically flesh out the problem of decreasing rewarded demandingness.

The Aspiration Index

A significant proportion of food that is purchased is not eaten, but rather goes bad and is thrown away. The proportion of a particular food that meets this fate may be seen as its aspiration index - the degree to which it is purchased for self-signaling, for the positive information about the self and future self value it seems to provide at the time of purchase. The more difficulty involved in preparing and eating the food - while still appealing to people unlikely to prepare it - the higher its aspiration index. 

However, if kale or parsnips or rappini are thrown away after going bad, they have failed to add value to the purchaser's life through demandingness. They have demanded something from the purchaser, but because of his failure to provide it, the vegetables have provided only the momentary illusion of adding value to life.

For modern sedentary people, exercise equipment - treadmills, running shoes, punching bags, gym memberships - likely exhibit a high aspiration index. Purchasable for only money, they nonetheless demand high non-monetary costs in their use, costs that frequently go unpaid by the purchaser. Their value is not realized, because their demandingness is not of the sufficiently alluring sort to entice the purchaser to sacrifice to it. 

Musical instruments, books, and language-learning software are examples of items available to purchase for money whose non-monetary costs frequently go unpaid by purchasers, resulting in a forfeiture of their value.

It is likely that when items with significant non-monetary costs are available for mere money - their purchase does not involve substantial non-monetary costs - their aspiration index will be higher, and their value will more frequently be forfeited. However, I also suspect that there are many cues that affect the investment of non-monetary costs, social and otherwise, and finding out exactly what these cues are would likely be a rewarding field of study. Unfortunately, the nearby field of the cues motivating people to buy things has received far more study.

The Kitchen Knife and the Pen

Where do Americans get their knives with which to chop food? What kind of knives do they buy? How do they maintain these knives?

Most kitchen knives are purchased at retail outlets, like most goods. These knives are made primarily of stainless steel, a rust-proof alloy that does not demand much from its user. You can leave it in the sink overnight and it will just sit there, not rusting, shining up at you damply. Unfortunately, stainless steel is  a poor material in terms of taking a sharp edge from sharpening. Indeed, it seems that over the past few decades, Americans have largely lost the skill of sharpening knives at all in their home kitchens. Most home kitchens I have visited contain dull stainless-steel knives, from the cheap knives John Thorne has accused of having "been made to look like a knife rather than to be one" to expensive Wusthofs. 

Knives have become easy, non-demanding, non-functional, and sad. They no longer demand much from their users, but they certainly don't deliver much. I suspect this is why vegetables are increasingly available pre-cut in plastic packages, obviating the need for the home cook to slice them up at all. Vegetables themselves demand less from the cook, simultaneously decreasing the reward the cook can receive.

Carbon steel knives, however, demand significant searching, care, and maintenance from their owners - and reward these demands with the pleasure of cutting and the promise of increasing virtuosity. You are unlikely to find a carbon steel knife at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. To get one, you might have to find the cluttered little shop in Chinatown that sells to restaurants, or the internet equivalent. To choose one, you might have to know what different kinds of knives are for. Once purchased, you have to care for it scrupulously; it cannot be left wet in the sink for twenty minutes, much less overnight, without rusting at you accusingly. 

It will, however, take an extremely sharp edge, if you spend the time to sharpen it. Cutting with it is a project to be sought out specifically - pre-cut vegetables will seem a pathetic waste of the joy of cutting. Its sharpness, and your ability to maintain its sharpness, contributes directly to your value as a cook. 

The market, exemplified by the Bed, Bath, and Beyond I mentioned, removes near "pain" - non-monetary costs and demandingness - and renders items legible to the purchaser without culture, knowledge, or care. This greater fungibility - stores selling pictures of knives - harms the quality of life and the ability of people to increase their value.

Similarly, a fountain pen is a bit of a hassle to fill. The tiniest hassle. It takes a bit of knowledge and a bit of work. Disposable pens obviate the need for this hassle and seem like a great idea, especially since when everyone was using fountain pens, their refilling offered no particular positive information about the self. In the interest of reducing the pain of refilling, the market began to supply disposable pens almost exclusively. You will not find a refillable fountain pen in, say, Target.

Unfortunately, disposable pens were able to get much worse once nobody remembered fountain pens. Ball-point pens, the cheapest sort of disposable pen, require so much pressure that writing is uncomfortable. Pens with a fine felt tip and liquid ink are nice, but hardly something to bond with. 

Often the first time someone writes with a fountain pen, they are surprised at how easy and comfortable it is. All of a sudden, one's hand doesn't cramp from writing! The pain of refilling pens was replaced, insidiously, with the pain of writing with substandard pens. 

Now, a fountain pen is something to be specially located - and the ink as well. Again, a tiny amount of effort must be expended in learning to refill, and refilling, a fountain pen. But all this is rewarded in the greater writing pleasure - not to mention bonding with the object through all that exposure and effort, as with a carbon steel knife. 

A pattern has occurred in the fountain pen market as it shrunk: more and more fountain pens appear designed, not for use, but for pure, referent-less signaling value. The background culture's idea of a fountain pen seems to be something gold-plated, perhaps inlaid with diamonds for good measure, and an ornately engraved nib - and possibly there are more dollars spent on fountain pens decorated non-functionally with expensive (though fungible!) metals than on cheaper, more practical fountain pens designed for use. This is an example of the expansion of a market to be more monetary and less represented by non-monetary elites as consumers, explored in a later section.

The Hipster and the Connoisseur

An archetype of our age is the hipster, a person who is attracted to the obscure because it is obscure, because it is hard to find, obtain, and understand.

The mistake is to view hipsterdom as pure signaling. It invokes signaling, of course, but also the genuine, authentic search for value in genuineness and authenticity. The hipster is a person who is particularly alienated by the world of purely fungible culture. His music and books, his old "vintage" items, are more demanding, harder to find. But at the same time, he is made more interesting and valuable through what they demand from him. 

Similarly, a connoisseur (exemplified in Evan S. Connell's novel The Connoisseur) is a person who seeks out goods that demand something. They may not be had merely for money, but through seeking and discernment. It is not their price, but their authenticity and beauty, that give them value. 

The connoisseur reacts to the scarce, beautiful object in and of itself. The connoisseur does not talk merely about the price of his acquisition; to do so indicates he is not a true connoisseur. The difficult, challenging objects he seeks out pay his effort back. 

The Evolution of SWPL Retail

Certain businesses start out catering mostly to people interested in use rather than signaling - in purchasing difficult items that require substantial non-monetary wealth in order to use. They cater to a certain elite. 

Gradually, in part based on the strength of the very reliable signal set up by the starting population, a different crowd gets interested - one that lacks the non-monetary wealth to bring to the goods purchased, but that nonetheless desires the self-value that they seem to promise. The elite is limited in size, so as the business grows, it becomes more and more dependent upon (and caters to ) the aspirational, signaling crowd. Soon, Whole Foods is selling vegan organic rice crispy treats, soda, and pre-cut vegetables; REI is selling dubious athletic clothing in sizes as inflated as mainstream fashion. 

The value such businesses provide to the core elite, in the cases mentioned, is not destroyed; Whole Foods still sells good whole vegetables, and REI still sells good backpacking gear. But the aspiration index of goods and buyers has increased - they are purchased more and more for the positive messages about the purchaser they seem to provide, rather than for actual use and enjoyment at the object level. The aspirational user may become representative of the class.

The Fungibility of Human Relationships

As mentioned earlier, there has been a trend since the industrial revolution toward less investment in the specialized skills of workers - fewer butchers and artisans per capita, more factory workers and, later, Starbucks baristas. The trend has been for workers to become as fungible and empty of non-monetary investment as the goods they often sell. 

The fungibility of work, the reduction of demand for long-developed special skills, the impossibility of virtuosity in one's limited job, has made work less and less a source of reliable, positive information about the increasing value of the self - because it has ceased to truly improve people. But people still desire to work at what they love, and to improve themselves. The market will sell them the feeling of this, but will not commonly supply them with food in exchange for pursuing virtuosity.

Since no-fault divorce became ubiquitous and dating more short-term and informal, less has been demanded of us in romantic relationships. As with work, this has resulted in romantic relationships producing less happiness and being less rewarding than more demanding ones. Here is an area in which fungibility of people is particularly likely to degrade welfare.

Humans evolved to form pair bonds - a kind of ultimate non-fungibility. Mating for life is hard; co-evolved biological and cultural adaptations help make it possible to maintain this kind of demanding, rewarding relationship. The aspiration toward a lifetime pair bond is still present; it is not, however, matched by social institutions that might enable it. Marriage has become an aspirational good.

Perhaps even friendship and neighborliness have been rendered essentially fungible by increased mobility. To the extent that they have, they have probably also become less rewarding.

However, perhaps a great deal of lived, experienced specialness (non-fungibility), even in our environments of evolutionary adaptedness, has been an illusion that sufficiently abstract thinking reveals. Seeing through specialness that satisfied the ancients would be especially hard on moderns able to do so.

Education and Other Fashions

Compared to other goods, the monetary price of education has skyrocketed in recent decades. At the same time, its market share has expanded drastically. Just as ultramarathons have replaced boring old marathons as the elite test of endurance, graduate degrees have replaced bachelor's degrees as the elite degree of education.

Education, unlike most other goods or services, is mostly composed of messages about the self and of adding value to oneself, real or illusory. The monetary costs increase because it really is, to some degree, scarce. It distorts the overall market by being one of the few items for sale that actually stands a chance of increasing one's value to the tribe.

The demandingness of education, I argue, is part of what you're buying in money. There is a special premium for scarcity (such as Ivy League educations), but this premium is largely still paid in non-monetary costs (intelligence, preparation, work). However, through a lack of barriers (and even an attempt to remove barriers) on consumers, the education market has followed the predictable path of Whole Foods and REI - even at the elite end.

Moreover, as one of the only parts of the market that appears to offer the chance to genuinely, measurably add value to the self, it occupies a greater and greater share of the economy. Unfortunately, it cannot add as much value as it promises. The aspiration index of education is high and growing.

Education is becoming more like clothing. Since clothing has become more mass-produced and cheaper, hence requiring no skill to make, more effort has been put into choosing and buying it. Fashion might create the least value in individuals of any industry. Scarcity is expressed mostly in dollar value and necessarily non-functional addition of recognizably precious, but ultimately fungible, commodities, like gold or brand names.

There are a few non-monetary costs still involved in fashion. Retailers such as American Apparel retain elite status despite being relatively cheap in part because their clothing only comes in small sizes, and only looks good on skinny, healthy people. Elite bodies are demanded, but this is ultimately a superficial, deeply unsatisfying kind of value to have demanded from us. Make-up and fashion "knowledge" is replacing other knowledge as it seems to perceptibly add value to the self; unfortunately, this value is so superficial as to be ultimately unsatisfying. 

Escape from the Self

If reliable, positive information about the improving self is not available to help people feel valuable, people will seek escape from consciousness of their pathetic-feeling selves. A large share of this escape is provided by the entertainment industry, including entertainment electronics. Baumeister, in Escape from the Self, argues that alcoholism, masochism, spirituality, and even suicide are phenomena in which people attempt to escape from painful information about the self - a self that, by the way, has had to bear more of the weight of meaning than when other sources of meaning were commonly available. 

Fewer people are able to get positive, reliable information about their increasing values, and some are more sensitive to the emptiness of certain signals than others. I expect that those unable to get the desired, necessary information - unable to improve their value and feel it - will be more likely to seek out palliation and suicide gambles

How Do People Find Demandingness In Life?

Those who do not escape must find some source of demandingness in order to get information about their increasing value. Much money and effort is spent on competition, an explicit source of costly information about oneself, from athletics to chess. There is a guarantee of a winner and a loser in competitions; the loser's risk is what renders the winner's success valuable information about himself. Vicarious competition (through professional spectator sports) seems adequate for many. 

What I have termed "insight porn" provides important messages about the self and gives at least the feeling of improving one's value, through possessing a better, more compact model of the world and the kind of mind capable of understanding the insight.

Video games, especially massively multi-player games, demand and creatively reward virtuosity through systems of levels and achievements. To some degree, this may be providing a superstimulus, artificial version of increasing one's value; however, in another sense, people may get genuine sociometric status from their online gaming guild. This is unlikely to provide for one's bodily needs for food and shelter, however, so the benefits of improving one's value to the group may be in some ways illusory compared to their evolved function. In fact, gold farming - the excised monetary aspect of gameplay - is reviled and low in status, generally undertaken in poor countries (thanks to the fungibility of their labor with our own, and their lower upkeep costs).

What are the implications of this trend for the future? The desire to add value to oneself is the essence of our kind of social creature. Will people find ways to add value to themselves when everything is fungible, when perhaps anyone can modify himself at will? Or will they discover new and better ways to palliate this need?

Friday, August 3, 2012

What Marriage Is

Marriage between humans is potentially the fusion of the genetic interests of two individuals, the formation of a gift-relationship community in which each may act altruistically, and each reaps substantial rewards.

However, there is also the possibility for competition and exploitation in marriage, both in the formation state and at any point after formation. We would expect humans, as embodied reproductive strategies, to have emotional, physical, and cultural means of dealing with competition and the risk of exploitation, but allowing for the formation and maintenance of marriages under auspicious circumstances.

The environments in which humans adapted (EEAs) include other co-evolving organisms, such as dogs, parasites, and prey species. Similarly, human EEAs include co-evolving cultures. If the culture in which we evolved suddenly changes, it may wreak as much havoc as if the species we evolved to eat (or which evolved to eat us) suddenly disappeared.

I believe the norms surrounding marriage are such cultural elements. We evolved in cultures with certain norms surrounding marriage; these varied between cultures, but not arbitrarily. Our culture has changed drastically - exponentially - in recent years, and the elements of culture relating to marriage have been some of those that have changed the most.

One way in which culture has supported marriage is through coercion: once married, societies enforced ongoing duties between the pair. Parties to a marriage were forced to make the best of their one marriage, as they likely would not get another shot. While this would force some to remain in bad, even abusive, marriages, it probably benefited most by encouraging couples to form and maintain good marriages. It's a sort of spike on the steering wheel. As generally occurs in human institutions, a few unlucky folks are thrown under the bus for the good of the other monkeys.

But culture has also supported marriage by providing norms for mate-finding and marriage practices that helped our ancestors maintain marriage communities that accomplished their purposes.

Parties must choose whether to form a marriage. Even if you're a woman in a nasty EEA and get sold by your parents to your 70-year-old uncle or whatever, you still must choose whether to cooperate or defect within the limits of your power. Not just at the inception, but throughout the marriage, each party constantly faces the choice to cooperate in the marriage (a good strategy if the marriage is a good one, as marriage has substantial health, fitness, and happiness rewards to offer) or defect (a good choice if the marriage appears to be a bad one for various reasons).

However, defection is not all-or-nothing. If things aren't great, a minor reduction in commitment ("shit test," you might say) might be more appropriate than an outright defection. But a reduction in commitment can either trigger increased commitment by one's partner, or trigger a counter-reduction. In the latter case, the marriage community spirals out of control into a defection cycle.

What are the ancestral behaviors that might promote a happy marriage? What cues might indicate a sinking ship? We'd all like to know that, and I don't pretend to be an expert on marital behavior. But what follows is my best guess as to some behaviors and triggers that either reinforce or erode a marriage community.

Behaviors that Reinforce Marital Harmony

  • Nutrition sharing. Human couples seem to have evolved to form hunting/cooking partnerships. Division of labor by sex is on the list of human universals. Norms often treat men and women in possession of food differently, reflecting different sense of property rights based on the existence of a marriage community. Even if you don't buy the gender stuff, co-eating seems to be an extremely important ancestral method of reinforcing a pair bond.
  • Regular, exclusive sex.
  • A mutual mental commitment to indefinite future cooperation (being "all in")
  • Mutual mental modeling from frequent interaction
  • A 5:1 or greater positive:negative interaction ratio
  • Co-sleeping (and co-living in general)

These behaviors were once common, even socially obligatory, between married couples. How common are these behaviors now?

Defection Triggers

What behaviors might trigger our evolved defection responses? For the most part, these are the mirror image of the above reinforcing behaviors:

  • Failure to share nutrition, cook, or eat together
  • Treatment of the marriage as a market relationship
  • Lack of regular sex
  • Sex outside the marriage
  • Close friendships with members of the opposite sex who might threaten the relationship (opportunities to jump ship)
  • Evidence of low mental commitment to future cooperation
  • Crankiness (lower than 5:1 positive:negative interaction)
  • Lack of interaction or mutual interest resulting in poor mental modeling
  • Irregular co-sleeping or co-living

Even though modern couples may have solid reasons for engaging in the above triggering behaviors, it is not necessarily the case that we can control our ancestral responses to such behaviors.

A triggering behavior is likely to at minimum trigger a reduction in commitment from one's partner. If the response is not a reevaluation and recommitment from the "offending" partner, but rather no response or a negative response, an escalating cycle culminating in outright defection is likely.

The maintenance of the marital community - keeping the cooperative strategy operational, while preventing the defection strategy from being triggered, and certainly preventing it from triggering a defection cycle - is one job human culture used to do. It would be nice if modern independent, individual humans were able to take up the slack, but that is not a job our brains and bodies evolved to do. Those who manage to create lasting, happy marriages are fast becoming the minority. In addition to the broken-hearted marriage refugees themselves, the biggest losers are the children, brought into the world without their consent and denied their ancestral privilege of growing up in a functioning marital community.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Right to Marry

Even if you're the straightest, whitest, most Christian couple in the entire state of Louisiana, you don't have the legal right to marry. Not really.

It's not that you lack the right to conduct a government-approved ceremony and obtain the legal status of a married couple; you can do that. You can even file your federal tax returns as a married couple, as long as you don't have matching genitals. But nowhere in the United States do you have the right to credibly contract for a lifetime marital partnership.

Every state currently allows some form of "no fault" divorce - divorce not based on any wrongdoing of a party, but simply because the parties claim they don't want to be married anymore. Even though the couple may "vow" to remain together until one of them dies, everyone knows these vows have no legal or real-world effect. The marital "contract" is not a contract at all.

Imagine a regular legal contract in which either party could end the agreement by saying he didn't like it anymore. Could the purposes of contract law be served by such a contract? From a law and economics point of view, such an "if-I-feel-like-it" contract would not support the reliability of contracts, and would require an inefficient level of hedging. The legal term for such a contract is an illusory contract - one that doesn't have any legal effect, of which the legal system will take no notice.

Marriage once did have a legal effect - once married, parties could not divorce without a really good reason (physical cruelty, desertion, or adultery). Not coincidentally, marriages were much more likely to be reliable lifetime partnerships. In addition to the legal strictures surrounding marriage, social groups essentially forced couples to stay together or risk social death.

With the nationwide adoption of no-fault divorce and the elimination of the social stigma of divorce, the nature of marriage changed from a genuine contract to an illusory contract. Marriage stopped being the reliable, socially enforced lifetime partnership it had been for generations.

Poly people might be tempted to think of the destruction of socially enforced monogamy as a good thing. Indeed, many people who did not really want to marry were no doubt forced to do so, and forced to stay married, because attractive options did not exist.

However, even poly people must on reflection realize that an important right has been lost: the right to reliably, credibly commit oneself for life. Even those who think polyamory is the best choice for them rarely want to force their lifestyle on others; indeed, they are often some of the most vocal supporters of expanding the right to marry to gay people. Sadly, however, in allowing anyone the right to divorce at will, we have deprived everyone of the right to truly marry.

Sensing that marriage is now an empty institution, some couples have specifically contracted for the rights marriage traditionally gave them (but no longer does). In the California case Diosdado v. Diosdado, 97 Cal.App.4th 470, a husband and wife contracted that if the husband had an affair with another woman, he would pay the wife $50,000 on top of the divorce settlement, and vice versa. The husband did in fact have an affair, but the California court refused to honor the couple's agreement. The strong California public policy of no-fault divorce, the court said, prohibited courts from even enforcing the voluntary contracts of a mature adult couple:

The family law court may not look to fault in dissolving the marriage, dividing property, or ordering support. Yet this agreement attempts to penalize the party who is at fault for having breached the obligation of sexual fidelity, and whose breach provided the basis for terminating the marriage. This penalty is in direct contravention of the public policy underlying no-fault divorce.

That's right: in California, as in other states with a strong no-fault public policy, you can't even voluntarily make a credible promise of marriage and expect it to be honored by the courts.

A few states - Lousiana, Arizona, and Arkansas - allow what is called "covenant marriage," marriage that may only be dissolved on fault grounds. However, couples may not even use covenant marriage to credibly promise lifetime partnership, because either partner may simply relocate to a non-covenant-marriage state and initiate no-fault divorce proceedings there.

To recapitulate, no one in our country truly has the right to marry, in the sense of committing oneself to a partnership for life. It is legitimate to wonder if this deprivation of rights has caused the proliferation of both tattoos and ludicrously expensive wedding ceremonies, as a last-ditch effort for permanence.

Not even mature adults of sound mind, after long reflection, may decide to marry for life. However, there is another right that has been found to be so fundamental that it cannot be taken away, even from those who have demonstrated that they will abuse the right: the right to breed. The right to have children, like the right to marry, is not mentioned in the Constitution, but is interpreted as protected by the implied right to privacy. However, unlike the right to marry, the right to breed has been genuinely preserved. Mothers who starve their children to death, Trammel v. State, 751 N.E.2d 283 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001), and fathers who make no effort to support their children, State v. Talty, 103 Ohio St.3d 177 (2004), may not be restricted in their "fundamental right" to have as many children as they can.

It is sad for all of us that the law protects the right of each person, no matter how cruel or stupid, to create new, needy, suffering human beings; but no person, no matter how mature, is trusted with the right to credibly commit him- or herself to marriage for life.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Enhanced Running

This is the first part of a series of posts exploring the moral and practical importance of pleasure and happiness.

In this post, I would like to share the most pleasurable thing I know of that most people don't know about: distance running under the influence of cannabis.

Every time I run the trails and fire roads in Los Angeles (which is almost daily), I wonder: if there are four million people wandering around in the city down there, why am I the only one up here running?

Here's a really sad statistic: 86% of poor pre-schoolers in cities have not developed age-appropriate basic motor skills like running. This might even apply to you: a shocking percentage of moderns are simply not learning to run in childhood. This, despite the fact that we are a species with many adaptations specific to running, indicating that we are, in an important sense, born to run.

Clearly, running is a Civilization and Its Discontents issue: the patterns of modern life do not match the patterns in which we evolved. While our food has gotten sweeter and easier to get than our ancestral diet ("superstimulus food"), moving our bodies has come to be seen as eccentric and optional, or perhaps as a chore to be completed for moral reasons, not for pleasure.

The solution: superstimulus exercise, exercise that's so good you get addicted to it and have to force yourself to do less of it than you want to. My thesis is that running while high on weed is just this kind of superstimulus exercise.

While I understand that marijuana remains technically illegal in many states and other bullshit political entities like the United States of America, almost half of Americans report having used it illegally, and hundreds of thousands of people like me use it legally with a magical note from their doctor that makes it not recreational, but medical, because there is totally a difference between health and recreation. (Health is moral; fun is not.)

Running high on marijuana has been the single most important factor in making life bearable for me for the past three years. I find it shocking that this healthy pleasure is denied to millions of people who could benefit from it.

What It's Like to Run High

It makes you free. You can go anywhere, and it makes the city feel like your territory. Running while high is an excellent mode of exploration; as a runner, you occupy a well-understood role that is both socially approved and socially ignored. It's the perfect disguise to enable an introvert to move around the world in the sunshine. You can go almost anywhere, even blatantly trespassing, and no one says anything because they barely notice you except to think that they should really start running, too.

It's easy and effortless (especially as you become more experienced). It would take more effort to stop running or break the rhythm than it takes to keep running fluidly at the same pace.

You get to see deer and coyotes and foxes and owls and bunnies and dogs and lizards.

It's engaging, especially trail running - an ostension of fantasized Imperial speeder bikes maneuvering perfectly through the forest, avoiding all the trees efficiently and with perfect concentration.

It's insanely pleasurable, with every part of your body screaming (in chemicals) that this coordinated motion is exactly what you're supposed to be doing. (Which ties in with the recent discovery that endocannabinoids are probably what causes runner's high. It feels to me like weed jump-starts the process of experiencing exercise as pleasurable, which, even as a life-long athlete, I experienced as much less pleasurable before becoming a stoner.)

It's transcendent - it often feels like another being is controlling your body, like you can step away from yourself and "create a void," as Haruki Murakami puts it.

Running is not only pleasurable in the moment; it makes everything else in life more pleasurable, too. Running fills me with happy chemicals for hours after the run itself. It gives me an appetite and helps me sleep. It increases my sex drive and the intensity of orgasm. Marijuana does those things too, but those are the acute rather than sustained effects of the drug. Both pieces are necessary for the magic to occur.

When you are running, it is none of the government's business what chemicals are in your body, the way it is when you are driving a car or even riding a bicycle.

Running high is not just more pleasurable than running sober; it's more pleasurable than just sitting around being high, which is itself pretty fucking pleasurable.

Running high is so pleasurable and addictive that the main danger (in addition to commonsense dangers) is wanting to do it too much (see Appendix: Secondary Enhancements for more enhancements that are dangerous in this way). I experience beautiful grouch logic moments where I say to myself, "I'll be good and just sit on my ass and eat ice cream all day today, so tomorrow I can run as much as I want!"

The Meaning of Pleasure

Running high is the best thing ever. What is the importance of this?

Would it be morally important if there were a major, easily accessible, healthy source of pleasure that is denied to the majority of people through ignorance and politics?

If pleasure is not enough to give meaning to life, what is pleasure's moral value? Is there negative value when pleasure is denied? Is that negative value different for existing versus never-existing people? Is it different for those aware of the deprivation versus those unaware of it?

And what is it that gives a sense of meaning to life - a sense of wanting to go forward in your story and see what happens next?

Appendix: Secondary Enhancements

There are two other enhancements I use to push running into the "superstimulus exercise" category. One is paleo-happy, minimal "barefoot" running shoes; the other is an iPod Shuffle. These are not nearly as important as marijuana, but running in giant squishy "running shoes" doesn't feel as good and is associated with more injuries than running in flat shoes or barefoot.

That said, I would not be surprised if nonscientific reports of a "barefoot running injury epidemic" were true, i.e. that lots of people get injured while running barefoot nowadays. The most likely causes of the purported "barefoot running injury epidemic" are (a) a lot of people suddenly running barefoot, with predictable injuries (probably at a lower rate than with shod running); and also (b) the fact that barefoot running is so pleasurable that you want to do more of it than is healthy for your body.

No study has ever shown that cushioned running shoes reduce injuries. 79% of all runners are injured every year; we humans tend to attribute bad consequences to any salient deviant behavior we detect, hence the blame on barefoot shoes. Few ask: would these folks have been injured wearing cushioned shoes? What if they hadn't been running at all - what are the risks of no exercise? (I should add that I also don't stretch or warm up - I just roll out like a Tarahumara.)

The iPod Shuffle (or other tiny little clip-on MP3 player) accomplishes two goals: (a) music piped directly into your (perhaps marijuana-enhanced) brain, and (b) not having to schlep anything bigger than a house key. This is by far the most important piece of blood electronics that I own. While no iPod Shuffles have yet been found in burial sites of our pre-agricultural ancestors, I still put this in the "paleo enhancement" category. I don't know what it is about music and repetitive physical activity that is so great, but it feels important. My evidence for this is from D. E. Brown's list of human universals, which includes ten separate entries relating to music, including "music related in part to dance" and "music related in part to religious activity." Running to music allows one to synchronize one's motions to the music, an activity very similar to moving in sync with other people. From Pyongyang to Burbank, in military and civilian use, there seems to be something going on with people moving in sync. A new study suggests that moving in sync makes a group more willing to engage in (a laboratory equivalent of) coalitional violence. Whether for violent or other purposes, moving in sync may help a group cohere; humans love it and want to watch it and do it. Running with a partner is nice, but running with music may give our bodies the same burst of feeling like we're moving in sync.
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