Monday, November 06, 2017

EP 040 Jason Fagone on Elizabeth Smith Friedman, Codebreaker

I used to see some amazing obituaries, often in British newspapers, detailing a remarkable life lived by someone who had worked undercover during WWII, escaped from Nazis, and gone on to live to a great old age. Frequently, these people were forgotten or never spoke of their adventures.

Elizabeth Smith Friedman, the subject of Jason Fagone's new biography, The Woman Who Smashed Codes, is one of those rare people, though her story begins with a search for the true author of Shakespeare, runs through two world wars, includes a stint fighting gangsters and rumrunners (and the jealousy of J. Edgar Hoover) and the foundation of the NSA, and ends with more Shakespeare. It sounds like a whole series of detective novels rolled into one, yet Elizabeth was a real person with an amazing story.

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Download, subscribe, rate and review on iTunes

Want to hear more like this?
Pair with Shava Nerad on using cryptography to secure communications or tales of derring-do with Adam Swartzbaugh.

Show Notes and Links

Jason's website
Jason on Twitter
Jason's Podcast

Monday, October 23, 2017

EP 039 Daniel Ingram on Meditative States, Paths, and Ethical Living

Daniel Ingram has a successful career as an ER doctor, but he's best known on the Internet for being a meditator and meditation teacher. He's the author of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: an Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book, which I first read about over on Scott Alexander's blog Slate Star Codex here and here. Daniel made some waves in the dharma community by claiming to have attained enlightenment as an arahat.

On today's podcast, we talk about the different ways to assess that claim, what states and insights may occur on the way to enlightenment, and what to do if you get yourself into a spiritual crisis of one sort or another. We also talk about some of my meditative experiences and how to use a candle flame as a focus for meditative practice.

I feel as though I did not communicate well during the discussion of visualization practices in the last part of the interview. While it is certainly possible to get some level of visualization going within the first day of doing practice, the quality, detail, interactivity and stability of visualizations will also improve slowly over 90+ days of effort. That's about the period of time it took me to develop a fully zoomable and rotatable model of human anatomy with full motion inside my head. It's also the amount of time it should take you to get through the ngondro (preliminaries) of Vajrayana, some of the journeying techniques, Jung's active imagination, and the spirit contact models for various ritual magic systems. I think there's some neurochemistry behind this, specifically an upregulation of serotonergic 5-HT2A receptors, which seem to be connected to creative/optimistic thinking styles. These same receptors are involved in the visual effects of entheogens such as LSD and psilocybin. But that's a discussion for another day. The upshot is that if you think your visionary experiences are good at the outset, keep working for a few months and they will gradually get better.

Enjoy this episode, and want me to keep making more? Download, subscribe, rate and review on iTunes

Want to hear more like this?
Pair with B Alan Wallace on Dzogchen and Dudjom Lingpa or Ben Joffe on ngakpa and Tibetan traditional medicine.

Show Notes and Links

Daniel's website
Daniel on Twitter
His fire kasina site

The Dharma Overground forum

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

From the Archives: Nerdcon Stories 2015

In 2015, the team behind the highly successful and popular Nerdcon video conference, led by Hank and John Green, created a writer- and reader-centric convention called Nerdcon: Stories. I drove up there at the last minute to see a slate of authors who might as well have been picked out for me. While I've seen a couple of the panels online, I don't think these two panel discussions have ever been published by anyone: Tropes, Misinformation and Stereotypes: How to Identify and Avoid Them When Writing Outside Your Experience, led by Mary Robinette Kowal, and No Pressure: How to Keep Creating Once You've Technically Succeeded (Writing After Success), led by Patrick Rothfuss. Nerdcon: Stories may have shut down, but it was a bold experiment.

Nerdcon: Writing Outside Your Experience

Nerdcon: Writing After Success

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Jim Carrey: I Needed Color

Jim Carrey started painting. A lot. He's good.

Jim Carrey: I Needed Color from JC on Vimeo.

Links for Later 9-9-17

  1. A collection of reviews/recaps of the new season of Twin Peaks.
  2. Bruce Chatwin profile.
  3. Comparing algorithms for decision statistics and machine learning.
  4. Narwhals beating the hell out of cod with their tusks.
  5. Searching for silphium, the prized, probably extinct Roman herb.
  6. The impending death of football, as parents stop signing their kids up to play due to brain injury fears. Could not come too soon.

Monday, September 04, 2017

EP 038 Lynne Kelly on The Memory Code

Lynne Kelly is a teacher, science writer and anthropologist of oral and pre-literate cultures. Her most recent book is The Memory Code, which deals with the use of memory techniques including rituals, songs, dances, portable devices, and large-scale geographic features and built structures as memory aids.

She has conducted a series of experiments to replicate memory techniques from the classical memory palace to handheld memory devices such as the Lukasa to rituals and storytelling. Today, we talk about how several early and modern cultures have used these memory techniques, why Stonehenge and Chaco Canyon may have been used as memory palaces, and why they were almost certainly centers for an oral culture's knowledge economy.

As with our other conversations with anthropologists, it's helpful to remember the following guidelines:
  1. Do not confuse industrial technological advancement with intelligence. "Primitive" people, whether distant from you in space or time, were and are at least as smart as you. The less technology they had at hand, the more this is true. Fools die when times are hard, or as Lynne Kelly's colleague Nungarrayi said to her, "The elders are pragmatic old buggers. If they weren't, we wouldn't have survived."
  2. Most often, they are observationally correct even when they are theoretically wrong. We can identify the exact species of animals in cave paintings despite the fact that the artist didn't have a grip on modern biology. Just as any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic, so does any technology sufficiently different from our own.
  3. People of almost all cultures have been given to humor, hoaxes, tall tales, and flimflammery. Sometimes, when they tell you (or each other) something, they're just having a laugh. Sometimes, they're both having a laugh and expressing something serious.
Photo creditAbigail Heitbaum

Enjoy this episode, and want me to keep making more? Download, subscribe, rate and review on iTunes

Want to hear more like this?
More on memory palace techniques with Ed Cooke or Anthony Metivier. More on pre-literate cultures and magical technologies with Gordon White.

Show Notes and Links

Alexander Arguelles, Shadowing language learning technique.
Richard I. Ford Color of Survival
Nungarrayi- "The elders are pragmatic old buggers. If they weren't, we wouldn't have survived."

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Defining Consciousness

Consciousness: awareness
The word consciousness gets used in many different ways, but fundamentally, it is the quality of being aware of and responsive to phenomena.
It’s what Antionio D’Amasio called “the feeling of what happens,” or subjective experience.
It can also be defined as that which has perceptions, thoughts and/or feelings, or in which they occur.
As soon as we reach this definition, the word “that” in the previous sentence has a lot of work to do. What is that “that” exactly, other than being difficult to define? If we take the definition of subjective experience, we have to ask what objective experience would be in contrast, and whether our subjective experience can perceive the subjective experience of anyone else.
When people ask questions about consciousness here, it seems that they are not simply asking about whether we’re aware of some event or object. They’re asking about the “that”. The whole mind, which feels what happens, or perhaps only that part of the whole mind that feels what happens. In this meaning, it is the thing generated by a sufficiently sophisticated and intact brain, and “correlated” with its function. (Though “correlation” here does not seem to have the standard technical meaning either.)
Sometimes, in modern discourse, it is used as a replacement or synonym for the soul. Some, religiously minded, refer to it as a fragment or instance of God.
Sometimes, consciousness is suggested to be plural, to have different, possibly independent aspects. Some people differentiate, for example, between experience derived from the outside world through the senses, and that derived through introspection or examination of mental processes. Others differentiate between sense perception, introspection, general knowledge and intention. Still others split the concept into eight or ten or more categories. Others may think in scales of access to mental processes and contents—our knowledge of what we experience is smaller than what we experience, and both experience and knowledge are somewhat fluid.
Still others think that because of these intricacies, consciousness is an illusion, nonexistent, or existing only by convention (sticking a name on something that doesn’t really exist). Yet others think that consciousness is the only thing that exists or that we can prove exists, or that consciousness is the fundamental building block of the universe, and everything that is reduces to consciousness or something like it or it and a few other fundamental things.
Any or all of these definitions may be accurate; however, the problem comes with precision. Like a kind of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle for consciousness, the more precise you try to be, the less accurate you become. You’re better off with a kind of loose, intuitive definition
More: Consciousness in Wikipedia has a surprisingly clear article on the subject and various debates on the definition of consciousness.
Originally posted on Quora at