Category: Fringe

Research outside the mainstream, psychoactive substances and taboo topics.

It took me a while to realize that I was the crazy guy.

There’s a saying among poker players — I assume for good reason — that goes like this: “If you can’t spot the dumbest guy at the table… It’s you.”

I’m starting to think that this may be a special case of a broader rule that goes well beyond poker.

I was flattered to wake up yesterday to a request to join a radio show panel, the nationally-syndicated “To The Point” produced by KCRW Radio out of Los Angeles. They were doing an episode about smart drugs — specifically, “moda” — and wanted to know if I would join their expert panel, which would include three others?

The producer implied (impressively, without ever quite saying it) that I wasn’t supposed to ask who the other panelists were. The set-up would be a little like Roman gladiators at the Coliseum, not knowing in advance what would come out from behind the arena doors. This makes for a livelier show for the audience.

Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity.

KCRW is the radio big-leagues; I hadn’t just heard of them, I’ve listened to them. They’re probably the only radio station in Los Angeles I can find on a dial. Plus, this subject was right up my alley; I’ve used Modafinil on-and-off for years.

So this morning I dialed in to KCRW and was put into their digital bullpen, where they keep call-in guests on hold until the producer signals “it’s time,” and then suddenly the host is addressing you with questions.

(If you’ve ever called in to a radio show and been queued to ask the deejay to play a song for your sweetheart or to win concert tickets – it’s exactly like that.)

The first panelist introduced was a health reporter for VICE News, Sydney Lupkin. KCRW broadcasts to a general audience, many of whom would never have heard of smart drugs — and Sydney, along with host Barbara Bogaev, did a great job of opening the topic and implying a simmering hotbed of controversy around the use of “moda.” (The half-clandestine use of this abbreviated term was presented almost as a counterculture nod, like calling marijuana “weed” or Barack Obama “Barry.”)

And before I knew it, I was up next, answering a question about “how Modafinil feels when you’re on it.” I said my piece and then passed the mic, unsure if I’d said too much or not enough — it’s tough in these audio-only situations with multiple parties and no eye contact. You never know if you’re blabbing too long or if the host is praying for you to fill space.

But in this case, they needed to move on to get from me to the real Smart Drugs Wild Man. Certainly, with the undertones of “Modafinil running amok on our campuses,” one of the remaining two guests was sure to be a strung-out 19-year-old with 500 milligrams of Modafinil in his veins, who hadn’t slept since Tuesday.

However, the next guest proved to be Professor James Giordano, from the Georgetown University Medical Center. His speech and manner and credentials were all impeccable, and I wiped sweat off my brow when he backed up some points I’d made in my earlier monologue: 1. Smart drugs are out there. 2. Some, like the racetams, have strong safety and efficacy records and a multi-decade pedigree. 3. Probably the major concern for would-be users is identifying good providers in a “gray market” retail landscape.

We went to a commercial break, and for about a minute the audio went dead; I had time to google my two unveiled co-panelists, and to wonder about the third. The show had such an expectant feeling to it, an undercurrent that something shocking is happening here – prepare to be shocked! I was expecting Johnny-the-University-Kid-Who-Never-Sleeps. Or maybe Otto-the-Online-Modafinil-Retailer, coming on with a digitally-garbled voice, hinting at the value of his product while slinging accusations at “The Man” for keeping his business underground.

But soon the commercial break ended. We were back.

The next voice was a familiar one: Dr. Jeremy Martinez, from the Matrix Institute on Addictions — whom I’d interviewed previously on Episode 80 of my podcast. Dr. Martinez is a leading expert on addictions and addictive behavior, practicing in Los Angeles — which is also the big leagues, if you’re a doctor specializing in addiction. Like Professor Giordano before him, Dr. Martinez was well-spoken, straight-laced, and (befitting an addiction specialist) probably a bit conservative in his approach to the modulation of human brain chemistry.

One of the remaining guests was a strung-out 19-year-old with 500 milligrams of Modafinil in his veins, who hadn’t slept since Tuesday.

But wait a minute… Were we at four panelists already?

Had I gotten it wrong? Had the producer whom I’d spoken with said it would be me with four other panelists?

I was pretty sure the answer was no, but it hardly made sense to have a panel-discussion where everyone on the panel seemed to be in such agreement. “To The Point” isn’t Family Feud or some faux-news fight-bait show… But still, this is American mass media; there are rules that must be obeyed.

And then I felt a sinking feeling, as the verbal baton was passed back to me for another question…

It suddenly hit me.

Just like the poker player realizing there’s no one dumber at the table…

I was Johnny-the-University-Kid-Who-Never-Sleeps. I was Otto-the-Online-Modafinil-Retailer.

I was the Cognitive-Enhancement Wild Man, the one whom the conservative members of the KCRW audience were giving dirty looks through their radios, while I waved my pom-poms for these so-called smart drugs.

But I was the weirdest guy they could find?

I was the far edge of the lunatic fringe, pro-cognitive-enhancement spectrum?

I was — dare I put it so bluntly? — the cautionary warning of what your college kid might turn into?

I consoled myself with the thought that maybe there’d been an accident, and that Johnny-the-Non-Sleeper was unavailable on account of pan-hemispheric cognitive over-stimulation. I readied myself for the task. If someone needed to hold the line for the pro-enhancement crowd, I would do my part.

Luckily, the next question posed to me was one that’s always seemed as trivial to answer as it is amazing that it gets asked in the first place…

The “Cheating Question”

Should we be “worried” about the use of smart drugs?

Is it like “cheating in sports, with steroids”?

If there is one question where I am willing to let my freak flag fly high, this is it. I came out of the gates swinging. I probably frothed at the mouth a bit. (Mouth-froth-concealment is one great upside of both radio and podcasting over television.) My answer — constrained for the radio — was necessarily bite-sized, but I’d like to riff on it at greater length here, because this is the question that won’t die.

I was the cautionary warning of what your college kid might turn into.

It seems to me so absurdly mis-applied, and yet it’s an entrenched part of the public discussion. “Are smart drugs like steroids?” With the implications: “Is using them ‘unfair’ to the other ‘competitors,’ irrespective of the risks to the user himself?”

But to pretend that this analogy holds is to pretend that we live in society where muscles are more than a mating display or where intelligence is only a nifty parlor trick, essentially no big deal.

This could not be further from the truth.

If a Barry Bonds type takes steroids and balloons his athletic ability, maybe he hits a few more home runs. Records are broken; next year’s baseball cards and tonight’s ESPN highlight reel will look slightly different. But real effects on people’s lives? Zilch. Nada. With all due respect to physical performance, we no longer live in a world of blacksmiths and rickshaw operators. Physical musculature is of great use to the individual, but none to society.

Now let’s look at the corresponding situation in intelligence. If the intellectual equivalent of Barry Bonds — maybe this is Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, or Ray Kurzweil (pick your favorite genius) — if he or she is able to boost his cognitive performance by the equivalent of “a few home runs,” this translates into a greater chance of a Unified Theory of Physics, or of colonizing Mars sooner, or of getting closer to mind-uploading. This isn’t about baseball cards; these are outcomes that fundamentally alter the trajectory of our entire species and its possibilities in the universe.

To equate this with “cheating, like steroids” is not in the same ideological ballpark.

It’s not in the same league.

It’s not even the same sport.

No, we should categorically not question the ethics of people voluntarily using cognitive enhancement to “get ahead.”

Not any more than we should question the ethics of a woman who uses perfume to smell better, or a man who squints on the golf course so he can see a little better. We all use the best tools available to us, constantly — and for good reason.

Life is not a zero-sum game, and the first people to adopt an effective new tool may indeed gain an advantage that later adopters resent… But in the end, the leaders in a field push the whole field forward. Barry Bonds, like it or not, made baseball better. He pushed the envelope, and even if it was cheating, he established new horizons.

But as I said: The horizons of baseball, they don’t matter that much.

The horizons of human cognition, though… They matter as much as anything we know about, or could even conceive of. From our current vantage point as the sole thinking species on the only known inhabited planet in the universe, the horizons of human cognition are literally insurmountable in importance.

So yeah, okay…

Maybe I am the Lunatic Fringe.

If you are reading this at an inopportune time, you need to keep reading.

It might be the middle of the night.

You might be procrastinating while at work.

But either way, the last thing you should be doing now is having clicked on a completely optional blog post and started reading.  (Despite the relative awesomeness of the blog; but I digress…)

Maybe you’re reading this at an appropriate moment for you to be killing some time online.  Sunday afternoon on your iPad, for example.  Or maybe you’re bored on a subway commute.  If so, this article is not for you.  You have an appropriate relationship with Internet time management.

But this post is for people like me.

It’s for people who default to online.  Internet Addiction, they call it.  You’ve probably heard of this condition.  And even if you haven’t, the name kind of says it all.

I am not a textbook-case Internet Addict.  I don’t even have a Facebook account.  (This is partially because I know that having a Facebook account would turn me from a functional addict into the Internet’s version of a wakes-up-in-the-gutter-with-needles-sticking-out-of-his-arms addict.)

The things I do online are not necessarily representative of most Internet Addicts.  But despite that, I do share one defining characteristic with my addicted brothers and sisters…

I keep coming back to the online world.  By default.

Sometimes even when the physical world dangles very worthwhile carrots.

The Lost Continent of My To-Do List

As an Internet Person, I’ve got my obligatory to-do list.  In fact, a couple different to-do lists, in different formats.  (For me, it’s Asana, Trello, and Workflowy — dependent upon the project.)

And one thing I’ve noticed with increasing regularity for the past few months is that when I’m organizing my days, the to-do’s involving the physical world…  They tend to get schucked to the “optional” section at the end of the to-do list.

Meaning that they’ll bounce to tomorrow.  And then the next tomorrow.  And then the tomorrow after that.

(Does anyone ever finish their full daily to-do list?  If so, please don’t answer.  I hate you.)

I keep coming back to the online world.  By default.

So it turns out, I’m ignoring physical reality.

Exactly what kind of to-do’s are these things?  Nothing all that fancy.  Some of them would be easy kills.  Trips to the grocery store.  Scanning physical papers that would be so easy to digitize if I’d take the 15 minutes and just be done with it.  Going to my storage locker and pulling stuff out of boxes that I’ve wanted-but-not-really-needed for going on three months now.

The digital world is just so friggin’ convenient.  And getting moreso.  Amazon Prime is the ultimate enabler.  TaskRabbit doesn’t help either.

The things I find myself actually doing in the physical world are — this is embarrassing — the bare minimum requirements of human physicality.

Eating.  Sleeping.  Bathing.  Exercising.  Sex.  Full stop.

If you think I’m exaggerating, let me stress:  I’m writing this blog post instead of doing the physical-world to-do’s on my list for today.

Hash-tag: #iSuck

Starting Next Week, I’ve Got A New Strategy

I’m calling it…

(Yes, it’s got a catchy name…)

Physical World Phriday

Fridays will be my day off-the-laptop.  All those never-quite-gotten-to to-do’s in the Physical World… Friday will be their day to rise front-and-center, and get the attention they deserve.

And hopefully, to get mercilessly done, like the virtual to-do’s on my list eventually are.

I anticipate that the laptop-less-ness of next Friday will be brutally difficult.  I’m so strapped to it, normally, that I rarely use my smart phone as an Internet device, which will make me a bit more digitally isolated than most people nowadays.

But that’s the idea, isn’t it?


I’ll be hash-tagging it on Twitter at 11:59 on Thursday.  And then…

I’ll be gone.

Would you rather hear this as audio?  Listen on Soundcloud.

I’m almost sure that my last haircut improved my health.

Not in the ways one might expect.  I wasn’t nesting lice or vermin.  It wasn’t a profoundly dangerous hairstyle, likely to get caught in industrial equipment and drag me down with it.

But it made me look like the me I was used to.

And whacking it down to the scalp — which I did, in a slight fit of “oh, hell with it” — was more of a change than I at first expected.

Face-Blindness for the Rest of Us

There’s a condition called prosopagnosia, which some scientists estimate affects almost one in forty people.  (I find this hard to believe, but it’s a “spectrum disorder,” much worse for some people than others.)  You know the people who say “I’m not so good with names, but I never forget a face?”

Well, people with prosopagnosia do not say that.  They do forget faces.  In fact, they never really recognize them in the first place.

For most of us, faces are a very special part of our visual reality, pulled from our vast data-stream of visual inputs and given preferential treatment by an area of the brain known as the fusiform gyrus.  You know how your smart phone has facial recognition software that puts a little box around people’s faces and makes sure to adjust focus and lighting to protect and emphasize them, versus other parts of the image?

Well, your brain — in particular, your fusiform gyrus — is constantly doing the same thing.

Unless, that is, you have prosopagnosia — which can be congenital (the fusiform gyrus never adequately learns to do its job) or acquired (brain damage bangs it up, and afterwards facial recognition takes a dive).  Prosopagnosics, as they’re called, have brains that function much more like an old school camera with no on-board computer, treating all parts of the visual field the same, not playing favorites with faces at all.

This is generally a bad thing.  Egalitarian ideals like “all visual elements are created equal” don’t really work so well in practice.  Not with vision.

Prosopagnosics, depending on the severity of their condition, range from having a bad memory for faces, to literally being unable to recognize themselves in the mirror.  They compensate by identifying friends and loved ones by secondary cues, like their manner of dress, their voice, or how they move.

Now, it should be mentioned — I don’t have prosopagnosia.

We’re All Icons

If you’re not a prosopagnosic, when you first meet someone, you’re aggressively cataloging details about their face, taking notes for later (unconsciously, at least), and drawing inferences about what you might expect about them, based on their facial idiosyncrasies.

Like all stereotypes, these guesses might not be borne out by further real-world data, but think about what comes to mind if the face of someone you meet is characterized by…

  • Ruddy-colored cheeks with visible capillaries
  • A deep, caramel-colored tan
  • Strong vertical creasing in the forehead, above the nose
  • Orange lipstick

In each case, you’ll probably take these as personality-clues as to what you might expect from a person.  (This is especially true in cases where the clues seemingly disagree with each other and imply a conscious choice — like a friend I have who is in his late 40s, but dyes his hair almost a canary-yellow “blonde.”)

But as we get to know individuals better, personal experience trumps facially-derived guesswork, and (again, for non-prosopagnosics) the faces of people we know come to represent our body of knowledge about that individual rather than the type of person we’d expect, based on their looks.

In other words, we recognize people’s faces as icons for the people we know, rather than advertisements for whom we might expect.

The Mirror Works Both Ways

The statement above is true even when the face in the mirror is us.

I was so used to seeing myself looking, well… the way I normally look, that a massive hairstyle change* was enough to momentarily shatter the visual iconography I had for myself.

  • Full hair-eradication, more accurately.  Think Kobe Bryant or Bruce Willis.

This isn’t to say that I had any “Who am I?” identity crisis following my haircut.  Very much the opposite.  It was a “Who is he?” moment.

Later in the afternoon on the day of my haircut (and the initial shock had worn off), I was doing a workout.  I had a mirror nearby and caught a glimpse of myself — shirtless and now completely bald — and for a moment I didn’t recognize myself.  I knew it was a mirror, but it looked like not me.

Honestly, it was reminiscent of all the prison movies where the hero gets captured and has his head shaved and then is hosed down to de-louse him.  When those scenes happen in the movies, we’re always struck with the thought “wow, they’ve stripped him down to his animal self.”

And sure enough, with my visual icon-of-self disrupted, that’s what I saw in the mirror: the animal chassis of me, not my well-worn identity.

And that is why I think the haircut improved my health.  Or will, anyway…

It’s Good To Think Of Yourself As Meat, Sometimes.

Western society has a long and confused history with the Mind-Body Problem.

I’m not going to dive into the details here (but if you’re interested, there are about 10,000 books on the subject), except to say that as a rule, people tend to fall into two opposing camps:

  • Those who exult in the mind (often abstracted into the “ego” or “identity” or “immortal soul”) and view the body as unfortunate-but-necessary baggage.
  • Those who reject the artificial, illusory mind/body distinction and encourage us to think of the two holistically, for the improvement of each — er, it.  (See?  Everyday language gets tricky when you commit yourself to this stance.)

Normally I find myself siding with the second camp.  The “it’s all a closed loop; physiology affects the mind; and the mind’s choices feed back into our physiology, and so on” position.

This makes good, solid sense to me.

And yet…

I can see where the fusiform gyrus — so marvelous in its function — creates a built-in logical fallacy for us.

We see ourselves (using our objective visual system) and because of our tendency to iconize the people we know, what comes to mind is our self (either our identity/soul, or our “holistic self” — either of which amounts to the same thing, in practice).

We look in the mirror and see the psychosocial aspects

  • Do I look sexy for so-and-so?
  • Will this suit make me look impressive for such-and-such occasion?
  • Do I look older than the me from last year?

…and 99 times out of 100, the identity-considerations leap front-and-center and distract us from thinking about the hundred-odd pounds of primate staring back at us.

If we thought about that primate, we might ask…

  • How is this specimen?
  • If I were an alien, going to the galactic pet store to buy a human pet for my alien kid, would I pick this one?
  • Is he going to be fun to play with?  Strong for work?  Lively?  Tasty?

Catching that unrecognized me in the mirror, I had a flashing moment where I didn’t see my identity, I saw the body I inhabit — and that brief instant was a powerful reminder.

Pour Your Foundation.

Whichever end of the Mind-Body Problem you find yourself siding with, it’s the body that’s the physical substrate of our existence.

To put that less nerdily:

“If you don’t take care of your body, where will you live?”

  • Somebody said this before me, but the speaker’s name is lost to history.

I’m like everyone else; 99.9% of the time I’m caught up in ego-related concerns — the things I want to do, be, see, experience.  And the maintenance of the meat-package that I come in — things like brushing my teeth — mostly seem like annoying impositions on my goals.

How many more inventions might have come from Edison if he hadn’t had to brush his teeth twice a day?

Could posterity have a few more Shakespeare plays if the Bard hadn’t had to use the loo?

And yet, it’s probably the opposite that’s true.  Maintenance work on our physical selves is a short-term loss, long-term gain.  (Absurd but true: If Shakespeare had never gone to the restroom, he’d have been in too much pain to do any writing.)

What resulted for me from my moment of non-self-recognition is this:  The thinking me is going to give a little more time, effort, and attention to the care and feeding of his animal chassis.

Sure, the animal-you is easy to forget about.  You can ignore him for a long, long time with little consequence; he’s slow to complain.  But eventually it will be he who is the primary determinant of how far you can go.

And that is a fact worth recognizing.

The correlation between being intelligent and being correct is, unfortunately, not as strong as we’d like it to be.

If smart people were as right as they are smart, knowing what to do all the time would be a lot simpler than it actually is.  But, alas.

A case-in-point is an article entitled “The New Normal,” published recently in Georgia State University Magazine, highlighting the thinking of uncontested smart person (and Smart Drug Smarts podcast alumnus) Nicole Vincent, associate professor of philosophy and associate neuroscience faculty member at GSU.

Unfortunately, the key idea of this article is just plain wrong.

The article presages a future where society has to deal with the nasty, unintended consequences of ever-more-effective cognition-enhancing drugs.  In this hypothetical dystopia, health/safety and efficacy concerns have all been addressed; the problems presented are purely social ones.

The title – “The New Normal” – refers to the social expectation that everyone will be using these drugs, for fear of underperforming and not keeping up with the cognitively-enhanced Joneses.

Citing high-responsibility professions like surgeons and airline pilots, Vincent warns of creeping public pressure for individuals to use the best-available cognitive enhancers to maximize their performance.  “You’re performing a job that many people’s lives depend on,” she says.  “If you mess up and people die when you could have just taken this [performance-enhancing] pill, people will see that as negligence.”

Why yes, I daresay they would.

Let me step back for a moment and say that I agree with most of the premises that the article’s “doomsday scenario” of changing cultural norms is based on.

  • I agree that cognitive enhancement technologies (including, but not limited to, “smart drugs”) will continue to improve.
  • I agree that early-adopters and more competitive members of society will use these things, and change our collective expectations — first of what is “acceptable,” next of what is “normal,” and finally what is “required” (either legally, or by overwhelming social pressure).
  • I agree that we’ll release these technologies into our society without having a clear understanding of their eventual consequences.*

* Humans have a bad track record when it comes to keeping genies in bottles.  If there are any technological genies that haven’t been un-bottled, I can’t think of them.  (Of course, this could be because their inventors kept them so darned secret we just don’t know such genies have been invented — and if so, kudos to those inventors.)  But as a rule — from atomic weapons to boy bands — if we invent things, we tend to use them and only afterwards consider what we’ve wrought on ourselves.

So if I agree with almost every premise presented by Vincent, what is she wrong about, exactly?

Her thesis fails the So-What Test.

Cognitive Enhancement will become the new normal.  So what.

As these technologies move from the Early Adopters to the Early Majority and eventually to everyone else, even the kicking, screaming Laggards will be pressured along (see the Diffusion of Innovations for this fun, cocktail-party terminology).

But… so what?

Let me provide some examples of other ideas that have failed the So-What Test:

  • “If access to basic education continues to expand… people will have to be literate to effectively participate in society.”
  • “If air travel becomes commonplace… businesses may expect workers to travel for hours at a time, at extreme heights, with absolutely nothing underneath of them.”
  • “If medicine further reduces infant mortality… manufacturers of child coffins will be put out of business — or else suffer the ignominy of re-marketing their products for small household pets.”

So freaking what, in all cases.

I could come up with more examples — a lot more.  All these if-thens are 100% correct.  And all are absurd in a way that is self-evident to pretty much everyone except… philosophers.

I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth (or over-speculate about someone else’s writing), but Vincent’s stance seems to be “we haven’t figured out all the ramifications of these technologies yet, so we should maintain the status quo until we do.”

But we can’t.  

And I don’t just mean we shouldn’t, I mean we can’t.

With apologies to Nostradamus and Madame Cleo, most of our track-records for predicting the future are just plain rotten.  And that includes really smart people — even professional think-tanks full of really smart people.

Accurately predicting the future requires access to enormous data sets, solid estimates of rates-of-change, an inherently counterintuitive understanding of exponential growth, and effective models of how various simultaneously-moving metrics interact with each other.

In fact, I’m just speculating that this recipe — if it could be pulled off — could accurately predict the future.  We don’t know.  But I find it hard to imagine that any of these tent-pole prerequisites wouldn’t be necessary.

Vincent’s stance seems to be “we haven’t figured out all the ramifications of these technologies yet, so we should maintain the status quo until we do.”

It was Abraham Lincoln who said: “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”  I’ve been reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and one thing is easy for us to forget now, 150 years later, but was an enormous hurdle for Lincoln and other slavery-abolitionists:

There were many of Lincoln’s contemporaries — even those who morally opposed slavery — who thought that the Law of Unintended Consequences, when applied to a societal change as massive as the 13th Amendment (which made slaves’ wartime emancipation permanent), was just too risky.  What righteous babies might be thrown out with the slavery-colored bathwater?  Heck, what about the disaster inflicted on the federal government’s Strategic Mule Supply, if each of the freed slaves really got “40 acres and a mule”?

(Please refer back to the So-What Test, mentioned above.)

Rhetorical Bag of Dirty Tricks #47 and #48:  If you want to sound good, align your ideas with those of Abraham Lincoln.  To demonize your opposition, reference their ideas alongside Hitler’s.  I do both, although I’m leaving Hitler out of this post.

“The only constant is change.”

Trying to game out the future before it arrives, as we’ve discussed, is a fool’s errand.

And attempting to stop the future from arriving — to stop time in its tracks — is as close as history gives us to a recipe for a lost cause.  There are so many examples of losing battles fought in the name of such causes; the cultural annihilation of both the Native Americans and the samurai of Imperial Japan both come to mind.

Looking at these long-ago-settled battles from the winners’ side of history — knowing who triumphed and why, we now see the romance under the dust.  The American Indians, the samurai — both were fighting technologically superior forces in doomed, all-or-nothing conflicts.  The winners’ superior firepower, their superior numbers — both feel a lot like cheating as we look back on those conflicts now.

The “noble savages” didn’t stand a chance, but boy-oh-boy, did they have heart.

The position taken in the GSU article — against the creeping use of cognitive enhancement technologies — would try to paint baseline Homo Sapiens (circa 2015) as a noble savage race.

It’s an argument that packs emotional appeal.

You, me, and everyone we know, falls into the “us” that is under this impending, theoretical threat.  Even those of us who are using cognitive enhancers (those currently available) — we’re still a part of the “home team,” compared to those upgraded rascals from 2020, or 2030, or 2045, and whatever brain-enhancers they’re using to one-up, two-up, and eventually disenfranchise the biological “normals.”

What Part of “Progress” Don’t You Like?

I’m a sucker for historical romance.  I don’t mean boy-meets-girl kissy-kissy stuff where the girl wears a corset; I mean the broad, sweeping emotionality of individual humans struggling amidst great forces.

And the Tide of History is among the greatest of forces — less tangible but equally powerful as any natural disaster.

I watch a movie like The Last Samurai and see the doomed samurai charge, and I get misty-eyed like everyone else.  But I recognize that those noble samurai are, however unwittingly, the bad guys.

Unbeknownst to them, they were fighting against a world that cured Polio.

They were fighting against a world that explores space.

They were fighting against a world where run-of-the-mill consumer technology allows me to research samurai while listening to Icelandic music (created on synthetic instruments, and presented in Surround-Sound) as I sip African coffee and wait for a transcontinental flight that will be faster, cheaper, and safer than it used to be to travel between nearby villages.

Of course, the samurai didn’t know they were fighting against this stuff.

They just weren’t sure about this whole modernization thing, and what sort of “new normals” might emerge.

Bob Dylan was right: The times, they are a-changin’.

You won’t be forced to keep up.

Cultural tides may pull you along, but you’ll be free to swim against the current if you really want to.  There are examples of that, too.  The Amish are one.

The Amish are still here, in 2015.  So far as I know, they’re not under any particular threat.  They’re doing okay.  They decided to pull the cultural emergency-brake in 1830, or whatever, and well…

They continue to exist.  Why?  Because we live in a peaceful-enough, prosperous-enough culture that no one has decided it’s necessary to overrun, assimilate, or eradicate them and harvest their resources.  

It should be pointed out that societies like ours — this peaceful, this prosperous — are somewhat of an historical anomaly.  But the good news is:  We live in an era of unprecedented positive historical anomalies.

I recognize that those noble samurai are, however unwittingly, the bad guys.

If you want to opt out of further technological progress and rely on the goodwill of your fellow man (or, eventually, the Homo Sapiens-successors you’ll be opting out of becoming), there’s never been a safer time to do so.  We can’t predict the future, but the trend-lines do seem promising.

But for me, personally…

I don’t want to rely on the goodness of my fellow man.

That sort of reliance is something you do in a pinch, not as a general strategy.

Do you think the Amish would have made it through the Cold War without the more technologically-minded Americans picking up their cultural slack?  No sir, not at all.  Heck, they’d have been steamrolled in the Spanish-American War, generations earlier.

I didn’t start off this post intending to disparage the Amish, but dammit, now I will.  The fact is, they’re not going to read this anyway.

There is a word for people who have every opportunity to be effective, but choose not to be, and instead rely on others to be effective on their behalf.

That word is Freeloaders.

The Amish, I put it to you, are freeloaders.

GSU’s New Normal article posits a future where effective, cheap, safe, non-prescription “smart drugs” have become commonplace.

In that future, when it arrives, people who have the opportunity to use these drugs to improve themselves, and choose not to, will also be freeloaders.

I won’t be one of them.

Hey there, Performance Hackers!

Our friends at Quantified Self are putting on an exposition on the San Francisco waterfront on June 20th — and Jesse will be paying them a visit to check out all the newest developments in the self-tracking world.  The expo is for everyone interested in understanding where technology is going and how it’s affecting our lives.

QS’s Press Coordinator Ernesto Ramirez joins us for this micro-edition to give some background on the Quantified Self movement and offer a sneak-peek of what will be happening at the event.  Ernesto covers the most popular ways to self-assess, the crossover between do-it-yourself and personal tracking, and how much time actually goes into recording and analysis of activities.

Come and Say Hi

Join Jesse and the other optimization-fiends interested in how sensors, data, and “very personal computing” can be used to understand ourselves and the world around us.  Try out the new wearable devices and apps that can give you intimate and direct feedback about yourself: from how you sleep, eat, and exercise — to what triggers your fear and joy.

Any Smart Drug Smarts listeners in the San Fransisco area who’d like to attend can register here using the discount code smartpod to get $10 off the regular $20 ticket price.

We hope to see you there!

Where & When

June 20
10am – 4pm
Herbst Pavilion, Fort Mason

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