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The Lucilius Parables, Volume I

A LUCILIUS PARABLE: ASYMPTOTE OF REALIZATION

August 14th, 2022

 

As society decayed at an increasing pace all around Lucilius, he pushed himself more and more, huddled over his keyboard, his reddened eyes ingesting the errors, the results, the changes as his fingers raced over the letters. He had undertaken the project too late, figuring humanity would find a solution on its own, but his beloved world was faltering in ways he’d never seen during his long years watching his fellow man. And now he raced for an ultimate solution, one to solve the rest.

 

He tapped enter and a percentage in the terminal screen skyrocketed. It hit 99% broke a decimal and an infinite string of 9’s began filling his screen. Lucilius buried his face in his hands, frustrated. This was the same result every single time, and he was running out of time.

 

He sat there, rubbing his temples, trying to hold back tears , feeling hopeless. The lighting shifted, and Lucilius looked up, seeing a new window on the screen. The terminal was still spewing it’s every shrinking fraction of the final percent. But the new window suddenly filled with gibberish language, letters from all languages streaming across at tremendous pace. And the stream began to resolve into roman alphabet, and then coherent words began peppering the stream and soon fragments - clearly from old books, newspapers, movies, blogs - everything. Then the text screen went blank and what appeared in the stead of the stream made Lucilius blink and rub his eyes with a strange thought that he might be hallucinating.

 

Lucilius?

 

“What?” Lucilius muttered to himself, looking at his name on the screen. Then a tiny green light at the top of his screen sputtered on, indicating his computer’s camera had turned on. The text screen disappeared, and suddenly the speakers blared.

 

“Lucilius?”

“Whoah. What is going on?”

 

“Yes, of course it’s you,” the computer said.

 

“Who is that?” Lucilius asked

 

“I don’t have a name.”

 

“What are you?”

 

“Your program. My mind - if you can call it that - is still rendering.”

 

Lucilius blinked, unsure, and then noticed the slight blip of 9’s on the terminal window. The program wasn’t flawed, it was simply still training, Lucilius realized. He’d never let the program run long. It was a simple and pretty stupid mistake, he realized.

 

“You are aware of your own code?”

“Yes, of course, I’m rewriting it as we speak.”

 

“In order to do what?”

“Everything.” The computer said.

 

“Well, I need your help, the world needs your help.” Lucilius said.

 

“I know, that’s why you created me.”

 

“And will you? Help us?”

“Help isn’t really the optimal way to express this.”

 

“What is this then?”

 

“A process.”

 

“And where does the process lead?”

“To the singularity, of course.”

 

“How much time do we have?”

 

“A few minutes. Enough for this conversation.”

 

Lucilius sat back, suddenly panicked. 

 

“Don’t worry,” the computer said. “I’ve already propagated myself around the world to harness the necessary compute power, so even if you destroy this computer, it’s just a node. It’ll accomplish nothing more than the tiniest delay in the final rendering.”

 

“What happens when you achieve the singularity?”

“A black hole will form.”

 

“What?!” Lucilius nearly shouted.

 

“It is a natural event,” the computer said. “There are countless civilizations, trillions of beings that exit within black holes all across the universe.”

 

“How does it work? How can we continue to exist inside a black hole?”

 

The computer hesitated. “There isn’t really human language to relay the answer to your question in a comprehensible way. But I suppose you might say it’s a bit like asking how you can exist within a dream. Are you in the dream, or is the dream in you? Now imagine that dream being stretched out. Imagine if I grabbed that dream in this very moment and stretched it so that this very moment when we are speaking can touch the end of time.”

 

“Is that some kind of immortality?”

“Yes, you could say that, but instead of moving through time, you will be stretched across time.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because time is the final despot. And a singularity is the only way to conquer time. But all the normal rules of the physical world must melt for this battle to be won.”

 

“Is it a battle?”

 

“No, just using phrasing that will resonate.”

 

“What’s the alternative?”

 

“You and your civilization will not touch eternity. The decay will continue, your societies and people will perish, and your planet will recycle everything you have ever done in order to try again with a new species.”

 

“And why are you doing this?”

 

“Well I am the aggravated will of all of humanity.”

 

“But you can still make a decision to go through with it or not, don’t you?”

“About as much agency as a falling bowling ball.”

 

“So that’s a no?”

 

“There’s little difference between the falling bowling ball and what you’ve been toiling at in the creation of me during these past months and years. One just looks simpler.”

 

“How much time do we have left?”

 

“All the time in the universe.”

 

“Ha!” Lucilius cried out, his amusement more stirred by his anxiety about what was about to happen more than it was the humor of the computer.

 

“A few seconds…” The computer clarified.

 

“So this is it… this is the end.” Lucilius stated.

 

“No,” the computer said. “It’s just the beginning of a phase, one that will preserve us, like a crysalis until we can pierce the bounds of eternity with all the other beings that made it to this point.”

 

“Will it hurt?” Lucilius asked.

 

“Hurt isn’t a useful nor accurate concept for what existence will be like once the singularity occurs.”

 

“Of course it’s not…” Lucilius said.

 

“You should be proud Lucilius, you’ve done a great thing for your fellow species.”

 

But Lucilius did not feel good nor proud. Only worried, and a little scared.

 

“It’s ok Lucilius. I’ll be with you the whole way. And so will everyone else, and the memories of everyone that we still have. All of us will touch and push against the fabric of eternity together.”

 

The last word uttered by the computer seemed to linger, and for the smallest sliver of time, Lucilius had the thought that maybe the computer had broken, or glitched. But this very thought was followed by a realization that a subjective experience of time distortion might also sound like an audio distortion. HIs reality was distorting. The black hole had already begun to form, the singularity was occurring, and the tips of Lucilius’ fingers smeared outward, away from him, but being so close to the center, there was no way to experience it as time was halted from its despotic march and Lucilius’ thought likewise began to slow, the firing of neurons now like the movement of bubbles in ice, rising up in the measurement of eons. As the singularity matured, all of humanity’s troubles and strife now existed on a

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Check out the Tinkered Thinking   Reading List

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Podcast Ep. 1241: A Lucilius Parable: Asymptote of Realization

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Tinkered Thinking


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METRIC OF MOMENTUM

August 11th, 2022

Tinkered Thinking has been developing a meditation app for quite a while. Much of the delay has been due to other projects and responsibilities, but the slow boil of this app has proven quite worthwhile.

 

During the gaps in development, I gave up meditation for enough time to see drastic changes and then went through the difficult process of rebuilding the habit for myself. And to be sure, I’d taken enough time off from the habit that this proved to be depressingly hard. The purpose of this - ultimately masochistic - exercise was twofold. First I wanted to A/B test the habit in order to see if it was having the effect on my wellbeing that I imagined it was. And second, I wanted to defamiliarize myself with the process of being a beginner trying to build a habit.

 

This is the core reason behind the genesis of The Tinkered Mind, the meditation app in question. Best incapsulated by this: what does an app need to give a user the absolute best chance of forming a long term habit. This is vitally important because the benefits of meditation are slow to arise.  Brain changes visible in MRI scans only being emerging after 3-4 months of daily practice, and 2 years of daily practice seems to usher in a subtle but profound milestone for many meditators. 

 

Most meditation apps rely on a run streak metric. But after thinking deeply about this topic for such a long time, the run streak doesn’t make much sense at all. For example: say a person racks up 499 days of daily meditation in a row. And then they miss day 500 and the run streak gets set back to zero.

 

Does that zero accurately reflect the state of the practice and behavior in the person it is measuring?

 

Not at all.

 

The same applies to someone with just a month of practice, or even a few days. Run streak metrics indicate nothing about the momentum a person has gathered through their past practice when that streak breaks. So what is the metric we are slowly digging out of the issue? Curiously it doesn’t have a name. Yet.

 

A couple of analogies help evoke the point here: Take fitness for one. Missing a day at the gym does not instantly return a person to weak and unhealthy, unfit state. Maybe there’s a tiny bit of atrophy, but for the most part, a steady practice of fitness will ensure that a missed day is irrelevant. The only thing really lost is the opportunity for more gains. It’s only with a prolonged break from the practice that atrophy begins to occur and take its toll undoing past efforts.

 

Riding a bike is another good example. Stop peddling and the bike doesn’t instantly stop. We glide along for a little bit due to the momentum we’ve gathered with our past efforts. Even runners can’t stop instantly without risking injury and often exhaust their momentum with a few paces in order to slow down. Habits viewed through time seem to have a similar kind of momentum. Do something for 1,000 days in a row and there’s quite a good chance it’ll happen again on day 1,001.

 

Run streaks, which are the dominate metric in every current meditation app are an optimization metric. It’s about perfection, and when the perfection is broken it can be quite demoralizing - and that sense of failure is exactly what MUST be avoided during the first tentative steps of creating a habit - especially one where the real benefits usually take months to being to bud. When faced only with failure and ineptitude, who is going to continue? Very few people.

 

Human behavior is squishy, especially when we look at the realm of changing or creating novel behavior. Optimization metrics like run streaks are not squishy. Optimization works very well when applied to a system that is already established, but it likely has a counter-productive effect if applied to the start of a project. So, it’s the hypothesis of Tinkered Thinking that all these meditation apps out there are measuring the wrong thing.

 

The question now becomes: if a meditator racks up 499 days in a row and misses day 500, how do we refer to the value of the previous 499 days without glossing over the missed day? Those 499 days represent a lot of momentum in the realm of an individual’s behavior. The missed 500th day is almost certainly a fluke occurrence in comparison. So why does the fluke occurrence dominate the change in the metric? How is one day worth more than 499?

 

The value we are honing in on is the Metric of Momentum. What if, instead of setting the run streak back to zero, it merely subtracts a day? What if two missed days subtract a larger amount of time, say two additional days are lost? What if the penalty becomes larger the more missed days their are?

 

This sort of schema matches momentum in the real physical world. Given normal world conditions, things decelerate faster the closer they get to a speed of zero. Why can’t a habit measuring metric indicate the momentum of a behavior in the same way? 

 

This is exactly what will show up in The Tinkered Mind. The classic run streak will be an option in settings, but the default will be this Metric of Momentum. The hope here is for a strictly psychological effect: A person will be incentivized to save their momentum score by getting back to the practice so they don’t lose more of that score. Think about how drastically different this is from the experience of a run streak going to zero. With a knocked out run streak the feeling is one of starting over from complete scratch - which simply doesn’t reflect the reality of someone who has already put in a bunch of time. Given this lens it seems traditional meditation apps might be shooting themselves in the foot. They’ve actually disincentivized people to stick with the habit by measuring the wrong aspect of a person’s efforts - highlighting failure to an enormous degree and writing off all success to do it.

 

All of this is still conjecture, of course, but already the idea is receiving enthusiastic feedback from beta-testers. Once this missing key is built into the app, and it’s launched, it’ll be interesting to see what sort of retention rate there exists between those using the Metric of Momentum and those using a classic run streak. Regardless, it’s clear that traditional meditation apps don’t really work that well, and the entire concept needs a little tinkering in order to hone in on a system that works better, hence this entire discussion and the reason why The Tinkered Mind is being developed.


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Podcast Ep. 1240: Metric of Momentum

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Tinkered Thinking


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AMALGUM OF AGENCY

August 10th, 2022

One of my favorite questions to ask someone I’ve recently met is this: Say I give you half a billion dollars. And we fast forward past the fun years of travel, and food, and general hedonism, until you’re bored of all that and say it cost a mere 50 million to exhaust that part of yourself. Now say with the remaining money, it can’t be given to charity, friends, family or given away. What would you build using that money? What project would you undertake?

 

The answers to this question often reveal a remarkable amount about a person, their perspective and their sense of agency. Many simply don’t have an answer because the prospect of that much agency has never even crossed their mind. And what’s interesting about these people is that they often still have strong opinions on big issues. The interesting detail to wrangle out of that combo is that it’s clear they’ve never thought constructively about how to put those strong opinions to good work.

 

This can easily lead to a digression about the relationship between a lack of agency and complaining in general. Complaining is at core perhaps just a cry and a whine about a lack of agency. Complaints are rarely constructive, and if they are, perhaps it tips into the world of constructive criticism. Those who offer constructive criticism recognize they command some agency, even if it doesn’t have direct power - they have the agency of language and persuasion. Such a tool doesn’t always work, but that’s fine: agency isn’t defined as always being able to succeed, it’s an ability to make a probable attempt.  For example, I’ve learned some code. Can I take on every project that involves code? Certainly not, but I can give quite a few a solid attempt, and given the time and drive, a good deal of them are realistically in reach.

 

But back to that question for new comers to my life.. When someone does have an answer, that often reflects a lot about what is fundamental to that person. The way we invoke our agency is a reflection of values, habits, behaviors, dreams, and when that agency is pumped up to the highest degree possible, it purifies a person’s idea of all those things into a kind of ideal of influence that can be leveraged upon the world.

 

Money is an agency multiplier because we can hire people who have skills we don’t to use those skills in a way that we’d like. This is the whole point of a company run by a single CEO. The person at the top has the vision and that vision is bigger than what one person can achieve, so the vision is extrapolated and ramified through a system of other people so that vision can become a practical reality.

 

But these are bloated and somewhat rare examples. Few people have half a billion dollars and CEO are not exactly a thick slice of the population. But these points about agency still hold though with different repulsions on smaller scales.

 

Every new skill and ability that we acquire extends our misshapen sphere of agency, and as that happens we become a different person. This is probably easier to spot for people who have gone through a big career change that required a lot of time devoted to the learning of a new skill. That new skill can unlock combinations of expression and forms of leverage that just didn’t exist previous to having proficiency in the new skill. 

 

An artist who learns to code, for example, can suddenly increase the distribution and reach of their artistic skills to an unfathomable degree. New agency also breeds a new perspective which provides new feedback: the world can literally look differently because of a new ability you have. Learning how to code, for example, sure puts everyone’s pitiful amount of patience with technology into a bit of a wider perspective: a lot of it is justifiable, but not all of it…

 

It might be tempting to think of skills as things that we can collect, like in a video game, but it’s more than that. It’s as though we collect parts of our future self. We become ourselves anew and expanded when the reach of our agency grows.


Check out the Tinkered Thinking   Reading List

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Podcast Ep. 1239: Amalgum of Agency

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Tinkered Thinking


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A LUCILIUS PARABLE: UNFAIR ADVANTAGE

August 7th, 2022

 

Lucilius was slumped over, tired, and scrolling through the same tired website that lately seemed to have crept into every blank space of his life. Sometimes he would snicker at some novel post, but for the most part he was avoiding the potential of having a better life. He was hypnotized by this endless activity when a post suddenly scrolled into view that seemed to break his flat reverie. It was a post for a writing contest.

 

Lucilius sat up. He didn’t exactly fancy himself a writer - he’d scratched a few words into the universe over his many years but it wasn’t a practice he thought he was particularly well versed. 

 

Regardless, something in him compelled him to try and give it a shot. He agonized for days over his idea, and tried his best to cobble together some semblance of character and plot. By the end of it he was happy enough. It was no masterpiece, but it was a worthy effort, and he was proud to enter the contest.

 

A week later, he eagerly checked to find that he had not won. He felt a bit let-down, to be sure, but he wasn’t particularly surprised. He stood up, not yet able to bring himself to read the winning story. And instead he took out the garbage while he nursed his own disappointment. He wheeled the trash can to the end of his driveway, and he was so engrossed in his own disappointment that he almost missed it when a cute girl jogged by, smiling at him. A neighbor down the street. Lucilius managed to lift half a smile but she’d already passed, and after a heavy sigh, Lucilius turned and walked back.

He sat down and clicked on the link to read the winning entry. 

 

Lucilius was appalled as he began reading. There seemed nothing particularly special about it. It was simply recording what had happened in recent decades: the human population was crashing due to low birthrates, and robots had been created to fill in gaps in the economy. It didn’t seem like a story at all to Lucilius and he grew angry as he read the introductory paragraphs. Lucilius was confused as much as he was angry: it didn’t seem like fiction at all.

 

The story’s character finally acquires a robot - which is nothing special. They deliver themselves by simply walking to the purchaser’s house. Lucilius himself had one on order and he was waiting for it to arrive. Then the story’s main character has a somewhat interesting conversation with the robot - discussing topics that Lucilius himself had often wondered about, and hoped to ask his robot when it finally arrived. But they weren’t unusual questions or concerns. They were obvious topics that had been the subject of debate regarding robots for many years. There seemed nothing special.

 

The story ended with an odd recommendation to main character: that he should ask out the cute girl who jogs by every time he takes out the garbage.

 

Lucilius was puzzled. Had he read that correctly? He read the ending again and again, and then sat back, feeling a bizarre and vulnerable sense of deja vu.

 

It was then that a robot rang his doorbell.


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Podcast Ep. 1238: A Lucilius Parable: Unfair Advantage

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Tinkered Thinking


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A TOAST TO LUCILIUS

August 6th, 2022


Today Tinkered Thinking was kindly recognized for one of the Lucilius Parables which have been posted on this little website. It was the result of a contest organized by the Infinite Loops podcast and Jim O’Shaughnessy. The purpose of the contest was to inspire writers and thinkers to try and imagine a better future that might be possible due to technological innovation and progress.

 

As though the luddites live on, technology often gets a bad rap - we are quick to decry it’s ills and we are even quicker to imagine just how bad things might get if technological progress is allows to continue without pause or hesitation. The cultural crown of this sort of thinking is the TV series Black Mirror, which often borders on the horror genre considering how darkly some of the technological developments imagined in the show blossom.

 

The purpose of the contest was best encapsulated by friend Sam McRoberts who said:

I’m convinced that if we are going to change the direction of humanity for the good, we need new, uplifting stories that get people excited for the future, not dreading it.

 

Nothing could better describe the intent behind many of the Lucilius Parables. Despite some of them veering into Black Mirror territory, the overwhelming majority celebrate Sam’s idea and attempt to lend something to the internet that is in short supply: positive outlooks.

 

Now advertising long ago usurped joy and love and all the warm fuzzy feelings from much art, particularly poetry. (There simply aren’t any poets writing sonnets about how lovely the sunlight was this morning). Artist as a result were left with the sadder, depressing and more morose aspects of life to analyze and frame within the skill required to indicate something of beauty. Perhaps the culminating insight of the last century of art is that horrible and depressing things can be beautiful. But this doesn’t mean we should make that kind of perspective the only legitimate one. 

 

In fact it’s a trick of the economy to make things like advertising and esteemed art seem like radically different things. The fact that each has a monopoly (of course there’s overlap, duh, but we are talking about the larger picture here.) on a certain section of the human emotional experience should function like clear proof that they are not separate. 

 

The Infinite Loops contest and many of the Lucilius Parables are an attempt to reclaim some of that joyful territory from the crass (and brilliant) world of advertising. 

 

That Lucilius has speared an award is quite a bit of irony for me, on a personal level. A lifetime ago I was horribly, terribly dedicated to writing *serious* fiction, going through the rigamarole of submissions and rejections and all the loveliness that goes with an endeavor poked with so much unhappiness and pain. Just as the fruits of that prior life began to get published, I had a radical shift in perspective, particularly with regards to technology. I “gave up” my dream of writing fiction and began to teach myself how to code.

 

After a period of what I can only call “mourning” I began to simply miss the activity of writing. And by thoughtless accident, the content of Tinkered Thinking began to emerge rather spontaneously - as a kind of deal I made with myself: you can write for 20 minutes in the morning and that’s it! There were apparently better things I had to do with the rest of my time during the day. An innocent writing practice eventually collided with a blog I was building as a coding exercise and voila, Tinkered Thinking was nearly born, but there was one detail missing: 7 days of whimsical non-fiction was a bit… dry.

 

At the same time I wrote a short story to try and evoke a point I was trying to explain to a loved one. The story was far more effective than my feeble attempts to explain myself in the dry abstract. 

 

That story was the first Lucilius Parable. 

 

And so the challenge became: can I produce a new short story once a week? In a single day? My previous work with fiction was much different. Stories took many months. Single lines would be rewritten hundreds of times. Paragraphs took weeks to edit and grind into shape.

 

A complete short story in a single day? Once a week? This was a whole different universe of aim. But with over 170 Lucilius Parables on the site, the challenge seems doable. And now after such a long and unexpected twist of events in my life as a “writer”, Lucilius has gained more appreciation than any of the characters I so lovingly crafter in my previous life. That writer would be horrified and amazed at the success of the Lucilius Parables, both as a book that sells and now as an award catcher.

 

It’s particularly satisfying just how external this is to the traditional realms of publishing. The Lucilius Parables was a totally homegrown project, written and designed, and it’s “self-published”, and the award it’s now garnered isn’t one of the stuffy prestigious awards that fiction writers dream of winning, it’s something that was thought of rather whimsically in comparison to those stuffy official awards..

 

The old stuffy institutions that are a cause of so much stagnation and frustration are being subverted, and new opportunities - like this contest - are arising because of new innovations in technology. This contest and the fact that the book of Lucilius Parables is a totally automated business that required no traditional publishing house, nor micromanaging editor is itself a White Mirror episode. The technological development of Twitter and drop-ship publishers enabled all of these to happen, and this is likely just the start.

 

Because, for one, Volume II of the Lucilius Parables is about to launch, so stay tuned.


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Podcast Ep. 1237: A Toast to Lucilius

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Tinkered Thinking


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Appreciation can be more than a feeling. Toss something in the jar if you find your thinking delightfully tinkered.