My Uneasy Relationship with the Internet

This week’s post is disjointed and I’m not really satisfied with how it turned out, but hey, it’s a post!

I am not happy with the way I use the internet. I continually refresh the same websites, hoping something new has appeared since last time—usually there’s nothing. Occasionally I’ll find something interesting, but it’s never worth the time I’ve wasted. The slot machine analogy, though clichéd, is still relevant. I feel a little spark of excitement and anticipation every time I check, and that strengthens the compulsion, even though I am disappointed most of the time.

This is a problem, because it’s not like I’m enjoying myself while doing it. I’m not getting distracted and only realizing what I’ve done hours later. I’m constantly, miserably hyper-aware that I’m wasting time—that the majority of what I’m reading isn’t important, useful, or even interesting to me. I’d rather read a book. Instead, I keep going, afraid that if I don’t, I’ll miss something that would make my time spent worthwhile. But nothing could possibly be good enough to outweigh such a massive cost.

For some sites—like blogs—there is a simple solution. Instead of checking compulsively to see if they updated, I simply follow them in Feedly, my RSS reader of choice. This reduces the number of sites I need to check to just one. If nothing has updated, there’s no possibility of having my attention sucked away, because I will be met with an empty screen. Other sites offer newsletters. When new articles come out, I will be sent an email. If I don’t get the email, I don’t need to bother checking the site.

It’s not blogs I compulsively waste my time checking, though. Blogs are nice. Blogs only update once every few days, if that. Blogs are of reliable quality because they’re the work of a single person. No, the culprits are social media sites and content aggregators—Twitter, Reddit, Hacker News, etc. These sites are near-continuous fire hoses of content, so an RSS feed is pointless. Plus, the average quality is incredibly low because literally anyone can make an account. I can’t remember the last time I found something legitimately good on Reddit.

My life would improve immeasurably if I never visited these sites again—perhaps. But for some reason, I find this difficult to do. I’ve tried using browser add-ons to block my access to certain sites, or to limit the amount of time I spend on them per day, but these are trivial to circumvent and I always do. I don’t even think such measures are the correct solution to the problem; what I need is something outside the internet to occupy my time with. But it’s a vicious cycle, because I’m too busy with the internet to get deeper into my hobbies! Plus, I don’t want to avoid using these sites entirely. Reddit is occasionally the only place one can find answers to certain questions. YouTube is how I became such a good cook. I have friends on Twitter and sometimes even enjoy it. How do I reduce the amount of time I spend on these sites without just quitting them cold turkey forever? What does a healthy relationship with the internet look like?

A few more unorganized thoughts about the internet.

If you’ve been on a content aggregator for long enough, you begin to notice that a lot of the best content comes from the same few sites. For example, the majority of the time I find something legitimately interesting on Hacker News, it’s from Quanta Magazine, Nautilus, or some other magazine in that general space. Wouldn’t it be better to follow those sites directly (via RSS or newsletters, of course) and skip the Hacker News step entirely? Of course it would. The fear, though, is that by doing that I’d be missing out on new sites to follow.

I think the key to avoiding this whole mess I’m in is to trust that the people around me will link me to anything interesting they find, or that I can just ask if anyone knows an interesting source on a particular topic.

You also notice that the comments are basically never worth reading. Large subreddits, for example, routinely have chains of comments dozens of levels deep, each making a slightly different variation on the same joke in a desperate attempt to accumulate karma. There are a thousand low-effort joke/meme comments for every normal comment, and a thousand normal comments for every comment that is actually worth reading. Who has the time to search through all that?

There’s also the problem of the Eternal September. No subreddit can ever progress, because new members are constantly flooding in and asking the same old questions they always ask. On the /r/piano, for example, every post is either a request for someone to identify a chord or a symbol on their sheet music they don’t recognize, someone posting a video of their own playing, or someone showing off their new piano. It will never move past that.

Another problem is leaky boundaries between subcultures. Reddit actually scores relatively well on this, since everyone is siloed into different subreddits, but Twitter is the worst offender. There’s no way to only follow certain people or subjects, or to talk in peace, because everyone retweets everyone else. The Scholar’s Stage articulates it best in The World That Twitter Made:

See, twitter is not a constellation of carefully moderated communities. The users of twitter are one great mass. The ponds and lakes of the blogosphere have emptied into a heaving sea. In this sea, twitter users are linked together, but linked weakly. They are unmoderated, unorganized, atomized—but stuck all together. A retweet can roll through the lot in a day.

Communities of a sort still exist on twitter, but they are mashed together in an unhealthy way. Many of these communities will be filled with people whose base assumptions about how the world works are 100% different than your own. That is fine. It is quite possible to talk honestly to people who don’t share your commitments—but of course the way one does this is very different from how you talk to someone whose world view aligns 85% with your own. On twitter you do not get to refine your message for either group. On twitter you project to everyone at once.

All the best sites are carefully curated walled gardens, where only a select few people are allowed to post. I often wish we could go back to the old internet of blogs and forums, well-defined communities around different topics, where there are few enough people in your bubble that you can get to know them. In The internet as we know it is doomed, Annalee Newitz puts forth the idea that the internet will collapse back into smaller societies the same way that civilization did in the late Neolithic period.

These Neolithic metropolises, though rare, were incredibly long-lived — some were continuously inhabited for 2,000 years. We know of their existence because their inhabitants changed the landscape permanently, leaving dramatic hills of crumbling brick and debris behind. But then, about 7500 years ago, something changed. People abandoned their larger settlements and went back to small communities, many of them moving seasonally rather than sticking with settled, agricultural life.

Large cities didn’t re-emerge in the region for about 2,000 years. And when they did, they were shockingly different; they were essentially city-states, with kings and taxes and slaves.

She doesn’t really “make an argument” so much as say “hey, this event is superficially similar to this other hypothetical event, maybe that means the hypothetical event will happen because of magic reasons!” I doubt this will actually happen, but if it does, it would be the best thing to happen online for a long time. I am rooting for it.

A Short Argument on the Origins of the Universe

While working on another project, I remembered an argument I came up with a decade ago but never wrote down. It concerns questions like “What created the universe?” and “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I don’t think this argument is new—I think Sean Carroll made the same point once, though I can’t find where. Anyway, the argument went something like this.

There’s a concept in epistemology called Münchhausen’s Trilemma. Think of a proof as a directed graph where the nodes are statements and the arrows are inferences. If we look for the ultimate justification of a statement, one of the following must be true: Either the proof ultimately rests on axioms that we assert without justification, or the proof requires an infinite number of steps, or the proof is circular and relies on the statement we’re trying to prove. Since this list exhausts the possibilities, and none of the options are satisfying, it is impossible to ever prove anything in a way humans would find intuitively satisfying. (Personally, I think this just shows that our intuitive concept of “proof” is incoherent and should be relinquished.)

My argument is that the same thing can be applied to causation. Instead of thinking about a graph of statements and inferences, we can think about a graph of events and causes. When looking for the ultimate cause of an event, then, one of the following must be true: Either the event was ultimately caused by a past event that has no cause itself, or the event was caused by a series of events stretching infinitely back into the past with no beginning, or the event is involved in a stable time loop and somehow caused itself. This, too, is an exhaustive list.

Therefore, the answer to the question “Why is there something instead of nothing?” will a priori never have a satisfactory answer. Perhaps we will realize that it’s impossible to gain information about anything outside the universe even in principle. Or perhaps we will discover that the universe was created by something else, like a god or another universe. All that does is push the question up one level: What caused that? Or maybe we will find that the universe created itself, or that we’re one of two universes that created each other, or something. All that does is bring up the question of the origin of the meta-universe in which this process is allowed to occur!

We will never have an answer that isn’t one of these three options, and yet people spend a lot of time and effort trying to console themselves that “No, actually, I do have an intuitively satisfying answer!” Hypothesizing creator gods, other universes, unmoved movers, etc. does not help you escape the trilemma. A Level IV Tegmark Universe doesn’t help because it just pushes the question up to why that exists. (The worst kind of theorizing about the origins of the universe is the kind exemplified in Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing. He claims that the laws of physics show how our universe can arise from empty, spaceless quantum fields, and that this provides a complete and satisfying answer to the age-old question. But it doesn’t! It doesn’t explain where that initial quantum field comes from, or the rules that govern its evolution!)

Personally, I don’t believe we will ever have any information about any process outside our universe, because this is impossible even in principle. I believe that the people who even think this question is important are making a particular mistake about the nature of causality. Consider a causal diagram for every event in the entire known universe. We can ask what caused a particular event, like “Why is the sidewalk wet?”, and, depending on the abstraction level and the categories we decide to chop the universe into, get some causal answer. “Because it rained.” “Because the sky god was angry.” “Because of the laws of physics and the boundary conditions of the universe.”

But the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” isn’t really a question that makes sense in this context. You’re not asking for the ultimate cause of some event in the causal diagram: You’re asking what caused the causal diagram itself. This is a category error; a mixing up different levels of abstraction. This is why I don’t believe that the question is worth losing sleep over, or even pursuing. We will never know the ultimate cause for our existence, and that’s okay, because the question itself is actually incoherent.

Paper versus Digital Notes

I previously wrote about the problem of deciding what to write down when reading books. This time, I want to write about the problem of which medium to use for note-taking in the first place. Should I take notes digitally, or on paper? I don’t mean just notes taken while reading; I also mean to-do lists, diary entries, calendars; pretty much any kind of information-recording. Usually, I think about these issues really hard once every couple of months, get overwhelmed, and decide not to think about it anymore, putting off any activities that might possibly require taking notes, like reading. It’s very frustrating.

From a purely mechanical standpoint, digital note-taking seems to have many advantages over paper. It’s very easy to erase, modify, and reorganize my notes if they are digital, but next to impossible on paper. Digital notes are also trivially searchable, whereas to search paper notes I would need to do the extra work of maintaining some sort of laborious referencing scheme. Digital notes take up basically no space, while paper requires notebooks, pencils, eraser, etc. Paper notes also require me to carry said writing materials around if I want to take notes on the go. Typing is much faster than writing, and the results are more legible—my handwriting is very messy. Digital notes are also trivial to share and copy.

However, taking notes on paper also has its strengths. I am not constrained by the program’s design choices and can use whatever formatting or organizational scheme I choose. I can write anywhere on the page, at any size, in any style, and draw any mathematical symbol I want without having to search through a menu. I can also draw and doodle. The results are more aesthetically pleasing, and it’s an excuse for me to practice handwriting. It seems horrifying to become so dependent on computers that you forget how to write.

Of course, the handwriting experience is also available digitally via programs like OneNote. But there are some downsides to this. First, there is the issue of screen real estate. With digital notes, I can only display one or two windows at a time unless I have an external monitor attached to my computer. If I’m reading a digital book and taking notes digitally, I have to constantly switch between windows unless I have a second screen. With paper, I can have as many documents and books open and spread out on my desk at once as I want. Writing on paper is also more satisfying, physically, than writing on glass. Not having a screen also means that I am not constantly one click away from the distractions of the internet.

But the strongest, most deep-seated reason I am reluctant to switch to digital is how ephemeral and fragile digital things seem to me. Paper is forever. It’s a solid, real object. Unless my home catches on fire or someone physically breaks in and steals my notebooks, paper can’t be lost or destroyed. Paper is also transparent. You never have to worry about what is going on “under the hood”, or where your data is being stored and whether or not it’s going to sync properly (Evernote and OneNote both tell me they “found an alternate version of this note” or have syncing issues all the time). If you store information on the cloud, eventually that service might get shut down or your data might get hacked.

This all prevents me from feeling comfortable going digital. But I also have trouble taking notes physically, because my handwriting is terrible and my hands cramp up after a minute of writing. Practicing handwriting would solve that, but I still worry that I will miss the benefits of digital, like searching and organizing. I’ve told myself that it’s easier to go from paper to digital if I decide to switch, than to go the other way, because I can scan paper but I can’t print notes (for cheap, anyway), but it’s still a challenge to start.

This all boils down to the ability to make a choice between two options of similar value, which is an ability that I seriously lack. Does anyone have any argument that decisively comes down on one side or the other? Failing that, does anyone have an argument for why I should just choose one and not worry about it?

Thinking About Modes

Every explanation of the diatonic modes that I was exposed to in childhood used the same ordering: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian. The reason is simple: If you play a scale from C to C using only the white keys, you have the Ionian mode, if you play from D to D, you have a Dorian mode, and so on. This was very simple, easy for me to remember, and utterly handicapped my ability to play modes.

If I wanted to play an F# Mixolydian scale, my thought process went like this: Okay, F# Mixolydian. Mixolydian is when you start on the fifth degree of the regular major scale… what scale is F# the fifth of? Uhh… B? Yeah, B major. Okay, so I need to play the notes in the B major scale, but starting on the F#, and that’s Mixolydian.

This was a painfully slow multi-step process. I don’t know how many other people have the same problem that I did, but given how common this explanation is and how many years it took me to find a better way of thinking about modes, there are probably quite a few. If you were like me, I hope this helps you. The better way of thinking about modes is to forget all that stuff about starting on different degrees of a major scale and just remember the following rules:

  • Lydian is major but with a raised fourth.
  • Ionian is major.
  • Mixolydian is major but with a flat seventh.
  • Dorian is minor but with a raised sixth.
  • Aeolian is minor.
  • Phrygian is minor but with a flat second.
  • Locrian is minor but with a flat second and a flat fifth.

That’s it. Now I want to play an F# Mixolydian scale, I just think: Ok, that’s an F# major scale with a flat seventh. It’s much faster.

Incidentally, the order in which I wrote this new list—Lydian, Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian, Phrygian, Locrian—is a much better ordering of the modes (in my opinion). First of all, the modes are ordered by their character. Lydian, Ionian, and Mixolydian are the three major modes, with Lydian being happier than Ionian (almost manic, really), and Mixolydian being more subdued. Dorian, Aeolian, and Phrygian are the three minor modes, with Dorian being more mysterious and aloof than Aeolian and Phrygian being much darker. Then you have Locrian, the black sheep as always.

This ordering of the modes is also organized by the circle of fifths. Try playing all the modes starting on C in the original order—C Ionian, C Dorian, C Phrygian, etc. There isn’t really any rhyme or reason to it. Now try playing all the modes starting on C in the better order—C Lydian, C Ionian, C Mixolydian, etc. Each mode is just one note off from the previous, always by flatting one note of the previous mode. At the end, after you play C Locrian, you can flat the C and start the cycle over again with B Lydian. Try it!

One last interesting fact about the modes. The three major modes—Lydian, Ionian, and Mixolydian, differ from each other only in the fourth and seventh scale degrees. The major pentatonic scale contains all the notes of the major scale except the fourth and seventh; therefore, the major pentatonic scale is a subset of all three major modes. The three minor modes—Dorian, Aeolian, and Phrygian—differ from each other in the second and sixth degrees, which the minor pentatonic scale does not contain, so the minor pentatonic is a subset of all three minor modes.