Curiosity and infinite detail

    This is a wonderful reminder by David Cain that there’s value in retraining our childlike ability to zoom in on the myriad details in life. Not in terms of leaves and details in the physical world around us, but in terms of ideas, too.

    Zooming in and out is, I guess, the essence of curiosity. As an adult, with a million things to get done, it’s easy to stay zoomed-out so that we have the bigger picture. But it ends up being a shallow life, and one susceptible to further flattening via the social media outrage machine.

    If you were instructed to draw a leaf, you might draw a green, vaguely eye-shaped thing with a stem. But when you study a real leaf, say an elm leaf, it’s got much more going on than that drawing. It has rounded serrations along its edges, and the tip of each serration is the end of a raised vein, which runs from the stem in the middle. Tiny ripples span the channels between the veins, and small capillaries divide each segment into little “counties” with irregular borders. I could go on for pages.


    Kids spend a lot of their time zooming their attention in like that, hunting for new details. Adults tend to stay fairly zoomed out, habitually attuned to wider patterns so they can get stuff done. The endless detail contained within the common elm leaf isn’t particularly important when you’re raking thousands of them into a bag and you still have to mow the lawn after.


    Playing with resolution applies to ideas too. The higher the resolution at which you explore a topic, the more surprising and idiosyncratic it becomes. If you’ve ever made a good-faith effort to “get to the bottom” of a contentious question — Is drug prohibition justifiable? Was Napoleon an admirable figure? — you probably discovered that it’s endlessly complicated. Your original question keeps splitting into more questions. Things can be learned, and you can summarize your findings at any point, but there is no bottom.

    The Information Age is clearly pushing us towards low-res conclusions on questions that warrant deep, long, high-res consideration. Consider our poor hominid brains, trying to form a coherent worldview out of monetized feeds made of low-resolution takes on the most complex topics imaginable — economic systems, climate, disease, race, sex and gender. Unsurprisingly, amidst the incredible volume of information coming at us, there’s been a surge in low-res, ideologically-driven views: the world is like this, those people are like that, X is good, Y is bad, A causes B. Not complicated, bro.

    For better or worse, everything is infinitely complicated, especially those things. The conclusion-resistant nature of reality is annoying to a certain part of the adult human brain, the part that craves quick and expedient summaries. (Social media seems designed to feed, and feed on, this part.)

    Source: The Truth is Always Made of Details | Raptitude

    Art gallery mode

    I love this post by David Cain so much. He talks about how every weekend during the summer he goes on a bike ride. Using an app to randomise his destination, he always finds something worth discovering. Why? Because he’s in what he calls ‘art gallery mode’.

    To select a destination, I use an obscure app called Randonautica, which creates an X-marker somewhere on a map of the city. The app’s “About” section says it chooses this location through “theoretical mind-matter interaction paired with quantum entropy to test the strange entanglement of consciousness with observable reality.” It says the app’s users, when they arrive at their prescribed locations, often find “serendipitous experiences that seemingly align with their thoughts.”


    The first time it sent me to a creekside clearing, where I saw a strange black glob in the water that turned out to be a mass of tadpoles. Another time it sent me to a gravel back lane near where I used to live, at a spot where someone had written “DAD!” on the fence in some kind of white resin. Another day it took me to a book-exchange box containing only children’s books and Stephen King’s Tommyknockers.

    Wherever it sends you, there’s always something there that seems charged with a small amount of cosmic significance, even if it’s just a particularly charismatic patch of dappled sunlight, an abandoned shopping list with unusual items on it, or some other superordinary sight akin to the twirling plastic bag in American Beauty.

    The trick here is that there’s always something significant, poignant, or poetic everywhere you look, if your mind is in that certain mode – so rare for adults — of just looking at what’s there, without reflexively evaluating or explaining the scene. A mystery co-ordinate in an unfamiliar neighborhood gives you few preconceptions about what you’re going to find there, so the mind naturally flips into this receptive, curious state that’s so natural for children.

    I sometimes call this state “art gallery mode,” because of a trick I learned from an art history major. We were at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, browsing famous abstract paintings by Pollock, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and other artists whose swirls, rectangles, and blobs are regarded as masterpieces.

    Source: How to Get the Magic Back | Raptitude

    Offline for 3 days

    David Cain took three days offline. It sounds like something that wouldn’t have been amazing 15 years ago, but these days goes straight to the front page of Hacker News.

    I can understand why it’s weird to live in the hybrid world of being middle-aged and being alive before everything and everyone was online. But the big thing we need to do is to help the next generations understand that there is an offline world which is rich and worthwhile.

    This simplicity was disorienting in a way. Many times a day I would finish whatever activity I was doing, and realize there was nothing to do but consciously choose another activity and then do that. This is how I made my first bombshell discovery: I take out my phone every time I finish doing basically anything, knowing there will be new emails or mentions or some other dopaminergic prize to collect. I have been inserting an open-ended period of pointless dithering after every intentional task.
    Source: – Getting Better at Being Human

    Paying for everything twice

    As someone who’s recently started using a budgeting app, and who has a lot of music-making equipment lying around unused, I concur.

    One financial lesson they should teach in school is that most of the things we buy have to be paid for twice.

    There’s the first price, usually paid in dollars, just to gain possession of the desired thing, whatever it is: a book, a budgeting app, a unicycle, a bundle of kale.

    But then, in order to make use of the thing, you must also pay a second price. This is the effort and initiative required to gain its benefits, and it can be much higher than the first price.

    A new novel, for example, might require twenty dollars for its first price—and ten hours of dedicated reading time for its second. Only once the second price is being paid do you see any return on the first one. Paying only the first price is about the same as throwing money in the garbage.

    Likewise, after buying the budgeting app, you have to set it all up, and learn to use it habitually before it actually improves your financial life. With the unicycle, you have to endure the presumably painful beginner phase before you can cruise down the street. The kale must be de-veined, chopped, steamed, and chewed before it gives you any nourishment.

    If you look around your home, you might notice many possessions for which you’ve paid the first price but not the second. Unused memberships, unread books, unplayed games, unknitted yarns.

    Source: Everything Must Be Paid for Twice | Raptitude