Review: Week of September 10

I’m trying to understand Friston’s free energy, and the predictive processing theory of neuroscience more generally. Very loosely, predictive processing states that instead of the usual model of “brain collects information from senses, analyzes it, and decides on actions” instead the brain constantly simulations, which it updates based on errors that arise when it predicts sensory data. Free energy serves as an objective function for this updating. Minimizing free energy punishes a) prediction inaccuracy and b) deviation from priors, providing an approximate solution to Bayesian learning. Although framed as learning, Friston also claims to explain allostatic behaviors as falling out of the predictions. I’m a little hazy on how that works but it seems to essentially include homeostasis in the prior. The theory explains important data from many domains of neuroscience, including why there are so many reverse connections in the brain. Reading materials:

  • Scott Alexander’s (2017) review of Surfing Uncertainty [goodreads]. The best short article on why this is interesting.
  • Scott Alexander (2018) “God help us let’s try to understand Friston on free energy” here.
  • Friston explaining it himself (2017). [youtube]
  • Shamil Chandaria, “The Bayesian Brain and Meditation.” (2022) [youtube]
  • Ruben E. Laukkonen and Heleen A. Slagter (2021). “From Many to (N)one: Meditation and the plasticity of the predictive mind.” [url]

Why both countercultures failed by Matt Arnold, part of David Chapman’s Meaningness project. I hadn’t realized how much the evangelical movement of the 1980s and 90s owed to the hippie movement and is arguably another offshoot. Arnold describes them here, basically claiming (along meaningness lines) that the hippies were monists and the evangelicals were dualists. In brief: “Identity is not community, although the countercultures often confused the two.” These countercultures gave way to the subcultural mode. John’s take, as of 2023 it sort of seems like there are again two major countercultures, “movement progressivism” (pejoratively called “wokeness”) and “MAGA.” Again they are mostly identitarian with community tacked on haphazardly. Movement progressivism seems a bit more coherent. My expectation is these won’t last forever but, like their predecessors, will be highly influential.

I’ve been doing Jenny Turbell’s Monday night series on the four immeasurables (also known as the brahmaviharas) at the Berkeley Alembic. Doing these practices makes me feel very warm and fuzzy inside, strongly recommended.

Currently Reading

  • Seeing that Frees by Rob Burbea [goodreads]. Michael Taft’s favorite meditation book, also recommended by Nick Cammaratta. “When you find yourself feeling somehow imprisoned in a situation, or grasping unhelpfully at something that is not present, see if you can look within and around you in a way that ‘deconstructs’ your world into its aggregate appearances of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, and mental and emotional experiences.”
  • Breathing Underwater by Richard Rohr [goodreads]. The 12 steps from a mystical Christian perspective. This is sort of a collection of musings, I think I needed more context about how 12 steps works in practice but much of it seemed like useful perspective. Also made me think about the vitality of Christianity. “We often given a bogus version of the Gospel, some fast-food religion, without any deep transformation of the self; and the result has been the spiritual disaster of “Christian” countries that tend to be as consumer-oriented, proud, warlike, racist, class conscious, and addictive as everybody else-and often more so, I’m afraid.”
  • Pieces of the Action by Vannevar Bush [goodreads]. How we set up our defense research to win WWII.
  • The Pathless Path: Imagining a New Story for Work and Life. Paul Millerd. I appreciate that Millerd was able to break out of one type of frame that was imprisoning him (careerism). But so far (I’m about halfway through) he still seems to be a victim of millenial narcissism. Our culture is failing badly in the meaning department.

Random links

  • Scott Alexander posted this book review contest entry for Zuozhuan. Society was in decline and people mostly knew it. This is a Chinese equivalent of post-Roman empire nostalgia.
  • Do progressives disparage one-parent families? MR post here. My hot take, children are much better off with two parents, much of the race gap is explained by single parenting rates. We can find compassionate ways to close this gap.
  • “The number of legal abortions has held steady, if not increased, nationwide since 2020, our colleagues Amy Schoenfeld Walker and Allison McCann reported today.” [MR post]
  • Shinzen Young’s equation for pain, suffering, and purification [twitter]


  • Gary’s stelfonta injections succeeded for the tumor on his leg but not for the one on his ear. We are going to try again tomorrow. The steroid he had to take during this treatment made him really miserable and caused him to pee on the floor many times which he’s almost never done before.
  • I finally decided to defeat Ganondorf in Legend of Zelda: TotK. It was fun but hopefully I can replace this compulsive activity with more accretive compulsive activities.

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