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Oxford: circles and planes
I’m back in the UK. When other people traverse the Atlantic so much, I think I imagine it as a kind of stochastic process which must be all much of a muchness to them. But from the inside, each time I come to Oxford is its own thing—a distinctive chapter, if one composed of a very similar palette of temporary bicycles, meadows, existential reckonings, Alpro yogurts, flapjacks, intellectual ambitions, Thai restaurants, cobblestones, cemeteries, riverside walks, lunchtime talks, AI thoughts, Littlegate House, Cowley road. And each time each thing is different, collecting another layer of new light.
I like pacing around the same place while I think, and coming back to Oxford every year or two feels a bit like that.
It’s not the same as just being in the same place for a decade, because then the pub you walk past can’t remind you of the time you went there in about 2014 and tried to figure out how minds work by doing math problems together while carefully observing the mental motions. Which is from a whole different world of 2014 and the things you were thinking about and emphasizing and assuming then, and it is nice for those to abruptly meet 2019′s world.
I like how each lap as you pass a place, you have had time to be thinking a new thing, and then it gets to meet the old thoughts of that place.
I came to England on a plane from New York, with my friend and employee, Asya. We made ourselves a list of things to do on the plane, like make predictions, watch a non-virtuous movie, try to solve the AI alignment problem, name her blog. We did many of them, and it was good.
I did not understand the airline’s position on urination, more than ever before. My current guess is that they don’t actually want you to to pee your pants, but also can’t deal with the responsibility of letting you use the bathroom during potential turbulence, so leave the trade-off to an internal battle between each passenger’s bladder discomfort sitting there and social discomfort flat-out ignoring cabin crew instructions to remain sitting there. (I stood up. A stewardess standing by the bathroom looked pointedly at me. I sat down.) Maybe the public-spirited move is to just call their bluff and wet my seat in future.
My relationship with Norwegian Airlines feels overall strained, but I’m not sure how much that is about very reasonable decisions on their part—for instance, to carefully weigh all of our bags, including hand luggage and personal items—and how much is for completely unreasonable decisions like to almost let us go away and repack our bags a second time before casually mentioning that we would in that case need to do it and get back through this queue sometime in the next several minutes for them to still let us through to board. Or cheerfully telling me how nice it is if everyone gets on the plane early so that we can leave early, when I asked what actual time boarding closes.
I had a great time on the plane from San Francisco to New York. I meditated a lot, and thought about important things. A downside of this is that much of the time I was in New York I had the sense that I had had some great realization about how to live that I had intended to now act on, but had forgotten what it was, so had lost the thread of what I was doing and couldn’t pick it back up. I didn’t have that great a time in New York overall, though I was there for a while, and many people were good to me, and good in general. I felt disoriented and out of sorts. I tried to write, but to no avail.
On the last day I gave up doing much useful, and decided to do what I felt like. A friend had suggested I read some Virginia Woolf, and in particular To The Lighthouse, so I went to an expansive bookshop across the street from my apartment and found it. I stood and read a few pages between the shelves, and then standing adrift in the room when someone else wanted to stand near those shelves, and at last actually felt more alive.
I speculate that I have a mental axis of some kind of sensitivity, such that turning it up makes me both likely to revel in words and wooden floors and the feeling of muscles in my mouth (…and the texture of spaces, and the resonant friction at the edges of my mental motions…) and also likely to become hyper-aware of the subtle wrongness of things. For instance, thanks to OCD, the subtle wrongness of walking half a step to the left to go around a table, or of going half a step to the right to go around a table. So I can get pretty encumbered by minor OCD disinclinations. Things that are actually (arguably) bad in ways, but to a normal taste seem acceptable or even great, sometimes become repellent in this state, for instance eating meat and watching Bojack Horseman. Maybe this is all a wrong interpretation of the evidence—I did say ‘I speculate’. Anyway, the process of reading in this bookshop turned this hypothetical knob way up.
In spite of some OCD-related hampering of this kind, I decided to investigate whether famous authors were in general just really great at writing, in a way that I could perceive. For some reason I had assumed not, but Virginia Woolf seemed pretty good, and the hypothesis that famous authors can write well does have a certain plausibility. So I read the first sentences of lots of books by different famous authors. They seemed alright and sometimes tempting, but I don’t remember any others being that exciting. Pablo Neruda was the closest—evocative, though I’m not sure if I like what is evoked. Heightened OCD makes reading harder though, so maybe it was just too much effort to appreciate anything.
I bought postcards from a giant wall of stands, and each time I looked back a different one caught my eye as particularly—well, I can’t think of a word that means that I looked at them and it was good in this way. I can’t even remember the kind of good now, but it was good.
Anyway, more time passed, and now I’m in Oxford.