March 12-13. A week ago, Doug in St Paul took me on an overnight trip to a successful homestead in northern Minnesota, and from their collection of books I reread a New Age classic, Richard Bach's Illusions. Now I understand better where the New Age movement went wrong. I agree that pure consciousness is the foundation of all reality, that you are a larger being who lives your life the way you would watch a movie, and that the physical world can be changed through the power of the mind. The mistake is the idea that changing the world through the power of the mind is easy, that anyone can perform miracles just by really, truly believing they're possible.
Suppose that you spend decades mastering woodworking, and you build a beautiful house with your own hands. Then some lazy idiot comes along and builds a better house in seconds just by believing it into existence. There's no evidence that reality works this way, and I think it can't work this way, because it would violate some kind of metaphysical law of conservation of energy: Doing any task with pure mind power must be at least as difficult as doing it with physical tools. Or, the easiest way to build a house with your mind is to mentally discipline yourself to build it with your hands. The deeper principle here is that the physical world is itself a tool for channeling consciousness, and not an obstacle to childish wish fulfillment.
A reader has started a subreddit thread on this subject, and makes a great comment: the reason you can't use the power of the mind to make a shortcut around the physical world and satisfy your desires, is that "desire and thought are physical processes, and can only have physical effects." Money, sex, food, toys, power over others -- if that's what you're after, you're already in the realm of the physical, and you have to act on that level.
If you accept that changing the world is hard no matter how you do it, Illusions has another idea, mentioned in passing, that's brilliant: If an action seems like magic, it's because you don't understand it; to perform the action, you have to understand it well enough that it seems like a mundane craft or skill. You can see this in stage magic, where the audience might see someone levitating but the performer knows the trick. I think it also applies to "paranormal" levitation, where the technique lies outside 20th century science, but still seems normal to the performer. In any case, if something seems like magic to you, then you are the audience, not the actor, and if you think you're the actor, that's part of the trick.
You can see this in many modern technologies, where you feel like you have the power, but if you don't know how it works and can't build it yourself, you're just passively consuming entertainment. Also Andy comments: "people talk about wanting 'magic' in their intimate partnerships, when success is more about hard work." So if you want to be swept off your feet by a magical romance, then you're asking the other person to be the performer while you're the audience, and probably the only person who will do this is someone who's trying to take advantage of you.
March 18. New local currency in Greece. The headline calls it a "cashless" currency, but that word misses the point. Here's another article about Sweden phasing out cash, but Sweden's system is evil: the economy is still ruled by banks and other centralized concentrations of wealth; there is still positive feedback in power-over through interest on debt; incomes are proportional to your level in the hierarchy, not the value of your work; and soon, without cash, all transactions will be monitored by the Lidless Eye. In the Greek system, there are caps on wealth and debt, no interest on debt, only enough monitoring to make the system work, and no attempt by the organization that manages the system to adjust the rules for its own benefit... yet.
April 2. So last week when I wrote about workaholic society and gaming, Simon made a connection:
We might as well consider civilization a game with bigger stakes than usual. It's no coincidence it was a success as a PC game too. Too bad both get a bit dull towards the end.
I think there's a deep truth here. Why is it that most games, and most societies, are more enjoyable at the beginning than at the end? I've quit Fallout 2. Now that I've got NPC's with shotguns, and gone back to the Den to kill the slavers and get the car, there's not much to look forward to: guns with different names and higher damage numbers, balanced by enemies with higher numbers, and a long series of quests that are starting to feel like busywork. The fun part was the beginning: designing my character, analyzing and optimizing skills and perks, squeaking by on primitive weapons and tools and finding my first good ones, and as a player, mastering the interface and unfolding a vision of a different world.
It's easier to see how this fits with civilization by looking at Civilization the game. You start out as a settler exploring the uncharted wilderness, you build up a city from nothing, you get new buildings and units with qualitatively different abilities; and then by the halfway point you can see the whole map, you have ships and airplanes, and "progress" becomes quantitative. In role-playing games this is called level grinding: the novelty and excitement are gone, and you're just doing the same stuff over and over to get higher numbers.
Compare this to the "American dream". You come from a poor family, work your way up into a series of higher paying and higher status jobs, get a house in the suburbs and two cars... and then what? There's nothing left but to make more money so you can get material possessions with higher price numbers. This is why rich people keep trying to make even more money, because if they say "I have enough", life becomes meaningless, game over. I think this is also why most lottery winners end up bankrupt. It's not just that they're irresponsible, but that they feel more alive when they're struggling.
Games don't model decline because it wouldn't be any fun, just trying to hold onto what you have as the numbers get smaller. But there would be one way... When your empire peaks, you stop playing the empire, and begin playing the new system that's going to replace it! Of course this is what the citizens do in real life. Many Americans are still obsessed with "security" (playing the decline), but more of us are giving up on the old system and turning our attention to various systems that might replace it.
Are human societies going to keep rising and falling forever? If we had a stable system, what would keep it interesting? Individual humans can keep their wealth stable and find meaning in things other than money, so how could a whole society do this? And why is this not a problem for other species? If life were satisfying in the right way, would we have no need for novelty? I'm thinking of an answer, but for now I'll leave these questions open...
April 20. The other day I figured out the health insurance mandate. The excuse is, without the mandate, people who are healthier than average have no incentive to buy insurance, because it's likely to be cheaper for us to pay out of pocket. So, unless healthy people are forced by law to buy insurance, unhealthy people will have to pay more than they can afford. Now, America could fix this like every other rich nation, and pay for health care the way we pay for roads and wars: direct government funding, with the money raised through progressive taxation, in which people with more money pay more. To avoid this, we get the mandate. That is, instead of the unhealthy being subsidized by the rich, the unhealthy are subsidized by the healthy. So the insurance mandate is a massive wealth transfer from the poor and healthy to the rich and unhealthy.