"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."
- Terence McKenna
Apocalypsopolis, book one
Civilization Will Eat Itself, Superweed 1-4, best of
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July 29. Loose end on presidential politics. It occurs to me, if Trump were running for ceremonial president I would totally vote for him. And he could really do that: bring in a team of smart non-ideological moderates, and let them make the real decisions while he sells it all to the public and flies around the world playing the jester. I don't expect this, because I haven't seen any evidence that Trump even knows that ideology leads to bad decisions.
As usual I'm going into the weekend with drugs and music. From FiveThirtyEight, What Science Says To Do If Your Loved One Has An Opioid Addiction: intervene gently, look for deeper psychological issues, use methadone or buprenorphine, and be patient.
And a reddit testimonial by a heavy marijuana smoker who switched to vaping. Bottom line: you have to learn some technique to get good highs from vaping, but then it's easier on your lungs and much more efficient. I've been experimenting to see how many hits I can get out of one small dose, and I can't believe I used to stop at three hits, because last night I got visible vapor from twenty hits on the same tenth of a gram. I still didn't get that high because I'm using a low-THC high-CBD strain, which is probably better for concussion recovery. I was hoping the CBD would give me a strong body high but it doesn't do anything that I can feel.
I've also experimented with synergy between cannabis and the hydrocodone I got prescribed after my crash. Unlike most people I get negative synergy! Even a tiny 5mg dose of hydrocodone dulls the head effects of cannabis and overwhelms the body effects. It's nice that I prefer the less addictive of the two drugs, but I'm still looking for better head trips. I want to see colors in music and forget who I am.
Finally, last night I gave reddit gold to this comment in a thread about alien and otherworldly music, because it introduced me to Conlon Nancarrow, a composer who got frustrated with the limits of human musicians, so he started making mind-blowing compositions for player pianos. You might start with this YouTube video, Studies 2B, 3a, 3e and 5 for Player Piano.
July 27. My latest idea about the presidential election is that both candidates are robots. Hillary Clinton is an old-school sci-fi robot, like a Dalek from Doctor Who, metallically screeching "ELECT ME! ELECT ME!" And Donald Trump is a cutting edge AI bot who says the perfect thing to appear human and make people do what he says.
I've seen no evidence that either one has real compassion, but Hillary at least has the brains and skills to be president, except for her lack of people skills. I think she tried to hide those emails to hide the fact that she's a bad diplomat because she can only engage people like a mean fourth grade teacher. It's funny because myth got her where she is, playing to baby boomer feminists by being a strong woman, and being married to Bill who is better than any white person at marketing himself to black people -- if she had run as Hillary Rodham, Sanders would have crushed her. But now she's up against a master of political theater, and she can only win by making the race less theatrical and more rational.
Trump's convention speech did something strange but absolutely necessary: he kept promising big changes will happen the moment he becomes president. That's not how the political system works, but voters don't like to think about how the system works. Trump is framing the election as a big reality TV show, and reality TV is all about what you do to become the winner, not what you do after you win. Or it's like a sociopath is trying to seduce you into marriage. The myth is that the marriage is the end of the story, happily ever after, but in reality the marriage is when the dream ends and the nightmare begins.
I think Hillary's best strategy is to challenge Trump to talk in greater detail about what he's going to do as president. "What do you do on day one? How exactly do you do that? What about day two?" Even if he has good answers, she'll have better answers, and once voters start thinking carefully beyond the election, they'll notice that being president is complicated, that Trump's only proven skill is self-promotion, and that they agree more with Hillary on particular issues.
July 25. Continuing from a week ago, I said that societies are destabilized when too many people are bad at life and don't know it, and that we're passing through a transition. These two ideas come together with another idea: that some ways to be good at life are more universal, like building trust, and other ways are more socially constructed, like which side of the knife to put the fork on.
In general, as people get more powerful and more disconnected from reality, their life skills become more socially constructed. A week ago I mentioned rich kid mass shooter Elliot Rodger, but a more interesting example is Steve Jobs, a terrible person who was never challenged to become better because he had rare specialized skills that were worth billions of dollars in the strange constructed world of Apple.
Everyone wants to believe that their skills are more universal and other people's skills are more arbitrary, but the test is change. As societies and cultures change, more universal skills tend to remain valuable while more constructed skills tend to become obsolete.
Coming around to politics, reactionary movements are driven by people who are losing power because of change. It could be technological change where their skills are no longer valuable, or it could be cultural change where a whole way of being no longer works.
That's all I've got in my brain today. I feel about 80% mentally and 60% physically, but I was able to ride my bicycle to the store this morning. The hardest part was to go over bumps slowly enough to avoid head pain.
July 22. Monday night leaving the hospital I noticed something weird. Lifting my right arm was normal, but lifting my left was difficult, like it was holding a big weight, but there was no pain. It turned out the pain just hadn't set in yet, and it has continued to appear in the same order that my body hit the ground. First it was just in the scrapes on my arms and knees, then in the muscles and joints that absorbed the impact, and I'm still waiting for the headaches.
I'm thinking of this as an opportunity to change my identity, and my goal is to be less like Isaac Newton and more like William Blake, but it's not like we can just decide to be whatever kind of person we want. As Ben mentioned last week, personality is not something apart from the world, but something that develops at the interface between inside and outside, and I think a good personality is just one that continues to fully honor both the inside and the outside as they continue to change.
After the last post I tried reading some Zelazny, who has been my favorite fiction writer for decades, and he bored me. So Henry James is right out, and more generally the injury has not reversed the trend where it's harder and harder for me to find novels or even TV shows that I look forward to.
I still love music. After listening to it again on a good dose of weed, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady by Charles Mingus is my new favorite album. Nothing has ever been so alive and so meticulous, except maybe the best bits from Rush's 2112 and a few songs by my favorite band, Big Blood. For almost two years I've been obsessed with their Song For Baltimore, but now I'm thinking Destin Rain might be even better. And do you ever wonder if some famous classic rock band has a brilliant song that you've never heard because it's too weird for the radio? I present The Doors - My Wild Love.
July 20. The Real "Limitless" Brain Pill Might Be a Concussion: "A single blow to the head can make a creative, linguistic, or mathematical savant out of a mental nobody." For years I've been trying to transition from nonfiction to fiction, so in the wake of my accident I'm trying to think about stories instead of ideas in the hope that my brain regrows that way. I should also read a bunch of Roger Zelazny.
I eat like a baby bird, dropping the food past my lips and front teeth, and keeping my head tilted back so it stays in the back of my mouth as I chew it. The braces were cutting up the inside of my upper lip but I fixed it by stuffing some gauze in there. Last night the swelling and muscle soreness finally set in, but I didn't take any more hydrocodone because it dries out my intestines even more than weed, and my digestion is already messed up by the antibiotics. They say that gut bacteria influence the brain, so maybe antibiotics, by forcing a reboot of gut bacteria, can also reboot the brain.
July 19. Yesterday I wiped out on my scooter. I took a turn too fast, leaned over too far, and the scooter caught on the road and fell over at 20-25mph. I was wearing a helmet, but it was not a full face helmet and my visor was up, so did a hard faceplant into the pavement. Here's a gruesome photo of my mangled upper lip and cracked teeth. My body is really good at self-numbing, so it was barely painful, and otherwise I felt okay, so I almost sent the paramedics away and went home. Then they asked me what month and year it was, and I didn't know if it was June or July or 2015 or 2016, so I got in the ambulance.
My experience with the medical system was much better than I cynically expected. Of course the attention slowed way down when they confirmed I wasn't dying, but everyone who worked with me did a great job, and I wasn't even at Spokane's best rated hospital. A CAT scan showed that my skull between my teeth and nose was broken (alveolar ridge of maxilla) so they got me into surgery about seven hours after the crash. On the first night of the Trump convention, my surgeon's name was Omar Husein. Also, this was the first time I've ever been unconscious. I remember waving goodbye to Leigh Ann as they wheeled me toward the surgery room, and the next thing I knew I was totally tripped out in the recovery room. Someone behind me was making noise with gurneys and I thought I was hallucinating the sound.
Now I have temporary braces on my front upper teeth and have to chew with only my molars for a few weeks. They prescribed me hydrocodone, and last night was my first experience with serious opiates. I took a single M365, and I don't think it reduced my already minimal pain, but wow, I'm good at sleeping and I've never experienced such easy and euphoric sleep. Now I understand better how people get addicted.
If I didn't have insurance through expanded Medicaid, I wouldn't have been riding a motorcycle in the first place -- thanks Obama! So I expect the medical bills to be tolerable, some of my scooter parts will need replacement, and I'm already shopping for a full face helmet. Because of the concussion, I'll be taking a break from heavy thinking on this blog.
July 18. One of my favorite quotes is from Chuckie on Rugrats: "Life is so hard, Tommy. Sometimes I think it's the hardest thing there is." It's funny because life already contains everything there is. But there's a serious interpretation: that being good at life is harder than riding a unicycle on a tightrope, or winning a nobel prize, or making a billion dollars. That sounds radical, but it could be true, because there are actual people who have done those things and are still bad at life.
This is not a moral judgment. I'm bad at life myself. I used to think I was pretty good, until I discovered a previously unknown dimension of life where I was totally clueless. After that happens five or ten times you start to think there's no limit. "The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."
Not knowing you're bad at something is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, and if you apply it to life it explains a lot. When someone is bad at life and doesn't know it, their continuing failure feels like outrageous injustice or impossible bad luck. This is complicated, because the world is full of actual injustice and bad luck, but if you're looking at someone else's life you can usually tell the difference.
The best example I know is the video by the Isla Vista shooter, Elliot Rodger's Retribution. This guy is terrible at life and has absolutely no idea, and I think this is generally the case with mass murderers.
There have been a lot of mass murders lately, and I see them as psychological not political. This NY Times article on the Bastille Day truck massacre describes the killer as A Surly Misfit With No Terror Links. Of course, once he decided to kill people, he probably tacked on a story about radical Islam to feel better about himself. I wonder if this is the case with everyone in ISIS. When people who are bad at life reach a critical mass, they organize to make up stories so they can feel noble for wanting to lash out.
This is not completely misguided, because how did it happen that so many people are so bad at life? It's not the job of life to be easy, but it is the job of society to make people good at living in that society. If society lags at this job, all the surly misfits will destabilize it. The hard question here is, why is society lagging? Why is all this shit happening now and not some other time?
My general answer is that we're passing through a transition, and I'll try to continue that thought in another post.
July 15. As usual, fun stuff for the weekend. On a tangent from personality typing, Leigh Ann told me I was being too much of a J by not wanting to start a new TV show until an old one was finished. So I browsed Netflix and discovered iZombie. The core idea is that zombies can remain high-functioning if they continue to eat human brains, but they also get the personality, the skills, and memory flashes from the person whose brain they just ate. And the ongoing story is about a zombie medical examiner who eats the brains of murder victims to solve crimes! When I compare it to another paranormal cop show, Grimm, iZombie is better in every important way: better characters, more surprising, smarter, funnier, and even the serious parts have more depth. The only show still in production that I like better is Orphan Black.
After watching most of the Euro 2016 soccer tournament, I think the best game was Wales vs Belgium. The play was exciting and three of the four goals were spectacular, including this header where both the pass and the shot had so little margin for error that the goal seemed impossible.
I've had some breakthroughs in optimizing cannabis. A couple years ago I started with reasonable assumptions: that you get better highs by waiting longer and using more. So I would wait a week or two and then spend an evening going through two or three big vaporizer bowls, if I didn't burn my lungs and have to stop.
It turns out I was doing everything wrong. My lungs were getting burned because I was passing the air through too much weed, which is why a bubbler didn't help. This reddit post, Marijuana and the brain, argues that you actually get better highs at lower doses, and I've found this to be true. My optimal dose seems to be around a tenth of a gram, enough to barely hide the screen in a Silver Surfer vape wand.
The post also says that you should wait at least two hours between hits, or else the highs will clash and leave you feeling burned out, and in my experience two hours is not enough. And whenever I've tried to split a dose over time, whether it was by taking low-temp hits and then high-temp hits later, or by saving up the toasted weed to eat all at once, it has always been unsatisfying. It's like scoring goals in soccer -- or really almost anything, where one hard precise strike does more than a bunch of soft clumsy strikes. This must be why some people get better highs from smoking than vaping, because smoking always gives you everything at once, and with vaping you have to work at it.
So now I tear through my minibowl in about nine hits in five minutes, and because I've solved lung pain (through smaller bowls and also sensing when to take the wand off the heat) I can go hotter and darker and still hold the vapor long and deep. And the most surprising thing is that I can't tell any difference between a one week break and a one day break. Apparently tolerance is a function of quantity, not frequency, and my main obstacle to daily use is keeping my digestive system hydrated.
July 13. I got some good feedback from Friday's question: Why do people want to believe that personality is fixed? On this subreddit post, TheAnarchitect writes:
I think the major reason that people don't want to believe that personality is mutable is because they conflate personality with "Self." The idea that one's personality is mutable over time and in different situations thus attacks their concept of self, resulting in the sensation of ego-death. This is a terrifying concept to individualist dualist westerners, because they cannot shift their sense of self away from personality and behavior to other things like their body, their relationships, their community or their environment. To that mindset, becoming "Someone different" is a form of death.
Ben comments over email:
I tend to think of personality as a result of how a person interacts with the world. In some fundamental way, it's an adaptive response to the environment. So, I think the problem with a lot of people who think of their personalities as fixed, or get obsessed with personality typing, is that they have not interacted much with the world and as such they actually haven't crafted much of a personality. So they put the cart before the horse and latch on to some externally provided sense of self.
For older people, I think there is a fear of externally challenging themselves, which I think is a requisite of personality change. On top of that, there is probably dread over an awareness of the opportunity costs they have incurred by not considering other possibilities for their lives.
This reminds me of one of my favorite mental exercises, the "not that" meditation. Ask yourself, "Who am I?" And no matter what your answer, say "not that" and ask again. The point is not to get a final answer, but to cultivate a sense of who you are that's less like a fortress and more like a surfer.
July 11. Some links about the psychology of motivation. First, a dense science article, Fatigue is a Brain-Derived Emotion that Regulates the Exercise Behavior to Ensure the Protection of Whole Body Homeostasis. Basically, your brain tricks you into feeling body fatigue when your body still has plenty of energy. To overcome this, you need some kind of mental motivation to push your body farther than it feels like it can go. This is not a psychology article, so when the author gets into psychology in the final section, it's mostly speculation about some kind of drive to win. I'm thinking there's room for a lot more complexity here -- different athletes could have completely different things going on in their heads that help them push themselves harder, and most of these are not just psychological but also social.
I'll Retire When I'm Dead: Why Continuing to Work Is Good for a Man's Health. Personally I've never felt like the guys in this article, but that's because I never had a job I liked, I never tied a job to my identity, and I'm relatively good at managing unstructured time. But I'm not normal, and this is why an unconditional basic income would not solve the deeper problem of modernity: the lack of any enduring social framework that makes day to day life feel meaningful.
Four ways to get motivated when you don't feel like working. No earth-shaking insights here, but I like the stuff about the value of negative emotions: a study shows that visualizing doing a task and hating it, is a stronger motivator than not visualizing it at all.
A simple mind hack that helps beat procrastination: "Imagine yourself starting, not finishing." Because long-term projects require restarting yourself day after day, I would phrase it like this: break the task down into smaller and smaller steps until the very next step is so tiny that you can do it.
This fits a big theme in my thinking lately: that becoming better at life is not so much about learning general skills (generosity, tolerance, agency), but practicing those skills on micro scales and hidden levels.
July 8. Some fun and happy links for the weekend:
Heavy Metal and Natural Language Processing. The author does a fascinating deep analysis of the lyrics of more than 200,000 metal songs, including showing the differences between three bands (Motorhead, Machinehead, and Diamondhead), and listing the words that appear most and least in metal lyrics compared to normal language. (Most is "burn"; least is "particularly".)
This podcast excerpt argues that human personality can change. Not only can it change over time, it can also vary radically depending on the situation. What baffles me is: given the popular belief that personality is fixed, and the lack of good evidence, people must want to believe that personality is fixed, but why would anyone want to believe something so depressing? I'm guessing, either they want to justify their own reluctance to change, or they don't want to be disappointed when other people don't change.
How Trees Calm Us Down. The crazy thing is that people get psychological benefits from a nature walk even if they don't like it. No one is sure why, but it seems to have something to do with human attention, where it's good to have something complex but undemanding in the background of your moment-to-moment experience.
Moving from actual trees to "trees", which also calm us down: Your Grandma Needs To Be Smoking Pot, because of new evidence that it might clean out the brain crud that causes Alzheimer's.
And this reddit comment explains terpenes and how they determine the smells and also the effects of different marijuana strains. Here's a longer article on terpenes.
July 6. Bunch o' links about technology:
Edward Snowden's Life As a Robot is about the "Snowbot", a video screen on wheels that allows Snowden to virtually speak at events in America while exiled in Russia. It's also a long smart article with lots of other stuff about Snowden.
Personal robotic aircraft are hovering over the horizon. They're calling them "passenger drones" because they use drone-like technology, but basically this is a next-generation light helicopter where computers take care of stability while the operator just gives simple commands. I'm wondering how far this could go. I don't see them replacing cars, because we still need to move really heavy stuff, so we still need streets, and if we have streets then surface vehicles will always be more efficient (especially if they go slower -- see below).
The dying breed of craftsmen behind the tools that make scientific research possible. It's about scientific glass blowing, an extremely difficult and increasingly rare skill, and a good example of how tech systems are held together by skills that can't be learned from books, only passed on through long apprenticeships. It wouldn't take much of a collapse for a skill like this to be totally lost.
Chatbot lawyer overturns 160,000 parking tickets in London and New York (thanks Lacy). As far as I can tell, the chatbot is not talking to the bureaucracy, only talking to people to walk them through dealing with the bureaucracy. Still, I wonder how many lawyer jobs will eventually be replaced by AI.
A reminder that No Tech Magazine always has interesting tech links. Right now at the top of the page is an article about a super-efficient battery powered rail vehicle. This would be totally cool in postapocalypse fiction, where the few survivors could navigate a continent on the abandoned rail lines. But as soon as you have two vehicles that want to go different directions on the same track, you have a problem.
Finally, from the Onion, Secretary Of Interior Unveils Plans For New High-Speed Creek. If you think about it, this is a sneaky critique of high-speed shit. We know that a high-speed creek is ridiculous, because we understand that creeks are part of an ecology where there are good reasons for them to go the speed they go, and trying to make them go faster would be both difficult and harmful. But humans, in some ways, are part of the same ecology, and some of our ambitions to speed things up are equally difficult and pointless, and make sense only from an ideology that faster is better just for being faster. This subject reminds me of this 1905 San Francisco streetcar video, where you can see the elegant beauty of urban traffic before we ruined it by trying to speed it up.
July 4. I'll probably spend all this week catching up on links. I'm tired of last week's subject, so today I want to tie it off well enough that I don't have to write about politics for a while.
First, a reader sends this pdf article that shows unadjusted happiness scores on page 31, and in earlier pages it talks about how difficult it is to measure happiness even by asking people how happy they are.
On the subreddit, a reader makes an interesting argument that cultural myths have an ecology, and functional old myths have been replaced by dysfunctional new myths in the same way that monoculture crops replace a forest. It's a fun metaphor, but to buy into it I'd have to see examples of how the old myths had symbiotic interconnections like species in an ecology, and how the new myths don't.
Another link from a reader, Some stuff economists tend to leave out. The basic idea is that it's easier to model things than to model human emotions, so our whole system is based on economic models that improve the world of things while accidentally making us all unhappy.
Finally, a Hacker News comment thread on a brief article about collapsing trust in government. I think government is being scapegoated for collapsing faith in our whole way of living. But we have nothing to replace it with, only a massive squabble of whatever bad ideas and charismatic leaders are easiest to follow.
July 1. Two self-critiques on this week's subject. First, like a lot of public intellectuals, I've been framing this in terms of myth vs reality, as if the problem is that suddenly too many people are behaving mythically. But as soon as Leigh Ann said it I knew it was true: myth is the human default. To challenge ones own mythic instincts with careful observation and rational thinking is a learned skill, and one that not many people have learned in this time or any other time. So the real question is not how society veered from reality into myth, but how our cultural myths have veered from creative to destructive.
Second, I mentioned the lack of evidence that Brexit or Trump will make people's lives better -- but how do we even define that? The best place to start would be subjective happiness, but it's surprisingly hard to find data. I went on Google looking for a ranking of countries based purely on asking people how happy they are, and instead I found stuff like the World Happiness Report, which muddles up subjective happiness with numbers like GDP per capita. That seems like circular logic from people who have already decided that quality of life goes hand in hand with economic development. I mean, I still don't see evidence that Brexit will increase subjective happiness, but we shouldn't assume it will decrease happiness just because it crashes the economy.
On exactly these subjects, a reddit comment argues that zombie fiction reflects a societal death wish:
In many ways the return to a simpler life about survival in a hostile environment, is a fantasy about how to remedy alienation. The feeling of hating one's job and doing it only for the money has never been as prevalent as it is now. Even fifty years ago when many jobs appeared worse, people took a certain pride in them. Today most workers feel like their job is absolutely pointless. That's what they would like to overcome, but they don't know how, so the outlet is an apocalyptic fantasy promising the return to human nature. Imagine living as an animal, or in an ancient tribe instead, as a very natural life where issues like depression don't come up the way they do in our developed way of life.
June/July. Leigh Ann has got me watching men's international soccer, the Euro 2016 and the Copa America Centenario, and I'm learning to see the games as stories. Sports are systems for procedurally generating stories that are less predictable and often better than stories scripted by writers, and soccer generates great stories for two reasons. One is that scoring is really hard, so the game is focused down to moments of brilliance where creativity and pinpoint focus can beat preparation and athleticism. The other is that improvisational play and limited substitutions make the game about the players not the coaches. American football is the opposite: the game is so tightly orchestrated that the best stories, the light through the cracks, are the rare moments when plays break down and players have to improvise.
One story moment was in the game between Cinderella team Venezuela and tournament favorite Argentina. Late in the first half Argentina was up 2-0, but Venezuela made a flurry of attacks that had them rattled, coming to a focus in a penalty kick. The kicker looked confident, and everyone expected him to bury it so hard that the keeper had no chance even if he guessed right, and Venezuela would start the second half with scary momentum and only a goal down.
Instead, the world's #77 team tried to embarrass the world's #1 team with a trick, a gentle kick right in the middle that would make the goalkeeper look silly lunging to one side. I don't think it was cruel -- it was a tactical move to get under the opponent's skin and press their advantage. But the keeper saw it coming the whole way. He just stood there and calmly caught the ball, Venezuela's spirit was broken, and Argentina cruised to an easy win.
Early in that game the world's best player, Lionel Messi, was clearly taken down in the box, and the referee refused to call a penalty. This is the opposite of American football and basketball, where the best players get every close call in their favor. Instead the ref was saying, because you're an elite player, you're held to higher standards. This made what would have been a boring game much more interesting, and I think a great referee is like an orchestra conductor, making the game better by setting the right constraints with how he calls fouls.
The story of the final match was supposed to be Argentina finally winning a championship over Chile. But they missed their chances, leaving the game still scoreless after overtime, and it went to penalty kicks. Now the popular story is that Messi let his team down by sending his kick over the goal. But only moments earlier, Chilean leader Arturo Vidal's kick had been blocked. So after Messi's miss, the contest was still on equal terms: four kicks left, your best player can't help you, and who is the better whole team? Chile had already proven they could win a big game without Vidal, beating Colombia 2-0 in the semifinal. And the shootout told the same story, as Chile buried their next four kicks and Argentina did not. In the end it wasn't about Messi's failure, but Chile's team chemistry and mental toughness.
In both tournaments the repeating theme was that a good team of average players can beat a clunky team of elite players. This was the case in the best European game, Belgium vs Wales, in Iceland's shocking upset of England, and even in the championship. Portugal had been squeaking through on mediocre play despite having the world's most annoying and second best player, Cristiano Ronaldo. When Ronaldo went out early with an injury, they actually played better without him, and won the title over a much more talented French team.
Iceland has about the same population as the city of Leicester, which just won the English Premier League championship against 5000-1 odds, but I wonder if these events are the somewhat likely results of a global trend, in which systems built from a foundation of excitement and honesty have an increasing advantage over systems built from the need to maintain power.