"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."
- Terence McKenna
Apocalypsopolis, book one
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August 22. From last December, Can You Hear Me Now? is a Ribbonfarm post about "divergentism": that humans seem to be developing in a way that makes us more different, or it makes it harder for us to find deep common ground.
Venkat sees this as a troubling permanent trend, but I see it as an adjustment to new technology, which is already finding equilibrium. When I was a teenager my favorite music and shows and ideas were all popular, simply because there was no way for unpopular stuff to get to me. Now the internet has opened up a vast landscape in which we all have the option to look for more obscure stuff that we like better.
But this isn't an unchecked drift into meaninglessness. It is constrained by our need to continue to find common ground. Each of us, when choosing where to put our attention, must find our own balance between what we love and what we can talk about with other people. Introverts will go farther to the fringe while more social people will tend to like whatever their friends like.
Still, I see two ways that a much larger cultural landscape can create problems. One is with couples, who want to be emotionally compatible and like all the same culture. This goal used to be realistic and now it's impossible, and people with more developed tastes will have to get used to feeling alone even with their partners.
The other problem is with politics. As we get more culturally diverse, it becomes more challenging for hundreds of millions of us to share one political system. Even if political systems keep getting better, they will seem more meaningless, and more people will be dissatisfied with them.
August 19. Writing this blog is always a balance between what I find interesting and what I imagine readers find interesting... but it wasn't always this way. When I started out, those two things were the same, and now I feel some social obligation to not stray too far or change too fast from subjects I've written about before.
But after some nice emails from readers who would like me to keep the blog going no matter what, I've decided that on Fridays I'm going to write about exactly whatever I feel like. That's sort of what Fridays have been like for a while, but now I'm trying to really let go.
All summer I've been obsessed with this song. It's fifteen minutes of space lounge folk with evolving verses that come back five times to the same chorus. Sometimes I get to the end and go right back to the beginning, and I'm on a pace to listen to it more hours per year than most religious people spend in church.
Meanwhile, ordinary reality has still not recovered from my accident. It reminds me of old Bilbo's line from Lord of the Rings, that life feels like butter spread out over too much bread. Leigh Ann has been sick this week so I've been driving her around to pet care jobs, and I have a lot of time to sit in the car and practice centering myself in the present moment and trying to view the world as magical and alive, but it just feels bland.
I was serious when I said I want to be more like William Blake, and on Carey's recommendation I read Stephen Harrod Buhner's Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm. It helped a little, but I need a "how" book and it's almost completely a "why" book, loaded with unsurprising inspirational quotes and intellectual arguments for stuff I already believe. In my experience, the brain always follows the soul and never the other way around, which makes me think I'm wasting my time writing about ideas.
One exception to the emptiness of reality -- although I do cheat by using cannabis. My new favorite thing to do is lie out on the back patio and just listen to the sounds of the neighborhood: cars passing, their noise now distinguishable into the throb of the engine and the hiss of tires, the hum of air conditioners, a flutter of bird wings, a TV through a window, train whistles and airplanes, crickets and bits of voices. I can drift away into thoughts and come back to it, and it's always there, like an endless symphony.
August 17. You've probably noticed that my regular MWF posts are getting later and smaller. This blog appears to be on semi-vacation since my concussion has temporarily reduced my brainpower, and accelerated an ongoing shift in what I find interesting. I'm not completely done writing about politics and society, but I just don't feel like getting into that stuff now.
But here's a good link from a reader, The End of Globalization. It explains in detail how globalization is ending, largely through technology shifting manufacturing from foreign labor to domestic automation. And it has some predictions, that more trade will shift to regional blocks of nations, and that the US military might stop trying to stabilize the world.
August 15. At the bottom of my misc page is a "Readings and Mirrors" section, for stuff that I liked enough to host it myself when I couldn't find it anywhere else on the internet. It's mostly the kind of thing I was interested in ten years ago, like The origins of agriculture, which argues that humans persisted in growing grains because grains contain opioids and other addictive substances.
Last week one of the authors emailed me with links to two newer papers with updated ideas. The one that's publicly available is Pharmacological Influences on the Neolithic Transition, which argues that a bunch of different psychoactive substances were involved.
Coincidentally, this new article fits my new thinking as well as the old one fit my old thinking. I used to think large complex society was simply a mistake, and now I think it's a really interesting transition that still has a long way to go, and to do it right we need more and better ways to alter consciousness.
August 12. This week the most anticipated video game of the last few years, No Man's Sky, was released. I was thinking about building a gaming desktop just to play it, but I've decided to wait for cheaper computers and a better game.
It might be a long wait. This No Man's Sky review on reddit goes into detail about the game's weaknesses, and here's a page with more reviews. The most exciting thing about No Man's Sky is its massive and revolutionary use of procedural generation, using fractal math to make 18 quintillion beautiful planets. But it looks like the procedural generation is not integrated on a deep level with gameplay. So if one planet has green elephants in a jungle and another has red dinosaurs in a desert, it changes what you see but doesn't change what you do.
To be fair, building great gameplay out of procedural generation is really hard. Here's a post from 2012, Procedural Content: When it sucks, when it doesn't. Is No Man's Sky just a really pretty version of Telengard, the 1982 dungeon crawler whose two million rooms were basically the same?
What I'm waiting for is good graphics over something like Dwarf Fortress, and my best hope remains Starsector, a slow-developing independent game by a single programmer, Alex Mosolov. In this 2014 interview, Alex explains why he continues to avoid Kickstarter and Steam so he can develop the game on his own terms. You can tell from his blog that he has a great sense for gameplay, and this year he's starting to add procedural generation.
Here's another fun thing for the weekend, a video of a windmill on fire.
August 10. Today, some presidential politics. I wouldn't take this article at face value, because everyone involved is a Clinton supporter, but Understanding Hillary makes an interesting argument in her defense: that her great political skill is being a good listener, and it just doesn't translate to speaking in front of huge crowds.
Also, a reader has a speculation about why Hillary is so unlikeable. Back in 2012 she had a blood clot in her brain, and if she had a more recent episode, she might have "a vascular dementia, or a post-stroke syndrome" which could make her "more inflexible and more confused by changes and the unexpected."
August 8. Unrelated links. Minds turned to ash is a smart article about why people burn out at their jobs. If I had to distill it to one idea, it's that holding tension between where you are and where you want to be is an effective short-term motivational strategy, but in the long term it's a dead end.
Hacker News comment thread, The LHC nightmare scenario has come true. This comment summarizes it:
The LHC is a multi billion dollar project designed specifically to help physicists build physical models that are more accurate than what currently exists. Countless man-years have been devoted to its operation. Apparently, the only thing it has done is confirm what we already knew decades ago. The nightmare scenario is the waste of billions of dollars and a decade of your life, with no alternatives in sight.
I had no idea that those "warranty void if removed" stickers are illegal. More precisely, "The obligation is on the manufacturer to demonstrate that your third-party repairs or modifications caused the failure, not the other way around."
From a year ago, an interview with the authors of a self-help book called Fuck Feelings. It's not actually against feelings, but it uses humor to counter some of the overly simple advice of other self-help books.
Finally, the thread I linked to on Friday has exploded to 70 comments, probably the biggest comment thread in the history of the subreddit, which is strange because the perceived inequalities between men and women in dating is not a subject I'm interested in or have ever written about. When I was younger I thought I had terrible luck with women, but it turned out to be all because of stuff I was doing, or not doing. One thing was being unaware of vast levels of nonverbal communication, and this is also why I never passed a job interview for anything above office drone. My other mistake was focusing on one person at a time and trying to get with her, when the correct strategy, in dating and in life, is to remain broadly receptive to opportunities.
August 5. Over on the subreddit there's been some action on this post about MGTOW. It stands for Men Going Their Own Way, because they "believe that legal and romantic entanglements with women fail a cost-benefit analysis and risk-benefit analysis."
I think most of these guys are either looking at the wrong women, or they're taking a narrow view of benefits. This is normal human behavior: we tend to be hyperaware of the benefits we're offering and unaware of the benefits we're getting. Or we skew our perspective so that what we're good at seems important and what we're bad at seems trivial or nonexistent.
From the other side, here's a popular feminist post from a year ago, On Unpaid Emotional Labor, and an article in the Guardian with lots of examples, Is emotional labor feminism's next frontier?
This is just one corner of a huge subject that also includes stuff like why Clint Eastwood hates political correctness, what lefties really mean by "privilege", and maybe why certain technologies that satisfy our desires make us unhappy. It's all about self-reinforcing disconnection from reality, and I'll try to get deeper into it another time.
Some music for the weekend. I've linked to this song before but I'm linking again because it's easy on the ears, super-obscure, and I really like it. John Matthias - Pre-Loved / Vintage.
August 3. A couple months back, a question on the subreddit got me thinking about the quote at the top of this page: "The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed." I think in the original quote, from one of Terence McKenna's recorded talks, it was "the bonfire of understanding," but the question was: Why a bonfire? I think it's a great metaphor for a few different reasons. 1) It's primal. For a million years our ancestors sat around fires at night wondering what was out in the darkness. 2) It puts the darkness in all directions, and endless. Compare it to the metaphor of peeling an onion, where under each layer there's another layer, but soon you come to the center. With a fire you're peeling outward forever. 3) Like understanding, a fire can be any size, and it gets bigger incrementally. 4) A bonfire is the biggest controlled fire that most of us have seen. He could have used a candle, but imagine the size of a bonfire and all of that darkness.
August 1. Concussions have been in the news for a while because of the NFL, but I had no idea how serious they are until I got one. Two weeks after my accident, my body is mostly recovered but my brain is still foggy. Apparently it's common for post-concussion syndrome to last months. I have a constant barely noticeable headache, mild memory loss, my happiness ceiling is lower, and it's much harder for me to concentrate. The other day I tried to convert ten meters per second into miles per hour, something I could normally estimate in my head, and I couldn't even get started without pen and paper and even then I made a mistake.
So today I'm not smart enough for original thinking and I'm just going to post a few links, starting with this awesome headline: Climate change is weaponizing the atmosphere. Here's an article with a better photo of the recent Phoenix microburst, where clouds blast near-tornado force wind straight downward.
And two reddit comments sent by readers. One of the smartest people on reddit, Erinaceous, describes Permaculture founder Bill Mollison's political vision, which uses...
existing institutions and legal forms which largely serve corporate interests but turns them to the service of regenerative social ecological systems. Rather than sitting on our thumbs waiting for nations to collapse it gives us an effective means of using the existing nation states to become incubators for permaculture federations which would have some measure of independence from centralized means of control.
And this comment, on the subject of marrying for love, argues that the history of what we seek in partners mirrors Maslow's hierarchy of needs, from food and shelter to belonging to love to self-actualization. The commenter calls the last thing "nearly impossible", and I don't believe in the "true self", but I see a lot of couples where one or both partners successfully challenges the other to be a better person.
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.
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.
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 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 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.