"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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September 6. I've been thinking about the meaning of life -- not the conscious large-scale stories about the reason (or lack of reason) that we're in this world, but about the unconscious stories and value systems that guide our small-scale actions. A month ago on the subreddit there was a massive comment thread about MGTOW, men who "believe that legal and romantic entanglements with women fail a cost-benefit analysis." Now it occurs to me that cost-benefit analysis is an optional, peculiar, and mostly unexamined story about the meaning of life.
I mean it can be a useful tool, but it's not a good script to have running in the background all the time, constantly guarding against getting a bad deal. And yet most of us do it. That's why we don't like being cut off in traffic, or being in the slow line at the supermarket, or not getting the best possible price when we buy stuff online. But when is it enough? When do we say, "Okay, over the whole span of my life I'm sure I'm getting a good deal so I'm going to stop caring about that." Most people never say that, because it would leave a void where there used to be meaning. Instead, normal behavior is to skew our perception so we always feel like we're getting a slightly bad deal no matter how good a deal we're getting.
This is part of what Buddhists call attachment and Eckhart Tolle calls ego, but I want to call it incompetent self-gamification. Gamification is "the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts," often by big institutions as part of creepy social control. But we also do it to ourselves all the time, turning everyday life into little games where we can win or lose based on events we don't fully control. And if we really examined this habit, we would find that the excitement of the game is not worth the suffering of losing.
But wait, isn't that a cost-benefit analysis? Maybe my point is that we apply cost-benefit analysis too much toward the outside, and not enough toward the inside.
September 2. Some fun stuff for the weekend. This silly quiz is actually a good execution of a good idea: What Garden of Earthly Delights Abomination Are You? My result strangely nails the deepest tension in my life, between my desire to simply have a good time, and my unseen role in some mysterious tale in which I'm supposed to be doing something or other, and if I try to have too much of a good time I get smacked down. I can relate even better to this 2014 Onion article: Man Hates Being Put In Position Where He Has To Think, Feel, Or Act.
And this might be the greatest joke ever told, Norm MacDonald's Moth Joke. It's actually an old joke that he puts his own spin on. Where other comedians play within the rules of comedy, Norm MacDonald plays with the rules of comedy.
August 31. Continuing from Monday, I want to say a bit more about puritanism, because it's a common affliction of young people outside the dominant culture. I define puritanism as getting a sense of meaning or value from refusing to do a fun thing that ordinary people do. This is a mistake because it's good to have fun and it's good to do more things. Also it's a denial of the power of moderation. The person who watches TV all day and the person who never watches TV have put off learning the same skill.
New subject: I just defined a word, and a long-time reader has just published a book loaded with interesting definitions of a whole bunch of words, many of them made up. Thanks Darren for sending me a free copy of The Apocalypedia. It's a lot like my early writing in that Darren seems to be having great fun striking again and again at the heart of the Beast. What really stands out to me is how thoroughly moral the book is. You can put your finger down at random and ask if the author thinks the thing he's describing is a good thing or a bad thing, and the answer usually jumps off the page. Between that and the book's thick feel and frequent use of burgundy colored text, it reminds me more than anything of a Bible.
August 29. Back when I started writing for the internet, I was already good with words, in some ways better than I am now, but my ideas were mostly kitsch, the text equivalent of Thomas Kinkade paintings and heavy metal album covers. I would just look at the biggest events and come up with the simplest and most superficially exciting stories. Over the years I've shifted my tone from righteousness toward curiosity, my explanations from epic and airtight toward complex and open-ended, and my predictions from what would make a good movie toward what seems to be actually happening. I've made some effort to explain how and why my thinking has changed, but I suppose it's karma that some readers prefer their own simple and flashy explanations.
Last week on the subreddit someone posted the old story that men lose their creative edge when they get a girlfriend. Now, I'm fascinated by creative decay because it seems to happen to everyone. How many musical artists made their best album in their first five years and how many made it after 20 years? Anecdotally, this process can be blamed on anything, but I think being with a new person is more often a source of creative renewal. Look at what Kathleen Brennan did for Tom Waits. And it's suspicious that the people who tell that story tend to be single guys, and that no one ever tells it with the genders reversed.
Anyone who has been in a long-term live-in relationship knows that it's the opposite of settling into comfort. To explain my own experience, I have to start with some deeper background.
Lately my main angle of self-improvement is to become more aware of the voices inside my head. You might think you don't have voices inside your head, but do you ever have internal arguments? That's at least two voices, and where did they come from? I used to take them as absolutes, like the rocks of the mountains, when really they're arbitrary, socially constructed, and within your power to change. It reminds me of the Gurdjieff line, that humans are so ruled by habit that psychology is basically mechanics. Also it reminds me of the Steven Wright line: "The other day I... uh, no, that wasn't me."
So we have all these unexamined habits that we think of as the "self", and we have developed them by engaging with the world. For people we know casually, or people we'll never see again, we have shallow and short-term strategies, but these are going to break down if you're living with someone for years. Probably the only social context in which you have developed and tested deep and long-term strategies is with your weird-ass family.
So, when you look for a long-term partner, you're subconsciously looking for a social environment just like your family, except now you have more power, so you can finally get the happiness you deserve without having to learn anything new. Of course this never happens. As soon as you move in together the tensions start to build, and the only way through is for both partners to grind through the process of developing new habits that hold up over time.
Specifically: I used to be more complainy, more judgmental, and more puritanical. As a writer I was able to make those habits entertaining, but they're bad habits, and as they've gone out of my personal life, they've gone out of my writing.
August 26. Today I want to write about my ongoing attempt to write fiction. First, an epic reddit comment with 74 answers to the question What's something that happens in movies, but never happens in real life?
We've just started watching a Canadian sci-fi show called Dark Matter on Netflix. The Big Idea is great: a spaceship crew wakes up with their memories gone, so on top of the usual stuff that spaceships do, they have to figure out who they are. And this show is big on Usual Stuff: the android crew member who's just like an aspergy human, the cynical selfish crew member who's also the best with guns, the hot female crew member who is invincible at hand to hand fighting, the cyberpunk space station that's like Blade Runner with no style. Bartenders know everything and you can get anywhere by crawling through ducts. I was hoping the mysterious abandoned ship with murdered crew had one survivor who turned out to be the crazy killer, but instead they went with Space Zombies.
A crew member finds a stowaway and his line is "Well well well, what do we have here?" Imagine the screenwriter making the decision to type that, and how cynical or lazy he must have been.
But it's bad fiction, not good fiction, that motivates me to write. If I'm reading a great novel like John Crowley's Little, Big, or Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, or Albert Cossery's A Splendid Conspiracy, I'm thinking, why should I even bother writing fiction when I can never touch this? But then I see something bad and think, I could write circles around this shit.
But even Dark Matter is good at something I can't do at all. I can conceive big ideas and make the fine details sparkle, but I still haven't learned how to do medium-scale storytelling, to keep a multi-thread narrative going page after page. Now I'm thinking I'll have to bring in some tropes to do that, because I'm not good enough to be completely original on every level. Even my weirdest favorite song has verses and hooks.
August 24. Related to Monday's subject, Religious Diversity May Be Making America Less Religious. I think this is a semantic issue. Everybody has a Big Story about reality, even if it's reductionist materialism or a vague sense of a benevolent universe. But with more options, people are moving away from the monolithic old religions into stories that haven't been defined as "religion" yet, and may never be.
Last week there was a subreddit post about Stimulants versus Hallucinogens and how they fit with different societies. I've often wondered why I'm the only person in my family who hates having a job and feels that modern life is unreasonably difficult and exhausting. Could it be as simple as the fact that I don't drink coffee? Leigh Ann says it's because I'm INTP.
And on my new favorite subject, advanced life skills, What Great Listeners Actually Do. The article breaks it down into six levels, and I'm on level 3 right now and working on level 4.
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.