"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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October 31. Halloween links. From the subreddit, a comment on creepy clowns, but I want to add a disclaimer on politics. I agree that Donald Trump is a disruptive trickster on the level of performance, but on the level of policy I think he's exactly the opposite, obsessed with control and promising to roll back cultural changes that frighten his base. Anyway, my favorite bits edited together:
What particularly intrigues me is that the clowns increasingly tend to be spotted on the edge of the forest. The forest is traditionally the place where the supernatural exists. Our European folklore has magical people that live in the forest, who frighten young children. So in other words, the clowns hover on the border between the natural and the supernatural.
We live in a very stiff era, where we're looking for a trickster figure who can shake up the established order that's failing to work. The creepy clowns are quite literally possessed by Loki, or Anansi, or whatever name your culture has for this phenomenon. They are the collective manifestation of our subconsciousness that the supernatural takes in an era that has a strong yearning for an external source of disruption that allows it to shake off its pathological routines that it finds itself too handicapped to shake off in a conscious manner.
The SCP Foundation is a website where members can submit descriptions of... well, the site carefully keeps this undefined, but it's all weird scary stuff. You might want to start with top rated pages.
Leigh Ann and I have been watching smart horror films, and we really liked Ghostwatch, a fake TV paranormal investigation that caused a panic during its only broadcast in 1992, and inspired the less imaginative Blair Witch Project. The writer of Ghostwatch, Stephen Volk, also wrote a 2011 ghost movie called The Awakening. We watched that and The Orphanage, a 2007 Spanish film with a similar story. I thought The Orphanage was scarier and better directed but The Awakening was better written and more of a head trip.
October 28. A few more practical psychology links. A reader sends this 2010 article, Why Russians Don't Get Depressed. They spend a lot of time thinking about unpleasant memories, but they do it from a detached perspective, as if the events happened to another person.
Google's former happiness guru developed a three-second brain exercise for finding joy. Well, it's not something you do for three seconds but something you do all the time: be on the lookout for "thin slices of joy" and appreciate them. This fits with a general principle that keeps coming up for me: the frontier of self-improvement is at the micro scale, paying attention and doing the right thing in smaller and smaller intervals of time and space. It reminds me of the advice that Steve Largent gave Doug Baldwin about catching a football, that instead of keeping your eye on the whole ball, keep it at the tiniest leading edge.
Another link from a reader, a 40 minute video, Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective. It's by the guy who made Picbreeder, and he goes from there to a general theory of creativity: that it doesn't come from chasing particular goals, but from constantly seeking novelty, or "divergent treasure hunting."
Another example from sports. This year the Western New York Flash were expected to finish near the bottom of the National Women's Soccer League, and they won the championship. Partly this was through talent that hadn't been recognized yet, but it was also through a playing style of creating and exploiting chaos. Check out their goal in the 16th minute of the semifinal against the Portland Thorns, which was probably the best game of the year. It's an ugly goal that nobody saw coming, but the Flash get a lot of balls in the net through a general strategy of sending long throw-ins to bounce around in the box, and being able to work with them.
Watch their best player, Lynn Williams, make this penalty kick in the championship game. Penalty kicks happen so fast that usually neither player tries to improvise -- they just decide what they're going to do and hope they guess right. But I'm pretty sure, in that hundredth of a second between stepping forward and kicking the ball, Williams sees the goalie moving to one side and calmly puts the ball away on the other side. My point is, the Flash are the best team because they can improvise in the smallest time scales.
October 26. I liked all the feedback I got from Monday's subject, so I'll keep going with it. Leigh Ann is skeptical of my obsession with hacking happiness, and says it's pointless because you need unhappiness to make happiness meaningful. That makes sense logically, but it doesn't fit my experience. I've met people who are happy all the time, and other people who are unhappy all the time. They still have highs and lows, but their baselines are so far apart that the lows of happy people are still higher than the highs of unhappy people. So why the difference? Brain chemicals? Unexamined mental habits? How well your social context fits your deep personality? Probably some of all three.
Also, when good stuff happens, it's not like I feel worse when it's over. I feel better! Sometimes I can even pull this off with video games if I quit at just the right time. And a bad event can put me in a long-term slump. If there's a benefit from bad stuff happening, it's not that ordinary life looks better in comparison. It's that I get experience climbing out of the hole.
The more I think about this subject, the more complex it is. On the subreddit someone thinks I'll become a Buddhist monk, which is not going to happen, but I love the Buddhist distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is when you stub your toe, and suffering is when it bothers you that you stubbed your toe. I'm good at processing physical pain without suffering, and bad at other kinds of pain. (Maybe that's why teenagers cut themselves, to exchange hard-to-process emotional pain for easy-to-process physical pain.) And if we have feelings on multiple levels, then a happy person might feel better about their lowest lows than an unhappy person feels about their highest highs.
A conversation over email has given me a better understanding of compulsive programmers. I was thinking it was a micro-brain thing where they happen to find the details of programming more rewarding. Now I think it's a whole personality thing, where compulsives do not know how to take a step back and rebalance, how to shift their minds from narrow focus to wide focus.
That fits with a general line of my thinking lately, that a lot of life skills come down to something like a mental transmission, where if it's working right you can smoothly shift gears from one mental state to another. I think that's why I feel so much pain around doing small jobs to fix up the house, because that mental state is so far from the one I'm in normally. (In Myers-Briggs language, I'm an N and it's really hard for me to get into S mode.)
Last night with the help of marijuana (which I doubt is in any monastic tradition) I came up with a promising idea: we negotiate mental adjustments through inner dialogues, and when I struggle with mental adjustments, it might be just because my inner dialogues are too serious, and I need to make them more playful. So instead of being hard on myself for slipping into an unhelpful mental state, I can just think "Heh, there you go again!"
October 24. This book excerpt, Science and the Compulsive Programmer (posted last week to the subreddit) has given me lots of stuff to think about.
It's about the differences between two kinds of programmers, one described as "professional", "hard-working", "careful", and "sensible", and the other described as "disheveled", "transfixed", "possessed", "frenzied", "grandiose", "incestuous", "aimless", "disembodied", and "monastic".
My first instinct is to read against the text: the book was published 40 years ago, and it's firmly in the mid-20th century industrial mindset where getting things done is intrinsically valuable and how we feel about it is secondary. As a 21st century reader, I see human psychology as the only hard problem, and the compulsive programmers have solved it in the most direct way: while responsible programmers are dutifully supporting a tech infrastructure that may or may not make anyone happy, compulsive programmers have simply found happiness. I envy them.
Look at wild animals, and I'm thinking of species you can watch in the city like grey squirrels and house sparrows. While doing what they need to do to survive, they seem to be permanently as happy and engaged as I've only been at my happiest moments, like when I leaned into that curve that wiped out my scooter, or when I bought that exciting thing that turned out to be a burden, or when I played video games until ordinary life seemed like a hellscape of unclear goals and unreliable rewards.
When I think about it that way, compulsive programmers are probably on a similar dead end, and not at all in the same mental state as squirrels or the best and luckiest humans who have found a well-balanced niche in the modern world. And it probably would not work, as a utopian goal, to have all the useful stuff done by machines, leaving us all free to have useless fun forever. Of course we should still try, but I'm becoming more and more suspicious of how hard it is, even with all this technology, to find any kind of hack or shortcut to feeling good. It's leading me away from philosophical materialism and toward something like theology.
October 21. Bunch o' links about technology, starting with lower tech that's better than higher tech.
You've probably heard that the makers of the EpiPen jacked up the price hundreds of dollars because the American medical system has no cost controls. Some folks have developed the epipencil, an autoinjector that you can make yourself for $30 in parts plus the cost of the epinephrine.
Old jobs is an image album of jobs that no longer exist. I can't help but notice that some of them look more fun than any job I've ever had. My larger point is that we could make a better world by putting more foresight into automation, like considering whether doing a job by hand is more enjoyable than maintaining the tech that repaces it.
The secret behind Italy's rarest pasta. It's not a secret, just a skill that takes years to learn. Only two people in the world can do it, and it will probably die with them because our culture no longer has room for that much patience.
The Dutch Reach: Clever Workaround to Keep Cyclists from Getting Doored. It's not some high-tech sensor. Drivers are just trained and tested in the habit of turning their shoulders, looking behind them, and opening the door with their opposite hand.
Now here's an awesome use of high tech: the best microscope pics of 2016. My favorite is the spider eyes.
I think human space colonies are silly, first because humans are totally unfit for space while robots are perfect, and second because there are more exciting frontiers toward the inside. But this article on Jeff Bezos's rocket mentions something cool that I didn't know: as a rocket gets bigger, it becomes easier to keep it balanced while taking off and landing vertically, for the same reason that you can balance an umbrella on your hand more easily than you can balance a pin.
Finally, some music. A question on the record store subreddit reminded me of a song I was obsessed with in the early 90's. Hammerbox was a Seattle band from the grunge era with a powerful singer named Carrie Akre. She later fronted the band Goodness, and made her last solo album in 2007. I'm going to look into her later stuff and see if she ever found any more great songs to match her voice, after this forgotten gem from 1991, Hammerbox - When 3 Is 2.
October 19. On a tangent from Monday's post, that comment about Trump's hypomania mentions a book called The Hypomanic Edge, in which the author "surveyed leaders in Silicon Valley and they almost universally agreed that the clinical description of hypomania matched what they thought was needed from the most successful startup CEOs."
I'm thinking, suppose we went back millions of years to our primate ancestors, or not so far back to the most brutal groups of humans. In that world, the largest and most aggressive males are the leaders. In our own world, being physically large and aggressive is increasingly useless. There are still lucrative roles in pro sports, but nobody thinks Ndamukong Suh has the right skillset to be a president or a CEO.
My point is, hypomanic people don't either. There is no correlation between hypomania and making good decisions. The correlation is with speed, having the sleepless drive to make a large number of decisions in a day.
This is only a factor because of our extremely fast-paced society. And it's a factor in other jobs too. Peter Higgs, "the British physicist who gave his name to the Higgs boson, believes no university would employ him in today's academic system because he would not be considered 'productive' enough." There are people out there who would make great leaders, scientists, house builders, chefs, you name it, but they can't hold those jobs because they're not fast enough.
I dream that this will change. If more speed-dependent jobs are automated, if an unconditional basic income moves more jobs into the realm of volunteer work, and if our culture slows down to match the end of economic growth, we might unlock the vast contributions of high quality slow workers.
October 17. Some notes on the presidential race:
1) What an embarrassment for the Republican party, that all this stuff is coming out now after Trump sailed through their nomination process. And it's not like Trump is the kind of guy you'd never suspect. The accusers were probably thinking, "I'm not going to stick my neck out to put Ted Cruz in the White House, and Republicans probably won't believe me anyway." And I wonder who made the decision to release the tape that started the whole thing. Maybe they would have held onto it if they thought Trump would be a good president.
2) Everyone knows that Bill Clinton has used power to get sex. I don't think Bill has been perfect, but there's a continuum all the way from full consent to creepy sexual assault, and clearly he has been a lot closer than Trump to the good side of that range. How has he done it? By knowing how to read women. Where Trump sees injustice and a double standard, I just see a competent person and an incompetent person.
3) This reddit comment diagnoses Trump as hypomanic:
I'm moderately bipolar and have become very aware of when I become hypomanic. High energy, drive, sleeplessness, grandiosity, a compulsion to talk a lot, and extraordinary self esteem are definitely part of it. At my highest levels of hypomania, I was driven towards a goal where I felt like it was the singular purpose that my whole life was converging towards, I was the one person in the world that could best accomplish it, and it was something the world desperately needed. That is certainly Trump right now.
4) Hillary Clinton has her own tragic flaw. She cannot let go of the belief that people at the top deal with truths that ordinary idiots can't handle. That's why she hid her emails, not because she was using power selfishly, but because she believed she was using power for the greater good in ways that she does not trust you and me know about. In the age of Wikileaks and Russian hackers, Hillary's Nixon-like obsession with keeping secrets is likely to bring her down, because if she does something even a little bit shady, and it comes out, it's going to look like she was trying to cover it up.
October 13. I'll eventually write about deeper stuff, but next week it will probably be politics again, and today, TV show reviews. I used to think it was a real danger that high-tech superstimuli would devour human attention, but as I get older that no longer matches my personal experience. It's getting hard for me to find shows that I like better than daydreaming and listening to the rain.
Starting with the worst, The 100 has a good premise, teenagers from a space station exploring Earth after a nuclear war, but the writing and acting could not be any worse without being more interesting. One notch up, Zoo is more interesting by being more trashy, with a ridiculous plot about a mutation that makes animals attack humans worldwide.
I love 19th century gothic literature, so I wanted to like Penny Dreadful, but the writers have no idea how to tell a story. Episode after episode drags by without advancing the plot, and the whole thing becomes a tiresome showcase for the beautiful dark cinematography and Eva Green's acting. (Update: the key to enjoying the first season is to view every scene as a stand-alone short film and pretend you don't speak English, or to skip episodes 4-7.)
You've probably heard about Stranger Things. It's sort of like Close Encounters or E.T., except that instead of advanced and benevolent space aliens, it's a brutal and horrific parallel world. The whole thing is really well done except that sometimes there are overacted arguments for no good reason. My favorite thing is that the people who seem completely crazy are the ones who best understand what's going on.
A while back I mentioned Dark Matter, the trope-heavy Canadian show about a space ship crew. It's no Firefly, but it continues to get better, and it's one of two shows we're currently watching where I look forward to the next episode.
The other is Scream Queens. The story is a parade of horror cliches, I can't relate to any of the characters, and most of the conversations are annoying macho posturing, but on the micro scale every element is bursting with creativity, and everyone involved seems to be having fun.
October 10. I've been avoiding writing about the election but it's getting too interesting. Here's Nate Silver with a good summary of where it's been and where it stands, The Second Debate Probably Didn't Help Trump, And He Needed Help. Last night Trump excused his 2005 boast about groping women as "locker room talk", and here's a reddit thread in response, What are actual "locker room talks" usually about?
Back in January I called Trump "an unstoppable juggernaut." I like being wrong, because it's an opportunity to examine deeper assumptions and bring them more in line with reality. In this case, I assumed that the general election is not that different from the Republican primaries. It turns out that it's a lot harder, and that's a problem for Republicans.
This video, How Donald Trump Answers A Question, gets good around the 2:10 mark when they analyze his language: 78% one syllable words, 17% two syllables, in a rhythmic cadence that usually puts the strongest word at the end of the sentence. As a writer I know how hard it is to put words in a good order, and I'm impressed with Trump's ability to do it
extemporaneously on the fly.
Is this a skill that Trump has studied and practiced, or does he do it without quite knowing how? I'm sure it's the latter, because otherwise he would study and practice how to talk in a way that resonates with general election swing voters. I think Trump is some kind of idiot savant. He's really good at one thing, and he has relied on it so heavily that he's not much good at anything else, and now he has finally reached a level where talent is not enough. More than anything he reminds me of a quarterback who was great in college and bad in the NFL, like Johnny Manziel or Ryan Leaf.
He could still win if Hillary has another health crisis. During last night's debate a fly landed on her face, which means nothing rationally, but it's not a good omen. And I don't see anyone from either party who looks strong in 2020. It will be fun if Trump runs again and the party elites try harder to stop him.
October 7. Leigh Ann says my last post sounds like an Enneagram 1, and that if I really understood fun, I wouldn't have to argue that it's important, because it's enough that it's fun.
It's true, keeping life fun is not something I do naturally but something I have to work at. This post, The problem with perfection, describes how falling away from fun has happened in classical music:
Imagine a theatre where the author dictates the speed at which the actors should read each sentence, and how loudly each word should be read, the length of each word and the tonal character of the voice of the actor.
On to my usual weekend subject, drugs and music: High Hitler is an article about a new book, Blitzed, and the close relation between Nazi Germany and powerful stimulants. German chemists invented methamphetamine, and soldiers all took it so they could stay awake for three days and nights and invade France. Hitler himself was addicted to cocaine and oxycodone, and Mussolini was getting the same drugs from the same doctor. At the end, on top of losing the war, they were all going through withdrawal.
Anyone on cannabis will enjoy this video, Minecraft Acid Interstate V2. I hate the music, but I love how the video is synchronized to the music, with the stone things passing exactly on the beats. It shouldn't be too hard to make software that can take any music and go farther, with different kinds of trees and buildings matching different instruments and vocals.
And some better music. Diane Coffee is the stage name of Shaun Fleming. He's a good songwriter and performs with an energy that's going to make him much more famous than he is now. I think his strongest song is WWWoman, and here's a live performance (at 14:05) of his prettiest song, Green.
In honor of Hurricane Matthew, here's a video I made in 2014 using footage of Typhoon Haiyan, and a live graphic mapping its location and wind speeds.
October 4. When I said that a perfect life is one with no obligations, I was trying to get at something more fundamental, but so obvious it's hardly worth saying: a perfect life is one where every action is intrinsically rewarding. And a perfect society is one where every action by everyone is intrinsically rewarding.
This is not as unrealistic as it sounds. At the beginning of his book In Search of the Primitive, Stanley Diamond argues that many tribal cultures, said by anthropologists to make no distinction between work and play, would be more fairly described as doing no work. Of course they do lots of stuff that might feel like work to us, but they carefully maintain a cultural and psychological context where everything necessary to keep the tribe going feels like what we would call play.
How did we get from there to here, where we spend half our lives doing useful chores, and the other half having useless fun, with almost no overlap? This is how I imagine the Fall of Man: not that we were lured from innocent righteousness by wicked fun, but that we were lured from fun by stodgy pragmatism, when someone said, "I don't care if you don't feel like doing it, you're going to do it anyway." Or maybe it started with prehistoric slavery, and once it became normal to separate useful activity from freely chosen activity, it got locked in, and it spread.
An activity redefined as a chore can be done on a consistent schedule, instead of waiting for people to feel like doing it. This is what we call industry, and it drags related activities into the same mind space -- if horseshoes can't depend on a whim, then nails can't depend on a whim. And if you try to go back, you have to pass through a stage where nobody wants to do any of that shit, and any benefits gained will be lost.
So what can we do about it? On the level of society, there are utopian dreams of re-merging the useful and the fun, but we're actually getting somewhere with another strategy: to shift the whole world of useful chores to machines, and leave humans doing only useless fun. I support this one hundred percent. Of course there will be challenges, described in dystopian fiction from The Machine Stops to WALL-E, but I trust human nature. If we all have the absolute right to do nothing, we will eventually learn to do things that reconnect us in a healthy way to the wider world.
Meanwhile, is there anything we can do on a personal level, maybe change our outlook so that our chores feel more like play? Once I stayed at an intentional community where the idea was that work would feel meaningful if people were doing it for their friends. In practice that didn't happen, and there were firm requirements, enforced by penalties, to do more hours of work per week than a frugal person can get away with in the dominant society. But one guy did figure out a mind hack. He turned washing dishes into a game, where the crew would try to do it as fast as possible, so they would get credit for however long it was supposed to take, while getting off work sooner and having fun.
Another thing is just to notice what makes us feel better or feel worse, and act on it, especially when it goes against what society calls normal. I just rode my bike to the store in the rain, even though we have a car, because I've noticed that driving is stressful and makes me want to curl up under a blanket, while bicycling is fun and I come home energized, even if I'm less comfortable.
October 1. Quick topical note. The Clinton campaign has found Trump's weakness: that he will not back down from public feuds even when he seems to be in the wrong. His first collapse in the polls came right after the Democratic convention when he bizarrely attacked the family of a fallen soldier. Now he's doing it again, making hostile tweets at 3AM in a nonsensical grudge against a former beauty queen.
This is especially bad for Trump because it undermines his strength in the world of myth. Trump represents the trickster archetype, and people are hungry for a trickster because the established order is getting more and more lifeless. But now he seems less like a joker and more like an uptight straight man. He needs to be Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack and he's turning out to be more like Ted Knight, or he needs to be Ferris Bueller and he suddenly seems more like the principal.
Trump could still pull it out if Hillary has more health problems. And even if she wins, she's clearly a one-termer, and in 2020 we're likely to get a trickster president if a candidate without Trump's negatives can play that role.
September 30. Some stuff from emails over the last couple weeks. Griffiths asks whether I think drug use is a zero sum game. My answer is that it's too complex to be zero sum, but that I would simplify it like this:
Infrequent use is positive sum, because not only do the benefits tend to outweigh the costs, but it changes your reality and expands your consciousness. And using a drug all day every day is usually negative sum, but even there you can find exceptions.
In an email to Kevin, on the subject of anxiety and rage, I wrote:
When I get anxiety, what I fear is being in a social situation that's way over my head, which is a rational fear because that's actually happened to me many times. The clue that I've messed up a social situation is when someone is angry with me and I have no idea why.
And in my experience, anger is a secondary emotion that comes from processing pain a certain way -- usually the wrong way, although sometimes anger is useful. I should keep that in mind when people are angry with me, that they're misprocessing their pain.
On the subject of avoiding external demands, Tim asks, "Does taking out the garbage in your cosmology constitute something that comes from 'outside' or 'inside?'" Now I'm thinking that inside vs outside is not the best model, but my answer is:
Taking out the garbage is definitely outside. In a better primitive world, I could just drop it on the ground and it would decompose, and in a better high-tech world, nanobots would take care of it.
Finally, Carey quotes Bjork: "The best way to start anew is to fail miserably," which reminds me that one song lyric, which you've all heard a hundred times, turns out to be a really powerful mantra when things are going badly: "Hold your head up, movin on, keep your head up, movin on."
September 28. "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger." If you interpret "stronger" like a Clint Eastwood character, that statement is dangerous bullshit. But over the last couple weeks, after a series of reasonable decisions and heroic efforts have only dug me deeper, after I faced larger fears leading to larger disasters, as the challenge has dragged on to the point where even deus ex machina would come too late to not feel like an insult, I find that I've become better in subtle ways.
Twice a week I drive Leigh Ann to physical therapy for her torn patellar tendon, so she can take Vicodin and not have to drive home, and I wait in the parking lot of the medical clinic building for more than an hour. Monday I forgot my book, so I just sat and watched the people go in and out, many of them in bad shape, patiently led by family members, or driven by people who waited in cars like me. Before that procession of the damned, I was overcome with the beauty of human persistence in the face of the tragedy of life.
Later, when someone on Reddit suggested that homeless people should be required to pick up litter, I realized, this person has never had a bad day. They might think they have, but if they really had, they would understand that anyone in the world can end up on the street if they don't have money or a support network and life deals them too many low cards in a row.
I hold my energy closer to my body now. It's hard to explain, but suppose I'm walking across my bedroom to pick up my shoes. There used to be part of me that reached out to grasp the shoes ahead of my hands, but now I feel that I could stumble on something before I get there, or I've mistaken something else for my shoes which are actually lost forever, or I'll be stopped by some other thing that I've forgotten or never imagined. So I try to keep my attention centered on where I am, not an inch or a second farther.
I'm better at meditating, because when I wake up in the night full of dread, I can only sleep by blanking my mind with the relentless focus of an elite athlete, or by expanding into the fear with the angry intention of breaking something inside. But it doesn't feel worth it. Whether life is meaningless, or whether the scales of chance are tipped by some program or intention, I just want to get this shit out of the way, not just the recent shit but all of it, so I can be trivial and happy. Am I optimistic? "We cannot defeat the armies of Mordor. But we will meet them in battle nonetheless."