"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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November 23. Over on my misc page I have a few Thanksgiving recipes, and I've just developed a recipe for unsweetened fresh cranberry sauce. You need a food processor or a powerful blender, and then it's a pound of berries, two apples peeled and chopped, and a cup of tart cherry juice. For the big meal I plan to wait until Friday morning and try to find a $50 turkey marked down to $10.
Of the three books I mentioned a week ago, the one that keeps pulling me back is suprisingly the most difficult: Ellen Chen's translation and dense commentary on the Tao Te Ching. Chapter 52.3 has a line that perfectly applies to recreational drugs: "Use the bright light but return to the dim light."
November 21. Posting will probably be light this week. Thanks Gabriel for this link, The Court of Values and the Bureau of Boringness. A lot of people have noticed a problem with democracy: that ordinary voters focus on what the candidates symbolically represent, and don't know or care about how the government works. The author's solution is to divide government into two branches, one where boring nerds set actual policy, and one where "outrageous charismatic buffoons" argue about values.
November 18. More fun stuff for the weekend. In this absurd man-on-the-street interview, a guy says that Trump will raise Atlantis by completing the system of German idealism. I found the video on the Sorcery of the Spectacle subreddit, which... I don't even know what it's about.
On the self-improvement front: Do you ever catch yourself doing something that's supposed to be purely for fun, but you're not having fun anymore, just continuing to do it out of habit? I'm working on noticing that more often and more quickly, and this completely painless practice has raised my happiness baseline.
I also noticed something about meditation. I've seen it described as watching a stormy sea, and trying to still the waves so you can see to the bottom. But the waves are not in the "sea" -- the waves are in the watcher. Now I finally understand the value of observing the breath. I remember a metaphor about a guy who tames a demon by giving it a curly hair and telling it to make the hair straight, so the demon just runs its fingers over the hair again and again and can't do anything else. When you can focus your attention finely enough, observing the breath is exactly like that, because you're no longer observing a whole breath but running your attention carefully along it.
By the way, I never budget time for meditation -- I just budget plenty of time for sleeping, and whenever I can't sleep, I repeatedly still my thoughts and follow my breath. Either I succeed in putting in meditation practice, or I succeed in sleeping.
And more music. Lora Logic was a minor figure in the British post-punk scene in the late 70's and early 80's. Personally I find her jumpy rhythms almost unbearable, but her music is raw, complex, and inspired, and it needs a bigger audience. If you only listen to one song, try Brute Fury.
November 16. I'm tired of politics. We've all chosen our positions for emotional reasons we're not even half aware of, and then we argue over tacked-on rationalizations. The smartest people are the stupidest, because their rationalizations are the most inpenetrable, so nothing can break through to the level where the real action is.
I haven't read many books lately, but now I'm trying to start again with three books, all of which I've read or started reading before: The Complete Guide to Mysterious Beings by John Keel, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries by W. Y. Evans-Wentz, and Ellen Chen's Tao Te Ching.
Moving on to fun stuff... how cool is it that the Oakland Raiders are good again? Their quarterback, Derek Carr, had an older brother who flopped in the NFL because he couldn't perform under pressure. Watching this unfold on TV was so painful for Derek that he was motivated to become one of the best quarterbacks at making throws under pressure. Last week the Raiders dominated the defending champions, and one of their linemen made this awesome quote: "We ran the same running play ten times in a row. We kept wearing them down with double teams. They knew it was coming. It didn't matter. That's when you take somebody's will."
Last week I linked to my favorite songs page, but I want to call out one song that I'm especially into lately, from 2002, Broken Social Scene - Anthems For A Seventeen Year-Old Girl. It's like the twee Stairway to Heaven.
November 14. Over on the subreddit there's an interesting discussion of why I have so many alt-right readers. Sometimes they annoy me and I want them to go away, but where there's annoyance, there's always an opportunity for learning.
Anyway I have more to say about the election. If you watch UFC, you know that everyone talks trash before the fight, and during the fight they hit each other, and then after the fight they embrace. Donald Trump understands better than I do that politics works the same way. For the general election I thought he would reinvent himself as a lovable moderate, and instead he doubled down on being dark and divisive -- and it worked! Then, the moment he was declared the winner, he suddenly pivoted to making peace and bringing America together. So I'm wondering, how much of Evil Trump was a performance? What's under that scary clown mask?
I barely considered the possibility that Trump would turn out to be basically the same as every other president. I said he'd be a great ceremonial president, but I might have underestimated how much the presidency is already ceremonial. When the whole Bush family endorsed Hillary, I was sure the oligarchy feared Trump. Now I think we all fell for a deep con.
Imagine you're the secret ruler of an America that's been hollowed out. All the power is in the cities now, and the peasants want a revolution. But there's nothing you can do for them. The manufacturing jobs are lost forever to automation, the immigrants will keep coming in, old-time white culture is dying -- but you still need those people to work at Walmart and maintain the infrastructure, and they have a lot of guns.
So you let them have their messiah, a big city billionaire who talks the language of the rural working class, and he pulls a shocking upset. Urban liberals are genuinely horrified -- they don't even know they're part of the show. A guy waves a confederate flag over a sign saying "Accept it, you lost," and he doesn't even see the irony. And Trump does his best. He gets eight years, because the charismatic ones always do, and he gets a few symbolic victories. But on a deeper level the world continues on its inscrutable path, and Trump serves to pacify the right just as Obama pacified the left.
I don't really believe in sinister rulers who consciously planned exactly whatever happens, and that we make a better world by overthrowing them. I really believe the weirder thing I said last week: that our subconscious minds go deep, and they're connected down there on a scale we haven't imagined. And if you want to get out of the audience and join the circus, the locked door is inside you.
November 11. Taking a break from politics for music. Tuesday night I slipped in a YouTube link, but now I want to link to it explictly, because this classic punk song from 1982 is exactly how America feels to me right now: Fear - Let's Have A War. Related article: Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being.
I've been having some email conversations about the occult nature of Trump's win. (It would take several books to explain what "occult" even means.) So it's stunning, but not surprising, that the next celebrity to die was Leonard Cohen, because there's some weird, dark stuff around him. If you have a couple hours, it's covered in this crazy two-part podcast from last year, The Liminalist 31.5: The Guerrilla in the Room. My favorite Leonard Cohen song is Teachers.
Believe it or not, my main project over the last week was putting together music playlists. I've been wanting to merge the songs of my favorite band, Big Blood, with songs by other artists, especially my second favorite band, Hawkwind. Yesterday I finished the core list, 13 songs over 72 minutes [update: now 21 songs and almost two hours], starting with folk and getting increasingly heavy. It's at the top of my favorite songs page.
November 9. After sleeping on it and hearing some reactions, I have a new story: Trump's victory is the 9/11 of the American left. The Tarot card for both events is The Tower, a sudden shocking catastrophe in which something that appears secure is brought down. Also both events were centered around New York City, and both events had a much milder precedent: the 1993 bombing, and Bush's victory over Al Gore.
In both 2000 and 2016 (and 1980) Republicans nominated a gunslinger, a candidate with great political instincts who inspired the base and didn't care about his own flaws. In both of those years (and 2004) Democrats nominated an uptight, awkward moderate who tried to avoid the appearance of having any flaws, but the result was that smaller flaws got magnified, voters were apathetic, and the Republican won. And in 1992, 1996, 2008, and 2012, when Republicans nominated a dignified moderate, they lost. The only reason Bush Sr won in 1988 was that Dukakis was even more of a dweeb.
Remember in 2004 when Howard Dean lost the Democratic primaries after making that weird scream? Compare that to the ten thousand worse things Donald Trump has done in front of a microphone. My point is not that Trump is bad but that this is what a winning attitude looks like. Dean was loose and impulsive and raw in a way that general election voters actually like -- but Democratic primary voters fear it.
The American left has been on its back foot since the 1980's, and I'm not sure why. My guess is that in the decades before 1980, they were so successful working within the system that they lost the skill and confidence to work outside the system. You need that confidence to not be afraid to lose, and you need to be fearless before you can nominate and stand behind a flawed candidate.
This is a dark night of the soul for a lot of Americans, but it's also an opportunity for us to organize in new ways and reinvent ourselves politically. Last night I mentioned disassociating from society, but that allows us to reassociate in ways we might not have imagined.
November 8, late. Shit just got real. A few notes...
If you're unhappy about this, just disassociate. You're not a part of this nation, this culture, this planet, just some kind of alien visiting to observe and have a good time. This attitude is both a cause and an effect of social collapse. A comment from earlier today: "I kind of hope this is the last election, however it turns out."
I do not trust voters to say why they really voted for Trump, or even to know why. I think there's a lot going on subconsciously (see below).
I think everyone who voted for Trump would have voted for him anyway, even if James Comey hadn't resurrected the email scandal at the last minute. But the FBI director was clearly angling to be a close ally of President Trump, and I expect him to be important over the next few years.
On the left, the big winner is Bernie Sanders, who would have won a lot of the votes that Hillary couldn't win. When will the Democratic party stop being afraid of popular excitement? Is it too late?
If Trump wants to prove he can cut through red tape and get shit done, while making even liberals happy, he should start by abolishing daylight savings time. Seriously, why is it so hard to make such a simple change that everyone agrees with? If we can't even do that, how can we hope to make bigger changes?
If Hillary had won, I was going to mention conspiracy theories that Trump's whole plan was to throw the election to the Dems, or that he wanted to remain an outsider populist without having to prove anything, or that his whole candidacy was a distraction. We can throw those away now, as well as the idea that the oligarchy controls the whole thing.
But I have a new grand conspiracy theory (thanks to marijuana, which won big in this election). Did you ever get in a totally baffling conflict, and years later you looked back and discovered a subconscious level on which it all made sense? So there's an example of one single link where the subconscious mind is in control and the conscious mind is just along for the ride. What if these links can form networks? What if they form a global subconscious civilization that is secretly running everything? Never mind the Reptilians -- the enemy is within.
November 8. Here's an updated Chance That Your Vote Will Decide the Election. In New Hampshire, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania your chance is at least as good as 1 in 2 million. [New update: it was zero.] And you might be surprised at your results on the ISideWith.com quiz. I just took it and got 99% Jill Stein, 78% Gary Johnson, 73% Hillary Clinton, and 22% Donald Trump.
November 2. This election is getting bizarre. As scandals go, Hillary Clinton's email thing is chicken feed, and it does not begin to explain Trump's surge in the polls over the last week. It's like those people were going to vote for Trump all along and as the election gets closer they'll take a smaller and smaller excuse. And why has Trump fallen in the polls when he's been most in the public eye, right after the conventions and debates? He's like that thing you do that you hate and you always promise yourself you'll never do it again, but then as it fades in your memory it becomes more and more attractive.
I'm not endorsing Hillary. She's a political dinosaur, a predictable synthesis of 1970's liberalism and 1990's neoliberalism, and she's on the wrong side of my favorite issues: unconditional basic income, drug legalization, copyright reform, and retooling the economy for zero growth. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is a crazy hybrid of 1950's conservatism and a 2050 post-crash warlord, and he's on the wrong side of everything except metapolitics.
I see Trump as a correction, bringing together two things that have grown too far apart. On the one hand is how our civilization really works, a vast and inhuman network that is best managed by competent and dispassionate technocrats. On the other hand is the show, the public perception of how it works, that it's all about the personalities of human "leaders", like the tribal leaders of our ancestral memory, and if your life sucks then we just need someone strong and decisive to straighten those folks out.
I appreciate Trump as a performer, and I agree with his instinct that the political show has become a farce and deserves to be played like a farce. But if he actually becomes president, people will learn in the most painful way that their primal view of politics is bullshit, that you can't fix your computer by getting the most confident person to smack it with a hammer.
Trump is not even a good businessman -- he has less money than if he had just put his dad's money in an average investment fund. His positions and his personality are completely authoritarian, and I would expect him to make so many more things illegal that people I know would go to prison. He's an enemy of the poor and I would expect economic desperation to create more crime, which would be used to justify more brutal central control. Ironically his own supporters would be worst off, while blue state liberals could soften the federal trainwreck with adjustments at the state level.
Another irony: Hillary Clinton's most extreme position is her hostility to transparency, her belief that ordinary people shouldn't know how the government really works. If you live by keeping people stupid, you die by keeping people stupid.
October 31. Halloween links. From the subreddit, a comment on creepy clowns. These are 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.
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.