"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."
- Terence McKenna
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January 3, 2017.
They say 2016 was a bad year, but from now on I expect every year to be worse than the year before, at least by 20th century values where "better" means increasing wealth, security, and rational management. The best we can hope for is that life will start feeling better in ways that are hard to quantify.
I no longer believe in evil, just mistakes, and one of the core mistakes of the modern world is losing touch with the unquantifiable. According to Terence McKenna, young Decartes was visited by an "angel" who told him that the key to conquering nature is number and measure. 400 years later, number and measure have conquered the human soul, to the point where we think we must be crazy to be unhappy when we're surrounded by so many good numbers.
The Hindu trinity is Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. Western culture would say the Destroyer is the bad guy, but really it's all about balance, and what we have right now is an excess of preservation, and probably an excess of creation. I no longer believe in a hard crash, but it's getting to the point where, even if stuff doesn't go away, we just don't have room to care about it.
I don't do new year's resolutions because a resolution loses strength with every failure. Instead I call them points of emphasis, and my point of emphasis for 2017 is micro-scale toughness. It's hard to explain what toughness is. It's like, when the wind blows, a tough person instinctively turns toward the wind instead of away from it. I can do that with big things, but it takes practice to do it with little things.
December 31. The last two nights I had a visitor, Orin, who took Greyhound over from Seattle. One night we took turns playing music, trying to either find something similar to what the other person just played, or something completely different. I want to do this with all my visitors now, and with my hosts if I travel again. Of the songs I played, the one we both liked best was this weird epic about death by a German guy, Get Well Soon - If This Hat Is Missing I Have Gone Hunting, and second place was Big Blood's cover of Vitamin C, oddly another German song. Of the songs he played, my favorite was this inspired vocal layering by Yoko Kanno under the name Gabriela Robin, Green Bird.
Orin also got me back into juggling, which is a good way to keep my energy moving throughout the day, because it doesn't take much space but it uses more of the body than just playing on the computer. My big revelation was that if I listen to music and try to juggle to the beat, I get a visual sense of the tempo from how high I have to throw the bags. My song of the year, No me gustas, te quiero, is hard to juggle with because you have to throw them really high or low and fast, while Hawkwind's Hurry On Sundown has a perfect medium height tempo.
December 29. Aaron mentions the website Surviving Antidepressants, and suggests a radical idea that sounds right to me, that "depression is not a malfunction of the brain but in fact is the brain working as it should." That reminds me of something Gabor Maté says in this video, that people who take illegal drugs are rationally self-medicating.
The deeper problem, obviously, is that modern society doesn't fit human nature, and it seems to be getting worse -- more and more people are struggling to bridge the gap between who they are and what society offers and demands.
I used to think the system would collapse for technical reasons, and now we're watching it collapse for psychological reasons. The weird thing is that nobody is aiming for collapse. When you get down to the scale of one person, one decision, it just looks like people being lazy and stupid. Lazy because a task that's easy when you're excited and engaged, is impossible when you're depressed and afraid. Stupid because the conscious rational mind can't handle the truth: when your life sucks and you can't find a way to make it better, the next move is to make it worse.
How much worse does it get before it gets better? I'll probably write more about this another time. For now I want to post a few late Christmas songs. As always, Steve Mauldin's Abominable O Holy Night, and this oddly fits today's post: by trying to sing worse, he gave a performance that's remarkably alive.
You've all heard Bruce Springsteen's version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," with the different melody in the chorus. Springsteen was copying the 1963 version by The Crystals, and the other day on the radio I heard this version that I like even better, recorded in 1992 by an Australian ABBA tribute band: Bjorn Again - Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.
December 26. A few more links about psychology and society. Via the subreddit, a long reddit post arguing that mental illness comes from our toxic culture, with lots of details including brain-body separation.
A reader sends this four minute video, Dr. Gabor Maté - The Myth of Normal, arguing that preindustrial villages have more room than modern society for people to be weird, and that capitalist culture only values people for what they produce or consume.
Getting smarter: How ant societies point to radical possibilities for humans. We used to think ants were like human industrial society, with central control and strict division of labor. It turns out they use something that programmers call "distributed process":
There, it means that no single unit, such as a router in a data network, knows what all the others are doing and tells them what to do. Instead, interactions between each unit and its local connections add up to the desired outcome.
Another long article, Why time management is ruining our lives:
Personal productivity presents itself as an antidote to busyness when it might better be understood as yet another form of busyness. And as such, it serves the same psychological role that busyness has always served: to keep us sufficiently distracted that we don't have to ask ourselves potentially terrifying questions about how we are spending our days.
December 23. A week ago I said I hadn't heard any great music from 2016, and now I have, mostly thanks to Leigh Ann. The song of the year is by a Spanish garage rock trio called The Parrots - No me gustas, te quiero (I don't like you, I love you). It's the kind of simple but inspired composition that would sound good covered by anyone, but it would be hard to beat the raw energy of the original. Their whole album, Los Niños Sin Miedo, is almost as good, especially the title track.
My other favorite album of 2016 is Maru by Ichi, a Japanese guy based in England. His blend of childlike creativity and careful sound engineering reminds me of my favorite band, Big Blood, and he's about as unpopular. I couldn't find a good download of the album even on Soulseek, so I bought it, and it hasn't sold out yet even though it's been out since March and they only made 300 copies. Here's one of the few tracks that's on YouTube, Hippo+47.
A reader, Eddie, has made two YouTube playlists of 2016 songs, one with moving picture videos and one with still picture videos. I like the first list better, but both have good variety.
A good complete 2016 album, The Wytches - All Your Happy Life. They remind me of Built To Spill but prettier, or The Decemberists but heavier, and they actually sound better to me sober than high. Kristian Bell's vocals are brilliant but his guitar is boring.
I also like the singer of Purling Hiss, whose new album is called High Bias. Somehow his voice ranges from Joey Ramone to Jello Biafra to David Lowery. They're not as good at jamming as they think they are, but Everybody In The USA is a memorable eleven minute song.
Another complete YouTube album, Goodbye To The Light by the Cult of Dom Keller. They call themselves "dark psychedelic sonic alchemists", Leigh Ann considers them postpunk, and I would tag them as doomgoth.
A review of an ambitious and interesting album, Exploded View. Their best song is probably Orlando.
December 21. With mental illness continuing to increase, Psychiatrists Must Face Possibility That Medications Hurt More Than They Help. This is a complex subject, and there are some good thoughts on the Hacker News comment thread.
I see three possibilities: 1) Psychiatric drugs are straight-up causing mental illness. 2) The drugs are helping, but not as fast as mental health collapses for other reasons. 3) The drugs are helping in a short-sighted way, by enabling people to keep doing the work to prop up a way of life that is more and more crazy-making.
Related article from the subreddit: The chilling stories behind Japan's 'evaporating people'. Japanese culture has such heavy social pressure to be successful that some people, rather than live with failure, choose to disappear from their normal lives and start dreadful new lives in a hellish neighborhood in Tokyo.
My first thought is that it's just like Mortville in John Waters' Desperate Living, but less fun. My next thought is, what if there were a way to start a new life that was in some ways better? Like fewer luxuries, but more freedom and less stress. That's the kind of niche I've tried to carve out in my own life, and it's really hard -- there's no convenient middle ground between a job with full benefits and desperate poverty. If there were, so many people would do it that the dominant society would be in danger.
But that would be the smoothest way for a large society to go through a transition: with a new way of living, better adapted to present conditions, that can upscale fast enough to absorb all the refugees from the old way of living.
December 19. Via the Depth Hub subreddit, a comment about how the reddit hivemind works: the popular top-level comments are short, simple, easy to understand, and most importantly, "They get upvoted because you don't have to consider them, only recognize them." And anything long, complex, or surprising is nested deeper in the comments and gets fewer views and upvotes.
Of course the same thing applies to other social media, and increasingly to our entire culture. This article is about exactly the same thing: Donald Trump, the First President of Our Post-Literate Age:
And here we begin to see how the age of social media resembles the pre-literate, oral world. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and other platforms are fostering an emerging linguistic economy that places a high premium on ideas that are pithy, clear, memorable and repeatable (that is to say, viral). Complicated, nuanced thoughts that require context don't play very well on most social platforms, but a resonant hashtag can have extraordinary influence.
How big is this? Obviously there has never been an age when everyone was a careful thinker looking for challenging content. But has the world really entered a new age with a different-shaped mass social organism made up of different-thinking cells? If so, what are some of the other differences?
December 16. Over on the subreddit there's an interesting thread about artificial worlds in the near future.
And music for the weekend. Radio Garden (thanks Patricia) is a site that compiles hundreds of live radio streams from all over the world and makes them clickable on a zoomable world map. On my computer the stations come in after several minutes of static or not at all, but your computer will probably work better.
I won't be doing a best of 2016 list because I have yet to hear any 2016 songs that I really like. But here's an awesome video directed by Spike Jonze, with an interesting song by Jonze's brother Sam Spiegel. Never mind that it's a perfume commercial.
A distinctive weird song from 1989, by the band that Siouxsie formed after the Banshees, The Creatures - You!
And a good Christmas jazz album, The Ramsey Lewis Trio - Sound Of Christmas.
December 14. Yesterday on the subreddit someone linked to this thread from two years ago, There's nothing I "want to do". How to translate goals and ideals into motivation?
My first comment is looking inward. The guy says "I spend countless hours meditating," but what he describes is daydreaming. Daydreaming and meditating are both good for you, and they're both done inside your head, but otherwise they're complete opposites. Daydreaming is having fun putting stuff on a blank canvas; meditating is aggressively refusing to put anything on that canvas until you notice that it's not actually blank.
My longer second comment is looking outward. For the vast majority of all humans who have ever lived, motivation was not a problem. Internal motivation only becomes an issue when systems of external motivation break down.
External motivation can run the whole range from a brutal work camp to an exciting and well-moderated group project. The 20th century was the peak of a system of external motivation that we view as generic and normal (a blank canvas) when really it's very specific and very weird.
It starts with money, which is like the whip of the work camp, and also like the emotional reward from meaningful activity, but unlike both of those it's completely quantifiable and completely lifeless.
Then you get businesses, machines made out of human labor, whose goal is to pass more and more money through themselves. (They do this by paying workers less than their labor is worth, except the executives who pay themselves more than their labor is worth.) You can also draw wages from government, but because business has invested in mass mind control, public values hold that government should pass less and less money through itself. (Supposedly this is because taxes are repressive, even though the penalty for refusing to pay taxes is much less than the penalty for refusing to buy anything.)
Anyway, all these social breakdowns are happening because the business-and-wage-labor model of external motivation has run its course, and we have nothing to take its place. One problem is that machines increasingly work better than humans. But the deeper problem is that money was never a good motivator in the first place. If you're poor, the need for money is oppressive and you're still in a work camp. And if you're not poor, money is like a game token that only feels satisfying when you're getting more and more of it, which can't go on for long.
I don't have a solution. Of course I support an unconditional basic income, but that's decades away, and it only compounds the social problem of no external structure. But I see several things that could expand into that void, and they could all happen in parallel:
1) People will get more skilled at internal motivation. 2) More bullshit jobs. 3) A Russian dieoff with lots of addiction and risk-taking. 4) Exciting political movements that make the world worse, with the worst case a nuclear war, and the second worse case a bunch of dictators and revolutions that make more places like Haiti. 5) Exciting political movements that have symbolic value without ruining the world. 6) More and better computer-generated artificial worlds.
I'm most interested in 1 and 6.
December 12. Back to politics, Anne comments:
I think the two aspects of the Trump election nobody can quite manage to grasp are how pedestrian he is, and how strange the election was. The actual process of choosing a nominee, and then a president, was like watching Kaiju wrestle Mecha right over your head, with falling chunks of masonry and broken water mains and everything, and then now that it's over we just have another politician picking marginally competent partisan hacks and looking exactly like every other Republican president elect in my lifetime. I'm not sure I want to see more of the mecha battle, honestly, but it does feel like a bit of a let-down to imagine that we're just going to endure another eight years of squabbling over abortion restrictions and selling off drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico, with no need to smuggle sacks of forged passports to the immigrants hiding in the corn shed.
This fits with my latest theory of how the world is changing: like everything else, social conflicts are getting flashy but shallow. A common criticism of the "alt-right" is that the label is a lie and they're just old-fashioned white supremacists. But old-fashioned white supremacists actually wanted to own slaves and commit genocide. The new right just wants to be casually racist without any social penalty. The old right wanted to lynch black people; the new right wants to wear a KKK outfit for Halloween.
Years ago, when I first started thinking about collapse, it was all about collapse of the practical infrastructure: power will go out, food will stop coming into the city, government offices will shut down, and so on -- but the culture will stay basically the same. Now I'm thinking it could be exactly the opposite.
I call it the Zoo Animal Apocalypse: that we will pass through catastrophic cultural upheaval, but without any serious breakdown in the systems that keep us fed and sheltered.
December 9. Bunch o' links. First, on a tangent from Wednesday, a minor example of how much room there is for the world to get better: German Cities Are Solving The Age-Old Public Toilet Problem by simply paying businesses to allow public access to their toilets.
And some awesome potential technology, Night-vision glasses with nanocrystals that allow direct vision into the infrared.
Not exactly making the world better, but here's a fun science post, What This Here Compound Needs Is Some Hydrogen Peroxide, about chemists pushing the limits of making stuff volatile and explosive.
From the subreddit, a study has confirmed something that anyone could guess: Self-Control Is Empathy With Your Future Self.
A great article about Thoreau, Thoreau Was Actually Funny as Hell.
And some music. Almost all of my favorite songs are either old or obscure or both. This is a rare example of a recent popular song that I love: Benjamin Clementine - Cornerstone.
December 7. Two nuggets of wisdom from the world of sports. UFC fighter Miesha Tate (now retired) was talking about why Ronda Rousey might be a weaker fighter now that she's suffered a loss. Tate said she used to go skiing as a kid, and she was completely wild and reckless until she had her first serious crash. Once she understood how dangerous it was, she could never ski the same way again. (That would not happen to Conor McGregor.)
This year I've been feeling that way about life, and it's not just because of the scooter crash. It's mainly because I've been looking back over my life under the influence of cannabis, which raises my social intelligence to nearly average, and seeing all the mistakes I've made. It's like I've been dancing around high-rise construction girders and now I'm finally looking down.
Of course the penalty is not as bad. Instead of falling to my death, I'm just creating hostility that I'm not aware of until it bursts out from some mean person or idiot -- that is, someone who's even more incompetent than me, so I can still believe I haven't made any mistakes.
This is a cultural problem. Our normal response to flawed social behavior is to brush it off until it reaches a certain threshold and then to lash out at the perpetrator, often in moral terms, which is foolish -- the word "sin" comes from an ancient word that means "missing the mark". Almost nobody has the skill and patience to gently explain other people's mistakes to them. This is basically what "political correctness" is trying to do, but the people who enforce it are bad at it, because it's really hard and we're almost all bad at it.
My point is, there's a lot of room for this world to get better. Sometimes I think, if you ranked all realistic possible worlds on a percentile scale, with 100 being the most beautiful and enjoyable and harmonious, 2016 America is around the fifth percentile, a lot closer to North Korea than to much better worlds that we can't even imagine.
For the second nugget, you might have caught this on the latest Sunday Night Football, when Cris Collinsworth talked about asking Michael Bennett, one of the best pass rushers in the NFL, which offensive linemen were easier to beat. Bennett's answer was something like, "If you go looking for ducks, you'll never find them. You have to assume they're all ducks."
That's some serious Lao Tzu shit right there, and you can apply it in all sorts of contexts. If you go looking for a time when it's easy to be happy, you'll never find it. You have to assume the time is now.
December 5. A few tangents from last week's big post. In this subreddit thread I was asked to say more about the "dangerous uprising in human psychology," and one comment says it better, with historical examples of "transition from democracy to authoritarianism based on a groundswell of popular support."
The next comment says that "Trump's presidency is shaping up to be just another mediocre republican kleptocracy," and I tend to agree, but it reminds me of the Far Side cartoon where a guy is puzzling over a piano stool that has just crashed harmlessly on the pavement, not noticing that he's about to be crushed by the piano. My point is, if there is a global popular trend toward authoritarian politics, Trump may not be the apex of that trend, or even a trigger, just a mild early warning.
Elsewhere in the same thread is a discussion of how different styles of raising kids can lead to different political systems decades later. This is a huge and complex subject, and I don't know if the extreme adult management of kids' activities over the last 20 years is going to lead to a more suffocating society, or a rebellion against that. Also I don't know how much that trend is limited to America, which brings me to this comment by a reader who felt the same as me, and tried some of the same things with the same failures...
That all changed though when I moved from the U.S. to Europe. I moved to Germany a few years ago with modest savings, learned the language, started studying philosophy (which is what I currently do, and it doesn't cost me a thing), and got a job teaching English (which is basically off the charts bearable compared to all other jobs I've had).
None of this required any serious form of luck. ANYONE could do this. What stops Americans from doing this, in my experience, is that they don't really think it's real, or they believe whatever crazy ideas about Europe they've picked up from American inculturation. I suppose it would also be hard for any sci-fi dystopian hero to believe that all they have to do to escape is catch a plane.
Before moving here and spending some time, the modern condition seemed completely insane. But what I discovered is that what I was experiencing wasn't actually "the modern condition". Instead, what I found completely insane was American culture -- something I still take to be completely insane. When I go back now though, I see it from outside. It's sort of just like some crazy theme park.
December 1. Moving from the political back to the personal, I should start by saying that I don't know the fine distinctions between "neoreactionary", "dark enlightenment", and "alt-right", and I don't much care. I see those as different flavors of the same dangerous uprising in human psychology, which is influenced by older people with more power, but its core of energy is in young males who have probably spent a lot of time on 4chan.
So thanks Wes for tracking down this deleted blog post where one of these guys shows rare introspection. I normally wouldn't post something that the author deleted, but this is a valuable window into the personal psychology of cultural collapse.
I realized that I wasn't able to ground myself in either the world I grew up in or the world I was to be a part of. I lost the ability to want to 'help people', to 'be successful', or to 'have meaningful experiences'. I began to view all concepts, beliefs, values, ideas, words, feelings, emotions, thoughts, actions, relationships, as equally arbitrary.
Formerly warm, trusting, empathetic, and affectionate relationships suddenly felt cold, artificial, cynical, and pathetic. Socializing in groups of close friends used to give me a narcotic/anxiolytic high not unlike benzodiazepines + a small amount of cocaine, but now the experience felt somehow menacing, inauspicious, and draining.
Welcome to my world. I mean, there's stuff in the full post I don't relate to, but all those things he has lost, I barely had in the first place. My first day of kindergarten felt "menacing, inauspicious, and draining," as did the rest of my time in schools, jobs, even most parties.
I've never felt grounded in any aspect of modern society. Belonging is not something I've lost, but something I've never experienced -- except that some music makes me feel like I belong in a luminous world outside the walls of this one. Like a sci-fi dimension shifter stuck in a Kafka hellworld, I try to remain cheerful and keep trying different stuff, but I'm not sure if there's something I'm supposed to be doing here or if it's just a big accident.
Teachers always got frustrated that I was smart but not interested in anything they were teaching. In college the few papers I actually enjoyed writing were punished by my lowest grades. I traveled around America by car, train, bus, and hitchhiking, but didn't find any place that felt any better. I visited multiple back-to-the-land communities, I tried homesteading, I thought total technological collapse would be a good thing, and now I think those are all false escapes.
So I understand why young people are drawn to forbidden politics and chaos. But why the right wing? To me, the right is all about flags and uniforms, which I find repulsive. These people think they're Nietzschean heroes, but in a movie they'd all be the buddy character -- they haven't given up enough on belonging. The recent left thinks individualism has gone too far, but I think it hasn't gone far enough. It's like when something dies, it breaks down into toxic molecules before it breaks down into soil and air and water.
My latest utopian vision, which is probably still inadequate, is to use automation and a guaranteed basic income to gradually universalize dropout culture. One percent, then ten percent, and finally nearly one hundred percent of humans will just putter around all day following their peculiar obsessions, as long as they don't interfere with others doing the same, and eventually these atomized individuals will reconnect into a new living polyculture.