"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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January 11. You probably heard that Meryl Streep bashed Trump at the Golden Globes, and she's not wrong. But she also made what struck me as a snobbish side comment, that mixed martial arts "is not the arts." I think the distinction between arts and not-arts is a fleeting cultural invention, while MMA belongs to a tradition so old and deep that you can see it in wild animals: real fighting constrained by rules that minimize serious injury.
Compare this trailer for the best film of the year, Moonlight, to this highlight video of the best fight of the year, Cub Swanson vs Dooho Choi. The film has way more emotional complexity, but the fight is more alive. If humans are still alive in a thousand years, we'll still have public fights, maybe more dangerous fights backed up by better medical tech, but film will have long since been replaced by something more unscripted or interactive (or at least creating that illusion).
Loosely related, a reader sends this awesome Stephen Colbert interview. There are a million spoken word videos out there, but the best kind is rare: a really smart person and you can see them thinking to come up with fresh answers to unexpected questions. His best points: that beliefs have no value without being challenged; that it's good for your team to lose because you question why you're on a team; that he became a better interviewer when he stopped holding a pen; and that Trump has a history of blaming others, but Americans don't like the president to do that.
January 9. This weekend I wrote a long email explaining why I don't believe in evil, and I want to post some of it here. We can start by looking at stuff we call "evil" and looking for deeper causes. I once had a guy tell me that religion is the root cause of evil, so I asked him "What's the root cause of religion?" He said "I'm not interested in that."
According to Christianity, God is perfectly good, and the root of evil is Satan. How did Satan become evil? He decided God was doing things the wrong way. So why did God banish Satan, instead of explaining why his way of doing things was better? I think this story comes from prehistoric tribal behavior, where people who violate the rules of the tribe are banished because the tribe doesn't have the resources to reform them. And sometimes the banished people are right, which is related to why some people think maybe Satan had the right idea.
So at the heart of Western culture we've got this story that takes the practical behavior of tribes, and recasts it as something mythic and moral and simple and absolute.
When children violate the rules of their culture, they are shamed, but again, this is economy disguised as morality. We don't have the resources to explain to children why the rules are this way, and sometimes the rules are wrong and the kids are right. And this habit, generating the illusion of morality out of our own lack of time and energy to actually work things out, carries over into the adult world. I once saw a guy at an anti-war march, standing on the curb facing the protesters, with a sign that just said "SHAME". Because he didn't explain himself better, I couldn't even tell which side he was on.
My point is that good vs evil is a way of putting off understanding. Everybody, from their own perspective, is doing something that makes sense, and when we think we see evil, it's because we haven't fully made sense of the other person's perspective. Even when someone says "I knew it was wrong but I did it anyway," they're talking about an inability to work things out inside themselves.
I'm not a moral relativist -- I'm an amoral taoist: I believe in an objective standard for correct and incorrect action, but we can never reach it; we can only approach it by looking more broadly and deeply into cause and effect. And to call something evil is to stall this process and imagine that we're already finished.
I also think there are mental states that are loosely correlated with what we call evil. One is compulsiveness, and another is "ego", which is hard to define but it could be another form of compulsiveness based around identity.
January 7. Instead of bashing Derrick Jensen I should have bashed my younger self. It's like I grew up in a bad (intellectual) neighborhood and I got out, and the nice thing to do is try to get other people out and not to condemn the people who still live there. The neighborhood is right at the intersection of complaining and trying to inspire people, and it's part of a larger neighborhood where people get fixated on stories that feel true instead of continuing to engage with reality as it unfolds into more challenging complexity.
I used to see the world as some kind of holy war, like things were in perfect balance, and then one time things got out of balance, and as soon as we get it back into balance we win the game. Now I'm seeing reality as an eternal journey through a magical forest, and we're just in a really weird part right now. I was watching one of those commercials for the latest pharmaceutical that cures one condition while causing others ("side effect" is a marketing term) and I thought, this is like some kind of trickster beast trying to lead us into deeper trouble. It's not even tragic -- it's funny: "Do not take Farxalus if you're allergic to Farxalus."
By the way, the show we were watching was Emerald City, which is surprisingly not bad. It's loosely based on The Wizard Of Oz but it's more like a trashy steampunk Game Of Thrones. One dude looks so much like Jon Snow that I started calling him Jon Frost, and the Witch of the West looks exactly like Tom Brady in drag.
January 5. I'm not feeling smart this week, maybe because the winter weather makes it hard to exercise. So today I'll post some stuff I've written over email. Marcus sends this documentary, The Inner Tracker, in which 21 hours of introspective dialogue among animal trackers was edited down to two hours. It's partly about people wondering if their own negative attitude toward modern society is actually part of the programming of modern society, which led me to write this:
Everyone wants to make the world better, and everyone wants simple inspiring stories, but there is no overlap between those two things. Donald Trump and Derrick Jensen are doing the same thing, serving as the focus and central myth maker for a bunch of people who are looking for that overlap.
I've also been emailing with Anne about how I envy the 1960's, and I always hoped I'd get to live through something similar when the cycle came around again, but instead here I am with a grey beard and it's like the right wing mirror image of the sixties. Here's how I explained it the other day:
What excites me about that time is the mass breaking of barriers in a cultural climate of friendly universalism. Now we've got a breaking of barriers with a climate of hostile tribalism. But if these are the anti-60's, then maybe I can look forward to the anti-80's.
If Trump repeals expanded Medicaid, I just might be homeless in the anti-80's, which would still be better than working at Walmart. But I want to say a little more about tribalism. I define it as finding meaning in belonging to a group which finds meaning in opposition to other groups, and I'm against it. I think it's an obsolete holdover from our prehuman primate ancestors. But it remains part of our nature, and the best we can do is channel it into friendly sports rivalries.
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.