"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."
- Terence McKenna
Apocalypsopolis, book one
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February 26, late. Tonight's Academy Award fiasco, in which the shoo-in feel-good white people movie was announced as best picture, and it turned out they got the wrong card and the serious black people movie was best picture... that's the weirdest thing that's happened in America since 9/11, even weirder than the Red Sox breaking their curse during a full lunar eclipse.
I'm not even going to try to explain it rationally. It's best understood on a subverbal intuitive level. And I don't think it was any kind of conspiracy, at least not by humans. It was the Trickster breaking through the screen and then vanishing into irreconcilable happenstance. (This is how I write when I'm high.)
Because Warren Beatty was at the center of it, appearing to be making a joke when he was genuinely puzzled by the anomalous card, I'm going to go watch his obscure 1965 surrealist movie, Mickey One, for more clues.
By the way, over the weekend I made a decision to change the tone of this blog. I've decided to go at least a few months without writing anything about politics or social philosophy. This is not a joke. That leaves technology, entertainment, drugs, psychology, music, personal stuff, and like tonight, vague hints about esoteric sub-politics.
February 24. Bunch o' links, starting with some rare good news: The Netherlands Keeps Closing Prisons Because It Doesn't Have Enough Prisoners.
Review of a new biography, Rasputin: full of ecstasy and fire. It turns out he wasn't that bad. His worst vice (like our president) was groping women. He was genuinely spiritual, he frequently tried to do good, and people hated him because he blurred lines between the classes, and drew attention to the corruption of the elite. Also, this reddit thread has a great colorized photo of Rasputin, and lyrical references to the song.
It's Reddit the rest of the way. This long comment attempts to define fascism, mostly based on the thinking of historian Robert Paxton, who defines it like this:
a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
In a thread asking what changes Millennials will oppose in their old age, Stanzin7 makes a set of predictions for how the world might change in the next 50 years. There will certainly be big things that nobody expected, but I haven't seen a more concise or reasonable list of stuff that we should see coming.
Finally, something important, a shockingly perceptive comment about why the Hobbit movies sucked and why they can't be fixed by editing. After the smashing success of Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson felt the need to make another Hollywood Bullshit Blockbuster, and he couldn't do that by actually adapting the book, in which a physically weak protagonist solves problems with stealth and wit. So he deeply rewrote the whole story to turn Thorin Oakenshield into Aragorn 2. My favorite part of the comment is about how Lord of the Rings was almost ruined in the same way:
I think that Peter shot the Aragorn half of TTT+ROTK in a very Aragorn-centric way just as a desperate backup in case this weird story of "two homoerotic leprechauns being led through a swamp by a CGI skeleton-man on a quest to throw away magic jewelry" didn't test well with audiences and he had to fall back on telling a more intelligible Disney-fantasy story of "a prince and his cool comic-relief sidekicks returning to the prince's kingdom, fighting awesome battles against a demon king and winning a princess's hand."
By the way, I love Peter Jackson's early stuff, especially his filthy-muppet masterpiece, Meet The Feebles.
February 20. From the subreddit (thanks iron dwarf), 4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump. It's a well-written journey through the history and psychology of a new subculture of young outsider males, and their gradual entry into politics. A paragraph on Pepe the frog:
The grotesque, frowning, sleepy eyed, out of shape, swamp dweller, peeing with his pants pulled down because-it-feels-good-man frog is an ideology, one which steers into the skid of its own patheticness. Pepe symbolizes embracing your loserdom, owning it. That is to say, it is what all the millions of forum-goers of 4chan met to commune about. It is, in other words, a value system, one reveling in deplorableness and being pridefully dispossessed. It is a culture of hopelessness, of knowing "the system is rigged". But instead of fight the response is flight, knowing you're trapped in your circumstances is cause to celebrate. For these young men, voting Trump is not a solution, but a new spiteful prank.
I think some of the arguments near the end are convoluted and implausible, but at least the author is asking an important question and seriously trying to answer it: Out of all the ways 4channers could have become political, why did they choose the cultural right?
Why not the economic left? In a world with all-time highs in weath inequality, when you're living in your parents' basement, why not try to use the government to take money from billionaires who don't need it, and give it to you and your friends so you can get your own apartments and better computers?
My answer hinges on a distinction between two kinds of hikikomori, a Japanese term for people who withdraw from society into worlds of imagination. I'm an aspiring hikikomori -- I want to withdraw even more, but society keeps pulling me back, making annoying demands on my attention. Right wing 4channers are involuntary hikikomori.
This is my version of the "banality of evil": the most harmful political movements are driven by the kind of person, in a movie, who would be the buddy character. But in a tragic failure of the social order, no one will take them as a buddy, until they reach a critical mass and some charismatic leader assembles an army of buddies to do his will.
My adversary is the economic right, because they withhold the money (or the dirt cheap housing and food) that I need to be free of the demands of a nightmare economy. But right wing 4channers want love. That's why they've chosen the cultural left as their adversary, because they sense that the cultural left is where the love is, and they feel (as I do about money) that the love is being offered on terms that are warped and unreasonable.
February 15. My brainpower this week is going to another project. I was going to do a follow-up to my last post, but I'll just say, among the feedback, I'm most sympathetic to the idea that we don't need life scripts and it's good to wing it. Ideally I think society's job is not to give us structure, but to enable and challenge us to make our own structure, to keep us fed and sheltered while we each find our own path, as long as that takes. But right now that's not realistic for most people, and it will probably take us a long time to get there.
Sort of related: a smart Hacker News comment thread on a popular blog post by a long-time reader, Four Kinds of Dystopia.
February 13. One more email comment from last week, from Daniel (condensed):
I think a big part of our problem is the lack of stable lifescripts. Instead of having a clearly delineated set of rights and obligations, [young people] experiment with different identities, mostly concerned with how other people perceive and react to these identities. Traditional societies tell people what their role in society should be; our society leaves people to "wing it".
I agree. We have no stable lifescripts because industrial age scripts were terrible, and we finally threw them off in the late 20th century, but we still haven't found any good ones to replace them. So Trump is like, let's return to the terrible ones (factory jobs, Victorian morality, race/religion wars) because it's better than having none. I don't think we've had good lifescripts since we were nomadic forager-hunters, and going back to that is not realistic, so it looks like we're going to keep muddling through bad scripts and winging it, until we find some good scripts that fit our technology -- which right now is a fast-moving target.
My latest understanding of social change comes from my latest obsession, Picbreeder. Liberals see history as steady progress toward some future Utopia, while conservatives see a golden age in the past -- but these simple ideas are only good as directional pointers, not as visions of how things are. I think history is like biological evolution. There is progress everywhere, but there are also mistakes and dead ends, and there is no destiny, no place we have to end up, only a constantly unfolding variety of options.
When I'm breeding a picture, sometimes I'll notice that it has slipped from something good into something ugly, and I'll go back ten or twenty steps and try a different path. In the real world you can't do that, but in both Picbreeder and politics you can evolve the picture toward chaos, and sometimes good stuff from the past will re-emerge -- or more often you'll end up somewhere unimagined.
I disagree with almost every particular thing Trump is doing, but I agree with his instinct: the picture needs chaos. Last month I predicted that 2017 would be more catastrophic than 2016, but what I'm seeing instead is that it's weirder. Check this out: Burger King Offers an Adults-Only Valentine's Day Meal with an adult romantic toy. That's even weirder than Donald Trump being president.
February 10. Wednesday's post brought some good emails. Adrian writes about games as a form of self-knowledge: that you can look at your favorite games for clues about your personality and maybe even find a job that fits it. When I think about Lords of the Realm II, I love how the mid-game is a long steady reliable process of improvement: taking over counties that the AI is managing badly, with unhappy people and dead fields, and building them up into thriving counties that can support taking over the next county. So it's a growing sense of reward from taking elements that are badly arranged and arranging them better.
Even on this page, my writing process is mostly about arranging words and ideas in the right order. And even though I don't get paid for it, I think of this blog as my job.
Jeff points out that compulsive gamblers are attracted to rewards that are irregular and unpredictable. That must be why I don't gamble, because I like my rewards to be 100% certain, with some irregularity in what I have to do to get them. My other favorite game, Freecell, is 99.999% solvable, but the difficulty varies massively and randomly.
(Now that I understand this, I'm going to try to keep to a new rule about sports -- that I only watch if I don't care who wins. Tom Brady should have said "I'm so bored with winning championships, but the other teams all suck so bad that we can't help it.")
Another thing that can draw us to a game is what I call vibe. The test is: ignoring mechanics, is this a game world I feel the desire to step into? The big winner here is the Legend of Zelda franchise, but Lords of the Realm II is also very good -- it might be the only strategy game where you see the seasons change.
So attraction to a vibe is another clue about your nature. Matt writes that some influences are artificially uplifting or dead ends, while others are evolving or truly uplifting, and some are both. This reminds me of the Buddhist line, "The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon." Great entertainment is the finger, and to look at the the moon is to try to create that vibe in your real life.
February 8. Along with my short break from cannabis, I've decided to take a long break from video games. I was playing two strategy games from the 90's, Lords of the Realm II and Windows Freecell, and I suspect they're the main thing damping my motivation in the "real" world. I put that in quotes because the 21st century is pretty unreal, and it's not clear if what I want to feel motivated to do is actually valuable.
This is an especially hard problem if you believe that reality is meaningless, which seems to follow from materialist metaphysics. If we're just random particles and waves, why shouldn't we spend all day taking recreational drugs and playing games if we can get away with it? Why shouldn't we seek a society where everyone can get away with it forever?
If normal life is not objectively a better use of time than a game, then it's basically a shitty meta-game, with weak and inconsistent rewards, bad aesthetics, broken multiplayer balance, lots of pain that serves no purpose, and almost no opportunity to be part of a good story. This world has more value as a platform for creating, consuming, and participating in sub-worlds that are much better designed.
But I don't believe in materialist metaphysics. One reason is that when I look at what "chance" creates, both in world-building and life events, there seems to be an intelligence behind it. Also, like a lot of people, I feel like there's something I'm supposed to be doing here other than just having a good time, even though I don't know what it is.
How much of this problem is created by society? And is it because society has failed, or succeeded? I wish I could talk to my remote ancestors to get a sense of whether the freedom of modern life is worth the loss of anchoring. I like to think we're passing through a dead zone between good built-in stories and good self-made ones.
Anyway, my latest thought is that the "real" world is better designed than it seems, and this is because of the weak reward system. If rewards are too strong and reliable, they lead to compulsive behavior, where whatever people happen to do, they just keep doing it. This works against the drive for novelty, learning, adaptation, and general expansion of consciousness, and this expansion is more deeply rewarding than just getting stuff done.
February 6. Stray links. There was a reference to this research on the subreddit the other day: Stanford historian uncovers a grim correlation between violence and inequality. The author of a new book, The Great Leveler, says "It is almost universally true that violence has been necessary to ensure the redistribution of wealth at any point in time."
I see three directions to go with this. The first is cynical resignation: humans are doomed to cycle through inequality and violence forever. The second is utopian defiance: we will figure out a nonviolent system to keep wealth widely distributed, like demurrage currency. The third, which has some overlap with the first and the second, is to make inequality tolerable. Personally I don't care if some people have billions of dollars and fly around in private jets, as long as I can have a good life on a low budget without being forced to serve them.
And another book review, Pause! We Can Go Back! This is the kind of thing I would have posted enthusiastically ten years ago, an argument that higher tech can be a fad that gives way to lower tech. Now it seems so obvious that I didn't even read the whole article.
New research shows that moderate drinking is not good for you after controlling for wealth. Or, moderate drinking is only correlated with better health because it's part of the culture of people who are healthier in the first place.
And I really like this one: Is the Default Mode of the Brain to Suffer? According to Buddhism (or a simple interpretation of Buddhism) the wandering mind is always bad, and the value of meditation is to have a still mind all the time. But according to newer science:
Whether your default activity is helpful or harmful depends on where your mind automatically tends to go... daydreaming itself has at least three different flavors: positive constructive daydreaming, which has lots of playful, wishful imagery and plan-making thoughts; guilty-dysphoric daydreaming, which has lots of anguish and obsessive fantasies; and poor attentional control, where it's hard to concentrate on anything.
So the value of meditation is not to kill "the chattering monkey" but to work with it so that its chattering becomes increasingly helpful. Related: thanks Orin for recommending a great book on meditation, With Each and Every Breath, available free online. My other favorite meditation book is Mind Science by Charles Tart.
February 3. For the weekend, druuuugs. I'm taking a break from cannabis, partly inspired by this dark Reddit thread from earlier this week: What's it like to be on a hard drug like meth, heroin, pcp, etc? Of course weed is much more benign -- you can't overdose, it doesn't permanently harm adults, it's not physically addictive -- but mentally it's the same sort of thing: divine grace that carries a price.
They call it "being high" and "coming down" but for me it feels like the opposite. Being sober is like skimming across a still ocean on a catamaran -- everything is fast, sharp, clean, even a bit bleak. Then a good dose of THC is like putting on scuba gear and diving to the bottom. (My favorite song down there happens to be called A Watery Down.) It reminds me of the Shakespeare verse:
Full fathom five thy father lies
Of his bones are coral made
Those are pearls that were his eyes
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange
There are treasures in the deep that you'll never find on the surface. Like a fractal, everything unfolds with more beauty the closer you look. On marijuana I'm a better person -- happier, more playful, more perceptive, with enough social intelligence to understand a subtext-heavy show like Mad Men. In a few sessions last spring I gained more self-knowledge than in the whole rest of my life. I see connections, and I feel connected.
Typically I'll do only one vape bowl per day, maybe two bowls several hours apart, or one dose of homemade edibles. The second day is often better than the first, and the third day can be almost as good. Around the fourth day I mostly just feel numb, I'm not finding anything of real value, and my body is protesting the constant thirst and deepening tiredness. So I come up to the surface, and then it's like having the bends. I can get stuff done (including posting here) but I'm irritable and unmotivated, and the only thing I look forward to is sleep.
For the last few weeks, as soon as I feel normal again, I've been going back down for more sunken treasures, and lately I've been doing creative work that's better than anything I could do sober. Last weekend as a daily warmup I did a trilogy on Picbreeder: Wizard, Shaman, and Demon. It's like having a really good job, but I'm feeling worn out from spending all my time either under the ocean or in the compression tank, and I need a "vacation".
This is the four week schedule I'll be trying next, or something close to it: 3 days on, 4 days off, 3 days on, 4 days off, 3 days on, 11 days off, and maybe it will be like traveling around the ocean to dive in different places.
February 1. It's strange that Donald Trump was not anti-immigrant until he ran for president. Did he keep it secret all those years because he doesn't like to say controversial stuff that will get him in trouble? Was he cynically pandering to his base, and after he no longer needed their votes, he burned a lot of political capital to give them what they wanted that he didn't really care about? The only thing that makes sense is that Trump has been possessed by his followers -- or by the worst impulses of some of them.
Yesterday a reader sent me this John Robb post, Trump's Rollback of the Neoliberal Market State. Robb frames Trump's cultural agenda, closing borders and locking down human identity into fixed groups that are at war with each other, as the end of "cultural neoliberalism". That makes it sound like tolerance, inclusion, free movement, and mutable personal identity are just a blip in history, when really that's how the nice cultures have always been. It had nothing to do with global corporate rule until Bill Clinton and Tony Blair combined the two things in the 90's -- the biggest blunder the left has made since revolutionary communism.
The culture that has possessed Trump is also very old -- it's the compulsion of enraged monkey tribes to fling shit at their enemies. This release of primal energy might feel exciting, but this is seriously ugly, and I have no idea how big the fire will get before it burns itself out.
What we have to do is simple but not easy: protect and grow a culture of peace and openness and friendly curiosity, through the collapse of growth-based economics, and into whatever economic system comes next. Here's a song about it: the future's in your lap, so Keep It Warm.
January 30. I'd still rather avoid politics, but this is such an interesting time. I'm not sure if Trump will be dictator for life or if he'll be out of office by summer. Anyway, four links:
From the subreddit, a thoughtful post on the psychology of Trump supporters, arguing that his popularity "is the product of a deep existential anguish" in which people "feel miserable for reasons they struggle to understand."
Trump's Lies vs. Your Brain explains how skilled propagandists first weaken our defenses with a barrage of too much stuff to fact-check, and then they colonize our brains with heavy repetition of core ideas. The most important bit is that they can only make us believe what we want to believe in the first place. And the most depressing bit is that this political climate could plunge America into a cynical dog-eat-dog culture like they have in Russia. I don't know, I feel like we've had that for a while, under the surface.
10 Preliminary Theses on Trump. The first five are insightful thoughts about where we are now, and the last five are predictions, highly speculative and gloomy. My favorite is #2:
Defending truths against Trump is to mistake the present battlefield entirely. [His opponents] approach him as something singular and consistent, whereas he acts multiply and chaotically. They aim to pull down something which already is, whereas Trump has already departed from the here and now towards any number of things that could possibly be instead. While everyone keeps busy defending fragile shelters of truth, Trump has moved into his golden palace built on a foundation of a glistening "what if?"
This long reddit comment tries to get a grip on Steve Bannon, probably Trump's biggest ideological influence. There's a lot of stuff he's clearly against but he's never gone into detail about what he's for, or why. I think it's because his deep foundation is subconscious, and that's not Steve Bannon but the human default.
January 26. Posting early and probably taking a three day weekend from blogging:
I'm always compelled to write about politics, but I usually regret it, because as ideas are corrected toward reality, they become less and less interesting until there's hardly any point. Correcting yesterday's post: in most of western Europe, life has been getting safer without people feeling like it's getting more dangerous. So we're not looking at a universal principle of doom, but something rotten in American mass psychology. I could speculate about what it is and where it came from, but I doubt we'll ever know for sure, so I would just be writing boring fiction.
On Monday's post, Carey writes, "I think I'd have to change your statement to reflect my own desires of, in addition to playing games, having the time to be creative and to nurture relationships into thriving community." My answer:
Yeah, I wasn't thinking of a thriving community because that's not something I've ever experienced, even though I traveled all over the country several times looking for it. Maybe my mistake was looking among "back to the land" people, who for some reason are always depressed, and I should have been looking for communities focused less on utopian ideology and more on right-now creativity.
There's a great Ask Reddit thread today, Autistic people of Reddit, what is autism really like? I don't think of myself as autistic, I don't need routines, crowds don't bother me, but I can totally relate to some of these comments. I would explain it like this:
Ordinary people are literal mind readers. They just intuitively sense the right things to say and do, and they don't even know they're doing it; it's like a superpower that they take for granted. Lacking that superpower, I have to grind through the process of figuring stuff out with my conscious mind.
For example, I didn't learn to throw with my wrist until I was 30 and someone gave me explicit coaching. Without that coaching I still wouldn't be doing it. Ordinary people have like a back door from their senses to their body, where they can pick stuff up without even being aware of it. I mean, I probably have some of that power too or I wouldn't be able to pass as neurotypical, but in general, my conscious mind has to get its hands dirty more than a normal person's conscious mind.
It makes me wonder if the recent surge in aspergers/autism is temporary, or if it's the leading edge of an evolutionary trend in which the conscious human mind is taking on more responsibility and power.
January 25. I've come up with a really depressing theory of collapse. It was inspired by my perception -- which might be wrong -- that entertainment has become more authoritarian. It seems like half the TV shows now are about cops or FBI agents, or at least they're about people on the good side of the ruling system. Even in sci-fi and fantasy the heroes are usually serving the dominant power in their universe, and fighting against threats to that power. I feel like, if Star Wars were made now, Luke Skywalker would be recruited by the benevolent Empire and Darth Vader would be a space terrorist.
Whether or not that's true, this is definitely true: Trump supporters believe that crime is a huge and growing problem, even though crime rates are lower now than at any time from 1980-2010.
This leads to my doom theory: that public safety, as a political goal, is unstable and self-defeating. As a society gets more safe and predictable, incidents of danger and chaos are more uncommon, which amplifies them in public perception -- and amplifies them more than they've been reduced in reality. So the safer it is, the more dangerous it feels. This leads to a feedback loop, where 1) the world gets safer, 2) it feels more dangerous, 3) people demand more "law and order", and 4) return to step 1.
Where does this end? Psychologically we're already there: a massive cognitive dissonance, where people feel subconsciously that they're locked in a padded cell, while they feel consciously that they're being attacked from all sides. Now I understand why Trump called for "law and order" and also promised to "turn Washington upside down" -- and it worked! With these two completely opposite statements he was campaigning to both sides of the American cognitive dissonance, while rational politicians, who said the world is safe and we need to keep it the same way, were campaigning to neither.
What comes next? How does a leader make the world more dangerous while pretending to make it safer? One way is with political reforms that feel like a cleansing but have the effect of turning society into a war of all against all.
January 23. You probably heard about the Nazi getting punched. Whatever you think of it morally, it was brilliant public theater: while the official anti-Trump protests are massive and peaceful, at the edge they have an ally who is ready for surprising and precisely targeted violence.
Also it's fascinating that he got punched immediately after mentioning Pepe the Frog, so that Pepe is now associated with the punch more than with the Nazi. The message is that Pepe is not a static alt-right icon but a living apolitical trickster deity.
Sort of a new subject: earlier this month I wrote this about Trump's revolution: "If these are the anti-60's, then maybe I can look forward to the anti-80's." I didn't explain that at all, so here it is in more detail:
Original 60's: exciting bottom-up social revolution that overturned old values and encouraged people to drop out as individuals and form utopian ecological communities.
Trump anti-60's: exciting bottom-up social revolution that brought back old values and encouraged people to re-identify with the old warring mega-tribes. Anti-ecological and anti-utopian. (We're too soft and life should be hard.)
Original 70's: the decaying flower of the 60's, colorful and indulgent but it became clear that the underlying values were not working out.
Original 80's: full-scale backlash against some aspects of the 60's, in which people could stand up and say "I just want to make a lot of money and that's good."
So what I'm looking forward to, 10-20 years down the line, is an aggressive reversal of the least workable parts of Trumpism. We don't know what those are yet, but I'm hoping that nationalism becomes uncool, that people get tired of declaring war on exernal enemies (both of those happened in Germany), and that we stop trying to bring back jobs that sucked in the first place, get an unconditional basic income, and we can stand up and say "I just want to take recreational drugs and play games all day and that's good." (That's not a final destination for humanity, just the place I'd like us to go next.)