"You know, I'm sick of following my dreams, man. I'm just going to ask where they're going and hook up with 'em later."
- Mitch Hedberg
April 12. Monday I said I want to distance myself from people who scan the world for wrongness. Today I want to distance myself from doomers.
One reason is something that comes up on this page, Subreddit Similarity and Algebra, where you can add or subtract reddit communities. So if you put in "ranprieur" minus "collapse", you get a list of subreddits that are unusually likely to have subscribers who are also subscribed to ranprieur but not to collapse. And the result is some really cool stuff, including cryonics, neurophilosophy, two European subreddits that I can't read, and best of all, a subreddit for music that sounds like Blue Oyster Cult.
Anyway, it's tricky to say where I disagree with the normal collapse idelology. I agree with a lot of the details, for example that economic growth can't continue on a finite planet, and that modern life is a worse fit for human nature than most of the ways we lived in the past. But I don't think the human response to these crises is limited by my own imagination, that just because I can't see a way through, billions of people at the edge of survival will just roll over. I have a lot of respect for unknown unknowns.
Also, I frame the story differently. Western culture likes to tell stories with a tight structure of conflict, buildup, climax, and resolution. We like stories where something bends and bends and then it breaks, and we're either dead or in heaven. I don't think reality works that way. History neither circles nor ends -- it just rambles around like a picaresque novel.
April 10. I've been thinking about my relation with my audience. Content creators who need to make money are always thinking, "What do people want, and how can I give it to them?" That's just not the way I think. I mean, I can go into that mode, but my default narrative, in both writing and life, is "What can I get away with?" How much can I be honest and transparent, how much can I feel good and have fun, how much can I relax and let things slide, before I get smacked down?
My writing starts and ends with what I like to read myself, but in between, feedback from other readers is powerful. Sometimes I'm given new ideas, sometimes I see that I was wrong and change my thinking, and sometimes I pull back from writing about certain ideas or even whole subjects.
Back in the 90's I was totally into "conspiracy theory", but the emotional tone of the community changed, from marveling at strangeness, to compulsive paranoia, and finally to a religion of despair, in which your imagined enemies are so powerful that whatever happens is exactly what they planned.
Over the last year I've sensed more toxicity when I go online. Maybe I just got better at noticing it, but that's why I'm trying to quit writing about what's wrong with the world. My working theory is, thinking about what's wrong with the world is linked to a general attitude, a subconscious habit of constantly scanning for wrongness, and it's like a dark universe that I'm trying to escape.
Why do I even make my writing public? Because I feel like a castaway on an alien planet, or a prisoner tapping messages on pipes. What exactly am I trying to accomplish? I don't know, and increasingly I don't feel qualified to know. The best things in life seem to happen through serendipity rather than goal-setting.
April 7. For the weekend, music. My favorite album of 2017, so far, is
America's Velvet Glory by The Molochs. The singer reminds me of Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes, and the songs remind me of Camper Van Beethoven or the Kinks. Their most interesting song is Charlie's Lips.
Most of the reviews are like "This is good but sounds like old stuff," which leads me to this theory: music has entered a post-novelty stage. I mean, eventually we'll get a revolution so alien that it makes rock and jazz sound the same, but for now, there are no more good new ideas. Critics need to adapt by not considering novelty at all, and just looking at quality -- which of course is much harder to pin down than novelty, so we're also in an age of greater subjectivity.
Also, sports. The one sport I'm really into right now is women's soccer, and Rose Lavelle has dazzled in her first few caps with the US national team. Highlights from last night's game: Rose Lavelle vs Russia. Jump to 2:42 for an astonishing back heel pass.
April 5. Free Roaming is a fascinating essay by a guy who loves to wander around open world video games after all the quests have been completed:
This part of the game -- the illicit, post-story part -- is better than anything that might have preceded it in the name of story. In a world empty of fate, gone slack without a narrative, my character, alone and aimless, has a life for the first time.
The weird thing is, most open world games allow you to wander around without doing any quests at all, or just enough to level up so you don't get killed. Why does he have to exhaust every scrap of content before he feels "free at last"? This has something to do with the world outside games -- I don't want to call it "real" -- where we do stuff to "get stuff done", but like waiting for a river to flow past, we never get to the end of it.
What the author is seeking is not the freedom to wander, but a higher-order quest, where the reward for getting stuff done is not the character's satisfaction that Skyrim is free of monsters, but the player's satisfaction, impossible in his own world, that he has come to the end of getting stuff done.
Now I see two angles. One is practical, that we're always being told to do stuff we'd rather not do. The solution is to work toward a post-scarcity utopia, like the pre-scarcity utopia in Jean Liedloff's The Continuum Concept, where the right to say no is so powerful that it's forbidden to even ask someone to do something.
The other angle is philosophical, and I don't see any solution. In games, the meaning of life is a set of clearly defined tasks, and if you're not doing those things, you're in a space that is clearly defined as having no meaning. In our own world, we can never be sure.
April 3. Another angle on Friday's subject: For me, the world inside my head is pillows, and the world outside my head is knives. Or, the inner world is rainbows and the outer world is shit (mainly human society). We all want a tangible, persistent outer world rainbow, but that's not how it works.
Beauty in the outer world is subtle and obscure. The divine manifests every day as a weed in the cracks, crushed by people who imagine the divine coming with trumpets in the sky. The most beautiful sound I've ever heard was a cacophonous flock of tiny birds in dead winter.
It's hard to even talk about this in English. How would someone say it who had experienced the unity of inside and outside? Something like: Inner light and outer light are two halves that come together with suspension of the self. And Utopia is not a perfectly luminous outer world, but a world that fits.
I wonder how many people can't even find any inner light, and what happened to them that snuffed it. And I wonder if this is related to drug preference: alcohol turns inner shit into rainbows, cannabis turns outer shit into rainbows, and some drugs do both. My favorite line about drugs is from the Tao Te Ching, 52.3: "Use the bright light but return to the dim light."
March 31. I had a nice comment on my favorite bit from the last post, which I'll repeat:
Fame is when idiots make a mythic character in their own heads, and pick out a few things that you've said and done so they can put your face on that character, and then when you don't fit what that character is supposed to do, they get personally offended.
This struck me as being precisely the dynamic that has governed my 4-time-divorced, now 84-year-old mother's approach to romantic relationships her entire life... What is it about the way we try to fill the empty places in our hearts with, not the companionship of other frail, flawed humans, but with avatars of our projected craving for superheroes and archetypes?
This is a really good question, and my answer is that we need two words for "real": one for the unseen deeper realness that we sometimes feel, and one for things that persist when they're being tested in front of everyone.
Our world is a dialogue between these two forces. The archetypes are where the light comes from, but we can't just have living archetypes walking around, because they're too strong and simple to match the complexity of a world shared among billions of perspectives.
Our challenge is to glow with the ambient light of myth, to absorb the raw bolts from the world of dreams and pass them through ourselves to feed the fragile circuits of every moment.
The internet has changed the nature of "fame". In the past, you needed to generally buy into fame. To be famous, you needed managers, publicists, etc. Media access was a limited resource that was handed out only to those that met approval.
This created in the audience certain expectations about what it means to be famous. Don't treat the audience wrong or do anything too far outside those expectations or face the audience's wrath.
The internet changed what it means to be "famous" because the internet is media access. Unfortunately, the sociology of the audience hasn't caught up and often still apply the old expectations.
I can relate to this, and unlike the examples in the article, I'm not even trying to please an audience or make money. I'm just writing what I enjoy writing, and putting it out there, and even though I'm very careful with words, I still get in trouble with some readers.
Nobody who understands fame wants to be famous. Fame is when idiots make a mythic character in their own heads, and pick out a few things that you've said and done so they can put your face on that character, and then when you don't fit what that character is supposed to do, they get personally offended.
But also, fame is created by technology. You can't be famous among people who really know you. Fame requires thin and distant connections. And the internet enables thinner and more distant connections than ever before.
But the internet at least allows the possibility of thick connections, and that's my optimistic vision of the future of fame. Andy Warhol said everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, because in his time there was a single monolithic public eye. Now every person can be their own eye, and we haven't learned to work with this yet, but when we do, it's possible for everyone to be a content creator with a tiny and dedicated audience: In the future, everyone will be famous among 15 people.
March 27. My life with Oliver Sacks is from a memoir by Bill Hayes, who became Sacks' partner late in his life. Hayes calls Sacks "without a doubt the most unusual person I had ever known." Then it gets even better when they go to Iceland to visit Björk.
For me, this is a glimpse of heaven: two people who have managed to get away with being totally weird, without going mad or being crushed by poverty, hanging out in a little world of tree-stump chairs and rock-carved stairways, and a lighthouse where you do creative work while trapped by the high tide.
Going back almost 200 years, over the weekend I watched a biographical film about the Brontës, To Walk Invisible. Emily was the one with talent, and she died of tuberculosis at age 30 after writing only one novel, but she was actually lucky to be in a weird family that gave her some freedom to follow her peculiar obsessions.
Is the world getting better in this way? In ten thousand years, will everyday life be like Oliver Sacks at Björk's house? This is a vision that I call Neckbeard Utopia: that as we all reach our greatest potential, we become more different. Everything that rises must diverge. Unhappy families are all alike, but each happy family is happy in its own way.
One limiting factor is that it will fall apart if we get so different that we can no longer communicate. And I think the biggest obstacle is that we don't do our best with total comfort and freedom. We need just the right challenges and constraints, and I doubt that's something that could ever be encoded in laws or calculated by computers.
March 24. Since I quit writing about politics, I'm in uncharted territory, and this has been a slow week. Today, just a few unrelated links.
Physicists Find That as Clocks Get More Precise, Time Gets More Fuzzy: "not only is time not universally consistent, any clock we use to measure it will blur the flow of time in its surrounding space." My non-scientific interpretation is that precision is so rare, you can only get a lot of it by stealing it.
For a Modest Personality Trait, Intellectual Humility Packs a Punch. "As defined by the authors, intellectual humility is the opposite of intellectual arrogance or conceit. Intellectually humble people can have strong beliefs, but recognize their fallibility and are willing to be proven wrong."
Why It's Better To Animate a Film Alone, Even If It Takes Four Years:
"A lot of what slows down animation is telling the next person what to do. If I draw something really scribbly, I have to leave a lot of notes for the next guy. The same guy needs to leave notes for the in-between drawings. I skip all of those notes, I have it all in my head," says DiLiberto.
The advantage of this gluttonous approach is an omnipotent level of creative control. In the wrong hands that could lead to disaster, but with Nova Seed it results in a product that feels child-like in the best way. The universe is as idiosyncratic as a daydream and feels as spontaneous as a doodle, mixing mad scientist sci-fi tropes with the type of toy action that fills the sandboxes of elementary school boys.
Related, a long interview with another guy doing an epic personal project, Dwarf Fortress creator Tarn Adams talks about simulating the most complex magic system ever.
March 22. I've been thinking about the difference between art and kitsch, and it's very simple: art gets better the more attention you give it, while kitsch gets worse. Here's a Leonard Cohen line that I used to think was art: "We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky." That's kitsch, because what does it even mean? It's just poetic-sounding words thrown together, admittedly with good symmetry and meter, but even Thomas Kinkade paintings are well crafted.
The new quote at the top of this page sounds like goofy nonsense at first, but with enough contemplation it becomes profound. I'm not going to explain it, but one reason I like this quote better than the old one (The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed) is that a bonfire is a fixed location, and the new quote is more nomadic.
Last night I made a new music video, and you'll all be happy to know it's not that awful band I like. It's the Beatles, sort of. The other night I was listening to early Beatles on cannabis, and the first thing I noticed is that George Martin is not the fifth Beatle -- he's all of them. His production and engineering are so raw and precise that I think that's why they got so popular, because no other big-label white people music was doing that.
Then on one song I noticed that the vocals were annoying but the music was really interesting. If only there was a way... but there was! By moving the balance all the way to one side, the music came to the front and the vocals became distant and ethereal. Nothing was this psychedelic in 1963. I listened to their first two albums like that, and I'm convinced it's where Galaxie 500 got their sound, but no song was as good as the one where I first noticed the phenomenon. So I used a YouTube Creative Commons search to find a fitting video and put them together: Anna (go to him).
March 20. Busy today and no new ideas, so here's something I drafted a couple weeks ago:
I've been thinking about plot twists in fiction. There are at least two kinds: twists about what we think happened in the past, and twists about what we expect to happen in the future. I call the former the Basic Instinct twist, because that's the movie that drove it into the wall. Writer Joe Eszterhas goes back and forth so many times on who the real killer is, with so much evidence for both, that in the end it's like you're in a split reality where they're both the killer. Eszterhas is annoyed that some viewers disagree with him about the ending, which means he doesn't even know he did something that radical, and nobody since then has pushed it that far, because it doesn't work. The backward-confounding twist has a low ceiling in the patience of the viewer.
The other, I call the Pulp Fiction twist. At least three times in that movie, you think the story is going one way, and then some crazy accident takes it somewhere absurd, not just into different things happening but into a different storytelling tone. Any hack can write a Basic Instinct twist, but a Pulp Fiction twist requires creativity. That's why nobody has taken it farther, even though viewers would love to see it. The forward-confounding twist has a high ceiling that we haven't reached yet.
March 17. I've been noticing some crazy coincidences lately. It no longer feels like life is random, or like I'm being jerked around by fate. It feels like I'm starting to understand the way that fate thinks, or the kinds of stories that the unseen storyteller likes, and I can almost synchronize with that flow. Of course bad stuff still happens, but more good stuff happens, and bad stuff bothers me less. Wednesday night I barely slept because of excruciating gut pain. (I seem to have developed a banana intolerance, and every time those bananas moved in there, it was like I ate a knife.) But metaphorically it was like giving birth, which fits another thing I'm doing, and it also fits the way I'm changing this site, which is like flushing out toxins.
Yesterday a reader emailed me with a quote from the Gospel of Thomas that I was already thinking about: "Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the all." In my interpretation, the key word is "astonished", and the whole thing could be condensed to "Seek until astonished." Being troubled is like a distasteful WTF, and then being astonished is like the merging of WTF and total happiness. And once you've got that, it's like a handhold to climb out of the pit of the human condition.
Something cool (thanks Nick), This Man Is About to Blow Up Mathematics. It's about math so weird that it reads like science fiction: "Set theorists can construct proofs using large cardinals, which deal with higher levels of infinity and are too large to be proven to exist within ZFC." Or: "He created a sophisticated state-of-the-art machinery to turn combinatorial objects into universes." Basically we're on an island of normal math, in a sea of weird math, and this guy has built a really good boat ramp.
March 15. Remember Matt Savinar? He was a top-tier doomer with a popular website called Life After The Oil Crash, and then all at once he quit and became an astrologer. At the time I was baffled, but in hindsight, Savinar is my new hero. He probably figured out that he had been accidentally lying to people, and rather than spend years trying to salvage a position that was still exciting without being incorrect, he just cut the knot, and turned his talents to another form of lying that is benign and endlessly creative.
I've been continuing to enjoy writing this blog, and I was comfortable with my practice of asking important questions and aiming for concise, original answers. But it felt more and more like I was wrestling with the ghost of my past self. I thought about Neil Young, who sometimes argues with his fans about what he's playing, and I thought, if Neil Young started playing black metal, the people who want him to play "Old Man" wouldn't even come to his shows.
I'll always be a writer, but I'm probably finished writing seriously about politics and social philosophy. It's taken me a long time to see that there is no middle ground between anchoring a cultish echo chamber and serving up a bland soup of facts (unless it's comedy). And I think my bigger mistake was years earlier, when I caught the habit of writing about what's wrong with the world. That road just leads deeper into a swamp where in the end there are no monsters to fight except other lost travelers.
March 13. I've been meaning to make a lot of changes to this site. Today I finally have enough of a vision to feel motivated. The new favicon is the exact opposite color of the old one.
March 13. Doubling down on last week: Leigh Ann and I watch a lot of TV shows, but with Orphan Black, Dark Matter, and Game of Thrones not starting again until summer, we're running out of things that we both want to watch. But just lately I've been rewatching two shows that I absolutely love, even when everything else feels boring.
One is Mushi-Shi, a Japanese animated series that ran for one season in 2005-2006, about the dreamy and wistful adventures of a wandering master of the spirit world.
The other is the most mythic, the most iconic, and the funnest achievement in the history of storytelling. Of course, it's Gilligan's Island. In ten thousand years, when Breaking Bad is long forgotten, even if Gilligan's Island is also forgotten, it will be reinvented. It seems to be a children's show only because of its fathomless purity. The jokes are obvious like an approaching train, their impact undiminished no matter how long you see them coming.
The Skipper is the best straight man ever because he's the most joyful, unable to hide that he's having a great time even when he's angry. Gilligan is the best trickster ever because he wears the mask of the fool so well that neither Gilligan himself, nor the other characters, nor half the audience understand that staying on the island is his motive.
The show's very absurdity is a blinding sun of metaphor. How can an island remain unknown and attract so many visitors? Because the Island is the liminal space between consensus reality and the world of myth -- and this weirdness extends into our own world: the show's creator got the name Gilligan through bibliomancy, picking it from a phone book; in the pilot episode, as the ship leaves port, the flags are at half mast because Kennedy had just been shot.
In the best episodes, the characters enter the world of dreams and return to their homeworld not as exiles but as gods, acting out its most primal stories and characters: cavemen and vampires and pirates and cowboys and secret agents. This is probably the best music video ever, synchronizing Gilligan's Island dream scenes with the 1967 garage psych revelation "I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night" by The Electric Prunes.
By the way, everyone knows that Mary Ann is hotter than Ginger, but rewatching, I was surprised to learn that Mary Ann is hotter than basically anyone, and even Mrs Howell is hotter than Ginger. Her character was conceived as a "hard-nosed, sharp-tongued temptress" (quoting wikipedia) but Tina Louise couldn't pull it off, and instead played her like a cardboard Marilyn Monroe. That's the one aspect of the story that needs redemption.