"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
August 9. Today, some stuff from email. Greg comments on Monday's post:
I have a book called The Un-TV and the 10 mph Car. It's full of weird experiments the reader is implored to actually perform. One of the first is standing in a public place without doing anything.
It sounds easy but you cannot LOOK like you're doing something. You have to just stand there, and you have to be seen by people, for 10 minutes. I did this standing in the middle of sidewalk. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done.
One of the supposed points was that society pervades us to the point of actually controlling our actions when we're not doing anything. To be socially-acceptably "not doing anything" we need to actually look like we're doing something.
And this is something I wrote to Christine, who was curious about my response to this YouTube channel of people arguing about politics:
I've just lost interest in political drama. I sense that Trump's underlying agenda, which he's serving intuitively rather than calculatingly, is to intensify us-vs-them thinking. Everything he does is feeding off of, and feeding into, a growing trend of ingroup-outgroup tribe war consciousness. I think even smart liberals like Stephen Colbert have been sucked into this dark movement.
My response is to refuse to get caught up in it, and instead to look at underlying psychological influences. What exactly drives people to get into these conflicts?
In general I think that external conflict is the projection of internal conflict. People choose their identities, and especially choose their enemies, based on things inside themselves that they haven't fully faced.
Also, in an authoritarian society, which we totally still have, everyone feels powerless, and arguing about politics gives people the illusion that they're actually influencing the world.
August 7. Back in Spokane, and I'll probably be back to posting MWF for a while. Today, a great interview with Michael Finkel, the author of a new book about the guy who lived alone in the woods of Maine for 27 years.
On this planet, we don't know what to do with people who don't belong. I don't mean murderers, or people who are, clearly, mentally insane. I'm talking about someone like Chris Knight, who was a gentle person but who didn't fit in with the rest of us. It's heartbreaking. We don't have a spot for him.
Personally I think Knight is heroic. He only had to live in secrecy and break the law because we live in barbaric times. In a world with less authoritarian property laws, and an unconditional basic income, someone could live alone in the woods openly and legally.
Also this Hacker News comment thread has some good stuff, including discussion of the psychological differences between being with other people and being alone:
It's like coming from bright light into a dark room. Gradually your eyes adjust and you start to see more. Coming back into the civilization is similar to someone pointing flashlight into your eyes. So much external triggers for behaviour. Realizing that I'm not actually me with other people and I'm disappearing into network of others. Me with others is mainly just bunch of triggers that fire based on conditioning.
August 1. I have a little time to post some stray links from the road. This reddit comment lists a bunch of theological answers to the problem of evil. I accept both "God is not omnipotent" and "Purgatory on Earth."
A big reddit thread, How do you know you're in a healthy relationship?
And on one of my favorite subjects, motivation, Sometimes Not Working Is Work, Too. It's about people with the exact opposite of my problem: they are so highly motivated that they're in danger of overworking themselves and burning out, so they actually have to force themselves to be unproductive. The only way I can wrap my head around that is to imagine a world where playing video games, or getting high and listening to music, is considered useful by society.
July 26. In the Phoenix airport with my sister, and our flight to Detroit is delayed, so I have time for a post. The flight down was a lot like the lyrics of this song, Timber Timbre - Grand Canyon. Before we flew over the canyon, we flew over the Great Salt Lake, and it turns out the top part has turned red from adaptable microbes.
And here's a funny image. It might take you a few seconds.
July 24. I've got some family stuff for the next two weeks, so posts will be few or none. Today, a few good news links. Hunting Down the Lost Apples of the Pacific Northwest
How a Reddit forum has become a lifeline to opioid addicts
The Rise of Pirate Libraries
July 21. Making an exception to my rule of not writing about politics, there's some interesting stuff in this chat transcript, Who Killed The Health Care Bill? Summary: the Republican party is ruled by ideologues, who insisted on slashing Medicaid, which made the bill extremely unpopular, but rank-and-file Republicans didn't want to admit they were against it, so Senator Jerry Moran killed it for them because his seat is super-safe.
My take is, American health care is so vastly and deeply dysfunctional that it's almost impossible to tinker with it and not cause a total disaster. It's not going to be fixed until we have another president who's a highly competent consensus builder, whose party controls congress, and demographic changes have made the public more friendly to single payer.
But I'm wondering: How did American politics get so ideological? I mean, there are always going to be people who act on the basis of simple compelling stories, untested against reality, rather than facing the full complexity of the issues. But they rarely have this much influence.
My theory: Ideological thinking is easier and more fun, so people will always do it, unless they get stung -- unless they have the experience of thinking ideologically and something bad happens. Two factors that can block this correction have both happened in America over the last few decades.
One is that some people have so much power that when they think ideologically, bad things happen to other people and they don't notice. The other is, most people have so little power that the way they think doesn't make any difference at all... until they reach a critical mass where they can force their kitsch narratives onto public policy.
July 19. A reader asked me about minimalism, a movement to have less stuff. I agree with them, even though I'm not the kind of person to join named movements. Buying stuff is like taking a bad drug. It feels good, but then owning stuff that you don't use puts you at a lower baseline for happiness, and then getting rid of stuff is like painful withdrawal. And then when it's gone you feel good again.
I'm tempted to give up the last few hundred dollars in sale value and just hire a junk truck to take everything away. If you've ever been to the dump and seen what gets thrown out, a lot of people must do that. But I really do have to go through and pick out what I'm keeping, so I might as well try to maximize the value of the rest.
July 17. Some personal stuff. A week ago I got my novel close enough to final draft to send it to three people, and I'm still awaiting feedback, but I hope to have it online in a month. It's shorter than I expected, around 27,000 words, roughly the length of The Old Man And The Sea, except the words are much longer, and a lot more stuff happens. I'm still not sure about the title! The working title uses someone else's words, and while waiting for permission, I thought of a backup title that I probably like better.
If there's enough demand, I'll do a physical book on createspace or something, and I want to have cover art something like Barbara Remington's trippy Lord of the Rings covers, but not so similar as to get in legal trouble. If anyone feels qualified and interested, let me know, ranprieur at gmail.
I'm nine days into a long break from cannabis, because my last few highs did not produce any insights or creative work. I'm also not playing any video games, so no fun at all. Ideally I want to spend every day fixing up the house and sorting my stuff to sell/thrift/trash. But that's so painful that I can only do it for a couple hours a day.
So the rest of the time I've been working on a chronological playlist of soft hits of the 70's. This site, the Hot 100 Singles Chronology, is really useful. There's this one song in my head, it's not even that great but I've become fixated on finding it, and I'm starting to think I've slipped to an alternate universe where it doesn't exist. But searching for it has led me to forgotten gems like Steve Forbert - Romeo's Tune.
July 14. As usual, light stuff for the weekend. Last weekend in the NWSL, Sam Kerr scored a hat trick in 12 minutes. She makes it look easy, but nobody else in the women's game is so casual and consistent in front of goal. Just the previous week she made a bicycle kick.
I don't like to write about race, but this article about Martellus Bennett, NFL player and now children's author, has a great quote: "What if Macauley Culkin were black in Home Alone? Most people would write it differently... but I would write it the same way."
To generalize from that point: if there's something about the world that you don't like, complaining about it is a weak strategy. A good strategy is to persistently trace it to deeper and deeper causes. And another good strategy is to envision a world where it doesn't exist.
July 12. Matt has some surprising comments on Monday's post. This is my condensation:
Maybe people get pleasure from pain -- either from literal mortification or feats of endurance -- because of their beliefs about their bodies. I mean, why do cutters feel relief? It only makes sense if I understand the relief coming from their mental interpretation of being wounded. Otherwise, you'd hear about guys feeling euphoria when they lose a thumb in a factory. There's no straightforward push-this-button-and-get-this-result: it's about how individual personalities process the sting, the throbbing, the blood. Or the sweat, the panting, the racing heart.
I've talked to people who have gotten runner's high, of course. I don't doubt the existence of endorphins. But I've also talked to people who hate the experience of exercise -- and it's not because they're out of shape or haven't tried. It's tempting to say, "They're not doing it right, or for long enough." But maybe that's akin to saying everyone should like being spanked hard during sex and if you don't then you're not doing it right. People talk about runner's high as a universal, but maybe... it's a kink.
July 10. A few months back, I wrote this:
Will science ever cheat withdrawal? Could you go on a drug bender, and when it starts to get ugly, you just take a shot of brain-cleansing nanobots and you're painlessly clean and sober and ready to start again? I doubt it, but I do think it should be possible to bunch the pain, so instead of days or weeks of grinding through rehab, you could reset your pleasure with a few minutes of agony.
A reader replied, "OK, but if pain and pleasure are in balance, could you give yourself a few electric shocks one day, and maybe that would lead to good times down the road?" I said:
Clearly the answer is no, which leads to two options. One is that it is possible, even on a metaphysical level, to have pleasure unbalanced by pain. The other answer is that pleasure must be balanced by pain but pain does not have to be balanced by pleasure, because God hates us.
It turns out, this has been studied by science, and that electric shock trick might actually work. The opponent-process theory of emotion is a long brainy blog post about Richard Solomon's research into pain becoming pleasure and pleasure becoming pain. If you don't want to read the whole thing, the practical advice is to moderate your pleasures, exercise, and take cold showers.
I'm also wondering how much individual variation there is, because none of the author's examples of pleasure-from-pain apply to me. I don't get exhilaration from stress, or runner's high, or "a sense of well being" from donating blood. After my epic and painful moving day last week, I did not feel one shred of euphoria. I just felt tired. But when I listen to music, or write something good, I get pleasure that echoes to the baseline without ever going negative.
July 8. Wednesday morning we got up early and drove out to the valley to rent a 16 foot truck, then drove back here and loaded the truck and the car. Then we drove separately to Pullman, and unloaded everything to a third floor apartment in full sun on a 95 degree day. We could not have done it without the help of Leigh Ann's friend Courtney. I drank at least a gallon of water, and when I ate salt it tasted like candy. Then I drove the truck back to Spokane, left it in the late dropoff lot, and took the bus home, arriving around 10:30.
Getting through such an epic day was not just hard physically, but mentally. Little things are going to go wrong, and if you get caught up in blame or regret, or if you push harder to try to make up for mistakes, you're going to burn out way before the end of the day. Instead, minute after minute, hour after hour, you have to stay calm and constantly refocus on the present moment.
Are lower class people better at these skills, because of the kind of work they're forced to do? As more of our work is done by machines, will humanity become more neurotic? How do we prevent this? That question is too hard for me to answer, but I'm thinking: designing a good society is not primarily about psychology -- it's entirely about psychology.
July 4. Posting today because I won't be posting tomorrow, and I just want to say the same things I've recently said, in different words. Continuing from yesterday, Michael sends this great video about System 1 vs System 2 thinking: The simple riddle that 50% of Harvard students get wrong. The more I learn about this subject, the more I understand why life is so hard for me. My System 1 is defective. I have to use System 2 for almost everything, which makes me really good at it, but society sees me as a fuckup, and I could never pass a job interview even for a job that's all System 2 thinking, like that proofreading job at Amazon that they gave to some glib charmer whose ass I kicked on the actual proofreading test. We really are living in barbaric times.
I also want to go back to last week's subject. I've been having an email conversation with Anne about "individualism", and wrote this:
That Soccer Assassins article tipped my thinking about the whole individual vs group thing, because it's about how a group can work better if everyone is doing their own thing. But the trick is, they're doing their own thing in service to the group. they're thinking "I want my team to do as well as possible, but I'm not going to trust the coach to tell me what to do, I'm going to figure it out myself in the moment."
Of course this is different from "Collectivism says that society thrives if I trust central planners." But it's also different from "Capitalism says that society thrives if i'm totally selfish."
It's not a middle ground -- it's a whole other angle, difficult for our culture to imagine, something like "cooperative individualism". That's when I realized that people like Ayn Rand ruined "individualism" by tying it to selfishness.
July 3. Busy to Death. It's not a new idea, but for me this is a new way of thinking about it. First:
System 1 is our reactive, speedy response to circumstance decision-making. It is a bias loaded, preprogrammed neural network of pathways that essentially exists so we don't have to think. System 2, however, is when we deeply, slowly consider numerous situations, options, and alternatives when decision making.
And in a culture that values looking busy, people in System 2 mode will appear to be lazy, and will be given work that forces them into System 1. So a culture that values looking busy will undermine itself with bad snap decisions.
Personally, I'm terrible at System 1. That's why I could never get a good job, why I hate driving, why I always get in trouble for being clumsy. My autopilot is somewhere between incompetent and nonexistent, and it makes life in this headlong culture really hard. Hammering my favorite political cause: if we had an unconditional basic income, people who thrive in System 2 could afford to be in it all the time, and make contributions from that space.
Related: Anxiety is the new Depression.
Also related: The refugee funding America's psychedelic renaissance.