May 10. With the weather getting warmer, I'm going barefoot as much as possible. Last night I dreamed that I was in some kind of office and realized that I'd forgotten to wear shoes, so I was trying to go discreetly outside to put my shoes on and come back in.
Suddenly I understand what's going on with kids who dream they're naked at school. Just as I know there's nothing wrong with not wearing shoes, they know there's nothing wrong with not wearing clothes. The dream is about being in an insane world, a world full of rules that you can't reason out from anything practical or ethical -- you just have to learn the rules one by one, and there's always a fear that you'll get a big one wrong. It's not a shame dream -- it's a Kafka dream!
May 12. Yesterday I ate some cannabutter and noticed, and not for the first time, the simple and difficult solution to depression and motivation. My inner dialogue, on the boundary between conscious and subconscious, is extremely inefficient, like a clunky machine that half the time works against itself. So it's just a matter of going in there and fixing it, which requires moment after moment, hour after hour, month after month, of practicing metacognition.
That's one reason I think sitting meditation is overrated. Of all the stuff in your head that needs to be fixed, most of it will never come up when you're trying to do nothing, only when you're going about your normal day, so that should be the main focus of inner attention. Gurdjieff was saying that more than a hundred years ago.
I also want to point out that the practice of metacognition has to be completely non-judging, because if it's even a little big judging, you fall into a recursive loop: judging yourself for judging yourself and so on.
May 15. I've half-joked that it's better to follow sports than politics. For one thing, you have more influence over sports, because it has never happened that a single voter has swung an election for national office, but it has happened that a single fan has swung a baseball playoff game by interfering with a fly ball.
But now I have a more serious argument. Wherever you turn your attention, you tend to internalize the rules of that world. For example, if you grew up in a family where people got what they wanted by being pushy, or by complaining, or by using a particular flavor of subtle communication, you're going to expect that same strategy to work in the larger world.
In politics, what strategies lead to success? Bullshitting everyone all the time, using subconscious mind control tricks on the voters, making secret deals with big donors, and generally being as cynical as possible. The more you follow politics, the more you will expect that those strategies are universally effective, and that being honest and selflessly serving the greater good will lead to failure. And I think the corporate world is almost as bad.
But in sports, not all the time but more than in any other public event, success is a function of being really good at fully transparent skills. Since I cut back on following politics, and started following a few sports closely, I've been asking less often, "How did the world get so fucked up?" and asking more often, "What are the deep differences between people who are good at life and people who are bad at life?"
May 19. Subreddit thread about determinism. I want to briefly hit the subject from another angle:
Determinism is a hyper-rational philosophy that oddly leads to compassion. A determinist will never solve a problem by saying "that guy's an idiot" or "those people are trash," because how did they get that way? By the coldest of logic, everyone has been doing exactly the best they could have done from the day they were born. Then the question becomes: How can I use my illusory choice to change the world so that people doing their best is good enough?
May 22. On a recommendation, I read the book The Craving Mind by Judson Brewer. It doesn't tackle my main problem, which is how to do things I don't feel like doing. Instead it's all about how to quit smoking and other bad habits: by looking curiously inward at your own cycles of compulsive behavior and reward.
I was hoping the book would answer my question from a few weeks ago, about whether daydreaming is bad for us. Brewer thinks it's bad, but his arguments against daydreaming are anecdotal, speculative, and imprecise. The closest he comes to a good answer is in another context where he describes two kinds of feeling good: one that brings "restlessness and a contracted urge for more," and another that "results from curiosity" and is "open rather than contracted."
Brewer treats the brain's default mode network as the Great Satan, probably because that simple view fits Buddhism as he understands it. This article has a more balanced view: Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus, and it describes a practice called positive constructive daydreaming.
Near the end, the book has a promising metaphor about our internal compass. I would extend it like this: deep inside we all have a compass that can sense the subtle magnetism of the right thing to do in almost any situation. But we can't read it because we're surrounded by artificial magnets that constantly give us wrong directions. I'm tempted to list some of them, but I'll just speculate that seeing past them, to the truer magnet, is a skill that anyone can learn in 20-30 years.
June 5. Following a tangent from a few weeks ago: What are the deep differences between people who are good at life and people who are bad at life? I'm not the best person to answer that, but I'm also not the worst. That would be someone like Elon Musk who has always been successful. Whatever it is that makes someone good at life, for a lucky few it's so intuitive that they're not aware of it and couldn't describe it.
This is true for everything. If you've had to grind through the details of getting good at something, then you can tell others how to do it, but if you can't remember not being there, then you can't see the path.
Also, if you can't remember not being good at something, then it's tempting to dismiss people who are not good at it, to see them as inferior in some absolute way. "Idiot" is a word used by people who take their brainpower for granted. No one who has struggled with low motivation would call someone "lazy". Even people who were born rich tend to believe that money comes from virtue, when they themselves got it through luck.
So as a general rule, talent feeds disparagement and hard-learned skill feeds compassion.
Are there moral talents? There are attributes considered moral by this culture, that are subject to talent. This leads to a weird paradox, where a naturally good person might be less good than a naturally bad person who becomes good.
June 7. Taking another crack at Monday's subject: If someone is better than you at anything, there's always a deeper reason. We understand this for intellectual and physical skills, like being good at math or baseball. But our culture thinks differently about emotional skills like courage, kindness, honesty, drive.
This subreddit post mentions a bunch more, taken from this page of 24 character strengths. We imagine that people with these kinds of skills have somehow earned them, when usually they were born with them (or with simpler component skills), or their family helped them develop the skills at such a young age that they don't remember not having them.
Of course you can improve "good person" skills as an adult, but what arcane factor separates someone who does this from someone who doesn't? We imagine that it's just some deeper level of being a good person, and so on, turtles all the way down.
It doesn't occur to us to think of good character as a matter of luck. We actually have a taboo against the idea. That's why the Big Five personality model, which says the traits are mostly fixed for life, won't say that high conscientiousness is better than low conscientiousness, or that low neuroticism is better than high neuroticism -- but those judgments saturate our culture.
On a personal note, it feels liberating to think of character as a matter of luck. Since I sent my first photocopied zine out for review, strangers have been attacking my character, and I've been doing the most obvious and least effective thing: defending my character. I'm so deficient in wisdom and creativity that it took me 20 years to figure out the better move. There's an old Billy Bragg song with the line "Just because you're better than me, doesn't mean I'm lazy." I always thought it would be more radical the other way around: "Just because I'm lazy doesn't mean you're better than me." But the even more radical move is to concede both points.
June 12. Autistic Burnout: The Cost of Coping and Passing. It's a bunch of quotations with the general idea that it's harmful for people on the spectrum to try to appear neurotypical.
My first thought is, "neurotypical" is a lie. The way you have to act to pass a job interview, almost nobody is really like that. It reminds me of that Far Side where a field of sheep discover that they're all secretly wolves. How did we get ourselves into this ridiculous ritual of appearing "normal"? Related: Adam Curtis: Learning to Hug.
June 14. Last night I stumbled to the end of a novel. I started writing it five months ago, but I've only told a few people, because talking about your plans drains motivation. Most of it is still ink on paper, and I need to do lots of fine tuning and work some other things out before I make any of it public.
What I can tell you is how, after years of struggling and failing to produce any fiction (not counting this blog), I finally pulled it together. First, all those years I was doing mental world-building, until I felt glutted with ideas, like a big pile of firewood that will rot as fast as I build it up, so I needed a fire.
Second, "I want to write a novel" is not sufficient motivation to write a novel. I needed creative work by other people, so good that it gave me the hunger to create something that made me feel the same way.
Third, I used a trick that also worked for my old zines: to get off loose leaf pages and write into a bound blank book. It's like there's a part of me that wakes up when I can't take anything back, even if I can still cross things out.
Fourth, pushing age 50, I finally have the emotional intelligence to write adequate characters. But maybe it was the other way around, because as I wrote, I learned from them. The second best thing about writing is reaching into the rabbit-hat of language and somehow pulling out the perfect word, and the best thing is when your characters surprise you.
Finally, I needed the courage to make it up on the fly, because the only thing harder is to plan it out in advance. Picbreeder was a big help in training me to surf the flow of ideas that come from who knows where. Also, weed. Mostly it was homemade cannabutter eaten around midday, on a cycle of 1-3 days on and 2-10 days off. I wrote some of the best bits sober, but whenever I hit a dead end, my old friend Eleven Hydroxy opened doors.
June 19. Earlier this month, if you missed it, rock climber Alex Honnold scaled El Capitan without ropes. This might be the greatest athletic feat of all time. The first thing you need is world class endurance. He climbed 3000 feet in under four hours, and how many people could even climb a 3000 foot flight of stairs in four hours? Then there are the physical rock climbing skills, and then, to do it without safety gear, you need the mental focus to not make any mistakes. I'm pretty good at Minesweeper, but imagine playing four hours straight, and if you make one mistake, you die.
On top of this, Honnold has a rare brain anomaly that makes him immune to fear. From this article, The Strange Brain of the World's Greatest Solo Climber:
Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at New York University who has been studying the brain's response to threats since the 1980s, tells me he has never heard of any person being born with a normal amygdala -- as Honnold's appears to be -- that shows no sign of activation.This Hacker News comment thread has some comments about why, exactly, climbers prefer to not use ropes. It's not about cheating death or proving how bad-ass you are. It's because, using ropes, almost the whole job is clunky and unsatisfying communication with your climbing partner. Without ropes, it's just you and the rock, and you can get into a highly rewarding flow state.
June 28. This sports article, Soccer Assassins, describes two coaching styles, where the normal one is to use physically strong but uncreative players as chesspiece thugs. That wins more games in the short term, but in the long term, the best players and the best teams are built on a foundation of individual skill and improvisation.
This confounds modern thinking about "individualism" because it's about how a group can work better if everyone is doing their own thing. 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. That's when I realized that people like Ayn Rand ruined "individualism" by tying it to selfishness.
Bottom line: the best human collectives, in sports or whatever, are built out of 1) people with all their quirks 2) with strong fundamental skills 3) making it up on the fly 4) for the good of a local team. A good human society, which is probably thousands of years away, will be a fractal structure that works like that on every scale.
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.
This video explains it more: The simple riddle that 50% of Harvard students get wrong. 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.
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 Cortney. 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?
July 10-12. 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 assumed the answer was no, but it turns out this has been studied by science, and that 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.
I'm 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.
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 21. How did American politics get so ideological? Note that "ideological" does not mean "disagrees with me." It means when people act on the basis of simple compelling stories, untested against reality, rather than facing the full complexity of the issues. There have always been ideologues, 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.