"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
September 13. A reader sends this timely article from two years ago, Walker Percy's Theory of Hurricanes. It's the same idea as Rebecca Solnit's book A Paradise Built in Hell, that people become happier in disasters.
I'm skipping straight to the hard question: how can we make this permanent? How can we build a society where the loose, friendly, engaged social vibe that now emerges in disasters, is how we feel all the time? Or at least more often?
Just having one catastrophe after another won't work -- they tried that in Haiti. I don't think there's any simple or easy answer. It's just going to take hundreds of years of walking there, one step in law, one step in culture, until we have a set of laws built on trust and improvisation, instead of fear and predictability, and a culture where people don't take advantage of that, or feel traumatized.
Sometimes I think all lawmakers should start as game designers, because game designers have to understand the thin line between trauma and adventure, between safety as a padded cell and safety as a platform for launching.
On another tangent, I'm wondering about psychedelics, and if they transform the brain the same way a good disaster transforms a city.
September 11. Interesting subreddit post: On the Demonic and Virtual Reality. The idea is that we could think of "demons" not as magical beings, but the way we think about human social constructions like fascism and religion.
If the demonic names a type of oppressive virtual reality, then demon possession can be approached as the subjective inscription of these systems of injustice into an individual's consciousness. The demonic is the system of injustice that influences the material actions of all those in a society, while demon possession is where an individual becomes the actual mouthpiece of that injustice.
I believe something a little weirder. I've noticed that most human behavior comes from levels of the mind that we're not consciously aware of, and I think our individual subconscious minds are connected with each other in ways we haven't discovered yet, in highly complex networks. And these hidden subconscious civilizations can behave like primal gods, or like the paranoid myth of evil elites. But ultimately, the enemy is within.
Another link from the subreddit: The Satori Generation:
In Japan, they've come to be known as satori sedai -- the "enlightened generation". In Buddhist terms: free from material desires, focused on self-awareness, finding essential truths. But another translation is grimmer: "generation resignation", or those without ideals, ambition or hope.
They were born in the late 1980s on up, when their nation's economic juggernaut, with its promises of lifetime employment and conspicuous celebrations of consumption, was already a spent historical force. They don't believe the future will get better -- so they make do with what they have. In one respect, they're arch-realists. And they're freaking their elders out.
September 8. So I'm all moved to Pullman. After throwing away 20 garbage bags full of stuff with no resale value, having a yard sale, taking 15 boxes to Goodwill, and gradually selling 30 things for $1200 on Craigslist, I still had to move four carloads, and I'm eventually going to have to cut it down even more. When you're decluttering, every garbage day is like Christmas.
Pullman is where I came into this world 50 years ago, and it's an unlikely accident that I'm here again, just because my girlfriend from Florida happened to go back to school here. The best thing about a small town is the traffic. In Seattle it takes half an hour to drive anywhere, and here it takes five minutes.
Our apartment is well-located, relatively cheap, and about the same size as the part of the house that we actually lived in. We expect to be here through June of 2020, and after that, no one knows.
September 5. Lots of action yesterday on the subreddit, including this thoughtful discussion about "personal responsibility" and why certain categories of people have been more or less successful at certain things.
My thought is, yes, we all have to take responsibility for our own well-being, but that means different things to different people. I'm starting to view this whole world as a bunch of competing games, and what we call "success" is a very specific game. The dominant culture looks at marginalized communities and says, "Why aren't they succeeding on our terms?" Maybe it's because they don't like your terms.
I look at conventionally successful people and think, "They're making so much money -- why don't they live super-frugally for a few years, and then retire to a place with cheap housing, and spend the rest of their lives doing creative work or just getting high and listening to music?" Come on, people, the opportunities are there.
Every time someone tells a story about a panhandler who was offered a job and didn't take it, I want to say, "It works both ways. You have the option to become a panhandler and you're not taking it."
September 4. A thought experiment for Labor Day. Imagine you live in a world where money is completely disconnected from work. Not only is there an unconditional minimum income, there's also a maximum income -- and they're the same! Corporate executives, sled dog racers, insurance agents, and people who just watch TV all day, all make the same amount of money.
In that world, what would you do with your time?
And how similar is that to what you actually do with your time?
To the extent that those things are the same, you're successful -- even if you're poor. To the extent that they're different, your quality of life is being constrained by cultural assumptions and economic rules that tie activity to money.
You've all seen that political grid, where one axis is social freedom and the other is economic freedom. That's always rubbed me the wrong way, and now I can say why: because it has "freedom" exactly backwards, defining it as the right to trade your labor for money, even if it's something you wouldn't do if it weren't for the money, and then turn around and trade your money for the labor of others, even if they're only doing it for the money. That's not people being free -- it's money being free to control us.
In a value system that puts quality of life first, economic freedom is not freedom of money but freedom from money, and the more disconnected money is from activity, the more free we are.
There are three problems here. The easiest is just to understand that anything less than a 100% volunteer workforce is inadequate. The hardest problem is getting there from here as an entire society. That's going to take hundreds of years and reforms that haven't been imagined yet. And the medium sized problem is moving in that direction in your own life.
Now someone might say, "What if what I love to do is make money?" That's silly, because money is supposed to be a means for the end of living well, not the end in itself. And if you just enjoy the process of accumulating abstract tokens, then you can get that pleasure from games. And if you say, "I enjoy accumulating abstract tokens that have real world value," then be careful, because you might be asking for a power that no one should have: to make people do stuff that they wouldn't do if they didn't need the money.
August 30. Unrelated links. First, this article confirms my speculation the other day: Houston's lack of zoning left city vulnerable to catastrophic floods. The bayous "are sponges of rainwater" but they got paved over.
Fascinating 2015 article on the placebo effect, which 1) is getting stronger over time, 2) is stronger in the USA than in other countries, and 3) is stronger in large trials than small ones. The article suggests some explanations, but I think this is more evidence for Rupert Sheldrake's morphic fields. Also, hey, there's something cool that America is good at!
In the recent eclipse, the sun over Spokane was 90% covered, and I was wondering: Why is it still almost as bright as day? Shouldn't it be only a tenth as bright? This article, Eclipses and Decibels, explains it. It was only a tenth as bright, but human vision is logarithmic. By seeing large differences as small, we can see differences over a greater range.
August 28. Today I want to briefly return to politics to praise other countries and bash America. The Dutch Have Solutions to Rising Seas. Yeah, here the first solution to rising seas is denial, and the second solution would be grandiose geo-engineering to block sunlight (which makes the CO2 problem worse) and the third solution would be to build a giant fucking wall. Did any expanding empire ever build a wall? Walls are the physical and mental artifacts of cultures in decline.
The Dutch do have a 70 foot storm surge wall at the river mouth, but they also do a bunch of other things, like teaching kids to swim with their clothes on, and "getting people to remove the concrete pavement from their gardens so the soil underneath absorbs rainwater." I wonder how much less underwater Houston would be right now it it was less paved.
Fourteen years after decriminalizing drugs, Portugal has one of the lowest overdose rates in all of Europe. I'm looking at the chart, where one overdose rate dwarfs all the others, and wondering what's up with Estonia. But the USA is even much worse.
My best guess is that it's because of our moralistic culture. The article mentions how Portugal started thinking of drugs as a health problem instead of a moral problem. I suspect that every social problem is best faced when framed in terms of mental health instead of punishing baddies.
More good news from elsewhere: A juice company dumped orange peels in a national park, and sixteen years later, it's a thriving ecosystem compared to adjacent land where nothing was dumped. This kind of story makes me think that our world has a lot of room to get better.
August 26. A couple loose ends from yesterday. First, another teaser for my novel (scroll down for download links) and a tip. Going through old stuff, I found a novella I wrote more than a quarter century ago and almost completely forgot. It's poorly written, but I was struck by some similarites to my new stuff.
From 1991: "Ann was on the porch, on the west side of the house, allowing herself to be hypnotized by the patterns the breeze was making in the long grass."
From 2017: "Cataria lay in the shroomcave on a shag-fur cushion, playing with the light in her eyes. Up on the ceiling, sun-gold phosphorescent filaments dangled like snot from a mat of snow-white glow lichens, and through lids neither open nor closed, she drew scepters and clouds like taffy."
If you're struggling with that sort of language, try reading it out loud. You might find that your tongue likes it even if your brain doesn't.
And on the subject of the right to say no, I just wrote this in an email:
When I think more about it, "saying no" has two meanings: 1) No, you can't do that. 2) No, I won't do that.
The first is necessary, both in the human world and outside it, to set boundaries. And when we're dealing with nature, saying "No I won't do that" can be fatal. But I still think, within the human world, it's both good and possible for everyone to have an absolute right to say "No I won't do that."
The Yequana, described in the book The Continuum Concept, have a culture where it's forbidden to even ask another person to do something. That's kind of a heavy handed way to preserve the right to say no, but it works.
August 25. If anyone wants to read my novel on a device that can't do rtf files, let me know and can send you a txt file or a crude epub.
I've been told that it's similar to Lanark by Alasdair Gray, so I've been reading that. It starts out like one of my favorite authors, Albert Cossery, and then it's like Kafka, and then it gets weird.
Anyway, in one dialogue a character mentions freedom, another character laughs, and the first says, "Yes, it's a comic word. We're all forced to define it in ways that make no sense to other people."
My latest definition of freedom is, not only am I never punished for saying no, I live in a culture where punishment for saying no is so alien that it's almost inconceivable. There have been hunter-gatherer tribes that basically pulled this off, and if they can do it, so can we, eventually. Imagine a high-tech world without the slightest hint of forced labor. I don't think we'll really be in space, but this is still a great article: The Economics of Star Trek.
Raymond Chandler said something like, "When I look at my early stories, on the one hand, they could have been better, but on the other hand, if they had been much better, they wouldn't have sold." Now, I love Chandler's early stories. They're collected in the Killer In The Rain anthology, and the language is not as beautiful as his later stuff, but it's still really good and the plots fucking move! So my mind boggles at how much better those stories could have been, if he didn't care whether they had short-term commercial value.
August 23. If everyone had a statistic over their heads, like in video games, what number would you like to see? The obvious answer is, "What is the chance this person will have sex with me?" But I'd also like to see a number for how much pain this person has walked through, doing stuff they don't feel like doing.
I think you'd see the lowest scores above the most highly active and successful "hard workers" -- because you don't put in 80 hour weeks, year after year, forcing yourself through pain. You'll burn straight out. Those self-starting achievers are actually being pulled by compulsion, because that's the only way they could keep it up. Internally, Elon Musk is the same as a hardcore video game addict. The difference is, his obsessions and talents happen to be a perfect fit for what society considers valuable.
I think you'd see the highest scores, the most heroic walkers through pain, among service industry workers and the chronically depressed. "Depression", when we understand it, will turn out to be several different things, but one of them must be an absence of compulsion or flow. If the smallest activities feel like doing your taxes, you're going to be emotionally exhausted all the time.
Of course society is going to reward people who do what it considers valuable. The tragedy is that these people are considered morally superior, even by themselves, when they're just lucky, while the unlucky are considered low in character when they need compassion.
I try to be a voice for people whose obsessions and talents have little or no overlap with the short-term values of this unbalanced society, a world that has little in common with the world of our ancestors or, if we do our job, the world of our descendants. Our challenge is, first, to not be destroyed by this world, and second, to change it to make it friendlier for people like us.
My first thought, years ago, was to bring it all down. Even if that strategy were realistic, it would be a mistake, because it would throw influence to people even less like us, and make it even less likely that any given obsession or talent would lead to a good life. The correct strategy, if you're a misfit, is to universalize the interfaces by which society connects to individuals, so that even the weirdest people still fit.
August 21. It's solar eclipse day! Originally we were planning to drive down to backwoods Oregon to the path of totality, but we were both too busy, so I watched it from the front steps where the leaves of a hawthorn tree cast accidental pinhole projections of the thumbnail sun on the side of the house. For today's post, some fun stuff.
In a game on Saturday, Sam Kerr scored four goals. I remember watching Michael Jordan in the 90's, and his overall shooting percentage was not superhuman, but with the game on the line, he could score at will. It's ridiculous to think that someone could score at will in professional soccer, where games often end 0-0. But watch the play that starts around 2:20.
The Cult of the Costco Surfboard is about a cheap surfboard, the Wavestorm, that is used by novices and outsiders, and now it has inspired good surfers to have Wavestorm-only tournaments where you do "everything you're not supposed to do in a surf contest: steal waves, make contact with other surfers, and create a general mess in the water."
This AskReddit thread is loaded with all kinds of good stuff: What made you think "I'm not like normal people"?
Finally, I've decided to link to a near-final draft of my novel. Over the last five weeks I've sent it to six smart people, but only one has managed to finish, and she called it "floating down a river of lyrical confusion." So I want to cast a wider net and try to find test readers who are not befuddled by the intricate worldbuilding and highfalutin tongue-twisters. I'd love to hear from someone who has read James Joyce, or Gravity's Rainbow, or Samuel Delany's Dhalgren, because I find all of those unreadable, while I can tear through my own novel like a comic book -- but maybe I'm insane. I'm also curious whether it's more accessible on weed.
To download, most browsers can handle a normal click, but you can also right click and "save link as" for these two files, WOT.rtf and WOT-Dictionary.rtf. The acronym reflects the overlap between the two provisional titles. You can open an rtf file in almost any word processor. If you want a challenge, try reading it without the dictionary.
August 17. A week ago I wrote a paragraph about why I'm less afraid of running out of money in retirement, because I have experience living dirt cheap, and that spawned this subreddit thread.
It's true, old people can't do what young people can do, and maybe I'll get some medical condition where I can't do anything. But that will ruin my life even if I'm rich.
Here's a thought experiment to explain my retirement strategy. Imagine that the neo-Nazis take over, and like the original Nazis, they aggressively enforce the activity-morality of industrial capitalism, in which high-activity people are considered morally superior to low-activity people. They enforce it so hard that we're all in work camps, and we'll be shot if we don't spend all day doing something useful like digging ditches, or something harmful like adding bloat to software.
Would I do the work? Well, I'd start out doing it, and gradually I'd try to get around it, and eventually I'd just say, fuck it, shoot me. Now take a step back, and notice how benign our society is compared to an actual work camp.
Ever since my first day of school, my number one priority has been to spend my days doing my own stuff at my own pace. The penalty? If I can't find a job with nothing to do all day (those jobs exist and most people don't like them), and if I don't get help from friends or family, and if I can't get some kind of public assistance, and if I get chased out of a squat house or a homeless camp right before a big freeze, then at last I'll die.
Or I could go to prison. Out of all the jobs in the world, picking up litter along highways seems like one of the best. You're outside, you're not forced to hurry, and you're free to daydream while doing something that clearly makes the world better. Even solitary confinement would at least give me lots of free time.
Retirement is about weighing costs. The cost of retiring earlier is, if I'm unlucky, my inevitable death will come sooner. The cost of continuing employment is, those years of my life are down the toilet, 100%.
August 16. Yesterday I called yard sale resellers "demonic", but the better word is machine-like. They have put aside their humanity to enter a mental space that is completely quantitative: how many monetary units can I buy this for, and how many can I sell it for? They might say they're doing a service, but if their intention was to do a service, they would not make lowball offers. And yet, they are doing a service -- one that could be done better by actual machines.
It would not require any new technologies, only improvement of existing technologies, to replace eBay and thrift stores and even garbage trucks with a legion of drones. You set out a pile of stuff, and they sort it into four categories: 1) Stuff that they will not even haul away unless you do something more. 2) Stuff that they will haul away to the landfill or incinerator or recycler. 3) Stuff that they'll bring to someone who wants it, but you won't get any money. 4) Stuff that they'll bring to someone who wants it and you'll both get a fair deal with no parasitic middleman.
But in that utopia, something would be lost, because without some radical new technology, machines can't recognize beauty, and many beautiful things would be miscategorized as trash and destroyed. Also, requesting an item from the Dronosphere is a completely different experience from falling in love with something that you never expected to see.
So the system we have now might be hard to improve on -- except that most of us have been forced to put aside our humanity and focus on money, just to get food and shelter. Hammering my favorite cause: with an unconditional basic income, falling into quantitative thinking would be optional, and people who do it could face harsher sanctions.
August 15. Funny story. Yesterday, after months of spending hundreds of hours going through many thousands of things that I've held onto for years without using them, I craved a pumpkin pie. I found a can of pumpkin and realized I didn't have a can opener. Despite having at least four USB to mini-USB adapter cables, we only have one can opener, and Leigh Ann has it in Pullman. So I dug around and found a multitool, so old that it was hard to open. I went out to my bike for my one and only bottle of lubricating oil, and it had completely emptied itself in a slow leak. Also I was out of milk because I've been too busy to go to the store. But I pried out the multitool can opener, threw in an extra egg, and the pie was okay.
Having a yard sale, you meet interesting people. The nicest folks are the ones who buy something old or pretty with no resale value, just because they like it. It's also great to sell clothing to someone who walks away wearing it. The worst people are the predatory eBayers who find the most screaming good deal in the entire sale and try to offer you even less. And the most pathetic buyers are obsessively fixated on one rare category of thing that is likely to be underpriced. When they don't find their constricted desire, they always ask if you have it inside the house and somehow haven't put it out.
I was struck by the personality differences between people buying stuff to use themselves, and people buying stuff to resell. Does money make us a little bit demonic, or does it merely attract people who are already that way? I like to think this would be cured by an unconditional basic income, but it wouldn't. Even people guaranteed comfortable survival can still get caught in the game of trying to turn a pile of abstract tokens into a larger pile.
August 14. There was a cool link on the subreddit yesterday about flying humanoid sightings over Chicago. Long before I was into social philosophy, I was into the paranormal, and it's probably the subject on which I know the most compared to the average person.
By now you've all seen that photo of the car running into protesters on Saturday. Its licence plate: GVF 1111. The number eleven appears strangely often in the context of... I want to say "weird stuff", but I haven't seen any weirdness in the car attack. It's more like, whatever uncanny power has its fingers in UFO's and monster sightings, also takes an interest in political spectacle. The 9/11 event also has some elevens, with both towers having 110 floors plus a 110 meter antenna, and irreconcilable reports suggesting two different flight 11's from Boston.
So I consider "conspiracy theory" a branch of the paranormal, but I don't imagine evil gods pulling strings. It's probably just our own collective subconscious playing games with us. And I haven't found any practical use for this stuff. Scientists are right to exclude the paranormal from science, because it cannot be reliably duplicated. But it would be wrong to exclude it from reality.
Our culture divides the issue into two rigid camps: the skeptics, who think it's all hoaxes and careless observations, no more real than Harry Potter, and the believers, who think it's as real as the Empire State Building, and sooner or later we will find proof. But the phenomena, sighting after sighting, year after year, relentlessly refute both positions.
My position: there is no thing or non-thing that is completely objective or completely subjective, no edifice on which all observers can sustain perfect agreement, and no dream on which two perspectives can't collaborate. "The Paranormal" is just what we call that segment of reality that reminds us of this continuum by refusing to be classified on one side or the other.
August 10. When I was traveling with my sister in Michigan, we talked about retirement, and she wondered: even though she has way more assets than me, plus a pension and Social Security which I won't be getting, why am I less worried about running out of money when I'm old?
I thought of a few answers, but the best single answer is that I have experience living two notches above the gutter. I've done it before, and I know I can do it again. Even if I don't have friends or family to help me out, I could rent a tiny apartment in some rust belt city, ride public transportation, get online at the library, eat bulk pinto beans and homemade bread, and still have enough money for small luxuries like pastured butter and Ardbeg Uigeadail.