"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
October 6. So after Leigh Ann told me that the style of my novel reminds her of James Joyce, I decided to finally dive into Ulysses. I had the idea that Joyce was pretentious, but that's not it at all. Pretentious people care what other people think, and Joyce totally didn't care. He just developed a highly personal style and did not hold back in having fun with it.
I wouldn't say I like Ulysses. If I tried to understand it, I would hate it. Instead, I make no attempt to follow what's happening, but skip the flippant palaver of the protagonists and drink the beauty of the descriptive blocks. "Across the page the symbols moved in grave morrice, in the mummery of their letters, wearing quaint caps of squares and cubes."
For the weekend, some happy links. This Tiny Country Feeds The World is about the highly efficient intensive agriculture in the Netherlands.
Teens rebelling against social media in the UK. I don't think large-scale social technology is ever going away, but it's nice that we're already trying to moderate it.
These Kinetic Sculptures Hypnotize You. I wonder how many other people in the world could do something this creative, if they had the time and the resources.
October 4. Polishing off the unhappiness subject for now, a reader recommends this podcast, The Hilarious World of Depression. I've only listened to a few, but the main thing I notice is how different everyone's story is, from each other and also from mine. I don't even want to say I have "depression" because the word is so vague and has so much baggage, and also because my condition is not crippling, merely painful. On a bad day, life feels like washing an endless sink of dirty dishes and never getting in the flow. But as another reader points out, I still have the energy to analyze and experiment.
I believe that the solution lies in practicing very precise metacognition. Even the advice to "be present" is not precise enough, because you can be present in the stream of sense experience, or in what's going on inside your head, or in the interface between the two. Yesterday I jotted down this insight: "The moment-to-moment choice of where to put your attention has a personality." It's not your deepest personality -- it's a mid-level personality that can be changed.
Two quick notes. A reader has translated my most popular essay: How To Drop Out in French.
And since Tom Petty just died, this is not his best song, but for me and a lot of people my age, this video is loaded with nostalgia: You Got Lucky.
October 2. Continuing on the subject of unhappiness, a few weeks ago there was a fascinating post on Slate Star Codex, Toward A Predictive Theory Of Depression. The idea is, depression is what it feels like when your whole nervous system (not just your conscious mind) has low confidence in its ability to make accurate predictions. "If you have global low confidence, the world feels like a math class you don't understand that you can't escape from."
Yeah, that's exactly how I feel, and I'm good at math. What I'm bad at is social intuition, the ability to do the right thing socially without having to stop and puzzle it out. I actually think I fell into a slump because I got smarter. I used to be oblivious to any social reality that was not right on the surface. Now I've become aware of vast levels of subtext, and all the mistakes that can be made, and I feel a responsibility to correctly navigate worlds where I don't feel competent.
Anyway, below the post is a long discussion thread with lots of smart stuff, including the idea that you could climb out of depression by "doing something where you are measurably, incontrovertibly increasing in capability..." which might include video games. Three good comments:
If this is correct it suggests... what many depressed people already suspect, that telling them "things aren't as bad as you make them out to be" and "you have plenty to be happy about" is actively harming them, not helping.
Failure is easy to achieve, so predicting failure is a better bet than predicting success, and the less you are willing to accept prediction failure the more you are inclined to adopt this strategy.
Depression is very different for different people with it... I am convinced that in 70 years what is currently called depression will have more than one name. For someone with a mental illness this is an exciting time to be alive. We, as a species, are learning so much about it.
September 29. Responding to the last post, there's a thread on the subreddit about the difficulty of being happy. If anyone wants to understand unhappiness better, I recommend the depression subreddit.
Update: I decided to pull the rest of today's post because I don't want this important subject to become about my personal shit. Here's another link about unhappy people, Redditors who were suicidal but decided not to kill yourself, what changed your mind?
And a long and thoughtful essay about mental illness, My Father The Werewolf.
September 27. After Monday's optimism, some doom. I saw a discussion on reddit where people were disagreeing about whether life is hard, because they weren't clear about definitions. I would break it down like this: in the 21st century first world, compared to most human societies and all wild animals, it's really easy to not die, and really hard to be happy.
If we keep going in this direction, eventually any death not from suicide will be global news. Suicide might even be normalized, so if you're above a certain age, and you say you're going to kill yourself, no one will even try to talk you out of it. Suicide may become a necessary safety valve, taking people out of the equation who would otherwise drag the system down or destabilize it.
I used to think collapse would come from physical factors like peak oil. Now I think there's no crisis we can't tackle if we're sufficiently motivated -- and we're not.
Where does motivation come from? The popular assumption is that it comes from some magical virtue that lives inside individual people. I think motivation is a matter of fit: the fit between what's in our hearts to do, and what society wants done. And right now those two things are really far apart. How many times have you heard someone say that success is about hard work and not talent? It's a big cliche, and it seems to be true, but we wouldn't need to say it so much if we didn't start by assuming the opposite.
I think in our deep ancestral environment, thriving was completely about talent -- and of course luck. There was so much overlap between what they felt like doing, and what was in front of them to do, that they didn't need the concept of "hard work". It's not that a work ethic makes you successful, but that our culture had to invent "success" to reward invented activities that hardly anyone feels like doing.
Sometimes I wonder why there are no colleges or employers that target underachievers. They could be like, "We want talented people who just seem lazy because they've never been in an environment as exciting as ours." This is the path to revitalizing our civilization, and no one is trying it. Instead everyone says the opposite: "We want people who are already highly driven, and we'll just teach them to go through the motions of doing our thing."
You know who does recruit underachievers? Terrorists, and cults, and other dangerous movements that I'm mostly against. But that's the hard logic of every human society: if it goes too far astray from human nature, the people who want to keep the game going will be outhustled by the people who want to end it.
September 25. Two links from the subreddit: The New Yorker has just covered The Case Against Civilization, and from 2011, How Hunter-Gatherers Maintained Their Egalitarian Ways. I also want to add this classic article, Preconquest Consciousness (pdf) by Richard Sorenson.
I used to write about this subject all the time, but I quit because I feel responsible to protect readers from making a sloppy logical leap into bad life advice: that we modern people can become happier by living more rural and more low-tech.
My position is harder to explain and less compelling: that we can develop something like the playful anti-authoritarian culture of the best hunter-gatherer tribes, at a high level of social and technological complexity, but we don't know exactly how yet, and it will take us hundreds of years to figure it out.
In this century, I think our best move is to change our culture and our economic rules to increasingly separate activity from money. I actually believe that creative people should not have a right to profit from their work. Because if no artist can make money, then every artistic decision will be made with total indifference to money, and we'll get better art. In the 27th century it will get better still when they crack the seduction of fame.
September 22. My big project earlier this week was putting my novel online. I'm not finished making small changes, but the translation to html and css is done, and I don't want to wait any longer to release it. There's a separate page for every chapter, and also for the dictionary, and they're all linked from this index page. I decided to go ahead and title it "Witches of the Pinspecked Void," but I haven't given up on the working title.
Update 9/26: new better pdf file, and epub and mobi files now include the dictionary. Download links are on the index page.
My illustrations are the intellectual property of Picbreeder, but the marginal starfield is a layering of two public domain images, and I'm putting the whole text under a Creative Commons license.
When I was writing it, I had no sense of how popular it was going to be, and it's actually nice that it turned out to be at the low end, because now I feel no pressure to please an audience with whatever I write next. And I expect to continue writing fiction, because now that I've developed a process that works, it's much more rewarding than writing this blog.
By the way, here's a short fiction contest that I'm probably not going to enter, and can't afford to win, but some of you might consider it. They want a story up to 5000 words on "the impacts of a basic income on individual lives and on society at large." The winner gets $12,000.
September 20. Yesterday on the subreddit there was a good article, Why are today's teens putting off sex, driving, dating and drinking? It offers two answers that contradict each other: that "a more resource-rich and secure environment" is giving kids the freedom to grow up more slowly and carefully, and that a tight economy is frightening kids into taking fewer risks.
I think it's more about technology and culture than economics. With the internet, you no longer have to be a total nerd to have a better time staying home than going out to party; and at the same time, the population is becoming more nerdy. They say kids aren't growing up, but how an "adult" is supposed to behave is a cultural invention, and it's changing.
New subject, but also about changing culture: Consciousness Goes Deeper Than You Think. The title makes it sound like we have new information, when really we have a new way of using words. We used to define "consciousness" as re-representation, the creation of a mental perspective detached from the stream of experience. Now we're defining it as the actual stream of experience, which means our representation of consciousness, created by that word, goes deeper.
September 15. Various fun links for the weekend. How Mushrooms Could Repair Our Crumbling Infrastructure:
Their idea is that fungal spores are added to the concrete when it is mixed and then lie dormant until the concrete cracks. Water flowing into the cracks causes the spores to germinate, filling the cracks with fungal fibers that trigger the formation of calcium carbonate -- which eventually fills the void.
I've been playing Windows Minesweeper for many years, and it's frustrating because no matter how good you are, you still usually get blown up when the board comes down to a guess. Finally someone has programmed a Minesweeper that doesn't require guessing: Simon Tatham's Mines.
From eight years ago, a creative reddit comment defining a Cuil as one level of abstraction away from reality. So, if you ask for a hamburger:
4 Cuils: Why are we speaking German? A mime cries softly as he cradles a young cow. Your grandfather stares at you as the cow falls apart into patties. You look down only to see me with pickles for eyes, I am singing the song that gives birth to the universe.
And some music, a great punk crescendo from last year: Cabbage - Grim Up North Korea.
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. Another teaser for my novel. 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.