"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
November 10. On yesterday's subject, there's a subreddit thread with some good thoughts, including a link to this scientific article, Running Amok: A Modern Perspective on a Culture-Bound Syndrome.
A more poetic article on the Amok phenomenon, which I've linked to before: Every Five Seconds an Inkjet Printer Dies Somewhere. And an article on how anti-terror urban design can also make cities more livable, by physically blocking vehicles from pedestrian spaces.
November 9. Just a quick thought on the latest mass shooting. Despite the gunman's long history of violence, he was not in any FBI database. Meanwhile, I'm sure their database is full of harmless Muslims. The mistake they're making is to see the world as an ideological battlefield, in which the danger comes from beliefs. Really the danger comes from mental illness, and ideologies are just tacked-on rationalizations for crimes that people are going to do anyway when they get deep enough into pain and anger.
It's an easy mistake to make, because ideology is easier to track, to pin down, to wrap your head around. Mental illness is getting more common and more severe, and I'm not sure why. But it wouldn't surprise me if mass shootings become so normal that the deaths are almost invisible, like car crashes, and we only hear about the really big ones.
November 7. I just spent four days in Florida for Leigh Ann's brother's wedding. Her family is fun, we had a good time, and I did not bring my computer. Catching up, I see there was a lot of action on the subreddit, including this thoughtful article about Ted Kaczynski, Waiting for the End of the World.
I read two books on the trip, Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America by Cabeza de Vaca, and Earth Abides, the classic 1949 postapocalypse novel by George R. Stewart. It was ahead of its time in many ways, but Stewart makes a choice that seems strange to me: the protagonist is the only character in the entire novel who wants to rebuild civilization. Everyone else is content to live off abundant canned food and wild game, and human culture shifts toward the people you find in anthropology books, hunter-gatherers and horticulturists who have never encountered civilization.
To be fair, I believed this myself until around 2008: that our paleolithic ancestors were an evolutionary attractor, as stable as sharks. Now I think they were a stage in a steady and accelerating movement toward greater social and technological complexity, which has brought changes in human nature. So even after a global hard crash, given all the surviving materials and books, we would rebuild a high-tech society much faster than we did last time.
But just lately, now that I'm thinking in terms of a collective subconscious, I'm wondering if that's what it wants. Maybe part of our motivation to build this world was its novelty. Now if it crashes, we'll be like "been there, done that," and instead of doing the same kind of thing again, we'll turn our big brains to something so different, that when space aliens do it, we see no evidence of their existence.
There's another thing in Earth Abides that never occurred to me: even the survivors of a deep crash might die out from shock, because they just can't wrap their heads around a post-crash world. But in this way, we're much better off than our grandparents, because we've all seen postapocalypse fiction. We'll be like, "This isn't what I expected from playing Fallout or watching The Walking Dead, but it's close enough that I can figure out what to do."
November 1. I will probably not be posting again until the middle of next week. Today, a bunch of stray links.
Critical Shower Thoughts is a subreddit for ambitious questions and answers on various political and philosophical subjects.
And a few more from reddit. This comment tells the story of how Keith Jarrett recorded a classic solo piano album when he was forced to adapt to a crappy piano. It reminds me of another musical story, from the PBS Rock and Roll documentary, where some other band found the exact mixing board that New Order used for their landmark hit "Blue Monday", and they expected it to be intuitive and easy to use, but it turned out to be painful and difficult. There's a saying, "Genius emerges from constraint."
An inspiring thread about secret employee nests.
And a more inspiring thread, What's the story about the person you once met in a day and you never saw again, but marked you for the rest of your life?
On the subject of how much room there is for the world to get better, The scientists persuading terrorists to spill their secrets, showing how winning trust works much better than torture. I think the reason there's still so much torture, is that the torturers enjoy it. Also, in a dictatorship, the dictator enjoys the thought that his enemies are suffering -- and in a democracy, sometimes the public enjoys it.
Another example of how much room there is for the world to get better, The Grain That Tastes Like Wheat, but Grows Like a Prairie Grass.
And a great trippy gif, The view from under the tap.
October 31. I'm breaking from my normal MWF posting schedule because I'll be traveling this weekend and not posting Friday or Monday, and also because today is Halloween and I want to continue on woo-woo stuff.
A reader sends this great Cormac McCarthy essay, The Kekulé Problem. Kekulé was the chemist who dreamed the circular structure of the benzene molecule, and the problem is: why did his subconscious show him a snake eating its tail, instead of saying the words "it's a circle"? From there, McCarthy launches into some fascinating thoughts about language and the brain and human prehistory, including an obvious idea that hadn't occurred to me: the realm of the human subconscious is the realm of animal intelligence.
To this, I would add the disreputable idea that animal intelligence has deeper roots in something collective or universal. I've said before that I think our subconscious minds are linked, and now I imagine them linked on a level that also includes all other biological life.
And I have another question: Why is the subconscious subconscious? Why are we unaware of these deeper levels, so much that their very existence is controversial? Does it make sense to ask what it's like to be your subconscious mind? I think it does, as much as it makes sense to ask what it's like to be a cat. So why are we separate from that being?
I think it's because our conscious minds are embryonic. They (we) are an appendage not yet fully developed, and as we develop, we will gain more understanding of the mind beneath us, and our place in it, just as babies discover the physical world.
What kind of world is it? In horror fiction, the occult depths are hostile and predatory, while in New Age writing, they're soft and warm. I have a vision that I call Happy Cthulhu. Suppose that H.P. Lovecraft got an unusually clear glimple of a deeper reality, but its riotous aliveness overwhelmed his Victorian mindset, and he projected evil on something benign. It's like when you hear a challenging song for the first time, and it sounds like terrible noise, but after enough listens, it becomes beautiful.
October 30. Another link from the subreddit, a long article covering space aliens from many angles, including how they've been imagined, what they might really be like, and why we haven't found any yet. The latter is called Fermi's Paradox, and I've developed an unpopular solution, lately enhanced by the argument in this article that matter is like software and consciousness is like hardware.
I think we will never find alien life more advanced than lichens and mushrooms, because in terms of consciousness, Earth is the center, and this physical universe is just for us, building itself outward as we examine it, through some combination of our own beliefs, and deeper constraints that we don't understand yet. We will not find another universe-constructing consciousness ("intelligent aliens") because they'll be at the mind-center of their own universe.
When these universes touch, we don't recognize it because we are culturally blinded by our philosophical division between objective and subjective. An alternate model, that better fits our experience, is to view objective and subjective as the unreachable poles of a spectrum. (You could say nothing is completely real or unreal.) Only within our own physical universe can we approach the objective pole, and find proof, which means that almost all perspectives can see something pretty much the same way.
Contact between universes is by nature so far from the objective pole that it can never be proven, but also far enough from the subjective pole that we find correlations and agreements in our experience. Basically, alien contact is what we call "the paranormal", and it happens all the time, but our intellectual authorities don't recognize it because they hold inter-universe experience to the same near-objective standards as intra-universe experience. (See George Hansen's The Trickster and the Paranormal for a book-length survey of the idea that phenomena can actively hide from proof.)
Also on the subject of aliens, thanks Jed for sending me a pdf of a 1966 novel by Jack Vance, oddly published when he was the same age that I am now. He wanted to call it Nopalgarth but the publisher called it "The Brains of Earth." I don't want to spoil the plot, but the basic idea is brilliant: that our entire species could have a mental parasite that exists on a level we're not aware of, and they work together to influence us for their own benefit. This fits the "bubble" phenomenon I wrote about a couple weeks ago, where certain personalities can consistently attract the same kind of circumstance with no conscious awareness of how it's happening.
October 26. Video posted yesterday to the subreddit: Yuval Noah Harari on the myths we need to survive. This is the first I've heard of this guy, and he seems to be a major new public intellectual. I like what he says about human history, but I'm not sure about his framing of stories.
It's funny because on the one hand, he's really good at seeing through stories and breaking them down, like how the Indian caste system keeps the descendants of ancient conquerors in power for no good reason. On the other hand (and I hope I'm wrong) he never says, "If everyone in the world had my awareness of stories, we would no longer do such stupid things." What I'm afraid he's saying is: "Ordinary people can never be the masters of stories like us smart people, so it's our job to make sure they have the right stories."
I imagine a society where all citizens are fully aware of their own mental machinery, where someone like Hitler has zero followers, where stories are like tools that we pick up and put down at will, but our default state is to be empty-handed. Under these conditions, I think a good society would not only be possible -- it would be inevitable.
This is part of my general shift in focus over the years, from social rules to deep psychology. I think almost everyone in the world is still mentally ill from thousands of years of authoritarian culture. I think demonic possession, while not literally true, is a useful metaphor for most of us. I think if somehow we could all get really good therapy, then in only a hundred years our descendants would look back at us in horror -- and they would still have a lot of room to get better.
Barely related, this was a good day on Ask Reddit. My two favorite threads: High functioning depressed people, how do you get through it? And a repeat of a classic question, What secret could really fuck your life up if it got out?
October 25. In the last post, when I mentioned "absolutist thinking", that's basically the same thing I've called "ideological thinking" and "mythical thinking" in the past. A more precise definition would be: stories about the world that are seductive because 1) they're very simple, and 2) they're value-loaded. General examples would be "This thing is completely bad/good," or "This thing is the cause/cure of everything bad." Specific examples would be "Religion is the root of all evil" or "This parasite purge will cure all diseases."
I don't want to say this kind of thinking is completely bad. It can be a valuable gateway to enter a new subject, and then you just have to not get stuck there, but continue to explore the subject's depth and complexity. The reason it's connected to underground culture is that people on the fringe have no power. They don't find out their beliefs are too simple because they never get a chance to test them, and nobody corrects them because nobody cares what they think.
Absolutist thinking is also common at the other extreme, among people who have too much power. They don't find out their policies are harmful because the harm happens out of their sight, and nobody dares to tell them they're wrong.
So here's a speculative theory of social collapse: As economic and political power becomes more unequal, more people are at the extremes, where they can get away with seductively simple beliefs. So these beliefs become more common, more influential, and more destructive.
October 23. On a tangent to last week's "bubble" subject, I noticed something about drug advice. Everyone on prescription antidepressants has the same story: "I tried some that didn't work, and then I found the one that works." Knowing this, nobody says "Zoloft worked for me and not Prozac, so everyone should use Zoloft and not Prozac." And yet this is exactly what people say about marginally illegal mind-altering drugs like cannabis or DMT or psilocybin. It's like there's a connection between underground culture and absolutist thinking.
I'm not feeling smart today, so that's all I've got for my own thoughts. But here are two doom links. First a reddit thread from two weeks ago, What product is objectively better to buy used, because it is not manufactured in the same quality anymore?
And a great analysis of the decline of the publishing industry, Why the Seattle Mystery Bookshop Must Close.
October 20. Continuing on speculative metaphysics, I just wrote this in an email:
People think that the physical universe might not be physically real, just a simulation inside a computer. But really, the physical world is the simulation. Our bodies are avatars in an invented world made of atoms and space and time.
This idea fits with this article I linked 11 days ago, which argues that matter is like software and consciousness is like hardware. Of course, we still don't know the function of this world, in the context of the world that underlies it. People come back from altered states of consciousness with confident answers to this question, but I prefer to leave it open.
Moving on to music, this is one of the best albums of 2017, The Moonlandingz - Interplanetary Class Classics. It's basically really good post-punk with a dash of space rock, and it's a good example of how I think music is evolving. It's more densely creative than the best post-punk of 1980, but it will never have as large an audience.
I've thought a lot about why there is so little overlap now between popular music and good music, and I think it's because of technology. In the old days, there was only one path between musician and audience, and that path held a constant struggle between creativity and blandness. Now, with affordable home recording and internet distribution, there are so many paths that highly creative music doesn't have to reach for popularity, and popular music doesn't have to take risks.
October 18. On a tangent from the last post, a reader sends this Slate Star Codex post from earlier this month, Different Worlds. Scott Alexander covers many angles of something I've noticed myself for a long time: we all have a particular "aura" or "bubble" that makes other people behave a certain way around us, and it's completely subconscious. He mentions how his own therapy patients never have emotional meltdowns, and traces it to his "Niceness Field, where people talking to him face to face want to be more polite and civil."
Later he mentions serial abuse victims:
I know people who have tried really hard to avoid abusers, who have gone to therapy and asked their therapist for independent verification that their new partner doesn't seem like the abusive type, who have pulled out all the stops -- and who still end up with abusive new partners. These people are cursed through no fault of their own... Something completely unintentional that they try their best to resist gives them a bubble of terrible people.
I've noticed a few things about my own bubble. Women either find me unattractive, or they want a serious relationship. People see me as benign and harmless, like a puppy -- except that border guards sometimes go to the opposite extreme, and give me more shit than any other educated white person. When I traveled in Europe, everyone in Madrid looked like they wanted to kill me, but this did not happen to me in any other city, or to other travelers in Madrid. At parties, I do my best to be normal and blend in, but people tend to feel uncomfortable and drift away from me.
I think it's possible in theory for us to change our bubbles, but much harder than it seems, because they go so deep. There's a philosophy, epiphenomenalism, that thinks consciousness is just powerlessly floating on a sea of mindless physics. I think we're almost powerlessly floating on a sea of unknown mind -- habits and motives that are so deep and vast and interconnected that it's like a secret subconscious civilization. It's like we're characters in a reality TV show, in a controlled simulated world, but the masters are not space aliens, or future humans with virtual reality. They're inside us.
October 16. A couple days ago, this reddit thread asked What activity or hobby is so filled with hateful people that it puts you off trying it? And it occurred to me that the bad people described in the thread probably think of themselves as good people. Overweight people know they're overweight, bad spellers know they're bad spellers, physically sick people know how they're sick, depressed people know they're depressed -- and yet there are mental and emotional pathologies that hide from their carriers.
If toxic people don't know they're toxic, then how can any of us be sure that we're benign? If "bad people" experience themselves as good, then we're not talking about "character" -- something I increasingly don't believe in. We're talking about understanding.
I've been thinking, if I had one wish, I might wish that what I feel like doing, and what's good for me to do, would always be the same thing. But if that were already the case, how would I even know? How would I identify that one reliable voice among all the other voices, both rational and intuitive, that are fallible?
Last week, with the cognitive boost of cannabis, I thought about those cartoons where someone has an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, giving them conflicting advice. If it were really that simple, you could just follow the angel voice all the time. Those characters do not represent true right and wrong, but human value systems, which are always imperfect. I jotted this: "There is no possible set of rules to tell the angel voice from the devil voice, because logic can't know what the angel is, or keep up with the devil's masks."
Because our value systems are imperfect, the devil can be right. "It's okay to have sex for fun. Smoke some weed now and then. Butter is good for you." What else was the devil right about?
Then I realized, we're living in a postapocalypse society. It was a moral apocalypse, and it happened in the 1960's, when all kinds of standards and rules got thrown out the window, and fifty years later we're still fumbling for replacements.
But you could say the same thing about modernity (see Morris Berman's The Reenchantment of the World), or agriculture (see James C. Scott's new book Against the Grain) or even the taming of fire (see John Livingston's Rogue Primate). We're a postapocalypse species.
October 13. More sports. I saw a reddit thread asking: what does America do better than other countries? Off the top of my head I had nothing, but a few days later this came up: American pro sports leagues have rules to maintain parity -- not perfectly, but enough that you can never be sure what crappy team might be great this year. Meanwhile, European sports leagues are ruled by behemoths who buy the best players and are boringly dominant forever.
It's funny because Americans understand something about sports that they don't understand about society, and Europeans are hardly better. Europe is less traumatic for people at the bottom, but still lacks radical mobility.
I think it's better for a society to be like a high-parity sports league, where successful people and institutions have their freedom constrained, so they can't leverage power into the security of that power, so there's more rising and falling, more sorting by performance on equal terms. (Two semantic questions: Is my position right wing or left wing? Am I for or against economic freedom?)
And more sports! Tomorrow is the NWSL championship. I don't follow women's soccer as some kind of charity project. I follow it because it's more gritty than the men's game, and also slower, which is not necessarily bad. It's like men's soccer is pop music and women's soccer is doom metal. Here's a great article about one of the teams, NC Courage stepping out to NWSL's big dance. [Update: the game was pretty lame. Portland made thuggish fouls, and NC kept them bottled in their own end for much of the game, but Portland won because Lindsay Horan, IMO the best midfielder in the world, converted their one good chance in front of goal, while NC failed to convert several decent chances.]
And some music. A long-time reader has a new album, The Rebeliot Album. It features plinky piano, feral string-plucking, and various weird vocals.
October 11. One reason I enjoy following sports is that you can learn a lot from a world that ruthlessly and publicly tests how good people are at what they do. This sports article refutes the popular belief that you can be great at anything if you put in the work. David Sills was the best 13 year old quarterback in the world, and his ambition and work rate are off the charts. But he hit a ceiling, lacking some combination of unlearnable skills, and was never good enough to play QB above the junior college level. So he switched positions, and now he's an elite wide receiver.
The point is, our culture tells us that the path to success is to pick a goal and do whatever it takes to get there, when the better path is to try different things and follow the path of the next thing that works.
This post, The Myth of the Objective, explains it in more detail:
The world has an obsession with objectivity, but following a goalless path is subjective. Interesting paths get taken by individuals based on intuition, and other instincts. We need to respect individual autonomy, and let humans do what they are good at -- finding interesting stepping stones.
Visionaries don't see many stepping stones ahead to get to their inventions and discoveries. They see the stones that have already been laid, and realise that the next leap forward is merely one jump away.
Vacuum tubes were used to make the first computers. If you had told vacuum tube makers in the 1800s, to rather work on the much more interesting problem of building a computer, we'd probably have no vacuum tubes or computers.
October 9. Three smart links from Nautilus. Is the Hard Problem of Consciousness Connected to the Hard Problem in Physics?
Philosophers and neuroscientists often assume that consciousness is like software, whereas the brain is like hardware. This suggestion turns this completely around. When we look at what physics tells us about the brain, we actually just find software -- purely a set of relations -- all the way down. And consciousness is in fact more like hardware, because of its distinctly qualitative, non-structural properties. For this reason, conscious experiences are just the kind of things that physical structure could be the structure of.
When It's Good to Be Antisocial. It's mostly about bees: "Out of the 20,000 known species of bees, only a few are social. Some bee species have even given up social behaviors, opting for the single life. Why?" Because "socializing requires lots of energy," and it's only worth the cost in certain environments. This makes me wonder if technology could change the human environment -- if not to make socializing a bad idea overall, at least to make it unnecessary, to create more niches for introverts.
How Video Games Satisfy Basic Human Needs. This is related to the above, because a researcher identified four types of video game players, and only one prefers to socialize. But the main point of the article is that people play games to be a certain way.
"One of the best ways to beat Jigglypuff is to play very defensively. But Mango, one of the best professional Super Smash Bros players, often refuses to play that way against Jigglypuff, even if it means losing. Why? Because if he's going to win, he wants to win being honest to himself. The way he plays is representative of who he is."
Modern society is like a monster that can only be defeated by playing a very specific way that only a few people enjoy playing. The rest of us have to find the balance between "succeeding" by being who we're not, and failing by being who we are.
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.