"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
May 11. Not a lot of ideas this week, but I can riff off the last post, and point out that when we make the outer world less challenging, we make the inner world more challenging. If we all had to struggle to survive, then a lot of us would die; but if survival is easy, then whatever is left to struggle for is less important, and it's harder to care. If we continue on this line of progress, eventually nobody will do anything that needs to be done, and the only cause of death will be suicide.
I'm not against this -- I would love to eat from a sci-fi food fabricator and have nothing to do all day but play games and go for walks and do creative projects. My point is that it flies in the face of our deep biological history of struggling to survive, and there will be voices inside us that push for higher stakes.
The other day I had a thought about "terrorism". I don't like that word, and one reason is that it makes it all about us: the terrorists sit around thinking about our feelings and how to make us feel afraid. I think they're focused on their own feelings. They're mostly young people, from the middle class or higher, and they want life to be more interesting, so they want to believe that they're engaged in a struggle so important that it justifies killing.
Have you ever had a group of friends, or family, and you had to get away from them because they were constantly creating unnecessary drama? That's my new model of political violence: it's just people trying to suck us into their drama. My new definition of "world peace" is not a world with no conflict, but a world where you are never forced into someone else's conflict.
May 8. I was in Seattle over the weekend. It's having a problem that a lot of popular cities are having: the cost of housing is so high, that too many residents are either rich or homeless -- and both of those demographics suffer from mental illness. The difference is, homeless people are homeless because they're mentally ill, and rich people are mentally ill because they're rich.
Poverty is a smaller problem now than it has ever been, if you define problematic poverty as the percentage of humans who are suffering from scarcity. Meanwhile, more people than ever are suffering from abundance.
I want to avoid putting any kind of moral spin on this. If you count our prehuman ancestors, we've been living at the edge of scarcity for hundreds of millions of years, and only living with abundance recently, so we're still really bad at it. How well could birds fly only a few thousand years after evolving wings?
Of course culture evolves faster than biology. We've been aware of this problem for thousands of years now, and I think we'd be gaining on it if we didn't keep inventing new luxuries and comforts and choices. Maybe we're gaining on it anyway. This New Yorker article is about Japan and how they're on the cutting edge of finding subjective quality of life in this strange world.
May 4. A few more stray links. This was posted a week ago to the subreddit: A Short Lesson in Perspective, about how the creative process is distorted by money and hurry.
Lifefaker is a new site that skillfully mocks how other people's social media posts make us feel inadequate.
Sent to me by multiple readers: Stone Age people may have voyaged the Mediterranean
And some great electronic music from 1971: Mort Garson: Philosopher's Stone
May 2. A few links. This is one of the better woo-woo threads in the history of reddit, People that honestly believe they have been abducted by aliens, what was your experience like? There are lots of stories about missing time, and I believe these people are telling the truth, but I think the cause is something weirder and harder to understand than space aliens.
Gabriel sends this amazing Twitter feed, ctrlcreep. It's basically micro-scale sci-fi. Some of neotene's tweets are ideas you could hang a whole novel on, others would illuminate a sentence, but they're all interesting. It reminds me of what every writer says: that ideas are the easiest part. For me, writing is like building and steering a sailboat, and ideas are like the wind. If your sails are good, inevitably you will get more wind than you need; the challenge is to focus it into a journey.
This reddit thread, where people describe the experience of flow, makes me wonder if I've ever really been there. I can get deeply absorbed in creative work, but I've never felt the crystalline clarity, the sense of absolute competence, that some of these people describe. I've never felt like my body was doing the right thing on its own while my head just watched. At best, when I'm writing, words will just pop into my head and they're perfect. It feels great, but it also feels more like a sputtering engine than a train.
April 30. Today I'm moving from the outer world back to the inner world. After last week's posts, I heard from several introverts who said they dread any kind of group living because they're afraid they would be constantly pressured to do social activities they don't feel like doing. I think that's unrealistic. Personally, that kind of thing happened to me a lot as a teenager, but since then, hardly at all. As the people around me get more mature, they're more sensitive to my needs; and also, as I get older, I seem less like a good target for social vampires.
I know what it's like to hold onto old fears that are no longer realistic. I'm frightened to travel this summer, because I have traumatic memories of border guards hating me for no apparent reason. But they never actually detained me, and they're less likely to hate me now that I'm older.
Every time I spend money, I feel horrified that my money will run out and I'll die homeless and alone. Really I'm much less likely than the average person to ever run out of money, and I'm also better adapted to the discomforts of homelessness. But fears don't listen to reason.
Externally, my life is about as good as I could realistically expect it to be, so if it feels like an endless parade of chores, there's something wrong internally. I have to force myself to not play video games all day, and yet video games are also an endless parade of meaningless things I have to do. What's the difference?
I have a recurring nightmare, last night I had it again, where I'm walking through a maze of hallways and stairways and public spaces, trying to find a place or a thing that I've lost. I also have a less common recurring dream, that's totally awesome, and it's exactly the same except that I'm not looking for anything, just exploring.
April 27. Continuing from the last post... The biggest obstacle I see to a well-functioning basic income, is economic growth. As long as we have a growth-based economy, the basic income will just be sucked up by corporations inventing new needs for consumers, and whatever money we get, it will never be enough. Or, as long as the economy needs to grow, the basic income will feed that growth instead of feeding quality of life.
I have a new story of where humanity went wrong, and this is purely speculative, and will turn out to be at best a simplification: the first cities and large-scale societies were mostly peaceful and happy places, because the new institutions were competing for quality. The ones that people most liked living in, were most successful.
That changed when human culture took a wrong turn, and several things happened together, with connections that we don't yet understand. Two of those things were economic growth and written language. This is why quality-based early civilizations left no written records, and we're only now discovering that they existed. After that shift, social systems were no longer competing for quality, but quantity. And the way quantity beats quality is through violent conquest.
The age of quantity has fed itself for thousands of years on repression and ecocide, burning forests and topsoil and fossil fuels, and now it's running out of stuff to burn. Several pieces are already in place for a shift back to quality-based civilization: resource depletion, ecological awareness, and an anti-war global culture. The hardest thing will be retooling our economy, and the way we think about life itself, for zero growth.
The catch is, for people to give up their hunger for more, there has to be something better that's not based on numerical increase; but to build that thing, people will have to give up their hunger for more. I expect they will give it up involuntarily, and many lives will be destroyed, but the people who make it through will develop new institutions and new ways of thinking.
This is basically the same thing I was saying fifteen years ago, except now I'm imagining it with more technology and bigger systems. Still, a world without increase is more radical than it sounds. There will be no more "starter houses". A balanced investment portfolio will never grow, so nobody will want one. Business executives will not ask how they can get more customers, but how they can best serve the customers they have.
Going back to the unconditional basic income: this is my latest plan, which is purely imaginary since I have no power. The seeds of Utopia are high-end retirement communities, which exist right now. With a UBI, and Dunbar-constrained communities competing for members, that kind of world will spread to younger and poorer people, with a widening range of choices, and eventually it will move closer to nature.
April 25. Lately a lot of my ideas are coming from conversations with readers, which means this blog is not robust: I have to keep posting to keep an audience, and I have to keep an audience to keep posting. Anyway, Gabriel sends this 9000 word article about Japan's rent-a-family industry, and wonders how it would fit with an unconditional basic income. Where I see an overlap between those two subjects, is that rent-a-family addresses loneliness, and the UBI would cause loneliness. As bad as most jobs are, jobs give our lives structure when not much else does.
This is an idea I've had for a while but haven't posted yet: If we ever get a UBI, we will see the growth of reverse jobs: organizations that take your money and give you a life. It would be sort of like what we already do with rest homes for old people, except that people of all ages could sign over their government payout to a third party, who would give them food and shelter with some efficiency of scale, and also give them structured activities. Call them basic income communities.
The activities could be anything cheap, like meditation or gaming, or anything that brought in extra income, like woodworking or plant breeding. And because the workers are paying, the whole system would be turned on its head. What we have right now is an authoritarian labor market, where workers have to compete for scarce positions. There's no incentive for your employer to give you a good environment, because if you don't like it, other people are lined up to replace you. But if activities were competing for people to do them, environments would have to get good fast.
I imagine that some people would stay independent, and spend their own basic income on their own particular low-budget lifesyle. But eventually most people would try out different basic income communities until they found one that was a good fit. I would totally give up financial independence to live in modest and rustic housing, eat healthy cheap food, and hang out with people who play board games and improvise musc all day. That's Utopia, and we're pretty close to being able to pull it off. (The biggest obstacle I see, to this and many other better worlds, is that our economy is still based on growth.)
April 23. No ideas today, but Friday I remembered this film they always showed us in grade school, about a wood-carved Indian in a canoe who rides lakes and rivers to the ocean, and I tracked it down on YouTube: Paddle to the Sea.
Also, the other day there was a fun thread on the Female Fashion Advice subreddit, inspired by other threads about pants for different body types: Ladies with no corporeal form, what kind of pants do YOU wear??
And here's a new high-res video tour of the Moon.
April 20. Of course, for 4/20, I'm writing about weed. For most of the 20th century, the conventional wisdom about marijuana was that it's a demon drug that will lead to heroin and ruin your life. The new conventional wisdom comes from the show South Park: it's not that bad, but it will make you "okay with being bored" when you should be challenging yourself.
I think that's still unfair, because making boredom tolerable is not what cannabis does -- it's one of many things that it can do. If you find yourself using it for that purpose, you should take a break.
I use it for creativity, philosophical insights, and emotional intelligence, and I continue to self-experiment to find the use pattern that maximizes those things and minimizes withdrawal. Lately I've been trying larger amounts more often -- maybe a nug the size of a pinto bean three times a week, instead of a black bean twice a week. That's still a tiny amount, but I'm sensitive and my Silver Surfer is super-efficient.
Everyone knows that heavier use of anything leads to diminishing returns, but the details have been interesting. The highs have been less emotional, with hardly any psychological or spiritual value. Creativity is too close to call. And what I get more of, is things seeming better than they are. A song, a TV show, something I've written, seems like the best thing ever, and then when I come down, it falls back to being pretty good.
This pattern reminds me of some other things that I'm not going to get into right now, but it leads me to a general model of how diminishing returns play out in some contexts, or a broader theory of seeking-frequency: If you seek infrequently, you get what you need; if you seek more frequently, you get what you like, but it's less real; and if you seek too frequently, you get something bad, which is specific to what you're doing. With cannabis it's numbness.
Also, a loose end on yesterday's post. It turns out Leigh Ann was using "zone out" for two different things. One is a stable mental state of little or no thinking, and the other (which is good for driving) is broad attention focus. She also has two things she calls spiderwebbing and rabbitholing. Spiderwebbing is to hold a bunch of things in your head at once and look for connections, and rabbitholing is to look at one thing, which leads to another thing, and so on. I'm really good at that, and generally good at anything that requires narrow focus. Wide focus is something I need to work on.
April 19. Just a quick follow-up to the last post. Leigh Ann says the techniques I mentioned don't count as being in the moment because I'm still aware of some external context. We also figured out that what she calls "zoning out" is something I've never experienced, a magical mental state where you're effortlessly thoughtless and better at driving.
There are also some nice thoughts in this subreddit thread, Is Ego Bad? But it's impossible to take two steps in this subject without stumbling over language. I feel like using English to talk about "consciousness" and "the self" is like trying to do rocket science with cavemen who can only count on their fingers.
This is also making me skeptical of "meditation" -- not that it's worthless but that it's primitive. It's like everyone's mind is a different screw-head: slot, phillips, torx, square, hex. And then you read a book or go to a class where they try to use the same tool on everyone. In hundreds of years they'll probably look back at our mental health practices the way we look back at medieval medicine.
April 17. I'm feeling stupid this week, but I have a few thoughts about "being in the moment". As self-improvement advice, it's a cliche, and yet almost everyone is bad at it. I used to think being in the moment was like quitting smoking: eventually you make up your mind to just do it, and then you're doing it all the time. But it's like riding a unicycle: you do it for just a second, and then you fall, but you keep trying, and after hundreds of repetitions, you start to develop some technique.
My latest techniques involve lying to myself: pretend you've just now awakened from a long coma; pretend you're looking back on this moment from the end of your life; pretend your point of view is a video that the whole world is watching; pretend, with absolute horror, that this moment is as good as it gets.
I'm also wondering how much other self-improvement comes down to being in the moment. For example, "ego". I hate that word because it's both value-loaded and vaguely defined: everyone agrees that "ego" is bad, but no one can say exactly what it is. So here's a speculative definition: ego is holding onto a sense of who-you-are, that served you in the past, over the one that you need right now.
April 13. Fun stuff for the weekend. This new reddit thread is actually related to the serious subject of artificial intelligence: Start a text message with "I want" and then keep choosing the first suggested word after that. What does your phone think you really want? The top answer is "I want you in the same room and all you want is a good day," which describes every relationship ever.
The last few weeks I've been playing the best game in the Civilization series, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. (Buy it here.) I always play as the Gaians, and my strategy is to use lots of formers to plant forests. Anyway, I noticed something about the difficulty levels. The AI is not smart enough to do better management than a good human player, so the higher levels are made challenging by letting the opposing factions cheat and build lots of powerful military units. This means, the higher level you play at, the less the game is about subtle adjustments to make things run smoothly, and the more it's about conflict. And it occurs to me, real life is exactly the opposite.
Music! I don't know how it took me so long to discover The Lovely Eggs. They're just like my favorite band, Big Blood, in that they're a couple who started recording in 2006. But their sound is faster and goofier and more rooted in punk. Their greatest song and biggest hit is Don't Look at Me (I Don't Like It). And a really good song from their new album is Wiggy Giggy.
April 11. I'm losing interest in social critiques, and will never again write about this kind of thing as much as I used to, but here are a bunch of links that I've been putting off posting.
From the subreddit, two related articles, Storytellers promoted cooperation among hunter-gatherers, and Metaphors can change our opinions in ways we don't even realize:
When asked to come up with solutions for crime, those who read the passage with the "beast" metaphor thought that crime should be dealt with by using more punitive solutions. Those who read the passage with the "virus" metaphor thought crime should be dealt with using more reformative measures that addressed the causes of crime.
I'm thinking, who are the storytellers today? Mostly they're advertisers, giant concentrations of money that seek to get even bigger by influencing the way we think without us noticing. There are also pundits with political agendas, and a shrinking number of ethical journalists, and of course the openly fictional stories of movies and TV. Tragically, the most popular stories feature conflicts between cartoonish good and evil.
New subject, The Tyranny of Convenience:
When things become easier, we can seek to fill our time with more "easy" tasks. At some point, life's defining struggle becomes the tyranny of tiny chores and petty decisions. An unwelcome consequence of living in a world where everything is "easy" is that the only skill that matters is the ability to multitask.
I would make the argument like this: Technology saves time and labor with total indifference to whether we enjoy spending time doing certain things. It assumes that we never do -- that sitting and doing nothing while machines do the thing, is always preferable to doing the thing ourselves. Taken to its logical extreme, the message is that nonexistence is preferable to existence. A milder conclusion would be that everything useful should be done by technology. No wonder more and more people feel that life is meaningless.
The Nomad Who's Exploding the Internet Into Pieces. It's a decentralized social media system called Scuttlebutt, which hopes to solve this problem:
The 20th century saw the rise of intermediation: centralized media systems run by corporations and governments. When the web became popular, it promised disintermediation -- allowing individuals to reach one another directly, without middlemen. But harnessing disintermediation proved hard for ordinary people, and corporations like Google and Facebook discovered they could build huge wealth facilitating those interactions in aggregate.
A month ago, in the context of new evidence of benign ancient civilizations, I wrote: "If our ancestors experimented and found Utopia, how did they lose it? It's suspicious that we have no written record of a non-repressive large scale society. Did the world get fucked up by writing?" This long essay from ten years ago, The Evolution of Transformation, argues that the Greek alphabet changed human consciousness for the worse. It's a nice idea, but if it were true, I would expect China to be a better place to live than Europe.
Japan's Prisons Are a Haven for Elderly Women, who are shoplifting because they like prison better than the outside. I think this is good news, and I almost envy the lives of Norwegian prisoners. Modern society is already a constructed environment that we're not allowed to leave. Let's look at the sub-prisons for ways to make the big prison better.
April 9. I've been putting off writing about this, but one month ago I finally had a good LSD trip. A few months earlier, when I tried it the first time, I stayed home and listened to music, and it was nice, but inferior in every way to strong cannabis edibles. The second time, on the same dose, I did two things differently. The first was to vape some weed to overlap the peak of the trip. Cannabis-acid synergy is controversial, because some people get bad trips from both, but for me, the cannabis put a glow on the acid's altered perception.
The second thing I did was to go outside. Immediately I noticed how beautiful the trees were, from the whole shapes to the tiny bifurcations of the leafless twigs. I saw that nature looks like Dr. Seuss -- or really, Dr. Seuss took the weird beauty of nature and made it obvious.
There was never any distortion of senses, but I interpreted things differently. Cars in the distance seemed like tiny cars in a model. It was a trillion years in the future, the whole universe was dead, and I was getting a precious look back in time to when it was alive. I was the protagonist of a fairy tale, with such plot armor that it seemed I could do dangerous things -- but I knew this was an illusion because other people have tested it.
I sat under a footbridge watching the rapids in a stream, and understood that streams are alive. I stopped to look closely at a cluster of shriveled cloudberries, and they were more beautiful than any human art. I passed through a developed area and saw the obvious crudeness of the human-made world compared to the world that made us. It reminded me of the Heraclitus quote: "The Aeon is a child at play with colored balls."
I once saw one of Monet's wheatstack paintings in a museum and wondered: how can a painting of a wheatstack be more moving than an actual wheatstack? Now I know the answer: because we don't know how to look. If we did, the actual wheatstack would always be better. A month later, that aesthetic sense has mostly stuck with me.
April 6. Music for the weekend. There are different kinds of great songs. Some are delicate and complex, with challenging beauty that must be gradually decrypted. Other songs take simple melodies and simple words and pack them into a perfect bundle that makes you jump out of your chair on the first listen. This is a great example of the latter, from 2014: The Fat White Family - Touch The Leather. Leigh Ann and I have had it stuck in our heads all week. There's also an interesting live version.
April 4. Since the subject seems to be in the air lately, I'm going to write about getting older, in the context of how we think about society and our place in it. The cliche is that young people are rebellious and old people join the establishment, but that's not quite how it works.
When you're young, you expect people older than you to have it all figured out. So when the world sucks, it makes sense to react with righteous anger. Now that I'm old, I look at the world and think, "Those poor kids, they don't know what they're doing."
Young people are impatient. They want to see Utopia in their own lifetime. Now I think it's going to take hundreds of years, maybe thousands, before being human is even half as much fun as being a squirrel. I used to want to slay dragons and now I want to plant seeds.
Young people have lots of energy and little tolerance for complexity, so they look for meaning in things that are mentally easy and physically hard. As we get older, we learn to make ourselves happy with less energy and more subtlety. For a young person, the difference between living well and living badly is entirely in what you do. For an old person, the difference is more in how you look at it.
One thing that was not obvious when I was younger: motivation is a really hard problem. If you live a conventional life, that problem is mostly solved for you by other people telling you what to do all day, and if you're lucky, it will be stuff you want to do anyway. To the extent that you're able to do your own thing, motivation becomes your own responsibility, and I see no sign that it gets easier. Doors are always closing and opening, both out in the world and inside you, and it's a permanent challenge to keep looking and moving.
April 2. Some stray links from reddit. Here's a new thread of Mitch Hedberg lines. Other than the one at the top of this page, my favorite is "It's not the photographer's fault bigfoot is blurry."
A reader pointed me to the Maladaptive Daydreaming subreddit. What strikes me about these people is not that they're good at daydreaming, or that they spend a lot of time doing it, but that they feel like they don't control it. This is obvious, but it never occurred to me that you could apply that standard to drugs or video games or anything people do for fun: it's okay if you control it, but not if it controls you. But what is "you"? I'm getting a lot of mileage out of this definition: You are the moment-to-moment choice of where to put your attention.
From a couple weeks ago, a nice comment about meeting Mr. Rogers:
...at that age, a lot of "bad" behavior is really just a kid's imperfect way of expressing and processing big, new emotions. When Mr. Rogers knelt down to talk to me, it was the first time any adult had outright acknowledged my feelings, made me feel safe to express them, and made sure I knew that expressing them was okay.Finally, a promising new subreddit, Explain Like Caveman. Right now the questions are mostly about caveman subjects, but I look forward to people trying to explain advanced science and philosophy. Here's my caveman explanation of how a particle accelerator works: "Smash rock, make rock small. Some rock too small for eye, too big for head."
March 30. Three links from Nautilus, about what we notice and don't notice.
The Key to Good Luck Is an Open Mind:
"His research is hilarious," says Carter. "He takes people who self-define as lucky and people who don't say they're lucky, and then he puts a $20 bill in the street and the lucky people notice them and pick them up. And unlucky people don't."Scary AI Is More Fantasia Than Terminator. I would say it like this: AI will do what we tell it to do, not what we want it to do, because what we want it to do is full of all kinds of assumptions that we're not even aware of ourselves.
March 28. It all made sense when we found out we were autistic. Six women in the UK tell their stories, including some stuff about how autism diagnosis is skewed toward male traits, and women are often misdiagnosed with borderline personality disorder.
I've never been to a professional for a diagnosis, but I can relate to a lot of this. It's always seemed like everyone but me is a mind reader, like they're tuning into some broadcast that tells them the right way to do things, and they take it for granted. Not just social things. I remember the roller skating fad in the 70's, and it took me the longest time to figure it out. People said, "You just go. You just move." Really, you angle your toes slightly outward and then alternate pushing your legs to the side and picking your feet up. It's not complicated, but their minds didn't even notice what their bodies were doing for them.
This comes around to the first subject, because the "self" is just the part you happen to notice, of some larger and deeper set of habits and adaptations. You can choose to bring subconscious behaviors into the realm of the conscious, and most people can get by without doing that, but some people have to take conscious charge of subconscious behaviors to do them with any competence.
So here's my wild speculation: that "autism" is part of an ongoing evolution of humanity, in which the conscious mind is being challenged to expand its scope. A different angle: society has become so strange, that more and more bodies are failing to do the right thing automatically, and the head has to get in there to make everything work.
Related: Aliens of Reddit, what are some human things that make absolutely no sense to you?