"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
June 15. And some doom links. A week ago on reddit there was a suicide prevention megathread, full of sad stories and a few happy stories from people who were close to suicide and turned it around. I've never seriously considered suicide, but I can relate to this: "a lot of suicidal people don't want to kill themselves, they just want to stop existing." If life suddenly became like a video game, where you could just quit without hurting anyone or leaving a mess, I think a billion people would be gone within a month.
In a thread about economics, this long comment argues that market-driven reforms have increased social instability and led to greater incidence of anxiety, alienation and depression. The conclusion: "To separate labor from other activities of life and to subject it to the laws of the market is to annihilate all organic forms of existence."
This Hacker News comment thread discusses a linked article in which researchers find IQ scores dropping since the 1970s. Are we being distracted by technology and losing our abiliy to focus? Are we dumber because computers are doing mental work for us that we used to do for ourselves? The most interesting explanation is that IQ tests are culturally biased, and have not kept up with recent changes in culture.
June 13. Some optimistic links. Research Finds Tipping Point for Large-scale Social Change:
When a minority group pushing change was below 25% of the total group, its efforts failed. But when the committed minority reached 25%, there was an abrupt change in the group dynamic, and very quickly the majority of the population adopted the new norm. In one trial, a single person accounted for the difference between success and failure.
A nice video, Alan Watts Chillstep Mix #1.
From earlier this year on reddit: If they made a show called "White Mirror" that was about all the positive aspects of the human/technology relationship, what would be the plot of certain episodes? Lately I've been thinking about therapy bots, AI's that can talk people through metacognition and changing their mental and emotional habits. On the one hand, AI is still really clunky for that kind of thing, but on the other hand, old-timey Freudian psychotherapists would just listen and reframe the patient's talk into new questions, something that AI's have been doing for decades, and sometimes that helped.
Related: Ask Hacker News: Is there a new habit you cultivated recently that is really paying off? I've been doing a few things lately that seem to be helping. One thing is going two or three times a week to a weight room and swimming pool. That practice is rubbing off on the rest of my life, so now when there's some little thing I don't feel like doing, I frame it as a "workout" and push through it more easily.
I'm also using a crazy practice to deal with anxiety, where a couple times a day I'll relax, close my eyes, and "turn up the volume" -- try to feel that fear as long and as hard as I can. In theory, we should be able to burn out on pain just like we burn out on pleasure, and it seems to be working. Here's a bit of verse from a creative project I haven't made public yet: "If you want to fly / You must love your fear / As you fear to die"
June 11. Big thanks to Jordan and Ryan, who were here over the weekend to interview me for a documentary. It was strange hanging out with people who seem interested in everything I say, and never disagree. That must be what it's like for dictators and billionaires, or anyone famous enough to have an entourage. Over the long term that has to be mentally unhealthy, and I'm not sure I didn't go a little nutty in just a couple days.
On day one I wore a tie-dye shirt and talked about roots, carefully ruminating on my deep history and my early writings. Then on day two I wore my picbreeder spacewalk t-shirt and raved about musical obsessions and my insane sci-fi: "Thereafter I yearned to make every paragraph doubly incomprehensible!"
I told Jordan hopefully that someday people will be obsessed with my fiction, but I have no way to know that. I've written stuff that I, as a reader, would be obsessed with, but I don't know if my own taste has wandered so far into the wilderness that its relics will never be found.
Here's a funny coincidence. My friend Carey mentioned an obscure cult novel called The Golden Book of Springfield, so I'm reading it. Jordan mentioned an obscure cult novel called A Voyage to Arcturus, so I'm reading that too. The former was written by Vachel Lindsay and published in 1920, and the latter was written by David Lindsay (unrelated) and published in 1920.
June 7. The dying breed of craftsmen behind the tools that make scientific research possible. It's about one retiring glassblower, but this problem goes deeper and wider. From the Hacker News comment thread:
We see this scarcity in other industries that require traditional master/journeyman/apprentice systems, like master machinists, masons, or plasterers. That there are no baseline jobs, like light bulb manufacturing in glassblowing, that allow a sufficient pool of talent to acrue so that the very best, the "10x" artisans, can be found. That pool also gives a fallback so that people who are trained but do not possess the talent or dedication to become masters can still be gainfully employed.
This goes back to mechanization. Supposedly, mechanized manufacturing allows tedious labor to be done by machines. But making stuff by hand is not unrewarding -- it was made unrewarding by an economic system designed top-down for profit, not bottom-up for people to continue enjoying what they do all day. I'm not sure how hard the system has to crash to get from here to there, or how many generations it's going to take. But at the very least, as a culture, we have to stop measuring success in terms of economic growth.
Related, from the subreddit: Steven Pinker's ideas are fatally flawed. Pinker's gig is to tell beautiful lies to the neoliberal elite, linking their ideology to real improvements in quality of life that are mostly happening for other reasons.
I've stopped writing about this stuff because there's nothing any of us can do about it. But I do find it darkly fascinating that the people with real power are so out of touch.
I have visitors arriving this afternoon, so I probably won't be posting again until next week. Some good news: last week when I posted that video of sacred harp singing, I had no idea it was still going on, and there's no religious requirement to participate. Thanks Rochelle for pointing me to fasola.org.
June 5. More stray links. Michael Pollan on What It's Like to Trip on the Most Potent Magic Mushroom. He's a very good essayist and this has to be one of the best trip reports ever written. I'm envious. I microdose Psilocybe cubensis to clear the cobwebs out of my brain, but larger doses make me feel sick without any additional mental effects. I've also tried LSD, which gave me something short of the communion with nature that Pollan describes, and I've yet to have my first hallucination.
More weird stuff: a redditor interprets Terence McKenna's statement that the world is made of words.
And a thread, What's the most paranormal thing you've experienced? It turns out to be mostly about visits from dead people.
Every so often reddit will have a good confession thread, like this one, What is your secret? My favorite is from I_am_here_to_serve, who faked suicide to get away from a controlling family.
Two links confirming stuff I already suspected. Why Rich Kids Are So Good at the Marshmallow Test. The famous test seemed to show that kids who are able to delay gratification are more successful later in life. It turns out, kids from families that are already successful, are more willing to delay gratification because their world is more reliable.
Are Hit Songs Becoming Less Musically Diverse? Yes, because the process of creating popular songs has become more factory-like, with a larger number of writers on each particular song, but a smaller number of masterminds behind it all. "On the other hand, fewer barriers to entry means every aspiring artist has a chance to compete on originality, perhaps one day diminishing the outsized role of elite producers."
On that subject, my favorite band has a major new album, Big Blood - Operate Spaceship Earth Properly. It's not officially out until June 15, but the record company sent me the CD anyway, and I think it's their best album since Unlikely Mothers four years ago. They're continuing to push their music toward sharper edges around its ethereal heart.
May 31. Not a lot of ideas this week, so I'll go straight into the weekend with some sounds. With Leigh Ann's help, I recently discovered sacred harp singing. It was practiced in southern American churches in the early 20th century, and it's as raw as anything I've ever heard. I need to listen to more, but my initial favorite is Alabama Sacred Harp Singers - Windham.
Shakespeare: Original pronunciation. That ten minute video is mostly background and explanation, but you can hear good examples of the accent at 3:00 and 6:20. To me it sounds a lot like the "pirate" accent (which is largely derived from Scottish pronunciation) and a little like the accent that Vic Chesnutt sings with. In other words, totally awesome.
Finally, Guy Plays A Cat Organ. Like the first commenter, I really admire this guy's obsession: to make a bunch of stuffed cats, that make catlike sounds when squeezed, all tuned to notes, and then to practice squeezing them just right to play a song. I'd love to hear a whole album of cat organ songs. Still, it's not as mind-blowing as this version of Greensleeves on Otamatone.
May 28. Bunch o' links, starting with two from the subreddit:
Image gallery, I live in a modern EcoVillage and it's pretty much the real-world Shire. I'd like to think this is the cutting edge of some future utopia, but realistically, it's just a nice twist on suburbia.
Experience The Trippy Life Of An Ancient Redwood. Now this could actually be a cornerstone of utopia: using virtual reality to change human consciousness to understand the aliveness and complexity of nature. If this kind of understanding becomes normal, the human-made world will inevitably get better.
Great White Sharks Have A Secret Cafe. Scientists tagged sharks and noticed them going to what they thought was an ocean desert. But it turned out to be a rich and complex ecosystem, too deep in the water to be seen by satellites.
Too Clever By Half is a smart article about coyotes, who are really good at small-scale gamesmanship, but bad at the "meta-game" necessary for survival. This Hacker News comment thread has some thoughts about how this relates to the human world:
This reminds me of a turning point that I had in high school. When I was young, I would get in trouble and try to get around the rules. But at some point I realized that most of the time you aren't getting in trouble because you are breaking the rules. You are getting in trouble because you are making the rule makers unhappy. Once I had that realization I was able to focus on relationships with the rule makers and figure out what they actually cared about. This allowed me to break the rules just as much but without getting in trouble.Finally, with summer starting, another Hacker News comment thread about fan placement to move cool outside air through a warm space. Summary: it's best to have two fans at opposite sides, one blowing in and one blowing out; but if you have only one fan, blow it in, because if it blows out it will be pulling air in through nasty stuff in the cracks.
May 25. Finishing from Wednesday, thanks to everyone who gave me suggestions about dancing. I figured out that I've been overreaching, trying to do too many moves at once to songs that are too difficult. So with some help from my "instructor", I'm stripping it down to fundamentals. 1) Don't even allow my arms to move until I'm good with my feet. 2) Start with the most danceable song in the world, which is going to be different for everyone, but for me, it's Yo La Tengo's cover of the Beach Boys' Little Honda. 3) Practice moves, starting with this Northern Soul basic dance tutorial, and focus my attention to match the beat with increasing precision.
New subject, a reddit thread from yesterday: What was the worst change in a person you saw at your High School reunion? It's mostly sad but still loaded with good stories.
May 23. From Monday's post, I want to write more about dancing. When I wrote about this a few months ago, it emerged that being "good at dancing" has at least two meanings. One is that your head has trained your body to make a set of precise movements, and music is not even strictly necessary. The other is that you feel as if your body is moving to music without your head even being involved.
This has to be an illusion, because your ears are connected to your body through your brain. What's really happening, in definition-2 good dancers, is that their subconscious mind is moved by music to improvise complex body movements.
How would someone would train for this? I went to dorm dances in college, I spent a lot of time out on the floor, and I was terrible. I still try to dance at home, and I remain stuck in a rut somewhere between Thom Yorke and a seizure. My head throws all kinds of ideas at my body, but my body never finds a groove of moving on its own, except that if a song really rocks, I might feel moved to crudely hop.
More generally: How can the conscious mind lead the subconscious mind to do things that the conscious mind can't do on its own?
My strategy right now is just to practice moving my attention from my head to my body, as many times throughout the day as I remember. I've heard about people who are so body-centered that it actually feels to them like their "self" resides in their torso, and their head is like a tower or a periscope.
May 21. Fascinating Reddit thread from the weekend, People with OCD, ADHD, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dissociative personality disorder, or any other mental condition sensationalized in the media, what is it actually like? This sentence about ADHD could fit a lot of things:
It is a heinous disorder, and it leads to a life fraught with feelings of failure and inadequacy, as though we simply don't have the same capacities that other individuals seemingly inherently and nonchalantly possess in spades next to our pittance.Diagnosing myself, I have a shred of OCD: when I go up or down stairwells, I have to overrule the urge to counter-spin at alternate landings so that my left and right turns balance out. And I have something like ADHD hyperfocus, in that it's easy for me to focus narrowly, and hard to focus widely or even not-narrowly. When Leigh Ann and I are watching stuff, she's always telling me to move the cursor off the screen, because for her it's an annoyance, while I've just tuned it out.
May 18. Music for the weekend. Long, slow, simple, heavy, and luminous, this is one of my favorite songs of the decade: The Rutabega - Turn On The Summer.
May 16. Why does Laurel sound like Yanny? Someone has discovered an audio clip that makes different listeners hear radically different vowels and consonants. I hear Laurel and not Yanny no matter how hard I listen. It works because different people's ears are tuned to different frequencies, and Laurel is lower pitched than Yanny. If the pitch of the whole thing is dropped, then Laurel falls out of my range and Yanny falls into it, and I hear... well, more like Yammy.
Now I'm wondering how many other things are like this. My favorite song sounds terrible to almost everyone, and the explanation probably goes beyond mere taste, and into what sounds make it through to our brains.
In politics, there's a thing called a "dog whistle": words that sound innocent to most people, but send a message to a particular subculture. Donald Trump is like a dog-whistle savant. He's gone beyond words to craft an entire persona that whistles "salt-of-the-earth statesman" to some people and "authoritarian ass-clown" to others. Like a motor that runs from the positive and negative poles of a battery, he is using the tension between two American perceptual filters to drive his career.
More generally, in an information landscape in which everyone sees everything, whether it's a presidential debate or a family dinner, the real action is on the level of subtext: messages encrypted not by math but culture, not by frequency but "vibe".
As our tech system moves toward dystopian universal surveillance, we'll just get better at hiding in plain sight.
May 14. Back to the inner world, two different readers have reported getting a lot of help from this video and other videos by the same guy, Joe Dispenza. He basically does motivational talks for metacognition: getting inside your head and changing deep habits. If I had to distill his instructions to one point, it would be to aggressively practice observing, thinking, and acting differently than you normally would.
He also has this interesting line: "We don't pray in this work to have our prayers answered; we get up as if our prayers are already answered." Now, that could be bad advice, if you're praying for some practical benefit and acting as if it's true when it's not. But I thought of another way to twist it. Imagine that there are many versions of you living in multiple timelines, and just this moment, an alternate "you" has shifted into your life, and for reasons you don't remember, that other you was asking for just exactly the situation that you're in right now.
This takes some imagination and practice, but it's basically a way of hacking gratitude and being fully present. I've also been practicing a different move with similar results, and it's hard to do it right, but if I remind myself that I'm going to die, it can make the present moment feel precious, and can also sweep away trivial fears.
Last week there was a thread on the Elder Trees subreddit, about using weed anxiety as a therapeutic process. Now, "weed anxiety" means different things, but for me, it all began about two years ago, when I started looking back at my own life with cannabis-enhanced emotional intelligence, and noticing all these mistakes I've been making. Because I'm curious, and because weed was also doing things that I really liked, I stuck with it, and for the last two years I've been cleaning up a lot of bad subconscious habits. It feels like releasing an army of auditors that cast critical eyes on my entire internal landscape. I almost look forward to it.
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 re 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. I've been thinking about how we could have unconditional basic income without everyone getting bored, and I got the idea 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.)