"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
July 20, late. So I’m not going to make it to Prague. My ticket went Bonn to Koln to Frankfurt and then a night bus to Prague, and I’m really paranoid about missing trains, but when the Bonn-Koln train was ten minutes late, I was sure I would still have time to make the transfer. I got on for a 19 minute trip, and 19 minutes later, both the display and the voice on the train said, next stop, Koln HBF. I thought even the blue sign by the tracks said it. I got off, and thought, that’s strange, this is not the right track number, and I don’t see the cathedral. I opened up the CityMaps2Go app, and it told me I was at Koln West. Did I just have my first ever full-on hallucination? The HBF was a mile away, so I hurried across the city with my bags to try to catch the next train, and happened to pass through a gathering of homeless people. It was like a Terry Gilliam movie. And when I got to the station, on the expected track number, there was a delayed train to Frankfurt just arriving.
I got on, but it turned out to be a different, much slower train. There was no way I was making that bus, so I started thinking about how I could get back to Bonn. But my train was actually stopping in Bonn - the original ticket had gone the opposite direction on the first leg to catch the fast train. So back in Bonn, I went to get off, and the door wouldn’t open! I hurried to get out another door before the train pulled away, and saw that every door except that one had opened. Going up the stairs to the street, people were gathered around a guy sprawled in his own blood.
Big apologies to Dennis, who was going to meet me in Prague tomorrow and host me. Maybe another year. So this weekend I’m going with Leigh Ann to Xanten and Mettmann, and the Neanderthal museum, then chilling in Bonn before we go to Scotland.
July 20. A reader mentions that I haven’t shown any anxiety in my travel notes, but I don’t think I’ve felt it any less. It’s just that when I’m really busy, it’s like going fast in a car. If the road gets muddy, or goes uphill, my momentum will carry me through. Of course, a bad enough road will stop any car, which is why busy people still burn out.
Then I’m thinking, probably the epidemic of depression and anxiety is even worse than it seems, and it’s being covered up by the busyness of modern life.
Side subject: drugs. You would think that LSD, being synthetic, would be good for watching TV and listening to complex recorded music, and THC, being natural, would be good for walking in the woods. In my experience it’s exactly the opposite. It’s like both drugs are using their human hosts to appreciate what they find most unfamiliar.
One more note. I’ve been having unlikely difficulty finding wifi, so I might be incommunicado for a while.
July 18. The first week is always the hardest... I hope. I’m now fully recovered from jet lag, I know how to read a train platform, and I know to look for Aldi and what to buy there. Last night I bought two pouch soups, a small tub of garlic butter, dried salami sticks, mixed toasted nuts, and ziplock bags. I still have bread and nectarines, which are incredibly cheap.
When I came to Europe in college, at first I did the usual tourist things, but by the end of the trip, I had figured out what I really liked to do — when I went to a museum, I went straight to the dead stuffed animal exhibits. This time, I already know that I want to get the feel of the city, look at the buildings, and then find the best park.
Maastricht is my favorite city so far. It’s a good size with a casual vibe, and lots of cool old churches. I found an awesome place called the Frontenpark. It’s a bunch of old brick ramparts that they turned into a feral nature preserve, and it’s almost deserted. Today I was going to check out Sint-Pietersberg, but instead I’m going back to Frontenpark, to just chill and picnic and rest my knee joints.
July 16. Today I’m taking a day of rest. Yesterday another reader showed me around Utrecht, the densest city I’ve been in so far. Right wingers talk about the “failure of socialism”, and I don’t know what they mean, but what I see is that socialism has failed to protect us from capitalism, when there are public squares with no place to sit down without spending money. (Later we found some benches by a beautiful canal at the edge of downtown.) It’s also really creepy that you can’t leave the train station without scanning a ticket.
But the people seem happy. They glide around on bicycles and scooters, and because I can’t tap into the subconscious not-get-hit matrix, I have to devote quite a lot of conscious attention to not getting hit. This is not because I’m a foreigner — it’s just me. I’m also constantly tinkering with my walking style to minimize joint stress, something I didn’t have to do when I was younger.
I understand now why old people go on cruises. It would be wonderful to just have a little cabin, and all my meals taken care of — except instead of a boat, I’d like the cabin to be in the woods. There must be expensive retreats that offer that, and the low budget version is to load up my bike with staples and a camp stove, ride into the mountains, and find a drinkable stream.
Tomorrow, Maastricht for two days and a night, then back to Bonn.
July 14. Today my native guide took me into surprisingly deep woods between Baarn and Utrecht. In five hours we walked somewhere between 15 and 20 kilometers. It was like a taste of heaven, and then at the end having to come back to the human zoo.
We talked about psychedelics, and he mentioned a Salvia entity who seemed surprised to encounter an intelligent creature descended from monkeys. It reminded me of a line from my novel (book 1, chapter 16).
"Monkeys!" Brillix spat. "Before time, the Swamp Mother bristled at the arrogance of the Sun, and made his children from the most incorrigible of all beasts."
July 12. I’m in Bonn, going to the Netherlands tomorrow. Everyone knows how Europe is better than America: single payer health care, abundant public transportation, streets friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists, and cool old buildings. But there are surprising ways it’s not as good. I have yet to see a free public restroom, or a drinking fountain. The buses here are honor system, and the drivers really hate taking money. I think they want everyone without a pass to cheat.
Jet lag doesn’t always make sense. It was just really hard for me to wake up from a nap, despite having slept eight of the last 24 hours, and it being a time in the pacific zone when I’m always wide awake.
So far my second biggest mistake was catching the wrong intercity train, which is really easy to do. They’re not well labeled, so the key is going very precisely by what time they come and go. Luckily it was just going to a different station in the same city. And my biggest mistake was wearing shoes that were not well broken in. To recover, I’ve had to walk around in my barefoot shoes with my heels hanging out.
July 9. So I've been dropping hints about continuing to write fiction, but I have a rule: never talk about what I'm going to write, only about what I've written. Now I can say, I've been writing book two of my novel, continuing the stories of all the same characters, plus a few new ones.
For a month I've been typing my handwritten stuff into Notepad++, and last Wednesday I spent all day putting it in order, 43 blocks of four sometimes-interlinking storylines. (It's more complex than book one, but shorter.) Friday night I spent eight hours on cannabis solving the last hard problems: finding the right words, smoothing the transitions, making the worldbuilding consistent, and writing some new stuff.
Here's the teaser page, and the complete text in html. I want to do more polishing before I convert it to other filetypes, and add more quotes at the beginnings of chapters, but it's pretty much done.
Tomorrow I fly to Europe for a month. Again, I'll have an iPad but no cell phone, so I do expect to make some posts.
July 7. Two good psychology threads from Reddit. When and what made you realize you were depressed? This comment is a good summary: "I thought that depression was a horrible, numb feeling you could instantly recognize but really I felt so tired and defeated."
And Therapists of Reddit, what's something you wish you could tell your clients but don't? There are a lot of comments about parents causing the psychological problems of their kids:
I work with a lot of parents and although I don't do counseling, I get complaints from parents about their kids in conversation. 99% of the complaints would be solved or at least manageable if the parent took a moment to honor their child as a person, recognize their child is still learning how to navigate the world, and stop seeing their child as someone who owes them something.
This makes me optimistic, because this kind of awareness is historically very new. Less than 150 years ago, there was a fad in Germany of raising kids with the explicit intention of breaking their spirits, and Alice Miller has argued, in the book For Your Own Good, that this is pretty much what made them all Nazis. Also, anecdotally, service workers report that their meanest customers are almost all old people.
So what's causing the current epidemic of anxiety and depression? Maybe it's like the decline of Rome, so complex that even historians will argue about it. My too-simple answer is this: society is best viewed as a game, and ours is not designed to be fun for actual humans, only for large concentrations of money.
Related Twitter thread: Things that happen in Silicon Valley and also the Soviet Union.
July 5. Some fun links, mostly sent by readers. But first, Redditors who live in a van, on a boat, in a cabin off the grid, in a tent or a sleeping bag, really everything except the usual 4 walls with ceiling and roof - what's your story?
Related: Houseless, not homeless: Adapting to life in tent city: "Henke said that when he had a 'normal life' with a job and an apartment, he was lonely and miserable and even considered suicide... At Tent City he has his own space and privacy and feels connected to a community of people, however dysfunctional it might be at times."
The Best of Mr. Rogers. In hundreds of years they'll look back at him as the saint of the age of television.
Check out this eight year old drummer. If I started practicing drums now, I would not be this good in eight years.
A review of an album I've been getting into lately, Life Without Buildings - Any Other City. Sue Tompkins' voice is not a melodic instrument, but a feral and bratty barrage, so impulsive that it sounds improvised, and yet so meticulously structured that it fits seamlessly with complex math-rock backing.
Finally, I've been subscribed for a while to the Imaginary Colorscapes subreddit, and this is my favorite thing I've seen there so far: Rocket Refugees by Konstantin Vohwinkel.
July 3. So I'm flying to Europe in a week. Even though I went there twice in college, I'm frightened. Paradoxically, because my social intelligence is higher now, I'm aware of more mistakes that could be made. "The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed." But it's probably like jumping into a swimming pool, where as soon as I'm there, I'll feel better.
We'll be based in Bonn. I'm going into the Netherlands, mostly around Utrecht and Maastricht, then back to Bonn, then over to Prague for a few days. Then when Leigh Ann finishes her class, we're going to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Berlin, Munich, and home. Glasgow is the only place where we'll have a lot of time.
Travel is cheaper than I expected. I just bought a round-trip train-bus ticket from Bonn to Prague for $88 from GoEuro.com. And my plane ticket was much less, adjusted for inflation, than it was 30 years ago. Or think of it this way: in 1987, a round trip from Seattle to Frankfurt cost two months of Seattle rent. Now, it's half a month.
I don't like to be super-busy, so instead of trying to see the attractions in every city, I'll probably just want to putter around the streets and chill in the hotel room. I'm trying to do this without a phone, and also without bringing my laptop, but I did buy an iPad so I can get online, and I expect to have time to make some posts.
July 2. Three Ask Reddit threads. What was the weirdest thing you felt/saw when on drugs? There's a lot more of this stuff in the Erowid Experience Vaults. I seem to be resistant to heavy tripping, but my LSD trip has permanently changed me to see more beauty in nature.
What's the most intelligent thing you've witnessed an animal do? My favorite is this one about a raven asking a hiker for water.
Senior citizens of reddit, what were the elderly like when you were kids? Lots of stuff here, but the main thing I take from it is that old people used to smoke and drink and sit around, and now they're more likely to be healthy and active.
June 28. In an email conversation about anxiety, I wrote: "What is anxiety even good for? Did it help our nature-based ancestors? Maybe it caused a few of them to panic and get eaten by lions so the others could get away."
I would think anxiety is the body's emotional intelligence stating that something is not right. And still not right. And still not right.
In a traditional society, this might mean lions are near, but I feel anxiety is more of an ongoing, cumulative conversation of our bodies with our natural surroundings. When you live in a dying ecosystem, how are you supposed to feel? When you live in a story that no longer makes sense, how are you supposed to feel?
The other day I figured out that my anxiety is 100% social. If a plague killed everyone in the world except for me, I would become fearless. Even though I would be much more likely to be killed by wild dogs, that danger does not fill me with dread -- it feels like an adventure. On a deep level, I understand the danger of wild dogs and how to face it.
But if I have to call an insurance company, or go into an auto parts store, or cross a national border, those are all Kafka nightmares, with layers upon layers of stuff that I don't understand, and can get in trouble for not understanding, with vague punishments that might lead to even deeper dreadful worlds.
June 26. Three related links. Why China doesn't dominate soccer despite dominating olympic sports with its massive population and heavy training. The author argues that authoritarian nations are always bad at soccer because success comes from creativity and improvisation. By the way, Leigh Ann and I are watching almost every World Cup game, and I started out neutral, but now I'm cheering for Croatia, and also for whoever comes out of group H.
The Real Reason for Germany's Industrial Expansion back in the 19th century: no copyright law. I support the total abolition of copyright. The counter-argument is that nobody would do anything original if they couldn't make money from it; but I think, if the people motivated by money contributed nothing to society, we could still thrive on the contributions of people motivated by altruism and the intrinsic joy of creation. Of course this is all hundreds of years in the future.
Has the quest for top-down unification of physics stalled? The deeper physicists look, the farther they get from a grand unifying theory. I think physicists have made a false assumption on the level of metaphysics. They think they're asking a dead universe for hard-coded truth, when really, the source of the answers is alive, and making up the answers on the fly, sometimes just to toy with us.
June 23. I'll be too busy to post on Monday. Over on my Favorite Songs page, I've just posted a new flagship playlist that I've been working on for months, where I tried to put a bunch of my favorite songs in chronological order and still have it flow well from one song to another. I know I should eventually get on Spotify, but I haven't got around to it, and I think some of these songs aren't on there. The last two aren't even on YouTube.
June 21. Of course, as soon as I write about running out of ideas, I have a ton of ideas. Following up on yesterday's subject -- our internal voices that mediate our experience -- Matt mentions something that hadn't occurred to me: "Religions could be understood as asking everyone to manifest the same sub-personality inside themselves."
I was raised Catholic, and even though the priest talked about nuclear disarmament, and the nuns wore normal clothing, and hippies sang the hymns, and I no longer believe in a human-shaped deity, I still have that voice that says: if I don't do the right thing, it will go badly for me.
Last summer I went back to Michigan to visit family, and noticed something: my dad's brothers and sisters are almost all still serious Catholics, but almost none of their kids are. I think it has something to do with television.
Does television do a better job than religion at guiding human behavior? My first thought is, of course it does! Look at all the terrible things that religion has told people to do, and the worst thing TV tells us is that happiness comes from material wealth. But then you could go meta, and say that the worst thing TV tells us is that a hypnotic and distraction-saturated sound-and-light show is a good guide for how we should live. (The internet is too much for this post.)
I'm not completely joking when I say that my religion is Gilligan's Island, with a touch of Hogan's Heroes. We're in a difficult place, and we want to go home, but we have to stay here for a while, among other people with diverse personalities and skills, and have some crazy adventures.
There was a good AskReddit question a few weeks back: If you could make a TV show, with five characters from five different shows, who would you pick? My answer at the moment: Walter Bishop from Fringe, Missy from Doctor Who, Andy from Parks and Rec, River from Firefly, and Vod from Fresh Meat. Next five: Mr. Spock, Chad Radwell from Scream Queens, and going outside television, Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter, and two musicians, Kim Shattuck and Calvin Johnson. I don't know if those are the voices in my head, but they occupy the same general personality-space as the characters in my fiction.
June 20. After the last post, a couple people said they want me to keep doing the blog and they don't even care what I write about.
Yesterday I vaped some cannabis, and despite having just taken an eight day break, the high had no spiritual value. I'm not going to try to explain what that means. But it did have some intellectual value. I realized that sports announcers, political pundits, internet comment threads, and the chorus in ancient Greek theater, are all doing the same thing: using a stream of words to moderate the interface between experience and understanding, or breaking down a complex external world into mental artifacts that are more manageable.
And then I thought: don't we all do the same thing inside our heads? It's like, on a barely conscious level, we all have a "broadcast booth" or a "news desk" where several sub-personalities sit and pass judgment on what's good or bad, what's important or unimportant, what you want or don't want. And it's possible for us to reprogram those personalities to behave differently.
The word "meditation" points to at least two different practices. One is metacognition, where you turn your attention inward to that normally unnoticed machinery. But who are "you"? If you're tinkering with the voices in your head, then what still unexamined voice is doing the tinkering? And who examines that voice?
Another meaning of meditation is to try to completely silence the internal commentary, what Buddhists call the "chattering monkey". Now I understand why that's important. Because if you don't completely stop the chatter, your metacognition might play out like revolutions in Haiti, with one autocrat overthrowing another and never getting anywhere.
I think this question has an answer, but I don't think it can be put into words: if you completely stop the chatter, what's left?
June 18. After fourteen years of doing this blog, I might be finally running out of steam, as I focus on other kinds of writing. Fiction writers are sometimes divided into storytellers and stylists. At one extreme you've got Dan Brown, a great storyteller and a bad stylist. At the other extreme you've got James Joyce, a great stylist whose storytelling (in his novels) is not incompetent but aggressively unreadable. It's interesting that the literary establishment lionizes stylists and despises storytellers, a value system that to me seems completely arbitrary.
In my fiction, I aim to maximize the power and density of both storytelling and style (and also worldbuilding). This book excerpt, Breaking Up with James Joyce, is about people who have spent decades struggling with Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake. It's like his goal was to tease readers but never satisfy them. My goal is to intensely satisfy readers who put in the time, so not only is the second reading better than the first, the tenth will be better than the ninth.
Last weekend for my visitors I read aloud from a work in progress, and Jordan asked if I can think of anyone else who writes like me. I didn't have a good answer then, but now I do. I love to stack up mouth-heavy words like late-1950's Sylvia Plath. My favorite line from her is "the spindrift raveled wind-ripped from the crest of the wave." I try to write like that all the time. Last month I was watching an English Premier League match, and sat up in awe when the announcer spoke this perfect gem: "A welcome respite for the men in red."
In storytelling, I like to push the plot hard and fast. Raymond Chandler said something like: when the story starts to get boring, have a man come through the door with a gun, and figure out later why he's there. But because I'm writing sci-fi, the man with a gun can be a warptube cracking, or an AI leveling up, or reality itself shifting to another track. Of course Philip K. Dick did that, maybe most exuberantly in The Game Players of Titan, but the vibe of my landscapes and storylines is more like the psychedelic adventures of Roger Zelazny.
Some readers have mentioned similar stuff, and the closest I've seen so far is David Lindsay's 1920 novel A Voyage to Arcturus. That link is the full text online, and here's an article about it from this year, One Long Discomfort. Lindsay's worldbuilding is even weirder than mine, and his plot moves even faster, but his emotional tone is more puritanical and nightmarish, where mine is more hedonistic and dreamy.
A line from Lindsay's dialogue: "For him, in his sullen purity of nature, all the world was a snare, a limed twig. Knowing that pleasure was everywhere, a fierce, mocking enemy, crouching and waiting at every corner of the road of life, in order to kill with its sweet sting the naked grandeur of the soul, he shielded himself behind pain. This also his followers do, but they do not do it for the sake of the soul, but for the sake of vanity and pride."
And a line from mine: "Those squirrels are so far upcogged that they only fight over style. Here their nests are like pagodas, but in the east they're spherical, and at the quarrelsome boundary both designs are tested for strength. Because they keep their birthrate sub-capacity, they have so many spare nuts that they use them as feed for breeding extravagant caterpillars."
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.