"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
August 9. The other day when I mentioned economies collapsing, I wasn’t clear that I was talking about the future. Here’s an important post from seven years ago on the Do the Math blog, Can Economic Growth Last?
Not only can’t our economies keep growing, they’re not going to smoothly transition to steady-state economies, because we’ve never had one at anywhere near this level of complexity, and no one is seriously trying. The only thing left is collapse. Beyond that I don’t feel qualified to guess, but I think a deep technological collapse is unlikely.
On another tangent from the same post, a condensed comment from Tel:
There's a lot of R&D going on right now on heat pumps that don't use harmful refrigerants, or use alternatives to the common compression/expansion models. But heat pumps all dump waste heat somewhere, so using an air conditioner to cool one place means heating up another place.
Contrast that to older methods of cooling spaces that have no such downside. I'm thinking of things as simple as shading buildings with deciduous plants, or building them tall and close together to minimize solar gain, or building for cooling air flow using stack effects, or even going so far as using airflow over cisterns or building qanats and wind towers or wind catchers.
August 8. I have two more comments on yesterday’s two subjects, inspired by an email conversation.
The fires in California are not a wake-up call, because the decisions are not being made on a level where the awake-asleep metaphor applies. If every human in the world wanted to reverse climate change, it would still take years to change the behavior of the giant robot that we are all forced to serve. Everyone in America already wants to get rid of the penny, and end daylight savings time, and we can’t even make those simple reforms that require no sacrifice.
Some people see a cosmic balance between order and chaos, but my favorite definition of chaos is order without control. So I see three forces: order without control, disorder, and control. I think control is not part of a balance, but purely a mistake, a mental illness afflicting humans with too much power — and a design error of systems with too much power. From the perspective of control, it’s hard to even see the difference between order without control and disorder.
August 7. No big ideas this week, just two scraps. In Berlin we had an air-conditioned hotel room, and in Munich we don’t. With temperatures over 90F (32C), the difference is overwhelming. And yet, it’s still only a difference in comfort. Once we get used to the heat, it doesn’t make us miserable like hunger or thirst would.
So I’m thinking, with climate change getting worse, and economies collapsing, that could become the biggest indicator of social class, among people who aren’t starving and don’t have private jets: how cool they can keep their living space.
Leigh Ann just bought a thing with a quote from Karl Kraus, who has a bunch of other good quotes. This one is “Das Chaos sei willkommen, denn die Ordnung hat versagt.” It could be translated as “Chaos is welcome because order has failed.” Update: an actual German suggests “The reign of chaos be welcome for the reign of order has failed.”
Is that true? To me it seems like order has failed pretty badly, and people still aren’t welcoming chaos. I guess it depends on what order is supposed to do. It’s doing a great job at keeping us safe, and a terrible job at stuff that’s harder to quantify. From a couple days ago, this Reddit thread asks What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning? Only one person in the entire thread actually looks forward to doing something that society considers productive, and he’s elderly.
August 4. On a tangent from the last post, a reader mentions that Carl Jung wasn’t much into psychedelics, because “he felt that the more we learn about the collective unconscious, the more responsibility we have to act, and it was perhaps only a few who were capable of action.”
That reminds me of something I heard, maybe in a Terence McKenna talk, about how there are all these entities around us all the time, and they mostly don’t care about us — but if you learn to see them, then they notice that you see them, and you have to learn deal with them. And that reminds me of my own discovery (through cannabis) that most communication happens on subtle levels beneath words, levels on which I still don’t even feel competent.
Unrelated, a fun link from Reddit: What’s the most “Chaotic Good” thing you’ve ever seen?
August 1. Picking up from a week ago, Gryphon sends this Twitter post by Gwern, Maxims of Applied Demonology.
The word “demon” is used for so many things. Scott Peck’s book People of the Lie uses it for something that a psychologist would call personified mental illness. I find this concept useful: that there are voices in my head, that don’t serve my long-term interests, and don’t want me to know about them.
Gwern’s concept of the demon world is oddly heavy with financial metaphors. I’d like to see some rules of demonology from a culture without money. As a Taoist-pantheist, I would put it this way: if you go astray from the Tao, your gains will not be worth it, and circumstances will pull you back toward the Tao. When I write about “agents of fate”, that’s a personification of the future imposing its will on the present.
Then there’s the concept of demons as trickster spirits, who might not want anything except to toy with human emotions.
Farther down in Gwern’s feed, he has a critique of utopian social engineering, where he writes, “Small samples show wild gains but bigger samples show smaller, often zero, effects.”
That happens in a lot of things, all the way from paranormal research to hard science, where it’s called the decline effect. I see it as a universal law of reality creation. When fewer people are looking, for a shorter time, it’s easier for the eye/mind to see/create what it wants. As more perspectives join, they bring reality back toward the conventional.
July 30. No ideas yet this week, just a quick note. If you haven’t read my novel, you should continue to not read it, because I’m working on an alternate version that sacrifices almost all of the style, and some of the details, to make the story accessible to a lot more readers. This project was inspired by hanging out with non-native English speakers who really have no chance with the original lots-o-words version.
July 28. Today we got into Glasgow. My trip is just past half over, and I already have a good idea of how I want to do it differently next time. I’ve been spending a lot of money, and it often puts me in a universe that makes me feel uncomfortable, because it’s less tolerant of aliveness. Museums have some great stuff, but I can’t run, or eat, or go barefoot, and I have to constantly be careful to not bump into stuff. (Yes, I’m 50 years old.) Restaurants often have good food, but they feel like hard tests in correct social behavior. It’s tiring.
The next time I go away from home, I want to go into the woods, just guerrilla camping by some tiny stream a half mile off the highway. And if I come to Europe again, I’d like to do it for three weeks, one week each in three places, stay in a hostel with a kitchen, make my own meals, and just walk around looking at buildings and people, or sit in parks and cafes writing.
Here’s my crazy personal utopia. I want to be homeless, in a world that doesn’t just tolerate homelessness, but is optimized for it. So you’re never asked for a permanent address, you can camp almost anywhere, and basic sanitation, food, and even transportation don’t cost any money. I’m afraid the unconditional basic income would lead to the opposite, where there’s no excuse for trying to live without money, and the system nickel-and-dimes us for our tiniest needs.
Related: I’m reading James C. Scott’s book Against the Grain, and he argues that the state, until very recently, was fragile, uncommon, and built on forced labor, and the “barbarians” had it better.
July 25. Why Is Google Translate Spitting Out Sinister Religious Prophecies? Some people think our tech system has been possessed by demons, and I sort of agree — it’s just hard to define the word “demon”.
We’re not talking about goat-footed minions of Satan. They’re more like trickster spirits, or agents of fate. I’m not sure if they have existence outside the human subconscious, but I’m sure they have powers of mind over matter. They just can’t do anything obvious — there has to be plausible deniability. So they can’t make a mechanical clock run backwards, but when technology gets so complex that no one fully understands it, they have a lot of room to play tricks and pull strings.
I don’t want to sound completely paranoid. Maybe it was blind chance that the train computer showed the wrong station and stopped me from going to Prague. But I expect that kind of thing to happen more often, to more people, on larger scales.
Related: Erik sends this dense and trippy reddit post about Rupert Sheldrake, Terence McKenna, and spacememory, through which the universe works to increase novelty and complexity.
July 23. Traveling is like being a student among mostly unwilling teachers. Most of what I’m doing, I’m doing for the first time, among people who have done it hundreds of times. So they’re often irritated that I’m slowing them down, and maybe they’re also envious that I’m doing new things while they’re in a rut — although right now the “rut” of being back at home, getting high or playing video games, sounds really appealing.
If you enjoy learning, you could say there’s never been a better time for it, with so many new things all the time. But then, so many of these new things are just the dull glitter of short-lived culture, or Kafkaesque minutiae, like the difference between IC and ICE trains, or that pay toilets don’t take 5 centi-Euro coins, or how to copy and paste on an iPad.
Yesterday we went to the Neanderthal museum, and my favorite exhibit was a ring of two-sided signs, with the stories of two alternate versions of an extended family, one in our own time and one in the upper Paleolithic. You could say that we are the ones living in a crude and primitive world, a world of artifacts invented by humans only a very short time ago: apartments and traffic, college and wage labor, government and business. Neanderthals lived in a rich and complex world that nature has been working on for half a billion years. Maybe the best thing about our own time is how much room there still is to make the human world better, or how much tension there is pulling us back toward the rest of life.
Here’s a picture of me at the Neanderthal museum.
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? [Update: I think the train computer was off by one stop, which happens sometimes, and I saw on the sign what I expected.]
The HBF was a mile away, so I hurried across the city with my bags to try to catch the next train, which was only possible if it was delayed, and I happened to pass through a gathering of homeless people. It was like a Terry Gilliam movie. And at 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 make it 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.
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.