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 really 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 9. 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 get away with dangerous risks -- 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 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 11. The Tyranny of Convenience. 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 we increasingly feel that life is meaningless.
Related? 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. Modern society is already a constructed environment that we can't leave. Let's look at the sub-prisons for ways to make the big prison better.
April 13. 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." This describes every couple I've ever known, and it's a rare example of artificial intelligence producing a profound insight.
The last few weeks I've been playing the best game in the Civilization series, Alpha Centauri. 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 computer opponents 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.
April 17-19. I have a few thoughts about "being in the moment". I used to think it 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.
Leigh Ann says those techniques 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 stable mental state of broad attention focus. My default mental state is narrow-focused, and I have to fight hard to keep it wide.
I'm also wondering how much other self-improvement comes down to being in the moment. For example, "ego". I avoid that word because it's hard to find a good definition, but how about this: 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 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 quickly.
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 music all day. That's Utopia, and we're pretty close to being able to pull it off.
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.
May 2. 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.
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.
May 11. Riffing off the last post: 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 14. 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.
May 16. Why does Laurel sound like Yanny? Someone has discovered an audio clip that makes different listeners hear radically different vowels and consonants. 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.
Now I'm wondering how many other things are like this. 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 28. 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:
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.
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.
June 13. 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.
June 15. 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 20. Yesterday I vaped some cannabis and got this idea: 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.
June 21. Following up on yesterday's subject, 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, Chad Radwell from Scream Queens, River from Firefly, and Vod from Fresh Meat. 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 26. 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 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?