"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 27. There's been some good discussion of musical quality on the subreddit. From a few days ago, On the Tragic Decline of Sonic Literacy (And Quality) In Classical Music (Satire). And from yesterday, Was Beethoven a Narcissistic Hooligan?
The latter links to an essay about how Bach and Mozart were making music about the universe, and then Beethoven made music about his own warped soul. Personally, I've listened widely to classical music (but not deeply) and the only thing I've heard that really excites me is Beethoven's Great Fugue. More recently, if they count as classical, I love Steve Reich's Piano Phase, and I named a character after Moondog's Torisa.
Anyway, it's hard to argue that musical quality is anything but subjective. Even if you can measure objective stuff like timbral variety, you can't say for sure what's better. My own favorite song has vocals that sound terrible to almost everyone, and I'm unable to quantify the astonishing beauty that I hear. It's like everyone's brain is a lock, and different pieces of music are keys.
There is broad agreement that popular music is getting worse. But that could be because music is serving a different function. Fifty years ago, it was about blowing the doors off your mind, and now either people don't want that, or they're getting it from other things, and the function of music is more about zoning out.
By the way, my favorite band, Big Blood, released a new album earlier this summer, and some of the songs have appeared on YouTube. The album's centerpiece is Olamina, and my personal favorite is the much weirder Wishy Wishy I.
August 24. Stray links. New Research Suggests Evolution Might Favor Survival of the Laziest. For more ideas on this subject, check out Chris Davis's Idle Theory of Evolution. Basically, the less busy you are in normal life, the more room you have to get more busy in emergencies. Of course this also applies to the workplace. Related, The Secret to Ant Efficiency Is Idleness.
The Crypto-Recession: An upcoming global economic meltdown caused by blockchain technology. Related, from 2016, Bitcoin = Death Processors.
And some fun with AI (thanks Luke and Jesse). Writing with the Machine is a text autocomplete engine powered by old sci-fi stories. And Text to Image does exactly what it says.
August 22. America's Invisible Pot Addicts, and the Hacker News comment thread. I agree with someone quoted in the article, that the best legalization law is what DC has: you can grow it, gift it, and use it, but not buy or sell it. But it's too late for that. Now that big money is involved, cannabis is another mass mental health crisis driven by capitalism. To be fair, it's not as bad as social media.
And of course I love weed. Yesterday I vaped a pinch of Gorilla Glue flower, did some nice fiction rewriting, and came up with this framework for drug moderation:
There are two you's: high-you and sober-you, and they need to get along. Addiction is when high-you becomes a parasite draining the life of sober-you. Eventually sober-you dies and high-you dies too.
Now, if I'm high-me, I want to keep getting high for another fifty years, so it's in my interest to keep sober-me alive that long. And if I'm sober-me, I need high-me to give me something back. So you have to set up a third internal person, call it a mediator or a boss, to keep high-you and sober-you working together for the good of the whole.
My latest rules: 1) Never more than three days in a row. 2) For every day when I use any, there must be two days when I use none. 3) 48 hours is the worst break. 4) Don't let the doses creep up in size. 5) Don't use it just because I'm bored. 6) High-me has to do something useful, like bicycle to the store for groceries. 7) Sober-me gets to have some fun.
I'm thinking about doing almost all of my music listening sober. Not only will that save my ability to appreciate music sober, but also, yesterday I was sitting by the creek with a top-notch stoner track on headphones, and I preferred to hear the ambient sounds of nature and traffic.
August 20. Continuing with self-analysis: it's dangerous to say that you're bad at something, because that belief might block you from becoming better at it. I think it's possible for me to become good at all the stuff I'm bad at -- it would just take a long time, and might not be the best use of my limited self-improvement energy. I agree with Temple Grandin that it's best to focus on your strengths, to become even better at what you're already good at.
Still, if your subconscious mind fails to do its job, and your conscious mind has to step in, in the long term that gives you a higher ceiling in how good you can get.
I'm also wondering about deeper causes, and I think it's mostly a matter of mental focus. The mind can focus anywhere on a whole range from needle-tip narrow to whole-world wide. My mind likes to go narrow, which is why I'm good at math, and also at fine-focus physical skills like calligraphy. It takes a real effort for me to go wide, and I can't stay there for any length of time. So when I'm driving, I have to keep looking in quick sequence at one thing and then another, because it's so hard to take in everything at once. But I think adjusting our mental focus, both its width and location, is something we can practice and get better at.
August 19. Fascinating article, My Life as a Psychopath. The interviewee sees psychopathy as a morally neutral alternate way of being, and argues that our perception of it has been skewed by looking at criminals, just as it would be if we looked at the criminal segment of any other kind of person.
This has got me thinking about the ways I'm different from most people. I've never been to a professional, but I think I would be diagnosed either aspergers or schizoid, if not neurotypical. I can see, in action, a kind of collective subconscious that other people are tuned into, that I'm not part of. People just seem to know the right way to do things without ever being conscious of it. This includes social behavior, like bantering and touching each other, and also athletic instincts, and also a kind of mass spatial awareness. I noticed on my recent trip, that when I'm on a crowded street, it takes my full attention to not constantly bump into people, and everyone else seems to be doing it with no conscious attention at all.
I'm not sure that I have what people call "body intelligence", or that I've ever had a "gut feeling". In my novel I have a brain-injured character say "I feel like the clumsy puppeteer of my own body," because that's how I've always felt. My body gets hungry, thirsty, sleepy, sometimes it wants to go for a run, but more often I have to drag it around to do stuff it doesn't want to do, and it never volunteers anything spontaneous (except restless legs syndrome).
The psychopath interviewee says a few things that I can relate to, including this surprise: "Most people feel trust as an actual emotion. I never knew that." For me, trust (or lack of trust) is completely cerebral. I tend to trust people because it's simpler to assume that things are as they seem. I also find it helpful to define "love" in terms of actions rather than feelings. For my entire life, I've been getting in trouble for not showing enthusiasm -- and yet, when I actually do get enthusiastic about something, and show it, people get disturbed. This is how I personally interpret the song "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away."
August 17. A few more links. Brutalist Web Design is about moving web design back to being simple and functional. There's also some good stuff in the Hacker News comment thread. A deeper issue is why almost every website adds more and more clutter, and you almost never see it go the other way. Maybe it's just that the people who make decisions about web design can't stand doing nothing. By the way, "brutalism" in architecture is not named after the English word "brutal" but after the French word for raw.
Thanks Erik for this good article about how human color vision is heavily influenced by culture, starting with the evidence that ancient people didn't see blue.
And some music for the weekend. I've never been much into electronic music, but this album is really creative: Autechre - Chiastic Slide.
And when we were in Glasgow, we went to a great live show by a psych rock band called Helicon. This is their best song, Seraph.
August 15. Some stuff from the subreddit. This post has a ton of good links: Looking for subcultural communities; the more diverse, the better.
Let's ditch the dangerous idea that life is a story. I actually do think that life is a story, but I also think that the self is an illusion, and the middle of the article covers that angle. I don't see a contradiction. The person you think of as "you" is a player in a story that you can never fully understand.
Finally, a comic about the feeling that life would be better after a hard crash. Maybe it's not true yet, but it's becoming closer to true all the time, as our society adds more rules that put personal safety and economic growth above all other definitions of quality of life. Or you could look at the Hindu trinity, and say that we're going more and more toward preservation, and away from creation and destruction. The pendulum has to keep swinging, and we only imagine the most extreme scenarios because they're so much simpler than what's really going to happen.
August 13. I'm back in Pullman. It's great to have everything in English again, and to be on a computer where moving the cursor is not like doing surgery. I even like the smoky air from the summer fires.
I want to make it clear: I'm glad I went to Europe. It was really good for me. But mostly it was a long series of challenges and ordeals. Everyone has things that they feel uncomfortable doing, and if possible, we arrange our lives so we don't have to do those things. For me, three big ones are 1) navigating social landscapes where I don't know the rules; 2) dealing with people in uniforms; and 3) spending money. I just did all of those things repeatedly for a month, and now they bother me less. But it felt more like boot camp than a holiday.
If I go to Europe again, I might buy an unlimited rail pass, even if it ends up being more expensive than buying tickets individually. Because in addition to transportation, I would be buying lack of stress, where there are no consequences for missing a train, and also buying the freedom to improvise. Or I might just stay the whole time in one place. I'd also like to do a trans-Atlantic cruise, because it would be more chill and less dehumanizing than flying, and I hear some of them are really cheap.
Here's a quick best of Europe list. Best beer: Campervan Leith Juice, Edinburgh. Best Asian food: Co Chu, Berlin. Best Italian food: Ristorante Rigoletto, Mettmann, Germany. Best Mexican food: Topolabamba, Glasgow. Best museum: National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. In that museum was the thing with the best name: the logboat of the Loch Glashan crannog. Best public parks: Maastricht, Netherlands. Best public toilets: Princes Square, Glasgow. Best travel seats: National Express buses, Scotland. Best mall: Fünf Höfe, Munich. Only drinking fountain I ever saw: Friedensplatz, Bonn. Best art collection: railroad graffiti around Düsseldorf.
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. [Update: returning the next day, I discovered that it's really hard to explore, because there are so many locked gates.]
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.
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.
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. The actual trains are not not well labeled, so you have to look carefully at the screens on the platforms. 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.