"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
October 8. Today's post is about metaphysics, and I want to start with an overlap from Friday. I've been getting back into Starsector, a game whose designer makes blog posts about the design process, and one thing he wrote continues to stick with me (although I can't find it now, and I may have embellished something less interesting). The idea is, he used to think of a game in terms of the inner mechanics, and then you put a user interface on top of that. At some point he realized that the user interface is the game.
This reminds me of an Edward Abbey quote: "Appearance versus reality? Appearance is reality, God damn it!" And it's also related to the trendy idea that we're all living in a simulation. All three of these ideas are about the tension between the world that we directly perceive, including our sense experience and our mental states, and some hidden world that supposedly underlies it.
Whether or not we're living in a simulation, we're living in a society increasingly run by computers, which leads us to frame the simulation hypothesis as a simulation by computers, and not by some other technology. On a deeper level, our materialist culture tells us that the simulation must at least be something physical.
But we already believe this when we talk about invisible atoms and waves, the physics and chemistry of the brain somehow creating the quality of what-it's-like-to-be. The popular simulation hypothesis looks deeper than atoms -- and unimaginatively only finds other atoms, in some massive data-crunching machine in a universe basically the same as ours. The only important difference is on the level of meaning: that our world is a sub-world, managed by people with motives and plans for us.
Now, maybe they're in a simulation too, and this article raises and rejects the idea that it's simulations all the way down. I find it strange, that the author of that article finds it relieving, that if you go deep enough, you eventually get to the materialist God: lifeless matter in which mind emerged by accident. I think simulations all the way down would be kind of cool.
What I actually believe is that matter is local. Matter is the user interface of our own particular universe, which has been created on the level of mind. It's not that aliens in another physical universe are dreaming us, but that the fundamental reality is dream-stuff. Matter is dream-stuff so sticky that you can do physics with it.
So how did mind get stuck together into matter, and why? I don't think we can answer that from here. But when I think about it, a mind-based simulation is less likely than a matter-based simulation to have a purpose. Building all those computers is a massive job that wouldn't be done without a reason. But if we're pure mind dreaming of matter, we might just be doing it on a lark.
October 5. The No Tech Reader #21 has a bunch of links about the kind of stuff I used to love writing about: why plastic recycling isn't working, why growth can't be green, and so on. I'm writing less about that stuff as I understand better that there's nothing I can do about it. To give my attention to something I can't influence is a form of self-sabotage -- and if it's something bad, then it's also self-abuse.
What can I influence? My own writing, which is the main way I cultivate relationships with the outside world, and my own inner world.
More than 20 years ago, in one of my zines, I wrote that I'm "trying to become enlightened before this civilization collapses." Now that sounds like a dumb thing to say, but the problem is, I was working with dumb words. Whatever a word starts out meaning, it settles into whatever meaning is the simplest and the most seductive to the most people. Words become sleek black boxes to be plugged into ideological equations, and to use a word like that, is to be used by the word.
For years I thought I was battling civilization. Now I see that I was really battling the word civilization. Gradually, I cracked its skin and scattered its guts. I've done the same thing with the word "collapse", and I'm still working on the many things tied up in the word "enlightenment".
Here's how I would put it all together now: The way we're all living is like a giant machine made of tragic mistakes -- but also the beautiful things we've done to make the best of those mistakes. It's always changing, and the coming changes are going to be challenging and painful. To navigate those changes, I'm trying to increase my own awareness of my body and mind, and develop better habits.
New subject, sort of. Leigh Ann had to get a high-end laptop for her classes, so I've been using her old laptop, which is still way better than my dinosaur Dell Latitude, to get back into Starsector, an awesome in-development game that I've been playing on and off since 2012 when it was still called Starfarer. The designer, Alexander Mosolov, makes blog posts about the design process, and shows deep understanding of what makes a good game. One thing he wrote continues to stick with me: that he used to think of a game in terms of the inner mechanics, and then you put a user interface on top of that. At some point he realized that the user interface is the game. Related: Scientists are looking for ways to test if we're living in a simulation.
October 3. Continuing from Monday, it's not fair to say that my meditation hasn't worked. We have a cultural myth of someone sitting in a lotus position, blanking their mind and blissing out. The reality is both more complicated and more useful.
I actually don't do any traditional sitting meditation. I find the best time to practice silencing "the chattering monkey" is when I'm trying to fall asleep. Either I succeed in sleeping, or I succeed in putting in some time working inside my head, and that work is valuable even if my head never gets blank.
Trying to have no thoughts is different from, but related to, the practice of metacognition. It's like there are all these programming subroutines running inside my head, and I normally think of them as just me being me, but the skill is to carve out a different "me" that stands apart, and sees the subroutines as workers (or invaders) whose behavior can be changed. Cannabis has helped me a lot with this. Sometimes I wonder how much of weed anxiety is just people starting to notice that the "self" is a bunch of bad habits.
Another practice is being in the moment. I used to think it was like quitting smoking: one day you just decide to do it, and then you're doing it all the time. It's more like learning to juggle, and starting out not even knowing how to throw or catch. One day you're like, "Whoa, this moment is never going to happen again." That's a throw, and a catch is appreciating the next moment as it comes. I've just recently figured out a technique I call looping: pretend that this block of time (anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes) will loop for all eternity. Then the challenge is: How do I conceive of this block of time so that the eternal loop becomes a good thing? I know Nietzsche tried to think of his whole life looping -- that dude was always overreaching.
Another practice I figured out, and haven't read about anywhere, is what I call "expanding into pain". Every time I try to explain it better, it feels like I'm explaining it worse. But it seems to be related to the practice of turning my attention from my head to my body.
Have you ever seen someone walking down the street reading a book? My imagination is so powerful, that I don't even need a book to get that level of disconnection. But this year I've been going for walks and trying to turn all my attention to the minutiae of foot-landings and bone-angles and arm-swings. I've also been going swimming, and letting Leigh Ann coach me on my form, which after many hours of work is still absolutely terrible. I do finally feel competent at backstroke leg-paddling, as long as I don't try to move my arms at the same time.
There is one place where I've actually succeeded in duplicating a drug effect without drugs. The morning after using cannabis, I used to lie in bed with my whole body just feeling like it was glowing. Now I feel like that almost every morning, and sometimes even when I'm taking a rest in the afternoon. I'm not sure what I did. Maybe just knowing that it's possible, and then building it up by noticing it.
October 1. Update: turns out there are two Sarah Perrys. The one who used to write the blog The View from Hell, and lately has been posting her stuff on Ribbonfarm, is not the same one who has an essay in the Guardian, Out of my mind: writing under the influence of drugs. Anyway, it's mostly about pain:
I have come to understand literary drug culture as being more properly a culture of pain, and the relieving of it; of works written under the influence both of suffering and the doped-up euphoria of respite.
Using herself and other authors as examples, she tells this story: people are living in unbearable physical pain; they take drugs to move in the direction of being normal; and the drugs color their writing, but not as much as the pain does.
My world is almost exactly the opposite. I'm living in bearable psychic pain: anti-motivation, anhedonia, anxiety. I plod through the garden of the numb, going through life by forcing myself to do stuff I don't feel like doing. Then I take drugs (cannabis, rarely LSD), and everything becomes beautiful and important and alive. I gain adequate emotional intelligence and wild creativity, which enables me to do a whole different kind of writing, trying to distill that heaven into words.
But after a day or two, the weed just makes me numb (which some drug users are seeking, but I'm trying to avoid). So I go back to sobriety, and for a few days, I feel worse. Without drugs, I climb from the pain-pit back to the bleak plateau, and as soon as I get my feet under me, I launch again.
I know some people have reported reaching that state of grace without drugs, and I continue to try all kinds of meditation techniques, including some I've invented, but nothing has worked yet.
Two loosely related links: Does CBD Really Do Anything? We don't know yet. And Evidence that addictive behaviors have strong links with ancient retroviral infection.
September 28. In this subreddit thread about alternatives to central control, I've just had a little discussion about "rhizomatic" systems, which can be visualized as a bunch of boxes horizontally connected by lines. If we're talking about an ideal human society, then each box is a group of people who know each other well enough that they can get along without internal control, and there's no external control because the "boxes" are also working together as equals.
Of course, in the system we have now, boxes are totally commanding other boxes, and the main box-type is the individual. This didn't happen accidentally -- it was planned by right wing think tanks that grew up in the 1970's and took over in the 1980's. Now, social issues are framed not in terms of how we can arrange the system better, but in terms of personal responsibility. For example, instead of changing agricultural subsidies to make fresh produce cheap and processed corn expensive, we morally judge fat people. Or we blame people for littering, instead of designing packaging that, when thrown on the ground, is not ugly or harmful.
In the thread, Asterios mentions that the lines between nodes might be more important than the nodes themselves. I've had this insight too (on cannabis), that relationships are more fundamental than things. It follows, that in a well-functioning system, the boxes will redesign themselves to fit the lines.
The problem is, if the boxes are people, there are limits to how much we can redesign ourselves. In 1984, Orwell has his villain say that "Men are infinitely malleable," because that's what the control system wants to believe, that it can make the lines however it wants and the boxes will fall into place. But in practice, that's how social systems collapse, by pushing us too far from our nature. That's true on every scale, from the Chinese economy to one couple: the most robust system is the one that gives its people the most room to be themselves.
Different oppressive systems bend people too far in different ways. In the industrial age, it was working too many hours in factories, and that's still going on in a lot of places. But in America, in my lifetime, the main way I see the system trying to over-bend us is in how we show emotion. A hundred years ago, how many job descriptions listed emotional or psychological requirements for applicants? Probably almost none of them, and now it's almost all of them. If you're not enthusiastic, and not willing to fake it, you can't make any money. So everybody fakes it, and the collective faking of positive emotions, and hiding of negative ones, is eating our culture from within.
Here's a comic about it. And I'm also wondering, if we were all honest about how we feel, what would happen? I don't know if the system would collapse, or if it would get better.
September 26. I'm not having a lot of ideas lately, but here are some links from Reddit. This is the best summary I've seen of Foucault (the social philosopher not the pendulum scientist), and his new ways of thinking about power relations.
What is a website that everyone should know about but few people actually know about? There's a list of wifi logins at airports, a page that disguises Reddit as Outlook so you can stealthily browse it at work, a couple of music recommendation engines, and tons of other good stuff.
Teachers with 20+ experience, what's the difference between the kids then vs the kids now? Most of the comments are about terrible parents and increasing mental illness. It looks like the best kids are as good as ever, but there are way more kids now with serious problems.
What is One Thing That a Therapist Has Told You That Changed Your View on Life? Lots of good nuggets here.
And this thread was so troubling that the moderators removed it: Women of Reddit, how old were you when you first experienced unwanted sexual attention? As young as the ages are, and as creepy as the stories are, this is probably something that gets even worse as you go back in history.
September 24. Three links about slowing down. Myst, one of the most influential games ever, turns 25:
Prior to Myst, if you said "adventure game," a PC owner might see... third-person view, inventory, copious dialog (often funny), lots of characters, constant peril, verb-based interface. Myst did away with all of that. It was Spartan, lonely, calm, and low-stakes.
Why athletes need a 'quiet eye'. Every sport is different in where the athletes look, but in every case, "the better the player, the longer and steadier their gaze" at the key moment, and "the expert athlete actually slowed down their thinking."
It's related to the concept of a 'close reading' - a technique used in critical analysis where the reader pays close attention to details. With slow reading, the reader consciously slows their reading speed down. Slow reading can help you understand the piece better - and it can help you enjoy it more.
In my English papers in college, I specialized in close readings, and my writing is the same way, especially my fiction, always pushing the idea-per-word ratio. Here's my favorite recent sentence, added to the rewrite of book 1, chapter 5. The context is that a character is riding a metal ingot up a cable to space: "As the space elevator's acceleration spent itself on speed, she squatted and watched the stars as the last air dropped its lids from their eyes, and they glared blinkless in her awestruck face."
September 21. So I've been reading Michael Pollan's new book, How To Change Your Mind. It's about psychedelics, mostly psilocybin and LSD. The trip reports are all stuff I've read before -- and it makes me envious, because I've tried both drugs without getting any visions or hallucinations, only seeing conventional reality (especially nature) as much more beautiful and important than it is when I'm sober. But there's all kinds of stuff I never knew about the history of LSD, and unsurprisingly, it's tied to power politics.
Al Hubbard was one of those people who are wildly successful at everything they try to do. He was also politically authoritarian, and when he tripped on LSD, way back in 1951, he decided to use it to change the world from the top down. He persuaded a laboratory to give him a massive quantity, and went around the world giving it to the elites -- political, financial, technological, and cultural. At that time, psychedelics were legal and perfectly respectable -- in 1957 Life magazine did a glowing article on "magic mushrooms".
Then Timothy Leary ruined everything. I agree with his basic idea: to give psychedelics to the masses and change the world from the bottom up. But he was such a loose cannon, and so cult-leaderish, that he became the focus of a backlash. As Leary himself said, "Psychedelic drugs cause panic and temporary insanity in people who have not taken them."
In another twist, the pioneers of Silicon Valley did lots of LSD, and it probably gave a huge boost to the development of computers and the internet. And the universe of the internet is indeed super-trippy -- but I imagine a better timeline, where the world's increasing trippiness is not centrally controlled.
Anyway, here's some awesome psychedelic music, from 1968: The Incredible String Band - A Very Cellular Song. At over 13 minutes, it's too long for our speed-dazed age, but it clearly influenced David Bowie's Memory of a Free Festival, and most of the stuff Peter Gabriel did with Genesis, like Supper's Ready.
September 19. Today I donated blood, something I try to do around every solstice and equinox, and then came home to vape a pinch of Gorilla Glue and write. Oddly, yesterday I vaped twice as much Sour Diesel, but today's "launch" was stronger. It could be the blood loss, or the GG could be better weed, or maybe what happens is that a smaller dose, which takes less time to vape, packs the whole multi-temp vapor profile into a tighter window. I'll continue to experiment.
After Monday's post, Bill said my style reminds him of James Tiptree Jr, a sci-fi writer whose real name was Alice Sheldon. I checked out what I could find online, and indeed, some of her sentences are just the kind of thing I aim for. From the story The Girl Who Was Plugged In (pdf), here's a beautiful short sentence: "But P. Burke proves apt." And a longer one: "At the corner she strains to send one last fond spasm after the godlings' shuttle." So I'm going to get a few of her books, because it's been hard for me lately to find any fiction that I have fun reading. If anyone's into Enneagram, it occurs to me that most of my favorite authors are Sevens. Surely Tiptree was, and also Roger Zelazny, Roald Dahl, Lord Dunsany, and probably Isak Dinesen (another woman with a male pen name).
I've been listening to Syd Barrett's album The Madcap Laughs. The sonic textures are only subtly psychedelic, but Syd's songwriting is the gold standard for psych-pop. A good example is Octopus. The lyrics seem like improvised nonsense, but this close analysis, Untangling The Octopus, finds it carefully crafted and loaded with meaning.
September 17. Today, a look under the hood of my fiction writing. A year ago I posted what I thought was a final version of my novel, but then I wrote a sequel, and now I'm doing deep rewriting of book one. It started this summer when I decided to write an alternate version that's more readable, and I still have a long way to go on that project, but it's already feeding back to improve the main version.
This is a sentence from chapter six, drafted in February of 2017: "Torisa, still cogmodded, fumbled the handflight upface as the Captain raged through hyperacute stimslash."
When that came out of me, it was so much crazier than anything I'd written before, that I almost jumped off the couch. "What if I could write like that all the time?" But looking back, the sentence is flawed. In terms of exposition, it introduces too much stuff too fast. And in terms of lyricism, "fumbled the handflight upface" tickles the tongue, but then "hyperacute stimslash" gets the mouth in a car crash. And that prefix, "hyper", is just a pretentious way of saying "very", which is already usually a mistake.
If you're wondering what the sentence means, here it is all clunky and literal: "Still mentally altered by psychedelic drugs, Torisa fumbled to raise the controls from the floor, with which the Captain could fly the ship by hand, while he felt the pain of the sudden cancellation of his own drug effects."
A recent attempt to write it better: "Torisa, still cogmodded, stumbled to shove her mattress into the ship's nose, pulled the fingergrip edges of a floorpanel, and raised the handflight upface, all as the Captain raged through sped head-reset."
Now, here's what I came up with trying to use only simple words, but have it sound good: "Still drug-dazed, Torisa stumbled to shove her bed to the ship's nose, uncovering a floor panel whose edges she gripped to raise the wheel to hand-steer the ship, while the Captain ate the pain of brain-scrub."
I like that so much, that even with an unlimited vocabulary for the flagship text, the biggest change I made was to replace "dazed" with "befuddled".
September 14. Lots o' links, starting with two threads from Hacker News, one about the new European internet copyright law and how terrible it is.
And a discussion of the complicated causes of homelessness in Seattle.
A fun reddit thread, What's the creepiest/scariest thing that you've seen but no one believes you?
And a scary reddit thread about people who have fried their brains on LSD. I've done LSD a few times, and I absolutely love it, so I understand why people with a large supply are tempted to push the limits, but that's a really bad idea with a drug that can change your brain permanently.
From the subreddit, Where - and how - will the children play? This is actually good news, about a movement in New Zealand to make playgrounds more fun without being too dangerous. Now we just have to do the same thing with society.
It's been a while since I posted about my favorite sport, women's soccer. This one-minute video shows Sam Kerr's goals in August, and she's easily the NWSL's flashiest striker, but I agree with this article that the best all-around player is Lindsey Horan.
Finally, neotene @ctrlcreep is a super-trippy twitter feed, an ongoing brain-dump of sci-fi ideas. Of course, ideas are the easy part of writing, and the hard part is lining them up into a story. But I'd love to see a full novel by someone who can crank out stuff like this:
All of the stalactites are situated above quartz eyeballs, like the cavern is dripping potions into its own dilated pupils.
September 12. On the subject of anti-noise tech, Jed points out that we won't stop at silence and smoothness:
We'll have new design aesthetics, generating a low level of synthetic bumpiness so the real bumps don't stand out. We use this kind of aesthetic when we generate background rain/surf to mask less appealing environmental noise. The next step would be to build smart generators that incorporate the intrusive noise -- maybe create mild background thunder to mask a car door slamming in the street. As we achieve more control we'll do more design. Cars are getting quieter so we're already discussing how we want them to sound.
So our first instinct is to eliminate noise, and then we re-introduce noise as art. I'm thinking of music producers who add pops and hiss, or theme park rides designed to be excitingly bumpy.
Then I think the next stage is to go back toward reality. Kevin mentions this bit from Joe Rogan's Elon Musk interview, where Rogan talks about how much he loves driving his old Porsche 911.
...because it's so mechanical. The crackle, the bumps... it gives you all this feedback. I take it to the Comedy Store because, when I get there, I feel like my brain is just popping -- it's on fire. It's like a strategy for me now... I drive that car there just for the brain juice.
If you're the driver, mechanical feedback is interesting because it's integrated into what you're doing. But if you're a passenger, it's meaningless. And sometimes we can decide which one we are. If I'm walking through the woods, barefoot on a rough trail, my mind has to engage with the complex surface under my feet. If I'm wearing shoes on a paved trail, I can ignore the whole foot-ground interface, and focus all my attention on looking at the trees. And if I'm in a smooth bus on a highway, I can ignore my entire environment and read a book.
There's no wrong choice, but we usually make these choices without being aware of our full range of options. And in the middle ground, I imagine technologies that can give us sounds and motions generated not from the road but from the landscape, so you can feel the difference between forest and desert and city. Then it gets really weird if we have technologies that can give us feedback from beyond our human senses.
September 10. This 1943 George Orwell essay is titled Why Socialists Don't Believe In Fun, but it's really about the failure of utopian fiction to create worlds that readers actually want to live in. Orwell thinks it's because happiness comes from contrast, and fictional utopias are too static. But there have been some better imaginary worlds since 1943, and you can find the best ones in comment threads like this one from Ask Reddit: If you could live in any fictional world, which one would you choose?
I think the difference between boring fictional utopias, and worlds you actually want to live in, is that in the former the author is "playing not to lose", trying to create a world with nothing wrong with it, and in the latter, the author is trying to create as much good stuff as possible and not worrying too much about avoiding bad stuff.
Now I'm thinking about American politics, and how Democrats have allowed Republicans to become the party of fun. But I'd rather write about technology, and I love this title: Bump-Canceling Bunk Beds Promise Supersmooth Bus Rides. It's about using quick sensors and tiny motors to cancel out bumps like noise-canceling headphones. It's a cool idea, but still, if we let supersmoothness become the new baseline, then even a tiny bump will become an annoyance. As we go down that road, we're spending more and more resources to be bothered by smaller and smaller things, and also to be more removed from reality.
This reminds me of a story from a Tom Brown wilderness survival book, where young Tom asks his Apache mentor, "Why doesn't the cold bother you?" The old man pauses and answers, "Because it's real."
On that subject, The Health Benefits of Being Cold.
September 7. I was going to write more about bridge collapse as a metaphor for social collapse, but then my metaphor collapsed -- because when a human snaps, the people around them tend to make up for it by getting stronger, and bridge cables don't do that. A social organism has to be in pretty bad shape, before one person's mental breakdown can take down the whole thing.
The other day I caught up on months of posts by smart blogger Siderea, and these are my two favorites. You Should Probably Know about Vienna is about how Vienna keeps rents low without rent control. I'm not going to summarize it because that post is already a summary of a longer article.
The New Behaviorism makes two points. 1) When psychologists talk about "learning" they're usually talking about eeeeevil behaviorism. 2) Behaviorism doesn't work very well.
This comes back to one of my favorite subjects: the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In a perfect society, motivation is 100% intrinsic, and that's actually been done by some hunter-gatherer tribes -- the test is whether a culture lacks the concept of "freeloading". As we drift farther from that ideal, into a system that depends on tasks that not enough people find enjoyable for their own sake, we need to use reward and punishment as clunky patches for a broken system. If we go too far down that road, supposed experts in human psychology might not even think about actions being driven by anything other than reward and punishment.
September 6. Catching up on links, the NY Times has a really good article on the Genoa bridge collapse. Basically, the bridge was designed with no redundancy, so the failure of one cable would bring the whole thing down, and then the cables were encased in concrete, which was supposed to make them resistant to corrosion, but instead it hid corrosion. Then they were sloppy with maintenance and testing. I wonder if the same kind of thing happens with social collapse, especially the part about corrosion being hidden.
More doom from this Flickr vid, Temperature Anomalies by Country 1880-2017.
Subtler doom from this reddit thread, What are some cliche things that people do in real life only because they've seen it done before in movies? For example, accidentally killing a guy by breaking a bottle over his head. The bigger issue is that our whole culture seems to be drifting from understanding how things really work, to making dumb mistakes because they seem cool. That has to be a normal way that people and systems are weakened by having too much power.
Deeper in that thread is a discussion of what autistic people are really like, including this comment explaining that the only way they become savants, is if they become totally obsessed with something at an early age. That makes sense. Nobody gets a skill by magic -- you have to put in the time. I don't want to say put in the "work" because if you're obsessed, it doesn't feel like work, which is why obsession is so powerful.
I imagine, when a society is young and strong, it emerges bottom-up from whatever people are obsessed with; and when a society is old and dying, like ours, there's almost no overlap between what people are obsessed with, and what they need to do to keep the whole thing going. A symptom of a dying society is a glorification of "hard work" that you do for virtue or status and not because you enjoy it.
A long article from the Guardian, How to be human: the man who was raised by wolves. It's mostly about how much he enjoyed living in the wild, and how difficult and painful it is to live among humans. There's much more about feral kids in this mirror I made of a Fortean Times article long gone from the internet, Wild Things.