"Look at the sunset from the sun's point of view."
- Steven Wright
January 11. Stray links. Iron Is the New Cholesterol, with elevated iron being linked to a bunch of diseases. It seems to only be a problem for people whose bodies can't regulate iron absorption, but there's not much room for error, because the only way we lose iron is by bleeding. That's why I donate blood. I mean, it's nice to help people, but even if they dumped it down the drain, I would still do it. Psychologically, it feels like an oil change, and physically, for a few days after, I get stronger highs from weed, and food tastes better.
International System of Units overhauled in historic vote. The kilogram, the ampere, the kelvin, and the mole used to be defined by measuring actual objects, and from now on they'll be defined according to scientific constants. I can't put my finger on it, but this seems metaphysically important, as if science is now untethered from matter, and drifting in a realm of mind -- or fixed in a realm of mind, while the world of matter changes and no one notices.
The year social networks were no longer social. The idea is, internet communities used to be based on people having common interests. Then Facebook ruined everything, redefining social networks as everyone you know, and everyone who knows them, and so on, whether or not you have anything in common. That trend has gone too far, and the author wants us to go back to private communities based on common interests -- but he doesn't say it's actually happening. When a social critic says "it's time" to do something, you can be pretty sure that the best time to do it was in the past, and the time it will actually be done is in the future.
And a scary reddit thread, What's the most "Black Mirror" thing that's actually happening?
January 9. Taking another angle on Monday's subject, the thing that's really bothering me lately, about most TV and movies, is how the reactions of the characters are so rote, so mindlessly fixed. Once someone is established as a certain kind of person, you always know what they're going to do, even down to their tone of voice.
Then it occurred to me, most of us are doing the same thing, internally. Just like hack writers, we think we're making creative choices, when really we're following rules that we're not even consciously aware of. It reminds me of something Gurdjieff said, that most human psychology is just mechanics. Of course the cure is mindfulness, to watch inside yourself, notice those rules and habits, and practice doing things differently.
Back to fiction, here's a definition of the difference between comedy and tragedy: Tragedy is where the characters do exactly what they're expected to do, and it destroys them; comedy is where the characters do surprising things, and it makes them happy.
January 7. After last week's post I got some great feedback, including the idea that ritual is related to mindfulness -- which sounds right, but it also sounds right that rituals are mindless. So I'm not sure, but probably different things are getting bundled into the same word.
Anyway, Kevin mentions the tightness of American social rituals, all the things you have to do exactly right to not be considered weird. And that reminds me of this classic Adam Curtis post from 2011, Learning To Hug. It's about how television tells us how to be emotionally authentic, in a way that's full of hidden rules and ultimately artificial.
And that goes back to what I thought was an off-topic post about Mortal Engines. In the books, Hester Shaw is surly, moody, fierce, and mostly selfish. She's a great character and she stays that way. In the movie she starts out a little bit like that, and soon becomes a normal Hollywood Hero. In the book, Thaddeus Valentine is morally complex, and the movie makes him a normal Hollywood Villain.
Now, Curtis is talking about real people behaving in a fake way when they know they're on television, and I'm talking about screenwriters and directors making fictional characters bland and predictable. But they all have the same motivation: in front of an audience, they're afraid of being weird.
I think this is an unexpected danger of technology. Our primate ancestors needed some urge for conformity, to keep their tribes stable. Now, high-tech media has made all humans into one tribe, with only one way to be human. And what's it like?
We already know that crowdsourcing ruins creativity. This TED Talk covers some evidence. So my thesis is that when a culture, through technology, increases the number of people who are all watching each other, normal human behavior becomes less alive, and the culture declines.
But my next thought is, there's plenty of entertainment modeling human behavior that's more real and interesting, when you move from blockbusters toward movies and TV made for niche audiences, and when you move from serious fiction toward comedy. So maybe the global monoculture, rather than being doomed, can stay alive if it keeps integrating stuff from the edges.
January 5. So last night Leigh Ann and I went to see Mortal Engines in the theater. Philip Reeve's four-book Mortal Engines series is my favorite sci-fi of this century, with brilliant world-building, good storytelling, sharp characters, and a fun breezy style. The movie is well cast, which must be the easiest thing to do in book-to-movie adaptations. And the CGI really brings Reeve's world to life.
Otherwise it sucks. They change the book's story in dumber and dumber ways until it's basically Star Wars, and the characters and dialogue are worse than daytime TV. In one scene, a sad Frankenstein-like cyborg looks at a metal doll and says, "It has no heart.... like me." Everything in this movie is that obvious.
I even gave it the benefit of seeing it high. When I watch a great TV show high, like Scream Queens, I can see how every detail sparkles with creative zest: the set design, the music, the expressions of the actors. But Mortal Engines, except for the CGI, is just flat.
By the way, a few months ago I negatively reviewed the TV show Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and I've changed my mind. I still think it's flawed, but it gets better, especially episodes 8 and 9, where it has the chance to go really dark, and backs off to still pretty dark. And there's just something about it that makes me look forward to watching it, which is rare.
January 3. The other day I wondered "whether my immunity to ritual is related to my life-long struggles with motivation." Now I'll explain what I meant. When I see people doing a ritual, I'm like "Why are they wasting time on that boring and unnecessary behavior?" They must be getting something out of it that I can't see. Thus my definition:
A ritual is a highly predictable behavior, which might seem like a chore to people who don't understand it, but actually energizes the people who do it. Or, a ritual is an engine for turning activity into motivation.
On a personal level, I suspect that physical rituals don't work for me because of my poor mind-body integration. I have to use a lot of conscious attention to not constantly bump into things, and even after 25 years of flossing my teeth every night, it's still not something I feel like doing. Meanwhile, it seems like other people can get into a groove, where their body just does the right thing without guidance from their head, and where familiar physical actions feel good to them.
There are a lot of other directions to go with this. How are mental rituals different from physical rituals? How are rituals different from habits, including bad habits? Where do games fit in? How are rituals related to culture, to childhood imprinting, to personality?
Is our civilization failing because useful activity has been de-ritualized, so that it feels draining instead of energizing? How do rituals compare with other ways of motivating people, like grand narratives or reward-and-punishment?
Finally, a sci-fi idea. What if we had a technology to instantly make behaviors compulsive? Like you zap your head while washing a dish, and suddenly you love washing dishes. That would solve the problem of low motivation, and create more dangerous problems.
January 1, 2019. New Year's Day, and thinking about metaphors in the spectacle. A Rose Bowl ref just leapt and caught the string of a balloon, and popped it. The gif will surely be a meme. As an omen for 2019, what could it represent? The triumph of authority over fun? Or the triumph of good management over distraction?
December 31. I want to polish off the politics/religion subject before the new year. My take is that humans love to divide the world into home tribe and enemy tribe, and hate on the enemy tribe. That's what I mean by "tribalism", and politics has out-competed religion, as a focus for tribalism, because fewer people take religion seriously, and because pseudo-democracy has created the illusion that ordinary people can influence large-scale politics.
Eric's take is smarter:
Religion and politics are both ways for allocating power and social control. And a way of drawing conflict team boundaries. Their methods vary, but the medium is very much the same: physical force for the control of material property, with a veneer of ideology.
So now that we are in the post-Enlightenment world and nobody can imagine the gods being anywhere but in the sky, invisible, and probably dead, the narrative is done with gods, and the locus of power can be brought back to Earth and we don't need so many excuses to put it in the hands of a secular human elite.
December 30. After some feedback, and more thinking, I've decided that defining "religion" is a distraction. There are a bunch of things that might be part of that definition, and rather than arguing about whether this or that thing belongs on this or that side of the religion/not-religion line, it's more helpful to just look at those things and what's going on with them.
John mentions ritual. I didn't consider that as part of my definition, because I don't get ritual. I've never encountered anything called a ritual that works for me. Now I'm wondering why that is, and whether my immunity to ritual is related to my life-long struggles with motivation.
Another feature of classic religions is brutal disagreement. In the old days, you could get killed for saying something slightly weird about God. Now I could stand up and say the Old Testament Jehovah was an evil space alien, and people might be like, "that's cool" or "that's dumb," but nobody would get mad.
Now, at least in the developed world, the ideas that people get mad about are not metaphysical but political. Or, our most intense disagreements are not about some unseen world, but the world in front of us. Strangely, this has happened while the number of cameras has increased.
December 28. I wanted to post some afterthoughts about materialism and science, including an explanation of how the paranormal challenges our whole way of framing subjective and objective, which is related to how we think about mind and matter. What would the scientific method look like, if we saw mind as fundamental, or if we saw subjective/objective as a continuum instead of either/or?
But I'm not smart enough for that today, so I'll just write about weed.
This deleted reddit thread has some good thoughts about cannabis anxiety, including a nurse pointing out that THC lowers blood pressure, which can make the heart speed up, which can trick the mind into feeling anxiety. This TED talk, which I posted last month, has more details about how the brain creates emotions. My own theory is that cannabis temporarily increases emotional intelligence, enough to make us aware of all the mistakes we've been making.
And a scientific article, Rapid Changes in CB1 Receptor Availability in Cannabis Dependent Males after Abstinence from Cannabis. Basically, a two day tolerance break clears your brain's cannabinoid receptors so well that it's hard to measure the difference between two days and 28 days -- and yet, "Despite 4 weeks of abstinence, [receptor] availability in [stoners] did not reach healthy control levels."
I would add, recovery is about more than just clearing cannabinoid receptors -- it's about getting used to being sober again. I think there are parts of my consciousness that go numb when I'm high, like an arm goes numb when you lie on it, and even after the blood is flowing, it still prickles with pain and needs more time to work well.
Christmas Day, 2018. A couple weeks ago I mentioned Adam Curtis's prediction, "there's going to be a resurgence of religion," and since then I've been puzzling about how to define that word. With some help from Eric, this is what I've come up with:
A religion is a community of people united by a foundational belief. With so much uncertainty in life, it's practical to pick one thing that you refuse to doubt, and that belief is like the foundation of a building, or the anchor of a ship, or the seed of a crystal, for your whole model of reality.
Paradoxically, crazier religious beliefs are more robust. It's like people are boasting about the power of their faith, that they can truly believe something as loopy as flat-earthism. (Flat-earthism also offers something taken away by modernity: unseen worlds that you can walk to.)
In the old days, religion ran in families -- not just "you kids have to go to church," but people who really wanted to keep believing the same stuff for centuries. I think this is because our foundational beliefs are usually connected to whatever is the closest thing we've had to a transcendent experience. So the most magical thing kids would do, and later their most awesome memory, would be church events with their families.
That changed when we invented technologies that created stronger experiences than going to church, like television and psychedelic drugs. I'm not a Christian, because the story of the son of God dying for our sins doesn't resonate with me. Instead, I suspect that this is a badly run prison world, like on Hogan's Heroes, or that we live in some kind of fate-dense exile, like on Gilligan's Island.
Still, I'm grateful for being raised Catholic, because even though the nuns wore normal clothing, and the hymn singers looked like hippies, somehow I caught a precious vibe of epic spirituality. It's not a coincidence that my favorite sci-fi author (Roger Zelazny) and singer-songwriter (Colleen Kinsella) are also ex-Catholics.
My own most nearly transcendent experience came from a song, with help from cannabis. I feel that I've seen the light behind the world, and I want to make more lenses for that light. It's like a religion, but for one person. Just a few hundred years ago, that kind of thing would get you burned at the stake, but now it's almost common.
I expect that trend to continue, with more and more solofaithers; and I also expect a weakening of materialist metaphysics (which is totally a religion). But religion won't die, because most of us would rather share our beliefs than hold them alone. If we do get a resurgence of religion, I'm wondering what the foundational beliefs will be. I remember a favorite Bible quote of my old priest: "The stone that the builders rejected will become the cornerstone."
December 22. Some music for the holiday: Ramsey Lewis Trio - What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?
December 19. We're back from the coast, and tonight, on the 170th anniversary of her death, I want to write about Emily Bronte. Like me, she grew up in a small town, with educated parents and good exposure to the high culture of her time; she spent a lot of her youth in worlds of imagination; and as an adult, she made it a top priority to avoid ordinary labor so she could be alone and do creative work.
Thirty years ago, I was so obsessed with Wuthering Heights that I took four different classes that read it, and I photocopied the whole novel and put it on my wall. But what I liked about it is not what people supposedly like about it -- the intense romantic love between the two protagonists. I think their bond is something entirely different from romantic love, and only takes on that appearance after they have both been corrupted by society.
More generally, the theme of the book is the primal aliveness that is the birthright of all living things, and how the human world crushes it out of us -- or if we are stubborn enough in holding onto that feeling, how the world twists it into something destructive.
I agree with a common fan theory that Catherine and Heathcliff are actually half-siblings. And when they wander the moors together as children, they nurture and grow a rare understanding of the divinity of wildness, and will forever associate that magical state with each other's company. That's what Catherine means when she says Heathcliff "is more myself than I am" -- that in him she sees a deeper self that she has lost.
Wuthering Heights is a young person's book -- I don't feel like reading it again. But as I get older, I gather more experiences that are too big for conventional reality, and remind me of the final lines from Emily Bronte's best poem, Remembrance:
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?
Don't worry -- I have no plans to die soon. First I have to write more fiction and find it an audience. Here's a verse from a work in progress:
Though fast be the clock belt and hot be the engine
Fearsome the distance from star to next star
Mother of Space, may your emptiness fill us
The trench of redemption must drown us to spill us
On beaches unreachable by who we are
December 16. Quick note. I'm at the Washington coast, with slow wifi and only my iPad, so I probably won't be posting or answering emails for a few days.
December 14. This was heavily upvoted on the subreddit, so I'll post it here: The Unlikely New Generation of Unabomber Acolytes. I've tried to read the Unabomber manifesto, and what strikes me is how much effort he puts into covering his ass. Maybe it's because of his background in math, or that evil psychological experiment at Harvard, but Kaczynski is just so careful to make sure that nobody can find any holes in his thesis. Of course that doesn't work. If someone wants to disagree with you, or agree with you, they can always find a way, no matter how airtight, or absurd, your argument.
As manifestos go, I love Valerie Solanas's SCUM manifesto. On a strict rational level, almost everything in it is incorrect, but it's so full of life that I don't care, and her critique of maleness can be read as a metaphor for many aspects of the dominant culture. For example: "Incapable of enjoying the moment, the male needs something to look forward to, and money provides him with an eternal, never-ending goal: Just think of what you could do with 80 trillion dollars -- invest it! And in three years time you'd have 300 trillion dollars!!!"
The main thing that drew me to primitivism, and also homesteading, was my desire to escape the busyness of modern life. All I want is to have nothing I'm supposed to be doing, as much of the time as possible. So I traveled around, met back-to-the-landers, visited intentional communities, even tried it myself. And it turns out, those people work even more hours than the average urban person. It's like the idea that they're living in a more natural way, or living in a community, is a motivational trick to get themselves to do more chores than anyone should have to do in this age of material abundance. Good for them, but that trick doesn't work on me -- nor does any other motivational trick I've tried so far. I continue to get through the day on brute force of will.
Two more doom links: Millennials Didn't Kill the Economy. The Economy Killed Millennials. And a Hacker News comment thread about why U.S. life expectancy is falling.
December 12. The Economist has a great new interview with Adam Curtis, the documentary filmmaker and social critic. The whole thing is worth reading, but it's pretty long so I want to try to summarize it.
He starts with the word "HyperNormalisation", which was coined to describe the last years of the Soviet Union, but now it applies to us: everyone knows the system isn't working, that it's unreal, and that it can't keep going like this, but no one knows what to do about it.
Donald Trump is a "pantomime villain" who has locked liberals into a theater of outrage, so nobody pays attention to what's happening outside the theater.
Politics used to be about groups, and now it's about individuals, and the tech system has figured out how to control us as individuals, so that we feel free while we're being managed. Big data looks at the past to tell us what we will want in the future, so it can never imagine anything new.
The concept of "risk" has spread from the world of finance to te world of politics, and to our whole culture. Instead of having a vision for a better world, we're just trying to stop bad things from happening.
The internet is like a corporate HR department, removing people who misbehave, but never questioning the larger system that feeds the misbehavior.
Baby boomers are projecting the fear of their own mortality onto political issues, so climate change becomes a looming nightmare, instead of a challenge to restructure power and resources.
We need politicians who will inspire people to take big risks for exciting visions of the future, but the left is no longer doing that at all, and the right is doing it with nationalism, "the easiest story to go for."
Curtis thinks "there's going to be a resurgence of religion," and that "there's a romantic age coming." Those are interesting predictions, but he doesn't have good evidence, or a good definition of either R-word.
December 10. Quick note: long time reader Darren Allen has written a book, 33 Myths of the System. That page has free download links, and a there's also a post on the subreddit. I haven't read it yet but it looks promising.
Continuing from last week, I've had some email conversations about biotech surpassing cybertech. Eric writes, "I am having trouble imagining a self-replicating robot as smart as a dog that is created and powered entirely by a couple handfuls of kibble per day."
And Matt writes:
What if, one day, we could design organisms that we could live in? A bioengineered creature that can feed itself with sunlight, or other gradients of energy, but that's also hospitable to humans. And, what if while the residents might choose its basic structure, it grew in ways that surprised us, like a living art project?
Is the future of humanity one of high-tech animism, in which everything around us is not only alive, but capable of carrying on conversations?
I love that idea, but I think there's a trade-off. Machines do exactly what we tell them to do (which is never quite what we want them to do) but they're expensive to build and maintain. Biology can self-replicate from common materials, but because it's self-organizing, it will have its own motives.
I don't think we can have the best of both worlds, but now I'm thinking like a science fiction writer: imagine two competing utopian cultures, one based on cybertech and one based on biotech. The biotech culture will win, because 1) it's more efficient with energy and resources, and 2) its people will be mentally stronger, because they have to negotiate with allies instead of commanding servants.
Related: a long NY Times article, Can Dirt Save the Earth? We can move a lot of carbon from the atmosphere into topsoil, but we have to change the way we do agriculture.
December 7. Last year I didn't do a year-end music post, because I hadn't heard anything that great from 2017, and I still haven't. But in the universe of my musical taste, 2018 looks like the best year since 2014, with one album and three songs for the ages -- and thanks Leigh Ann for introducing me to all of them.
The album is the self-titled debut by London duo Insecure Men. It's loaded with intoxicating melodies and complex sonic textures, with a vibe like the bottom of a tropical lagoon. The best song, Whitney Houston and I, turns the tragic lives of celebrities into an epic metaphor of the divine feminine.
My song of the year is Wiggy Giggy by the Lovely Eggs. Like my favorite band, Big Blood, the Lovely Eggs are a married couple who started recording in 2006. It's hard to find a heavy song as warm and fun as Wiggy Giggy, let alone with its message of mind expansion: "Spaceman, take me out to a place, that I don't want to go."
And the third great song is Destroyer by Lala Lala, a Chicago band whose singer-songwriter, like everyone above, is originally from England. The quiet parts sound a lot like the quiet parts of Smells Like Teen Spirit. Then the chorus is nothing like Nirvana, but it reminds me of another Seattle band, Carissa's Wierd, and their layered vocals in songs like like Drunk With The Only Saints I Know.
Big Blood released two albums this year, from which my favorite normal song is Underneath He Is A Girl, but I've been getting more into their space-ghost soundscapes, like Make Way and Wishy Wishy I. And lately I've been listening heavily to their 2014 double vinyl blowout, Unlikely Mothers, especially the hypnotic and filthy So Po Village Stone.
There are also two old songs that I got obsessed with this year. One is bright and clean and popular, a UK radio hit from 1979, known to Americans through Tracey Ullman's less brilliant 1983 cover: Kirsty MacColl - They Don't Know.
The other is dark and erratic and obscure, released in 1997 by a New Zealand indie band, but probably recorded in 1992: The Garbage and The Flowers - Carousel. I love the impressionistic lyrics:
Filing your shells by the fire
Creasing the water with violets and sighs
Asking every simmering quasar if you know it well
Autumn and the paint glowing brightly at the Carousel
December 5. Continuing from Monday, I like Rupert Sheldrake's distinction between self-organizing and non-self-organizing arrangements of matter. In the video it's from minute 22-26. A chair is not self-organizing, so it doesn't make sense to ask what it's like to be a chair. But it might make sense to ask what it's like to be an atom, or the sun.
And now it occurs to me that modern technology has created a lot of stuff that's not self-organizing. Our nature-based ancestors were animist, because almost everything in their world was self-organizing, and could be realistically viewed as a person. Even a tool would be made by the person using the tool, or by someone they knew, so it would already be integrated into the world of people and stories.
I always thought the emptiness of modern life came from how society is arranged. But now I'm thinking it could be caused by manufacturing, which has surrounded us, far more than any other people, with objects that are not alive, and not part of the sphere of meaning of anything alive. Instead of making a tool to serve our needs, we buy a tool, as part of some aspirational project that we hope will make us a better person. (Thanks John for that idea.) We spend our lives seeking the feeling of aliveness from things that are not alive.
Sometimes I think that our whole high-tech world is a fad. But it's hard to think of an alternative, of where we could realistically go next. Now I'm thinking the answer has something to do with either artificial intelligence, making the leap to self-organizing intelligence, or biotech, making living systems that increasingly replace machines.
December 3. First, two loose ends from last week. On the subreddit, 2handband has a lot to say about the origins of the blues. And on the subject of young people, this long article explores some theories for why they're having less sex. My own guess is that newer generations have higher emotional intelligence, so they're more aware of all the emotional messiness around sex, while past generations were more likely to be oblivious.
Today's main subject: a new video of a talk by Rupert Sheldrake, Is The Sun Conscious? He makes a strong argument, starting with how the sun was always seen as conscious until Descartes invented mind-body dualism, and arbitrarily decided that only God, angels, and humans have minds. Later that got whittled down to only humans, and then expanded into other animals -- but there's no good place to draw a line and stop it from expanding back into other arrangements of matter, especially if they're self-organizing.
My position on the "hard problem of consciousness" is that it's not a hard problem for anyone. For materialist metaphysics, it's an impossible problem, and it's not a problem at all for any metaphysics that makes consciousness fundamental. There are different flavors of consciousness-based metaphysics, including animism, pantheism, and pan-psychism. I like to think that mind-matter dualism works like the particle-wave dualism of light, where reality can be either matter-based or mind-based, depending on how you look at it. Sheldrake mentions a fascinating model in which mind/body equals future/past equals possibility/resolution in quantum physics.
Later in the video he speculates about what it's like to be the sun, and how it might make conscious decisions about where to shoot its flares. Maybe that's the answer to Fermi's paradox: if a planetary civilization gets too advanced, its electromagnetic emanations become annoying to its sun, which zaps it back to a lower tech level. He also argues that "volitional stars", steering their own galactic orbits, would allow us to explain galactic motion without dark matter. Related article: Is the Universe Conscious? I think this is why physics has stagnated, because it can't get any farther without putting mind back into matter.
This also reminds me of fringe astronomer Halton Arp, who discovered a strong statistical correlation between quasars and nearby galaxies. If quasars are not extremely bright and extremely distant, then their light is being redshifted by something other than recession velocity, which casts doubt on the theory that cosmic redshifts are caused by an expanding universe. Anyway, Arp thinks that quasars are like seeds shot out by galaxies to become new galaxies, and this fits right in with the idea that the universe is alive.
November 30. It's been too long since I've written about music. The other day on Hacker News there was a good article about the origins of acid house. It starts with a synthesizer, the Roland TB-303, which sold terribly and was discontinued. Then a guy bought a used one for $40, without a manual, and he and his buddy just started turning knobs to see what sounds they could find. They ended up using it in ways the manufacturer never imagined, and made a revolutionary recording. Now old 303's sell for thousands of dollars.
The article exaggerates the newness of the sound. Krautrock bands like Cluster had been making spare, hypnotic synth music for years. But there are some brainy ideas about the intersection of art and technology, including the idea that the blues came from musicians with an African heritage, using European instruments differently than they were intended. I see this as a particular case of my general belief, that creativity always starts with doing something you're not supposed to do.
The Hacker News comment thread has a ton of links to other electronic music. I happen to not like acid house, and I haven't listened deeply or broadly to electronica, but I can recommend the bands Holy Fuck and The Octopus Project, and the Machinarium Soundtrack.