"Look at the sunset from the sun's point of view."
- Steven Wright
April 3. Continuing on personal stuff, years ago a friend told me he was having trouble dealing constructively with his emotions. I said, I don't know what that means. To me, emotions were not something you could deal with. They were like clouds in the sky. If they're good, appreciate them; if they're bad, ignore them. Also, do what feels good, and don't do what feels bad. It was that simple.
Somewhere in this decade, that strategy stopped working for me. Now, more of the things that feel good make me feel bad later, and more of the things that feel bad are impossible to avoid. And it turns out that ignored bad feelings don't actually go away.
The thing I'm getting better at, that I didn't want to get better at, is absorbing emotional pain. I understand now that pain is a muscle: to completely feel the pain, as it happens, is like lifting weights, and the more you practice, the more you can lift. But it still feels bad. And I'm paranoid, that the better I get at absorbing pain, the more pain the world will give me.
April 2. I was in bed with the flu on Saturday, and my brain still hasn't recovered enough to do a good post. Here's a pretty good article, The Disease of More. It has some interesting details, but the main message, to stop trying to improve yourself for the sake of improvement, is not something I need to hear. I have the opposite problem. I fight and fight to make my life easy and boring, and I keep losing. All I want to do is play games and get high and do creative work, but things keep going wrong and forcing me to get better at stuff I don't want to get better at.
I wonder if this is a class thing. Young urban elites are highly driven, and they can pay other people to do the grind work of modern life, so they have excess energy to put into dumb stuff like mountain climbing and clean eating. The rest of us just want to chill, but we have to keep solving the problems that appear as the system slowly collapses.
March 29. Taking a different path from Monday, I've been emailing with Matt about the difference between technologies that are in a big hurry to happen, like the light bulb, and technologies that are possible for decades before they finally appear -- a comment on the inevitability essay mentions the crock pot. I wrote, "I think the difference is that the successful ones are more glamorous. They're part of a story about humans becoming more like gods."
Here's an idea that I call the Superhero Test. What it tests, is how quickly a given technology will appear after it becomes realistic. And the test is to imagine a superhero named after that technology, and ask how popular his movies would be, at that time. So in 1878, Light Bulb Man would be a popular superhero, even if you called him Incandescent Man, or Glowing Filament In A Void Man, or See In The Night Man. But Crock Pot Man, or Slow Cooker Man, or Easy Soup Man... not a lot of people would see that movie.
Matt mentions cheap and frequent blood testing, as a possible tech that hasn't happened yet, and would save a lot of lives. Okay, which of these medical procedures would sell more tickets? 1) Look inside yourself and see if you need to eat more potassium. 2) Wait for the disease to appear and then fucking blast it!
I do believe in a human collective subconscious -- I call it subconscious rather than unconscious because I think it is conscious: it makes sense to ask what it's like to be that thing. So what is it like? If humans have a group mind, what it its personality?
I think it's impulsive and childish. It's smart enough, and powerful enough, to stop us from having a nuclear war, which would spoil the game. But it's unwise enough that it would rather terraform Mars than restore Earth's ecology. Two questions I can't answer: Is there a single monolithic human group mind, or is it more like a subconscious congress? And how much does it change, as our conscious personalities change?
New subject. There was a Reddit question a while back: if you were reincarnated, what aspects of your present self would you take with you into the next life? I thought about it, and if I could take only one thing, it would be my musical taste. It's my most direct connection to the Divine, it's highly developed, and it's not like anyone else's.
So I don't know if anyone cares, but I've made some upgrades to my flagship playlist. I call it Chrono Sunburst, because it's ordered by year, and it's most of my favorite songs, plus or minus ones that fit or don't fit the flow of the list. I've just added an extra Neil Diamond, an extra Camper Van Beethoven, replaced one Exuma song with another, added Brian Eno's "On Some Faraway Beach" (thanks Mike), and added a song I just discovered, "Love in the Time of Ecstacy" by Withered Hand. The whole list is at the top of my favorite songs page, and missing 8 of the 29 songs on Spotify. Update: after more listens, I decided that Love in the Time of Ecstacy fits better on my suicide playlist.
March 27. Continuing from Monday: What's inevitable about our future? The answer depends on whether we think that inevitability is part of some hidden intelligence. I'm going to start by pretending that it's not. If the universe is mindless and meaningless, then humanity is driving blind into ever-increasing danger, and it's only a matter of time before we go off a cliff. Probably we'll develop virtual reality so good that we lose interest in the physical world, and go extinct. At the same time, we'll probably use biotech to change ourselves so much that we're no longer viable in nature, and go extinct.
Now, if there is a mind behind the movement of technology and history -- whether it's a human collective subconscious, or space aliens, or whoever runs the simulation -- then they might have a plan for us, and they'll make sure we survive. Or they might not have a plan -- they might be improvising. In that case, I still think we're okay. As a sci-fi writer who makes up stories on the fly, I would never kill off humans, because we make such good characters. But I might kill off most of us, or I might change us to make us even more interesting.
If there is a mind, and a plan, then it still might not be about us. I've seen this idea more than once: that aliens are using us to change the earth's atmosphere to match their home planet, so they can live here and we can't. A nicer idea is that Gaia is using us to bring the carbon to the surface, which will eventually be turned into plants and animals, and the biosphere will be more rich and abundant than it's ever been, whether or not we're here to see it.
But suppose we are the heroes of the story. The popular story is that we colonize space. But remember, this is no longer a meaningless physical universe, because in that scenario, we have no chance. This is a mind-based universe, a big dream where matter is nothing more than condensed dream-stuff. In that case, why make the physical universe so big and so spread out? Without faster-than-light technology, even traveling to other starsystems is unrealistic, let alone to other galaxies. Why put them there if we can't go there?
One possibility is that it's all been set up for us to develop really good FTL tech, to go far out into the universe. But I think the physical universe is a metaphor. It's there to inspire us to imagine space exploration, to stretch our dreams enough that we'll be ready to explore a different kind of universe, one that we haven't discovered yet, or quite imagined.
Update: I thought of a scenario that fits through the cracks of my argument. 1) Sadly, we do live in a mindless physical universe. 2) The guiding intelligence behind technology and history is a human collective subconscious, and it's smart enough to keep us from going extinct. 3) In a thousand years, it might totally be realistic to send probes, terraformers, and finally human colonists, slower than light, to other starsystems, and gradually spread through our own galaxy.
March 25. This was posted a week ago on the subreddit, a ten year old Kevin Kelly essay, Progression of the Inevitable. It starts with a long and mind-blowing catalog of all the technology and science that was invented/discovered by multiple people at around the same time.
There are a bunch of directions to go with this. One is to ask if the same thing happens with creative work, and Kelly describes how several core details of the Harry Potter books existed in other books that J.K. Rowling probably didn't read. Still, he's talking about ideas and not execution. You can see this better with music. Without Led Zeppelin, we would still have heavy blues, but beyond that general description, it would be missing what makes Led Zeppelin great, especially in a song like Kashmir.
Another direction is to wonder about some kind of collective consciousness. Kelly rejects that idea outright, but Harry Potter works against him here, because you can tell a purely mechanical story about how conditions were ripe for incandescent light bulbs, but not about how another writer came up with "Larry Potter, an orphaned boy wizard wearing glasses surrounded by Muggles."
Of course he's just following the culture of his time, and a philosophical doctrine that I call antipsychism: whatever it is, you must assume there's no consciousness behind it. (The one exception is that we have to assume other individual humans are conscious, otherwise there would be social chaos.)
But this leads to another question: Is there an inevitable progression of social and philosophical ideas? I think there is. As much as I'd like to go back in time and kill Descartes, someone else would have come along and showed us how to think of reality as intrinsically lifeless. And there are already a lot of thinkers trying to re-animate the world, probably in better ways.
The final question is the hardest: What's inevitable about our future?
March 22. Today's post comes from an email conversation with Matt. On the last post, he comments: "In most renderings of 'Heaven', the rhythms and contrasts of life have been flattened." So I'm wondering, why is the heaven myth that way, and not some other way? Is it cultural, or biological? In squirrel heaven, would there still be winter?
I think our concept of heaven emerged from ancient settled cultures. Only when people start having year-round dwellings, and building physical wealth, do they start to see the perfect life as something that needs to be protected from change. That's why the Christian heaven, like ancient cities, has walls and gates. I'm curious about ancient nomadic cultures, and how they saw the afterlife. Update: Gannon mentions that the Tarahumara, described in the book Born To Run, believe "that upon death they shed their earthly bodies so they can more quickly glide across the earth."
Anyone who believes in a better life after death has to explain why we're not there already. Why do we have to spend any time in a world that's not the best available? Three guesses: 1) The next world is hard to appreciate, without being in this world first. 2) This is a simulation, or a prison world, where we have to develop certain skills and habits before we can be permitted to live in the real world. 3) The whole thing is not well-managed, and we're here by accident.
Of course Hindus believe in reincarnation, and I have a crazy idea that we're reincarnated as progressively "lower" creatures. Like, we start as miserable gods, and end up in the total bliss of being bacteria. Matt writes:
I have a conviction that, as bio-engineering and cyborg tech really gets going, a number of people will not only choose not to enhance themselves -- they'll choose states of consciousness closer to wolves and owls.
I'm thinking, we don't even need to imitate particular animals. All we need are technologies that can temporarily and precisely shut down different parts or functions of our brains. That's basically what recreational drugs do now, but future tech might make our drugs seem crude and clumsy.
Related? When Gut Bacteria Change Brain Function. It seems that eating yogurt can help with anxiety and depression.
March 20. I always buy the same grass-fed ground beef at Winco, and normally it's about 20% fat. But the latest batch is so lean that my hamburgers don't even leave any grease in the pan. So I'm wondering if the cows burned up all their fat in the long cold winter.
Whether or not that's true, until recently it was normal for the weather to affect our food. The food system is now so industrialized that we expect total uniformity of every product, and little deviations bother us.
When we talk about "meaning", and how little of it is left in the world, we're talking about connections, relationships, things influencing other things. If you're designing a game, it would be a great touch to make the fall meat fatty and the spring meat lean. It would make the world feel more alive.
So why is our society increasingly being designed to make the world feel less alive? Probably it's because we've been overvaluing predictability, undervaluing connectedness, and not noticing that we can't have both. If things are connected in a meaningful way, then things are influenced by other things enough that they're no longer predictable.
I was reading an article about the failing American Dream, which mentioned that we want to see life as a story, when really it's a bunch of random stuff that happens. I disagree. When I look at my own life, it's totally like a story, and if it gets too boring for the unseen audience, some painful and unlikely event will advance the plot.
The American Dream is not an attempt to make a story where there isn't one -- it's an attempt to control the story, to replace life's wild ride with a steady and predictable climb. And that level of control was only realistic for a few generations of the wealthiest nations in a brief age of perpetual growth.
Now that we're past that peak, we need to change our deep values, and I'm thinking of James Scott's book Against The Grain, and Morris Berman's book Wandering God. Settled peoples try to build wealth and security, so that nothing bad happens. Nomadic peoples try to set up their lives so that when bad stuff happens, they can keep going, and keep having a good time. That's a change we can make in our laws, and also in our heads.
March 18. I'm not feeling smart today, but here are two articles with the latest science on a problem I don't have, Why you shouldn't exercise to lose weight, and Death of the calorie. Basically, you should exercise for general health, and lose weight by permanently changing your habits to eat less-processed foods in moderate portions.
I still don't think we have the whole story, because lab animals on fixed diets are fatter than they used to be, and there was also a study that obese people who lose the weight become less healthy. Maybe there's some yet undiscovered medical condition, for which obesity is a defense.
New subject. Dick Dale died yesterday, and I realized that his most famous song was the missing piece in an instrumental playlist I've been working on. That link is the new playlist on Spotify, and here are YouTube links for Dick Dale's double-speed surf cover of Misirlou, and an old Greek version that's very different but also great.
March 15. Happy links for the weekend. An inspiring article on people living in converted school buses. I'm thinking, on the one hand, nomadic living is awesome and more of us should be able to do it. On the other hand, it takes a lot of energy to drive a school bus around, and to maintain roads good enough for school buses. I'm wondering what nomadic living will look like in a few hundred years.
Related: The Case for Getting Rid of Borders Completely
A popular article on How Inuit Parents Teach Kids To Control Their Anger. "Across the board, all the moms mention one golden rule: Don't shout or yell at small children."
'Extinct' Formosan clouded leopard spotted in Taiwan. I actually believe that nearly extinct animals can survive in a grey area, where they cannot be proven to exist, but there are still sightings. The Tasmanian tiger has been there for a while. Related, from the subreddit, A quantum experiment suggests there's no such thing as objective reality.
March 13. Moving from the outer world to the inner world, Against Willpower. The idea is that willpower is a pre-scientific concept, a social invention, that doesn't match what's really going on. But for me, it seems to match pretty closely. I don't feel like going to the gym, or taking the garbage out, or brushing my teeth, but I force myself to do that stuff because I know it's good for me; and if I force myself to do too much stuff that I don't feel like doing, I get burned out.
But when I take a second look at the article, it's completely about negative self-control, blocking yourself from doing stuff you think is bad for you, and not at all about positive self-control, forcing yourself to do stuff you think is good for you. The latter is usually framed as "procrastination", which is stupid. The problem is that there's all this shit we don't feel like doing, and to frame that problem as putting off doing that stuff, is like framing a knee injury as walking with a limp.
Anyway, one useful concept in the article is "intrapersonal bargaining". I would explain it like this: instead of "me" forcing "myself" to do or not do something, there are different voices inside me, with their own personalities and motives, and they need to have conversations and reach consensus about what to do. It's funny, because the phrase "inner peace" is such a cliche that we don't bother to unpack the words, but that's exactly what the words describe: the voices inside us working together instead of fighting. Maybe in some future enlightened age, they'll look back at our concept of "self-control" as a weird symptom of an authoritarian culture.
March 11. Two links from the subreddit. Is a Harvard MBA Bad for You? It's becoming more obvious that, not only do people with MBA's make the world generally worse, they're also unhappy. The article blames a deeper cultural shift "towards valuing profits and markets." I think it's something even deeper, but I can't put my finger on it. What have we lost, that we're so receptive to the idea that money is a good measure of value?
And this video, Thief vs AAA gaming, compares a great 1998 PC game with its lame 2014 remake. It's funny because the new game is bad in the same way that our whole society is bad. Instead of being immersed in a story with an unfolding mystery, in which we enjoy the process of growing our understanding, we're just given a bunch of quest markers for a tedious grind.
In my last post I wrote: "The real reason society is going to collapse, is when enough of us sense that we'll be happier living in a much simpler society." But "simpler" isn't the right word. Leigh Ann and I have been playing a really complex board game called Spirit Island. It's much better than a simple board game like Risk.
If a game designer looked at our world, they would see that it's highly complex in a way that's not at all fun. We don't actually want to live in a simple world -- we want to live in a well-designed complex world. But the best path from one complex world to another, is through simplicity, by stripping it down and building something different.
March 7. I don't wanna do my video game chores. It's about Red Dead Redemption 2, a new game that's highly rated for its scale and graphics, but a lot of people think it's boring.
I'll probably never play RDR2, but after I thought I was getting bored with all entertainment, Fallout 3 went on sale for $10 at GOG.com, so I started playing, and I love it! Like RDR2, it's a gritty open-world game with lots of quests and weapons. Here's a long video, Fallout 3 Is Better Than You Think.
When you look at discussions about which game in a series is better, like Fallout 3 vs 4 vs New Vegas, or Elder Scrolls Morrowind vs Oblivion vs Skyrim, everyone knows the newer games will have higher resolution graphics, but ultimately nobody cares, because whatever level of graphics the games have, players will get used to it. Instead people talk about things that are harder to quantify, like the feel of the game.
Strangely related: Why So Many Smart People Aren't Happy. The interviewee argues that people are seeking mastery, but they don't know how to measure it, so they fall into measuring it through quantifiable comparisons to other people, like salary, or awards. But those are also the kinds of things where whatever level you're at, you get used to it and aren't any happier than someone at another level. So instead, we should measure success by how much we enjoy what we're doing, and try not to look at the outcome.
You know, that's easy to say if you're already a relatively successful person, who fits well with the dominant culture, and can pick from a broad menu of jobs. I've known basically what kind of life would make me happy since I was 16 and wanted to run off and be a hermit in the mountains of Idaho. The real reason society is going to collapse, is when enough of us sense that we'll be happier living in a much simpler society, even if it's less comfortable.
March 4. Major Games Publishers Are Feeling The Impact Of Peaking Attention. "Consumers simply do not have any more free time to allocate to new attention seeking digital entertainment propositions, which means they have to start prioritising between them." The article is focused on the video game industry, but I see this as much bigger. Human attention is the world's most valuable resource, but it's not like oil, where the fields are drying up forever. It's more like farmland, and there's no more room to make new fields. Also, existing fields are getting depleted, as people burn out from all the low-quality demands on their attention. (Related: Let's Destroy Robocalls)
So what's a high-quality demand on your attention? That's for each of us to decide, and it changes with experience. If I had seen today's video games in 1980, I would have thought they could entertain me forever, and now it's hard for me to find anything I even want to play. A week ago I finally quit Ask Reddit, because what I can learn from that crowd, and what they can learn from me, are both approaching zero. About the same time, I wrote this in an email: "I've been meditating a lot more lately, for a strange reason, that I'm getting bored with almost anything else I could do. It's like the mind is a prison, and when you lose interest in all the stuff at the center of the prison, you start looking at the walls."
I see two kinds of walls, one between conscious and subconscious, and one between head and body. I think that's why the basic meditation technique is to focus on your breath, because your breath straddles both boundaries. Related, a long article from Aeon about conscious breathing.
Also, Seven Practical Facts about the Human Brain, including that 80% of signals go from your body to your brain, and only 20% from brain to body.
And an article about intuitive eating, which basically means getting better at sensing what your body needs to eat, instead of trying to force diets on it from your head.
February 27. I've just been in a minor car crash. I was going down an icy curve in a snowstorm, at the same cautious speed as all the other cars that were making the curve, and I had studded tires, but for some reason my car spun and nosed into the snowbank, and the truck behind couldn't brake in time and crumpled my back end. The car barely still drives, and now I'll have to figure out insurance and repairs, and maybe we'll have to buy another car. I also have a mild concussion, so I'll probably be posting less for a while, and answering fewer emails.
This is my second concussion in three years. In spring of 2016 (also losing control on a left turn) I faceplanted on a motorcycle. Now I'm wondering about the differences between a front-brain and back-brain concussion. There's been very little research on this. Two of the functions of the frontal cortex, which I seem to have been worse at since 2016, are coordination and motivation. The back of the brain does mostly visual processing.
February 25. Three links about work, money, and the future. An Office Designed for Workers With Autism. I've got a crazy idea, and surely I'm not the first person to say this, but I haven't read it anywhere. Julian Jaynes thought that 3000 years ago, by modern standards, everyone was schizophrenic. Maybe in a few hundred years, almost everyone will be autistic. Of course, by then, "autistic" or "on the spectrum" won't be one category. It will be seen as a bunch of different ways of being normal, and today's "neurotypicals" will be seen as throwbacks.
The Religion of Workism Is Making Americans Miserable. I like the article's tidy definition of a religion: something "promising identity, transcendence, and community." Another key sentence: "In the past century, the American conception of work has shifted from jobs to careers to callings -- from necessity to status to meaning."
But the most important point, which the article strangely misses, is that when we talk about "work", we're talking about money. If you just go through the article, and substitute every instance of the word "work" with the words "stuff we do for money," the whole issue becomes a lot more clear. It's not that we're trying to merge activity with meaning -- that's normal for all biological life. The problem is that Americans are trying to merge paid activity with meaning, because they can't let go of money as a measure of transcendent value. That's not "religion" under some weird definition -- it's straight-up Calvinism.
Money is the opposite of love, because if you get money for doing something, you don't care if you don't love it, and if you love doing something, you don't care if you don't get money for it. The attempt to merge money and love is an insane delusion of late-stage capitalism. When we give up on that delusion, the right way to live is obvious: find a way to make just enough money, with as little time and energy as possible. Then, do exactly what you love to do, with no expectation of making money from it.
The Philosopher Redefining Equality. I would say it like this: We think that freedom and equality are opposites, because our authoritarian culture defines freedom as the freedom of the powerful to have their way with the weak. So "economic freedom" is the freedom of whoever has money, to leverage it into more money, at the expense of whoever doesn't have money.
But suppose we defined economic freedom from the perspective of people who don't have money. Then it becomes the freedom to have a good life, to do what you love, to participate in society, despite not having money. So if we want to fix social inequality, the best move is not to redistribute money, but to redesign society so that money is not that important. That's why I don't like the unconditional basic income. I mean, it would be an improvement, but it's better to just make more stuff free. Eventually, money could be like casino chips, or like credits in some multiplayer video game. If you have it, you can do some cool stuff in popular sub-worlds, but it's a realistic option to never have it.
There's an old debate: Is money the root of all evil, or is love of money the root of all evil? I think that money alone is a major root of evil, as long as it gives us the power to make other people do stuff they would prefer not to do. When money stops having that power, it's no longer evil, and we no longer love it.
February 22. Going back to the subject of intelligence, our culture tells us that intelligence is a thing, and IQ measures it. I disagree with both points. IQ is a test score, and the word "intelligence" points to a lot of different things. Even if we ignore Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, and focus on stuff that's completely inside the head, there are still a lot of things going on.
For example, there's narrow focus, wide focus, and the ability to switch between them. There's the ability to find patterns in apparent noise, and the ability to look outside those patterns. There's the ability to lay down habits, to perform habits smoothly, and to take habits apart. There's creativity, whatever that even means. There's intuition, whatever that means, and the ability to shift between intuitive and rational thinking. There's "rabbitholing", the ability to chase thoughts from one subject to another, and then the ability to remember where you've been and backtrack. There's the ability to hold contradictory ideas at the same time, and to stay sane when ideas get weird.
How many of these are even being tested for? The guy who invented the sewing machine had a dream where the hole was at the tip of the needle. How can they test for that? Suppose you can see a different interpretation of a test question, something that didn't occur to the test makers, and it leads you away from what they think is the right answer. Then you're going to get a lower score for having a higher intelligence. That isn't just a feature of IQ tests, but of all possible tests.
A week ago I mentioned how IQ tests are always timed. What if they weren't? What if you could take as long as you wanted, with no effect on your score? Then IQ tests would start to measure patience, persistence, and the desire for perfection, all arguably measures of intelligence, that are measured badly or not at all in a timed test. Or you could turn it around and ask: what kind of culture would test intelligence without a time limit? A culture that's not in a hurry.
Industrial culture is not only in a hurry, it's also heavy with grindwork. As physical grindwork gets taken over by machines, there is more mental grindwork. That's probably why mentally skilled people are having a crisis of meaning, because of all the things their brains could be doing, they're mostly serving as mental warehouse workers, stacking and unstacking boxes all day. What if we want to dance with the boxes, or break them?