July 9. I have a rule: never talk about what I'm going to write, only about what I've written. Now I can say, I've been writing book two of my novel, continuing the stories of all the same characters, plus a few new ones.
For a month I've been typing my handwritten stuff into Notepad++, and last Wednesday I spent all day putting it in order, 43 blocks of four sometimes-interlinking storylines. (It's more complex than book one, but shorter.) Friday night I spent eight hours on cannabis solving the last hard problems: finding the right words, smoothing the transitions, making the worldbuilding consistent, and writing some new stuff. I want to do more polishing before I convert it to other filetypes, and add more quotes at the beginnings of chapters, but it's pretty much done.
Tomorrow I fly to Europe for a month.
July 12. I'm in Bonn, going to the Netherlands tomorrow. Everyone knows how Europe is better than America: single payer health care, abundant public transportation, streets friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists, and cool old buildings. But there are surprising ways it's not as good. I have yet to see a free public restroom, or a drinking fountain. The buses here are honor system, and the drivers really hate taking money. I think they want everyone without a pass to cheat.
Jet lag doesn't always make sense. It was just really hard for me to wake up from a nap, despite having slept eight of the last 24 hours, and it being a time in the Pacific zone when I'm always wide awake.
So far my second biggest mistake was catching the wrong intercity train, which is really easy to do. The actual trains are not not well labeled, so you have to look carefully at the screens on the platforms. Luckily it was just going to a different station in the same city. And my biggest mistake was wearing shoes that were not well broken in. To recover, I've had to walk around in my barefoot shoes with my heels hanging out.
July 14. Today my native guide took me into surprisingly deep woods between Baarn and Utrecht. In five hours we walked somewhere between 15 and 20 kilometers. It was like a taste of heaven, and then at the end having to come back to the human zoo.
We talked about psychedelics, and he mentioned a Salvia entity who seemed surprised to encounter an intelligent creature descended from monkeys. It reminded me of a line from my novel (book 1, chapter 16):
"Monkeys!" Brillix spat. "Before time, the Swamp Mother bristled at the arrogance of the Sun, and made his children from the most incorrigible of all beasts."
July 16. Today I'm taking a day of rest. Yesterday another reader showed me around Utrecht, the densest city I've been in so far. Right wingers talk about the "failure of socialism", and I don't know what they mean, but what I see is that socialism has failed to protect us from capitalism, when there are public squares with no place to sit down without spending money. (Later we found some benches by a beautiful canal at the edge of downtown.) It's also really creepy that you can't leave the train station without scanning a ticket.
July 18. The first week is always the hardest... I hope. I'm now fully recovered from jet lag, I know how to read a train platform, and I know to look for Aldi and what to buy there. Last night I bought two pouch soups, a small tub of garlic butter, dried salami sticks, mixed toasted nuts, and ziplock bags. I still have bread and nectarines, which are incredibly cheap.
When I came to Europe in college, at first I did the usual tourist things, but by the end of the trip, I had figured out what I really liked to do — when I went to a museum, I went straight to the dead stuffed animal exhibits. This time, I already know that I want to get the feel of the city, look at the buildings, and then find the best park.
Maastricht is my favorite city so far. It's a good size with a casual vibe, and lots of cool old churches. I found an awesome place called the Frontenpark. It's a bunch of old brick ramparts that they turned into a feral nature preserve, and it's almost deserted. [Update: returning the next day, I discovered that it's really hard to explore, because there are so many locked gates.]
July 20. A reader mentions that I haven't shown any anxiety in my travel notes, but I don't think I've felt it any less. It's just that when I'm really busy, it's like going fast in a car. If the road gets muddy, or goes uphill, my momentum will carry me through. Of course, a bad enough road will stop any car, which is why busy people still burn out.
Then I'm thinking, probably the epidemic of depression and anxiety is even worse than it seems, and it's being covered up by the busyness of modern life.
Side subject: drugs. You would think that LSD, being synthetic, would be good for watching TV and listening to complex recorded music, and THC, being natural, would be good for walking in the woods. In my experience it's exactly the opposite. It's like both drugs are using their human hosts to appreciate what they find most unfamiliar.
July 20, late. So I'm not going to make it to Prague. My ticket went Bonn to Koln to Frankfurt and then a night bus to Prague, and I'm really paranoid about missing trains, but when the Bonn-Koln train was ten minutes late, I was sure I would still have time to make the transfer. I got on for a 19 minute trip, and 19 minutes later, both the display and the voice on the train said, next stop, Koln HBF. I got off, and thought, that's strange, this is not the right track number, and I don't see the cathedral. I opened up the CityMaps2Go app, and it told me I was at Koln West. Did I just have my first ever full-on hallucination? [Update: I think the train computer was off by one stop, which happens sometimes.]
The HBF was a mile away, so I hurried across the city with my bags to try to catch the next train, which was only possible if it was delayed, and I happened to pass through a gathering of homeless people. It was like a Terry Gilliam movie. And at the station, on the expected track number, there was a delayed train to Frankfurt just arriving.
I got on, but it turned out to be a different, much slower train. There was no way I was making that bus, so I started thinking about how I could get back to Bonn. But my train was actually stopping in Bonn - the original ticket had gone the opposite direction on the first leg to catch the fast train. So back in Bonn, I went to get off, and the door wouldn't open! I hurried to make it out another door before the train pulled away, and saw that every door except that one had opened. Going up the stairs to the street, people were gathered around a guy sprawled in his own blood.
July 23. Traveling is like being a student among mostly unwilling teachers. Most of what I'm doing, I'm doing for the first time, among people who have done it hundreds of times. So they're often irritated that I'm slowing them down, and maybe they're also envious that I'm doing new things while they're in a rut — although right now the "rut" of being back at home, getting high or playing video games, sounds really appealing.
If you enjoy learning, you could say there's never been a better time for it, with so many new things all the time. But then, so many of these new things are just the dull glitter of short-lived culture, or Kafkaesque minutiae, like the difference between IC and ICE trains, or that pay toilets don't take 5 centi-Euro coins, or how to copy and paste on an iPad.
Yesterday we went to the Neanderthal museum, and my favorite exhibit was a ring of two-sided signs, with the stories of two alternate versions of an extended family, one in our own time and one in the upper Paleolithic. You could say that we are the ones living in a crude and primitive world, a world of artifacts invented by humans only a very short time ago: apartments and traffic, college and wage labor, government and business. Neanderthals lived in a rich and complex world that nature has been working on for half a billion years. Maybe the best thing about our own time is how much room there still is to make the human world better, or how much tension there is pulling us back toward the rest of life.
Here's a picture of me at the Neanderthal museum.
July 25. Why Is Google Translate Spitting Out Sinister Religious Prophecies? Some people think our tech system has been possessed by demons, and I sort of agree — it's just hard to define the word "demon".
We're not talking about goat-footed minions of Satan. They're more like trickster spirits, or agents of fate. I'm not sure if they have existence outside the human subconscious, but I'm sure they have powers of mind over matter. They just can't do anything obvious — there has to be plausible deniability. So they can't make a mechanical clock run backwards, but when technology gets so complex that no one fully understands it, they have a lot of room to play tricks and pull strings.
I don't want to sound completely paranoid. Maybe it was blind chance that the train computer showed the wrong station and stopped me from going to Prague. But I expect that kind of thing to happen more often, to more people, on larger scales.
Related: Erik sends this dense and trippy reddit post about Rupert Sheldrake, Terence McKenna, and spacememory, through which the universe works to increase novelty and complexity.
July 28. Today we got into Glasgow. My trip is just past half over, and I already have a good idea of how I want to do it differently next time. I've been spending a lot of money, and it often puts me in a universe that makes me feel uncomfortable, because it's less tolerant of aliveness. Museums have some great stuff, but I can't run, or eat, or go barefoot, and I have to constantly be careful to not bump into stuff. (Yes, I'm 50 years old.) Restaurants often have good food, but they feel like hard tests in correct social behavior. It's tiring.
The next time I go away from home, I want to go into the woods, just guerrilla camping by some tiny stream a half mile off the highway. And if I come to Europe again, I'd like to do it for three weeks, one week each in three places, stay in a hostel with a kitchen, make my own meals, and just walk around looking at buildings and people, or sit in parks and cafes writing.
Here's my crazy personal utopia. I want to be homeless, in a world that doesn't just tolerate homelessness, but is optimized for it. So you're never asked for a permanent address, you can camp almost anywhere, and basic sanitation, food, and even transportation don't cost any money. I'm afraid the unconditional basic income would lead to the opposite, where there's no excuse for trying to live without money, and the system nickel-and-dimes us for our tiniest needs.
August 1. Picking up from a week ago, Gryphon sends this Twitter post by Gwern, Maxims of Applied Demonology.
The word "demon" is used for so many things. Scott Peck's book People of the Lie uses it for something that a psychologist would call personified mental illness. I find this concept useful: that there are voices in my head, that don't serve my long-term interests, and don't want me to know about them.
Gwern's concept of the demon world is oddly heavy with financial metaphors. I'd like to see some rules of demonology from a culture without money. As a Taoist-pantheist, I would put it this way: if you go astray from the Tao, your gains will not be worth it, and circumstances will pull you back toward the Tao. When I write about "agents of fate", that's a personification of the future imposing its will on the present.
Then there's the concept of demons as trickster spirits, who might not want anything except to toy with human emotions.
Farther down in Gwern's feed, he has a critique of utopian social engineering, where he writes, "Small samples show wild gains but bigger samples show smaller, often zero, effects."
That happens in a lot of things, all the way from paranormal research to hard science, where it's called the decline effect. I see it as a universal law of reality creation. When fewer people are looking, for a shorter time, it's easier for the eye/mind to see/create what it wants. As more perspectives join, they bring reality back toward the conventional.
August 7. Leigh Ann just bought a thing with a quote from Karl Kraus, who has a bunch of other good quotes. This one is "Das Chaos sei willkommen, denn die Ordnung hat versagt." An actual German suggests this translation: "The reign of chaos be welcome for the reign of order has failed."
Is that true? To me it seems like order has failed pretty badly, and people still aren't welcoming chaos. I guess it depends on what order is supposed to do. It's doing a great job at keeping us safe, and a terrible job at stuff that's harder to quantify. From a couple days ago, this Reddit thread asks What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning? Only one person in the entire thread actually looks forward to doing something that society considers productive, and he's elderly.
August 7-9. In Berlin we had an air-conditioned hotel room, and in Munich we don't. With temperatures over 90F (32C), the difference is overwhelming. And yet, it's still only a difference in comfort. Once we get used to the heat, it doesn't make us miserable like hunger or thirst would.
So I'm thinking, with climate change getting worse, and economic collapse inevitable, that could become the biggest indicator of social class, among people who aren't starving and don't have private jets: how cool they can keep their living space.
There's a lot of R&D going on right now on heat pumps that don't use harmful refrigerants, or use alternatives to the common compression/expansion models. But heat pumps all dump waste heat somewhere, so using an air conditioner to cool one place means heating up another place. I can even sometimes tell which drivers have their A/C on when I'm lane splitting on my bicycle because the air around them is so much warmer.
Contrast that to older methods of cooling spaces that have no such downside. I'm thinking of things as simple as shading buildings with deciduous plants, or building them tall and close together to minimize solar gain, or building for cooling air flow using stack effects, or even going so far as using airflow over cisterns or building qanats and wind towers or wind catchers.
August 13. It's great to be home, and I want to make it clear: I'm glad I went to Europe. It was really good for me. But mostly it was a long series of challenges and ordeals. Everyone has things that they feel uncomfortable doing, and if possible, we arrange our lives so we don't have to do those things. For me, three big ones are 1) navigating social landscapes where I don't know the rules; 2) dealing with people in uniforms; and 3) spending money. I just did all of those things repeatedly for a month, and now they bother me less. But it felt more like boot camp than a holiday.
If I go to Europe again, I might buy an unlimited rail pass, even if it ends up being more expensive than buying tickets individually. Because in addition to transportation, I would be buying lack of stress, where there are no consequences for missing a train, and also buying the freedom to improvise. Or I might just stay the whole time in one place. I'd also like to do a trans-Atlantic cruise, because it would be more chill and less dehumanizing than flying, and I hear some of them are really cheap.
Here's a quick best of Europe list. Best beer: Campervan Leith Juice, Edinburgh. Best Asian food: Akito Sushi and Co Chu, Berlin. Best Italian food: Ristorante Rigoletto, Mettmann, Germany. Best Mexican food: Topolabamba, Glasgow. Best museum: National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. In that museum was the thing with the best name: the logboat of the Loch Glashan crannog. Best public parks: Maastricht, Netherlands. Best public toilets: Princes Square, Glasgow. Best travel seats: National Express buses, Scotland. Best mall: Fünf Höfe, Munich. Only drinking fountain I ever saw: Friedensplatz, Bonn. Best art collection: railroad graffiti around Düsseldorf.
August 30. Loosely related links. Street Trees is a reddit post from Slate Star Codex, about the many benefits of street trees to health and public expenses. You could make a semantic argument that these are not "economic benefits", since the present economic model requires more and more spending. If you extrapolate the benefits of street trees far enough, nature does everything for free and we don't have an economy.
Tracking animals from space could predict earthquakes on the ground. Apparently, the technology to watch wild animals from outer space is still more simple and primitive than whatever animals are doing to predict earthquakes. (Or it may turn out that their ability to predict earthquakes will disappear when too many people are watching.)
A reddit thread about the worst place to live in America has this sub-thread about the shittiness of Alaskan villages, which takes a fascinating twist into dystopian space colonies.
While I love space fiction, in the real world I'm more excited about biotech. Her Mother Was Neanderthal, Her Father Something Else Entirely. The stone age had several kinds of intelligent hominids running around, not unlike Lord of the Rings, and this could also happen in the future with human genetic modification.
September 6-7. Deep in this reddit thread, about dumb things people do because they've seen it in movies, 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 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.
Related: this blog post by Siderea, 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. 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.
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.
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.
September 12. 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.
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 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 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.