"Look at the sunset from the sun's point of view."
- Steven Wright
May 31. Going back to Monday's subject, Jim comments on reincarnation:
I have never gotten past the whole "escape the cycle of rebirth" thing. To me it's the same as the Christian heaven, just with more levels to the game. Particularly, because no one can answer why we're all trying to escape the cycle, or what lies beyond. What if there is no escape? What's the point of rebirth if it just cycles around (which seems more natural than some sort of escape)? What if this earthly life is where it's all at? What if souls come back to earth to be reborn when they get bored in soulworld because no one remembers them and interacts with them anymore? What if gods/goddesses/saints are so busy on the ethereal plane because earthly people still interact with them, that they feel no need to be reborn? The whole thing is fascinating.
I've mentioned this before, but I can't find it in the archives: my favorite crazy idea about reincarnation is that we all start out as miserable gods, then gradually work our way to progressively "lower" and happier animals. That's why there are so many ants and bacteria, because the game has been going on for so long. Maybe after bacteria, we become atoms.
I've also been thinking about a line by Thaddeus Golas, in The Lazy Man's Guide To Enlightenment, that in a metaphysical sense, "There's nobody here but us chickens." No higher power, no cosmic plan, just a very large number of equal beings playing. It can't be that simple, or there wouldn't be so much unnecessary pain, but it's a refreshing idea: a mind-based universe with no purpose.
Then I've been thinking, suppose reality is like fan fiction: it's fundamentally not serious, and within certain constraints, anything goes.
New subject. The women's World Cup starts in a week, and I'll probably be posting highlights. Here's one from a warmup game, a spectacular Erin Cuthbert goal. At around 37 seconds, you can see how the ball beats the keeper by curving hard to the right.
May 29. Long article from The Economist, The Curse of Genius. A few months ago in this post I mentioned that I don't like the word "gifted", and I argued that what IQ tests measure is overrated and often harmful. This article is interesting because it defines "gifted" as more than just intellect: "Kendall describes gifted children of that age as 'driven': 'They never stop and they set themselves incredibly high standards.'" And "They have what is sometimes called 'a rage to master.'"
There's a suggestion here that would be radical, if it were made more explictly: that there is a single underlying cause, that makes kids both smart and driven. Probably these are two different things, which seem related because of selection bias. The kids who have both brainpower and drive are noticed by the giftedness experts, and the kids with only one or the other are not noticed.
I'm interested in this subject because I have brainpower and not drive. I always got top grades in math and science without hardly trying, and teachers were always frustrated that I wasn't interested in whatever they were teaching. Twenty years ago I applied for a proofreading job at Amazon, and aced the test, but I must have failed the interview because I didn't match Amazon's high-achievement culture. My middle school actually had a gifted program, but they didn't put me into it, probably because I worked too slowly.
So now I'm wondering: What exactly is drive and where does it come from? The motivational industry would have us believe it's something anyone can have, but it seems more like something you're born with. My biggest fear about biotech is that they'll discover a drive gene. Of course all the parents will want their kids to have it, and it will unleash a generation so maniacally driven that they'll destroy the planet.
Or is drive a matter of fit? Could you take the high achievers and the lazy people out of one culture, put them in a different culture, and they would switch roles?
Going back to the Curse of Genius article, there's some stuff I can relate to, like chronic anxiety and low social intelligence. But I've never suffered much from boredom, because I'm good at daydreaming. Maybe daydreaming is actually the thing I'm highly driven at.
May 27. Trippy science article (thanks Bill), The Universe as Cosmic Dashboard. The idea is, what seems to us to be an objective physical world, is just a simplified interface to a shared mental world:
Evolution has provided each of us with a dashboard of dials that inform us about the environment we live in. But we don't have a window to look directly at what is out there; all we have are the dials. The error we make is in mistaking the dials for the external environment itself.
Sometimes I see the question: Can quantum weirdness ever appear at the macro level? The respectable answer is no, but I think it happens all the time. Just look at the literature on unreliable eyewitness testimony, and you'll see one example after another of witnesses who report radically different things. This is the same thing that happens in subatomic experiments, where "different observers can give different -- though equally valid -- accounts of the same sequence of events." The only reason it doesn't count as quantum weirdness, is if you're presupposing objective physical reality, in which only one observation can be right.
If you want to get really weird, we've all heard the idea that maybe we see colors differently: what you see as red, I see as blue, but we don't know because we use the same word. But suppose it goes far beyond colors, and you and I live in completely different universes. So when I describe, say, going to the store to buy garbage bags, I'm actually talking about something so alien that you can't even imagine it, but there's some interface that lets us communicate as if we're in the same world. And when this interface reaches its limits, we get disagreements that we can't reconcile.
Related: Navy Pilots Report Unexplained Flying Objects. I'm not going to try to argue it here, but if you read some books by the smart UFO researchers, like John Keel or Jaques Vallee, they all end up at basically the same conclusion. These sightings are not space aliens, or secret technology, but some kind of projection into our world, from some world we don't understand. It's been happening for all of human history, and it tends to fit the culture of the observer; so ancient people saw gods, and medieval people saw fairies, and in the late 1800's there were a bunch of anomalous hot air balloon sightings, and now we're seeing high-tech drones.
Less related than you think: last Thursday I took LSD, only half a hit because my supply is running low, and walked up the river trail out of town. Maybe it's because I've never taken a big dose, but LSD has never made me hallucinate. Instead, I've discovered that it turns nature into heaven. Probably the three happiest days of my life were when I took LSD and went into semi-wild areas. Earlier this month I spent a bunch of time in museums, and last week I was reminded that any actual flower is more beautiful than any Georgia O'Keeffe painting, and any lichen-patched rockface is better than a Jackson Pollock.
More generally, when I'm on LSD, anything made by humans remains just as boring as when I'm sober. But that evening, still on the LSD plateau, I vaped some weed, and cannabis doesn't care if something is natural or man-made -- it makes everything better. Even though I took smallish doses of both drugs, I got great synergy, and was tripping so hard that I put this song on loop for half an hour and watched videos in my head.
I did get one metaphysical insight from the LSD, but it only makes sense if you accept something like reincarnation. The idea is, some religions believe the purpose of life is to transcend the physical world, or to escape the cycle of life and death. But what if transcendence is a lie, or a trap? What if the actual purpose is to stay here for as long as we can?
May 22. I have no original ideas this week, so I'll just post some links with little or no comment, starting with two from the subreddit. Some good news, Human Composting Is About To Become Legal In Washington State.
And from Aeon magazine, Civilisational collapse has a bright past - but a dark future. The idea is, most historical collapses made life better for most people, but if our system collapses, that won't be the case, because we're so dependent for our survival on the technological infrastructure.
Why America Can't Solve Homelessness. Because homelessness is the result of concentrated wealth, where ridiculous incomes drive ridiculous rents that more and more people can't afford. Related: How San Francisco broke America's heart, and In San Francisco, Tech Money Doesn't Buy Happiness.
The Case for Doing Nothing. I love how this is a trend now, but I wonder if it's all talk, if these articles are being written and read by people who aspire to do nothing, but remain busy.
A short thread on the Eldertrees subreddit, about weed as a tool for therapy. Lately cannabis has been giving me something like nostalgia for the present, where whatever I'm doing, it's like I'm looking back on it from the far future and really appreciating it.
Finally, from last weekend's NWSL action, this is the best team goal I've ever seen. A single Utah Royals possession takes seven seconds, with five different players each taking one touch on the ball.
May 20. I forgot to mention a cool artwork from our trip. Here's a picture of me next to it, Untitled No. 25 by Lee Bontecou. I've also just updated my picture on the about me page, now standing next to a bee painting at the Smithsonian zoo.
Lately there seems to be a lot of buzz about climate change and what we can do about it. Personally I've been eating less beef, which has an enormous carbon footprint. But this puny change will not make any difference, and in general, I'm against the whole idea of tackling global problems through voluntary lifestyle changes by individuals. We need to change the rules of the game: eliminate agricultural subsidies that make ecologically harmful foods affordable, put massive taxes on fossil fuels, redesign cities to be really unfriendly to cars, and generally make the right behaviors not altruistic but practical.
If you take voluntary sacrifice to its logical conclusion, the best thing we can all do to stop climate change is to kill ourselves. But we're not in this world to solve problems by being less alive. I can't think of a way to stop climate change by being more alive (unless it's industrial sabotage). But we can deal with the results of climate change by being more alive: more willing to migrate from coasts, and more willing to try new things in the face of chaos and failure.
May 17. Back in Pullman, and looking forward to my favorite thing: huge blocks of time with nothing I'm supposed to be doing.
On the road I only have my iPad, which is really hard to work with when I'm hand-coding these posts. So now that I'm home, I can post links of stuff from the trip. Surprisingly, my favorite art was not in the Smithsonian but in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts: African masks, Art Nouveau sculptures, and Thomas Hart Benton lithographs.
We ate out a lot in DC, and my favorite place was Slash Run, a dive bar with great burgers, where I had this incredible beer, Hermit Thrush Stickney Kriek, and a DJ played lots of classic psych rock I'd never heard, including this brilliant song from 1968, Gary Walker and the Rain - Magazine Woman.
And back to the usual subjects, sometimes I say that prominent doomers are not serious forecasters but performers, and here's a perfect example. Jared Diamond has just declared, "There's a 49 percent chance the world as we know it will end by 2050." He's being mocked for using such a precise number with such a muddy prediction, but if you take the statement apart, he knows exactly what he's doing. He didn't just pull that number out of his ass, but out of the psychology of his audience: 49 percent is the most you can warn people about danger while still being an optimist. "The world as we know it will end" is so vague that it covers the fears of almost everyone. And 2050 is a round-numbered year just close enough for most people to care about.
What Diamond is really saying is, "I want to lead the largest possible public discussion about the collapse of our civilization." There's also an unspoken subtext: that we prefer the world as we know it to the world that will come. But what if we don't? Isn't it strange that the most popular movies are about superheroes, and the goal of the heroes, in every single movie, is to save the world? I think these stories reflect a deep ambivalence, where we want the world to keep going the same way, and we also want to tear it down and try something different. I've said before that the greatest threats to our society are psychological. But it makes more sense the other way around: the greatest threats to our psychological health are in the design of our society.
May 10. Yesterday we went to the zoo, and I'm wondering if I can do anything new with the old metaphor, that our society is a "human zoo". For the metaphor to be helpful, there has to be an anti-zoo, a possible human condition that corresponds to wild animals in nature. You could argue that there isn't, because 1) we're domesticated, 2) there's a huge variety of nature-based cultures, and 3) some of them are worse than the zoo.
But I'm going to say there is a human anti-zoo: it's any society that fits human nature. Defining "fit" is a hard problem, but I would start with Erich Fromm's argument for the very existence of human nature: that if we were infinitely malleable, there would be no revolutions.
This thoughtful essay, The Myth of Convenience, argues that the project of technological society has changed, from the conquest of nature to the conquest of human nature. This much longer essay, how to do nothing, explains how public spaces are engineered to keep everyone busy. It's full of other ideas about art and technology and perception, but I don't have time to read the whole thing right now - I'm on vacation.
Anyway, now the zoo metaphor is getting stretched, because zoo animals are bored - yesterday we saw an elephant that has worn a path from walking in a figure 8. For modern humans, boredom is a luxury. We're so overwhelmed with demands on our attention that having nothing to do would be an upgrade. It's funny, every cage has a sign: don't tap on the glass. We have yet to give ourselves that protection.
May 3. Long article from the Guardian, Post-work: the radical idea of a world without jobs. Every time I read an article about "work", I like to go through and mentally substitute "work for money", because that's what they're really talking about, and it makes the issue a lot more clear. For example, when a politician says "Mankind is hardwired to work," he means we're hardwired to be active, and he can't imagine any way of managing human activity other than the money-based system that's only a few hundred years old, and already failing.
Related, a short blog post, I Can't Do Anything for Fun Anymore; Every Hobby Is an Attempt to Make Money. I'm the opposite. When I start a creative project, I see the world of money as a danger.
For example, this long reddit comment describes the conflict between Mike Love and Brian Wilson in the Beach Boys. Brian Wilson wanted to keep pushing the boundaries of creativity, while Mike Love wanted to make money by giving audiences what they expected. Love got his way, mainly because Wilson was sliding into mental illness.
Subtly related: Behind the New, Gloriously Queer Emily Dickinson Movie. Emily Dickinson has always been seen as "a lonely, morose spinster," but it turns out she had a life-long lover, who married Emily's brother just so the two could be close. The evidence is in erased lines from letters, which have been recovered through new technology. The funny thing is, another Emily Dickinson movie, A Quiet Passion, got a lot of stuff wrong, and nobody questioned its accuracy, while the new movie, Wild Nights With Emily, is based on much more careful scholarship, and people are angrily challenging it. The point is, you have to fight to show people something different from what's already in their heads.
May 1. Continuing from Monday, Nick writes:
I live in Ho Chi Minh City, and here that collective consciousness is glaringly obvious. I joked that you could do a documentary about Vietnamese motorbike riders where David Attenborough says "despite decades of research, nobody knows how they so precisely and quickly coordinate their movements."
Now I'm trying to diagnose myself, because I've never experienced that kind of flow state. It's not mental vs physical. In middle school I was the worst athlete in every sport, but I was also the best calligrapher in art class and the best lathe worker in shop class. When I get in the flow, it's always working alone, with unlimited time to really focus my attention.
I think the reason I can't get into the flow in fast group activities, is that I have something like proprioceptive dysfunction. It's not that I don't know where my limbs are or how to move them, but that I don't know subconsciously. For me to walk around without bumping into things, takes the same kind of mental focus as saying tongue twisters, or counting the grooves around a coin. Maybe I'm good at those things because I have to practice that kind of precise focus all the time, just to navigate the physical world without people getting mad at me.
Related: On Monks and Email. It's a short post about how medieval monks arranged their lives to eliminate distractions so they could spend hours in deep thought, and how we're basically the opposite.
April 29. Looking back over the last few months of this page, I posted heavily in December and January, and then February was my most productive month ever. Then I had the car crash, and since then I've been posting less. I don't know if the concussion made me dumber, or if it's just that I've been too busy dealing with insurance, and also some family stuff that came up at the same time.
Anyway, the other driver's insurance company (State Farm) was surprisingly generous, maybe because there were no medical costs, which is rare when a car gets totaled. So on Saturday we were in Seattle, with a big wad of cash to buy another car. Leigh Ann did all the research, and we ended up getting a 2008 Honda Fit in great condition, negotiating the dealer down from $6500 to $5000.
Funny, when I offered $5000, he wrote down $4999. That's how I know he was still happy with the deal. It helped that the car was a cheap trade-in, taking up valuable space on a lot that was otherwise packed with expensive trucks. Also it has a problem that's common with older Fits, where water leaks in around the hatchback. My brother-in-law Sean, who also helped a lot with the car shopping, looked on YouTube and found out how to (probably) fix it by putting caulk on some cracks between body panels. So yesterday we did that and drove home.
Driving really wears me out mentally. Most people can just zone out, but I have to give it my full conscious attention to not crash, and it always seems like everyone is going much too fast.
I actually believe there's some kind of collective unconscious that prevents car crashes, because when you look at how incompetent humans are generally, and how casual people are about safe driving, there should be a hundred times as many car crashes. The average person should be having one every week or two, and bad drivers should be crashing multiple times per day. The only way I can make sense of the strange rarity of car crashes, is if people are tuning into some level of information not yet discovered by science, something that syncs them up with other drivers and the road, even if they're hardly paying attention.
Friday already we'll be driving back across the state, to fly across the country for two nights in Richmond and a week in DC. So posting will continue to be light for a while.
April 26. Two quick ecology links. Restoring natural forests is the best way to remove atmospheric carbon, and To nurture nature, neglect your lawn.
And some music, starting with the most challenging: Jake Tobin - Specific People. Jake Tobin's other stuff is also jazzy and experimental, but otherwise not like this. It sort of reminds me of Adrian Belew with King Crimson.
Wireheads - 8 Minutes and 19 Seconds. This is the only YouTube video from my current favorite album, Country Space Junk. The song is basically a prayer to the sun: "Thanks for keeping us warm, thanks for keeping us in orbit."
And of all the songs I love from this decade, this has to be the most commercial-sounding: Camp Claude - Swimming Lessons.
April 24. I have some thoughts on "religion", and I put that word in quotes because I continue to not like the way it carves up the world. Matt writes this about certain religious people:
It's like they're obsessed with a movie that came out in 1999. They think it's the best movie ever written and it's the only movie they ever talk about or watch.... On one level, there's little difference between Christians and 13-year-old Star Wars nerds.
So I'm thinking, Evangelicals are like that, but Unitarians are nothing like that. My point is, our concept of religion divides movements and communities according to belief, when it's more helpful to divide them according to mental state. So Evangelicals, Star Wars nerds, and people who are obsessed with some political movement, have more in common with each other, than with Unitarians, casual Star Wars watchers, and people who engage the political system without being obsessed.
Or maybe obsession is also the wrong angle, and a better way to frame it is the strength of ingroup-outgroup thinking. So the test is: can you be friends with someone who disagrees with you?
This all comes back to the search for meaning, the human need to be part of a story. And you can put stories on a spectrum, from simple to complex. The danger is when too many people find meaning in simple and compelling stories, that draw a clean line between good and bad.
April 22. What's the Point of Self-Improvement Anyway? The author makes a distinction between self-improvement "junkies" and self-improvement "tourists". The junkies are never satisfied no matter how much improvement they do, while the tourists only improve themselves when there's a serious problem that needs fixing.
I would frame it like this: a lot of highly successful people have yet to learn an important life skill: to step back and say, "I've won." It's the mental shift, from holding tension between where you are and where you want to be, to just relaxing into where you are. And it takes practice to get good at it.
On the same subject, What if there's nothing wrong with you? I like that phrasing. If you just say "there's nothing wrong with me," it sounds like denial. But if you ask "What if there's nothing wrong with me?" you're admitting there's probably something wrong with you, but also seriously considering that there might not be. And if so, what next?