"Look at the sunset from the sun's point of view."
- Steven Wright
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August 26. This is the best article I've seen yet about social media, The machine always wins. It might not have any new ideas, but it's a great presentation of what we already know, including the similarities between social media and slot machines.
I've never used Twitter (except to view sports highlights) so I was surprised to read this: "On Twitter, if the replies to your tweet vastly outnumber the likes and retweets, you have gambled and lost." Apparently, if you agree with something on Twitter, you normally just like or retweet, and if you add a comment, it's normally because you disagree. That unwritten rule means that Twitter is a platform for shouting back and forth, and not for exploring or learning.
Imagine a social media site with this code: clicking the downvote button counts your downvote and then closes the tab; only if you first upvote, can you post a reply. Ideally every thread would be building up from the original idea. Of course, someone could easily get around that rule, but I wonder if it would be enough to shift the culture.
The article's next paragraph concludes that Twitter "is a terrible place to idly propose provocative theses." So now I'm thinking, how do we make a good place to idly propose provacative theses? That's basically what I've tried to do with this blog. I've done it by not enabling comments, by avoiding hot-button subjects, and by writing in a dense style that you have to slow down to understand.
I'm also thinking about the psychology of getting drawn into conflict. The other day I had my best meditation session yet, after reading some instructions that used the word "entangled". Entanglement is what you're trying to avoid. It's okay to let thoughts emerge, it's okay to bump into them (I imagine bumper cars), but the practice is to go as long as you can without your attention getting caught on any one thing.
I should also say, although I was sober at the time, cannabis has been a big help in learning to focus widely and accept whatever comes up. My session the other day was not that different from the night, a few years ago, when I laid on the back patio in Spokane and heard the traffic noise as a symphony.
August 23. Bunch o' links, starting with three from reddit. This is juiciest thread in a while, Redditors with thin walls, what have you heard in your apartment?
Conscience is a three week old subreddit with an interesting focus. It just needs higher quality posts.
And a good thread about permaculture.
Related: How is China able to feed a billion people? It's a really good Quora answer, with lots of satellite photos and closer-up images of China's extremely dense agriculture.
A cool art installation, Teresa van Dongen's Mud Well light uses microorganisms to create electricity.
A smart article about Sao Paulo's outdoor advertising ban, and how it not only made the city look better, it also revealed problems with the city that were being covered up by billboards.
A Life of One's Own is about a great 1930's self-help book with that title. The article basically goes through the book picking out the best bits.
And a particular idea on self-improvement, Personal Kanban. Kanban is a system invented by Toyota to make their factories work better, by limiting the number of projects they're working on at any time.
August 21. How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition. I completely agree with the author's general idea, but I don't quite like the way he frames it. He centers his argument on the word meritocracy, which he defines in terms of "talent and effort." But the crisis he describes is not at all about talent, but about the overvaluing of effort.
Here's a thought experiment. Imagine a society that still describes itself as a meritocracy, but in its definition of merit, it completely factors out the quantity of work you've done. So college admission might be determined by a series of tests, which are designed so that preparation gives you almost no advantage. Then, when you're applying for a job, you could be tested by doing the actual stuff you'll be doing in the job, and your score is simply the quality of your work.
I think that society, overall, would be a lot better than this one. Nobody would be in a hurry and everything would be done well. Some kind of balance would be even better. But we're all the way at the opposite extreme. We don't have even one college, or one job, that rewards the quality of your work and doesn't care about quantity.
I've seen some buzz lately about the male-female pay gap. But at least men and women are in the same ballpark. I'd like to close the much wider pay gap between hard workers and lazy people. I'm completely serious. Nobody really wants to do nothing all day. "Laziness" means holding out for activities that you find intrinsically enjoyable.
Another thought experiment. Imagine if the unconditional basic income, and the maximum income, were the same. If there were no connection between how much money you get, and what you do all day, then we'd find out what we really want to do all day. That's how I view the UBI, not as a way to soften the robot takeover of human work, but as a way to rebuild the world of human work, out of what we actually like doing.
New subject, a quick note on jury duty. There were 34 of us in the courtroom, getting cut down to 13 for the trial, and I was in the second round of cuts. But one thing I noticed was how unattractive everyone was -- or really, how the media skews our perception of the attractiveness of the average person. For example, on a show like Masterchef, the contestants are supposedly ordinary people, but every person on that show is hotter than every person I saw at jury duty.
August 18. I have jury duty tomorrow, so I'm posting Sunday night.
The Population Bust is a review of two books, both arguing that not only will the global population decline, it will happen faster than the UN is predicting. Earlier this year I wrote:
It turns out, humans don't just mindlessly reproduce. When we have access to birth control, when society takes care of old people, and when women are educated, we have the opposite problem: birthrates are too low to replace ourselves.
It's funny, just twenty years ago, this doom scenario wasn't even on my radar: the whole world voluntarily having fewer kids, leading to a collapse of growth-based economies, and a glut of old people without enough young people to take care of them. But that's probably what's going to happen, at the same time as climate change, and whatever crazy stuff happens with AI and biotech.
Into this mess, I want to throw one idea: psycho-geography. Basically, some towns, cities, and neighborhoods, will be more mentally healthy than others, and those places will become magnets for the dwindling population. Meanwhile, the less mentally healthy places will become nasty, and eventually abandoned.
I mean, this is happening already, but now the migrations are more about money, which is sometimes the opposite of mental health. In a post-capitalist economy, developed nations will be preventing famine through social services that you can get almost anywhere. So migrations will be more about culture, or other non-financial measures of quality of life.
Looking farther ahead, the most successful localities could define the next age, maybe in different ways, as nation-states fade.
August 15. Stray links, all with an anti-progress angle, starting with one from the subreddit, How did millennial comedy get so surreal? "One explanation for all this un-realism is that it's a response to a world that has stopped making sense."
This Johann Hari piece is a good summary of what careful observers have known for years, that depression is caused almost entirely by social and environmental factors, rather than chemicals in the brain. We're still a long way from applying this knowledge, because it's much easier to prescribe antidepressants than to change society. (But in a small low-tech society, it would be the other way around.)
The Hidden Costs of Automated Thinking is a smart essay about the growing use of technologies that work in ways we don't understand, and how that lack of understanding can come back to bite us.
Two health links from the Return to Now blog: Why it's better to get a tan than wear sunscreen, and Sunglasses increase risk of sunburn and skin cancer.
Finally, A superstar city is born is a fun rant against certain urban development trends: "You can't just throw some affluent millennials into a neighborhood and use the fact that they make a lot of money to say that the city as a whole is improving."
August 12. Going back to the subject of mass shootings, one nice thing about having a blog, is that if I want to know more about a subject, I can just make an overly simple statement, and someone will correct me. So here's a subreddit post about the relative deadliness of different guns, and more generally about the difficulty of stopping mass shootings through gun laws.
And this is a really well-written article, Is it possible to stop a mass shooting before it happens? It's about a woman who infiltrates online hate groups and tips off the FBI to the individuals who are most dangerous. One thing that stands out to me is when she says, "The euphoria among extremists right now is really depressing." Also, that she has to carefully keep her identity secret, or she'll be killed.
This is what social collapse looks like, and I can't think of a realistic solution. My prediction is, mass shootings will keep getting worse, and fade into the background, with a rising threshold of deaths before we even hear about them. Meanwhile, all kinds of regulation and surveillance will also get worse, which will drive despair and hostility inward.
Another angle on social collapse, a long essay about the problem at Yale. Here's a summary on Hacker News. It's largely about the growing trend of rich people pretending to be poor, and argues that they're abdicating responsibility.
But responsibility implies power, and while the rich do have power over the poor, a single rich person has the same power to change the system as a single poor person: zero. Earlier this year I saw a bit about George Soros, at some economic summit, trying to convince people to do something about climate change. What hope does an ordinary billionaire have, if even George Soros has been reduced to shouting into the wind?
A hypothesis: as a society gets more inflexible on the level of how things are done, it gets more unstable on the level of psychology.
August 8. Today, some weird science, starting with The star that's older than the universe. I like this because I'm a Big Bang denier. That 2012 post argues that the universe might not be expanding, and even if it is, it need not have a beginning. But what I believe now is even crazier. I think we humans are at the mental center of our own private cosmos, that what we see in the sky is not filled in until we look at it, and it's filled in according to our own culture and expectations.
That explains Velikovsky's evidence that ancient people saw events in the heavens that we now consider impossible. It explains Charles Fort's evidence, mostly in the book New Lands, about the wild variability of observations in early astronomy. And it solves Fermi's paradox, the puzzling absence of aliens, because any other life smart enough to dream a universe, will be dreaming their own. I think if humans ever settle down as a perpetual species, and not a flash in the pan, we'll look to the sky and see a universe that has always existed and always will.
Speaking of humans getting smarter, Recursive language and modern imagination were acquired simultaneously 70,000 years ago. I'm not going to try to summarize "recursive language". The important thing is that it requires both a certain kind of brain, and a certain kind of culture, which has to be learned in childhood. That means, people must have had the capacity, here and there, but it didn't take off until two children figured it out in the same time and place, built it up by talking to each other, and then taught their own children.
I'm thinking the two people would have been friends, and not a couple, because we're wired to not be sexually attracted to people we spent a lot of time with as kids. Still, what a story! Two kids inventing their own private langauge, that's so much better than other languages that their descendants conquer the world.
I mean, it hasn't worked out so well for the world. But our story isn't finished. There's evidence humans didn't actually see blue until modern times. What other cognitive upgrades are lurking in the realm of unknown unknowns?
And now, the first people to work it out it don't have to know each other. They could be on opposite sides of the world, or even years apart, because we can transmit media dense enough to encode culture, and save it. Related: When you listen to music, you're never alone.
One last crazy idea. Suppose we've reached a stage where there are multiple upgrades available, that are not consistent with each other. I think biotech makes this even more likely: humanity diverging into many species that, as they get better, have less in common.
August 5. A reader sends this blog post, Why Do People Neglect Maintenance? At first I thought "maintenance" was jargon for some arcane psychological concept. It turns out these bloggers are mostly interested in old-fashioned physical maintenance of infrastructure -- which puts this squarely in the category of collapse.
I made a comment at the bottom of the post, which I'll expand on here. One reason they missed, that people neglect maintenance, is that a lot of people don't think the system is worth maintaining. They'd rather take their chances with the world falling apart. This is a big reason, maybe the biggest, that civilizations collapse, and the best book on that subject is Fredy Perlman's Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! Perlman goes through all of history, using beautiful and difficult language to suggest that citizens saw invasions and collapse as openings for exciting change.
This subject also reminds me of Gil Scott-Heron's Whitey on the Moon. The basic idea is, the higher classes are obsessed with grand projects, like the moon landing, which they see as achievements for all mankind. But the lower classes are not buying in, not to colonizing space, and maybe not to society as a whole.
A deeper problem, which is well-covered by the Maintainers blog, is that doing new stuff is cool, and maintaining stuff that other people have done is uncool. They think this is cultural, but I don't think we'll ever again see a culture where it's the other way around.
I think the important issue here is power distribution. Power will never be completely equal, but if the lower classes are allowed to contribute ideas, and have autonomy in how they do their jobs, they'll feel more invested in society, and they'll do better work.
To frame it as a general principle of collapse: as power gets more unequal, the grunts slack, and the system falls apart from the bottom. And the inequality right now is not just between rich and poor, but between machines and humans.
Loosely related, a quick note on the weekend's news. A decision that every American has to make, is whether to do a mass shooting. Right now, less than one American in a million is choosing to do it, and I'm surprised it's so low, because there are way more people than that who are angry and have nothing to live for. I'm not making policy suggestions, only a prediction: before the ratio gets to one in a hundred thousand, we'll see a ban on the AR-15, which is way easier to kill people with than any other legal weapon.
August 2. For the weekend, a fun Reddit thread, Despite what you believe or don't believe, what do you WISH happens when we die? The afterlife is a cool subject, because it's untestable, it's wide open for imagination, and yet it tells us a lot about our own world.
What people wish for in the next life, is what they feel is missing in this life -- but it also has to have continuity with this life. It's a different question than what video game you want to step into.
Some people do put a video game spin on reincarnation: they imagine designing a new character to replay the game. But if I could be reincarnated as anything, the last thing I'd want to be is another human. If I were an insect, I would hatch with full knowledge of how to be that insect. But as a human in this world, after more than 50 years, I still feel like I'm struggling with the tutorial.
I like the idea of reliving my life and doing it right. But I wouldn't want to keep my memories, because every time I took a different path, I'd be thinking about what I missed. Instead, I'd like to just have the understanding to make the right choices. I'm actually pretty happy with the big choices I've made, but my micro-scale choices have been terrible.
It puzzles me that some people wish for total nothingness. If even one moment of your life was better than nonexistence, wouldn't you at least want more of that? I think what they really want, is something they don't know how to ask for, because our culture can't imagine it: awareness without existence.
July 31. Continuing from Monday, if swimming is a metaphor for happiness, which you achieve by focusing on form and not result, then what form leads to happiness? This is a huge subject, with answers everywhere from ancient scriptures to t-shirt slogans. The saying, "Wherever you go, there you are," is basically Ecclesiastes 11:3, "If the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be." It's about not holding tension between the world in front of you and the world in your head.
Doing mindfulness meditation has made me look at happiness a little differently. Vipassana practices entail focusing on direct raw sensations. When you do this, and get some stability in your concentration, then sensations you might ordinarily consider bad can become either neutral or fascinating.
Once you get away from the stories that spin out of certain emotional experiences, you see that the experiences are just vibrations, pressure, tightness, or whatever. You can clock them rising and fading away. You notice that even though you might be thinking you can't bear the experience, you are bearing it, and that your consciousness does not wholly conform to the wave-forms of the experience.
Lately I've been seeing some arguments against mindfulness. I haven't seen any good ones, but that pdf chapter says to make happiness-seeking behaviors automatic instead of conscious. That goes against a simple interpretation of mindfulness, where everything should be conscious all the time.
Being conscious all the time takes a lot of mental energy, and my new metaphor is reprogramming the autopilot. You can break it into three steps: 1) make your habits conscious, 2) change them, and 3) let them be habits again. Step 1 is the scariest, step 2 takes all the work, and step 3 basically takes care of itself.
I've been reading an e-book that a reader donated, Reality Transurfing by Vadim Zeland. It's very long, and the author sometimes slips into making wild promises, but he's put together a really ambitious metaphysical model, underlying the same kinds of advice you can find in other books. For example, he models bad social movements, and also bad personal habits, as parasitic "pendulums", which try to steal your energy to feed their motion, and they don't care if your energy is positive or negative. He also writes a lot about "potential", which is like karmic energy that wants to stay in balance. So if you want something too much, you're creating excess potential, which is balanced by apparent bad luck that stops you from getting what you want. His surprising advice, to manifest your desires, is to focus on them without feeling that they're important.
One more link on the same kind of subject, The Running Conversation in Your Head, with lots of stuff about how and why we talk to ourselves.
It's quite phenomenal how quickly most kids acquire language. The idea is not that you need language for thinking but that when language comes along, it sure is useful. It changes the way you think, it allows you to operate in different ways because you can use the words as tools.
July 29. Today's subject is how to be happy. How strange is it, that for almost any other goal, pursuing that goal makes you more likely to achieve it, but if you set happiness as a goal, you're less likely to achieve it? You could explain this in terms of evolution: as soon as a species figures out a shortcut to feeling good, which does not optimize survival, they feel good to extinction -- and we're the unhappy survivors. Or if you want to get more woo-woo, the Universal will not let us be persistently happy in a way that does not serve the Universal.
Here's a scholarly pdf chapter, The Paradoxical Effects of Pursuing Positive Emotion. From about halfway down, condensed:
The finding that pursuing happiness is associated with negative outcomes may lead us down a pessimistic path. Should we simply give up and resign to being miserable? The success of several happiness-enhancing interventions, however, suggests that pursuing happiness could lead to greater happiness if people do it in the right way.
The authors suggest: 1) setting lower standards for what will make you happy; 2) having more accurate knowledge about what does and does not make you happy; 3) not measuring your emotions against your desired happiness, but accepting your emotions whatever they are; 4) making your happiness-seeking behavior less conscious and more habitual.
And a scientific article, Vanishing time in the pursuit of happiness. It summarizes four studies that "consistently reveal the same pattern: reduced feelings of time availability while pursuing happiness."
This totally happens to me when I use cannabis. Because I'm only high about ten percent of the time, and it makes certain things a lot better, I always feel the need to optimize my high time. So I might start playing a song, and then cut it off because I'm not enjoying it enough. Then when I'm sober, even though I'm enjoying the music less, my expectations are lower, so I'll listen to the whole thing.
Anyway, I found that link in this essay, What Swimming Taught Me About Happiness. As a frequent and mediocre swimmer, I totally know this: if you focus on how many seconds it takes to swim a lap, you end up swimming aggressively with sloppy form. The better strategy is to focus purely on having good form, and not care about your speed, and in the long term, you swim faster.
July 26. Starting with some music, I've been listening to a folk singer named Hana Zara. She grew up in Nebraska, moved to Manhattan, then Vermont, and then back to Nebraska. She's a good lyricist with a pretty voice, which is not the same as being a good songwriter, but I've gone through her discography and found three absolute gems.
From her first album in 2010, Little Doll is her catchiest song. I interpret it the same as the book of Ecclesiastes: all human activity is meaningless, but we should enjoy it anyway.
A lot of her songs are rambling, epic, and metaphorical, but You Burnt the Toast is short and down-to-earth, a perfect song about the beauty of small moments.
And from 2017, Hooray Hoorah nails my favorite theme, the yearning for something beyond this world. It could also be about the source that creative people tap into: "jumping right in, and coming up thinner every time."
Related: Lost in the Valley of Death is a long article about a travel blogger who kept pushing his search for transcendence until he died in the mountains of India. There's some interesting stuff about India syndrome, where people go there seeking enlightenment, and "succumb to a heady mix of culture shock, overwhelming unfamiliarity, alluring exoticism, and, in most cases, drugs."
I think the difference between someone like this guy or Chris McCandless, and me, is that I'm not driven. I want the same thing, but I'm too lazy to put myself in that much danger. My goal is to find a living situation so easy that I can get deeper in my own head.
July 23. A reader sends this podcast, a conversation between Charles Eisenstein and Daniel Schmachtenberger: Self-terminating Civilization. This is the kind of thing I liked to write about ten years ago. I rarely write about it now because I rarely find ideas that are new to me. But this week I have no ideas of my own, and some of this stuff is probably new to most of you.
The podcast starts with a thought experiment about a paper clip maximizer destroying the world, and then argues that our society is doing the same thing. Where natural systems are cooperative, and have distributed power, and turn simple things into complex things, civilization has zero-sum competition, centralized power, and turns complex things into simple things.
And some happy links. Portugal's radical drugs policy is working, basically treating drug addiction as a social and medical problem instead of a moral problem. I expect the rest of the world to follow in about fifty years.
Niksen Is the Dutch Lifestyle Concept of Doing Nothing. "Whereas mindfulness is about being present in the moment, niksen is more about carving out time to just be, even letting your mind wander rather than focusing on the details of an action."
Atlanta Turns 7-Acre Vacant Lot into Largest Free Food Forest In the Country. My utopian vision is to have so much free food, that the systems that try to capture our labor have no hold on us. But it's not enough to grow the forest -- humans also have to relearn the habit of eating wild food. This summer, I seem to be the only person in a town of 20,000 who is eating from the serviceberry bushes.
The latest edition of a frequently posted Reddit question, Teachers, what are some positive trends you have noticed in today's youth? The answers always seem too good to be true. I'm wondering if kids are so much nicer now because an atmosphere of total surveillance is forcing them to internalize their meanness, leading to depression and anxiety. But if it's a real and deep change, the metaphor I see is storming the beaches at Normandy, and every generation has a better chance of getting to shore without being psychologically shot to pieces.