"Look at the sunset from the sun's point of view."
- Steven Wright
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December 31. Continuing from Sunday, some woo-woo stuff. Hallucinations Are Everywhere. I would say it like this: it's normal to perceive things that other people don't perceive, and these perceptions can be helpful. Some people wonder if quantum indeterminacy could ever happen at the macro level. Well, what would that look like? It would look like conflicting reports from reliable witnesses, and that happens all the time! Our culture declares that all but one of them was wrong from the beginning, but I see many competing options for what we eventually decide to call true.
This Crowdsourced Map Documents UFO Sightings, Cryptids, and the Supernatural. It's done by two guys I knew in the early days of this blog, Garrett Kelly and Jeremy Puma. Here's a long podcast interview with them, A Paranormal Planet with Liminal Earth. It's funny how the paranormal is just like music or any kind of creative work: when you first start getting into it, it's all popular cliches, but as you get deeper, you find weirder and weirder stuff.
Hysteria High: How Demons Destroyed a Florida School. The school was founded by an authoritarian huckster, and he created an atmosphere so repressive that eventually the student body exploded in mass hysteria -- except that their insanity had some internal consistency, with some physical manifestations that are hard to explain.
I'm undecided on whether paranormal entities have existence outside human observers. If they don't, it's almost more interesting, because that means we alone decide their character. Maybe demons and scary entities only emerge from nasty human cultures, and nice cultures will create/attract entities that are benign and helpful.
Finally, something more philosophical, Imitation and Extinction: The Case Against Reality. We might think that natural selection favors seeing what's really there, but game theory says that's not so. It's like, if reality is a computer, we don't evolve toward seeing silicon chips and bits, but seeing increasingly useful desktop icons. So when we look really closely at our apparent physical reality, and see atoms, that might be like looking really closely at desktop icons, and deciding that pixels are the fundamental reality.
Coming back around to Fermi's Paradox:
We search outer space and assume that ETs must lurk there. But space is not reality; it's our virtual reality, the idiosyncratic interface of our species.
We suppose that the long sweep of spacetime, with its countless stars and planets, is the preexisting stage for an accidental drama in which we are bit players. We think it's faintly mad to suppose otherwise. But we're mistaken. We are the authors of space and time; their myriad contents are our impressive stagecraft.
December 29. This subreddit thread about Fermi's paradox has some good stuff, including a recommendation of a book that I'll start looking for in large libraries and ebook sites, The Metaphysics of Technology by David Skrbina. Skrbina is best known as "the Unabomber's penpal," and it's interesting that only people with extreme views on technology -- with Ray Kurzweil at the other extreme -- are looking for something behind it.
Anyway, it's been a while since I've written about Fermi's paradox, which was neither originated by Enrico Fermi, nor is it a paradox. It's just wondering why, in such a big universe, we haven't found any aliens.
My solution is just increasingly weird versions of the same idea: that we're looking for aliens who are too much like us.
Starting with the most conventional: the universe is full of planets with biological life as we know it, and sometimes a species evolves what we call intelligence, and they do the same kind of stuff that we do -- send out electromagnetic signals and spacecraft. Then they either go extinct, or they chill out, and settle into the ecology of their home planet.
More weird: the aliens soon move on to technologies that we don't know how to look for. It's like, some tribe that uses drums and smoke to communicate with other tribes, thinks it's alone, because it doesn't know how to look for radio waves. We're looking for radio waves when we should be looking for sub-etheric beacons or three-spin particles.
Or maybe the aliens are so weird, that they're actually trying to talk to us, but our science doesn't recognize their communication as data. There's a good article on this, Incommensurability, Orthodoxy and the Physics of High Strangeness.
My craziest idea is just taking philosophical idealism seriously. If mind is the root of matter, then outer space is just a projection of the mind of humanity. We won't find aliens there, because it's our dream, and they'll be dreaming their own universes. Or, we're looking for space aliens, when we should be looking for mind aliens.
This is hard to explain. It's like, in Plato's allegory of the cave, we're looking for aliens in our own shadow, when we should be turning to the light behind us, and seeing who else is making shadows on their own wall -- or who else might have seen the light already, and now they're trying to get our attention by messing with our shadows.
December 25. For Christmas, I want to write about Jesus. I'm not a Christian, more like a pantheist, and I don't believe in hell, a place with arguably no biblical evidence. So salvation is not necessary, except being saved from the illusions of this world. I like the neo-Gnostic idea that we're in a simulation and Jesus hacked it.
Matt comments over email, "I think the appeal of Jesus, on one level, is the appeal of Superman. The universe sucks and we want someone to fix it in one fell swoop." I would add: they both came from the sky, they both have magical powers, they both have no character flaws, and they even have a similar iconic posture -- Superman's arms are just more above his head.
As a character, Superman is boring. I would find the story of Jesus more inspiring if he started out as a bad person, and then became a good person, like Ryan Leaf. George Carlin has said that the story of Jesus would be better if he were not the son of God, just some loser who God decided to adopt. Then we'd think twice about being mean to someone, because God might adopt that person next. Update: there's actually a fringe Christian doctrine, Adoptionism, that believes this.
Jesus said: Judge not, that ye be not judged. It occurs to me, if you judge anyone for being not as good as you in any way, then your advantage is a matter of luck. If it were skill, then you would have had to climb up from being where they are; and in that case, you would know what it's like to be where they are, and you wouldn't judge them.
December 24. For Christmas eve, these are my top five Christmas songs that you won't hear on the radio:
Ramones - Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight)
Clarence Carter - Back Door Santa
Big Star - Jesus Christ
Steve Mauldin - The Abominable O Holy Night
Ramsey Lewis Trio - What Are You Doing New Year's Eve
December 23. Another thought about that hypersanity article. The author is trying to reframe our thinking about weird people, as a spectrum with normal people in the middle, the insane on one side, and the supersane on the other. He thinks he's being helpful: "Be nice to that weird person, they might be supersane."
Speaking for the weird people, stop trying to divide us. Consider supposed supersane Nelson Mandela. He started out as a violent militant fighting for racial justice, exactly like American abolitionist John Brown. If history had gone differently, we would see Brown as a saintly patriarch, and Mandela as a failed loony.
Or, the difference between the "insane" and "supersane" is not their personality or their mental state, but how useful they are to the normals.
December 22. Posted to the subreddit, The Hypersane Are Among Us. I like the idea of the article, but not the execution. The author is romanticizing a form of mental achievement, arguing that three different things -- sanity, understanding, and happiness -- all naturally go together. And his evidence is purely anecdotal, naming certain famous people who are supposedly high in all three.
Sanity is a popularity contest. Seeing something that nobody around you sees is pretty much the definition of insanity. Maybe history will look back and say, "that crazy person was right!" But being sane in an insane world is hardly a recipe for happiness. My examples of "sometimes those who seem a little crazy are the ones who really get it," would be people like Philip K Dick, Vincent Van Gogh, or Emily Bronte, all of whom attempted or succeeded at suicide. But then, maybe they would have been happy if the people around them could keep up.
In my experience, the happiest people are often the most clueless. I was happiest at age four, before I went to school and found out how fucked up the world is. I still feel driven to increase my understanding, but mostly it's like learning more and more rules of a game that's not fun.
But suppose it's true, that if we persist in seeking understanding, eventually it stops being a burden and becomes liberating. That raises the question: what will it be like when all of humanity has done that?
Last night I went to a Christmas park, where all the trees were covered with lights, and there was an old locomotive with a bell you could ring by pulling a rope. Every single person who rang the bell was under 12. When you're a kid, it's awesome to pull a rope and make a big noise, but adults are like, been there, done that. So I'm thinking, maybe humanity is going through a similar process, and when we become a mature species, we'll no longer get pleasure from imposing our will on the world.
This is a solution to Fermi's paradox. The universe could be full of intelligent aliens, but they've all lost interest in doing anything that would attract our attention.
December 19. Two Hacker News comment threads, one from today and one from two years ago, on the same 2017 Twitter thread: Almost everything on computers is perceptually slower than it was in 1983.
December 16. Posting will probably continue to be light through the holidays. Today I have some thoughts about wealth and power. I was reading an article about wealth inequality, and remembered my critique of the word "privilege". I've said that it points to two different kinds of things, but now I can see three. First is things that some people have, that everyone should have, like not going hungry, or being free to travel.
Second is things that some people have, where it's okay that only some people have them. Would you rather live in a mansion or a cottage? Would you rather go to a five star restaurant or a dive bar? It's like asking your favorite color. Just because something costs more money, doesn't mean it should be universally available, or unavailable.
The problem is that money is closely related to the third category, the thing that some people have, that no one should have: power over others. And that's the real problem with wealth inequality: that our whole society is built to make us all NPC's in the game of leveraging money into more money, where only one in a thousand can play.
I was reading an article about personality differences between men and women, which tries to describe some differences without interpreting them as either biological or cultural. I think most of the described differences are cultural. Women are more "compassionate, polite, anxious, self-doubting" because they're still emerging from thousands of years of having lower social status.
Right now, the phrase "women's voices" implies voices of the oppressed, voices of the excluded. Only when it no longer has that meaning, will we know who women are.
December 11. Two videos of innocent psychedelia. First, from the subreddit, a cover of the Crystal Castles song Untrust Us, performed by the Capital Children's Choir.
And Gabriel sends BIG BIRD (Terence McKenna). Someone has compiled more than eight minutes of McKenna's best spoken word bits, and lip-synced it to a video of Big Bird taking children on a tour of a farm. My favorite bit:
The unspeakable is the true domain of being. And then within that, there is a very small subset of those things which can actually be captured in language. Mostly it's all mystery.
Coming in the wake of the new video about me, I'm impressed by McKenna's skill as a speaker: his word choice, his careful pace, and his inflections. And I wonder if some of my words would sound better from the mouth of a muppet.
December 9. A year and a half ago, a fan and a cameraman came to make a film about me, and it's just been posted to YouTube, a short doc about Ran Prieur.
I was a little afraid to watch it, but I'm really happy with it. It's weird to see myself from the outside. It reminds me of that Far Side comic, where these two guys are listening to a tape recording of themselves, and saying, "Wow, we sound like total dorks." And the joke is, they are total dorks.
Another thing I noticed is how much happier I am when I'm talking about writing fiction. It's a lot more rewarding than writing this blog, but it's also a lot harder, and has an even smaller audience.
Now I'm thinking about fame. Our culture tells us that fame is an accomplishment, when really it's a lifestyle choice. The difference between the famous and the unknown, is not how good they are at what they do (except athletes). The difference is that some people channel their skill in a way that gives them shallow connections with a lot of people. And unless you're someone like Tom Cruise, I think that's a mistake.
Early in the doc I mention Emily Dickinson. I think, for an introvert, she did it exactly right: she wrote without compromising for an audience, she never had to deal with fame, and people are still reading her stuff two centuries later.
I don't think of my own writing as self-expression. I think of it as something that was always there, and I was just the first person to find it. It's like I'm colonizing a planet, and I'd like to eventually hang out with other people who have come to live there.
December 5. So I just tried the hot new apple variety, Cosmic Crisp, and they're for real. I've never been a fan of Honeycrisps. They're crunchy and sweet, but they lack the tartness and denseness of a great apple. The best eating apples are all russets, but you can't buy them in stores because their skins are not shiny. This actually goes back to Monday's subject: the bigger the crowd, the harder it is to get them to buy apples that are better on the inside than the outside.
But now, consumers don't need to be smart, because Cosmic Crisps are pretty on the outside, and dense and full-flavored on the inside. I just did a taste test against Fuji, which is no slouch, and it wasn't even close. They're also really expensive -- the other night I paid almost $10 for five of them. But in a few years, as the supply increases, prices will come down, and the Cosmic Crisp will drive a lot of varieties off the shelves.
Everyone knows the worst apple is Red Delicious, but a hundred years ago they were really good. What happened was genetic drift, reinforced by the values of industrial farming, so the apples got gradually cheaper to grow and ship, with worse flavor, but still pretty. The same thing might happen to Cosmic Crisp, and in another hundred years we'll need a new apple.
December 2. Smart blog post by a long-time reader, Idea strength, cringe, and the media environment. The basic idea is that technology has connected us so much that creative work is taking fewer risks:
When artists become more socially connected to each other and to consumers, bold choices get riskier. Every mind in a perceptual network is a vector for cringe. As the network grows more interconnected, the potential for cringe increases. An artistic risk that might have been low in a less connected environment becomes high.
This reminds me of a bit in this YouTube talk, Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned. It's by the creator of Picbreeder, a brilliant image-breeding site that no longer works because web browsers can no longer run Java. Anyway, he found out that images bred by individuals are much better than images bred by voting.
One of the comments explains it like this: "Consensus-driven frameworks prematurely optimize and miss the necessary low-fitness stepping stones needed to find creative complex solutions." In simpler language: you have to go through difficult stuff to get to good stuff, and the bigger the crowd, the harder it is to get them to go through difficult stuff. Another example is Hollywood test screenings, which polish out anything really good because someone thinks it's too weird.
But when I think about it more, there are two different things going on here. One is what I've just described, the blandifying effect of the crowd. The other is the long tail of taste: with more creative work available, there's more room to like stuff that fewer people like.
In listening to music, I've gone a long way down that rabbit hole, and the difficult thing is not in how I hear the music. It's not like I'm forcing myself to listen to stuff that sounds bad until I like it. The music always pulls me in, and the difficult thing is the loneliness of loving something that no one else understands. Or, the obstacle to exploring the long tail of taste, is not perceptual but social.
November 29. A few stray links. First, an interview with the author of McMindfulness:
Corporations in the U.S. are losing approximately 300 billion dollars a year from stress-related absences and seven out of ten employees report being disengaged from their work. So there's certainly a problem... The remedy has now become mindfulness, where employees are then trained individually to learn how to cope and adjust to these toxic corporate conditions rather than launching kind of a diagnosis of the systemic causes of stress not only in corporations but in our society at large.
Rex sends a 52 minute video, The Plant Ecology of Concrete, Garbage and Urine. As described by one of the comments: "Imagine a guy with a camera walking through homeless people territory and a dump place, getting all scientific about plants." Also with lots of fun and cynical social commentary.
A new Paul Graham post, The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius, arguing that the most important factor in doing great work, is to be obsessed with something with no expectation that it's useful, like people who collect old bus tickets.
This week I got obsessed with making a video of an obscure song, using images from two classic books of sci-fi paintings. I've just uploaded it: Wireheads - Sagan.