"So go, go, go, and don't look back at all the broken junk in your wake, cause someone is going to come along and know how to fix that anyways."
- The Teenie-Weenie Magaziney, vol 1 issue 12
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February 12. Continuing from Monday, that decadence article is condensed from a new book, The Decadent Society by Ross Douthat, and Peter Thiel has a review. It includes the disappointing news of Douthat's conclusions. Of course it's easier to point out what's wrong with the world than to know what to do about it, but he recommends religion and space travel.
As much as I love fiction and games and music and art about space travel, it's just not realistic that we'll develop a bunch of really difficult technologies so we can spend hundreds of years traveling to planets that are nowhere near as good as the one we're already on.
If humans don't go extinct from boredom, but do something crazy and new, I have two reasonable predictions, and a wild speculation.
First, an unconditional basic income. It would be better to just make necessities free, but that's politically impossible, while the UBI is politically likely, because it would allow the state to prop up late-stage capitalism. It's not a long-term solution, because ordinary people need external structure in their lives -- but I don't, and people like me, who thrive in unstructured time, will plant the seeds of the world to come.
Second, normalization of psychedelics. The next frontier is not space but mind, and this is why we're not going back to old-time religion, because it's based on authority figures telling stories about the esoteric experiences of legendary people. When we're all having our own esoteric experiences, there will be teachers and communities to help us make sense of them, but it will be so different from religion as we know it, that we'll need a different word.
My wild speculation is based on the fact that photosynthesis is only 0.1-2% efficient. Here's a page about upgrading photosynthesis. It's a hard challenge, but still easier than interstellar travel, to engineer plants that are much better at turning sunlight into food, and that can spread unfarmed.
No empire ever rose in a place where you could live off the land. A bad society won't last long if people can just leave. So this is my utopian vision: after population decline, the world will be covered with cool ruins, with modquats climbing walls and groundapples cracking pavement, and caravans will travel the weedy highways through an endless variety of scrap cities and rustic villages.
February 10. Important NY Times piece (thanks Gabriel), The Age of Decadence. In popular use, the word "decadence" mostly means chocolate, so we need a good definition, and the author has one, based on the writings of Jacques Barzun:
Decadence refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.
Yep, that sounds like us. The interesting thing is, he's not arguing that decadence will lead to collapse, but that it might go on for a very long time: "The Chinese and Ottoman empires persisted for centuries under decadent conditions, and it was more than 400 years from Caligula to the actual fall of Rome."
I'm thinking of this subject in terms of video games. In almost every game where you're exploring a world and getting stronger, from Civilization to Fallout, the early game is more fun than the late game. In the early game, you're living on the edge, everything is new, every upgrade is vital. By the end, you're just managing a bunch of shit.
How do we make a society where the late game is as good as the early game, when we struggle to even make a game where the late game is as good as the early game? I think the best strategy is to keep knocking ourselves back to the early game, and we can learn a lot from nomadic cultures.
It's funny because, at the moment, it's the right wing that's more likely to say that life is too soft and easy. But the reforms that enable being knocked back to the early game, are left wing reforms, that make it easy for the rich to lose their money, and make it fun to be destitute.
February 9. Quick note. There's going to be a public memorial for Jordan Mechano in Toronto on March 4.
February 6. Posted to the subreddit, Can social technologists solve the atomization problem? The author does a great job framing the problem. Condensed:
The structure of the problem is not man vs machine. It is actually a market-driven process that concentrates society's top cognitive talent on the engineering problem of how to best undermine an individual's agency. It's not a fair fight. We've all been taught that we're sovereign individuals gifted with full agency and capable of choosing what's best for ourselves at any given moment. But this doesn't describe the world as it actually exists.
I think his solutions and predictions are off base. They're all about communities finding ways to limit the use of technology. But it's not clear that technology is making us unhappy. I mean, that's what's happening, but it's hard to prove it, and it doesn't feel that way. We love our devices, and hate the world.
Here's how I see it playing out. First, suicide acceptance. I was watching that Cheer documentary, and there's a bit where someone says, "If you don't like it, there's the door." It occurred to me, nobody says that about life. There's a door, but we don't talk about it, and trying to go through it is illegal. So I expect the dominant culture to have stronger anti-suicide messages, while underground movements become bolder in supporting suicide for even healthy young people.
By the way, my argument against suicide is that the people who want to kill themselves are the same people who intuitively sense how much better life could be, and they're the ones we need the most.
Second, the continuing growth of tribalism, which I define as identification with a group, where the group identity is based on conflict with some other group. It's like a correction against systems that do a bad job of providing meaning, because ingroup-outgroup violence is a source of meaning that's strong and simple and always waiting under the surface.
Third, even deeper immersion in technology, and I'm not necessarily against it. I frame it like this: Nature, good; human-made physical world, bad; human-made imaginary worlds, good. The problem is, who's going to do the grunt work if we're all gaming? In the best-case scenario, we learn things from imaginary worlds that show us how to make the physical world better.
What's probably really going to happen, is that today's radical threat becomes tomorrow's new normal. We'll just get used to the burden that pocket computers put on mental health, and in another 20 years, we'll all be talking about the threat of biotech.
February 4. Bunch o' links, mostly stuff that I'm happy about. Coyotes Poised to Infiltrate South America. Growing up in Pullman 40 years ago, I never heard or saw a coyote. Since I've been back, I've seen two, and last summer there was a pack howling inside town in the middle of the day.
Sand dunes can communicate with each other, further blurring the line between alive and not alive. Related post from a year ago: Is the sun conscious?
Last week I stumbled on this 2012 View from Hell post, Enhanced Running, about running on cannabis. Those are two things I already do, but I'd never done both at the same time, so I finally tried it. I didn't get the wonderful experience described in the post, but I can confirm what everyone says: I felt like I could run forever. I ran twice as long as I usually do, and not only wasn't I twice as tired, my heart and lungs were not tired at all. But two days later, my quads (the big muscles at the front of my legs) were really sore.
Interesting Hacker News thread, Not everyone has an internal monologue. Personally, I'm good at thinking in words and also good at thinking in pictures, but some people go through life only doing one or the other.
Brain Gain: a person can instantly blossom into a savant - and no one knows why. I'm envious of these people, not so much because they're suddenly good at something, but because they're suddenly highly motivated.
Lately the only thing I'm highly motivated to do is play Starsector. My favorite thing in the game is testing ship loadouts in the simulator. It's basically science: running experiments with different combinations of weapons and defenses to find one where the ship can beat stronger opponents. Here are two good videos about the game, Starsector Review and How to Play Starsector.
February 1. Continuing from the last post, over on the subreddit Gene comments from the front lines, on the idea that autism will turn out to be multiple things:
It already is. In fact, there are a number of cases I have seen in which "autism" has been used in place of "we don't know what the fuck to call this, but we need to give it a label so this person can get SSDI". Now that I'm active in prehospital emergency medicine, the takeaway is that if the term "autistic" is used in the initial dispatch, be prepared for fucking anything.
He also says that aspies prefer the company of neurotypicals to other aspies, but that's not the whole story, because in this TEDx talk about autism, around the ten minute mark, Jac den Houting mentions the theory that autistic and non-autistic people communicate better among themselves than with each other, and this was confirmed by a study using the telephone game with three groups: "The all-autistic and all-neurotypical groups were equally accurate in their information sharing, but the combined autistic and neurotypical group was significantly less accurate."
I also want to say, I haven't been diagnosed with anything, and I don't want to be, until such diagnosis can get me benefits like free therapy or better drugs. And I understand the danger of making my limitations part of my identity, because then the ego doesn't want to get better. There are stories about people going from being really bad at something to really good. I've actually been practicing walking around the apartment doing complex moves without bumping into anything, and what happens is, when I'm trying to do something tricky with my right foot, my left foot hits something. So I need to work on being aware of more than one body part at the same time.
That's something I'm already doing when I practice swimming or playing piano. By the way, I finally figured out how to get midi files from my keyboard to my computer, and convert them to mp3. So if you're curious, here's an mp3 file of an 80 second bit I did a few months ago. It's more rudimentary than it sounds. My usual method is to keep eight fingers fixed on the same four notes, an octave apart, and then just jam on those notes. My biggest influence is Steve Reich's Piano Phase, and I love to phase the rhythm between my left and right hands.
January 30. So I've been hanging out on the Aspergers subreddit, and I've come to three conclusions. 1) What we call "the autism spectrum" will turn out to be several different things, just like the old-time disease "consumption". 2) People on the spectrum can be more different from each other than they are from neurotypicals. 3) These differences are mostly about perception.
Instead of putting people on a spectrum, I want to put objects of perception on a spectrum, of how easy or hard they are for different people to "tune in" or "tune out". And even though it's a true spectrum with no lines or gaps, it's easier to think about it by breaking it into four categories:
1) Things you cannot tune out, even if you try. 2) Things you can tune out with some mental effort, but by default you are tuned in. 3) Things you tune out by default, but you can tune in with mental effort. 4) Things you cannot tune into.
For example, a lot of aspies are highly sensitive to certain subtle stimuli. Textures, lights, noises that other people can easily tune out, they find unbearable. Personally I'm almost the opposite. My problem is that proprioception -- knowing where my body is in space -- is firmly in category 3, where for most people it's in category 2 or 1. This appears as "clumsiness", but for me, walking around without bumping into stuff is like walking a tightrope. I have to focus focus focus, and if my focus lapses, bump! This is also why I find driving so frightening and exhausting.
There is information about social behavior that I can't pick up at all. Sometimes it seems like everyone else has magical mind-reading powers, and I actually believe that some of this stuff is happening on a yet undiscovered sub-physical level, like Sheldrake's morphic fields. For example, an Aspergers subreddit thread, When you're making eye contact are you supposed to look at only one eye, or switch between both? This is something that neurotypicals just do the right way, without any conscious awareness at all. So how do they know?
This is why I don't like the term "social skills", because it's more about perception than skill. Does a blind person have good walking skills? They need better walking skills to end up walking worse.
Anyway, I'm wondering, what's behind the recent explosion in autism-spectrum diagnosis? I see three possiblities. 1) Humanity is becoming more neurodiverse. 2) Society is becoming less tolerant of neurodiversity, with tighter standards for correct behavior in schools and jobs. 3) Culture is becoming more tolerant of neurodiversity, with more effort to understand people who in the past would have been locked away.
January 27. We Can Alter Entire Species, but Should We? I've said this before, but I think human genetic self-improvement is the most likely scenario for human extinction. It will be marketed to parents as a way to make their kids more successful, and then there will be an arms race where everyone has to do it, and finally it will turn out that we haven't made ourselves better, only a better fit for a badly made society.
This minor article on the history of the USB port has a great sentence that seems to apply to the whole modern world: "The hard-won success is unsatisfying, tainted by the absurdity of the process."
People no longer believe working hard will lead to a better life, survey shows. I've been thinking about how successful people always credit hard work, and how they're all lying. I mean, they don't know they're lying, they're just using sloppy language. People think they mean that you spend hour after hour, day after day, forcing yourself to do something you don't really feel like doing, to achieve some goal. That may or may not lead to a better life, but it always leads to burnout.
The actual secret of highly successful people is that they're obsessed. I'm in favor of obsession -- it's just that obsession is uncool. For me, that's the meaning of the Beatles song, "You've got to hide your love away." Nobody wants to hear about what you're obsessed with. But it would be nice if super-achievers would stop pretending to have moral virtue, and admit that they put in the hours for the same reason as stalkers and video game addicts, and they're just lucky that they happen to be obsessed with something that society considers worthwhile.
Circling around to the first link, suppose we find a way to tweak the human genome, to make us all a lot more prone to obsession. That would be a really interesting way for us to go out.
January 23. On a loose end from the last post, readers send two more examples of jobs where you're engaging with the non-human physical world in a non-dominating way. One is field ecologist, and the other is certain jobs working with domesticated animals, who of course we're permitted to dominate, but sometimes it's better for us if we don't.
New subject: this was posted to the subreddit, a new Venkatesh Rao post, The Internet of Beefs. It's very long, but most of the good stuff is in section 2, "Mooks and Knights":
Conflict on the IoB is shaped not by the strategic intentions of its nominal leaders (who largely have none, beyond keeping the conflict profitably alive and growing), but by emotional energy flows in the field of mooks. The best knights on the IoB, such as Trump, operate by an entirely reactive philosophy: "there go my mooks; I must find out where they are going, so I can get out in front and lead them."
I would frame the whole thing as a game: inside every mook is a fully complex human, but there aren't many niches in this society where you can thrive as a fully complex human, so they spend some time every day allowing their identity to be consumed by a character in a MMORPG. The game is cyber-tribalism, flinging social media comments at the enemy monkey tribe.
I'm optimistic that this is something humanity will grow out of. Look at critiques of television from the 1960's. They imagine all of us turning into TV zombies, just sitting and staring slack-jawed at the screen all day. What happened instead is that most of us learned to integrate TV into our lives in a balanced way.
Looking farther back, a big factor in Hitler's rise to power was radio. It was a new technology, and a voice coming out of a box had a lot more power over people than it does now.
Sometimes I wonder if the internet is a fad. In terms of the quality of the experience of using the internet, it peaked around 15 years ago, and just in the last two years it's become much worse. Ads have won the arms race against ad-blockers, and it's hard to find a website where you don't have click an X, or ignore some unwelcome demand on your attention, to do whatever you came to the site to do. An increasing percentage of the internet does not have the content to be worth the hassle.
January 21. The other day I was skimming Matthew Crawford's book Shop Class as Soulcraft. His basic idea is that our culture has lost touch with the physical world, that thinking has been separated from doing, and that we can be smarter and happier if we have to solve problems with our hands and minds working together.
But a lot of his examples are from motorcycle repair, and possibly all of his examples are from the man-made physical world. So you could argue that it's still humanity staring at its own navel. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a job where you're engaging with the non-human physical world, in a non-dominating way. Professional surfer?
I've also been working through a book on a similar subject, Tim Ingold's Perception of the Environment. In a bunch of essays, Ingold explores the idea that our identities are not inside our heads, but out where we meet the world. He mentions tribal people in the south Pacific, who take canoes on the open ocean, and they're so adept at reading the waves that they can "see" islands over the horizon.
Last night I was practicing piano (a Yamaha digital keyboard) and it occurred to me that it's the opposite of motorcycle repair. Instead of wrestling with a tool that's not working right, I was using a tool that does exactly what it's supposed to do, to wrestle with my own mind and body: trying to keep my left fingers moving in an unchanging pattern, while my right fingers improvise.
I'm not sure where I'm going with this, but the best selling piano album in history, Keith Jarrett's The Köln Concert, was played on a crappy piano that the piano warehouse sent to the concert hall by accident. So the instrument didn't just obey his will -- he had to work with its limitations, which made him more creative.
Related? This video was just posted to the subreddit, Top 7 Girls in Beat Saber, a VR game where blocks fly at you and you smack them with swords. This is also related to last week's post. As the supposedly useful world no longer gives us satisfying challenges where our perceptions meet our actions, we can find that satisfaction in play worlds. But then, who maintains the lame useful world?
January 20. Last month I linked to a 26 minute documentary about me. Last night I found out that the guy who made it, Jordan Mechano, died a few days ago. Thanks Ryan for sending this photo of Jordan and me at the magical place where his film ends.
I wonder how much of the wisdom of old people comes from knowing more people who have died. Every time it happens, we get better understanding of something that's easy to put into words but hard to really understand: life's simple pleasures are more valuable than life's accomplishments.
Jordan was also a Big Blood fan, so this song is for him: Time Stands Still. And for everyone still alive, my favorite line from the Bible, Ecclesiastes 9:7. "Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works."
January 16. This week I'm mostly taking a break from writing to play lots of Starsector. Lately, as a social philosopher, I've been thinking about how to make society more like a good game. But now I'm wondering if it's more realistic to make society a substrate for games -- not a great game in itself, but a well-functioning game that's loaded with great minigames. If there were something like reincarnation, and I had to make the case for being a human at this time in history, I wouldn't talk about our earth-shaking technologies, but our music, our drugs, and our games. So since I'm here, that's what I want to enjoy.
Related: 7 Reasons Why Video Gaming Will Take Over.
And congratulations to Morgan Weaver, from my hometown soccer team, on going second overall in the NWSL draft. It's interesting because, other than being fast, she's not an elite athlete. What raised her draft stock was a growing awareness of her psychological skills: motivating her teammates, and playing better in big games. Here's a video of her 2018 hat trick against Washington.
Last week I was unfair to Neil Peart, juxtaposing some of his clunkier lyrics with two great songs. My favorite Peart lyrics are from the 1984 song Between The Wheels:
It slips between your hands like water
This living in real time
A dizzying lifetime
Reeling by on celluloid
Struck between the eyes by the big time world
Walking uneasy streets
Hiding beneath the sheets
Got to try and fill the void
January 13. On the subreddit, an excerpt from a book by Peter Thiel on the Unabomber, arguing that people are losing faith in technological progress because we think there are no secrets left. Personally I'm a big believer in unknown unknowns -- I think we've barely scratched the surface of what we can potentially understand. I've lost faith in technological progress because it has created a world where I'm constantly asked to do stuff I don't feel like doing, and when I look at wild animals, or at anthropology literature about the nicer primitive cultures, none of them have that problem.
Related: yet another article trying to reframe willpower, with a depressing argument that we can force ourselves to do an unlimited amount of stuff we don't feel like doing, if we only believe we can. As if that would be a good way to live. But near the end is a smart idea: instead of thinking of willpower as a resource, think of the need for willpower as an emotion, telling us to "find new paths that may not require us to do things we fundamentally don't want to do."
Yesterday morning I went to my dad's house and shoveled a bunch of snow, and I actually enjoyed it. If the temperature is below freezing, so that everything is dry and not slushy, shoveling snow is a fun workout, and every shovelful feels rewarding.
This is a simplification, but we have lost faith in technological progress because all the fun jobs have been replaced by machines, and the only work left for humans is bullshit jobs -- unless you're in the top tenth of one percent, and then life is a fun game of accumulating capital, with the rest of humanity as game tokens.
From 2017, Table-top Generals is about board games, and how much better they are now than the games we grew up with. I'm thinking, human society is the same way. The world we have right now is like Monopoly, a terrible game that we're all playing because we don't know there's anything better. Out there in the space of possibilities, there's a human society like Settlers of Catan, which is not even the best game, just a popular game that was finally actually fun.
Of course, you can't swap out human societies like board games, and every attempt to "change the game" through top-down power has been a disaster. I think the key technology, to enable bottom-up game-changing, is some kind of sci-fi food fabricator, something robust and decentralized, so that we can really cut loose, knocking stuff down and trying new stuff, and still have enough to eat.
January 8. Adam Elkus has a really smart blog. Usually when I link to something, I'll read a bunch of long-winded paragraphs, figure out the basic idea, and condense it to a couple sentences. But Elkus defies condensation. Sometimes I can't even say what his argument is, but he always gives me tangential ideas.
His latest post, Lift Up The Receiver, I'll Make You A Believer, is about artificial intelligence and human emotional needs, and it reminds me of some thoughts I've been having about authenticity, about people being real or unreal.
Leigh Ann and I have been watching the TV series His Dark Materials, based on the series of novels by Philip Pullman. It's full of sci-fi gold: a steampunk alternate universe, a divinatory gizmo, a knife that cuts between worlds. I liked the novels, but I absolutely hate the show, and it's hard to explain why. All the characters are bullshit -- only the villain, Mrs. Coulter, is slightly interesting. Everyone else is a polished-to-death cartoon of a certain type of person. Their emotional reactions are always exactly what you expect. The dialogue could not get any worse without getting better -- because then the badness would let some light in.
I don't want to pick on this particular show. Harry Potter and Star Wars are just as bad. And I don't want to pick on Hollywood -- I loved Knives Out, and I can't wait for season three of Future Man. There's still room to do interesting stuff. But in general, in entertainment and also in social media, it's like we're all under a suffocating blanket that tells us how we're supposed to behave, and the result is, on the surface, humans are less weird now than maybe we've ever been -- but underneath we're still totally weird, because reality is weird. At some point, that realness has to break out.
Possibly related: People are seeing Cats while high out of their minds.