"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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March 3. So, coronavirus. This article, You're Likely to Get the Coronavirus, explains how it hits the sweet spot for pandemics: mild enough to escape containment, but still 20 times deadlier than the flu.
But I want to go back to this article, also from the Atlantic, Coronavirus and the Blindness of Authoritarianism. Back in December, Chinese medical workers tried to warn the public, they were punished for "rumors", and the virus was allowed to spread unchecked for another three weeks.
I don't think the west is immune from this. It's what we call "politics", as in, "I hate all the politics at my workplace." Politics is like corruption, in that individuals are putting themselves ahead of the common good, but it's milder. Corruption is when individuals are cynical about the system, and break the rules to increase their wealth and power. Politics is when individuals believe in the system, and work within the rules to preserve their status.
You can't stop politics with surveillance. In some future pseudo-utopia, there may be no corruption at all, and politics brings the whole thing down. Like coronavirus, its mildness makes it more dangerous.
I've been watching the TV show Hunters. It's about Nazi hunters, but it's set in a comic book alternate universe where ex-Nazis, decades after the war, are still fanatical ideologues plotting to exterminate Jews. In Hollywood, everything that's wrong with the world is caused by Voldemorts.
In real life, there are no Voldemorts, and most of what's wrong with the world is caused by Ron Weasleys: large groups of nice people who veer off into terrible behaviors because they want to be liked, and feel good about themselves.
Going back to this post about individuals as neurons in social brains, I think the quality of individuals that makes a society healthy, is not empathy, or competence, but the ability to tolerate discomfort: to listen to things that make you uncomfortable, and say things that make others uncomfortable.
In our culture, are we getting better at that skill, or worse?
March 1. The weird collapse subreddit is off to a good start. Here's a breaking the ice thread.
Yesterday, leap year day, I took my first serious dose of mushrooms, five dry grams on an empty stomach, in late morning, in quiet darkness. Even on smaller doses, I find that quiet darkness is necessary, because the mushroom launch is so challenging. An LSD launch is a tease, with everything gradually getting more interesting -- but mushrooms are a gut punch. You're nauseated and tiny stimuli are overwhelming.
The peak was underwhelming. I didn't encounter any entities, I got nowhere near ego death, and I didn't even hallucinate, beyond snatches of involuntary daydreaming. At the edge of sleep, I asked the mushrooms to heal my anxiety, a realistic request, and they told me I must carry my anxiety with me, as a fish habitat.
Finally I got tired of lying in bed, vaped some weed, and went outside. That's when it got good. Mushrooms and LSD both enhance nature, but the aesthetics are completely different. On LSD, nature is heaven -- gnatclouds are companies of angels, everything looks like Dr Seuss, I'm walking on the sun.
On mushrooms, I'm walking on the moon. Terence McKenna uses the word "peculiar", which is the best word, but still doesn't describe it. Shapes are crystalline and sophisticated. Nature is fairyland, and trees are literal fairies. I could sense their personalities: stodgy pines, surly willows, elegant aspens. Not only is every tree a person, but every branch of every tree is a person. Whatever you're looking at is completely important -- but also completely unimportant, because if a branch dies, that life just moves to somewhere equally good.
I wonder how subjective this is, or how suggestible. If I say, LSD is like this video, and mushrooms are like this video, other people might say, "Yes, I've noticed that too," or, "I didn't notice that until you said it," or, "No, for me it's completely different."
I read about a study, maybe in 90's, of groups of friends in high school. They found wide differences, within groups, of every variable except one: kids in the same group all used the same drugs. Now I'm wondering, in the future when psychedelics are normal, if humans will form tribes based on shared psychedelic experiences.
February 28. I've been told that submissions are locked on the ranprieur subreddit. I don't want to have any hand in running the subreddit, not even saying how it should be run. But it's nice to have one, and if someone can sort this out, either by unlocking the existing subreddit, or starting a new one, I'll mention it here.
Update: u/theFriendlyDoomer has just created r/weirdcollapse.
One week ago, I had a really interesting dream. Compared to normal dreams, it was more vivid, my mental state was more clear, and when I woke up, it didn't fade, but stuck in my head like a memory. The first thing I remember is that I was in some building after a day of work. Instead of going down to the street, I went to the top floor, where I made an offering at a giant clock with stone hands, and put seeds and fertilizer in a raised garden bed.
Then I went down to the street, and realized I'd left my shoes up in the building. Instead of going back up to get them, I decided to take my socks off and walk home barefoot. I was at the south side of the city, and had to get to the north side, but as I walked, I kept running into dead ends. Normally in a dream, any path I take, I can find a way through, but this time I had to keep retracing my steps, working my way counter-clockwise around the city.
I noticed that my feet were numb, and started to wonder if I were dreaming. I saw my name on a street sign. It said "Prieur Death Banana". My first interpretation was, banana is a silly word, and my own death is not serious. But later it occurred to me, the banana is the only common food I can't eat. If I do, it's not life-threatening, just extremely painful.
Coming out of another dead end, I saw some people hiding from someone coming down the road. So I hid too, but he found me. It was a monk in long robes. He raised a long willow switch as if to strike me, but struck his own forehead, which trickled blood.
He said, if you get out of the box, what do you see? I said, you see the outside of the box, and in the other direction, you see the wider world, whatever that is.
He asked me if I wanted to get out of the box, I said yes, and he said, you have to kiss me. His mouth turned into something like a skull and also like a machine. I said, can't you turn yourself into a hot chick or something? He said no, so I leaned forward to kiss him.
Apparently he was just testing me, because he pulled back and said: if you put a chimp in any time or place, it's still a chimp. But a human, in different times and places, will be radically different. I can get you a job in 24th century Germany, or 12th century Germany, or 12th century Greece.
At that point, I noticed that the building where I had started the dream was not a place I'd ever actually been before, so I must be dreaming, and I woke up.
February 26. I was really happy to get no comments at all on Monday's post, but I do have one more thought about the Democratic party. I wish they would either get dumber, and play directly to the public's emotions, or get smarter, and talk about issues with challenging complexity and honesty. As it is, they all seem like schoolteachers, and the kids support Bernie because he's the funnest teacher.
Moving on, some smart links. Boredom is but a window to a sunny day beyond the gloom. The word "boredom" points to two things: having nothing to do, and having to pay attention to something uninteresting. This article is completely about the former, and recommends not fighting boredom, but throwing yourself deeper into it. That's what I've been doing with anxiety, and it's been interesting, but it hasn't made the anxiety go away.
Paris Mayor: It's Time for a '15-Minute City'. She means a city that's zoned so that "residents can have all their needs met -- be they for work, shopping, health, or culture -- within 15 minutes of their own doorstep." That's a great idea that American cities will pick up in about 100 years, when declining population causes non-15-minute neighborhoods to be abandoned.
There's No Homunculus In Our Brain Who Guides Us. It's about the cognitive-map theory: that we understand the physical world as if we have a third-person map in our heads. The article argues that that kind of mapping is a historical anomaly, only a few hundred years old, and that our actual understanding of the world is first-person: "it is not so much having a bird's eye view of the terrain as it is being everywhere at once." It cites one of my favorite living thinkers, Tim Ingold, saying that the way we navigate the world is like the way we hum a tune, where we know what comes next from what comes right before it.
I'm also thinking about creative work, where some people will outline an entire story, or a piece of music, and fill in the details, while some people make it up as they go.
Can an Economy Feel Joy? It's a fascinating thought experiment: that individual humans in large systems could be like neurons in a brain. The author leaves the question open, of whether an economy has actual consciousness, and only argues that it might behave as if it does.
I have two extrapolations. First, when the group mind is having fun, that's when a society is strongest, and when it gets bored, society declines. Second, what about the subconscious? Not the subconscious of the group mind, but the subconscious minds of individual humans. When big events happen in history, it often seems that everyone has gone mad. People feel strong urges to do stuff that they cannot justify rationally. Maybe the "consciousness" of a society is made mostly out of the subconsciousness of individuals.
Related: Coronavirus and the Blindness of Authoritarianism. It's about how China failed to notice the coronavirus during the crucial early weeks, because individual humans don't want to send bad news up the pyramid, or hear bad news from below.
February 24. Despite my best efforts, my attention has been drawn to presidential politics, so I'll do a post. The first thing to remember is that it's mostly theater. I mean, Trump has done some bad stuff, but nothing like what Mussolini did in his first few years. The system is so locked down and ossified that it doesn't make much difference who the president is. That might change in a few years if we get a congressional supermajority for something like single payer health care.
The second thing to remember is that you have no influence. If either the nomination process, or the general election, gets close enough to be decided by your one vote, it will be decided by the Supreme Court or someone else with more power than you.
So your decision about who to support is a matter of personal psychology. You're not making a statement to the government about who should run it -- you're making a statement to yourself and your friends about who you are.
What troubles me about the Democrats is their single-mindedness about beating Trump. They're playing right into Trump's game: being obsessively against stuff. Personally, even though I disagree with him 100% on policy, I appreciate how he's making a mockery of the system. And I would actually vote for him ahead of Bloomberg, who has all of Trump's dictatorial ambitions, and a lot more money and brains.
I like Sanders, Warren, and Yang. It would be cool if Bernie gets the nomination and picks another crazy progressive as a running mate. I don't know if that's a winning platform in 2020, but it's a winning attitude.
February 20. I'll be busy until next week, but for the weekend I have a film review. You've all heard of the band They Might Be Giants. They named themselves after a 1971 movie that's been almost forgotten. George C. Scott plays a rich lawyer who had a mental breakdown, and believes he's Sherlock Holmes. His evil brother tries to get him committed so he can get his money. At the mental institution, Joanne Woodward plays a doctor who becomes obsessed with his case.
Of course her name is Dr. Watson. She follows him on his adventures, and soon they're less like Holmes and Watson, and more like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza -- hence the title -- as the story plunges into full-on magic realism. In dignified society, this guy is a nut, following "clues" that are just reading meaning into randomness. But among the low-lifes and wierdos, he is Sherlock Holmes, and the clues lead him to make wonderful discoveries and gather a tribe of outsiders.
By the end, the movie has lost all mooring in our world, and there are strange poetic lines, like "Cross your fingers. That makes nine. I love you." And it's got me thinking about newer films and shows about "magic", and how sterile they all are.
In Harry Potter, people can fly through the air and shoot bolts of energy, but it's all part of an unshaken third person perspective -- strange physics in a spotlessly objective metaphysics. In The Magicians, magic does the work of physics, like bending light. In His Dark Materials, there are different realities, but the doorways are clean portals, out there in the world.
In real magic, it's the mind that's bent, and the doorways between worlds are in our perspectives. Two people side by side can be in different worlds and not know it. Battles between worlds are not gunmen coming through portals, but people getting each other to look differently.
In most modern fiction, not knowing what's real is troubling. But I always liked Zelazny better than Dick, and I'm looking for more fiction where objective reality breaks down, and it's beautiful.
February 17. Some happy links, starting with one more about video games. Almost Home is by a woman who went into Fallout 76, a multiplayer postapocalypse game based on the area where she grew up, and built a farmers' market, and then gave tours of local landmarks.
But here, in this simulacrum, the game offers a chance to recreate West Virginia as more u- than dystopia. That's what all of these games offer: the illusion of a world in which we, as the players, have the ability to fix what's wrong.
I remember writing a few years back, if the sun happens to cool off exactly in sync with the peak of human-caused climate change, that's strong evidence that we're living in a simulation. Well, it might. A math professor's model of the sun's cycles predicts that "solar activity will fall by 60 percent during the 2030s."
Dogs poop in alignment with Earth's magnetic field. I'm starting to wonder if humans could learn to sense the field, if we had to.
Dead Sea dates grown from 2000-year-old seeds. This reminds me of how mushroom spores are light enough to float into space, and tough enough to survive floating through space to other planets.
Single dose of psilocybin eased cancer patients' anxiety, depression for years. Terence McKenna has said that on a large dose of psilocybin, you become totally convinced that you're going to die, when actually you're in no danger. This reminds me of an article from 2011, now gone from the internet, about people who survived jumping off the Golden Gate bridge, and had spiritual transformations.
Finally, we're getting closer to having a cross-country bike trail where bikes never have to share the road with cars. Although I should say, I rode the trail over the Cascades a few years ago, and I encountered more trucks maintaining fiber optic lines, than other cyclists.
February 14. For the weekend, some links about video games as art. First, for the holiday, a heart made out of missile tracks, from a Starsector mod designed to make combat pretty.
My favorite blogger, Adam Elkus, is also writing about video games. His latest post, OK Doomer, is about the 1993 game Doom, and why in some ways it's still the best first person shooter. This actually fits with the decadence argument, that 21st century culture is just rehashing and polishing the creativity of the 20th. Anyway, Doom is great because it has a small number of weapons, where each one remains valuable until the end, while it has a huge variety of monsters; and because defense is more about agility and less about absorbing hits; and because it's so easy for coders to add new rooms and levels, that there are lots of secret spaces.
And from last summer, an interesting article about how hard it is to make games addictive. You couldn't use an AI to design an addictive game -- it requires squishy human intuition.
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.