"It's easy to stay grounded. The ground is very close. And we walk on it every day."
- Keanu Reeves
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April 22. Continuing on trippy stuff, two readers have sent me this Stephen Wolfram article, Finally We May Have a Path to the Fundamental Theory of Physics. The basic idea is that you can get an extremely complex system, by applying a simple rule recursively, and he's trying to find the rule that will create our universe.
The kind of rules he's looking at, are rules for transforming a system of relations. This fits with an idea that's strange to western metaphysics, but common outside it: that relations are more fundamental than things.
At the end of the article, after a lot of heavy technical stuff, he concludes:
So what does all this mean for our original goal - of finding a rule to describe our universe? Basically it's saying that any (computation universal) rule will do - if we're prepared to craft the appropriate description language. But the point is that we've basically already defined at least some elements of our description language: they are the kinds of things our senses detect, our measuring devices measure, and our existing physics describes.
This reminds me of Donald Hoffman's work, summarized in this article from last year, The Case Against Reality. The basic idea is that our senses have not evolved to see reality as it is, but to see increasingly useful representations, like how our computer shows us desktop icons, instead of silicon chip schematics. Even physics and astronomy are not seeing reality, only squinting at pixels. From Hoffman's conclusion:
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.
And from Wolfram's conclusion:
While we view our universe - and reality - through our particular type of description language, there are endless other possible description languages which can lead to descriptions of reality that will seem coherent within themselves, but which will seem to us to correspond to utterly incoherent and meaningless aspects of our universe.
I've always assumed that any entity that exists in our universe must at least "experience the same physics as us". But now I realize that this isn't true. There's actually an almost infinite diversity of different ways to describe and experience our universe, or in effect an almost infinite diversity of different "planes of existence" for entities in the universe.
April 21. A few quick notes on drugs. To be fair to my sober self, I write every blog post sober (although I do use some ideas I get while high), and my fiction would be terrible if I didn't edit while sober. Cannabis gives me mind-blowing stuff, but it also gives me bad stuff that I don't know is bad. Sober me is like Don Draper, sitting in his office, accepting or rejecting stuff from the creative department downstairs.
Matt comments: "I've had spiritual teachers warn me away from psychedelics, and cannabis, on the idea that they scramble your aura or something. But I can't help but feel that most of the aversion to them in spiritual circles is a remnant of Old-World morality."
I agree. I've put a lot of time into meditation, and it has yet to give me even a hint of spiritual, philosophical, creative, or euphoric value. The value is entirely practical: I can more quickly notice the onset of bad mental states, and get out of them, or through them. It's completely different from the value I get out of drugs, although it is a big help in managing drug trips.
April 18. Back in the 90's, I subscribed to two great magazines, Steamshovel Press and Flatland, that had smart articles by people who investigated anomalies with no axe to grind. To this day, I believe that RFK was killed by his bodyguards, that there were two explosions in Oklahoma City, that TWA flight 800 was hit by a stray missile, and that 9/11 was so weird, that the deeper you get into details, the less sense it makes to ask what really happened.
But some time after 9/11, conspiracy theory became narrativized: the community of people who investigate anomalies in news and recent history, all fell under the spell of a master story, which is now taken for granted without argument. This story is, that whatever happens 1) was planned that way 2) by bad people 3) to make the world worse.
Find me someone who thinks that Coronavirus is no deadlier than the flu, but that 1) it was an honest mistake 2) by well-meaning people, and 3) the lockdown will make the world better.
I'm sure it will. I mean, there will also be some bad effects, never mind the actual deaths. I fear a long-term trend of germophobia, which is basically biophobia.
But here's a paranoid article that still sees psychological benefits: Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting. The idea is, capitalism will try to make us forget "The Great Pause... a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see ourselves and our country in the plainest of views."
This Reddit thread has some examples of what we're seeing: What might be the biggest positive impact the current situation has on humanity?
On the Weird Collapse subreddit, the latest Quarantine open thread has some good stuff on the psychology of quarantine, including this: "Essentially, the first week of lockdown was spent cranking up all my unhealthy coping mechanisms to 11, and then they just sort of magically all stopped being fun." That reminds me of a William Blake line: "If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise."
Also, Spain just passed a permanent basic income.
And Amid coronavirus shutdown, Yosemite wildlife roams free.
April 16. Since quarantine started, I've been getting more emails, more people seem to care what I think, but at the same time, I've felt less intelligent, like my thoughts are all sticky and clunky. But I want to grind through another post, with a little more about that McGilchrist-Vervaeke video.
Around the five minute mark, Vervaeke describes four kinds of knowing: propositional, procedural, perspectival, and participatory. Propositional is what philosophers and computers do. It's all about what statements are true and false. Procedural is knowing how to do something, like ride a bicycle. (The examples all seem to be stuff you do with your body, so I wonder how he would categorize mental procedural skills.) Perspectival knowing is tricky, but his examples are about knowing "what it's like to be" in certain states of consciousness, plus the ability to shift perspective. And participatory is "attunement, fundamental connectedness, being at home... the sense you lose when you're in another culture."
Yeah, I don't have that one at all. This whole human-made world feels like an alien culture to me, always has, and that's a common problem of our times. When people seek "meaning", what they're really seeking is participatory knowing -- and because our culture is front-loaded with propositional knowing, people seek meaning and belonging through beliefs. That's why we have flat-earthers and crazy political ideologies.
Framing it as a mechanism of collapse: when a society 1) fails to give its members fundamental connectedness, and 2) is fixated on propositional beliefs, the inevitable result is that people seek connectedness through beliefs; and when they're looking at a belief, the first thing they're looking at is how it satisfies their need for connectedness, rather than how well it fits reality.
This is an even bigger problem if some people have too much power, or not enough power, because in both cases, they suffer no consequences for beliefs that don't fit reality. And right now, we have a lot of people with either too much power or not enough, so there's a lot of room for beliefs to go wrong. And when public policy is driven more by belonging-based propositions, than by doing-based and being-based knowing, there's trouble.
April 14. Picking up from last week, I'm still thinking about how there are two different modes of brain-world interface. In one, you start by telling a compelling story, and then you look at the world for evidence that fits it. (Or, you start with a story that you don't like, and pick out evidence that doesn't fit it.) In the other mode, you don't care which side of the story a piece of data is on -- you're not fighting an intellectual battle, but exploring, actually trying figure shit out.
Dougald sends this video, a great conversation between Iain McGilchrist and John Vervaeke. McGilchrist is big into brain hemispheres. He would say that the first mode of thinking is the left brain, which focuses narrowly within models that it does not question, like a bird picking out seeds. And the second mode is the right brain, which looks broadly and notices whatever's there.
I've also been watching "100 Humans" on Netflix. They did an experiment where people had to work together in a creative task, and the groups that were competing for money did worse than the groups that were not rewarded. Then motivational expert Dan Pink explained how external reward narrows our focus (McGilcrhist would say it activates our left brain) and makes us worse at creative tasks.
So I'm thinking about the unconditional basic income, which Coronavirus has made more likely, and how it would change our culture. As our daily activities are less connected to money, we should get more creative, and more right-brained. But you could also argue that our habit of left-brain fixation will only find a new focus, no longer money, but crazy beliefs, which will veer every which way from reality, and destabilize society.
April 12. Some quick notes on Easter. I was raised Catholic, and I totally get the idea of God, and of Jesus as a spiritual leader. But the story of Jesus dying for our sins just never clicked for me. Dying and sins have nothing do to with each other. The ancient meaning of the word the Bible translates as "sin", is "missing the mark". I don't believe in original sin, but I believe that mistakes are inevitable. And the only redemption for making a mistake, is being in the same situation again and doing the right thing.
If there's a message in the death and resurrection of Jesus, it's that each one of us, by completely accepting all the pain the world gives us, can undergo a kind of spiritual renewal.
New subject, still Easter. This time of year, my town is full of rabbits. While I'm against lawns, a nice side effect is that they provide spring forage for rabbits, and the coyotes come in from the hills to eat them. We hear coyotes howling, inside city limits, several times a day now. Because of Coronavirus, there are way more people out walking around, and the coyotes must know something is up.
New subject, still Easter. We Tried 7 Ways to Hard-Boil Eggs and Found a Clear Winner. Boil a lot of water, then carefully add the eggs, then simmer for 11 minutes (more if you're at higher elevation), then a cold water bath.
April 10. Nothing deep today, but I have an example of how head intelligence can work against us. Compare the Pics subreddit to the No Context Pics subreddit. The latter has a strict rule, that all pics must be titled simply "PIC". The result is that the quality of images is much higher. In the regular Pics subreddit, upvotes are less about the actual images, and more about clickbait titles: symbolic expressions that are rewarded for how well they fit Reddit culture.
Last weekend I updated my about me page, mainly with full rewrites of my 100-word political and philosophical summaries. Also, on my Big Blood page, I've finally written about the new album.
More music: recorded last weekend, BonnLive: Blow Up - Sixties best of! It's a DJ in Germany playing more than two hours of great sixties music that you probably haven't heard. My three favorites are Shocking Blue - Send Me A Postcard, which would fit right in and kick ass on any mainstream classic rock playlist; Hoyt Hudson - They Took John Away, which builds to a really impressive rawness; and Factory - Path Through the Forest, a sound that Hawkwind would surpass on their 1972 album Doremi Fasol Latido, but nobody was playing this kind of heavy drone in 1968.
April 8. I need a break from writing about Coronavirus, and especially from writing about American politics, a toxic subject. But I have a little more to say about body intelligence.
First, on the subreddit, this post has a link to video about breathing. She says it's bad to force deep breaths, and good to pay attention to your breath while letting it go its own way. But I find it really difficult to do both of those at the same time, especially when I'm sitting still. The harder I'm exercising, the easier it is.
I was wondering: can the body be neurotic? My first thought was no, only the brain can. But when I think about it more, the body can totally have habits of constricting muscles for no good reason, and the brain needs to sort those out.
At the same time, focusing on the body is really helpful for settling down bad patterns of thinking. Yesterday I walked around testing a bottom-up hierarchy of attention: so the highest priority is the soles of my feet, then my center of gravity (thanks Eric for the idea), then my breathing, and brain last.
The word "thinking" means so many things. Most people think in a combination of language and pictures, but for some people, it's only one or the other. Then there's completely inside-the-head thinking, which can either play with stuff that's already inside the head, or create new stuff. When I'm trying to fall asleep, chasing ideas can keep me up for hours, but creating images puts me right out.
Then, when the head looks to the world, it can either look for surprise, for stuff that challenges its internal models, or it can look for recognition, for confirmation of its own models. I have a new theory of collapse: that a culture, or an individual, is in danger of psychological collapse, when inside-the-head thinking and confirmation thinking start echoing back and forth, not anchored by enough model-testing thinking.
Related: Tips From Someone With Nearly 50 Years Of Social Distancing Experience. He lives alone in a Colorado ghost town, and his first tip is to keep track of something, like snow levels or birds. So I'm thinking, most of the things that normal people keep track of, are either unreal or depressing.
April 4. Yesterday's post was a bit dramatic. It's hard to not get caught up in this stuff. It's like in Star Trek, when they come to some messed up planet, and they're just supposed to observe and not intervene. Except none of us have a starship -- the reason we can't intervene is that we have no participation in power.
Linked from weird collapse, an interesting argument about comparative competence under Coronavirus, that there's a strong correlation between countries that are handling it well, and countries that have been recently destroyed: Vietnam, Korea, Germany, Japan. "The first generation builds, the second generation manages, and the third generation wastes and takes it for granted because they've never known anything else."
I'm so tired of being serious. I'm sure I'll get back to it next week, but for the rest of the weekend, here's a fun video: Doctopus - Wobbegong.
April 3. I keep thinking about how Trump is more popular than the media. Neither one of them are doing their job. Trump's job is to manage the federal government in the interests of the American people, and when you look at his actions, he's doing everything he can to help Coronavirus kill as many of us as possible, while remaining popular enough to keep destroying America for a second term.
I'm not saying he's wrong. Maybe America needs to be destroyed.
Meanwhile, the job of the media is to give us the information to make our own decisions, and what they're doing instead, is treating us like sheep, preaching at us about what to do, with the goal of saving the most lives.
But that's not their decision to make. I wonder how many of us are secretly cheering for the virus. How many of us cheer for earthquakes and hurricanes, even when they're nearby? They make life more interesting, and maybe they kill you, and either way you don't have to go to work tomorrow.
I'm envious of the countries that have handled this well, like Taiwan and South Korea. As an American, I can't imagine what it's like to have everyone put trust in public institutions, and have them earn that trust. Matt writes:
I wonder what it will take for the people of the United States to stop seeing the British Empire in their own government. Our founding mythos is steeped in rebellion and so there's a tendency, I think, for Americans to define themselves in terms of the rebel. If you think of yourself as a rebel, then there has to be a shadow king.
April 2. I was planning to take the day off, but I just wrote some stuff over email that I think is worth posting. Yesterday, when I said Utopia doesn't have the concept of freeloading, I didn't fill in any details. But that's actually been done. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers mentions tribes where some people do no productive work their whole lives, and nobody cares. The reason they don't care is, their society is built completely out of activities that people find intrinsically enjoyable. Obviously not every tribe has done it, but even if it's just one, that tells us that it's possible. Then our challenge is to do it at a high level of technology.
This is not something Bernie Sanders can do -- it's hundreds of years in the future, or thousands. It requires a system built from the bottom up with zero coercion, so that jobs that nobody wants to do don't exist in the first place. But I think a UBI would move us in the right direction, by giving workers more leverage to make their job environments more enjoyable.
New subject. Coronavirus polling shows that most Americans approve of Trump and disapprove of the media. I see only one way to make sense of this: most Americans would rather feel confident through a million deaths, than feel scared through a thousand. Trump's supporters think empathy is something you reserve for people you know personally, and the president's job is to maintain the mystique of authority.
April 1. Following up on economics, I mentioned Piketty and Graeber, two guys who are good at explaining the larger context outside of what the present economy takes for granted, to its ruin. Here's a Thomas Piketty interview with some thoughts on Coronavirus, and a review of his new magnum opus, Capital and Ideology. The key quote:
The discourse of meritocracy and entrepreneurship often seems to serve primarily as a way for the winners in today's economy to justify any level of inequality whatsoever while peremptorily blaming the losers for lacking talent, virtue, and diligence.
And a blog post about David Graeber's ideas, Bullshit Jobs in an age of Coronavirus. The author doesn't explicitly support an unconditional basic income, but it's pretty clear, if "bullshit jobs have turned into a sort of 'workfare' for the educated classes," then it would be better to just give money to every class, so we can at least do useless stuff that we enjoy.
Also, linked from the weird collapse subreddit, a piece about collapse from the bottom: "Collapse of this kind means that we are undernourishing and impoverishing the weakest things around us... But that is exactly what capitalism and neoliberalism say we should do."
A nice trick for understanding economics is to factor out money. An economy is just a bunch of people doing stuff that keeps the system going. The strength of an economy is the overlap between what's necessary to keep it going, and what people want to do anyway. By this definition, a weak economy has to threaten people with hunger and homelessness to get them to do their jobs, and at the other extreme, Utopia doesn't even have the concept of freeloading.
Then it's just a matter of distribution, getting stuff to people who aren't making stuff. Communism tried it through central management, which didn't work, and capitalism is trying it through money, which is now also failing. I think the failure of capitalism is a slip between two functions of money: 1) a mechanism of exchange, and 2) a source of the meaning of life.
The problem is, money is zero-sum. If you hang meaning on it, then meaning is zero-sum, and it gets sucked up by people at the top. The poor become NPC's in the quests of the rich.
That system is now breaking down. Human motivation is the most powerful force on the planet, and as the economy collapses, there is more and more human motivation languishing, waiting to be tapped.
March 30. Today I want to skip past demographics, and economics, to psychology. I've seen fringe theories in both directions: that China is hiding millions of deaths, revealed by missing cell phone numbers, and that shadowy elites are cheating science to leverage an above-average flu season into economic collapse.
Any story that says other people are telling the wrong story, has to contend with the hospitals, which don't see any story except who's about to die. As hospitals overflow, COVID skeptics are, at best, arguing semantic details, and at worst, no better than flat earthers, who are basically showoffs: stage magicians seeing how big of a real thing they can make disappear.
With the situation on the ground changing so fast, it's good to practice changing your mind, and I'm already doubting my statement that cults are a pre-apocalypse phenomenon. If we define a cult as a community united by a motivational belief, which only survives by heavily filtering the outside world, then cults could increase in uncertain times, because people who can't stay on top of reality need stories to cling to, like rafts as their ship goes down. I'm wondering if the trend of squinting your eyes to make the data fit your story, is just in its infancy, if flat earthers are the first drop of rain in a storm.
I actually do have a conspiracy theory. I think there is a human collective consciousness, like a brain whose "neurons" are not the minds of individuals, but the subconscious minds of individuals. When it decides to do something (or is influenced) then lots of people have strong feelings that don't make sense, and history seems to ride a groove.
Where the right sees Trump as a strong leader, and the left sees a narcissistic grifter, I see an agent of fortune, the Trickster, first making a farce of American elections, then mocking its top-level justice, then sabotaging its defenses against an invader that targets precisely the people who support him the most.
Conspiracy folks love the Emperor's New Clothes myth, because they're innocent. The myth I see is the Pied Piper leading the innocent to drown. I see a Greek tragedy, or probably a comedy, where CNN is the chorus. I see the Tower of Babel, as if the collective consciousness took a psychedelic, so the Machine Elves can do a strip-down.
March 28. Looking at last Saturday's predictions, my big miss was China. Everyone is saying they really have controlled the virus, with the exception of returning travelers. This bodes well for human life -- but not politics. I look forward to some future crisis that hits authoritarian states harder. Anyway, I feel like I can make some long-term predictions, although inevitably I'll have missed something.
April will be the month of doom. For the next few weeks, every week will be worse. At some point, which will vary from place to place, the COVID curves will turn, and each week will be better, as medical workers recover, medical supplies catch up with demand, and we have better testing.
Quarantines will be eased, people will mix more, and there will be second waves, which vary in timing and severity from place to place. If your second wave is worse, somebody messed up. There will be third, fourth, and fifth waves, going all the way through next winter's flu season, unless the virus mutates into something milder, or until we get a vaccine.
Then it's a question of the long-term economic effects. The stimulus is not going to save every business, and you can't just create trillions of dollars out of thin air and not have some kind of blowback. That's beyond my understanding, and I don't trust mainstream economists either. I'm curious what David Graeber or Thomas Piketty will say.
I don't see how Trump can win another term, since he barely won last time, Biden is way more likeable than Hillary, and the virus is deadlier to Trump's base. But he's a classic trickster, and fate seems to like him. Wouldn't it be crazy if it was Trump who gave us Medicare for all, or an unconditional basic income? That might be something that only a Republican could get away with.
March 26. I'm not smart this week. Here are some stray thoughts that I can't put together into a full post.
Coronavirus might be the most serious threat the modern world has yet faced, that's not human. It doesn't care what we think about it, and no amount of social intelligence, no inspiring story, can change the nature of the threat. That's why politicians have to listen to scientists to know what to do.
Every time there's a collapse, people want to build, from the scraps, some world they dream of. But that's not how it works. Utopia doesn't come down from utopian visions. It comes up from a million tasks that people feel intrinsically motivated to do. There's no way to know what those are. Even one individual will dream of a life, achieve it, not like it, and end up enjoying a life they didn't expect. So if Coronavirus leads to a better world, it will be by creating space for us to get a better sense of what we actually like doing.
Some of us are using the quarantine to do more drugs. Last week I did a synergy experiment, with roughly equal moderate doses of mushrooms and cannabis edibles. The launch was impressive, better than a triple dose of either substance. But the plateau was a dud, just bland numbness for hours. So I won't do that again, but if numbness is what you're looking for, it's probably a good alternative to opiates.
And posted today on Weird Collapse, a compilation of coronavirus art. My favorite is Operation Isolation by Yuliya Pankratova.
March 25. Taking a break from Coronavirus, some good news links on other subjects. Lasers etch a 'perfect' solar energy absorber.
Down on the Farm That Harvests Metal From Plants.
And a quiet roadside revolution is boosting wildflowers.
March 24. Nothing heavy today, just some links. Tips for the Depressed is an excerpt from a new book, with lots of ideas and realistic advice that might be useful with everyone stuck at home.
Also reposting this from last month, Boredom is but a window to a sunny day beyond the gloom.
Funny, eight years ago it was illegal everywhere, and now Pot Shops Called Essential Infrastructure As Commerce Shuts For Coronavirus.
And a beautiful song from 2010, Jenny and Johnny - New Yorker Cartoon.
March 23. Comment from Dublin:
What I find most incredible is all the concessions the ruling class are making out of nowhere. No more rent, no more evictions, no more debt! It's happening everywhere. I read that Spain has nationalised the all of its private hospitals. I read that the State of California is buying up hotels and motels just to get homeless people off the streets to stop them from spreading this. Sick pay for everyone. Even US Republicans are calling for universal basic income! Everyone can work from home. Or even just not work at all.
I don't think people are going to forget about all these "temporary" measures when it the time does come to go back to normal. All the things we've been told are impossible, it turned out they were possible at the drop of a hat all along. I mean, we've been talking about housing crises for years - now we see that the state could end that overnight if it wanted? It was that easy to just get rid of rent and buy up all the hotels for homeless people? Even look at how much emissions have fallen in this time. We've been screaming about a climate emergency for decades and the powers that be have acted like there's nothing we can do. Nobody will be able to believe that anymore.
To be fair, if the government tried any of this stuff without a pandemic hanging over us, there would be a revolt. Ordinary people want to be busy, and they want people who don't want to be busy to have a low standard of living. When this is over, there will be more homeless people than ever, and emissions might be a bit lower than they were, because some people keep working from home.
When the quarantines came down, I was thinking, when the infection rate drops, life will go back to normal, and the virus will rise again. Where I was wrong was thinking of this as a failure. This article on New Zealand's strategy explains how it's actually a good way to manage the pandemic, by breaking it into smaller waves. As long as hospitals are not overwhelmed, we should call it a win.
On a personal note, this reddit thread on mental health under quarantine is full of self-identified introverts who suddenly crave going out and doing things. I have not reached the bottom of my introversion, and don't ever expect to. I used to fantasize about solitary confinement, but one thing I've learned from this is that I need to walk in nature, so now I fantasize about living at the edge of some wilderness, and having everything I need delivered, so walking in nature is the only reason I go outside.
March 21. A long-time reader has a request: "Would you be able to focus on 7 days in the future, what you think will be happening at that point of view." Sure, that's a short enough time that I won't be far wrong, so I'll try it.
In seven days, the infection and death curves will still be rising. Almost every US state will have a "shelter in place" order. Nobody will believe China saying they've contained it, and there will be talk of the looming disaster in Africa. From Italy, we'll have a better sense of the very important no-hospitalization death rate. Thanks Italy, for taking one for science.
Medical workers will be getting sick, and hospitals will be filling up and running out of supplies, but not catastrophically in most places. There will be stories about young people dying, to scare young people into staying home. There may be a run on Amazon, as they stop stocking their warehouses with certain items. And we'll start to consider the hard questions around what jobs are actually important.
Eventually, there will be a good article on the social effects of long-term quarantine, titled "Covid's Metamorphoses". The first aspect of this to hit the media will be rising domestic violence. The worst families are in danger of suicide and murder-suicide. And yet, I wonder if the overall suicide rate will go down, because our problems are more real. From a reddit thread on quarantine upsides:
I have two teenagers and life pre-March 2020 was feeling a little out of control, like we were speeding to the end of parenthood at a million miles an hour. Most of my life lately has been driving everyone everywhere and the lack of quality time was starting to feel like a real loss. So having this pause has been really nice, to spend time playing card games, watching old favorite movies, etc. Watching them trying to find the positive when they're facing significant teenage losses of prom, grad ceremonies, AP exams, etc. As they've moved from their own self-absorbed losses to concern for their community, friends and family - it's like watching them grow up in a significant and profound way.
March 6. I just made a video: Ladytron - International Dateline (doom edit)