"The unspeakable is the true domain of being."
- Terence McKenna
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May 15. I'm still on semi-vacation from blogging. Here's a great quote I just got over email:
We have homo sapiens, the people who know, which somehow became homo sapiens sapiens, the people who know they know. Maybe someday we'll reach homo sapiens sans sapiens, the people who know they don't know.
And some music. This week I've become obsessed with two songs from the 2019 album Signal by Automatic, a Los Angeles band with no guitars, only drums, bass, and keyboard. The songs are Humanoid and Strange Conversations.
May 11. Catching up on Coronavirus, of all the experts they interview on CNN, Laurie Garrett is the most interesting. She mentioned that most of the people who die from Coronavirus have high blood pressure, and that it's turning out to be more of a cardiovascular disease than a respiratory disease. It's also really weird as viruses go, with new vectors of transmission popping up, and an incubation period anywhere from two days to two weeks.
More weirdness: Last month I saw an interview with a nurse at the Seattle-area rest home where it hit early, and she said that not one patient had a runny nose, but that all of them were red around the eyes, like red eye shadow. That's the only time I've heard mention of that symptom.
Garrett says the best case scenario is three years, and that's if we get a slam-dunk vaccine and vaccinate everyone in the world. My comment: as potential vaccines take longer, are more expensive or fiddly, and have more bad effects, we come closer to the best move being global herd immunity, where most of the world gets it, and we just slow it down enough so that hospitals don't get overwhelmed.
Here's a big Reddit thread, What positive effects has the quarantine had for you? Also, Small Farms in N.Y. Are Experiencing a Surprising Boom.
May 8. I want to get gradually back into blogging, but I want to be more careful about what kind of idea-space I'm creating, and what kind of energy I'm feeding. On the one hand, I always have stuff to say that I think will be helpful, but on the other hand, I don't want anyone to care what I think, if that makes sense.
Today, just a couple links. Cross-posted to the subreddit from the Slate Star Codex subreddit: What changes significantly worsened your quality of life? The most interesting answers are stuff that we normally think will improve quality of life, like moving to a new place, going to college, meditation, fasting, working out, and not drinking.
You're a Completely Different Person at 14 and 77, the Longest-Running Personality Study Ever Has Found. Why is it that every single system for classifying personality, insists that your profile is fixed for life? Because that gives the system more power, and if you buy into that, you lose your power to change yourself.
May 5. Just letting everyone know I'm okay, actually really enjoying the time away. I don't know if quarantine is making the internet more toxic, or if it's just me, but going online has increasingly been something I dread, not something I look forward to. What if, in a few years, everyone feels that way? Is the internet a fad?
Here's a nice long reddit comment about working with nature in gardening, including a rant about how weeds are just trying to heal dead soil. "Struggling with plants? Often the correct solution is to remove the human."
April 23. I've decided to take a break from blogging. I have no plan for when I'll come back, but my guess is two to three weeks.
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 3. I'm envious of the countries that have handled Coronavirus well. 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 1. 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.
This has 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. Obviously not every tribe has done it, but even if it's just one, that tells us that it's possible.
In a complex high-tech society, the challenge is 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. 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.
March 6. I made a video: Ladytron - International Dateline (doom edit)