"As the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them."
- Ecclesiastes 9:12
August 31. I've been feeling uneasy about the words "left" and "right". At the moment, almost all the bad shit is coming from the right, but there have been times and places where the bad shit was coming from the left, and it could happen again. Because the words have no intrinsic social meaning, they can mean anything.
And I don't like that grid, with social freedom and economic freedom, because it has economic freedom backwards. The popular definition of economic freedom is about freedom of money, when it should mean freedom from money -- so the less we have to think about money, the more economic freedom we have.
The grid that I'm proposing, is based on what I call moral competence -- not moral intelligence, because we think of intelligence as fixed, and competence as something we can change.
The lower a person's moral competence, the more they think that might makes right; and the higher a person's moral competence, the more they see others as friends.
There are two dimensions of this. One is the range of actions for which you think might makes right, or doesn't. The other is the range of people against whom you think might makes right, or doesn't.
Starting with actions: In a society with no moral competence, it's okay for a thug to beat up your grandmother and take all her stuff, because he's bigger and stronger. Our society is better than that, but not by much.
We don't think that physical might makes right, but capitalism is grounded on the idea that financial might makes right, that it's okay for someone with more money to use that advantage over people with less money.
In our politics and advertising, rhetorical might makes right, so it's okay for persuasive people to use their advantage over gullible people.
In Silicon Valley, cerebral might makes right, so it's expected that the people with the most brainpower will leverage it into social power.
And in the entire economy, motivational might makes right. People who love to be busy all day are "hard workers" who have earned wealth and power, while people with low tolerance for busyness can barely survive.
So on the action-axis of moral competence, our society is low, but not zero.
The people-axis of moral competence is about the size of your in-group, the people you treat as friends and not as objects of your power. At the low end is extreme individualism, an in-group of one. At the high end, your in-group is all life everywhere, and there is no out-group.
The culture war in the west right now is between those who want everyone to expand their in-group, and those who want the freedom to keep their in-group small. That's what the new right means by freedom, and that's the real message of the anti-maskers, the climate deniers, the social service slashers: don't ask me to make sacrifices for people I don't know personally.
August 29. Three more thoughts on race. Race is a social construct, and whiteness is a trick to get pale-skinned people to buy into dominator culture. One cool thing my ancestors did was fight the Romans.
On collective guilt: something other people did, that you didn't do, should not be held against you. At the same time, wrong actions come out of wrong cultures, and cultures tend to be passed on.
And on reparations: someday, "owning" land could be defined as indigenous people defined it, as a partnership with the local ecology. If you're not making the land more alive, you have no legal standing over that land. Golf courses would get really interesting.
August 28. What troubles me most about the events in Wisconsin, is not that police shot a guy seven times in the back for getting into his car. That kind of thing is normal, not just in the American police, but all through history where one group has had more rights than ordinary citizens to use deadly force.
But in the ensuing protests, there was a guy with a rifle, who shot two people and then walked toward the police. Everyone was shouting that he just shot two people, and the police did nothing. I mean, they eventually arrested the guy -- but their instinctive first reaction was to see the shooter as an ally, because he was from their culture.
That means, if Trump and his supporters believe the election was stolen from them, and if they rise up, then in many places, the police will be on their side. And then all they need is a good general, and they'll march through the neighborhoods of people who don't look like them, shooting anyone who resists.
If you think that's unrealistic, that's exactly what white people did only a few generations ago, to kill the Indians and get the land that we're all living on.
If it doesn't happen again, it's because humans are getting nicer. For example, German university offering grants to people who want to do absolutely nothing. Only 80 years ago, Germany was the most mentally ill place in the world, and now they're one of the best places. How much better might America be in 80 years?
August 26. With so many terrible things happening right now, I just want to point out how funny it is, that young right-wingers love the insult "cuck", and now it turns out that Trumper evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. likes to watch his wife have sex with another man -- the literal meaning of cuck. But no one's going to call him that, because the left doesn't use derogatory terms for consensual sex acts, and the right doesn't use the word in a literal sense, it's just what they call guys they don't like.
Also pure comedy: Melania Trump has renovated the White House Rose Garden, which Jackie Kennedy planted with many colors of flowers -- and now they're all white.
And some good news: Portland just passed the best low-density zoning reform in US history. That means they're reforming low-density, in favor of high-density.
Related: How Medellin Transformed Itself From the Crime Capital of the World Into a Model For Urban Governance.
More generally, I expect the collapse, which is now fully underway, to be highly local: how bad it is, or how good it is, depends on what city or town you're living in, and how mentally healthy the people are there. The worst places will be ruled by violent warlords, and the best places will be the seeds for a better future.
August 24. 'Electric mud' teems with new, mysterious bacteria, which can link themselves up into nanowires to move electrons, so they can break down compounds.
Trillions Upon Trillions of Viruses Fall From the Sky Each Day, and they "help keep ecosystems in balance by changing the composition of microbial communities."
Getting weirder, Where Do Viruses Come From? "This post was inspired by a paper published in late 2019 on how viruses shift ecosystems to Lamarckian selection - and how this behavior is indicative of their interstellar origins." Also, "it turns out that MOST viruses carry genetic information that doesn't match anything else we've ever sequenced."
Loosely related, Recompose is a new company that will compost your body, and they now have a prepayment option. So far, it's only available in the Seattle area.
Also loosely related, a few days ago there was a question on the Psychonaut subreddit, about why everything seems connected when you're on mushrooms, and my follow-up question got a lot of replies: What I wonder is: why can't we see the connectedness when we're sober? Apparently some people can.
August 21. I've always liked Joe Biden. I mean, he's taken some terrible positions over the years, and actually believed in them, but he's a good person and capable of being more progressive if the times call for it.
But I hate Democratic Party conventions. In the days before television, conventions were functional. Delegates would go in, sometimes not even having a candidate, and hash it out before the campaign. Now conventions are the decorative centerpiece of the campaign. They're propaganda, which according to Jacques Ellul, can never be surprising.
The public face of the Democrats is so smarmy, you almost want to vote for Trump just to see them lose. Their convention is like a feel-good Hollywood movie polished to death by test screenings. They try to please everyone, when what they need is an exciting vision for the future. But there is no exciting vision compatible with their donors.
I know there's still a lot of work to be done on race and gender equality, but the Democrats are going to ride that horse to death before they do anything serious about wealth inequality -- which they have yet to even frame correctly. It's not rich people against poor people. It's a set of economic assumptions and values, designed for owning to leverage itself into more owning, against every last one of us, including the rich, whose wealth has made them stupid.
Meanwhile, under Trump, Republicans are so perfectly wrong that it's like deep down they know what's right, and they're doing the opposite just to troll America. About ten years ago, a young Republican staffer wrote an argument that they should embrace copyright reform. I was like, wow, if they do that, I might vote for them. He was fired.
It's hard to remember that none of this is real. Your job, your debt, your Twitter feed, are all just a game we're playing that's not fun anymore. If the politicians and bureaucrats can just do one thing, if they can keep us from going hungry through economic collapse, then we can come up with a better game.
August 19. Going back two weeks, this subreddit post, which got hung up in moderation, has some great thoughts on game changing 21st century technologies: Mars is impossible to terraform without a magnetic field; a caffeine shortage could cripple the industrial economy; AI will falter when it turns out that human labor is cheaper; biotech and drones could be big.
My favorite idea is that "the cellulase gene could be transferred from snails to humans," so that we could eat wood. That would have huge political effects, because there has never been a repressive society where people could easily live off the land.
But I want to go off on a tangent about the psychology of automation. The most powerful force in the world, and in the end, the only powerful force, is intrinsic motivation. If you want to get squishy, you can call it love. If people love doing something, you don't need to pay them, you don't need to burn oil or build windfarms to get the job done. Money and energy are props to raise and hold up a system that's built out of stuff that no one really wants to do. Also violence.
So mechanization only seems like a good idea in the context of a society that's already built out of onerous tasks. Capitalists can concentrate wealth without having to deal with labor. Progressives can disconnect production from repression. At the logical extreme, everything useful is done by machines, and all human activity is fun and useless.
I mean, I'd love to get high and play games all day while machines do all the work. But that's unrealistic, and more importantly, all things being equal, people would rather be useful.
This short video on desire lines is mostly about footpaths, and how the trend in college campus design is to not make paved paths until the informal paths reveal how people really want to walk. Now we just have to do the same thing with the entire economy.
August 18. What if Donald Trump were a D&D character? I'm using edition 3.0, and I'll start with the six ability scores, which for normal humans can range from 3-18, where 10.5 is average.
Strength: 5. He's an old man.
Dexterity: 10. He's an okay golfer.
Constitution: 14. He thinks exercise is bad for him, and he's still somewhat healthy at 74.
Intelligence: 7. He's probably never read a book all the way through.
Wisdom: 10. I'm tempted to go much lower, but D&D wisdom includes self-control and intuition.
Charisma: 16. I'm tempted to go higher, but his personal magnetism is better explained as a spell power.
Alignment: Neutral Evil. He's evil because he lacks compassion, seeks power, and has no moral code except what he can get away with. Despite his talk of "law and order", he has shown repeatedly that he's against the rule of law when it contradicts his personal rule, and he takes every opportunity to push America toward disorder. I don't think he's hot-headed or unpredictable enough to be chaotic evil, but this bit from the rulebook does fit him: "Thankfully, his plans are haphazard, and any groups he joins or forms are poorly organized."
Class: Sorcerer. Sorcerers have fewer spells than Wizards, but can cast them more often. Trump has only one spell, an upgraded Mass Charm, which allows him to affect an unlimited number of people through television and social media. Or it could be Hallucinatory Terrain, modified to create a false social and scientific landscape. Instead of feeling angry at Trumpers, I'm just grateful that I made the saving throw.
August 17. Matt, who works in theatre, comments on the last post:
There can be freedom and joy within a script too: it's the moment when, as an actor, you realize that you aren't bound by your last performance of the script and that there are dozens of choices in every line. It's that moment where you stop controlling how you look, how you sound, what the lines are supposed to mean. Some lines have more choices and some have fewer, but it's not so much that scripted theatre is 100% destiny where improvisation is 100% freewill.
It's like, for hundreds of years, Buddhist meditators have been asking the same questions: "What is this?" "Who am I?" and so on. They are scripted questions, but they don't have scripted answers. For theatre practitioners, doing Macbeth can be like koan practice. You say the lines, and forget yourself inside the story, and then between your commitment, and abandonment, and the audience's energy and reactions, something emerges. You don't build to the scene where the theme gets clothed in words. You let every piece of the story stand for itself.
August 14. Important study, Young children would rather explore than get rewards. I think it's obvious that the shift from exploring to reward-seeking, which is normal in this culture, is a fall from grace, and I think it's both good and possible to reverse it.
In game design, reward-seeking is called grinding, and exploration is done in an open world. An open world may contain many grinds, but a grind cannot contain an open world.
A psychologist might call these two mental states reacting and choosing. A Buddhist might say that enlightenment is when choosing becomes your default state. In theater it would be the difference between reading a script and improvising.
When I improvise on piano, I might find a groove, where I keep playing a pattern that sounds good, until I get tired of it and go exploring for another groove. The best musicians make exploring beautiful, like John Cage's Dream.
August 12. No ideas this week, so I'll pull something from the archives. From April of 2016:
The difference between "freedom" and "power" seems clear: freedom means doing what you want, and power means telling other people what to do. But what if you cut someone off in traffic? To you, it feels like freedom, but to the other person it feels like power. More generally, freedom and power are words for talking about conflicts of interest. If there is no conflict of interest, if you want to do something that doesn't bother anyone else in any way, then you can just do it -- you don't need to play the "freedom" card to justify yourself.
Power sounds like fun, but in practice, unless you're sadistic or psychopathic, it's unpleasant to make other people do stuff they'd rather not do. This is why, when society has a power inbalance, it tends to hide it from the people who have power, because they want to feel like all they have is freedom.
August 10. Some woo-woo links, starting with two from the psychonaut subreddit. Reality is the trip and DMT is the trip stopper. And Psychedelic telepathy: An interview study.
And two from the ranprieur subreddit, since deleted. The Most Unsettling U.F.O. Theory is a nice video about the position that smart UFO researchers usually end up at: the phenomenon is neither space aliens, nor hallucinations, but some other level of reality, which we don't understand yet, and which somehow appears to us through our own cultural filters. So ancient angels, medieval fairies, and modern flying saucers are all the same thing. The video covers the airship flap of the late 1800's, and I would add, from this year, the mysterious drone sightings in Colorado.
Randonauts is about the practice of using random numbers to generate map coordinates, after forming an intention of what you want to find there. This is how the occult works: the first time you do it, you have a good chance of finding something amazing. If you continue doing it, results will get weaker and weaker, until as a whole, the data appear meaningless. Also, it's often how science works.
August 6. Today, some thoughts on game-changing technologies of the 21st century, starting with the most overrated.
I think we've got virtual reality all wrong. We imagine, if we can just throw enough pixels at an eyescreen, enough gigabytes at a sensory interface, we won't even care if the world is real. I think there are video games from the 1990's that are more immersive than any virtual worlds that will be made in this century -- unless we get another creative environment like the 1990's. Making a world that people want to stay in is hard. It's an art, and art can only be done well by individuals or small teams that are obsessed with their vision, and indifferent to money.
Also overrated: biotech. I think we're missing something, and Rupert Sheldrake is on the right track. DNA will turn out to not be the foundation of biology, but more like a tuner for some level that we haven't discovered yet. So we can't just make any creature we want by hacking DNA, any more than you can make a new TV show by hacking your set.
Where I see promise in biotech, is in vat-grown meat, and other ways to make food that's more affordable and less ecologically harmful.
Artificial intelligence could be big, but not in the way we think. This is already a common idea on the cutting edge of AI: we're obsessed with making machines indistinguishable from humans, when the real action is in making machines that are intelligent in ways that are alien to humans.
The holy grail of AI is understanding causality. As long as AI's do not understand causality, the more power we give them, the more we put ourselves at risk. And if they ever do understand causality, all bets are off.
Also big but not in the way we think: space exploration. I've written that colonizing Mars is a religion. But now, after watching this new video, Mars in 4K, while listening to Hildegard Von Bingen, on weed, I understand that colonizing Mars is a really good religion. It's all about humanity reaching for transcendence, and this time it's physically possible. Those rocks are real.
I still think it's a trick. Mars seems to be training us for interstellar travel, when really it's training us in ecology. Because if we get there, we'll want to terraform it, and terraforming Mars is so much harder than re-terraforming Earth, that by the time we're growing lichens on Daedalia Planum, we'll be planting food forests in the Sahara.
Finally, the big one. We already have psychedelic drugs so good, that if they become legal, they'll change religion so much that we might stop using that word. There will be no more telling people about unseen worlds. If we're all tripping, we'll all be seeing them, and the role of spiritual leaders will be to help us make sense of what we're seeing.
What if LSD and DMT are teases, for far more sophisticated tools for real-time brain-hacking? We might all get sockets in our skulls, but they won't be for feeding us some world designed by programmers. It will turn out to be both easier, and more interesting, to just unlock the worlds that are already there, that our brains were filtering.
August 3. Unrelated stuff, starting with more Coronavirus. Here's a chart that shows the United States cases per day, and this chart shows the deaths per day. Notice that the April deaths per day were double the July deaths per day, and yet the July cases per day were double the April cases per day. It's strange that nobody's talking about this.
I see three possibilities. 1) Testing is revealing more cases, and the actual infection rate in April was up to four times higher. 2) Deaths are not being counted, and the death rate right now is up to four times higher. 3) The virus is up to four times less deadly, either through a) better medical care, b) younger people getting it, or c) mutation.
New subject, from the psychonaut subreddit, a trip report where a guy talked to his own subconscious. He noticed that his hands were doing stuff without his head, so he started asking his hands questions, and they would respond with thumbs up or thumbs down. My first thought is, if we could develop a cheap technology that could do this reliably, it would be the biggest thing ever. My next thought is, the real mystery is not the subconscious, but the modern human mode of consciousness. How did we end up with this thing that controls everything we do, yet it understands so little?
New subject, from the Ask Old People subreddit, What are some things that actually sucked about the 1950s? This makes me optimistic, because if the world got that much better in 50 years, how much better can it get in the next 50? Also, as much as we like to bash the boomers, it was mostly them who drove those changes. I'm hopeful that Gen Z, whatever they end up calling themselves, will finally sort out the economy so that money stops ruining everything.
For example, The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free. What the essay is mainly about, is that we have the technology, right now, to have an information utopia, but economics is getting in the way, specifically intellectual property, and that poverty prevents creative people from giving their stuff away free.
July 30. Some thoughts on Coronavirus. It's strange that it's taken it this long to kill someone whose name I already knew. That person is Herman Cain. Given that the virus is disproportionately affecting minorities and Trumpers, it's fitting that he's the most famous person who's both.
If you get sick, the COVID-19 Positive subreddit is a good resource.
And I don't have an agenda about whether COVID-19 is man-made, but there seems to be a taboo against that idea among supposedly neutral scientists. The fight for a controversial article is about two virologists who "believe it has certain properties which would not evolve naturally" but are struggling to get published. And here's a pdf of their article.
I'm in no position to say if they're right -- I just think the sociology of the controversy is interesting. Part of the problem is that most people don't have the cognitive tools to navigate the middle ground of conspiracy theory. So it's either, whatever happens was a meaningless accident, or whatever happens was planned to happen exactly that way.
More generally, consensus defaults to safety, and there is safety in meaninglessness. As soon as you let agency in the door, people get crazy.
July 28. Yesterday's post came out of my own mental state. Lately life is feeling like an uphill climb through a disenchanted world. So I've doubled down on pain, cutting out some bad habits, working harder to improve my posture, and meditating more.
None of this has paid off yet, but in my time away from the computer, I'm reading a rare classic of philosophy, The Psychic Grid by Beatrice Bruteau. I can't even remember where I got my copy, but it fits well with Donald Hoffman's The Case Against Reality.
July 27. I'm still on semi-vacation from blogging. I keep my laptop on a stand-up desk in the corner of my bedroom, and this corner increasingly feels like a place of compulsion and dread. Twenty years ago the internet was miraculous. Now it's a Kafka nightmare of passwords and updates, a land of hungry bots seeking ad revenue. Even at the most personal level, I sense an undercurrent of loneliness, people desperate for a social connection that you're just not going to get through a screen.
If you strip it down to fundamentals, the internet is an engine for generating low-quality demands on human attention, and if the whole thing disappeared tomorrow, it would be so relieving.
March 6. I made a video: Ladytron - International Dateline (doom edit)