"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
September 14. Update: this comment on the Astronomy subreddit explains the importance of phosphene on Venus: "I think I will always remember this discovery as the first step in learning how common life is in the universe."
September 14. Some happy links. Singing Dogs Re-emerge From Extinction. Related, a post I made back in 2008, about the evidence that dogs are not descended from wolves, but from now-extinct wild dogs.
Teacher invents low-tech laptop and CD lifehack to reflect your keyboard, or whatever's on it, up into your laptop camera.
Researcher develops a machine to make DMT trips last a lot longer.
Phosphine Detected In The Atmosphere of Venus, in large enough quantities that it's strong evidence of microbial life.
And this is hilarious, a post on a reddit thread, What conspiracy theory do you completely believe is true?
Disney absolutely believed that Hillary Clinton was going to win the 2016 election, so they started building her animatronic for the Hall of Presidents well in advance, and after Trump pulled off a victory, instead of starting from scratch they just kinda made a couple half-assed adjustments to the Hillary model and put it up on stage.
September 11. Lately I've noticed, in American culture, an obsession with lying. And also, a failure to understand what lying is.
Lying is not an ontological act. It's not about what's true. Lying is a social act. It's when someone derives what they say, not from whatever they're talking about, but from the expected effect on their audience.
What we call a "lie detector" doesn't even detect that. It tries to detect when someone says something different from what they're thinking. If we had machines that did this perfectly, and we hooked them up to politicians, Donald Trump would pass every time, because he has mastered the skill of completely believing whatever he says.
In one sense, everything he says is a lie, because it's all derived from the expected effect on his audience. In another sense, nothing he says is a lie, because he is never conscious of any tension between his mouth and his head. That's why he seems so authentic to his followers.
Another tool against political lying is a fact-checker. But who decides what the fact-checker believes? How can we trust it? As the world gets more complex, there are more and more "facts" that we can't check first-hand, only second-hand through trusted sources. That opens the door for someone like Trump, who with perfect sincerity, mirrors his audience.
If a democracy becomes too complex for a majority of people to understand, it's inevitable that self-interested simplifiers will take power.
Here's an idea for a new anti-lie tech, which might become realistic when we have better brain-hacking. If we can somehow switch off the social regions of the brain, then the subject will be unable to even consider what kind of answer other people are looking for.
September 9. Bunching my negative links. They Know How to Prevent Megafires. Why Won't Anybody Listen? The way to prevent them is a checkerboard pattern of controlled burns. That can't be done because controlled burns are bureaucratically almost impossible. More generally, failing systems of any size are too inflexible to do prevention, so they're constantly chasing emergencies.
Avoiding the Global Lobotomy. The idea is, the internet and social media have damaged our brains in a way not unlike a literal lobotomy.
Related, from the Ask Old People subreddit, What is the old-fashioned version of "thirst-trapping?" "A thirst trap is defined as a sexy photo posted on social media to attract the attention of the masses. Before social media, how did people do this?" Of course, we didn't. Seeking validation from strangers is a new thing that's not good for us.
And some interesting answers to this one: People who have a memory of 1968: How did it compare to what we are living through in 2020?
From regular Ask Reddit, What has simultaneously gotten worse and more expensive?
And from yesterday, People who have been on TV game shows, what are some 'behind the scenes' secrets that regular viewers don't know about? It's always depressing to be reminded that almost everything we see on our screens is calculated backward from its effect on the audience, and not forward from what's actually happening.
September 7. Links for Labor Day. What David Graeber Noticed is a nice overview of his life's work and why it's important. From the archives, here's a post I made five years ago about Graeber's essay on fun.
What If Certain Mental Disorders Are Not Disorders At All? This is not a new idea, just a true idea that we're unable to do anything about. As I wrote earlier this year: Every time the human-made world drifts farther from human nature, there's another group of people who can't deal with it, and they're diagnosed with some disorder that makes it their fault.
Teens' anxiety levels dropped during pandemic. "Researchers surveyed 1000 secondary school children in southwest England. They said the results were a 'big surprise' and it raised questions about the impact of the school environment on teenagers' mental health." Of course, most kids hate school because it's regimented, authoritarian, and makes learning unfun for the rest of your life. A few kids love school, and they go on to rule society and make it continue to suck for everyone else.
A nice article that I would title Seven reasons highly successful people are still unhappy.
And there's always good stuff on the Antiwork subreddit.
September 4. I made a video. This is one of my favorite songs of the 2010's, and the best song I've ever heard about the beauty of small moments. It's also the first music video that I've filmed myself, from my favorite local graffiti wall. Hana Zara - You Burnt the Toast.
September 3. More evidence that we're in the worst timeline. David Graeber has died. I think he was the best living social philosopher, and the best since Ivan Illich. Although James C. Scott is also excellent, and still alive at 83.
September 2. Thinking more about Monday's post, it doesn't really work as a grid. It's two questions in sequence: 1) Where do you draw the line between in-group and out-group? 2) To what extent, in each group, do you think might makes right? You could make a chart of the answers, but it would be more complicated than one-person one-dot.
There is more going on than "don't ask me to make sacrifices for people I don't know personally." While that may be the basis for some of the reactions we see, there is also a militancy, striving to make others hold their own views.
I keep trying to get my friends to recognize that within their own 'in-group' as you say, they are largely able to behave however they want, just so long as they don't insist upon going public with it.
This gives me another idea....
The five stages of culture war:
1. Self-acceptance. You no longer think you're crazy, immoral, or inferior.
2. Private communities. You can do your thing with other people, even if it's still illegal.
3. Public tolerance. You have basic rights to do your thing, even if people don't like it.
4. Public acceptance. The difference between tolerance and acceptance is subtle, and the main benefit is you can have higher status, which is why I think it's overrated.
5. Domination. Everyone has to do your thing.
For example, gay rights. In the 1950's, you were lucky to be at stage 1. Now, in most of America, you're at stage 4. There is no plan for stage 5, but some people seem to be afraid there is.
Or kneeling for the national anthem. Colin Kaepernick is still blacklisted from the NFL for breaking into stage 3, but this year's NWSL games were pushing stage 5, with uneasiness about players who did not kneel. Having to kneel is bad, but it's no worse than having to stand, which has been normal for decades. What is it about anthems and conformity?
Also, the movement through stages can go in the other direction. Racism in America used to be almost at stage 5, and now it's fallen all the way to stage 2.
September 1. Just heard the newscaster say, "We're going to ping-pong between COVID and Kenosha," and I thought, "The apocalypse has already happened, and we're in fairyland."
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.
March 6. I made a video: Ladytron - International Dateline (doom edit)