"The skyline was beautiful on fire, all twisted metal stretching upwards, everything washed in a thin orange haze. I said, 'Kiss me, you're beautiful; these are truly the last days.' You grabbed my hand, and we fell into it, like a daydream, or a fever."
- Godspeed You Black Emperor, "Dead Flag Blues"
October 7. Matt comments on Friday's post about the clickety-clack people:
It's possible for humans to look at a screen, believing that they're looking through a window, and listen to a debate about policies that haven't been enacted but might be. Millions of people react to these ideas as if they're real. They feel rage or fear or hope at the uttering of sounds, or vision of characters, that represent a reality that might manifest and might not. And, generally, people are far more intrigued by this than their own backyards (or heartbeats).
Loosely related: We Learn Faster When We Aren't Told What Choices to Make, and we also learn faster when our choices have consequences. It seems like both of these are increasingly missing. More than our ancestors, we're told what to do all day, and we don't see how it matters what we do. And...
This insight could also help explain delusional thinking, in which false beliefs remain impenetrable to contrary evidence. An outsize feeling of control may contribute to an unflagging adherence to an erroneous belief.
Or, human society has become so constricted and insulated, that our only opportunity to make real choices and see real feedback, is to make clearly wrong choices.
Also on the subject of the world getting worse, a thread from Ask Old People, What old technology do you miss/still use?
October 5. American politics is such a shitshow, I don't want to say anything about it until I have some hindsight. I'm also low on ideas lately, so I'll probably be posting links all week.
From the weirdcollapse subreddit, an interesting Twitter thread about declining grip strength. The author argues that this is not caused by a decline in physical work, but that it's something in the nerves or the brain, and that it's related to the rise of autism.
If he's right, this is probably a temporary disease of modernity, and when humans emerge from this strange time, we'll go back to normal. But I always wonder if there is some hidden level of reality, where either human extinction, or human transcendence, is already in the cards, and this is part of that.
Loosely related, from the ranprieur subreddit, an Ian Welsh review of Robert Sapolsky's Behave, a book about human biology. There's a nice bit about how being busy favors the lizard brain, while having lots of time favors the prefrontal cortex. Also this:
We have been propagandized to view testosterone as related to violence... But what testosterone appears to actually be related to is status seeking. If violence and bullying is what a society rewards with status, then yup, testosterone is about violence. But if hugging and caring for people will get you more status, suddenly high-T individuals are the biggest huggers and carers around.
October 2. Yesterday I ate five grams of Psilocybe cubensis and went to a patch of ancient woods at the edge of town. It's called Magpie Forest. Here's a photo I took. The trees are mostly hawthorn, wiry and gnarled. We used to walk across the wheat fields to get there. Now the apartment district has expanded right to the edge of it, and WSU has bought the property as a nature preserve.
I'm not going to drive on mushrooms, so I had to ride my bike there, and the first thing I noticed was how far uphill it is. For almost half an hour, I was mostly climbing, sometimes so steep that I had to get off and walk.
When I got there, the drugs were taking effect, and I locked my bike to a tree and went down a little-used footpath, and then up a wildlife trail aiming for the center. It got too dense, and there were ants, so I backed up, and borrowed a bed from a deer to ride out the launch.
I have a thick head against mushrooms. The trip's plateau, even after I smoked weed on top, was hardly trippy, and I was disappointed to not see crystalline geometry in the branches, or sense the personalities of individual trees, like I did on my last trip.
But I did get a sense of the vibe of the forest. Compared to river trees, hill trees are hostile and suspicious. But they really know how to have fun. If you could get outside of time, you'd see them dancing in the meadows.
I found some cool places, including a patch of bare dirt, made by a large bird for dust baths, before a great thistle luminous in the sun. It felt like a temple, and I scattered some catnip seeds I brought from the river trail.
The biggest insight I got, was after a few hours in the woods, coming to the edge and looking down on the human-made world. It didn't strike me as evil, or ugly, but unreal. These strange animals, with their clickety-clack machinery, have taken the bounty of the earth and used it to go ever deeper inside their own insane constructions, and they don't even like it. It's anyone's guess how long they can keep going.
September 30. Okay, I can't hold off any longer on the negative links.
From the Weird Collapse subreddit, A wargame designer defines our four possible civil wars, depending on how the election goes. Biden blowout = American Civil War. Close Biden win = Russian Revolution. Contested result = Irish War of Independence. Trump win = Rwandan Civil War. He's probably exaggerating the danger, but we'll find out soon enough.
A David Graeber piece from 2012, Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit. It's about why we never got all the miraculous technologies we thought we'd have by now, because the whole system has been gummed up by corporate bureaucracy.
Common sense suggests that if you want to maximize scientific creativity, you find some bright people, give them the resources they need to pursue whatever idea comes into their heads, and then leave them alone. Most will turn up nothing, but one or two may well discover something. But if you want to minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, tell those same people they will receive no resources at all unless they spend the bulk of their time competing against each other to convince you they know in advance what they are going to discover.
Removed from Ask Reddit: What career path did you choose that you strongly advise against? You guessed it, the answers include pretty much every career path.
If you think only America is bad, another thread, What is something fucked up about your country that very few foreigners might know?
Social Cooling is a new website about how big data is making everyone conformist and risk-averse, because any way you step out of line now will be stored and held against you forever.
Finally, Ice is a post about watery catastrophes, including the possibility of very fast sea level rise, maybe 6-9 meters (20-30 feet) in five years, if the West Antarctic ice sheet collapses.
September 28. All the news, and all my saved-up links, are too depressing. So today I want to write about sports. I wonder if sports can save the world, by providing a healthy outlet for humanity's worst flaw, our love of ingroup-outgroup conflict. It would be cool if American cities could organize a bunch of capture-the-flag games between the red and blue tribes.
It always puzzles me that there aren't more straight men into women's sports -- or more gay men into men's sports. I think it's just an unlucky accident of how we're socialized. Even on the NWSL subreddit, there's an unspoken taboo against talking about who the hottest player is. (It's Kristie Mewis.)
Sports highlights are always about athleticism, but my favorite moments are about situational intelligence. From Saturday's NWSL action, this Crystal Thomas goal has the two funnest things an attacker can do -- steal a back pass, and slip past the goalie to an open net. And this easy Bethany Balcer goal is set up by Sofia Huerta cleverly letting a pass go between her feet.
September 25. Some happy stuff for the weekend. First, Eric sends this awesome video, Pipelinefunk, where a guy plays a saxophone into the open end of a pipeline, and jams with his own echo. So pipelines are good for something after all.
Soap Dodger: Meet the Doctor Who Says We Have Been Showering Wrong. The idea is, your skin has a microbiome, and instead of trying to exterminate it, you should work with it. It's like how dead soil is first colonized by the nastiest weeds, but if you let it go, eventually you'll get nicer plants. I tried it, and he's right. I used to go nuclear on my armpits and they still smelled bad. Now I just put on a little baking soda and essential oil, and they smell fine.
Some good stuff in this thread, What was your most profound realization you had whilst tripping? At the bottom of the page are all the comments that tried to be clever by interpreting "tripping" as stumbling, but the most downvoted answer is accidentally the most profound: "Wow the ground is much closer than I thought."
Of all the writing I do, this blog is at best my third favorite. Number two is my fiction, and number one is my poetry, because it's the tightest. Poetry has come to mean venting about your emotions with arbitrary line breaks, but the way I do it, it's like watchmaking, where every word is a gear that makes the whole thing run. This is one I wrote earlier this year, and just spliced it into book two of my novel.
You must ask the heart, says the head
And chases its own thoughts instead
The heart says, I must ask the gut
And raps on its sickroom floor -- But
that voice never stopped, deep inside
Be still my head, my heart go wide
(So grateful, the hips and the knees
To bear such a lovely disease)
September 23. Lots of feedback from the last post, including this heavy comment thread on weirdcollapse.
Also, Owen sends this video of a Jonathan Blow talk, "Preventing the Collapse of Civilization". He says little about prevention, and mostly talks about how technology has been lost in the past, and how it's being lost now in the world of software. Basically, the people who really know how to do things die, and it's hard to pass on everything they know to the next generation, because so much of it requires hands-on experience.
I wrote about this back in 2010 in this post:
And if a skill dies, even if there are still books about it, the human attention required to resurrect it from books is much greater than the human attention that would have been required to keep it alive in the first place. So if we want to bring back a dead skill, without an increase in population or specialization, we have to sacrifice some living skills.
The technology I'd most like to lose, of course, is the automobile. And that's realistic. Cars are so complex now that it's almost impossible to repair them. They're pretty much disposable, and if we stop making more, the ones we have will gradually stop working.
The technology I'd most like to hold onto is old bicycles. The one I ride is from 1981, and it's not hard to strip it down to ball bearings and rebuild it.
The new technology I'd most like to see is anything that makes good food with high efficiency, like vat-grown meat, or fruit trees with upgraded photosynthesis.
September 21. Important Twitter thread about infrastructure decay, specifically an electrical tower where a 97 year old hook broke, causing the 2018 Paradise fire that killed 85 people.
I've been saying for a while now that we'll get an economic collapse but not a tech collapse, but lately I'm thinking there has to be a tech collapse, not only because of the diminishing returns on complexity, but because more of us are unhappy with the effect of technology on our lives.
Something that's always puzzled me is that there's so little infrastructure sabotage. In war, it's totally normal, and it's also common in fiction. Why doesn't some terror group send its members out with shovels to cut fiber optic lines, or hacksaws to cut railroad tracks, or rifles to shoot transformers?
I'm thinking the only reason it hasn't happened, is that everyone still thinks of the tech system as a net benefit to themselves. If that ever changes, look out.
September 18. Something nice for the weekend, and also sad, a reddit thread, Have you ever missed someone who doesn't even exist? It's mostly about people in dreams, but there are also some fictional characters, and some projections of people better than they are. This reminds me of my post from earlier this year about tulpas.
September 16. Some local news. Last week my town was the number one COVID hot spot in the country, because we're a small college town and the students came back and started partying. Something I've learned from this virus is that some people really, really like going to parties. Certain extroverted personalities must reach a transcendent mental state similar to what I get on good drugs, or they wouldn't take such risks.
On the other hand, when you look at the numbers for our county, we have more than a thousand confirmed cases, only two hospitalizations, and zero deaths. That seems really low even for young people, so I wonder if there's some other local factor that's making the virus less dangerous.
Of course it's also been smoky. This was our view on Saturday, and the worst thing is that our apartment is too hot. We have no AC, because normally we can just open the windows at night, blowing fans if necessary, to bring in enough cold to get through the next day. But the outside is too smoky to open. I've been keeping the inside air clean with a damp towel draped over the intake side of a box fan, and a Wein VI-2500 ionizer.
By the way, all these fires are not just from climate change. In the 1930's, the acreage burned per year in the American west was a lot more. But those were lower-intensity fires, because the land had always been allowed to burn freely. Only with the fire suppression policies of the late 20th century, did we build the massive dry biomass that is feeding these monster fires.
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. This comment on the Astronomy subreddit explains it. "I think I will always remember this discovery as the first step in learning how common life is in the universe."
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 quick 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.
March 6. I made a video: Ladytron - International Dateline (doom edit)