"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 16. This subreddit post quotes Noam Chomsky on human intelligence as a lethal mutation. It's true: the key genetic difference between us and chimps is that we have a gene that makes way more neurons in the neocortex, and our brainpower has led us to do terrible things.
I'm not interested in human extinction, because, first, all post-extinction societies are the same; and second, the only plausible scenario for near-term extinction is human transcendence gone bad: we change ourselves, universally, into something we think is better, but it turns out to be much less robust.
The top comment in that thread, by Voidgenesis, speculates that we're now getting ready for a change as big as the change from Neanderthals to modern humans, or from hunter-gatherers to farmers, "though which group of humans does something crazy and succeeds is anyone's guess." I like this idea.
Voidgenesis thinks we're moving toward hypersociality, like how honey bees shifted from being solitary to living in hives. An argument for that prediction would be that recent cultural changes are away from tribalism and toward universal brotherhood. I wonder if we're just shifting from vertical to horizontal tribalism. It's like, when I was in middle school, there was a clear hierarchy of cliques. In high school, all those groups were still there, but they lived in peace, and every group thought they were the best.
But I want to argue that we're becoming less social. First, the internet has already impoverished our deep and close connections, and our shallow and distant connections are unsatisfying and fragile. Now COVID-19 has separated us even more, with large gatherings basically illegal. There's never been a better time to be an introvert.
Meanwhile, under identity politics, you have the right to identify as almost anything, and not have it held against you. This includes identities that didn't exist before, so inevitably we'll have a larger number of smaller tribes, even tribes of one.
And what's up with autism? I think it will turn out that "the autism spectrum" is a bunch of different things, but one of them could be the leading edge of a biological shift to a new kind of human. A classic sci-fi novel on "homo superior" is Odd John by Olaf Stapledon.
I could be wrong about any of these things, as enduring trends. The hardest part of forecasting metamorphosis, is knowing what's the butterfly, and what's the cocoon.
October 14. Here's a picture my sister found, of me in fall of 1975. That car I'm sitting on is a 1964 Pontiac Catalina. Notice my anxious expression. 45 years later, I still feel like that a lot of the time. Here's a piece I wrote back in 2007, about what life was like in 1975 compared to now.
October 12. Stray links. A new independent video game, Terra Nil "is a relaxing city builder about ecosystem reconstruction." I always wanted to make a game like this, but smaller scale and more primitive, where the things you place on the map are either actual plants, or low tech improvements like bat houses, or piles of rocks for spider habitat.
Possibly the final post on the Hipcrime Vocab blog, this Archaeology Roundup has lots of cool stuff about ancient civilizations.
Related, a 2018 David Graeber piece, How to change the course of human history, where he argues that there were large-scale ancient civilizations that were not repressive, and more generally, "that there is no correlation between scale and hierarchy."
Also related, Moralizing gods came after the rise of civilizations, not before.
Grapefruit Is One of the Weirdest Fruits on the Planet. For me, there are two fruit seasons. In summer I eat lots of peaches and nectarines, and in winter I eat lots of grapefruit. In fall I can't get either, so it's just apples.
Nice Reddit thread, What's the best thing you've ever done for your mental health?
New study suggests handwriting engages the brain more than typing. "The present findings suggest that the delicate and precisely controlled movements involved in handwriting contribute to the brain's activation patterns related to learning," the report said. "We found no evidence of such activation patterns when using a keyboard."
And a preview of the coming tech crash, a Hacker News thread, Ferrari is bricked during upgrade due to no mobile reception while underground. Basically, the car has a built-in thing that can disable it, but the thing to un-disable it is not built in, but requires a fully functioning technological civilization. So, if products that are easier to brick than to unbrick reach a critical mass, then a single breakdown can cascade to brick them all.
October 9. Wading back into the swamp, today I want to make a reality-based case for Donald Trump. But first, the anti-reality case: that Trump is a man of high character, a skilled entrepreneur, who has come to Washington to clean up corruption.
The reality is just the opposite. He's probably the most immoral president since Andrew Jackson; if he'd taken the money he got from his dad and just put it in normal hands-off investments, he would have more money than he has now, so he's not even a good businessman; and more than any recent president, he uses the office to serve his friends ahead of serving the whole, which is the definition of corruption. His followers exclude the overwhelming evidence for these points, by saying that everything in the mainstream media is a lie orchestrated by shadowy elites.
If Trump is really an enemy of the super-rich, why hasn't he called for mass cancellation of debts? He himself has huge debts, and he's had them cancelled many times in the past by declaring bankruptcy. Debt cancellation was a big part of ancient agrarian cultures, whose patriarchal and xenophobic values still echo through the Republican party. I'll make a pledge: if Donald Trump will just tweet two words, "fake debt", I'll vote for him. He won't, because he's an authoritarian, who believes it's good and right to leverage power over others into greater and more secure power.
The reality-based case for Trump is to accept all this, but flip its meaning, by supposing that he is serving America, not on the level of politics, but on the level of psychology. In that case, the worse he is, the better he is.
You have to admit, Trump has made America more alive. He's made us less comfortable, and more alert. CNN goes on about his lies, and they're not wrong, but what they're missing is how much hidden stuff he has brought into the open, especially the mental weaknesses of his followers, and the structural weaknesses of our democracy.
Trump did everything he could to help COVID-19, because the harder the virus hits us, the more we have to learn to be adaptable -- which we need to learn, because our civilization is collapsing.
Trump is a controlled burn of a system with too much dead wood. He's a vaccine to strengthen us against future dictators. He's a shaman who has exposed our poor reality creation hygeine. He's an auditor who came in to see how much bad shit he could get away with, and it's way too much. If you get mad at him, you've missed the point. Trump is the big bad wolf, who blew down our house of straw, and now we'll have to build a house of sticks.
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 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.
March 6. I made a video: Ladytron - International Dateline (doom edit)