"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 26. I've been thinking about the goal of economic equality, and what that could even mean. Surely it doesn't mean everyone has the same income and assets. The normal answer is equality of opportunity -- but opportunity to do what? To get a position doing something you would not do for free, just because you need the money to not be homeless? Or the opportunity to hire other people who need money, pay them less than their labor is worth, and build power over others on the difference? That's not something everyone should have a right to do -- it's something no one should do.
The only definition I can think of, where "economic equality" is a good thing, is social equality in the realm of economics. Social equality means that no one has power over anyone else, so economic equality means no one has power over anyone else through money. But that's basically what money is for. So economic equality is better framed as freedom from money: in an economically just society, any given person can realistically live a good life without money.
That's already been done, many times and many ways, before money. I'm not imagining a world after money, but a world where money has diminished to a mini-game, like casino chips are now.
It's a long way off, but every time a paid task is automated or done by volunteers, and every time a necessity that formerly cost money is made free, we get closer to it. Meanwhile, what's unrealistic is preserving a system where our daily tasks are driven by external reward and punishment, and not by what we enjoy doing.
October 23. For the weekend, some links with no politics or philosophy. This cool animation shows How bridges were built in Central Europe in the Middle Ages.
A smart Hacker News thread about breathing exercises. I think the best way to breathe, which is really hard, is to give attention to your breath without forcing it at all, so you end up with the same deep slow breaths as when you're asleep.
An argument for free running sleep. "There is only one formula for healthy and refreshing sleep: Go to sleep only when you are very tired." I'll totally try this if I ever have no time-bound responsibilities.
And something spooky for the holiday, a six hour soundscape, The Caretaker - Everywhere At The End Of Time. That's YouTube and here it is on Bandcamp. It's old-timey ballroom music put through increasingly disturbing filters and editing, based on the six stages of dementia. This has to be the most ambitious thing ever attempted in dark ambient.
October 21. Today, three video links from the weirdcollapse and ranprieur subreddits. I hate videos of people talking. It's so frustrating having to listen to every word at the same speed, instead of being able to skim through and pick out the good bits. I suppose that people who like videos and podcasts are more social than me, so they actually enjoy the moment-to-moment experience of watching or listening to someone, while I'm just looking for a new idea.
Anyway, I think these Cultural Somatics people are onto something. The idea is that cultures can be seen as bodies; and they're made up, not just of stuff in our heads, but stuff in our bodies. From this ritual as justice page: "Even though cultural somas are invisible by nature, they can be understood to have postural qualities like rigid or supple, just like our fleshy local bodies." So healing a culture requires individuals to have better head-body integration.
The harshest survivalism video is short enough to listen to at 1.5 speed. The idea is, to see how a real collapse will play out, just go to places right now that are in poverty or war, and you'll find that the most valuable skills are "the ability to deal well with people under stressful situations," and preparing nutritious food.
Even shorter, David Graeber on the Extreme Centre. It's about how liberal moderates lack any kind of vision, while "the right wing pretend to be stupid" to get votes from people who resent the cultural elite, and those two sides play out a drama that blocks progressive reform.
I don't disagree with those points, but I disagree with his framing. Graeber was more of a statist than he thought he was, if he thought it was the job of politicians and the government to have a positive vision of the future.
I have a theory, that a person's attitude toward government is a reflection of their attitude toward their parents. So if you had controlling parents and liked them, you like authoritarian government; if you had controlling parents and didn't like them, you fear authoritarian government; if your parents gave you a sense of meaning and purpose, you look to political leaders for a sense of meaning and purpose.
My parents gave me free housing and food, and left me alone to do my own thing, and it was wonderful, so that's what I want from government. They also made me go to school, so what I fear is forced participation in any activity, even if it means well. But if I can just have enough slack, I'm confident that I can find my own path. I don't need Obama to have a vision for me.
So with the election close, I want to make the case for the Democratic party. Yes, they're owned by big money. They lack both the will and the understanding to make America finally adequate. Civilizations have a life cycle, and industrial capitalism is in its prolonged death. It's just a question of who's going to pick the carcass. As always, the main pickers are going to be whoever already has power. But under Democrats, there will be more pickings for the powerless. You're less likely to have to give your energy to some rich person or corporation to be permitted to eat. And if we can just get enough scraps of time and resources, we can build the foundations of the more bottom-up systems of the future.
October 19. Continuing from Friday, over on the subreddit Voidgenesis goes into more detail about the future hypersocialization of humanity, including an interesting prediction of "a golden age of cult formation in the next decades."
This reminds me of my prediction of UBI communities. If we get an unconditional basic income, then instead of all of us dumping our incomes into consumer capitalism and rent-seeking, we could pool our UBI's into groups that could own their living spaces, and buy stuff with efficiencies of scale. We'd have a higher standard of living, and get to hang out with people with similar values and interests.
Matt suggests that human cultural change could be something like Erik Erikson's stages of psychosocial development, and that right now we're like teenagers struggling with identity. If I were to pick a metaphor for human transformation, I'd go with Tolkien: we were orcs, and we're trying to become elves.
So what are elves like? They're long-lived, slow-paced, contemplative, and culturally complex. They have high tech but it's subtle and modest, like super-light ropes and super-nutritious food. Elves would not have freeways or Facebook, but they would have lots of little workshops doing cool stuff. And they would have rules to prevent technology from degrading quality of life. Right now we're at the stage of trying absolutely everything to see what happens. So I imagine, after the next tech crash, we'll at least know about a few things to avoid.
The spirit of technology is ultimately anti-consumerist, because the spirit of technology says, "Let's make things cheaply, that last a long time, that are easily repaired, and that make the major tasks of surviving less hard." And it's obvious to me that we're already arriving at this point with technologies around water and electricity. Decentralized food-growing tech is only slightly behind.
On my better days, I truly believe that if humans have basic necessities taken care of, then it's only a sick culture that can distort our innate curiosity and sociality into a madness for wealth and (illusory) independence.
Related: according to a new study, "decent living could be provided to the entire global population of 10 billion that is expected to be reached by 2050, for less than 40% of today's global energy."
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. 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 4. I made a video: Hana Zara - You Burnt the Toast.
March 6. I made a video: Ladytron - International Dateline (doom edit)