December 2. Smart blog post by a long-time reader, Idea strength, cringe, and the media environment. The basic idea is that technology has connected us so much that creative work is taking fewer risks:
When artists become more socially connected to each other and to consumers, bold choices get riskier. Every mind in a perceptual network is a vector for cringe. As the network grows more interconnected, the potential for cringe increases. An artistic risk that might have been low in a less connected environment becomes high.
This reminds me of a bit in this YouTube talk, Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned. It's by the creator of Picbreeder, a brilliant image-breeding site that no longer works because web browsers can no longer run Java. Anyway, he found out that images bred by individuals are much better than images bred by voting.
One of the comments explains it like this: "Consensus-driven frameworks prematurely optimize and miss the necessary low-fitness stepping stones needed to find creative complex solutions." In simpler language: you have to go through difficult stuff to get to good stuff, and the bigger the crowd, the harder it is to get them to go through difficult stuff. Another example is Hollywood test screenings, which polish out anything really good because someone thinks it's too weird.
But when I think about it more, there are two different things going on here. One is what I've just described, the blandifying effect of the crowd. The other is the long tail of taste: with more creative work available, there's more room to like stuff that fewer people like.
In listening to music, I've gone a long way down that rabbit hole, and the difficult thing is not in how I hear the music. It's not like I'm forcing myself to listen to stuff that sounds bad until I like it. The music always pulls me in, and the difficult thing is the loneliness of loving something that no one else understands. Or, the obstacle to exploring the long tail of taste, is not perceptual but social.
December 9. A year and a half ago, a fan and a cameraman came to make a film about me, and it's just been posted to YouTube, a short doc about Ran Prieur.
I was a little afraid to watch it, but I'm really happy with it. It's weird to see myself from the outside. It reminds me of that Far Side comic, where these two guys are listening to a tape recording of themselves, and saying, "Wow, we sound like total dorks." And the joke is, they are total dorks.
Another thing I noticed is how much happier I am when I'm talking about writing fiction. It's a lot more rewarding than writing this blog, but it's also a lot harder, and has an even smaller audience.
Now I'm thinking about fame. Our culture tells us that fame is an accomplishment, when really it's a lifestyle choice. The difference between the famous and the unknown, is not how good they are at what they do (except athletes). The difference is that some people channel their skill in a way that gives them shallow connections with a lot of people. And unless you're someone like Tom Cruise, I think that's a mistake.
Early in the doc I mention Emily Dickinson. I think, for an introvert, she did it exactly right: she wrote without compromising for an audience, she never had to deal with fame, and people are still reading her stuff two centuries later.
I don't think of my own writing as self-expression. I think of it as something that was always there, and I was just the first person to find it. It's like I'm colonizing a planet, and I'd like to eventually hang out with other people who have come to live there.
December 16. I was reading an article about personality differences between men and women, which tries to describe some differences without interpreting them as either biological or cultural. I think most of the described differences are cultural. Women are more "compassionate, polite, anxious, self-doubting" because they're still emerging from thousands of years of having lower social status.
Right now, the phrase "women's voices" implies voices of the oppressed, voices of the excluded. Only when it no longer has that meaning, will we know who women are.
December 22-23. The Hypersane Are Among Us. The author is trying to reframe our thinking about weird people, as a spectrum with normal people in the middle, the insane on one side, and the supersane on the other. He thinks he's being helpful: Be nice to that weird person, they might be supersane.
Speaking for the weird people, stop trying to divide us. Consider supposed supersane Nelson Mandela. He started out as a violent militant fighting for racial justice, exactly like American abolitionist John Brown. If history had gone differently, we would see Brown as a saintly patriarch, and Mandela as a failed loony.
Or, the difference between the "insane" and "supersane" is not their personality or their mental state, but how useful they are to the normals.
Sanity is a popularity contest. Seeing something that nobody around you sees is pretty much the definition of insanity. Maybe history will look back and say, "that crazy person was right!" But being sane in an insane world is hardly a recipe for happiness. My examples of "sometimes those who seem a little crazy are the ones who really get it," would be people like Philip K Dick, Vincent Van Gogh, or Emily Bronte, all of whom attempted or succeeded at suicide. But then, maybe they would have been happy if the people around them could keep up.
December 24. For Christmas eve, these are my top five Christmas songs that you won't hear on the radio:
Ramones - Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight)
Clarence Carter - Back Door Santa
Big Star - Jesus Christ
Steve Mauldin - The Abominable O Holy Night
Ramsey Lewis Trio - What Are You Doing New Year's Eve
December 25. For Christmas, I want to write about Jesus. I'm not a Christian, more like a pantheist, and I don't believe in hell, a place with arguably no biblical evidence. So salvation is not necessary, except being saved from the illusions of this world. I like the neo-Gnostic idea that we're in a simulation and Jesus hacked it.
Matt comments, "I think the appeal of Jesus, on one level, is the appeal of Superman. The universe sucks and we want someone to fix it in one fell swoop." I would add: they both came from the sky, they both have magical powers, they both have no character flaws, and they even have a similar iconic posture -- Superman's arms are just more above his head.
As a character, Superman is boring. I would find the story of Jesus more inspiring if he started out as a bad person and then became a good person. George Carlin has said that the story of Jesus would be better if he were not the son of God, just some loser who God decided to adopt. Then we'd think twice about being mean to someone, because God might adopt that person next. It turns out there's a fringe Christian doctrine, Adoptionism, that believes this.
Jesus said: Judge not, that ye be not judged. It occurs to me, if you judge anyone for being not as good as you in any way, then your advantage is a matter of luck. If it were skill, then you would have had to climb up from being where they are; and in that case, you would know what it's like to be where they are, and you wouldn't judge them.
December 29. This subreddit thread about Fermi's paradox has some good stuff, and it's been a while since I've written about it. My solution is just increasingly weird versions of the same idea: that we're looking for aliens who are too much like us.
Starting with the most conventional: the universe is full of planets with biological life as we know it, and sometimes a species evolves what we call intelligence, and they do the same kind of stuff that we do -- send out electromagnetic signals and spacecraft -- but only for a short time.
The other night I went to a Christmas park, where all the trees were covered with lights, and there was an old locomotive with a bell you could ring by pulling a rope. Every person who rang the bell was under 12. When you're a kid, it's awesome to pull a rope and make a big noise, but adults are like, been there, done that. So the universe could be full of intelligent aliens, but they've all lost interest in doing anything that would attract our attention.
More weird: the aliens move on to technologies that we don't know how to look for. It's like, some tribe that uses drums and smoke to communicate with other tribes, thinks it's alone, because it doesn't know how to look for radio waves. We're looking for radio waves when we should be looking for sub-etheric beacons or three-spin particles.
Or maybe the aliens are so weird, that they're actually trying to talk to us, but our science doesn't recognize their communication as data. There's a good article on this, Incommensurability, Orthodoxy and the Physics of High Strangeness.
My craziest idea is just taking philosophical idealism seriously. If mind is the root of matter, then outer space is just a projection of the mind of humanity. We won't find aliens there, because it's our dream, and they'll be dreaming their own universes. Or, we're looking for space aliens, when we should be looking for mind aliens.
This is hard to explain. It's like, in Plato's allegory of the cave, we're looking for aliens in our own shadow, when we should be turning to the light behind us, and seeing who else is making shadows on their own wall -- or who else might have seen the light already, and now they're trying to get our attention by messing with our shadows.
December 31. More woo-woo stuff. Hallucinations Are Everywhere. I would say it like this: it's normal to perceive things that other people don't perceive, and these perceptions can be helpful. Some people wonder if quantum indeterminacy could ever happen at the macro level. Well, what would that look like? It would look like conflicting reports from reliable witnesses, and that happens all the time! Our culture declares that all but one of them was wrong from the beginning, but I see many competing options for what we eventually decide to call true.
This Crowdsourced Map Documents UFO Sightings, Cryptids, and the Supernatural. It's done by two guys I knew in the early days of this blog, Garrett Kelly and Jeremy Puma. Here's a long podcast interview with them, A Paranormal Planet with Liminal Earth. It's funny how the paranormal is just like music or any kind of creative work: when you first start getting into it, it's all popular cliches, but as you get deeper, you find weirder and weirder stuff.
Hysteria High: How Demons Destroyed a Florida School. The school was founded by an authoritarian huckster, and he created an atmosphere so repressive that eventually the student body exploded in mass hysteria -- except that their insanity had some internal consistency, with some physical manifestations that are hard to explain.
I'm undecided on whether paranormal entities have existence outside human observers. If they don't, it's almost more interesting, because that means we alone decide their character. Maybe demons and scary entities only emerge from nasty human cultures, and nice cultures will create/attract entities that are benign and helpful. Related: Hallucinatory voices shaped by local culture.
Finally, something more philosophical, Imitation and Extinction: The Case Against Reality. We might think that natural selection favors seeing what's really there, but game theory says that's not so. It's like, if reality is a computer, we don't evolve toward seeing silicon chips and bits, but seeing increasingly useful desktop icons. So when we look really closely at our apparent physical reality, and see atoms, that might be like looking really closely at desktop icons, and deciding that pixels are the fundamental reality.
Coming back around to Fermi's Paradox:
We suppose that the long sweep of spacetime, with its countless stars and planets, is the preexisting stage for an accidental drama in which we are bit players. We think it's faintly mad to suppose otherwise. But we're mistaken. We are the authors of space and time; their myriad contents are our impressive stagecraft.
January 2, 2020. I think of the zero years as part of the previous decade, not the next decade. And it's not because of calendar math, but culture. The music of 1970 sounds more like the 60's than the 70's. The clothing and hairstyles in 1980 looked like extreme 70's and not like the 80's at all. The 90's didn't start until "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was released in fall of 1991, and didn't end until 9/11/01.
I'm hoping for a 30-year cycle, where the next decade will give us a loosening like the 60's and 90's. Because things are so tight right now. There have never been so many rules that we'll get in trouble for not following, from cultural niceness rules, to the number of different payments we have to make, to password rules so labyrinthine that I don't go anywhere without a sheet of old-fashioned paper where I've written them all down.
In general, the trend of the 2010's was that the burden of an increasingly maladapted society has been put on the shoulders of disconnected individuals. That explains the explosion in homelessness, depression, anxiety, even autism. There's a video, I don't have a link, but it mentioned a two year old who developed full-blown autism. So they took him to a treatment center, which put him in a very low stimulation environment, and the therapist gradually built up his ability to deal with more stimulation. By age 8, he was neurotypical.
People are the same as ever, but 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. It reminds me of the "First they came..." thing from Nazi Germany. "First there were a lot of homeless people, then there were a lot of depressed people..."
That commercial is everywhere now: "Just okay is not okay." That's the voice of the dominant system, trying to shovel back the tide of dying motivation. My prediction for the coming decades, is that an increasing percentage of highly motivated people will be motivated to do stuff that society considers useless, or dangerous.
January 13, 16. Yet another article trying to reframe willpower, with a depressing argument that we can force ourselves to do an unlimited amount of stuff we don't feel like doing, if we only believe we can. As if that would be a good way to live. But near the end is a smart idea: instead of thinking of willpower as a resource, think of the need for willpower as an emotion, telling us to "find new paths that may not require us to do things we fundamentally don't want to do."
Related: Table-top Generals is about board games, and how much better they are now than the games we grew up with. I'm thinking, human society is the same way. The world we have right now is like Monopoly, a terrible game that we're all playing because we don't know there's anything better. Out there in the space of possibilities, there's a human society like Settlers of Catan, which is not even the best game, just a popular game that was finally actually fun.
Of course, you can't swap out human societies like board games, and every attempt to "change the game" through top-down power has been a disaster. I think the key technology, to enable bottom-up game-changing, is some kind of sci-fi food fabricator, something robust and decentralized, so that we can really cut loose, knocking stuff down and trying new stuff, and still have enough to eat.
I'm also wondering if it's more realistic to make society a substrate for games -- not a great game in itself, but a well-functioning game that's loaded with great minigames. If there were something like reincarnation, and I had to make the case for being a human at this time in history, I wouldn't talk about our earth-shaking technologies, but our music, our drugs, and our games. So since I'm here, that's what I want to enjoy.
January 16. Last week Neil Peart died. He's rightly revered for his drumming more than his lyrics, but my favorite Peart lyrics are from the 1984 song Between The Wheels:
It slips between your hands like water
This living in real time
A dizzying lifetime
Reeling by on celluloid
Struck between the eyes by the big time world
Walking uneasy streets
Hiding beneath the sheets
Got to try and fill the void
January 21. The other day I was skimming Matthew Crawford's book Shop Class as Soulcraft. His basic idea is that our culture has lost touch with the physical world, that thinking has been separated from doing, and that we can be smarter and happier if we have to solve problems with our hands and minds working together.
But a lot of his examples are from motorcycle repair, and possibly all of his examples are from the man-made physical world. So you could argue that it's still humanity staring at its own navel. I'm trying to think of a job where you're engaging with the non-human physical world in a non-dominating way, and I can only come up with three: professional surfer, field ecologist, and certain jobs working with domesticated animals.
Last night I was practicing piano (a Yamaha digital keyboard) and it occurred to me that it's the opposite of motorcycle repair. Instead of wrestling with a tool that's not working right, I was using a tool that does exactly what it's supposed to do, to wrestle with my own mind and body: trying to keep my left fingers moving in an unchanging pattern, while my right fingers improvise.
I'm not sure where I'm going with this, but the best selling piano album in history, Keith Jarrett's The Köln Concert, was played on a crappy piano that the piano warehouse sent to the concert hall by accident. So the instrument didn't just obey his will -- he had to work with its limitations, which made him more creative.
January 20. Last month I linked to a 26 minute documentary about me. Last night I found out that the guy who made it, Jordan Mechano, died a few days ago. Thanks Ryan for sending this photo of Jordan and me at the magical place where his film ends.
I wonder how much of the wisdom of old people comes from knowing more people who have died. Every time it happens, we get better understanding of something that's easy to put into words but hard to really understand: life's simple pleasures are more valuable than life's accomplishments.
Jordan was also a Big Blood fan, so this song is for him: Time Stands Still. And for everyone still alive, my favorite line from the Bible, Ecclesiastes 9:7. "Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works."
January 27. We Can Alter Entire Species, but Should We? I think human genetic self-improvement is the most likely scenario for human extinction. It will be marketed to parents as a way to make their kids more successful, and then there will be an arms race where everyone has to do it, and finally it will turn out that we haven't made ourselves better, only a better fit for a badly made society.
People no longer believe working hard will lead to a better life. Successful people always credit "hard work", which gives the impression that they spend hour after hour, day after day, forcing themselves to do stuff they don't feel like doing. That may or may not lead to a better life, but it always leads to burnout.
The actual secret of highly successful people is that they're obsessed. It would be nice if super-achievers would stop pretending to have moral virtue, and admit that they put in the hours for the same reason as stalkers and video game addicts, and they're just lucky that they happen to be obsessed with something that society considers worthwhile.
Suppose we find a way to tweak the human genome, to make us all a lot more prone to obsession. That would be a really interesting way for us to go out.
January 30. So I've been hanging out on the Aspergers subreddit, and I've come to three conclusions. 1) What we call "the autism spectrum" will turn out to be several different things, just like the old-time disease "consumption". 2) People on the spectrum can be more different from each other than they are from neurotypicals. 3) These differences are mostly about perception.
Instead of putting people on a spectrum, I want to put objects of perception on a spectrum, of how easy or hard they are for different people to "tune in" or "tune out". And even though it's a true spectrum with no lines or gaps, it's easier to think about it by breaking it into four categories:
1) Things you cannot tune out, even if you try. 2) Things you can tune out with some mental effort, but by default you are tuned in. 3) Things you tune out by default, but you can tune in with mental effort. 4) Things you cannot tune into.
For example, a lot of aspies are highly sensitive to certain subtle stimuli. Textures, lights, noises that other people put in category 3, they have in category 1 or 2. My problem is that proprioception -- knowing where the body is in space -- is in category 1 or 2 for neurotypicals, and for me it's in category 3. It takes a lot of mental energy for me to walk around without constantly bumping into stuff, and driving is even worse.
There is information about social behavior that I can't pick up at all. Sometimes it seems like everyone else has magical mind-reading powers, and I actually believe that some of this stuff is happening on a yet undiscovered sub-physical level, like Sheldrake's morphic fields. For example, an Aspergers subreddit thread, When you're making eye contact are you supposed to look at only one eye, or switch between both? This is something that neurotypicals just do the right way, without any conscious awareness at all. So how do they know?.