"So what does it mean to be intelligent? It means to be able to do nothing. Humans do nothing for a living, and that's what it means to be intelligent. So, if you're an AI and you can do nothing like a human, then you're as intelligent as a human."
- Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3
February 1. I got a lot of feedback from the last post, but all my ideas for a follow-up are half-baked. So today, some negative links.
The Paradox of Abundance is that abundance is only good for a small number of people who know how to manage it. The author starts with the example of food, where health-conscious people pick out the best food, while most people are drawn to the cheapest and best tasting food, which is bad for them. And the same kind of thing is happening with information.
The downside of clean: Scientists fear pandemic's 'hyper hygiene' could have long-term health impacts. I read somewhere that when kids in the slums of India got polio, it was only a mild sickness, because their immune systems were so strong from exposure to other microbes. Personally, I eat food off the floor, and walk barefoot outside whenever I can.
Moving on to mental health, a good thread on the psychonaut subreddit, There's a parasite inside of you feeding off negative thoughts and emotions.
And a smart article, The Seductive Appeal of Urban Catastrophe. It's mostly about the iconic ruined city of Angkor. We used to think that when the city was sacked in 1431, everyone suddenly left. Newer archaeology suggests that it was mainly the royal family who left, while nonroyals "continued to live at Angkor, repaired its ailing water infrastructure, recycled stones from temples into new structures, and planted farms where high-density housing once was."
The actual decline had already started, and would continue for a long time. The cause was that "leaders bungled maintenance of the city's water system in response to climate threats." Applying this to our own time, I continue to think that collapse will be highly local. The places that do the best job maintaining and retrofitting their infrastructure will thrive, and the places that do the worst job will be abandoned.
January 28. I've been thinking more about elite overproduction, which I last wrote about on November 2. This has probably happened in every declining society in history: there are more people raised to feel entitled to something, than the number of people who can actually have it.
I want to break these things up into three categories. First is luxuries, like having a big house and a nice car. Second is livelihood, spending your time doing stuff you like, while depending on other people doing stuff they don't like. Third is status.
My definition of status is narrow and negative. Status is a mental illness, in which human value is framed in a zero-sum context; so you can't be a better person unless one or more other people are less good. A person afflicted with status is happier if they have a Lexus and everyone else has a Ford, than if everyone else also has a Lexus. This is part of human nature, but that's no excuse for not overcoming it.
The cure for status is to practice valuing yourself and your life in absolute terms, instead of relative to other people. This is a good time to practice that. The cure for loss of luxuries is similar: valuing what you have in absolute terms, or relative to your basic needs, instead of relative to what you thought you'd have.
Livelihood is the one that worries me, because so many of the tasks necessary to keep this society going, are so unenjoyable, that it's not realistic to value them, except as a means to luxury and status that you're not going to get. This is especially true if you don't value keeping this society going. That's why I continue to think that the main factor in the present collapse is scarcity of human motivation -- or the transfer of human motivation, away from acts of creation and preservation, and toward acts of destruction.
January 25. Some links about the world getting better. This thread from Ask Old People has a lot of stuff about how much worse it was not so long ago: If I (age 26) were suddenly transported back to the 1950s or 60s and pretended to fit in, what would I probably not think to account for?
From sixthtone.com, two articles about China: In China's New Age Communes, Burned-Out Millennials Go Back to Nature. And The Hermit Culture Living On in China's Misty Mountains.
Back to America, The People the Suburbs Were Built for Are Gone. The article is not about those people, but about retrofitting the suburbs, so instead of a sprawl of giant houses, there are dense walkable neighborhoods, with lots of one and two person dwellings, and old box stores turned into community centers.
This is an easy prediction: suburbs that make these changes will attract people who want to live there. Suburbs that don't will be abandoned, if they haven't been already. As birth rates fall, animals prowl in abandoned 'ghost villages'.
On that note, I want to recommend three works of fiction, all whimsical visions of post-collapse utopias, that I like to think are roughly where we're headed. In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan, Engine Summer by John Crowley, and Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou by Hitoshi Ashinano.
I also just finished the book A Children's Bible by Lydia Millet. It's about a group of kids and teenagers, who are brought to a summer house rental by a group of decaying Gen X parents, and then there's a climate catastrophe, which the kids deal with better.
January 22. Stray links. An Engineering Argument for Basic Income:
We have engineered a life support system without fault tolerance, and we did it because engineers didn't design the system. Politicians did. Special interests did. And it's built on antiquated job-centric moralism instead of contemporary life-centric realism.
For example, I started hiking recently, and I've also been trying to learn about the plant life around my area. Knowing what plants are as I pass them, knowing the specific mountain ranges in my area, and all of those details make the experience so much more interesting and enriching for me.
Why are the Pleiades called the seven sisters, when we can only see six? Astronomers Say Global Myths About 'Seven Sisters' Stars May Reach Back 100,000 Years.
paint.wtf is a website where people make illustrations, usually bad ones, which are then judged by an AI.
And some music, a brand new song by Origami Conspiracy, Nothing to Me. I love the backing vocals.
January 20. I admit, when I turned on the TV this morning, I was hoping to see cities in flames, not Jennifer Lopez doing some bullshit song. I understand why Trumpers are frustrated with the sterile and disingenuous status quo, it's just that what they're offering is much worse.
But enough about what I'm against. On this day of symbolic new beginnings, I want to lay out my own vision for the future.
In the short term, an unconditional basic income. It's not going to bring utopia, but it's the next thing we have to try, and then we'll see where it goes. It's important to not frame the UBI as a way to make mechanization tolerable, but as a way to give workers leverage to improve work environments. Imagine, instead of us having to compete for jobs, if jobs had to compete for us.
Also in the short term, legalization of psychedelics. Some people will fry their brains, but overall, psychedelics will loosen our minds, raise ecological consciousness, and drive the biggest reinvention of religion in thousands of years.
In the medium term, the UBI could feed new tribes, people with similar interests who pool their incomes for efficiency of scale. Ideally, thousands of local workshops will build a new foundation for technology and the economy, as the old one falls apart.
The best thing we can do with biotech is to make food production cheaper and less harmful, like replacing factory farmed meat with vat-grown protein. Social unrest is strongly correlated with food costs, and what we've seen so far in this decade is nothing compared to what we'll see if people are going hungry.
In the long term, never mind Mars, let's re-terraform Earth. There has never been a repressive society where people could easily live off the land. Let's take the carbon out of the air, and build the blackest topsoil and the thickest biomass that this planet has ever seen. Make every stream drinkable and every forest edible, so that nobody ever has to do anything useful, and we can just lie in the grass and eat fruit until the sun burns out.
The reason that's unlikely to happen, is that ordinary humans would get bored. But maybe that's something we can overcome. I like to think that this world is a prison for busy people, and if I can be sufficiently chill, they'll let me out.
January 18. Back into the muck, I saw a video from the Capitol invasion, where two guys found some pages on the desk of some politician, and they were looking through them for something incriminating. Maybe they were hoping for a page that said, "Secret pedophile location, for eyes of Democrats and billionaires only." But probably, every document in the chamber was totally boring, and also available in the public record, which no one looks at because it's so boring.
The energy now threatening America, comes from people whose attention has been drawn by the media to a world that should be boring, and they want it to be entertaining. I suggest a rule: The more interesting the world of politics, the less it serves the citizens.
This article blows my mind. The far-right propaganda machine doesn't know what to do with Ashli Babbitt. She was the woman on the front lines inside the Capitol, who was killed by police. Obviously they should make her a martyr who will inspire others to risk their lives for the cause. Instead, and maybe the article is exaggerating how many people are this daft, but they're saying her death was faked, or she was an agent for Antifa.
I'm trying to puzzle out the mental gears, of which the minds in question are not consciously aware, that would make someone believe that, and I think it goes back to last week's subject of transitive morality. There's probably already a clinical term for this mental illness. It's where you declare something bad, and then everything it touches is bad, and everything those things touch, until it comes around to you. So: death at protest bad, protest bad, movement bad, me bad. Or it might be: if she's good, then police are bad, but then I agree with BLM, who are bad, so I'm bad.
I think the actual false flag operation, is the idea that Ashli Babbitt's death was a false flag operation. That's how you tear a movement apart, by making people mistrust their allies. So I'm wondering, why is it so easy with these people?
Picking up another loose end from last week, and I still don't have an answer. When Q says "follow the Y," players assume that people flashing Y symbols are bad, when it would actually make more sense, given the word "follow", to think that people flashing Y symbols are good. I understand that the whole context of QAnon is paranoia. But that's still a choice people have made, and why have they made it? When they use their left brains to pick out details, like a bird picking out seeds, why are they looking for poison, and not food?
After drafting the above, I looked outside and saw a crescent moon with the tips pointed upward. I said to Leigh Ann, "It's a horned moon." She said, "Maybe it's a basket."
January 15. Coming up for breath, some fun stuff and good news. On Weird Collapse, Young and Clumsy Group Stories is an optimistic post about the promise of micro-cults.
Cool reddit thread, What's something odd that happened in your childhood that only you seem to remember?
Two from the BBC, The great bicycle boom of 2020, and Japan developing wooden satellites to cut space junk.
Also from Japan, 'Rent-a-person who does nothing' receives endless requests, gratitude. Most of the people who rent him just want him to listen.
And some music. A few months ago, Big Blood did a QuaranTunes live show. I've time-linked the video to my favorite song, "What's Wrong With Me?"
January 13. I'm ready to comment on the storming of the Capitol. It's important to keep in mind that the rioters are not monolithic. That mob, and the bigger mobs to come, contain all kinds of motivations and mindsets. Some of them want to exterminate Jews and some of them just want to fight the police.
I distinctly remember a mythic image, a blurry pic of a scruffy guy with a trickster smile, raising a stick or something, leaning over a podium. Now I can't find it anywhere, and I wonder if my brain constructed the memory, or if I glimpsed fairyland.
Anyway, in a more topically symbolic moment, someone tore down an American flag and replaced it with a Trump flag.
Donald Trump has no creativity, and no awareness of truth and falsehood. I'm defending him. CNN is like, he's making up all these lies to lead his followers astray. No, he's a salesman filling a market. He's practically a bot, testing the feedback from his audience until he's giving them exactly what they want.
Trump is a mean rich kid who figured out that if he does a good Archie Bunker impression, every lost soul with an authoritarian father will think he's the messiah. We're lucky that he cares only about himself, instead of having some crazy utopian agenda. But the power, and the agency, is with the disaffected citizens of a declining empire, tasting barbarism.
This is all about people wanting to be part of a group that's part of a story. Lately, some of the big group-stories have been dying: sky father religion, American supremacy, the conquest of nature, the virtue of wealth-seeking. In their place, young and clumsy group-stories struggle and rise.
Matt comments on Monday's post: "I like the term 'manichean tribalism' because it acknowledges there might be inclusive types of tribalism." I'll spell it out:
It is possible to divide the world into us and them, without dividing the world into good and bad. The best example I can think of, is fanbases of different metal bands.
The danger is when a vigorous group-story stacks us-them with good-bad. Because then, attacking the baddies makes you feel alive. To prevent the spread of this emotional pandemic, I suggest two rules of moral distancing:
1) There are no bad people, only bad actions. (I wonder if there aren't even any people, if personality and identity are illusions.)
2) Morality is not transitive. Associating with a doer of bad actions, does not make one a doer of bad actions, let alone a bad person.
January 11. A Game Designer's Analysis Of QAnon is the best thing I've read on the dangerous intersection of information technology and human cognitive weakness.
The author argues that QAnon is a massive alternate reality game. In a normal ARG, "there are actual solutions to actual puzzles and a real plot created by the designers." But players can lose the plot in apophenia, "the tendency to perceive meaningful connections between unrelated things."
In a stroke of genius, QAnon uses apophenia as its engine. A fictional whistleblower named Q leaves clues that are actually meaningless. The players create meaning, and then Q integrates that meaning into the next clues. "It's like a darwinian fiction lab, where the best stories and the most engaging and satisfying misinterpretations rise to the top and are then elaborated upon for the next version." Players have the feeling that they're getting to the bottom of mysteries, when really they're veering off into madness.
(By the way, I think this is what happened to Elisa Lam. On a solo apophenia trip, she read clues all the way up to a roof and into a water tank.)
The author believes that QAnon is a coordinated propaganda campaign, and says its ideology is authoritarianism. I would call it manichean tribalism, where manichaeism is a cognitive filter that divides the world into good and evil. Under that filter, when Q says "Follow the Owl and Y," the players look for owl and Y symbols as evidence that people are bad. You could just as easily look for the symbols as evidence that people are good, but for whatever reason, the game is not in that emotional space.
Take the game far enough, and everyone is evil except the players. If this kind of movement gains power, you get piles of dead bodies. In Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, people were killed just for wearing glasses, supposedly a symbol of being a bad kind of person. Really glasses are correlated with education, which is correlated with an antidote to insanity: metacognition.
There's a cryptic line in the Gospel of Thomas: "Blessed is the lion which becomes man when consumed by man; and cursed is the man whom the lion consumes, and the lion becomes man." I think it's about metacognition, or you could say it's about sub-personalities, or ego. The wrong move is to let a belief or identity consume you, and become you, so that changing your mind feels like dying. The right move is to be a larger you, who can make use of beliefs and identities without getting lost in them.
January 7. I'll be busy all day tomorrow, so I'm going early into the weekend with this excellent writeup, on the Ask Historians subreddit, about Fascism:
In essence, it is swaying people to your political side not by argument or reason but giving them the intensive, almost lustful, experience of being part of something greater, a movement that will solve whatever ails them, of history, so to speak. And this is achieved through ritual, staging, and performance... By displays of violence, Fascism seeks to transform politics from the - admittedly often skewed - exchange of ideas into an aesthetic experience itself: Aesthetic violence is the end point of fascist politics, not just its tool.
Something aesthetic but less exciting, an update on my piano playing. I've become obsessed with polyrhythms, specifically playing one time signature with my left hand and another with my right. I practice when I'm lying in bed with restless legs, by wiggling my feet in different polyrhythms, usually 3-5, my favorite. This one minute exercise goes through the following sequence: 1-1, 4-5, 2-5, 1-2, 3-5, 2-3, 3-4, 4-5, 1-1. My goals are to get cleaner, to move easily between any of those, and between right and left hand dominant, and to add melody. My November 24 piece was already using melodic polyrhythms, but only 2-3 and 3-5, and the poor recording made it hard to hear the individual notes.
January 6. I want to wait for some perspective before I write about the Trumpers who right now are storming the Capitol. But this is a good time to post this image of what Trump really looks like, if his orange makeup and hair are photoshopped off.
Some reddit links I've been saving up, starting with psychology, which now especially I think is more important than politics. Mental Health professionals, what small things do parents do that give their kids mental health issues later in life?
Redditors in Therapy: What is One Thing That a Therapist Has Told You That Changed Your View on Life?
Most of What You Read on the Internet is Written by Insane People. The author doesn't mean it in a bad way, just that most content on the internet is created by people who are totally obsessed with that particular kind of content.
And posted yesterday on Weird Collapse, Call for suggestions for "Welcome Post", as the subreddit gets more readers. My favorite bit: "I really enjoy being able to read collapsy posts that are also shruggy."
January 4. Out of all the board games I've played, my favorite for theme is Spirit Island, because you play nature spirits trying to stop colonizers. And my favorite for gameplay is also Spirit Island. It's a super-brain-burner where you're trying to optimize a bunch of moves by different spirits working together.
Nobody I know likes to play it, but that's okay because it's perfect for solo play. A month ago I got the Jagged Earth expansion, and since then I've been playing three-spirit solo games whenever I have the time. My goal is to play a nine-spirit solo game, which will require bending the rules, buying more tokens, and getting access to a giant table.
Anyway, when you play any game a lot, you tend to see it as a metaphor for other things. In Spirit Island, there's a trade-off between gaining energy, drawing and playing cards, and placing presence on the board. So I'm thinking, in modern society, there's too much energy and card-playing, and not enough placing of presence.
What is placing of presence, in the real world? It reminds me of my favorite definition of love, by Thaddeus Golas: "Love is the action of being in the same space with other beings." It also reminds me of the practice of being fully present in each moment.
A week ago, I mentioned the metaphysical idea that heaven and hell are in this world. So a good trick for being fully present is to let go of any notion of an afterlife, or greater success in this world, and just say, what if this, right here, is heaven. Of course, if you're having a bad day, or a bad life, it's more realistic to say this is hell. But you can start with a good moment on a good day: smoke some weed, go on a walk, watch a sunset, and imagine that you're already in heaven, this is it.
From the Tao Te Ching: "Without desire, to observe the mystery." And if you can do that, then you can practice the same move in increasingly difficult times and places.
January 1, 2021. I can't think of anything to say about the new year that's not completely obvious, and I seem to be in a mental fallow period right now. Posted yesterday to Weird Collapse, Alienation and Doublethink is a smart blog post that starts with a Twitter thread "in which Allison Pearson claimed that she knew 'hardly anyone' who knew somebody who'd had Covid only to immediately say that her whole family had had it." The point is, a lot of people have two minds, one for practical stuff, and one for ideology.
The author mentions Soviet doublethink, and corporate doublethink, but I'm thinking, in those cases, you can get sent to the gulag, or lose your job, for allowing practical understanding to inform your ideology. Where's the penalty for accepting the medical consensus about COVID? For that matter, what's behind the recent surge in flat-earthism?
I think ideology exists for its own sake, and can thrive in the total absence of extrinsic penalty and reward. There's something about humans that compels us to tell stories about the world beyond our senses, and we get in trouble when we depend on those stories to feel good about ourselves.
Is this something we can overcome?
December 30. I'm tired of the topics of contemporary society and politics, and I expect to write about them less in the new year. But I'll probably still post links.
Here's a Weird Collapse comment thread, COVID was the West's Chernobyl. It quotes Samo Burja, and this is a nice piece he wrote earlier this year, Why Civilizations Collapse.
December 28. This year, my favorite social idea on this blog was an alternate view of collapse. In the context of ancient ruins, we imagine that people at the time were saying, "Oh no, our buildings are falling to ruin." But they were probably saying, "At last, I have better options than maintaining these stupid buildings."
Going back to the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction, Alex reports that astrologers say it's "a great mutation from earth to air cycles." Earth-to-air fits with a societal shift to living in a way that leaves fewer traces, which historians call a "dark age".
My two favorite metaphysical ideas from this year are from the same post on July 8. Verbatim repost:
Two important links from the Psychonaut subreddit. What I've figured out so far is a fascinating metaphysical framework inspired by DMT:
There is only one reality. Heaven, Hell, and mortal life are not three different things. They are one single thing.... This one single reality is connection to all things, if you are ready for it you experience this as Heaven. If you are not ready for it you experience this as Hell.
And an article, Mainstreaming Psychedelics: Secularizing spirituality with the aid of Eastern religion. The main idea is that we can put psychedelic experiences on a spectrum, where at one pole is the Eastern unitive-mystical state, being one with everything, and at the other pole is the Western interactive-relational state, where you can get specific practical insights.
Back to year-end, I see another way to frame it. Over here, you've got a clunky and unsatisfying human-made world. Over there, you've got the total bliss of union with the void. I'm interested in the stuff that's in between those things. It could be better things we could do with this world, or it could be other levels of reality, whether this reality is a simulation, or a game, or a work of art.
Finally, my song of the year, like the coronavirus, is actually from 2019: Automatic - Humanoid. The complete lyrics: "I see you, turn into, turn into, humanoid." The obvious interpretation is that we're overly domesticated, and we can draw some energy from our primal roots. But I also like the idea that all this time we've been not yet human, and now we're finally getting close.