June 3. Timely Terence McKenna quote, from this video:
We can embrace chaos, and see that chaos is the environment in which we all thrive. That's how I've done it for years. You think I could have gotten away with this in the Soviet Union? I don't think so. I require a society on the brink of social breakdown to be able to do my work, and I think a society on the brink of social breakdown is the healthiest situation for individuals. I don't know how many of you have ever had the privilege of being in a society in a pre-revolutionary situation, but the cafes stay open all night and there's music in the streets and you can breathe it, you can feel it, and you know what is happening. The dominator is being pushed.
It never succeeds, it never is able to claim itself. But on the other hand history is young. We may have a crack at this. A global society is coming into being, a global society made out of information that was not intended to be ours, but which is ours, through the mistaken invention and distribution of small computers, the printing press, all of this stuff. Information is power, and information has been spilled by the clumsy handling of the cybernetic revolution by the dominator culture, so that it is everywhere. Never has the situation been more fluid.
June 2-3. My latest take on Trump, standing on the shoulders of this excellent reddit comment from early 2016.
The nice thing about Trump is, he's not an ideologue -- he's a negotiator. He doesn't really believe in anything except his own power, so he found a movement he could get in front of, and he's very good at knowing what they want.
As their negotiator, he always starts with an offer as extreme as he can get away with, so that the eventual compromise will be more in his favor. For example, CNN thinks that when he had a street aggressively cleared of peaceful protesters so he could walk to a church, that was an act of clumsiness, when really he was carefully testing how far over the line he could step.
So America is being tested, to hold the line against the authoritarian personalities among us, and to push the line back, as we try to overcome our own history as invaders and slavers.
June 5. In coverage of civic unrest, "violence" is a propaganda word, by which I mean, it's both morally loaded and sloppily defined. In practice, the word violence makes crimes against property seem just as bad as crimes against people.
Property is just a big game we're all playing, and it hasn't been fun for a long time, if it ever was.
Here's a thought experiment. Imagine the police all got together, and announced, "We're tired of putting our asses on the line protecting stuff. From now on, we're only enforcing laws that protect people." That's what good cops actually do when things get really bad.
The first thing that would happen is, any concentration of valuable stuff near poor people would be looted. Then the big companies would hire mercenaries to protect their warehouses. But if we break in, they can't shoot us, because laws protecting people are still being upheld. So if enough people gather to win a shoving match, they can take possession of anything.
At the same time, any business that's on good terms with most of the nearby people will be protected. More generally, any system of human activity that can justify itself locally will be preserved, while any system that relies on far-flung abstractions will be dismantled, and the whole economy will be stripped down to activities that make sense on a human scale.
Okay, but where does your friendly mini-mart get its merchandise? Who's going to make stuff if they can't make money from selling it? The answer is, anyone who enjoys making stuff. The manufacturing economy would be stripped down to home workshops and the happiest factories. I don't think any of them are making microprocessors, so high tech would be stripped down to stuff that's easy to scavenge and tinker with.
What about food? Farmers love their work, otherwise they would quit, because it's a hard job that pays basically nothing. But industrial farming would slowly fall apart without industrial manufacturing, and distributing food would be even harder. So we would need a lot of volunteer work, and really skillful organization, to stop a lot of us from dying.
But in trying to get through this, we would be constantly asking two questions of every task: 1) Is this really necessary for human well-being? 2) Am I enjoying it? Notice how rarely, under the present system, we hold our actions to those standards. Instead, the question we're always asking is: if I say no to this bullshit, how much will my life be ruined?
This thought experiment is an extreme simplification of a process that's going to actually happen over a really long time. My point is, the more we respect quality of life over claims of ownership, the more meaningful and enjoyable our lives are, if only we can overcome challenges that are mainly logistical.
June 8. This is really obvious: the police are used against lower-class crimes, and not upper-class crimes. When Facebook breaks a law, cops are not going to march into Mark Zuckerberg's office and tase him if he resists. I mean, if he does something really bad, the police will show their presence, but they don't need to, because he knows if he runs away, they'll finally start treating him the way they treat the lower class by default.
At the same time, big government can stand up to big money. So when someone says they're anti-government and pro-police, what they mean is they support force going down the pyramid, but not up it.
For all of history, force has gone down the pyramid while wealth has gone up it. America didn't change that, we just had enough prosperity to buy off the middle class. As the age of economic growth ends, the middle class cannot be bought off, and they're noticing that their interests align with the lower class.
I'm actually proud of how well America is handling this. We're working through a lot of shit in a short time with minimal casualties, and seriously talking about real reforms.
Four links on how policing could be done differently. First, Are Cops Constitutional?
Professional police were unknown to the United States in 1789, and first appeared in America almost a half-century after the Constitution's ratification. The Framers contemplated law enforcement as the duty of mostly private citizens, along with a few constables and sheriffs who could be called upon when necessary. This article marshals extensive historical and legal evidence to show that modern policing is in many ways inconsistent with the original intent of America's founding documents.
From the NY Times, Cities ask if it's time to defund police and reimagine public safety. Specifically, "many social welfare tasks that currently fall to armed police officers - responding to drug overdoses, and working with people who have a mental illness or are homeless - would be better carried out by nurses or social workers." That means fewer jobs for people trained in using force, and more jobs for people trained in engaging citizens without force.
Rolling Stone has just reposted this 2014 piece, Six Ideas for a Cop-Free World.
And What America can learn from Nordic police. Reading this makes me realize how really authoritarian America is. Our baseline culture takes for granted that torture works, that sentences should be long and prisons should be dreadful, that being nice to people is a bottomless sink, and humans will only serve the larger good under threat of punishment. Nordic countries are assuming the opposite, and it's working better for them.
June 10. What is emergence, and why should we care about it? This is a dense critique of reductionism, the idea that no matter how complex something is, it can always be understood by breaking it down into little parts. This is not science but faith: when in practice reductionists can't explain wholes in terms of parts, they insist that they just need better number-crunching.
Emergentism is the idea that the failure of reductionism is not merely practical, but fundamental:
that parts and wholes have equal ontological priority, with the wholes constraining the parts just as much as the parts constrain the wholes... that the universe is in some sense open to novel phenomena that cannot be perfectly anticipated using any scientific theory, but, once present, can still be studied using scientific methods. In other words, emergentism suggests that even our best quantitative theories cannot always tell us when qualitative changes will occur.
June 12. Some links about tacit knowledge, which is defined by Wikipedia as "the kind of knowledge that is difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it."
From 2012, a piece with two strong examples of tacit knowledge, Chicken Sexers, Plane Spotters, and the Elegance of TAGteaching. In both chicken sexing and plane spotting, people can learn to reliably tell the differences between things, and teach others, without ever knowing how they know.
Why Tacit Knowledge is More Important Than Deliberate Practice, with more good stuff in the Hacker News comment thread.
That article contains a method for learning to ride a bicycle, where you start with a very small bike, so you can learn the basic skills with zero risk of falling over. My thought is, this world feels too often like learning to ride on a tall bike. Maybe that's part of the epidemic of anxiety and depression: technology is changing our environment so fast that there's not enough room to make mistakes without being punished.
And a post I made in 2010, about the coming catabolic collapse in skills.
June 15. Weirdos during the depression is a short blog post about two characters in classic novels, one who pretends to be a miserable drunk so people won't bother him about his mixed-race marriage, and one who pretends to have a gruesome facial scar so people won't bother him about his beard.
Here's the Hacker News thread and the subreddit thread, where I said this: "If you break rules that other people are following, you have to pretend to be unhappy, or they'll get really mad, because they don't want to face the grief that they could have been breaking the rules themselves all this time."
June 19. How weird is it that taking precautions against a pandemic has been politicized? Never in the history of right vs left, or liberal vs conservative, has this happened, and it's largely the work of one man.
Imagine you have total mind-control over Donald Trump, under the condition that he still has to seem to be himself, and imagine your goal is to kill as many of his followers as you possibly can. Could you do any better than he's already doing? Personally, I couldn't even do as well. The other day he said, "Some Americans are wearing masks because they don't like me." The message is, if you like me, you won't wear a mask at my campaign rally.
Now, I don't think killing his followers is Trump's conscious goal -- I think it's his subconscious goal, and I'm wondering who his subconscious is working for.
June 22-23. It occurs to me, this left wing political correctness regime is like how conquering peoples prevent conquered peoples from speaking their native language. This time, we're not being allowed to use language with any hint of racism, and the idea is, by killing the language, you kill the culture.
If a language conjures up something unreal, then killing the language kills that thing; but if a language reflects something real, then killing the language only hides that thing. For example, almost all nature-based languages have been lost, along with countless words for ecological concepts, but we're rediscovering those concepts and making words for them. Even the word "ecology" was not invented until the late 1800's.
Is racism real or unreal? I see racism as a subset of tribalism, which I define as identification with a group, where the group identity is based on conflict with other groups. Tribalism is a deep part of human nature, and it will probably never go away.
The thing about racism that's unreal is race. Geneticists say race is an illusion -- they haven't found any genetic markers that can define it. And the way we think about race was only invented a few hundred years ago. Here's a good article about it, The Enlightenment's Dark Side:
Race as we understand it - a biological taxonomy that turns physical difference into relations of domination - is a product of the Enlightenment. Racism as we understand it now, as a socio-political order based on the permanent hierarchy of particular groups, developed as an attempt to resolve the fundamental contradiction between professing liberty and upholding slavery.
Oddly, as language has been more and more policed for racism, the most problematic terms are allowed to persist. There's no term more problematic than "white". It's not literally descriptive. It's ethnically vague. It has deep associations with rightness and purity. And yet no one on the left, which I'm aware of, has seriously suggested doing away with it.
I can name one person who has, Noel Ignatiev. I think he was way ahead of his time, and the abolition of the social construct of whiteness is eventually going to happen. It's hard to imagine how to get there from here, when the right needs whiteness as a hero and the left needs whiteness as a villain. But one big step, which might happen in this century, is for all forms that ask for race to have a "null" option. And then more people, of all ancestries, could opt out of identifying as any race at all.
June 26. Inside the Social Media Cult That Convinces Young People to Give Up Everything. Reading this, it occurs to me that the actual beliefs of the cult are arbitrary. When you strip it down, a cult is an engine that takes people with unmet needs for meaning and belonging, and chews those people up to generate power for the cult leaders. In between those two things, it's just whatever works.
June 26. An interview about the Madness of Knowledge, a book that investigates how we feel about what we think. I would say it like this: First you encounter a thought. Then you have an emotional reaction, either feeling good about the thought or feeling bad about it. Then you have another thought, which says, "No emotions here! Only pure, clean thoughts, which I will now use to explain why the first thought is correct or incorrect" -- whichever one you felt it should be.
To not be a slave of this process, you need a particular skill: observing your feelings about your thoughts. This skill is a kind of intelligence. How much saner would the world be, if we taught it and tested for it?
July 1-2. A few days ago, some North Carolina cops were fired after being caught on video saying they can't wait for martial law because "We are just gonna go out and start slaughtering them fucking n-----s." And yet they say they're not racist. Do they actually believe that?
I think they do, and it's partly the fault of the mainstream left, for encouraging a concept of what racism is, that has almost no basis in reality. You can see it all the time in badly written TV shows, like the Rosa Parks episode of Doctor Who. As soon as a racist sees a person with the wrong skin color, they go full-on Voldemort.
Actual racism is a lot like a sports team rivalry. You understand intellectually that fans of your rival team are fully human, and it's not hard for you to treat them as fully human, one on one; but in aggregate, it's fun to think of them as the enemy, and it's frightening that they might have power over you.
Where I see systemic racism, is not so much in laws, but in the subconscious habits of ordinary people, of treating different races differently. It shows up in a million snap decisions, often by people who think they see all races as equal. The funny thing is, it's easier to see it if you're an object of it, than if you're doing it.
July 3. I've been asked why I'm so optimistic. My answer is that I've walked up a wild stream in midsummer on LSD. I don't want to use the word "nature" because there's always some jerk who says "everything is natural" -- a valid semantic choice, which erases a really valuable distinction, which I preserve by framing it as the human-made world vs the non-human-made world.
The non-human-made world is basically heaven. You don't need LSD to see it but it helps. And beside it, or often on top of it, the human-made world is like mean kids playing with blocks, all clunky and ugly.
And yet, humans are supposedly better than trees and grass and bugs and birds. Maybe that's an illusion, and we're intrinsic degenerates who need to go extinct. But if we really are better, then we have the potential, instead of poisoning and paving the non-human-made world, to take that riotous beauty and run with it.
For a tease of what we could do, look at the picture at the top of this 2015 article, Wonderful Widgets. With 3D printing and evolutionary design, a crude component has been turned into one that looks like art -- and is more functional.
In terms of culture, game theory predicts the eventual victory of cooperators over dominators. We've already done it many times at the tribal scale, and we've only been playing with large complex societies for a short time.
In the short term, things look bad. The climate, the economy, and the internet are all going to get worse. The meaninglessness of modern life will continue to produce mass insanity. Right now we're passing through a bottleneck. The reason George Floyd's death was so powerful, and the reason mask-wearing has been so politicized, is that we all feel suffocated by this world, and it's getting tighter. But eventually there will be a reopening, and I think we're still at the beginning of history.
July 6. I've heard that John Michael Greer wants to start a religion. I'd advise him to do a lot of psychedelics, because by the end of this century almost everyone will be doing them, and some metaphysical ideas can survive that, and some can't.
There's a common idea, even among psychonauts, that drugs are just a shortcut to get somewhere that you can get without them. I mean, if what you want is to be emotionally healthy and have a good life, then sure, you don't even need to drink coffee. But I think the idea of having a drug-like mental state without drugs is wishful thinking, even magical thinking, about the power of the unassisted brain.
I would love to see a step-by-step process, something on the same order of difficulty as playing a musical instrument, where even after a few hours you can see results, and at high skill levels you can meet machine elves or step outside of time. Instead I see a spiritual elite making vague and untested promises about the benefits of doing what they tell you for thousands of hours.
There's a famous story of Ram Dass giving LSD to a guru, who just sat there as if it wasn't affecting him. There are doubts about whether this really happened, but even if it did, it's not evidence that the drug didn't affect the guru, let alone that he already had LSD consciousness. It's only evidence that he had the mental discipline to not show the effects outwardly.
Meditation and drugs are not two ways up the same mountain -- they're two different mountains. Meditation is about training your awareness of where and how you focus your attention, and your agility in changing that focus, within the world that your brain is tuning in. Drugs are about changing your brain's filter to alter that world.
This model actually makes meditation more important. If meditation does basically the same thing as drugs, but with more work, than we lazy people have no reason to do it. But if they complement each other, if meditation makes drugs better and drugs make meditation better, then we should be doing both.
July 8. 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.
July 13-14. Tulpas: "A tulpa is believed to be an autonomous consciousness coinhabiting a brain with their creator, often with a form of their creator's initial choice and design."
I've always seen the word used for an occult entity, something like a poltergeist or a minor genie, that does stuff out in the world to serve its human creator, but has a mind of its own. The newer meaning is for something that remains completely inside your head. So it's in the same territory as imaginary friends or multiple personalities, but it's done with full intention by sane adults.
My crazy thought is, what if this becomes a long-term trend? What if it's the next stage of human cultural evolution? By 2100, most people will have two or three Tulpas, and you'll introduce them whenever you meet someone. There will be classes on how to make them, and bestsellers on how to switch your mind from one to another to do different tasks.
Looking back at history, they'll say that Tulpas were there all along. They'll bring in Julian Jaynes and say that in ancient times we took them for gods. Then we buried them in the subconscious, where they often became evil and drove wars and genocides. In the 20th century, when they started to come out in the open, they appeared as mental illness, but now that we know how to work with them, they're mostly benign and helpful.
I love the niceness of the Tulpa community, but I think they're underestimating the dangers. Here's a good comment, from the Psychonaut subreddit, on the spirit world. You can take it all as metaphorical if you want, but the idea is that letting entities inside you is serious, and should be done with great care.
From the ranprieur subreddit, a short comment thread on Tulpas and the illusion of conscious unity, including a cool story where MakeTotalDestr0i was alone for six months and had complex people appear in his head.
And from this thread, a quote from Carl Jung, who was way ahead of us in figuring this stuff out:
The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctor's consulting room, or disorders the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world.
July 17. Thanks Matt for inspiring this dystopian thought experiment: what if lie detectors got really good, and we used them all the time?
The techno-optimist first thought is, all the truth would be brought to the surface. But the machines that we now call "lie detectors" don't detect truth. They don't even detect lies. They're tools of intimidation that detect the fear of getting caught.
The way to beat lie detectors, which we're already really good at, is self-deception: to completely believe whatever you're saying.
Then where does the truth go? It gets buried in the subconscious. So the effect of widespread and strong "lie detection" would be the shrinking of the conscious mind. Any part of your identity that you would get in trouble for, would have to be hidden, leaving your surface mind sincere and clueless, walled off from the truth.
But this has already happened. The mechanism is inside us: that if there's something too socially unacceptable, we find it easier to just never look at it, than to look at it and keep it in balance with our public self.
I think the subconscious is totally conscious. That's why nobody says, "and then I became gay." They say, "and then I found out I was gay all along." It's right there, it's you, but "you" don't notice it.
In Freudian terms, you are the id, and "you" are the superego, a personality module for getting along socially, which has taken over the whole self. Expanding the self is hard. You can't tame the id, but you can train your moment-to-moment attention to ride it. And it's good to assume there's always more.
July 27. I keep my laptop on a stand-up desk in the corner of my bedroom, and this corner increasingly feels like a place of compulsion and dread. Twenty years ago the internet was miraculous. Now it's a Kafka nightmare of passwords and updates, a land of hungry bots seeking ad revenue. Even at the most personal level, I sense an undercurrent of loneliness, people desperate for a social connection that you're just not going to get through a screen.
If you strip it down to fundamentals, the internet has become an engine for generating low-quality demands on human attention, and if the whole thing disappeared tomorrow, it would be so relieving.
July 30. It's strange that Coronavirus has taken it this long to kill someone whose name I already knew. That person is Herman Cain. Given that the virus is disproportionately affecting minorities and Trumpers, it's fitting that he's the most famous person who's both.