"If observing outer space gives us a view of the past, observing inner space would surely give us a glimpse into the future."
April 22. The Weak Case for Grit. It's about how the concept of "grit", as a path to self-improvement, is just a trendy rebranding of stuff that was already known under the concept of conscientiousness.
I would go farther and say, not only is grit not a good predictor of achievement, achievement is not a good measure of human life. If we're talking about benefit to society, supermarket workers are more beneficial than social media influencers. And if we're talking about subjective quality of life, then we need reforms to make low-status life better, instead of another weapon in the arms race for a shrinking number of high-status positions.
Related: A Life of One's Own is a really nice review of a book with that title, from 1934:
Marion Milner undertook a seven-year experiment in living, aimed at unpeeling the existential rind of all we chronically mistake for fulfillment -- prestige, pleasure, popularity -- to reveal the succulent, pulsating core of what makes for genuine happiness.
Happiness, Milner found, was similarly elusive to direct pursuit. Rather, its attainment required a wide-open attentiveness to reality, a benevolent curiosity about all that life has to offer, and a commitment not to argue with its offerings but to accept them as they come.
4/20. For the holiday, I want to write about weed. Most people I know either never use it, or use it every day. Maybe my brain is different, but those would be my last two choices.
Lately I've been doing two or three sessions a day, and then taking two full days off. I might use it two days in a row, but if I go a third day, it just makes me feel numb, which is not what I want.
In no particular order, these are some of my favorite things to do while high:
1) Put on headphones, walk around outside, and pretend I'm the POV in a video. With the right song, and in the right place, this is absolute heaven. Lately my favorite song is New Yorker Cartoon by Jenny and Johnny. At the same time, I practice turning my attention to my physical senses. My goal, which I'm nowhere near, is to last a whole song without falling into my head.
2) Improvise on piano. Whenever I find a good chord, I'll use label paper and colored markers to show it on the keyboard, and then I'll keep my fingers on the colors and jam. For a while I've been practicing keeping my left hand doing the same thing while my right hand does increasingly complex stuff. Lately I've been working on the opening of Wall of Voodoo's Ring of Fire, doing the synth with my left and the guitar with my right. Separately the parts are easy, but playing them together was so hard, that I had to figure it out with pen and paper, and then play the tricky bit until I could do it smoothly. Now, that pattern is part of my toolbox for improvising.
3) Write fiction. When I'm high, I get much better ideas, on everything from plot to how to put words together. The problem is that I think all my ideas are great, when some of them are dumb. To know the difference, I have to edit while sober. Oddly, blogging is almost the opposite. I get ideas high, draft posts sober, and then for major posts, I'll get high and do a style polish.
4) Explore emotions. Weed raises my emotional intelligence to nearly normal. People always say "listen to your heart," and I wish they had more precise instructions. It occurred to me, maybe I've been taking it too metaphorically. So I've been focusing a lot of attention on my literal blood-pumping muscle, and I noticed something. When I do my "expanding into pain" exercise, my heartbeats are sharper. Also, focusing on anything below the neck seems to settle my anxiety.
5) Strobe-enhanced CEV's. I close my eyes, turn my bike taillight to flashing, and point it at my eyelids. If I'm high enough, I'll see all kinds of crazy patterns, and can consciously navigate from one pattern to another. I told Leigh Ann, "I'm afraid this is too self-indulgent." She replied: "You're you!"
April 19. Negative links! Present Punk is a website arguing "that we are either currently living in a cyberpunk dystopia, or that we are transitioning into one."
Related: The secret ideology hiding in SimCity. The designer of Sim City was inspired by a book with an economic authoritarian agenda, and he put the book's formulas into the game's "black box". Later, the Magnasanti project showed how you can maximize success in the game by building a dystopian nightmare.
More evil tech, Is Facebook Buying Off The New York Times?
Three links on toxicity. Experts are sounding the alarm about the dangers of gas stoves "Over the past four decades, researchers have amassed a large body of scientific evidence linking the use of gas appliances, especially for cooking, with a higher risk of a range of respiratory problems and illnesses."
Rates of Parkinson's disease are exploding. A common chemical may be to blame. It's trichloroethylene, and it's already been banned in the EU and two US states.
And a well-written guide to identifying narcissists online.
Finally, climate catastrophe. Antarctica's Doomsday Glacier close to tipping point. "The glacier acts like a cork in a wine bottle, stopping the rest of the ice in the region from flowing into the sea."
This 2017 article, The Doomsday Glacier, goes into more depth. Bottom line: this stuff is hard to model, but the worst predictions are for 10-13 feet of sea level rise by 2100.
April 16. For the weekend, two happy links. Buildings made with fungi could live, grow, and then biodegrade. Related: Any sufficiently advanced civilization is indistinguishable from nature.
And US suicide rate dropped 6 percent in past year, even amid pandemic. I'm not surprised. This is a simplification: the suicide rate is inversely proportional to the rate of death by other causes. Because death by other causes means that society is facing a challenge that makes life more meaningful, and it means you're not suffering alone.
With summer coming (in the northern temperate zone) I want to recommend a product. It's hard to find a good summer overshirt. By that I mean: 1) You can wear it over a t-shirt. 2) It keeps the sun off. 3) It lets the air through. 4) It looks good. 5) It has good pockets.
I've only found one shirt that does all those things: the Prijouhe kimono. It says they're true to size, but I recommend going big. Here's a photo of me in my earth-tone summer outfit: Uniqlo linen shorts, medium t-shirt, and XXL kimono.
April 14. Bunch o' links, starting with a few from the subreddits. Ancient cave painters may have been stoned. More precisely, they would have needed torches, which could have had them tripping on oxygen deprivation. But they didn't know about oxygen, so they probably thought the caves were intrinsically trippy places.
A City for Poets and Pirates is a deep historical piece about some crazy stuff that happened a hundred years ago in Italy:
We cannot understand the events in Fiume (or the subsequent rise of fascism) without making an effort to imagine a world in which hundreds of thousands of young men who had been promised a share in the spoils of victory returned, after years both frightening and exhilarating -- some of them half-blind or deaf, some insomniacs or addicts -- to anxious mothers and wives unwilling to listen to their stories, to jobs in industries where bosses worried about productivity.
Our Brain Typically Overlooks This Brilliant Problem-Solving Strategy: removing things rather than adding them. If, somehow, we could get as good at removing things as we are at adding them, it would greatly prolong the lifespans of our institutions and technologies, which are always getting weighed down and crippled by feature bloat.
Ask Hacker News: What tech job would let me get away with the least real work possible? You can tell our civilization is declining, because the thread is massively upvoted and everyone thinks this is a good idea.
Another Hacker News thread, about a 20% probability for a large satellite collision. It didn't happen this time, but eventually it will, and then we might get a chain reaction satellite apocalypse, where the sky is full of meteors and the TV doesn't work.
This is the best reddit thread I've ever seen about lifehacks. It has everything from how to fight a dog to using chips as kindling.
And I've just done an update of my Favorite Films page, adding a few films and a new interpretation of Terry Gilliam's Tideland.
April 12. Lately I've been allergic to social issues, but today I'll dip a toe in, by way of brain wiring. Diablo 2 Resurrected helped me love my brain. The author is unable to make mental maps, which is a perfect fit for a game with procedurally generated maps where it doesn't matter which way you go.
And a reddit thread, Does it happen to you sometimes when you are driving, you suddenly realize that you are driving normally but not aware of what happened in the past minutes? This has never happened to me, because I have no autopilot. This is also why I'm a terrible athlete, and why I'm always bumping into things. My body can't do anything right without fully conscious micromanagement by my head, and I can't micromanage two things at once, or even one thing if it's going too fast.
As an autopilot-impaired person, I see autopilotry everywhere. That's my only explanation for why there aren't a hundred times as many car crashes, or how certain political movements succeed without any rational basis. People are tuning into mysterious signals, going with flows that I can't feel.
At the same time, I'm better at things that require mental micromanagement. So in middle school, where I never got on base in kickball, I was also the best lathe worker in shop class. And we have a long way to go in understanding these differences. I think every homeless person and every prison inmate has a talent that could serve society, if society knew how to find it and work with it.
Related: U.S. church membership dips below 50% for first time. I think this is because churches formed communities based on ancestry and physical location, which worked well in the old days. But now, with cheap travel and the internet, we can form communities based on what kind of person we are.
April 8. Another deep non-political piece, a long reddit comment about How actors talk about acting. Being believable is the bare minimum, and then there's stuff like understanding your character's motivation, disappearing into a role, "outside-in" technical stuff, and making interesting choices:
For example, actors seem to love Jeff Goldblum, Nic Cage, and John Malkovich. Even in something like Holy Man, or Rounders, or Wicker Man, where they're giving pretty much objectively bad performances, other actors sometimes love those performances. Choices come up a lot in conversations about these. It's just so amazing to see people who naturally make choices that we have to work towards.
My definition of creativity is making a choice that's unpredictable with foresight, and yet, in hindsight it seems inevitable. And as a writer, I respect small-scale surprises more than large-scale surprises. There's lots of bad popular entertainment, where they surprise you about which character is evil, but every character's emotional reaction to every little event is exactly what you expect.
April 7. Continuing from Monday, this new reddit thread is loaded with good stuff: What's something creepy that happened years ago but to this day you can't figure out why it happened?
It's interesting to look at the responses to these kinds of reports. Some people want to explain it all in terms of stuff we already understand, and some people want to go deeper into the unknown. That decision, which of those things to do, is sub-rational and subconscious. Given the scariness of some of these reports, my decision could be wrong. Some people feel that consensus reality is a fortress -- if you see a crack, you'd better seal it up. And I feel that we're in a prison, and cracks should be widened.
Related, reposts of two reddit threads on the afterlife: Despite what you believe or don’t believe, what do you WISH happens when we die? And if you actually go to a paradise after you die, but the paradise automatically is set up in a way which will be the absolute maximum best and pleasing experience for you, how would your paradise be like?
These threads have so many cool ideas, that I wonder if the purpose of this painful human civilization, is to serve as a platform, from which we can imagine a great variety of places to go next.
Last week I saw Soul, a movie with a radical metaphysical foundation. The idea is, down here is our world, and up there is the Universal, God, whatever you want to call it. And in between, there are other worlds. These worlds are not physical, and also not perfect, and we can come and go from them. In the 1600's, you'd get burned at the stake for saying that, and here it is being released by Disney.
April 5. This week I want to continue posting stuff that's thoughtful and not political. Fire in the Sky is about the psychology of exploring weird phenomena.
We seem to have a psychological block that prohibits us from entertaining a class of "strange ideas" outside some personal, identity-based window of acceptable thinking.... Conceptually, the block is related to, but notably different from, the Overton Window, which concerns socially-acceptable speech. Our focus here is not exactly what one can or cannot say for fear of social ostracism, though it likely does contribute to the phenomenon, but is rather what one can or cannot say for actual inability to conceive of a subject.
It's funny, because I'm the opposite. This is probably the one way that I want life to be harder. I'm hungry for stuff that stretches my ability to conceive it, so I've devoured the most challenging woo-woo books I can find, from Charles Fort's The Book of the Damned to Ted Holiday's The Goblin Universe to George Hansen's The Trickster and the Paranormal. My conclusion is that it's our world that's unusual. Reality is a roiling sea of first person perspectives, and we live on an island where the illusion of a third person reality becomes plausible, if you don't look too closely.
Another nice quote from the essay:
On the topic of UFOs, we have often turned to "serious scientists" for understanding, which is our euphemism here for debunking. But "serious scientist" is not a profession, it's a popular identity, and that identity is a plague on knowledge. Why qualify the word "scientist" at all? Presumably one is either doing science, or one is not. One is either a scientist, or one is not. The word "serious" divides inquiry into classes. The prestigious, and popular, is separated from the low, the weird, the socially unacceptable. In this way "serious science" is just a Cerberus that guards consensus reality, and on the question of consensus science is agnostic. Any qualification of the word "science" negates the method, and "serious scientists" are therefore not scientists at all.
April 2. Some feedback on Reiki. A comment in this subreddit thread suggests that it could work on a social level, "by simulating social connections and support, so the body then feels it is worth investing limited resources in healing and immunity." And over email, Alex comments: "Americans generally don't touch each other unless it's fighting, fucking, or obligation. So being touched in a way that can be interpreted as actually caring is a rare thing." It could be like vitamin A, which is good for your eyesight, but only if your eyesight is bad because of a vitamin A deficiency. (Or money, which is only correlated with happiness below a certain income.)
Probably, those factors are stacking with the placebo effect, which works with lots of things other than touch, and remains unexplained. It's interesting that the placebo effect is cultural, and can change. According to this article, placebo responses have been rising in the USA, but not in other places.
If it can change, than it can be trained. Someone who takes a placebo and gets no benefit, can learn to be someone who takes a placebo and gets a huge benefit. So what exactly would you be training in? I said before that it's not belief, but Hani points out that there are levels of belief. Now we're getting into the subconscious. Changing a fully conscious belief is hard enough, and it probably gets harder the deeper you go. And maybe more powerful.
Related: my friend Erik has co-developed a self-improvement practice called Meliora Meditation. Erik has done a lot of work straightening out his own mind and body, and this came out of that. Also, he has a page of good writings on other subjects, Fragments of Pre-History.
March 31. Another long and thoughtful piece, Reiki Can't Possibly Work. So Why Does It? By "can't possibly work," they mean that our primitive science can't point to a mechanism for how it works, even though there are studies showing that it does. At the same time, lots of medical treatments are no more beneficial than Reiki, and more harmful, but still highly respected because the mechanism is known.
It may turn out that Reiki works in its own particular way that we haven't discovered, or it may turn out to be "just" a placebo. Nick comments:
The way we think about the placebo effect is completely ass-backwards. People hear about the placebo effect and think "this is fake bullshit, let ignore it" when instead they should be thinking "this is a mysterious phenomenon so powerful that it has measurable provable positive effects for literally every disease that's ever been studied; let's figure out how it works!"
About 20 years ago, I took a multi-day Reiki class and got a level 1 attunement. There were people who worked on me, and people who I worked on, who said they felt the energies, but I never did. I also had an injury at the time that didn't seem to heal any faster.
The interesting thing is, I believed that I would see positive results, and I still didn't. Also the instructor was clear that Reiki does not require belief. Put these together, and belief is neither necessary nor sufficient for Reiki to work. This suggests that it's not a placebo... but what if it is?
What I'm getting at is a radical hypothesis: What drives the placebo effect is something other than belief. I've seen studies where people knew they were getting a placebo, so they had no basis for belief, and the placebo still worked. I've also tried other woo-woo practices where the results were a lot less than I expected.
My best guess is, what makes this stuff work is some deeper skill or practice. It's correlated with belief, but it's not belief. Whatever it is, nobody has figured out the instructions yet, and talented people are just doing it intuitively.
March 29. One of the best interviews I've read, from 2014, Sam Fussell, author of Muscle. Fussell rhymes with muscle, and Sam is the son of Paul Fussell, who wrote Class, the definitive book on the cultural aspects of American social class. Like his father, Sam Fussell is at his best when he's writing about the toxicity of status seeking.
He started out in a corporate job, and got disillusioned when he was reprimanded for doing too much useful work instead of fitting in. So he got into bodybuilding, and "my world went from black-and-white to color as soon as I took one step through the gym door."
Iron and muscle are real, and he got totally obsessed. This quote is telling:
If you love yourself (your own glory, your own image, etc) more than you love the pursuit, then the pursuit can get entirely self-destructive.
On the other hand, if you love the pursuit for the sake of the pursuit, that can become self-destructive as well.
He moved to California and started using steroids. "And in the gym, all of a sudden, there are no more limits... The problem is when you are on steroids, your world gets very, very small because all of your friends are also on steroids." He saw that all the top bodybuilders used performance-enhancing drugs, and they lied about it to the public, while doing magazine ads for bullshit nutritional supplements.
Eventually he quit bodybuilding and wrote a book about it, and went on the talk show circuit. Then he saw that the media is also full of bullshit: simplifying, sensationalizing, and turning everything into good vs bad. Related: How U.S. media lost the trust of the public.
My favorite bit in the interview:
In America, you are not real unless you are fake.
In other words, if people see you on television or the movies, they see you as larger (and realer) than life.
The representation becomes the reality.
And, because it is merely representation, it is fraud.
March 25. Bunch o' links. This reddit comment explains why natural disasters are social phenomena. A natural event only becomes a human disaster through mistakes in social policy or infrastructure. I submitted it to Depth Hub and there are a few good examples in this thread.
Posted yesterday to Weird Collapse, The scientists turning the desert green. It's already been done on a plateau in China, and now they want to regreen the Sinai peninsula, which might change weather patterns and increase rainfall over the whole region. This kind of project is the one thing that keeps me from supporting voluntary human extinction.
On the Ask Historians subreddit, this comment tries to figure out why Communist societies have been authoritarian. It's complicated, but the short answer is that when Communists take over a country, they have to become authoritarian to keep from being invaded or toppled.
Fun thread on the Psychonaut subreddit, about cats who know you're tripping.
And a sports article, Hockey Goalies Are Too Big Now. Both the players and the pads are a lot bigger, and the result is that the whole game has changed, with offenses cluttering up in front of the goal so the goalies can't see the shots, which makes the game less fun to play and watch. There's an interesting point about how basketball had a similar problem, which was fixed by the three point shot. The author's suggestion for fixing hockey is simply to make the goal bigger. (One hockey rule that would make basketball a lot better, is if teams only got one time out per game.)
March 23. Busy this week and not a lot of ideas, so I'll just comment on the latest mass shooting. There's no realistic way to stop them. Mass shootings are caused by gun ownership and mental illness, both of which have been rising for years with no end in sight.
One thing that might work, in fifty or a hundred years, is if public opinion shifts enough to get the Supreme Court to reinterpret the second amendment, so that you can't keep and bear arms unless you're a member of a well-regulated militia, and those regulations include careful mental health screening. It's probably more likely that an authoritarian revolution will abolish the Constitution completely.
Americans are willing to accept a certain number of shooting deaths as a cost of keeping their guns. Which is actually more reasonable than the traffic deaths, respiratory disease deaths, climate catastrophe deaths, and lowered quality of life from urban sprawl, that Americans will accept to keep their cars.