"He hauled in a half-parsec of immaterial relatedness and began ineptly to experiment."
-James Tiptree Jr.
February 25. I wasn't planning to post again until Monday, but I've thought of some non-obvious stuff to say about Russia's invasion of Ukraine. First, why is Putin crushing domestic dissent? Why doesn't he just do what we do in America, and let the anti-war protesters shout into the wind?
I see two possibilities. First, because of conditions in Russia that I don't understand, symbolic dissent will grow and grow until it becomes a full-on revolution and he's thrown out of power. I doubt that.
The second possiblity is that ignoring the protesters is the right strategic choice, and he's making the wrong strategic choice for emotional reasons. He has an authoritarian personality, so domestic dissent really bothers him, and it makes him feel good to crush it.
I also think that's why he's invading Ukraine. Leigh Ann said yesterday, this is Putin's last chance. I said, "Last chance for what?" Surely not to serve the interests of humanity, or even Russia. It's his last chance to feel important by fucking shit up.
More generally, most of the aggressive actions throughout history make more sense as infantile personalities fucking shit up to feel important, than as anything thoughtful.
Of course, whatever we decide to do for emotional reasons, our thinking brain loves to rationalize it and take credit. And it occurs to me, conspiracy culture is part of this cover-up. If you read conspiracist explanations of what Putin is doing -- or what any very powerful person is doing -- it's all elaborate storytelling around the fundamental assumption that the elite are perfectly rational and highly competent.
I think powerful people are exactly as smart as ordinary idiots would be, if nobody ever told them they were wrong.
February 23. Going early into the weekend with music. Mark Lanegan has died. He had a long career that I didn't keep up with, but he's my favorite Seattle scene singer, and I love his early stuff.
Nirvana's famous live performance of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" is at least a fourth generation cover. First it was a traditional folk song called "In The Pines". In 1944, Lead Belly recorded this version, and in 1990 Lanegan covered that, with Kurt Cobain on guitar. Mark Lanegan's Where Did You Sleep Last Night is the Citizen Kane of grunge. A lot of what it did has since been done to death, but in 1990, this sound was mind-blowing.
That was on his solo debut, The Winding Sheet. The sound was mostly stripped down and acoustic, which was unusual at the time. According to Wikipedia, "Dave Grohl has called The Winding Sheet 'one of the best albums of all time' and has said that it was a huge influence on Nirvana's 1993 MTV Unplugged concert." It has no duds, and one song in particular has been stuck in my head all these years: Museum.
A month after that album was released, Lanegan was back with the Screaming Trees, and recorded one of the catchiest songs of the 90's, Bed of Roses.
He also turned out to be a good writer. From two months ago, this is an excerpt of his short book about almost dying of Covid. And from this 2020 interview, a quote: "If you want to do music, take any expectation out of it and do it for the pure love of it, you can't go wrong."
February 22. Quick loose end on litter. This article (thanks Kelby) explains that many parks have reduced litter by removing trash cans, which puts park visitors in a mental state of having to pack their trash out. This reminds me of how there are fewer traffic deaths on narrow roads, where drivers have to go slowly, than on wide roads where they can go fast.
February 21. Continuing on the subject of litter, Eric mentions plogging, a Swedish trend of jogging while picking up litter, which has since caught on in other places.
I'm wondering what makes a person a litter picker or a litter dropper. My first thought is that we're all born litter droppers, because in our ancestral environment, everything is biodegradeable. But that's no excuse, because humans are also born learners, and even ants can learn waste management.
So I'm trying to puzzle out the psychology of litter droppers. I understand how a person who is already mentally exhausted, would not want to devote a bit of their brain to tracking the location of something they no longer need. And yet, I find a lot of litter right next to trash cans.
It could also be about status. Dealing with trash might make someone feel lower, and the awareness that someone else is going to have to deal with their trash makes them feel important. Personally, even if Jeff Bezos himself dropped a wrapper, I would not feel bad about picking it up, because I'm not serving Bezos -- I'm serving a place.
So litter happens when people feel alienated from their own locality. This has something to do with private property, a custom under which there are two kinds of spaces: spaces you personally control, and spaces you don't care about. But more generally, litter is a symptom of individual disconnection and social malaise, and right now it's a problem almost everywhere.
February 18. And some happy links. Crows may soon be Sweden's newest litter pickers. They're training the birds to pick up cigarette butts and trade them to a machine for food. By the way, picking up litter is the one thing that I enjoy doing, that society considers worthwhile, so I do a lot of it. And I'm surprised there aren't more people who do it. Scanning and picking up items is totally game-like, and the reward is something that most people want and never get: concrete evidence that you're making the world better.
Myopia correcting 'smart glasses' from Japan to be sold across Asia. I doubt they work, but if they do, I'll be so excited.
A scientific article, Acute aerobic exercise to recover from mental exhaustion
And the Mystical Experiences of Arthur Koestler, a well-written report of how he achieved oceanic consciousness in solitary confinement.
February 16. Negative links, starting with three from Reddit. This comment explains in detail Why NFTs are bad. For me, the key insight about NFTs is that the technology serves famous artists and criminals, and does nothing for unknown poor artists.
A long comment thread on Ask Old People, Do you think America is in decline?
Also from Ask Old People, an insightful comment about common sense. I've been thinking there's no such thing as common sense. It's just a way for people to say that their own perspective should be obvious to everyone. But DerHoggenCatten argues that "life has become much more complex, diverse, and difficult," so there's less common ground of experience for people to see things the same way.
A good analysis, CGI did, in fact, ruin movies. The author argues that filmmakers have become lazy, using computers to brute-force the exact shots they want, instead of having to be creative to wrangle with the constraints of the real physical world. I would add, I don't see a problem with computers being used for pure animation. My favorite superhero movie is Lego Batman. And yet, the best animated movie of this century is Mary and Max, which used old-fashioned clay.
Another good analysis, The web starts on page four is about how money has ruined search engines.
Related: this Hacker News thread is about Douglas Adams's prediction, back in 1998, that the internet would make advertising more effective. Now it's becoming clear that advertising "is a fundamentally bad thing", so the better it gets, the worse it gets.
February 15. Continuing from yesterday, Matt comments:
One practice I like for heart-based meditation is Zen Noting. It's a noting practice that follows the form "As ____, there is ____."
So, you could drop any kind of love word in the first blank, and then in the second blank you just note whatever happens to be in your experience at that moment. For instance, "As friendliness, there is releasing my shoulders."
The point isn't to force yourself to feel whatever you put in the first blank, but to open to experiencing from that theme. The point is embracing whatever arises while you're inviting that condition of consciousness. So you might be noting boredom, irritation, itching, anger, etc., but you continually position yourself within the "as if" of some loving attitude.
The as if can become the is.
February 14. For Valentine's Day, I want to write about "love". I put it in quotes because it's a classic propaganda word: everyone agrees whether it's good or bad (in this case, good) but nobody has a clear definition. We all know that it points to multiple things, and that the ancient Greeks had six words for it, but we mostly ignore that while throwing the one word around.
Specifically I'm thinking of people who have transcendent experiences, with or without drugs, and come back and say that love is the most important thing in the universe. I want to ask them how they would express that insight without using the word "love", but to give a good answer, someone would have to be really good with words. One of the few people who did a lot of drugs and was good with words was Thaddeus Golas. In his classic book The Lazy Man's Guide to Enlightenment he gave the best definition of love I've seen: "Love is the action of being in the same space with other beings."
I like how he defines it as an action and not a feeling. What I'm looking for is something that anyone can practice. But "being in the same space with other beings" requires some metaphorical imagination. It doesn't even make sense under materialist philosophy.
If I strip the word down to its minimum meaning, love is 1) feeling good 2) about something outside the self. That seems to leave out self-love, unless you consider that the subject and object of self-love are two different people inside you. As Nietzsche said, "Whoever despises himself still respects himself as one who despises."
I think what psychonauts are getting at is: the self is an illusion, and love is breaking that illusion so that being has no boundaries. But again, how does one practice that?
This is what I've come up with. Love is feeling good about placing your attention. It's not feeling good about the thing you're placing your attention on, because what about genocide? But even if it's something bad, you can still feel good about the action of touching it with your consciousness. The idea is, as you move your attention around, your attention is not dragging its feet, or stomping enemies, but dancing.
February 11. Today's subject is mental health. A few months back, someone suggested that my emotional pain could be rooted in physical pain. I said, no way. Physical pain doesn't even bother me that much. I'd rather bash my shin on a table than feel anxiety, and I suspect that's why people cut themselves, to cover their inscrutable emotional pain with honest and real physical pain.
But now, after more self-observation, I see that it's true: emotions are rooted in the body, and when I'm in a bad mood, it's not from physical pain exactly, but general physical discomfort. Nine times out of ten, it's simple dehydration, and if I guzzle a quart of water and wait 30 minutes, I feel fine. It turns out that what I was calling "cannabis withdrawal" was a combination of dehydration and feedback: feeling bad about feeling bad. Now that I'm managing both, I can get high more often with no downside, although I'm still averaging less than one session a day.
In the past I've criticized "meditation", and I still believe that one specific practice -- sitting, focusing on your breath, and stilling your thoughts -- is overrated, and holds a monopoly over the vast range of metacognitive practices. Personally I do better walking than sitting. But any metacognitive practice is going to eventually pay off. More precisely, any way of building a perspective in your head that watches, in a curious and non-judging way, what your head and body are doing, is going to serve as a foundation for better mental health.
I've also found that the key is at the micro scale. If there's a way you want to feel all the time, the path is to feel that way now, in the thinnest slice of time, about the smallest thing.
February 9. One more thought from Monday. It's hard to imagine mining ever being done by volunteers. But now most of the mining has been done. There are plenty of reusable resources on the surface, or lightly buried in landfills. And picking through scraps for useful stuff is totally something people will do for fun.
In 2008, a guy tried to make a toaster from scratch, including smelting metal from ore. It turned out to be much easier to make a toaster out of parts of broken toasters. My point is, even if we get a deep tech crash, post-industrial technology will be radically different from pre-industrial technology.
Related: A makeshift submarine using IKEA food container and legos
February 7. Continuing from Friday, a "100% volunteer workforce" is my new way of describing the kind of society I want to live in. You could also call it "zero coercion" or "non-repressive" or "emergent" -- because everything that's done emerges from whatever people find intrinsically enjoyable. But I think "100% volunteer" gets to the heart of the difficult thing we're aiming for.
And yet, it's actually been done multiple times. And here, the worst move you can make is to look for some broad category that includes the societies that have done it -- whether you call them "primitive" or "low-tech" or "nature-based" or "indigenous" or "non-civilized" -- and argue that all we have to do is join that club, and we'll be happy.
On a practical level, that's just not true, and on an intellectual level, all the naysayers have to do is look through your category until they find one terrible tribe, and say, "Ha, you lose! Now go back to stocking shelves at Walmart."
A better move, which is made easier by Graeber and Wengrow's book, is to say, "The people who did that thing are human. We're human. So we can do it."
Now someone is going to point out that none of those people had airplanes or video games, and if we want the benefits of high technology, our society must force people to do stuff they don't want to do. I've found that it's not helpful to tell my adversaries what motivates them, but I'll say this: of all the reasons someone might choose to believe that high tech requires repression, love of high tech is not one of them.
Right now there are amateur enthusiasts in basements and garages doing all kinds of cool high tech stuff. On a practical level, we're a long way from making that culture the heart of our society. But there's general agreement that that's the direction we want to go. The most cynical corporate consultant knows that you can't brute-force creativity -- it comes out of social spaces with a lot of slack.
Going back to my January 31 post, about technologies needing the right context, Iphikrates wrote: "Plunk a fully functioning steam engine down in Bronze Age Mesopotamia and I guarantee you that absolutely nothing will happen." What we're aiming for is a social technology, in which you can plunk down a person whose spirit has not been broken, doing whatever they feel like, and they will find a niche that serves the system.
February 4. So I'm finally reading David Graeber and David Wengrow's book The Dawn of Everything. This Goodreads review summarizes some of the main points, and this is how the book summarizes itself in chapter 1:
If humans did not spend 95 percent of their evolutionary past in tiny bands of hunter-gatherers, what were they doing all that time? If agriculture, and cities, did not mean a plunge into hierarchy and domination, then what did they imply? What was really happening in those periods we usually see as marking the emergence of 'the state'? The answers are often unexpected, and suggest that the course of human history may be less set in stone, and more full of playful possibilities, than we tend to assume.The most interesting bit I've read so far is about how prehistoric people were able to move small physical items across continents, without capitalist trade networks. One way they did it was to invest the items themselves with great meaning. People made small works of art and went on long quests to trade them for other works of art.
February 2. A few links. Canopy "is a game in which two players compete to grow the most bountiful rainforest." I don't know how fun it is, but there's a lot of room to make more games like this.
104 Mesmerizing Mosque Ceilings. Yeah, the people who made these were totally tripping.
And Reality by Consensus is a fascinating thought experiment, about what the world would be like if it filled itself in on the fly, based on our expectations and desires. I like to think reality is already like that, and for some reason we're all in a very sticky neighborhood. This subject reminds me of a quote from Terence McKenna: "It's a delusion if it happens to one person. It's a cult if it happens to twenty people. And it's true if it happens to ten thousand people. Well this is a strange way to have epistemological authenticity... We vote on it?"
January 31. Thanks MakeTotalDestr0i for posting this great thread to Weird Collapse: In pc games like Civilization, technology is portrayed as linear and progressive, i.e., once something is invented, it stays invented. In light of history, is that a generally correct representation?
The short answer is no, and in the top comment, Iphikrates explains why:
To put it simply, technology is practice. It does not emerge or exist outside of its practical application within a society, economy, or culture. It is not pursued or preserved for its own sake. It has no intrinsic value. A given technology either has a use (in which case it may be developed and passed on) or it doesn't.
Also from Iphikrates, this comment from six months ago explains it in more detail:
...technology is only one element of industrialisation, and arguably not even a causal one. The process doesn't happen because of new tech; new tech is invented to facilitate the process. The actual causes have more to do with the availability of certain resources (capital, labour, ingenuity) to meet certain economic and political challenges within a global network of trade and colonialism. Without this complex system of factors in place, industrialisation could never have happened anywhere. Plunk a fully functioning steam engine down in Bronze Age Mesopotamia and I guarantee you that absolutely nothing will happen.
There are several directions I can go with this. One is to notice that the same thing can happen with cultural technologies: ways of thinking and perceiving, ways of being human, that only develop in certain conditions.
But today I'm thinking about the fate of mechanical technologies in a general collapse. With the infrastructure decaying, it's easy to extrapolate to a world where all bridges have fallen. Really, the skillsets for building and repairing bridges will be in high demand everywhere. So those skills will not die out -- but places that can't compete for bridge-builders will lose their bridges.
Historically, complex technologies start in places with dense populations, and work their way out to the sticks. So the present collapse -- with some exceptions -- will go the other way. Rural areas will become postapocalyptic, and well-managed cities will muddle through.
So what counts as a "city"? John Mellencamp's song "Small Town", which romanticizes a lot of terrible hellholes, was actually written about Bloomington Indiana, a city of 80,000 people, the same as ancient Thebes at its peak.
My point is, in the coming decades, there will be huge local variation in quality of life, and some of the best places will be smaller cities with a high proportion of educated people.
January 29. Music for the weekend, starting with this incredible 1959 instrumental, Jet Tone Boogie by the Jet Tones.
So Neil Young just took his music off Spotify. I don't use Spotify for listening, because they're missing too much of my favorite stuff, including four of my top five songs of all time. I buy the music of my favorite artists, download everything else with Soulseek, and then listen to mp3 files from my laptop or from an old Sansa Clip player.
I'm not a huge Neil Young fan, but I remember about 20 years ago, he said that CD's sound bad compared to vinyl, and everyone thought he was crazy, but now CD's are dead and vinyl is back. Anyway, via YouTube, these are my top three Neil Young songs: Helpless (1970), Powderfinger (1978), and Love and Only Love (1990)
January 26. One of the best things you can do for your mental health, is to look for things that you don't enjoy doing, and don't actually have to do, and stop doing those things. A trivial example is socks. I don't even try to match them anymore -- I just stuff them all in a bag, and pull out any two black ones.
A more serious example is arguing on the internet. I used to take for granted that if you have an audience and a strong opinion, you say it. Now I've basically retired from saying anything on any subject where people will get mad if you disagree with them.
It's funny how times have changed. I've written stuff about God that would get me burned at the stake in the 1600's. In the 2000's, "God" is a big-tent word -- whatever it means to you, you're in. This seems like progress in religious tolerance, but only because the word "religion" points to two different things: 1) beliefs about the unseeable world, and 2) beliefs that anchor your identity and meaning of life.
The word "religion" has stuck with the first thing, while the second thing, the tribalistic fervor about how things are, has shifted from the divine to the mundane.
I think this is what we wanted all along. Only now do we have the speed of information to keep tabs on the physical world, and the breadth of interpretation to disagree about stuff that you can actually look at.
January 20-24. Two new articles on virtual reality. When art transports us, where do we actually go? It's a good question, but the answers are just a bunch of fancy language for stuff that should be obvious. Conclusion: immersive experiences are valuable for how they change us when we come back to the real world.
It's hard to say anything on this subject that's both correct and interesting. This article starts with something interesting but incorrect: Virtual reality is genuine reality, says philosopher David Chalmers. Then he backs off and says, yeah, we still have to respect the physical world.
Even professional philosophers struggle to define "real". Real is other people, whether they be humans, cats, or entities that we can't understand from our tiny perspective. Real is a direction of consciousness, toward the relationships that connect the illusory self to the Universal. Real is turning outward, and unreal is turning inward to our own creations: dreams and nightmares, gardens and prisons, video games and cryptocurrencies.
I love video games. I wish I could step into the world of Legend of Zelda Wind Waker, and cross the edge of that game into an infinite world with the same vibe. And maybe somewhere there is a real world with that vibe. But you can't get there through a game.
It's possible right now to make a game that teaches basic ecology better than a real forest. But at some point you have to go to a real forest if you want to keep learning. That's why future humans are not going to spend their whole lives in VR, tied by a thread to the physical world.
I don't think we have a lot of room to go deeper into artificiality than we already are. The next frontier is not packing more pixels into our vidscreens, or hacking our brains to sense what's not there. The next frontier is hacking our brains to sense what is there, better -- or through a different filter.
My favorite thing to do is take a walk in the non-human-made world, on drugs. Then I take the same walk sober, and I'm like, damn, sobriety sucks. Human default cognition is great for general purpose use. You can drive, do your job, make dinner, read a book, whatever. But for almost any specific purpose, there is a better cognitive mode, if we can get there.
So, will future humans take different drugs all day, to fit what they're doing? That has already happened. People drink coffee in the morning and take melatonin before bed. We get drunk or high to party, and athletes take whatever performance enhancing drugs they can get away with. The reason steroids are forbidden, is that if everyone does them, the whole baseline shifts, and then everyone has to use a substance that's bad for them in the long term.
But again, that already happened with cigarettes, which make a lot of service industry jobs tolerable. I wonder if that's part of why so many people are quitting their jobs now, because the jobs were designed in a context of near-universal cigarette use, and non-smokers can't put up with that shit.
Imagine a drug that gives you microsecond reaction time, so everyone takes it for driving, and then we can greatly increase speed limits with only a small increase in traffic deaths. Then you have to take the drug every time you drive, or you'll crash. That's the kind of mistake we have to watch out for, as we develop better drugs.
There's a third way that technology can claim to improve our perception: augmented reality. And if I'm trying to build a dystopia, augmented reality is a lot more exciting than VR and drugs. If China could afford it, they would already have everyone walking around with a headset, showing everyone else's social credit score. Augmented reality is an overlay of stories, about whatever you're looking at, where those stories are told by whoever controls the technology.