July 8. By now you've all heard about the lying flat movement in China. I'm trying to think of something to say about it that's not obvious, and what I've come up with is, this is the end of "communism".
I put the word in quotes because for a long time now, the word has been more important than the thing. In America, "communist" is a word used to denigrate any attempt to use the state to redistribute wealth or help the poor. In China, "communist" is a word used to give the impression that a capitalist economy with an authoritarian government is for the people.
So in both places, the word is being used to protect a domination system from any attempt to make it more bottom-up -- the opposite of the original intention of the word.
Communism, the thing, came out of the industrial cities of the 1800's, with deeper roots in the 1700's -- the Age of Reason, when domination shifted its metaphysical foundation away from an imaginary sky father, and toward an imaginary clockwork universe.
If the fundamental reality is the Machine, then the fundamental values are efficiency, productivity, usefulness, and central planning by an elite trained in reductionist thinking. That's why all communist states turned out that way. It's also why, in communist literature, human beings are called "workers" -- as if human existence has no meaning other than utilitarian toil.
When Oscar Wilde said "Work is the curse of the drinking classes," his point was that the meaning of existence is to have a good time, and we're blocked from that by the often unnecessary imperative to get things done. Maybe someone will write a manifesto that refers to humans as players.
July 12-14. For reasons that I don't fully understand, a lot of Americans have made a choice to get Coronavirus, rather than get the vaccine, and I think we should respect that choice. I find it fascinating to try to figure out their real motivations. Because the reason they give -- that the vaccine is riskier than the virus -- is totally against the evidence.
The weird thing is, their own leader said that Covid-19 came from a lab, and although that statement was not based on science, it turns out that science backs him up. Molecular Biology Clues Portray SARS-CoV-2 as a Gain-of-Function Laboratory Manipulation of Bat CoV RaTG13.
So you've got two things you can put in your body. Both of them make you somewhat immune to Covid-19, and both of them were made in labs. The death toll of one of those things is a million times higher. Imagine if it was the other way around -- the right choice would be obvious to everyone.
My best guess is, Covid anti-vaxxers have the same psychological motivation as teenagers who smoke cigarettes, or motorcyclists who don't wear helmets. They're displaying their lack of faith in a system that tells them what's good for them, and they're also displaying a personal identity of being a danger-courting bad-ass.
If I were to make an argument against getting the vaccine, it would be this: Everyone, eventually, will be exposed to the virus. So that's one unknown thing in your body. While the vaccine has been proven to protect you from the virus, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use a new technique, based on mRNA, with no large-scale long-term testing. So if you get it, now you're dealing with two unknowns, instead of one.
Personally, without perfect knowledge, I've made the call that mRNA biotech is a promising medical innovation, and certainly not an evil plot. If it's harmful, that harm is probably in the future overuse of mRNA, when people are shooting it up for less and less of a good reason.
July 16. Yesterday I had a highly upvoted reddit comment. Answering the question, "What is the biggest lie you've been told by society?" I said, "That success comes from being smart or hard-working. It comes from some combination of luck, social intelligence, and tolerance for lying."
We think of lying as something the powerful do to the weak, but it's usually the other way around. As one reply points out, success requires "a willingness to lie for the benefit of people who hold power over you at the expense of yourself." Most liars are not thinking, "Ha ha, I'll fool them all," but "Oh shit, if I don't tell these people what they want to hear, I'll be in so much trouble."
Now, through the miracle of social media, the universe of tell-them-what-they-want-to-hear has expanded to include all of us -- as cringing slaves, crafting our profiles to preserve our delicate status, and also as corrupt dictators, who can always find a voice confirming our comfortable beliefs.
July 19. Continuing on the subject of hard work and success, the connection between those things has been confused by language. "Success" can mean many things, including status in a hierarchy, whether or not you've earned it, and being really good at something really difficult, whether or not anyone cares.
And "hard work" can mean many things, including forcing yourself do something you don't enjoy, so you can achieve some goal, and enjoying something so much that you can't help putting thousands of hours into it.
The former, I call the grind; the latter, I call obsession. When people do difficult things, and they credit "hard work," we assume they mean the grind, and they don't mind that assumption, because obsession is uncool. If you're obsessed with something that society considers useless, you're a weirdo; if you're obsessed with something that society considers valuable, you're a workaholic.
When people talk about "passion," they mean obsession without the negatives, which doesn't exist. I'm in favor of obsession, but we need to acknowledge the negatives. With the grind, the challenge is to get yourself to do this shit. With obsession, the challenge is to keep the thing you're doing in balance with the rest of your life.
July 21. Thanks Gabriel for this long reddit comment about other cultures being less serious than anthropologists imagine.
I experienced several incidents of this kind which, I must now admit, I left out of my books on Yukaghir animism, as they posed a real danger to my theoretical agenda of taking indigenous animism seriously. One time, for example, an old hunting leader was making an offering to his helping-spirit, which is customary before an upcoming hunt. However, while throwing tobacco, tea, and vodka into the fire, he shouted, "Give me prey, you bitch!" Everyone present doubled up with laugher.
More anthropology: Rethinking cities, from the ground up. The article is hard to summarize, but the basic idea is that ancient hunter-gatherers were not that different from us, in terms of their social connections. There were extended families, who also belonged to diffuse large groups that shared a cultural identity.
It is not the case that small societies became large societies, which led to more conflict. Both scales were always there, and conflict was always possible. A lot of early cities were peaceful and egalitarian. This leaves us with a hard question: why are recent large systems so repressive? The good news is, it's not because they're large.
July 26. A Hacker News thread on the obesity epidemic. [The article linked in the thread has since disappeared.] The authors present the problem as a set of mysteries: why did obesity take off around 1980? Why does it not happen to hunter-gatherers, even when they eat diets really high in fat or carbs? Why is it related to altitude? Why are lab animals getting fatter?
The authors argue that some environmental contaminant is throwing off our lipostat, our inner sense of how much to eat to maintain a healthy weight. The reason highly processed foods cause obesity, is not because of their nutritional profile, but because the more processed a food is, the more chance there is for the contaminant to get in. Conclusion: the most likely contaminant is either a class of chemicals called PFAS, or lithium.
July 28. Why do recipe writers lie about how long it takes to caramelize onions? It takes 45 minutes, but they always say it takes 10 minutes, because "Telling the truth about caramelized onions would turn a lot of dinner-in-half-an-hour recipes into dinner-in-a-little-over-an-hour recipes." Then, in this time-tight and money-tight society, recipe writers couldn't get published. This is another example of people lying, not because they're malicious, but because of a social context in which they'll get in trouble for being honest.
July 28. This reddit comment by CurlSagan is the most cynical prediction I've ever seen:
Rather than build apartments, developers will build 15 story parking structures. Each parking spot will come with power so you can live in your shitty electric van or a conex box tiny house.
This will become the new, modern variation of trailer parks. The parking spots will still cost 2/3rds of your income. If your van doesn't have a toilet and shower, there's a public toilet and shower on level 1 that costs $10 per 15 minutes. Everyone who lives in these places will work 6 gig economy jobs and have a master's degree.
July 30. This is a comment I made yesterday in this r/weirdcollapse thread about psychological collapse and online communities going bad:
I was heavily into conspiracy theory in the 90's. There was a great paper magazine, Kenn Thomas's Steamshovel Press, that always had thoughtful and well-researched articles exploring anomalies in the dominant narrative.
Another magazine, Jim Martin's Flatland, was more dark and paranoid but still really smart. A more popular magazine, Paranoia, was stupid but fun.
At some point, conspiracy culture shifted to grand narratives about absolute evil. This happened at the same time that superhero movies (along with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings) took over Hollywood. The more epic and the more black-and-white the story, the more humans are drawn to it.
This is my half-baked theory: It used to be that ordinary people would accept whatever the TV said -- or before that, the church. Only a few weirdos developed the skill of looking at a broad swath of potential facts, and drawing their own pictures.
It's like seeing shapes in the clouds. It's not just something you do or don't do -- it's a skill you can develop, to see more shapes more easily. And now everyone is learning it.
Through the magic of the internet, everyone is discovering that they can make reality look like whatever they want. They feel like they're finding truth, when really they're veering off into madness.
August 2. One Lost Methyl Group = Huge Amounts of Food Production. An enzyme called FTO was engineered into rice and potatoes, and crop yields went up 50%.
The plants' root systems were deeper and more extensive, and photosynthetic efficiency went up by a startling 36%. Transpiration from the leaves was up 78%, but at the same time, the plants of both species showed significantly higher drought tolerance.
My objection to GMO crops is political. If a modification doesn't breed true, and if farmers can't do it themselves, then we are dependent for our survival on big systems that have been designed to increase their power over us through profit.
The best case is, with better design of public institutions, biotech could be used to permanently upgrade the non-human world. If we can make the planet better than we found it, humans will have finally justified our existence.
August 4. Deepfakes are one click away. It's an interview with my blogging friend from the old days, Tim Boucher. While I've been dipping my toes in the breakdown of reality, Tim has been swimming in it, working as a moderator for a large social media site, inventing a lost civilization called Quatria, and writing about hyperreality, "a condition in which what is real and what is fiction are seamlessly blended together so that there is no clear distinction between where one ends and the other begins."
August 9. When I was a kid I had a dream that the world would end on August 9. Instead, here we are in the slow-motion apocalypse, and I'm trying to say something that's not obvious. Covid-19 has been holding center stage in the Spectacle, but I think at least three things are bigger threats.
Number three is economic decline. It's obvious that the Dow-Jones will continue to rise to record highs, while the number of homeless people also rises to record highs -- yet the big media will keep using the Dow as a symbolic measure of economic health.
The death toll of economic malaise can be hard to see, because the deaths don't fall under any clear category. A good article on this is The Dying Russians by Masha Gessen, who tries to pin down why so many Russians are dying, and ends up blaming lack of hope. I would say, as life gets worse, people take bigger risks, because fuck it.
If it gets to the point where we're going hungry, there will be a big rise in death rates before we're actually dying of starvation. From the 2014 archives, here's a nice bit about famine.
Threat number two is climate change. It's obvious that the world's economies will not make the sacrifices to stop it, even though they could. According to this reddit comment:
Bulk carbon sequestration directly from the air (the most expensive sequestration option) would cost about $100 a ton, even without future R&D to bring the cost down. Worldwide emissions of CO2 are about 36 billion tons a year. So $3.6 trillion a year to get to zero net emissions.
That's expensive, but way cheaper than what's actually going to happen: letting climate catastrophe run its course. Here's a recent John Michael Greer post about what to expect, The Future is a Landscape.
A couple of thousand years from now, in other words, archeologists from one or more of the future nations of eastern North America will travel on muleback through the slowly greening deserts to unearth the fabled ruins of Las Vegas and marvel at the insane bad taste of their ancestors.
Threat number one is internet-aided mass insanity. This subreddit post mentions how the printing press led to witch hunts, and here's a full article, Print and the Persecution of Witchcraft. In the 1930's, An Affordable Radio Brought Nazi Propaganda Home. Every time there's a new information technology, people use it to enhance what the human brain does best: distorting perception to feed the hunger to be part of a story. And all through history, the most popular story has been "kill the people not like us."
August 11. Quick note on Andrew Cuomo's resignation. Some people think we've become too sensitive to sexual abuse. I think we're not yet sensitive enough to non-sexual abuse. Andrew Cuomo was a terrible boss who used power selfishly for his entire career, and he would have kept getting away with it, except that he became so blind to his own power that when it slipped into sexual territory, he didn't notice that he was doing anything wrong.
This reminds me of a friend who worked as a stripper, and she told me it was the only job she ever had, where she could say no to any request. As a society becomes less authoritarian, that becomes true of more and more jobs.
August 16. A thread removed by reddit mods for being too interesting: At what age did you realise that you're alive? This may sound like an odd question, but what age did you like suddenly gain consciousness and realise that "wait a minute, I'm a human"? My answer, near the bottom, is "I have no memory of not knowing that, so I guess it was before my earliest surviving memory." Or maybe this is a kind of consciousness that I still don't have. Or maybe it developed so slowly that I didn't notice, instead of all at once. It's weird to read about something so profound, that nobody talks about, and that I can't relate to. And it makes me wonder how many other differences there are between our experience of being human, that we haven't discovered.
August 19. Big reddit thread from yesterday, What is a supernatural event that happened in your life that just can not be explained? There are lots of communications from the dead, some premonitions, some phantom pushes and pulls, and a few UFO's.
Also, earlier this summer, US intelligence released a UFO report. That's an article and this is the report itself.
The reason this stuff is not considered real, is that it can't be called forth at will. The phenomena appear on their own terms, never on our terms. Everyone who has looked deeply into this stuff has reached a conclusion that seems crazy to modern metaphysics: there is a category of experience that knows who's watching. This is why John Keel wrote, only half joking, that UFO researchers aren't telling the government what they know.
In The Trickster and the Paranormal, George Hansen points out that psychic research gets stronger results when the research environment is more in chaos (and thus can be more easily dismissed). The more respectable the study, the weaker the results. This even happens in science, where it's called the decline effect. As I wrote in this 2011 post: "Almost at will, you can get one-in-a-million results that later taper off into nothing. This should happen only one time in a million, and yet it happens reliably."
It's like that singing frog cartoon, where the frog won't sing for an audience larger than its owner. Or it's like the Matrix movies, where if you want to hack into the matrix, you have to do it in the shadows, or the machines will get you.
None of this is weird, if you understand that reality is not made of matter, but of perspectives. Quantum physics consistently tells us the same thing, and scientists have to come up with increasingly convoluted stories to resolve the "paradoxes" and hold onto their imaginary third person universe.
So I'm wondering if it will always be this way. Maybe in the far future, when humans are more benign, the world beyond will trust us with more reliable contact. Or maybe in the near future, when we can no longer tell what's real, the ambiguously real will come more out in the open.
August 23. Back to the subject of internet-aided mass insanity, and paraphrasing myself from July 30: What's rarely said about all the influencers and disinfo agents, is that they're not in charge, and their followers are not innocent. This is because nobody ever believed anything unless they got something out of it.
Where survival is difficult, it's important for beliefs to help you survive: these plants are edible; those animals are dangerous.
In the modern first world, where survival is easy and mental health is difficult, it's less important for a belief to help you survive, and more important for it to make you feel good.
One might think that counter-evidence beliefs would be mostly optimistic, but they're often pessimistic or hostile. This is because what makes humans feel best, is not the thought that their future life will be easy and fun, but the thought that, right now, they belong to a community that has special and important knowledge.
So flat-earthism is actually a good belief choice, because it makes you feel important, while having no practical downside -- although I would love to watch a TV show that funds flat-earthers in looking for the edge.
Taking another angle on the subject: hyperreality is the blurring of fact and fiction, and one of the big dangers is not that fact is being replaced with fiction, but that the proper attitude toward fact is being replaced with common attitudes toward fiction.
For example, in real life, if you go stay in a cabin in the woods, you don't want anything interesting to happen, beyond seeing a moose at a safe distance, or finding some cool mushrooms. But if you go see a movie about people staying in a cabin in the woods, you want them to be chased by a maniac.
You can see this on every scale from individual choices to global politics: when people try to make the real world as simple and exciting as the world inside their heads, it ends up being stupid and ugly.
The world of politics is real, with real implications, so we should all want it to be as boring as possible, just boring people reaching boring consensus to make society more nearly adequate. Ideally, all politicians would be like Angela Merkel, but right now someone like Angela Merkel could only get elected in a country still trying to live down Hitler.
Everywhere else (and eventually in Germany too) hyperreality is demanding that politics be epic and mythic and cartoonish. When reality becomes a compelling battle between good and evil, it's a roll of the dice whether you're in a pile of dead bodies, or guilty for putting them there.
August 26. On productivity, Efficiency is the Enemy:
All that time Gloria spends doing nothing isn't wasted time. It's slack: excess capacity allowing for responsiveness and flexibility. The slack time is important because it means she never has a backlog of tasks to complete. She can always deal with anything new straight away.
For much more on this subject, check out Chris Davis's Idle Theory.
August 30. Today's theme is societal failures incorrectly framed as personal failures. From a blog post about the fall of Rome:
Overall the various Romans who contemplated reform were in a way hindered by the tendency of Roman elites to think in terms of the virtue of individuals rather than the tendency of systems. You can see this very clearly in the writings of Sallust - another Roman writing with considerable concern as the republic comes apart - who places the fault on the collapse of Roman morals rather than on any systemic problem.
One example from our time is littering. I've written about Keep America Beautiful, an organization formed by manufacturers to make us think of waste "as an individual responsibility, and not one connected to the production process."
Another example: Big oil coined 'carbon footprints' to blame us for their greed
And another: How the work ethic became a substitute for good jobs
One of my pet subjects is procrastination. Of course, as an individual, there are things you can do to overcome it. But you shouldn't have to. All wild animals, and many primitive humans, make no distinction between "work" and "play". That distinction is an artifact of a society in which it's normal to be compelled to do things you don't find intrinsically enjoyable.
The only time a wild animal needs to distinguish between what it feels like doing, and what's good for it to do, is when it's facing a trap. Our whole civilization is a trap we've caught ourselves in, where we're getting in more and more trouble for not forcing ourselves to go against our nature.
I like technology, and I think it's possible for us to have quite a lot of it without involuntary labor or ecological destruction. We just have to make those constraints absolute, and then see how much cool stuff we can get away with.