"Each shift into clear vision was a gift that followed total failure to achieve."
June 15. Some good news links. World's largest organism found in Australia. It's not a giant spider, but a 4500 year old patch of hybrid seagrass.
From a few weeks ago, a Hacker News thread about microbes evolving to eat plastic.
Liquid platinum at room temperature: the cool catalyst for a sustainable revolution in industrial chemistry. In terms of coming technologies, I think space travel and virtual reality are being overhyped, and we're going to see a lot more action in materials science and brain hacking.
U.S. Landfills Are Getting a Second Life as Solar Farms. They're near cities, there's already infrastructure going there, and they can't be used for buildings.
June 13. Last week I heard someone on TV use the word "synchronicity" when they meant "synchronization". This is synchronicity: I was just at the post office to fill out a change of address form, to move from Pullman to Seattle. While I was there, a guy came in with something for the address 140 Windus. "140 Windus," called one postal worker to another. 140 Windus is the house I lived in when I was three years old, and right next door to the house I came back to when I was born, 55 years ago.
June 11. Moving is terrible. Back in the nomad days it was probably lots of fun. But never in history, until now, has it been normal for people to have this much stuff, without being rich enough to make other people deal with it.
So for the last several weeks I've painfully going through stuff, looking at ten thousand things from matchbooks to grain mills, deciding whether to haul it across the state, use it up, sell it on Craigslist, take it to a thrift store, or throw it away. And then there's the cleaning.
I'm now in the terminal phase. The last time I was this busy was my final week of college, when I put a sign on my wall that said "WORK EAT SLEEP" because if I did anything other than those three things, I wouldn't finish.
But this time, something peculiar happened. I wouldn't call it a "flow" state because it's not something I would seek out. A better word is inertia: near the end of my second straight 14 hour day, I reached a state where having one more thing to do was no longer painful. I was like, wow, this must be how highly productive people feel all the time.
One of my projects, before I move, is to go through my Complete Far Side and photograph all the best ones. Yesterday I saw this one, "Life on cloud eight", which fits right in with the last post.
I've heard it said, if you can enjoy being in hell, you're in heaven. But some of us don't even have to enjoy being in hell -- we just have to appreciate second-rate heaven.
More explicitly: whether you're talking about making more money, or having more fun, or being a better person, there's always a way to reach the next level. But the higher you get, the harder it is to stay there, and the more likely you are to notice: the good feeling of achieving a higher level is less than the bad feeling of not being satisfied with the level you're at.
This helps explain a cryptic line I read years ago in a Cynthia Ozick story: "Heaven is for those who have already been there." It also seems vaguely related to a cryptic line I read the other day in this Reddit thread: "Life does not give a rat's ass who lives it."
June 6. I almost didn't make last week's post about enlightenment, but I got some good feedback. Eric writes:
A friend went on a mindfulness retreat once where the exercise was to fully experience a thing that you were eating. The instructor gave everyone a segment of a tangerine to savor. My friend told me that later he tried the same practice at home, and he discovered that it was impossible to savor an Oreo.
I read a similar story about an exercise to stop overeating, where people were told to completely savor one Hershey's kiss. It's not that it was impossible to savor it, but it had never occurred to them to do so. They'd eaten hundreds of chocolates and 100% of the time they had gobbled them down.
I think we're talking about two distinct mental states, one where you're holding tension between what you're doing and something else, and one where what you're doing is self-justifying. And these two states come into clearer focus with that eating exercise.
Coming back around to "enlightenment", that concept, in western spirituality, is framed as an achievement, something you strive for. Paradoxically, the mental state people are seeking is already inside them, but they can only see it by not striving. That idea is thousands of years old, and we're no better at putting it into practice.
Fun stuff for the weekend. Yesterday I saw this on TV and jumped out of my seat to snap a pic. It has to be accidental, because if she tried to do it on purpose it wouldn't be this perfect. If you want to look closer, here's a larger photo. (And that's not a green screen behind her. I saw from another angle that they were at the actual event.)
A Hacker News thread about how awesome it is, if you have some extra time, to cross America by train.
Some good news, Children who play more video games show greater gains in intelligence over time
And a cool video about a strange musical instrument, Inside a Mellotron M400: How the Mellotron Works
June 2. The Buddha, the story goes, was a rich kid who indulged in every pleasure until he burned out and became enlightened. You'd think, with so many more pleasures now, and so many more people, there would be Buddhas popping up on every street corner.
Instead, there are more and more depressed people. And it occurs to me, depression and enlightenment have similar symptoms: not enjoying the things that ordinary people enjoy, and preferring to do nothing all day.
Maybe enlightenment was invented by ancient people as a way of framing depression, so that they could see themselves with more pride and less shame, and so that other people would see them with reverence, instead of trying to kill them for being unproductive.
What I really think is, "enlightenment" is a modern buzzword loosely based on a lost culture. The word has too much baggage and should not be used. Instead, we should talk with precision about the many techniques under the umbrella of meditation-metacognition-mindfulness, and the many specific benefits of those practices.
Personally, I have three goals in mental health: 1) An unshakeable sense of well-being. 2) More overlap between what's good for me to do and what I feel like doing. 3) Better body awareness so that I have better physical health. Over the years, I've made some progress on number three.
May 30. Two Reddit threads, one mostly pessimistic, What do you think of the United Nations report warning "total societal collapse"?
And one mostly optimistic, What are we living in the golden age of? "Idiots" isn't even on the first page.
May 27. A few links on time and changes, starting with this cool page by Merriam-Webster, Time Traveler. You just plug in any year, and it tells you all the words first recorded in that year.
Is an unknown, extraordinarily ancient civilisation buried under eastern Turkey? It's looking like Gobekli Tepe is the tip of the iceberg, and there's older, bigger stuff yet to be uncovered. Also, Mind blowing ancient settlements uncovered in the Amazon.
A cool YouTube lecture, Thomas Kuhn on the Incommensurability of Paradigms. The most interesting thing is, when two paradigms are well-balanced, you cannot decide between them by gathering more data, because both paradigms will have their own ways of explaining it (or excluding it).
The word "incommensurability" reminds me of my favorite solution to Fermi's paradox, that aliens are trying to contact us, but they're so different from us that we exclude their communications as too weird, as explained in this PDF paper, Incommensurability, Orthodoxy and the Physics of High Strangeness.
May 26. So Leigh Ann is in Seattle, setting up our new apartment, and I'm in Pullman, getting rid of stuff in our old apartment. This is the cycle of stuff: 1) Getting stuff feels really good. 2) Having stuff feels subtly bad. 3) Getting rid of stuff feels really bad. 4) Having no stuff feels subtly good. 5) Go to step one.
May 25. Following politics makes me stupid. Following sports makes me smart. Sports are more transparent, and less rigged, so you can actually learn stuff about what makes people and groups good at what they do.
The latest thing I learned is from some important playoffs that are happening right now. Of course it's women's college softball. Last weekend, one commentator kept saying that the hitters needed to "stay within themselves". I find that to be a really helpful combination of words. People talk about "being in the moment", which is about time, but this is about space. It's about discipline in the envelope of the self, not sticking your will beyond your means.
May 23. For me, writing about social issues is like alcohol for alcoholics. I can't do it just a little, or I get sucked in and regret it. I have to stay off it completely, which means I'll continue to write about weird philosophy and mental self-improvement.
Last week there was a good Hacker News thread about ADHD. I can remember before they added the H, when it was just "ADD". That fits me better, because I'm not at all hyperactive, but I've always felt an "attention deficit", in that I don't have enough attention to go around for the demands of the human-made world.
According to the top comment, "...the root cause is that I can't stand being with myself." My self is the only thing I can stand being with for very long. Another comment says, "...an ADHD brain needs more stimulus to feel healthy." I need less stimulus to not feel overwhelmed.
Related: Study suggests maladaptive daydreaming should be classified as a unique mental disorder, distinct from ADHD. I don't think maladaptive daydreaming is a disorder. I think it's a symptom of a talent that has failed to find a niche. If the world inside your head is better than the world outside it, that's not a problem -- it's a resource.
A few months back I wrote about an attention exercise: while walking around, practice going very wide and then very narrow. Yesterday I tried something similar. I call it "hunter-artist". While walking around, look at your surroundings as if you're a prehistoric hunter, or if you prefer, a first person video game character. The point is that you're looking both widely and narrowly, scanning for benefits and dangers. Then look at your surroundings with an aesthetic eye, as if you're walking through a painting by your favorite artist. Again, you're looking both widely and narrowly, but you're in a completely different mental state than the hunter. By switching back and forth between these states, you're exercising your brain and it's probably good for you.
May 20. Another book I'm slowly reading is The Lost Art of Reading Nature's Signs by Tristan Gooley. There's a great bit about ivy. While other plants grow toward the light, young ivy grows away from the light, so that it can find its way into the shade of trees and up their trunks. Then, once it's established, it grows toward the light.
So I was thinking about the Tao Te Ching line: "Use the bright light but return to the dim light," and I got the idea: The next time I get high, why don't I go away from the light? Instead of trying to make everything luminous, contemplate the void. Coincidentally, Patrick had just sent this very mellow video about meditating on emptiness.
This also reminds me of a story about Osho. One of his students asked, is it good to do drugs while meditating? He said, no, that will interfere with the meditation. Another student asked, is it okay to meditate while doing drugs? He said, yes, that's perfectly fine.
I was off weed for ten days because of Covid. (There's some evidence that THC interferes with the body fighting viruses.) So I vaped a small dose, and ate a small dose of mushrooms, and contemplated: I am not the person who has experiences, or the experience itself, but the space, the capacity that the experience fills.
I can't say I had some magical breakthrough. But it was the opposite of a bad trip. Whatever bad stuff might have come up, would be sucked into the void. Then I fell asleep. Later, with more weed, I thought of another twist on Alan Watts: There is no message, only envelope.
And some music for the weekend. Over on the dormant ranprieur subreddit, a nice post about black MIDI.
May 17. I'm still out of it. Covid barely touched my lungs but it hit my head pretty hard. Today I had vertigo and still no original ideas. But I've been reading a great book called Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn. Three pages into the ebook, I ordered a physical copy. It's all about nature reclaiming places that humans have developed, and for whatever reason, left alone. There are multiple examples of these places having more species diversity than wild places.
Two articles about places covered in the book: West Lothian's sleeping giants is about shale oil spoil heaps in Scotland.
And Wildlife rebounds in divided Cyprus 'dead zone'.
May 12. Probably won't be posting again for almost a week. Today, some music. Thanks Greg for sending this online music/voice separator. Now you can do karaoke to anything.
Crazy video, Conlon Nancarrow - Study #37 for Player Piano, with an animated graphical score.
A month ago I mentioned the band Wet Leg. I've just added their self-titled debut to the top of my favorite albums page, writing this:
This album is a taffy-spinning confection of celestial circus music. It's candy the way the Ramones are candy, with Chaise Longue covering the structure of Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue, and candy the way the Cocteau Twins are candy, dense with ethereal overdubs. Riffs and licks proliferate until it's difficult to listen to, and later you don't even know what song is stuck in your head. Dreampop shifts into spacerock as seamlessly as Rush switching time signatures. The lyrics are clever, the production is airtight, and everyone is having fun. This is the best popular rock album since the 1990's.
May 10. I definitely feel a little dumber this week. Also, my first post-Covid cannabis high was my first ever that I judged more bad than good. I wrote a couple good sentences, and got some decent insights, but I could not escape the feeling: this is heaven and I'm failing to appreciate it. Or: existence doesn't get any better than this, so why am I not happier?
The nice thing about being sober is, there are no expectations. Paradoxically, when every moment isn't being made shiny, it's easier to enjoy the moment.
There's a famous Alan Watts line about mind-altering drugs: "When you get the message, hang up the phone." Apparently Alan Watts only did drugs once, or he would have known, there's no "the message" -- there's just one message after another, as long as you care to go. And yet, it's easy to do it too much. That's why I prefer the phrasing from the Tao Te Ching: "Use the bright light but return to the dim light."
May 9. So somewhere in Seattle we finally picked up Covid. My first hint that I was sick was an urge to drink all my water hot. Then I got a headache, which is rare for me, and it didn't go away. Friday afternoon I got in bed and heaped on the blankets, and for about 12 hours I felt absolutely terrible, too hot and too cold at the same time, plus nausea. I knew rationally that I wasn't going to die, because my breathing was clear, but I've never felt more like I was going to die. At some point, being cold felt less bad than being hot, and I got my body temperature back down and fell into a troubled sleep. In the morning I'd lost five pounds, mainly sweat.
Luckily, I was already recovering before the virus got into my lungs. Oddly, it also got into my right ear, which is still ringing. Getting Covid is like being shot by a small caliber bullet. It might go right through you, or it might bounce around off your bones and you never know what it will hit.
May 6. I've quit meditating. Instead, I do nothing. The practice is basically the same but the framing is totally different. Meditation is something that highly driven people do to improve themselves; nothing is what lazy people do whenever they get the chance. Meditation is a chore; doing nothing is a relief. While meditating, you focus on your breath in order to still your thoughts; while doing nothing, you focus on your breath because breathing is the only thing you can't not do.