May - June, 2019

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May 1. The other day I wrote:

Driving really wears me out mentally. Most people can just zone out, but I have to give it my full conscious attention to not crash, and it always seems like everyone is going much too fast.... I actually believe there's some kind of collective unconscious that prevents car crashes, because when you look at how incompetent humans are generally, and how casual people are about safe driving, there should be a hundred times as many crashes.

Nick comments:

I live in Ho Chi Minh City, and here that collective consciousness is glaringly obvious. I joked that you could do a documentary about Vietnamese motorbike riders where David Attenborough says "despite decades of research, nobody knows how they so precisely and quickly coordinate their movements."

Now I'm trying to diagnose myself, because I've never experienced that kind of flow state. It's not mental vs physical. In middle school I was the worst athlete in every sport, but I was also the best calligrapher in art class and the best lathe worker in shop class. When I get in the flow, it's always working alone, with unlimited time to really focus my attention.

I think the reason I can't get into the flow in fast group activities, is that I have something like proprioceptive dysfunction. It's not that I don't know where my limbs are or how to move them, but that I don't know subconsciously. For me to walk around without bumping into things, takes the same kind of mental focus as saying tongue twisters, or counting the grooves around a coin. Maybe I'm good at those things because I have to practice that kind of precise focus all the time, just to navigate the physical world without people getting mad at me.

Related: On Monks and Email. It's a short post about how medieval monks arranged their lives to eliminate distractions so they could spend hours in deep thought, and how we're basically the opposite.

May 3. Long article from the Guardian, Post-work: the radical idea of a world without jobs. Every time I read an article about "work", I like to go through and mentally substitute "work for money", because that's what they're really talking about, and it makes the issue a lot more clear. For example, when a politician says "Mankind is hardwired to work," he means we're hardwired to be active, and he can't imagine any way of managing human activity other than the money-based system that's only a few hundred years old, and already failing.

Related, a short blog post, I Can't Do Anything for Fun Anymore; Every Hobby Is an Attempt to Make Money. I'm the opposite. When I start a creative project, I see the world of money as a danger.

For example, this long reddit comment describes the conflict between Mike Love and Brian Wilson in the Beach Boys. Brian Wilson wanted to keep pushing the boundaries of creativity, while Mike Love wanted to make money by giving audiences what they expected. You have to fight to show people something different from what's already in their heads, and the more money you're making, the harder it is.

May 10. Yesterday we went to the zoo, and I'm wondering if I can do anything new with the old metaphor, that our society is a "human zoo". For the metaphor to be helpful, there has to be an anti-zoo, a possible human condition that corresponds to wild animals in nature. You could argue that there isn't, because 1) we're domesticated, 2) there's a huge variety of nature-based cultures, and 3) some of them are worse than the zoo.

But I'm going to say there is a human anti-zoo: it's any society that fits human nature. Defining "fit" is a hard problem, but I would start with Erich Fromm's argument for the very existence of human nature: that if we were infinitely malleable, there would be no revolutions.

This thoughtful essay, The Myth of Convenience, argues that the project of technological society has changed, from the conquest of nature to the conquest of human nature. This much longer essay, how to do nothing, explains how public spaces are engineered to keep everyone busy. It's full of other ideas about art and technology and perception, but I don't have time to read the whole thing right now - I'm on vacation.

Anyway, now the zoo metaphor is getting stretched, because zoo animals are bored - yesterday we saw an elephant that has worn a path from walking in a figure 8. For modern humans, boredom is a luxury. We're so overwhelmed with demands on our attention that having nothing to do would be an upgrade. It's funny, every cage has a sign: don't tap on the glass. We have yet to give ourselves that protection.

May 17. On the road I only have my iPad, which is really hard to work with when I'm hand-coding these posts. So now that I'm home, I can post links of stuff from the trip. Surprisingly, my favorite art was not in the Smithsonian but in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts: Congo masks, Art Nouveau sculptures, and Thomas Hart Benton lithographs. And here's a picture of me next to a cool wall-hanging sculpture, Untitled No. 25 by Lee Bontecou.

We ate out a lot in DC, and my favorite place was Slash Run, a dive bar with great burgers, where I had this incredible beer, Hermit Thrush Stickney Kriek, and a DJ played lots of classic psych rock I'd never heard, including this brilliant song from 1968, Gary Walker and the Rain - Magazine Woman.

May 17. Sometimes I say that prominent doomers are not serious forecasters but performers, and here's a perfect example. Jared Diamond has just declared, "There's a 49 percent chance the world as we know it will end by 2050." He's being mocked for using such a precise number with such a muddy prediction, but if you take the statement apart, he knows exactly what he's doing. He didn't just pull that number out of his ass, but out of the psychology of his audience: 49 percent is the most you can warn people about danger while still being an optimist. "The world as we know it will end" is so vague that it covers the fears of almost everyone. And 2050 is a round-numbered year just close enough for most people to care about.

What Diamond is really saying is, "I want to lead the largest possible public discussion about the collapse of our civilization." There's also an unspoken subtext: that we prefer the world as we know it to the world that will come. But what if we don't? Isn't it strange that our most popular movies are about superheroes, and the goal of the heroes, in every single movie, is to save the world? I think these stories reflect a deep ambivalence, where we want the world to keep going the same way, and we also want to tear it down and try something different. I've said before that the greatest threats to our society are psychological. But it makes more sense the other way around: the greatest threats to our psychological health are in the design of our society.

May 27. Trippy science article, The Universe as Cosmic Dashboard. The idea is, what seems to us to be an objective physical world, is just a simplified interface to a shared mental world:

Evolution has provided each of us with a dashboard of dials that inform us about the environment we live in. But we don't have a window to look directly at what is out there; all we have are the dials. The error we make is in mistaking the dials for the external environment itself.

Sometimes I see the question: Can quantum weirdness ever appear at the macro level? The respectable answer is no, but I think it happens all the time. Just look at the literature on unreliable eyewitness testimony, and you'll see one example after another of witnesses who report sharply different things. This is the same thing that happens in subatomic experiments, where "different observers can give different -- though equally valid -- accounts of the same sequence of events." The only reason it doesn't count as quantum weirdness, is if you're presupposing objective physical reality, in which only one observation can be right.

May 27. Last Thursday I took LSD, only half a hit because my supply is running low, and walked up the river trail out of town. Maybe it's because I've never taken a big dose, but LSD has never made me hallucinate. Instead, I've discovered that it turns nature into heaven. Probably the three happiest days of my life were when I took LSD and went into semi-wild areas. Earlier this month I spent a bunch of time in museums, and last week I was reminded that any actual flower is more beautiful than any Georgia O'Keeffe painting, and any lichen-patched rockface is better than a Jackson Pollock.

More generally, when I'm on LSD, anything made by humans remains just as boring as when I'm sober. But that evening, still on the LSD plateau, I vaped some weed, and cannabis doesn't care if something is natural or man-made -- it makes everything better. Even though I took smallish doses of both drugs, I got great synergy, and was tripping so hard that I put this song on loop for half an hour and watched videos in my head.

I did get one metaphysical insight from the LSD, but it only makes sense if you accept something like reincarnation. The idea is, some religions believe the purpose of life is to transcend the physical world, or to escape the cycle of life and death. But what if transcendence is a lie, or a trap? What if the actual purpose is to stay here for as long as we can?

May 29. Long article from The Economist, The Curse of Genius. A few months ago in this post I mentioned that I don't like the word "gifted", and I argued that what IQ tests measure is overrated and often harmful. This article is interesting because it defines "gifted" as more than just intellect: "Kendall describes gifted children of that age as 'driven': 'They never stop and they set themselves incredibly high standards.'" And "They have what is sometimes called 'a rage to master.'"

There's a suggestion here that would be radical, if it were made more explictly: that there is a single underlying cause, that makes kids both smart and driven. Probably these are two different things, which seem related because of selection bias. The kids who have both brainpower and drive are noticed by the giftedness experts, and the kids with only one or the other are not noticed.

I'm interested in this subject because I have brainpower and not drive. I always got top grades in math and science without hardly trying, and teachers were always frustrated that I wasn't interested in whatever they were teaching. Twenty years ago I applied for a proofreading job at Amazon, and aced the test, but I must have failed the interview because I didn't match Amazon's high-achievement culture. My middle school actually had a gifted program, but they didn't put me into it, probably for similar reasons.

So now I'm wondering: What exactly is drive and where does it come from? The motivational industry would have us believe it's something anyone can have, but it seems more like something you're born with. My biggest fear about biotech is that they'll discover a drive gene. Of course all the parents will want their kids to have it, and it will unleash a generation so maniacally driven that they'll destroy the planet.

Or is drive a matter of fit? Could you take the high achievers and the lazy people out of one culture, put them in a different culture, and they would switch roles?

May 31. Jim comments on reincarnation:

I have never gotten past the whole "escape the cycle of rebirth" thing. To me it's the same as the Christian heaven, just with more levels to the game. Particularly, because no one can answer why we're all trying to escape the cycle, or what lies beyond. What if there is no escape? What's the point of rebirth if it just cycles around (which seems more natural than some sort of escape)? What if this earthly life is where it's all at? What if souls come back to earth to be reborn when they get bored in soulworld because no one remembers them and interacts with them anymore? What if gods/goddesses/saints are so busy on the ethereal plane because earthly people still interact with them, that they feel no need to be reborn? The whole thing is fascinating.

My favorite crazy idea about reincarnation is that we all start out as miserable gods, then gradually work our way to progressively "lower" and happier animals. That's why there are so many ants and bacteria, because the game has been going on for so long. Maybe after bacteria, we become atoms.

I've also been thinking about a line by Thaddeus Golas, in The Lazy Man's Guide To Enlightenment, that in a metaphysical sense, "There's nobody here but us chickens." No higher power, no cosmic plan, just a very large number of equal beings playing. It can't be that simple, or there wouldn't be so much unnecessary pain, but it's a refreshing idea: a mind-based universe with no purpose. Or suppose reality is like fan fiction: it's fundamentally not serious, and within certain constraints, anything goes.

June 3. Procrastination is an emotional problem. The article has some decent advice, but the title and the framing are wrong. Procrastination isn't even a problem -- it's a symptom. The problem is the growing gap between what we think we should be doing, and what we feel like doing. And even this is not an emotional problem, but a social problem.

I see three dimensions of the problem. First, human society has veered off a long way from human nature, probably farther than it's ever been; so there are more tasks than ever that society wants us to do, but it's not in our nature to feel like doing them. Some of this is covered in David Graeber's classic essay on bullshit jobs.

Second, technology has created a lot of hedonic traps, more than we've ever had. A hedonic trap is something that feels good, but leads down a path that eventually feels bad. Here's a smart new article about it, How Limbic Capitalism Preys on Our Addicted Brains.

The third dimension is neoliberal individualism, and it's hard to explain. What drew my attention to it was this bit in the limbic capitalism article: "Not everyone was happy with all the talk of addiction.... Libertarians dismissed it as an excuse for lack of discipline."

It's funny because libertarians think they're individualists, but self-discipline is an authoritarian concept, because it puts the burden of making society work on each one of us alone, instead of on system design. What our culture calls "economic freedom" is not the freedom of individuals from economic coercion, but the freedom of the economically powerful to exploit the economically weak, which in practice means large concentrations of money exploiting people made weaker by their separation.

Here's my crazy new hypothesis: each person's sense of self, how sharply separated they feel from the rest of the world, is proportional to how much self-discipline they have to use. Or, a culture's belief that the individual self is important, is proportional to how much self-discipline that culture requires.

So the more we can change society to make self-discipline unnecessary, so we can just do what feels good without getting in trouble, the more we'll feel part of a larger whole. This is confirmed by anthropological reports of less individualist cultures, like Richard Sorenson's essay on Preconquest Consciousness.

June 5. Monday night James Holzhauer lost on Jeopardy, and the whole drama was fascinating from a mind-behind-the-world perspective. This was the night when Holzhauer would have broken Ken Jennings' money record with even a below average win. But one challenger was such a trivia-head that as a kid he memorized every Trivial Pursuit question. That guy came in third. The other challenger wrote her masters thesis on the difficulty of Jeopardy questions, and watched the show for years calculating her own accuracy on each row of the table.

Now, maybe they set it all up, the strongest challenger on the biggest night, but I think this kind of thing is happening more often without any conscious intent: public spectacle is becoming mythic. The competition wasn't even the most striking thing that happened on the show. Alex Trebek, who has cancer, showed the get-well card that Holzhauer's daughter made for him, and it totally looked like a tombstone.

So I'm wondering, if some kind of collective subconscious is setting up these stories, is it getting better at it? Or, if humans were already linked in some kind of unseen super-mind, is it gaining new powers from the age of information?

June 7. Subreddit thread, Climate change and what we can do about it. I just want to raise a question that's never asked, about lifestyle changes motivated by global issues. The question is: does your individual behavior have spooky influence over the behavior of others? For example, I've recently switched my main meat from ground beef to chicken thighs, because beef has a much larger ecological footprint. Without spooky influence, my effect on global ecology is a drop in the ocean, and the only value of my change is that it might make me feel better. But with spooky influence, who knows? I might actually make a personal difference in the global climate.

This is a serious question. Fringe biologist Rupert Sheldrake has suggested a model for spooky influence that he calls morphic fields. The behavior of any organism can resonate, across any distance, and cause biologically similar organisms (basically the same species) to behave in the same way. And he's found good evidence, which you can read about in his books. For example, people finish the NY Times crossword puzzle faster in the afternoon than in the morning.

The funny thing is, most people don't believe in spooky influence on an intellectual level -- but they act as if they do, when they make lifestyle changes, or they vote, as if they're magically deciding what other people will do. I'm almost the opposite. I believe in morphic fields, and I also believe the physical world is like a metaphor for a deeper world of mind or myth. But I'm not sure how strong my influence is, so I still mostly act as if I'm insignificant.

June 10-14. This week I want to take on the idea of confidence. I've been watching Gordon Ramsay cooking shows, and the way they talk about confidence, you'd think it's more important than actual skill. To prove it's not, imagine that you're picking a doctor to perform surgery on you, and you can get an accurate answer to one question. Do you ask "How confident are you?" Or "How good are you?"

The popular idea of confidence makes two assumptions: 1) that the word "confidence" points to a simple thing that we all understand, and 2) that that thing is strongly correlated with success. I disagree with both.

Taking the second first, there are lots of examples of confidence being negatively correlated with success. For example, People With Greater Intellectual Humility Have Superior General Knowledge.

When I look back over my own life, whenever I was confident and not skilled, I might have gained some temporary advantage, but eventually I always crashed and burned. And when I was skilled but not confident... actually that's never happened. When I'm really good at something, I'm automatically confident.

So now I'm wondering why other people value confidence so highly. I see two possibilities. The first is that they're wrong, and confidence is bullshit for them too and they haven't noticed. I have a crazy theory that confidence is what philosophers call epiphenomenal. It seems to be a cause, but really it's entirely an effect. Confidence is just what it feels like to be in the process of succeeding.

The second possibility is that I'm missing something, which has led me to do some heavy thinking about the definition of confidence, assuming it's a good thing. The popular definition is something like the belief that you will succeed, but I don't think confidence is any kind of intellectual belief. At best, believing you will succeed is a mental trick to generate confidence, which is something deeper and more subtle. My best woo-woo definition is your energy leaning forward.

A more measurable definition is the absence of hesitation. This has led me to wonder if confidence is not a positive but a negative: not a thing that makes you succeed, but the absence of certain things that make you fail.

The words "confidence", "overconfidence", and "underconfidence" make it seem like we're talking about three levels of the same thing, but I think we're talking about three different things. Underconfidence is when feelings about failure make you perform worse, usually by hesitating or not taking important risks. Overconfidence is when thoughts about success prevent you from focusing on the task. And confidence is simply the absence of both.

A reader suggests the definition "self-trust". I like that, because the slipperiness of the "self" gives the definition flexibility. You could have (or lack) trust in your perception, your decision making, your resilience, your sanity, even your luck.

Another reader says, "I feel like confidence is being totally in the flow with one's personal power." The only time I feel like that is when I'm writing.

The cult of confidence seems to be mostly an American thing, but I wonder if Americans are just on the cutting edge of a global trend, in which hard skills are being taken away by technology; and the easier the skill you're dealing with, the more success is a matter of mental state rather than practice.

June 18. Heavy metal fans are happier, more well-adjusted adults than others. It's an interview with a psychology professor and former metalhead, who did the study, and they looked hard for other explanations: "We had an 85 page questionnaire, we tried to figure out every single thing we could, and the only thing that differed was the type of music they liked."

I've also seen reddit threads about which concert goers are the best and worst, and reports of the worst go all the way from hip hop to Dave Matthews -- but everyone agrees that metal fans are the best.

The interviewee speculates that metalheads have formed a tribe that's better for them than their families or society. But fans of other music form tribes too, so we're still left with a strange correlation between sound and emotional profile. What is it, inside us, that makes us like one kind of music and not another?

You can go beyond music, to subcultures of people who dress a certain way, or talk a certain way, or think or believe or observe a certain way. Our tribe membership is rarely rationally chosen. Either we're just following our parents, or it just feels right to us, as if we were already part of it before we knew it existed.

I imagine vast amoebic life forms, like gods, rising out of deep mind-space and taking form in human culture. And I wonder, when Tony Iommi invented heavy metal, or Tolkien invented modern fantasy, did they feel like they were making it up out of nothing -- or like they were finding something that was already there?

June 24. Snake Venom Use as a Substitute for Opioids. Getting intentionally bitten by a snake is crude, but I'm wondering how much room there is to make drugs that work the opposite of existing recreational drugs: they make you feel bad for a short time, and then good for a long time.

June 26. The Boomers Ruined Everything. The article goes through it issue by issue explaining how they ruined everything, but I'm wondering, why? It's not like one generation, in one country, happened to be born bad people. I think this is a simple case of power corrupting. The most powerful generation, in the most powerful country, influenced the law to favor the powerful over the weak. Of course they did.

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