"'Where are the new frontiers?' the Romantics cried, unaware that the frontier of the mind had opened..."
-Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination
December 6. Last week I mentioned three questions that philosophers shrug off while religions tell you what to think. The first, "What is the meaning of life?" is too hard, but I will say this: If life is not totally meaningless, part of the meaning must be to feel pain. As Edward Abbey said, the world could not have become so fucked up by chance alone. This leads to the second question: Is there a motive or intelligence behind seemingly random events?
Some people call this karma, and according to the strawman version of karma, some uncanny agency will make sure that everything good you do is rewarded, and everything bad you do is punished. This is easily disproven by common examples like abused children or Henry Kissinger. (In this context, I don't want to even talk about other lives.)
And yet, for me, the intelligence of chance is obvious, so I'm trying to find a way to think about it that's not wrong. First, I think it's a weak and subtle force, like the effect of the moon on the ocean. The moon is not going to save you from a storm, or a sinking ship. And karma is not going to help you in a war zone, or if another person has total power over you. But in good times, you may be able to work with it.
Second, karma doesn't care about good and evil, or reward and punishment. Those are human concepts, and "heaven and earth are not humane." (Tao Te Ching 5.1) What karma does, imperfectly, is make you live in your own value system. If you think jaywalkers deserve to get hit by cars, it's dangerous for you to jaywalk. If it's not wrong for you to steal, it's not wrong for other people to steal from you. Valuing the happiness of others makes it easier for you to be happy.
But when I look at the movement of events, I sense something more than a dispassionate force that keeps balance and gives us what we ask for. I sense a playfulness, a preference for surprises, that makes me prefer the word fate to karma. Fate is like a cat. If you feed it, it might be nice to you, but it has its own motives, and don't tickle its belly.
December 1. This blog is going to fizzle out if I don't start writing about the stuff I've been thinking about. I don't want to call it "theology", but lately I'm interested in questions that are more often faced by priests than philosophers.
Supposedly, philosophy covers everything, and actually tries to figure shit out, while theology covers God and begins with faith. But I have a degree in philosophy, and we barely poked our heads outside of our faith in objective materialism. It was good training in precise thinking, but not unlike a degree in architecture, in that we practiced technical skills on dull hypothetical constructions, while dreaming of castles in the sky.
What is the meaning of life? Is there a motive or intelligence behind seemingly random events, and if so, how can we work with it? What happens after we die? These are questions that academic philosophers shrug off, while religions tell you what to think.
I already wrote about the afterlife five months ago, and today I want to take another shot, with more brevity. The simplest answer is that this life is all there is. That's also the most prudent answer, because it centers you where you are.
But I don't think it's true. Physicists and mystics agree: the apparent physical world is observer-dependent, and mostly empty. You could say mind comes before matter, or perspective comes before being, or relationships come before things.
In that case, whose flesh avatar am I, anyway? In the simplest model, it's just God with a quintillion fingerpuppets. Or you could say we're all waves on the ocean.
But if there are levels between us and the One, that's where faith gets fun, with hierarchies of angels and the machinations of karma. There's a popular idea that we're passing through multiple lives, making progress toward some goal. I prefer a competing idea, that we're already there.
Kurt Vonnegut said he thinks the meaning of life is just farting around. I imagine my life as an episode of a TV show, and the next episode could be another human working out the same issues, or that was cool being human, but now I want to be a tree. What happens when you die? Whether you become a demigod, or a bug, under the hood it's the same dream engine, just God on the couch changing channels.
November 28. Autistic people outperform neurotypicals in a cartoon version of an emotion recognition task. More generally, "people on the autism spectrum show strength with... cognition around nonhumans such as animals, cartoons, robots, or dolls."
This gives me an idea about one of the things that is getting folded into the "autism spectrum". It's a more specific spectrum, of how specialized a given human is for other humans. Neurotypicals have perception and cognition that are highly tuned into other humans and the human-made world. And then, outside that specialization, there are all kinds of other things you could be tuned into. This is why people tagged as autistic can be more different from each other than they are from neurotypicals.
Also from PsyPost, Highly ruminative individuals with depression exhibit abnormalities in the neural processing of gastric interoception. I think what they're saying is, depressed people are circling around in their own heads, and not sensing their gut enough. The causality is not clear. Do depressed people need medical intervention to fix their gut sensing? Or could they reduce depression by building a habit of focusing more on their gut?
November 25. More music, starting with an impressively raucous song from 1966: Goldie and the Gingerbreads - Think About The Good Times
From 1981, a forgotten song with a great polymeter chorus, Prism - Turn On Your Radar
The Mystery of the Blue Whale Songs -- "Earth's largest animals are singing in ever-lower tones, and nobody knows why."
Music Mouse is just what it sounds like, a cool site with a lot of options.
A really good new ambient album, by The Floating Mountain Band, The Third Eye Smear.
If I live long enough, I'm probably going to get bored with everything except field recordings. This is a good one, Swamp Sounds at Night, except I don't think it's real. Instead of going out and recording a swamp, I think they just patched a bunch of sounds together.
More honest, this one was just recorded off somebody's porch, and even includes some vehicle sounds.
November 22. This week I'm just writing about music. Last month I polished off my third 70s playlist -- the sappiest -- and turned to the 80s.
My process is to download mp3s with Soulseek, painstakingly date-tag them, load them on a Sansa Clip player, then get high and walk around the neighborhood listening on full-ear headphones. If you have a good walking route, I totally recommend this. It's like walking inside a video, and the songs line up with the scenery more than you'd expect.
I don't get a lot of nostalgia. Mainly my focus is on evaluating the music. These are all songs I know, but my tastes have developed, and I love to be surprised by which ones sound better or worse after 40 years. I'm still working on an early 80s rock playlist, but my new wave playlist is pretty much finished.
November 18. Four links about work. The Seven Levels of Busy. My goal in life is to spend as much time as possible at level one, and I would rather be homeless than go above level four. But someone in the Hacker News thread pointed out that the higher levels are more tolerable when you're in a position of power.
A thread on Ask Old People about Elon Musk and Twitter. It's normal in the tech world for executives to clumsily clean house and ruin employee morale, but it's usually done internally, and not in the full public eye.
These companies ran an experiment: Pay workers their full salary to work fewer days. And not by bunching the same hours, but actually reducing the workweek from 40 to 32 hours. "Fully 86% said they will likely continue the four-day workweek policy."
New research disputes the "lazy stoner" stereotype. "In short, we found no support for the idea that cannabis use is linked with amotivation." They were testing cannabis users who were not high at the time, so it is "still possible that people find themselves less motivated to do certain things while they are high." But personally, I'm way more motivated when I'm high, as long as I don't do it every day.
November 16. Some practical psychology links. From the Psychonaut subreddit, How do you learn to love yourself?
From Ask Old People, How do you enjoy spending time with yourself?
From Pocket, Rediscovering Boredom in the Age of the Smartphone. "I set myself the challenge of identifying something that I had never noticed before while waiting in public spaces."
And a blog post, Doing what you love when the money won't follow, which links to this 2009 post by the same author, Neither career nor hobby. The idea is, we need a word for something you do that's very important to you, but you have no expectation of making money from it.
November 14. Three links about wild animals. The Ants Have Not Read Kant: Pëtr Kropotkin and Mutual Aid. This is related to last week's subject. Kropotkin actually went out and observed nature, while his opponents derived their belief, in the brutal hyperselfishness of nature, from their own desire to dominate nature and other humans.
Crows Found to Be Smarter Than We Think. I think we'll continue to find that crows are smarter than we think, for a long time to come. This time, researchers discovered that they can understand recursive language.
Octopuses caught on camera throwing things at each other. This reminds me of this 2014 David Graeber essay, What's the Point If We Can't Have Fun?
Generally speaking, an analysis of animal behavior is not considered scientific unless the animal is assumed, at least tacitly, to be operating according to the same means/end calculations that one would apply to economic transactions.
Why do animals play? Well, why shouldn't they? The real question is: Why does the existence of action carried out for the sheer pleasure of acting, the exertion of powers for the sheer pleasure of exerting them, strike us as mysterious? What does it tell us about ourselves that we instinctively assume that it is?
November 13. Nik Turner has died. He was a core member of Hawkwind, the band that pretty much invented space rock. He wrote and sang one of their most important songs, Brainstorm, and was interviewed in this BBC Hawkwind documentary.
Two other great Nik Turner Hawkwind songs are Children of the Sun and D-Rider. "We never knew what time it was. We just knew how sublime it was."
November 11. There's a saying: "One martini is perfect. Two is too many. And three is never enough." That's how I feel writing about politics. But I want to say one more thing, as a springboard from politics to psychology.
It may seem that election deniers start with the belief that the election was stolen, and then they say that the election was stolen, and then they start trying to overturn the election.
I think it's exactly the other way around. And this goes beyond any issue. It's a sequence of actions that's a permanent temptation for our big dumb human brains. 1) Identify what you want. 2) Say whatever you have to say, to get what you want. 3) Believe whatever you're saying. 4) Go looking for evidence to confirm that belief.
This is why arguing on the level of evidence gets nowhere. It's too far downstream from where the action is.
This also explains the function of propaganda. Propaganda doesn't tell people what to believe. It takes people who already want to believe something, and puts that belief in a tidy and compelling package.
For the weekend, the women's college soccer playoffs start today, and this is a highlight from last weekend, the ridiculous shot that won the Big 12 championship.
November 9. I was all set to analyze the election apocalypse, and it didn't happen. So before I move on to other subjects, I'll say this. I think it's the job of society, the government, and politicians to be as boring as possible, to boringly guarantee a boring adequate standard of living, so we're all free to fart around and find our own meaning. This opinion is not as unpopular as I thought it was.
And two Reddit threads about money. Poor people who have dated rich people, what did you learn? Wealth inequality is not just bad for the poor -- it's bad for the rich. If I had a billion dollars, I hope I would give away 999 million, because that lifestyle creeps me out. I just want to go to the supermarket and not have to look at prices.
And a sub-thread about how much it sucks to turn your hobby into your profession.
November 7. With the American election tomorrow, I want to go temporarily back into politics. From Ask Old People, What will the US be like if it becomes a fascist government?
One comment mentions the "14 defining characteristics of fascism." That list comes from this article, published in 2003 by Lawrence Britt. But it's not the only answer. Umberto Eco, who grew up under Mussolini, had already published a different list of 14 Features of Fascism in 1995.
I don't like the word "fascism" because everyone agrees that it's bad. In the 1930s, politicians would stand up and say "I am a fascist." Now we have Rudy Giuliani, who totally would have self-identified as a fascist in the 30s, calling his opponents fascist because the popular definition has been watered down to anything the government does that you don't like.
So I want to try to do what I tried to do last week with "love", and look for a low-level definition from which high-level definitions can be derived. And I want the definition to be emotional, because I think it's obvious that people decide what they're going to believe for half-subconscious emotional reasons, and then cook up rational justifications.
I suggest, as the root of repressive human institutions, feeling good about positive feedback in power-over -- and by extension, feeling bad about the erosion of power-over.
So whoever already has power over someone else, you feel good about them using that power to consolidate and increase their power. From that, you can derive everything from supporting China annexing Taiwan, to supporting paddling in schools. You can derive the philosophical belief that humans are basically evil, because that's what you have to believe, to rationally justify solving social problems with more police and prisons (positive feedback in power-over) rather than wealth redistribution (negative feedback in power-over).
The good news is that power-over makes people stupid. Surrounded by yes-men, they make bad decisions, no one likes them, and inevitably they fall. So whatever happens tomorrow, or in the even scarier 2024 election, I just remind myself that Hitler only ruled Germany for 12 years, and I might live to see the pendulum finally swing the other way.
November 4. Continuing from yesterday, when I say "Love is feeling good about it, whatever it is," I'm not holding that up as the true and only definition, only suggesting a useful way of thinking. What I like about it is how low-level it is. It doesn't require a relationship or even another person. I don't want to exclude, from my definition of love, something like loving the sound of rain.
But if you want to get from there to a high-level definition, like Erich Fromm's in The Art of Loving, the path is to practice feeling good about feeling good, whether it's another person or yourself. And then you can continue the recursion: feeling good about feeling good about feeling good, and so on, sensing your way out into the universe.
Related: last week I mentioned Bruno Latour, and this Aeon article is the best explanation I've seen of what his deal was. Bruno Latour showed us how to think with the things of the world. Basically, Latour was an anti-reductionist. Reductionists are like, look, I've boiled down this complex subject to only one thing, and now we can ignore all that other stuff and just focus on this. And Latour was like, no, you can't do that.
Because he wrote about the social construction of facts, he might seem like a radical relativist, but he was the opposite. You can't just believe anything you want -- you have to unpack your belief, look at the actual things that it came from, and go out and engage with those things.
November 3. Psychedelics: a personal take is the report of someone who was very lucky: "After I did psychedelics for the first time, I waited for that magical feeling to go away, waited to slide back into a vaguely anxious numbness. It didn't happen."
Yeah, the only permanent effect I ever got from psychedelics is seeing the beauty of trees. Everything else fades when the drugs wear off. That's why I keep using them once or twice a year, to remind me of the mental state I'd like to have all the time.
When the drugs don't do the work for us, we can still do the work ourselves. So I've been edging closer to that mental state by grinding through numerous practices, and it's all obvious stuff. Get out of your head and into your body. Move your attention to the present moment. Be grateful for small things. Talk to yourself the way you'd want a friend to talk to you. Be curious and non-judging about your own emotions. Have fun, but don't do anything you know is wrong.
A lot of people come back from psychedelic trips with the insight that love is all-important. I'm sorry, but that's not helpful. Everyone is already in favor of love and no one can define it. So I've been casting about for a practical application of that insight, and this is what I've come up with.
Love is feeling good about it, whatever it is. If you can't feel good about it, feel good about feeling bad about it. If you can't feel good about feeling bad about it, feel good about feeling bad about feeling bad about it.
A lot of us look at the world in search of what's wrong with it. I don't know why, but this is such a strong urge that it has taken over the media. On Ask Reddit, "What's something everyone likes that you hate?" gets way more comments than "What's something everyone hates that you like?"
Sometimes I think fate is like TikTok: it gives you more of whatever you're looking at, even if you don't like it. But looking at things you dislike, and disliking things you look at, are simply habits, no different from physical habits like grinding your teeth or slouching. The cure is to make a commitment to watch yourself, and calmly correct yourself, about ten thousand times over several years, and gradually the new habit will take hold.
October 31. What "Work" Looks Like is a brief blog post about how the best results do not come from stuff that looks like "work" to managers -- "I can see people meeting and talking and there are sticky notes all over the wall!" -- but from stuff that looks like being lazy. Lots of examples in the Hacker News comment thread.
Related: First-ever study shows bumble bees 'play'. I wrote about this subject seven years ago in this post. I think the whole universe is playing with the exception of humans. A few thousand years ago, we started to develop social systems of such complexity that the only way to keep them going, was to invent "work" -- tasks that you have to force yourself to do. And now, that's almost the only thing left.
October 27. Radioactive traces in tree rings reveal Earth's history of unexplained 'radiation storms'
...the most widely accepted explanation is that Miyake events are "solar superflares". These hypothetical eruptions from the Sun would be perhaps 50-100 times more energetic than the biggest recorded in the modern era, the Carrington Event of 1859. If an event like this occurred today, it would devastate power grids, telecommunications, and satellites.Loosely related, from the Psychonaut subreddit, Has anyone else experienced problems with their Bluetooth headphones but ONLY when tripping? The thread is full of reports of all kinds of electronics malfunctioning while people are tripping.
October 24. No ideas this week, just links. The Moorish invention that tamed Spain's mountains is about the practice of carefully diverting spring runoff so that it soaks into the local landscape, instead of going to the ocean.
Buzz stops: bus shelter roofs turned into gardens for bees and butterflies
Related, a Hacker News thread for a paywalled article, Why are there so few dead bugs on windshields these days?
Another Hacker News thread, Butterfly wing patterns emerge from ancient 'junk' DNA. It's mainly about how the phrase "junk DNA" is obsolete, but people keep using it because of language inertia.
Related: Bruno Latour has died. He was one of my favorite living philosophers, and mainly wrote about the sociology of science. The main idea that I got from Latour is the "black box" -- a cognitive assumption that, once established, is taken for granted and used to go "downstream" and build bigger black boxes -- but you can also go "upstream" and take black boxes apart.
October 21. New article, Human hibernation is a real possibility, which reminds me of an old article about how Europeans used to sleep all winter.