May - July, 2016

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May 4. So Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee, and everyone is trying to tell a story about it. I don't think it has anything to do with bringing back shitty factory jobs that were only good because of unions. And this article debunks The Mythology Of Trump's Working Class Support.

My explanation goes to the deepest problem of being human: the need for life to feel meaningful. This is a book-length subject, so I'll skip ahead to the modern age and say that, in humanity's search for meaning, economic growth was a temporary hack: for a brief time, ordinary people could be part of a great story in which almost everyone was getting more prosperous.

If you've played video games, you know that almost all of them are built around some kind of improvement, and it would be hard to make a compelling game in which nothing is getting better. But that's where we are now as a society. Trump supporters don't have to be poor to feel like they're missing out -- they just have to not be getting richer. But almost nobody is getting richer, so how does this translate into different political factions?

Sanders supporters want to make the poor richer by making the rich poorer. The establishments of both parties refuse to accept that the age of economic growth is over. And the Republican fringe, which is now taking over the party, has given up on economics and gone back to tribalism. Nate Silver agrees: in his analysis of Why Republican Voters Decided On Trump, his number one reason for why he was wrong about Trump is "Voters are more tribal than I thought."

He never explains this, but I'll try. My off-the-cuff definition of "tribalism" is the habit of generating meaning by dividing the world into the in-group and the out-group. Liberals do this too, we all do it a little, and I'm not going to excuse it. It's a mistake and something that humanity has to overcome. But in the short term it's going to get worse as it expands to fill the void left by the end of economic growth.

May 6. In the previous post, my definition of "tribalism" casts too wide a net and pulls in stuff that's harmless or even beneficial.

I'm thinking about friendly sports rivalries. From the NFL subreddit, here's yesterday's post-draft trash talk thread. The comments are in all caps because they're pretending to be shouting but it's all in fun. This is us-vs-them thinking in a healthy larger context that brings people together.

Compare this to the poisionous atmosphere of another subreddit, Hillary for Prison -- and I'm sure that's not the worst political community. I know some Trump supporters are sane people who don't think like that, but my point is, that's why sane people should fear Trump, because he is serving as a focus for the kind of energy that makes sports fans assault fans of rival teams and political enemies kill each other. Even if we fantasize about the system falling into chaos, I don't think we want that kind of chaos.

So, if we can generate meaning by dividing insiders from outsiders in a healthy way, how does it become unhealthy? I think it has something to do with compulsive narrow focus. There's always a larger context in which apparent insiders and outsiders are really both insiders, and shifting your mind to that context is a valuable skill. If you have it, then you can gain the benefits of competition without any nastiness. When people lack that skill, when they know how to focus down into "us-vs-them" but not focus back out, then former allies fight each other about ever smaller disagreements. This is socially unstable, like a black hole collapsing in on itself, or like a fire. If you see it happening, the first move is to put the fire out, to make peace; if that fails, the second move is to isolate it and let it burn itself out; and the third move is to run away.

May 9. The Website Obesity Crisis is a speech transcript loaded with examples of how outrageously big web pages are getting. My favorite bit is the conclusion, a video game metaphor for two visions of how the web could be. The first example is Minecraft, where simple rules create wide-open gameplay and "you are meant to be an active participant." The second example is Call of Duty... exquisitely produced, kind-of-but-not-really-participatory guided experience with breathtaking effects and lots of opportunities to make in-game purchases... The user experience is that of being carried along, with the illusion of agency, within fairly strict limits. There's an obvious path you're supposed to follow, and disincentives to keep you straying from it. As a bonus, the game encodes a whole problematic political agenda.

Never mind web design and video games -- that sounds like a description of ordinary life in the developed world in the early 21st century. We can't even imagine a society where life is like Minecraft, let alone agree on how to get there.

May 13. Can we banish the phantom traffic jam? It's about how self-driving cars can stop traffic waves on freeways, but it's also about how we could do it without "intelligent" cars if we were more intelligent ourselves. This reddit comment goes into more detail on driving technique. The idea is to change start-and-stop traffic in front of you to smooth-flowing traffic behind you by watching carefully in both directions.

May 18. I like to bash the idea of "magical virtue": that highly motivated and successful people are simply better, a moral superiority that that cannot be reduced to genetics or culture or any kind of luck. It's good to remember that even qualities like hard work and courage and grit can be reduced to being in the right place at the right time, if you look deeply enough. But what if I'm wrong? If you keep thinking in this direction you end up with determinism, which is boring and empty. Strong-definition free will is much more interesting: that sometimes, when you make a choice, it comes from a place that is deeper than biology or physics or causality, but is still you.

Now we're getting into religion. I identify as a taoist/pantheist, but in practice it's not that different from monotheism. When football players score touchdowns and point to God, they're saying, "This is not about me, it's about my part in something I can never fully understand, so I must remain humble and receptive." I think identity is an illusion, but by examining the edges of the self we can glimpse the Divine, and if there is true free will, it has something to do with the choices we make at those edges.

May 25. This 1916 Guide Shows What the First Road Trips Were Like. The article looks at "Blue Books" that were densely packed with maps and instructions to navigate the extreme complexity of local roads before state and federal highways. What jumps out at me is how much fun this would have been! Every minute you're being challenged, feeling a sense of reward for staying on the route, and being right in the middle of new places. I can't think of any kind of travel that I would enjoy more (except see below).

As more people got cars, governments made driving easier with highways and signs, and driving gradually changed from something fun you do for its own sake, to some shit you have to do to get from one place to another. In a few years someone will ride a self-driving car across America, while giving all their attention to a video game that simulates the kind of exciting exploration that they would get to do in the real world if it hadn't been improved so much.

I call this technological degamification. Gamification is when a boring activity is tweaked to make it more fun, and it's often done for marketing and other sinister purposes. Technologial degamification is when technology is applied to an activity with the goal of making it easier, but the result is to make it less rewarding by removing too much fun stuff from human awareness, and not enough tedious stuff.

Just for fun, here's my Road Trip Utopia:

It's the year 2116, and the world is finally recovering from the deep economic and infrastructure collapse of the 21st century. High tech never went away, but the old highways are weedy rubble, and nobody drives fast except on race tracks. Long-distance travel is done on trains or hybrid airships, and short distance travel is done by foot, bicycle, mule, or slow solar vehicles. All of these are used by adventurers who spend their unconditional basic income on high-grade water condensers and concentrated food, and travel the old roads through the wilderness and the ghost suburbs. They might use computer maps, but the computer never tells them which way to go, because the point is to discover it themselves.

May 27. Leigh Ann and I have almost finished the entire Doctor Who series from 2005, and these are my subjective opinions: Peter Capaldi might be even better than David Tennant. Eccleston failed because he was never convincingly cheerful. Matt Smith is the opposite, so fluffy that none of his episodes had enough depth except The Angels Take Manhattan. River Song is easily the best side character. Companions should never have boyfriends, which is part of why Donna Noble was the best. They should have had seven year old Amelia Pond be Matt Smith's companion the whole time. 2005-2007 had the best opening theme and the newest seasons have the best opening visuals. Top five episodes: The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink, Listen, The Family of Blood, Heaven Sent.

June 6. Paean to SMAC is a massive project by one guy, Nick Stipanovich, writing in depth about the game Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. It's a great game, easily the best in the Civilization series, but the most interesting thing about his blog is how obsessed he is.

In this kind of obsession, I see the massive untapped potential of humanity -- not for objective progress, but for subjective quality of life. I think everyone in the world could find something they love doing as much as Stipanovich loves writing about SMAC -- and if they get bored with that they can find something else, and this is possible even if we exclude passive entertainment and crime, because the range of benign creative activities is basically limitless. Right now the main limit is that we still have to make money.

June 10. Some personal thoughts about self-knowledge. I've been practicing meditation for many years, not that often, but it adds up, and I'm understanding better how it works. I don't think posture matters except as a placebo, and actually keeping your mind blank is not the point. The value in meditation is that you have to turn your conscious mind inward, and you notice stuff. It's like the Undercover Boss reality TV show, and you're putting in time as the undercover boss in your own mind and body. If meditation makes you a better person, it's because you find harmful subconscious habits and you grind through the process of fixing them.

I've discovered another technique that enhances meditation, and it's pretty powerful on its own. Someone must have figured this out thousands of years ago, but I've never read about it anywhere. You know how you feel when you think about doing something you dread? Try to capture that feeling, let go of the thoughts that brought it up, and just open your soul to that pain, as intensely as you can for as long as you can. Obviously this feels terrible! It's the opposite of the serenity you expect from meditation. But I find, if I can stay immersed in the pain long enough, it wears out, and then it has less power over me in daily life, and I can face more difficult stuff. Max sends this 2013 Alex Robinson post, strong medicine, where she describes basically the same thing and calls it "sitting with pain".

My third practice, you guessed it, is marijuana. It lowers my intellectual intelligence while raising my emotional intelligence, so that they're both about average. It also gives me mind-blowing awareness of music, so that's usually where I put my attention, focusing on my strength. But lately I've been focusing on my weakness, combining pain immersion therapy with drug-enhanced emotional awareness to do a full life review. And I wonder if this is why weed gives people anxiety, because they sense the horror of looking at their life with new eyes and seeing all the mistakes.

June 22. This reddit comment explains Hannah Arendt's famous phrase, the banality of evil. Edited excerpt:

Eichmann's evil comes from having been a "joiner". In a search for some higher meaning, he gave himself to a cause so completely that he created a intellectual fence around himself and relieved himself of having to think critically or examine his convictions.

There is pleasure in understanding the world around us, and meaning in the unending work of developing and refining a coherent world view. Adopting an ideology short-circuits that effort, providing pleasure and meaning with an unwarranted degree of certainty. Consequently, fully adopting an ideology, whether it's Nazism or Feminism, is fundamentally not a benign act. People do this on a regular basis: unquestioned, mild, allegiance to their church, to their political party, to traditional values, to their social causes, etc. There is a strong intellectual resemblance between the unquestioned beliefs and unexamined assumptions that allow a man to ship millions of people to extermination camps, and the unquestioned assumptions and beliefs that we all operate on.

June 24. The British are frantically Googling what the E.U. is, hours after voting to leave it. This is a good example of the difference between two kinds of thinking, which I'll call myth-based and reality-based. What defines myth-based thinking is not that it's wrong, but that it feels right without being tested against reality.

Are political decisions more myth-based than they used to be? If so, what might be causing this dangerous trend? I can think of two explanations. One is that political systems are becoming so complicated that it's both more difficult and more boring to observe political reality, so fewer people are doing it.

A scarier possibility is that we are losing the skill of reality-based thinking, because we have fewer opportunities to practice it. If you're deciding which breakfast cereal to buy, it doesn't matter if you use myth-based thinking, because nothing bad will happen either way. More and more of our decisions are like that, partly because of well-meaning regulations that protect us from bad decisions, and partly because big control systems are making more of the decisions that really matter.

The exception is large-scale democracy, where we still have power, but we no longer know how to use it skillfully. If Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were breakfast cereals, Trump would totally win.

June/July. Leigh Ann has got me watching men's international soccer, the Euro 2016 and the Copa America Centenario, and I'm learning to see the games as stories. Sports are systems for procedurally generating stories that are less predictable and often better than stories scripted by writers, and soccer generates great stories for two reasons. One is that scoring is really hard, so the game is focused down to moments of brilliance where creativity and pinpoint focus can beat preparation and athleticism. The other is that improvisational play and limited substitutions make the game about the players more than the coaches. American football is the opposite: the game is so tightly orchestrated that the best stories are the rare moments when plays break down and players have to improvise.

One story moment was in the game between Venezuela and tournament favorite Argentina. Late in the first half Argentina was up 2-0, but Venezuela made a flurry of attacks that had them rattled, coming to a focus in a penalty kick. The kicker looked confident, and everyone expected him to bury it so hard that the keeper had no chance even if he guessed right, and Venezuela would start the second half with scary momentum and only a goal down.

Instead, the world's #77 team tried to embarrass the world's #1 team with a trick, a gentle kick right in the middle that would make the goalkeeper look silly lunging to one side. I don't think it was cruel -- it was a tactical move to get under the opponent's skin and press their advantage. But the keeper saw it coming the whole way. He just stood there and calmly caught the ball, Venezuela's spirit was broken, and Argentina cruised to an easy win.

Early in that game the world's best player, Lionel Messi, was clearly taken down in the box, and the referee refused to call a penalty. This is the opposite of American football and basketball where the best players get every close call in their favor. By holding an elite player to higher standards, the ref made what would have been a boring game much more interesting, and I think a great referee is like an orchestra conductor, making the game better by setting the right constraints with how he calls fouls.

The story of the final match was supposed to be Argentina finally winning a championship over Chile. But they missed their chances, leaving the game still scoreless after overtime, and it went to penalty kicks. Now the popular story is that Messi let his team down by sending his kick over the goal. But only moments earlier, Chilean leader Arturo Vidal's kick had been blocked. So after Messi's miss, the contest was still on equal terms: four kicks left, your best player can't help you, and who is the better whole team? Chile had already proven they could win a big game without Vidal, beating Colombia 2-0 in the semifinal. And the shootout told the same story, as Chile buried their next four kicks and Argentina did not. In the end it wasn't about Messi's failure, but Chile's team chemistry and mental toughness.

In both tournaments the repeating theme was that a good team of average players can beat a clunky team of elite players. This was the case in the best European game, Belgium vs Wales, in Iceland's shocking upset of England, and even in the championship. Portugal had been squeaking through on mediocre play despite having the world's most annoying and second best player, Cristiano Ronaldo. When Ronaldo went out early with an injury, they actually played better without him, and won the title over a much more talented French team.

Iceland has about the same population as the city of Leicester, which just won the English Premier League championship against 5000-1 odds, but I wonder if these events are really the somewhat likely results of a global trend, in which systems built from a foundation of excitement and honesty have an increasing advantage over systems built from the need to maintain power.

July 6. Some tech links. Personal robotic aircraft are hovering over the horizon. They're calling them "passenger drones" because they use drone-like technology, but basically this is a next-generation light helicopter where computers take care of stability while the operator just gives simple commands. I'm wondering how far this could go. I don't see them replacing cars, because we still need to move really heavy stuff, so we still need streets, and if we have streets then surface vehicles will always be more efficient (especially if they go slower -- see below).

The dying breed of craftsmen behind the tools that make scientific research possible. It's about scientific glass blowing, an extremely difficult and increasingly rare skill, and a good example of how tech systems are held together by skills that can't be learned from books, only passed on through long apprenticeships. It wouldn't take much of a collapse for a skill like this to be totally lost.

Chatbot lawyer overturns 160,000 parking tickets in London and New York. As far as I can tell, the chatbot is not talking to the bureaucracy, only talking to people to walk them through dealing with the bureaucracy. Still, I wonder how many lawyer jobs will eventually be replaced by AI.

Finally, from the Onion, Secretary Of Interior Unveils Plans For New High-Speed Creek. If you think about it, this is a sneaky critique of high-speed shit. We know that a high-speed creek is ridiculous because we understand that creeks are part of an ecology where there are good reasons for them to go the speed they go, and trying to make them go faster would be both difficult and harmful. But humans, in some ways, are part of the same ecology, and some of our ambitions to speed things up are equally difficult and pointless, and make sense only from an ideology that faster is better just for being faster. This subject reminds me of this 1905 San Francisco streetcar video, where you can see the elegant beauty of urban traffic before we ruined it by trying to speed it up.

July 18/25. One of my favorite quotes is from Chuckie on Rugrats: "Life is so hard, Tommy. Sometimes I think it's the hardest thing there is." It's funny because life already contains everything there is. But there's a serious interpretation: that being good at life is harder than riding a unicycle on a tightrope, or winning a nobel prize, or making a billion dollars. That sounds radical, but it could be true, because there are actual people who have done those things and are still bad at life.

This is not a moral judgment. I'm bad at life myself. I used to think I was pretty good, until I discovered a previously unknown dimension of life where I was totally clueless. After that happens five or ten times you start to think there's no limit. "The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."

Not knowing you're bad at something is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, and if you apply it to life it explains a lot. When someone is bad at life and doesn't know it, their continuing failure feels like outrageous injustice or impossible bad luck. This is complicated, because the world is full of actual injustice and bad luck, but if you're looking at someone else's life you can usually tell the difference.

The best example I know is the video by the Isla Vista shooter, Elliot Rodger's Retribution. This guy is terrible at life and has absolutely no idea, and I think this is generally the case with mass murderers.

There have been a lot of mass murders lately, and I see them as psychological not political. This NY Times article on the Bastille Day truck massacre describes the killer as A Surly Misfit With No Terror Links. Of course, once he decided to kill people, he probably tacked on a story about radical Islam to feel better about himself. I wonder if this is the case with everyone in ISIS. When people who are bad at life reach a critical mass, they organize to make up stories so they can feel noble for wanting to lash out.

This is not completely misguided, because how did it happen that so many people are so bad at life? It's not the job of life to be easy, but it is the job of society to make people good at living in that society. If society lags at this job, all the surly misfits will destabilize it. The hard question here is, why is society lagging? Why is all this shit happening now and not some other time?

I think it's because we're passing through a transition in what life skills are valuable. Now, some ways to be good at life are more universal, like building trust, and other ways are more socially constructed, like which side of the knife to put the fork on. Everyone wants to believe that their skills are more universal and other people's skills are more arbitrary, but the test is change. As societies and cultures change, more universal skills tend to remain valuable while more constructed skills tend to become obsolete.

Coming around to politics, reactionary movements are driven by people who are losing power because of change. It could be technological change where their skills are no longer valuable, or it could be cultural change where a whole way of being no longer works.

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