February - April, 2017

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February 26, late. Tonight's Academy Award fiasco, in which the shoo-in feel-good white people movie was announced as best picture, and it turned out they read the wrong card and the serious black people movie was best picture... that's the weirdest thing that's happened in America since 9/11, even weirder than the Red Sox breaking their curse during a full lunar eclipse.

I'm not even going to try to explain it rationally. It's best understood on a subverbal intuitive level. And I don't think it was any kind of conspiracy, at least not by humans. It was the Trickster breaking through the screen and then vanishing into irreconcilable happenstance. (This is how I write when I'm high.)

By the way, over the weekend I made a decision to change the tone of this blog. I've decided to go at least a few months without writing anything about politics or social philosophy. That leaves technology, entertainment, drugs, psychology, music, personal stuff, and like tonight, vague hints about esoteric sub-politics.

February 28. Continuing on woo-woo philosophy, Did the Oscars Just Prove That We Are Living in a Computer Simulation?

Here's how I would make the argument: Really unlikely things have been happening lately, but they're not unlikely in arbitrary ways -- they're unlikely in ways that tell good stories. I mean, not only was the wrong card read on the biggest award of the night, but if you put any two other best picture nominees in the spots for apparent winner and actual winner, the story wouldn't be as good.

This is outside the range of science, because science requires repeated experiments, and fate happens but once. When real-world fate unfolds like fiction, we wonder if there is an unseen storyteller.

I don't think we're in a literal computer simulation. That's like cavemen thinking their gods made them out of clay because clay is the most advanced simulation technology they possess. Computers are just our best metaphor for reality creation tools beyond our imagination. I see it like this:

Philosophical idealism holds that mind is the fundamental reality, and matter is like a dream. Actual dreams can go anywhere fast because you're alone. When we're dreaming together, change is slowed by the need to form consensus, and reality appears so sticky that matter seems to exist independently of mind.

Not only that, our conscious minds are not the sole reality creators, and might even be more like an audience. I think the power gets stronger as you go deeper, first to your individual subconscious mind, and then to something like a collective unconscious, which might be like a great hidden city hosting agents and motives from outside humanity.

What do they want? Here's where people fall into black-and-white thinking, with perfectly evil master conspirators or a wise and benevolent God. I think the "gods" are somewhere between distracted scientists and playful children. My most reasonable guess, for the motive behind these spectacles of sudden reversal, is that we're being prepped for a time when ordinary life will be more surprising. And my funnest guess is that the dream is breaking up.

March 6. This week I'm raving about what makes me happy. Today it's my biggest science fiction influence, and it's not Philip K Dick. Of course Dick is the best. In some of his novels, like The Game Players of Titan, it's like you're watching figure skating, and nobody's ever done a triple axel, and then this guy comes out and pulls a quintuple axel. A Chinese philospher wondered if he was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man, and after two thousand years suddenly Dick turned that shit into a fractal.

But Dick's protagonists are mopey and angsty. In the face of uncertain reality, they're treading water in a dark ocean. Then along comes an author whose reality-tripping characters are surfers: Roger Zelazny.

I'm thinking of two Zelazny works, and neither is his serious and brilliant early novel Lord of Light. That one pleased the critics, and he was probably thinking, with that out of the way, now I'm just going to write experimental shit and have fun.

The first Chronicles of Amber are the funnest books I know. The story hits the ground running, with a first person narrator who wakes up with amnesia and super powers, but the star of the books is Zelazny's colorful, dreamy mechanism for shifting through parallel worlds by using attention to make the world change around you.

What I don't like about Amber is that the characters are too often motivated by vengeance, competition and fear. Zelazny's secret masterpiece is a little book about time-traveling highways, with an emotional tone so playful that even deadly adversaries usually turn out to be old friends. Roadmarks is luminous on multiple levels, and poetic, and totally trashy.

March 8. Today I want to rave about Picbreeder, a website where you can make art by selecting images as a computer alters them with an algorithm based on biological evolution. Here's a 40 minute video by one of the guys who made it, mostly about how the best images come from headlong improvisation instead of planning, and from individual judgments rather than consensus.

For me, Picbreeder is the most valuable technology of the 21st century. I've put 50-100 hours into it, way less time than someone might spend on video games, and I feel like I've already learned more about creativity than in decades of writing, and made images that I could never make alone even if I mastered painting software.

Suddenly I understand that creativity has two components that are completely separate. One is the magical well that ideas come from. And the other, almost as magical, is how you decide what ideas to trash and what ideas to run with. What I mean by "magical" is that my conscious mind has no creativity at all. It's like the manager for an art department where the "artists" are hard to explain with current theories of mind.

In this condensed video of the 1956 film The Mystery of Picasso, you can watch Picasso's creative process as he starts with a sketch and puts it through changes until sometimes there's no trace of the original idea. Of course he does everything: the ideas, the rendering, and the selection. But Picbreeder allows someone with no skill in ideas or rendering to still practice creative selection, ten times faster than Picasso, plus a back button.

Another way to say it: the stuff that bubbles up from the Picbreeder computer is not that different from the stuff that bubbles up from your own mysterious subconscious, and might almost replace it. If I can use only selection to make an impressionistic landscape like Mordor, or a near-realistic portrait like Sunbathing or Spacewalking... could someone with no ideas still use selection creativity to produce good fiction, or choreography, or architecture, out of nothing but AI-rendered noise?

If you want to try Picbreeder, here's my strategy guide: [Update: first find a browser with Java, which has become almost impossible.] 1) Go immediately to advanced with color. 2) At first, breed for color and structure together. At some point you'll probably want to keep the colors while you breed structure, or you'll nail the structure and want to color it differently. In a long project you might go back and forth. 3) Usually it's best to select only one image. A good reason to select two is if you can't decide between them. 4) Combining two images into one with elements of both is really hard, but it gets easier the more similar they are, and the more patience you have. 5) When in doubt, go for gut aesthetics over rational thinking. Pretend you're looking at a bunch of album covers and deciding which one to reach for even if you can't explain why. 6) If you're in a rut, either use the back button to find your last exciting image and go a different direction, or go forward with big changes. 7) Marijuana.

March 13. Doubling down on last week, I've been getting back into an old TV show. At its best, it's the most mythic and iconic achievement in the history of storytelling. Of course, it's Gilligan's Island. In ten thousand years, when Breaking Bad is long forgotten, even if Gilligan's Island is also forgotten, it will be reinvented. It seems to be a children's show only because of its fathomless purity. The jokes are obvious like an approaching train, their impact undiminished no matter how long you see them coming.

The Skipper is the best straight man because he's the most joyful, unable to hide that he's having a great time even when he's angry. Gilligan is the best trickster because he wears the mask of the fool so well that neither Gilligan himself, nor the other characters, nor half the audience understand that staying on the island is his motive.

The show's very absurdity is a blinding sun of metaphor. How can an island remain unknown and attract so many visitors? Because the Island is the liminal space between consensus reality and the world of myth -- and this weirdness extends into our own world: in the pilot episode, as the ship leaves port, the flags are at half mast because Kennedy had just been shot.

In the best episodes, the characters enter the world of dreams and return to their homeworld not as exiles but as gods, acting out its most primal stories and characters: cavemen and vampires and pirates and cowboys and secret agents. This great video fits Gilligan's Island dream scenes with the 1967 garage psych song "I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night".

March 17. I've been noticing some crazy coincidences lately. It no longer feels like life is random, or like I'm being jerked around by fate. It feels like I'm starting to understand the kinds of stories that the unseen storyteller likes, and I can almost synchronize with that flow.

Yesterday a reader emailed me with a quote from the Gospel of Thomas that I was already thinking about: "Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the all." In my interpretation, the key word is "astonished", and the whole thing could be condensed to "Seek until astonished." Being troubled is like a distasteful WTF, and then being astonished is like the merging of WTF and total happiness. And once you've got that, it's like a handhold to climb out of the pit of the human condition.

Something cool (thanks Nick), This Man Is About to Blow Up Mathematics. It's about math so weird that it reads like science fiction: "Set theorists can construct proofs using large cardinals, which deal with higher levels of infinity and are too large to be proven to exist within ZFC." Or: "He created a sophisticated state-of-the-art machinery to turn combinatorial objects into universes." Basically we're on an island of normal math, in a sea of weird math, and this guy has built a really good boat ramp.

March 20. I've been thinking about plot twists in fiction. There are at least two kinds: twists about what we think happened in the past, and twists about what we expect to happen in the future. I call the former the Basic Instinct twist, because that's the movie that drove it into the wall. Writer Joe Eszterhas goes back and forth so many times on who the real killer is, that in the end it's like a split reality where they're both the killer. Eszterhas is annoyed that some viewers disagree with him about the ending, which means he doesn't even know he did something that radical, and nobody since then has pushed it that far, because it doesn't work. The backward-looking twist has a low ceiling in the patience of the viewer.

The other, I call the Pulp Fiction twist. At least three times in that movie, you think the story is going one way, and then some crazy accident takes it somewhere absurd, not just into different things happening but into a different storytelling tone. Any hack can write a Basic Instinct twist, but a Pulp Fiction twist requires creativity. That's why nobody has taken it farther, even though viewers would love to see it. The forward-looking twist has a high ceiling that we haven't reached yet.

March 27. My life with Oliver Sacks is from a memoir by Bill Hayes, who became Sacks' partner late in his life. Hayes calls Sacks "without a doubt the most unusual person I had ever known." Then it gets even better when they go to Iceland to visit Björk.

For me, this is a glimpse of heaven: two people who have managed to get away with being totally weird, without going mad or being crushed by poverty, hanging out in a little world of tree-stump chairs and rock-carved stairways, and a lighthouse where you do creative work while trapped by the high tide.

Going back almost 200 years, over the weekend I watched a biographical film about the Brontës, To Walk Invisible. Emily was the one with talent, and she died of tuberculosis at age 30 after writing only one novel, but she was actually lucky to be in a weird family that gave her some freedom to follow her peculiar obsessions.

Is the world getting better in this way? In a thousand years, will everyday life be like Oliver Sacks at Björk's house? This is a vision that I call Neckbeard Utopia: that as we all reach our greatest potential, we become more different. Everything that rises must diverge.

March 29. This article, The three reasons YouTubers keep imploding, raises some good points about the challenges of content creators in the age of the internet. The basic idea is that fame used to be a feature of institutions like movie studios, which managed public perceptions. Now we're on our own, but audiences still expect the filtered and sanitized old version of how famous people behave.

My cynical definition: Fame is when idiots make a mythic character in their own heads, and pick out a few things that you've said and done so they can put your face on that character, and then when you don't fit what that character is supposed to do, they get personally offended.

This distortion is amplified by technology that enables thin and distant connections. You're more likely to be understood by people who really know you. But it's at least possible in theory for technology to favor thick connections, and that's my optimistic vision of the future of fame. Andy Warhol said everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, because in his time there was a single monolithic public eye. Now every person can be their own eye, and we haven't learned to work with this yet, but when we do, it's possible for everyone to be a content creator with a tiny and dedicated audience: In the future, everyone will be famous among 15 people.

March 31. I had a nice comment on my definition of fame in the last post:

This struck me as being precisely the dynamic that has governed my 4-time-divorced, now 84-year-old mother's approach to romantic relationships her entire life... What is it about the way we try to fill the empty places in our hearts with, not the companionship of other frail, flawed humans, but with avatars of our projected craving for superheroes and archetypes?

This is a really good question, and my answer is that we need two words for "real": one for the unseen deeper realness that we sometimes feel, and one for things that persist when they're being tested in front of everyone.

Our world is a dialogue between these two forces. The archetypes are where the light comes from, but we can't just have living archetypes walking around, because they're too strong and simple to match the complexity of a world shared among billions of perspectives.

Our challenge is to glow with the ambient light of myth, to absorb the raw bolts from the world of dreams and pass them through ourselves to feed the fragile circuits of every moment.

April 3. Another angle on the value of myth: For me, the world inside my head is pillows, and the world outside my head is knives. Or, the inner world is rainbows and the outer world is shit (human society, not nature). We all want a tangible, persistent outer world rainbow, but that's not how it works.

Beauty in the outer world is subtle and obscure. The divine manifests every day as a weed in the cracks, crushed by people who imagine the divine coming with trumpets in the sky. The most beautiful sound I've ever heard was a cacophonous flock of tiny birds in dead winter.

It's hard to even talk about this in English. How would someone say it who had experienced the unity of inside and outside? Something like: Inner light and outer light are two halves that come together with suspension of the self. And Utopia is not a perfectly luminous outer world, but a world that fits.

I wonder how many people have had their light (inner or outer) so snuffed that they can only find it with drugs. My favorite line about drugs is from the Tao Te Ching, 52.3: "Use the bright light but return to the dim light."

April 5. Free Roaming is a fascinating essay by a guy who loves to wander around open world video games after all the quests have been completed:

This part of the game -- the illicit, post-story part -- is better than anything that might have preceded it in the name of story. In a world empty of fate, gone slack without a narrative, my character, alone and aimless, has a life for the first time.

The weird thing is, most open world games allow you to wander around without doing any quests at all, or just enough to level up so you don't get killed. Why does he have to exhaust every scrap of content before he feels "free at last"? This has something to do with the world outside games -- I don't want to call it "real" -- where we do stuff to "get stuff done", but like waiting for a river to flow past, we never get to the end of it.

What the author is seeking is not the freedom to wander, but a higher-order quest, where the reward for getting stuff done is not the character's satisfaction that Skyrim is free of monsters, but the player's satisfaction, impossible in his own world, that he has come to the end of getting stuff done.

Now I see two angles. One is practical, that we're always being told to do stuff we'd rather not do. The solution is to work toward a post-scarcity utopia, like the pre-scarcity utopia in Jean Liedloff's The Continuum Concept, where the right to say no is so powerful that it's forbidden to even ask someone to do something.

The other angle is philosophical, and I don't see any solution. In games, the meaning of life is a set of clearly defined tasks, and if you're not doing those things, you're in a space that is clearly defined as having no meaning. In our own world, we can never be sure.

April 17. Trippy video, Deeply Artificial Trees. Here's an article about how it was made, This is what AI sees and hears when it watches The Joy of Painting. Basically they trained an AI to see faces and animals in meaningless shapes, and to show us what it sees as it watches Bob Ross videos. It reminds me more than anything of Hieronymous Bosch.

From a philosophical angle, when people see Jesus on a tortilla, we imagine that's a human weakness from which the logic of machines can protect us. But it turns out that machines can do it much better than us. And if machines are better than us at finding nonexistent meaning in noise, then they're also better at finding deeply hidden meaning in noise. But which one is it? In the future, we might wonder more and more often: Does the computer really see something, or is it crazy?

April 19. Tomorrow is 4/20, and I'm continuing to experiment to find the best pattern of marijuana use, but it's strange how little has been written about it. There are happy everyday stoners, and there are people who struggle with self-control, but I have good self-control and it's still a huge challenge to figure out the timing, the resonant frequency that brings the best pleasures and benefits of being both high and sober.

Will science ever cheat withdrawal? Could you go on a drug bender, and when it starts to get ugly, you just take a shot of brain-cleansing nanobots and you're painlessly clean and sober and ready to start again? I doubt it, but I do think it should be possible to bunch the pain, so instead of days or weeks of grinding through rehab, you could reset your pleasure with a few minutes of agony.

April 24. My latest thought about motivation, and why it's sometimes so hard to do physically easy work, is that it's about retooling the mind. To do your taxes, or wash the dishes, or even brush your teeth, you have to pass through pain, and the length and severity of the pain depends on how large and complex the new task is. Getting myself in fix-up-the-house mode has taken days and I'm still not all the way there. Yesterday, just walking around, I felt physical resistance like walking through syrup -- that's how much the mind can affect the body.

Today I was just installing two light fixtures, but there were complications within complications and it ended up taking hours, including a trip to the hardware store to buy two 14 cent screws. I was thinking about how different that world is from the world of playing video games and writing words on the internet, and my first thought was to distinguish between the universe of information (easy) and the universe of physical stuff (hard). But that's not quite right, because Legos are physical and easy while programming is information-based and hard.

So my next thought is to distinguish between worlds that are modular and fiddly. Modular is plug-and-play and fiddly means there's no telling how deep the rabbit hole goes. Going from fiddly work to modular work is like coasting downhill, and going from modular to fiddly is like climbing a mountain -- unless it's something you're obsessed with, which is a whole other subject.

April 26-27. My mental state for the past week could be diagnosed as depression, but I don't exactly believe in depression. I think it's like what they used to call "consumption", which turned out to be a bunch of different things with similar symptoms.

My symptoms: I'm sleeping more than ten hours a day, lots of things that used to make me happy now feel empty, and my new motto is "If it feels bad, do it." My life has become a weird hybrid of a Hollywood self-improvement montage and a self-flagellating monk.

At the same time that I'm brute-forcing chores, I'm in withdrawal from what people call "time-wasters", but they would be more accurately called something like "non-creative micro-scale reward activities". I've quit all video games, and I'm not even checking Ask Reddit, or giving in to any temptation where just pushing a button brings the anticipation of a reward.

And I don't want to blame high tech. A few weeks ago I experimented with jigsaw puzzles, and they felt mentally like any computer strategy game. Late at night I'd be thinking, "Just one more piece and I'll go to bed." My grandmother spent hours every day doing crossword puzzles. Thousands of years ago the Buddha warned against dice games. We have a limited capacity to feel reward, and we probably shouldn't waste it on stuff that's not an investment in future happiness.

Being "depressed" has also made me aware of how American culture, and maybe human culture, is saturated with moral judgments. If I admit to being unhappy, someone will think it's because of something I'm doing wrong that they're doing right. That's called the Just World Fallacy. But then, during happier times, I've been accused of being happy through immoral disregard for the suffering of others. There is no possible attitude that someone won't take as evidence that you're a bad person. Because if there were, then anyone presenting that attitude would be suspected of faking it. So we might as well be honest and bear the inevitable weight of clueless judgment.

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