August - September, 2020

previous archive

August 3. A trip report where a guy talked to his own subconscious. He noticed that his hands were doing stuff without his head, so he started asking his hands questions, and they would respond with thumbs up or thumbs down. My first thought is, if we could develop a cheap technology that could do this reliably, it would be the biggest thing ever. My next thought is, the real mystery is not the subconscious, but the modern human mode of consciousness. How did we end up with this thing that controls everything we do, yet it understands so little?

August 6. Some thoughts on game-changing technologies of the 21st century, starting with the most overrated.

I think we've got virtual reality all wrong. We imagine, if we can just throw enough pixels at an eyescreen, enough gigabytes at a sensory interface, we won't even care if the world is real. I think there are video games from the 1990's that are more immersive than any virtual worlds that will be made in this century -- unless we get another creative environment like the 1990's. Making a world that people want to stay in is hard. It's an art, and art can only be done well by individuals or small teams that are obsessed with their vision, and indifferent to money.

Also overrated: biotech. I think we're missing something, and Rupert Sheldrake is on the right track. DNA will turn out to not be the foundation of biology, but more like a tuner for some level that we haven't discovered yet. So we can't just make any creature we want by hacking DNA, any more than you can make a new TV show by hacking your set.

Where I see promise in biotech, is in vat-grown meat, and other ways to make food that's more affordable and less ecologically harmful.

Artificial intelligence could be big, but not in the way we think. This is already a common idea on the cutting edge of AI: we're obsessed with making machines indistinguishable from humans, when the real action is in making machines that are intelligent in ways that are alien to humans.

The holy grail of AI is understanding causality. As long as AI's do not understand causality, the more power we give them, the more we put ourselves at risk. And if they ever do understand causality, all bets are off.

Also big but not in the way we think: space exploration. I've written that colonizing Mars is a religion. But now, after watching this new video, Mars in 4K, while listening to Hildegard Von Bingen, on weed, I understand that colonizing Mars is a really good religion. It's all about humanity reaching for transcendence, and this time it's physically possible. Those rocks are real.

I still think it's a trick. Mars seems to be training us for interstellar travel, when really it's training us in ecology. Because if we get there, we'll want to terraform it, and terraforming Mars is so much harder than re-terraforming Earth, that by the time we're growing lichens on Daedalia Planum, we'll be planting food forests in the Sahara.

Finally, the big one. We already have psychedelic drugs so good, that if they become legal, they'll change religion so much that we might stop using that word. There will be no more telling people about unseen worlds. If we're all tripping, we'll all be seeing them, and the role of spiritual leaders will be to help us make sense of what we're seeing.

What if LSD and DMT are teases, for far more sophisticated tools for real-time brain-hacking? We might all get sockets in our skulls, but they won't be for feeding us some world designed by programmers. It will turn out to be both easier, and more interesting, to just unlock the worlds that are already there, that our brains were filtering.

August 10. Some woo-woo links, starting with two from the psychonaut subreddit. Reality is the trip and DMT is the trip stopper. And Psychedelic telepathy: An interview study.

And two from the ranprieur subreddit. The Most Unsettling U.F.O. Theory is a nice video about the position that smart UFO researchers usually end up at: the phenomenon is neither space aliens, nor hallucinations, but some other level of reality, which we don't understand yet, and which somehow appears to us through our own cultural filters. So ancient angels, medieval fairies, and modern flying saucers are all the same thing. The video covers the airship flap of the late 1800's, and I would add, from this year, the mysterious drone sightings in Colorado.

Randonauts is about the practice of using random numbers to generate map coordinates, after forming an intention of what you want to find there. This is how the occult works: the first time you do it, you have a good chance of finding something amazing. If you continue doing it, results will get weaker and weaker, until as a whole, the data appear meaningless. Also, it's often how science works.

August 14-17. Important study, Young children would rather explore than get rewards. I think it's obvious that the shift from exploring to reward-seeking, which is normal in this culture, is a fall from grace, and I think it's both good and possible to reverse it.

In game design, reward-seeking is called grinding, and exploration is done in an open world. An open world may contain many grinds, but a grind cannot contain an open world.

A psychologist might call these two mental states reacting and choosing. A Buddhist might say that enlightenment is when choosing becomes your default state. In theater it would be the difference between reading a script and improvising.

When I improvise on piano, I might find a groove, where I keep playing a pattern that sounds good, until I get tired of it and go exploring for another groove. The best musicians make exploring beautiful, like John Cage's Dream.

Matt comments:

There can be freedom and joy within a script too: it's the moment when, as an actor, you realize that you aren't bound by your last performance of the script and that there are dozens of choices in every line. It's that moment where you stop controlling how you look, how you sound, what the lines are supposed to mean. Some lines have more choices and some have fewer, but it's not so much that scripted theatre is 100% destiny where improvisation is 100% freewill.

It's like, for hundreds of years, Buddhist meditators have been asking the same questions: "What is this?" "Who am I?" and so on. They are scripted questions, but they don't have scripted answers. For theatre practitioners, doing Macbeth can be like koan practice. You say the lines, and forget yourself inside the story, and then between your commitment, and abandonment, and the audience's energy and reactions, something emerges. You don't build to the scene where the theme gets clothed in words. You let every piece of the story stand for itself.

August 18. What if Donald Trump were a D&D character? I'm using edition 3.0, and I'll start with the six ability scores, which for normal humans can range from 3-18, where 10.5 is average.

Strength: 5. He's an old man.
Dexterity: 10. He's an okay golfer.
Constitution: 14. He thinks exercise is bad for him, and he's still somewhat healthy at 74.
Intelligence: 7. He's probably never read a book all the way through.
Wisdom: 10. I'm tempted to go much lower, but D&D wisdom includes self-control and intuition.
Charisma: 16. I'm tempted to go higher, but his personal magnetism is better explained as a spell power.

Alignment: Neutral Evil. He's evil because he lacks compassion, seeks power, and has no moral code except what he can get away with. Despite his talk of "law and order", he has shown repeatedly that he's against the rule of law when it contradicts his personal rule, and he takes every opportunity to push America toward disorder. I don't think he's hot-headed or unpredictable enough to be chaotic evil, but this bit from the rulebook does fit him: "Thankfully, his plans are haphazard, and any groups he joins or forms are poorly organized."

Class: Sorcerer. Sorcerers have fewer spells than Wizards, but can cast them more often. Trump has only one spell, an upgraded Mass Charm, which allows him to affect an unlimited number of people through television and social media. Or it could be Hallucinatory Terrain, modified to create a false social and scientific landscape. Instead of feeling angry at Trumpers, I'm just grateful that I made the saving throw.

August 19. Going back two weeks, this subreddit post has some thoughts on game changing 21st century technologies: Mars is impossible to terraform without a magnetic field; a caffeine shortage could cripple the industrial economy; AI will falter when it turns out that human labor is cheaper; biotech and drones could be big.

My favorite idea is that "the cellulase gene could be transferred from snails to humans," so that we could eat wood. That would have huge political effects, because there has never been a repressive society where people could easily live off the land.

But I want to go off on a tangent about the psychology of automation. The most powerful force in the world, and in the end, the only powerful force, is intrinsic motivation. If you want to get squishy, you can call it love. If people love doing something, you don't need to pay them, you don't need to burn oil or build windfarms to get the job done. Money and energy are props to raise and hold up a system that's built out of stuff that no one really wants to do. Also violence.

So mechanization only seems like a good idea in the context of a society that's already built out of onerous tasks. Capitalists can concentrate wealth without having to deal with labor. Progressives can disconnect production from repression. At the logical extreme, everything useful is done by machines, and all human activity is fun and useless.

I mean, I'd love to get high and play games all day while machines do all the work. But that's unrealistic, and more importantly, all things being equal, people would rather be useful.

This short video on desire lines is mostly about footpaths, and how the trend in college campus design is to not make paved paths until the informal paths reveal how people really want to walk. Now we just have to do the same thing with the entire economy.

August 24. 'Electric mud' teems with new, mysterious bacteria, which can link themselves up into nanowires to move electrons, so they can break down compounds.

Trillions Upon Trillions of Viruses Fall From the Sky Each Day, and they "help keep ecosystems in balance by changing the composition of microbial communities."

Getting weirder, Where Do Viruses Come From? "This post was inspired by a paper published in late 2019 on how viruses shift ecosystems to Lamarckian selection - and how this behavior is indicative of their interstellar origins." Also, "it turns out that MOST viruses carry genetic information that doesn't match anything else we've ever sequenced."

August 26. I just want to point out how funny it is, that young right-wingers love the insult "cuck", and now it turns out that Trumper evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. likes to watch his wife have sex with another man -- the literal meaning of cuck.

Also pure comedy: Melania Trump has renovated the White House Rose Garden, which Jackie Kennedy planted with many colors of flowers -- and now they're all white.

August 29. Three quick thoughts on race. Race is a social construct, and whiteness is a trick to get pale-skinned people to buy into dominator culture. One cool thing my ancestors did was fight the Romans.

On collective guilt: something other people did, that you didn't do, should not be held against you. At the same time, wrong actions come out of wrong cultures, and cultures tend to be passed on.

And on reparations: someday, "owning" land could be defined as indigenous people defined it, as a partnership with the local ecology. If you're not making the land more alive, you have no legal standing over that land. Golf courses would get really interesting.

August 31. I've been feeling uneasy about the words "left" and "right". At the moment, almost all the bad shit is coming from the right, but there have been times and places where the bad shit was coming from the left, and it could happen again. Because the words have no intrinsic social meaning, they can mean anything.

And I don't like that grid, with social freedom and economic freedom, because it has economic freedom backwards. The popular definition of economic freedom is about freedom of money, when it should mean freedom from money -- so the less we have to think about money, the more economic freedom we have.

The grid that I'm proposing, is based on what I call moral competence -- not moral intelligence, because we think of intelligence as fixed, and competence as something we can change.

The lower a person's moral competence, the more they think that might makes right; and the higher a person's moral competence, the more they see others as friends.

There are two dimensions of this. One is the range of actions for which you think might makes right, or doesn't. The other is the range of people against whom you think might makes right, or doesn't.

Starting with actions: In a society with no moral competence, it's okay for a thug to beat up your grandmother and take all her stuff, because he's bigger and stronger. Our society is better than that, but not by much.

We don't think that physical might makes right, but capitalism is grounded on the idea that financial might makes right, that it's okay for someone with more money to use that advantage over people with less money.

In our politics and advertising, rhetorical might makes right, so it's okay for persuasive people to use their advantage over gullible people.

In Silicon Valley, cerebral might makes right, so it's expected that the people with the most brainpower will leverage it into social power.

And in the entire economy, motivational might makes right. People who love to be busy all day are "hard workers" who have earned wealth and power, while people with low tolerance for busyness can barely survive.

So on the action-axis of moral competence, our society is low, but not zero.

The people-axis of moral competence is about the size of your in-group, the people you treat as friends and not as objects of your power. At the low end is extreme individualism, an in-group of one. At the high end, your in-group is all life everywhere, and there is no out-group.

Update: thinking about it more, it's not really a grid, but two questions in sequence: 1) Where do you draw the line between in-group and out-group? 2) To what extent, in each group, do you think might makes right? You could make a chart of the answers, but it would be more complicated than one-person one-dot.

The culture war in the west right now is between those who want everyone to expand their in-group, and those who want the freedom to keep their in-group small. That's what the new right means by freedom, and that's the real message of the anti-maskers, the climate deniers, the social service slashers: don't ask me to make sacrifices for people I don't know personally.

September 2. The five stages of culture war:

1. Self-acceptance. You no longer think you're crazy, immoral, or inferior.

2. Private communities. You can do your thing with other people, even if it's still illegal.

3. Public tolerance. You have basic rights to do your thing, even if people don't like it.

4. Public acceptance. The difference between tolerance and acceptance is subtle, and the main benefit is you can have higher status, which is why I think it's overrated.

5. Domination. Everyone has to do your thing.

For example, gay rights. In the 1950's, you were lucky to be at stage 1. Now, in most of America, you're at stage 4. There is no plan for stage 5, but some people seem to be afraid there is.

Or kneeling for the national anthem. Colin Kaepernick is still blacklisted from the NFL for breaking into stage 3, but this year's NWSL games were pushing stage 5, with uneasiness about players who did not kneel. Having to kneel is bad, but it's no worse than having to stand, which has been normal for decades. What is it about anthems and conformity?

Also, the movement through stages can go in the other direction. Racism in America used to be almost at stage 5, and now it's fallen all the way to stage 2.

September 7. What David Graeber Noticed is a nice overview of his life's work and why it's important. From the archives, here's a post I made five years ago about Graeber's essay on fun.

Related: Teens' anxiety levels dropped during pandemic. "Researchers surveyed 1000 secondary school children in southwest England. They said the results were a 'big surprise' and it raised questions about the impact of the school environment on teenagers' mental health." Of course, most kids hate school because it's regimented, authoritarian, and makes learning unfun for the rest of your life. A few kids love school, and they go on to rule society and make it continue to suck for everyone else.

September 11. Lately I've noticed, in American culture, an obsession with lying. And also, a failure to understand what lying is.

Lying is not an ontological act. It's not about what's true. Lying is a social act. It's when someone derives what they say, not from whatever they're talking about, but from the expected effect on their audience.

What we call a "lie detector" doesn't even detect that. It tries to detect when someone says something different from what they're thinking. If we had machines that did this perfectly, and we hooked them up to politicians, Trump would pass every time, because he has mastered the skill of completely believing whatever he says.

In one sense, everything he says is a lie, because it's all derived from the expected effect on his audience. In another sense, nothing he says is a lie, because he is never conscious of any tension between his mouth and his head. That's why he seems so authentic to his followers.

Another tool against political lying is a fact-checker. But who decides what the fact-checker believes? How can we trust it? As the world gets more complex, there are more and more "facts" that we can't check first-hand, only second-hand through trusted sources. That opens the door for someone like Trump, who with perfect sincerity, mirrors his audience.

If a democracy becomes too complex for a majority of people to understand, it's inevitable that self-interested simplifiers will take power.

Here's an idea for a new anti-lie tech, which might become realistic when we have better brain-hacking. If we can somehow switch off the social regions of the brain, then the subject will be unable to even consider what kind of answer other people are looking for.

September 14. Phosphine Detected In The Atmosphere of Venus, in large enough quantities that it's strong evidence of microbial life. This comment on the Astronomy subreddit explains it. "I think I will always remember this discovery as the first step in learning how common life is in the universe."

September 21. Important Twitter thread about infrastructure decay, specifically an electrical tower where a 97 year old hook broke, causing the 2018 Paradise fire that killed 85 people.

I've been saying for a while now that we'll get an economic collapse but not a tech collapse, but lately I'm thinking there has to be a tech collapse, not only because of the diminishing returns on complexity, but because more of us are unhappy with the effect of technology on our lives.

Something that's always puzzled me is that there's so little infrastructure sabotage. In war, it's totally normal, and it's also common in fiction. Why doesn't some terror group send its members out with shovels to cut fiber optic lines, or hacksaws to cut railroad tracks, or rifles to shoot transformers?

I'm thinking the only reason it hasn't happened, is that everyone still thinks of the tech system as a net benefit to themselves. If that ever changes, look out.

September 25. Of all the writing I do, this blog is at best my third favorite. Number two is my fiction, and number one is my poetry, because it's the tightest. Poetry has come to mean venting about your emotions with arbitrary line breaks, but the way I do it, it's like watchmaking, where every word is a gear that makes the whole thing run. This is one I wrote earlier this year, and just spliced it into book two of my novel.

You must ask the heart, says the head
And chases its own thoughts instead

The heart says, I must ask the gut
And raps on its sickroom floor -- but

That voice never stopped, deep inside
Be still my head, my heart go wide

(So grateful, the hips and the knees
To bear such a lovely disease)

next archive