December 2021 - January 2022

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December 6. Reality shifting: psychological features of an emergent online daydreaming culture.

RS, described as the experience of being able to transcend one's physical confines and visit alternate, mostly fictional, universes, is discussed by many on Internet platforms.... The experience of shifting is reportedly facilitated by specific induction methods involving relaxation, concentration of attention, and autosuggestion. Some practitioners report a strong sense of presence in their desired realities, reified by some who believe in the concrete reality of the alternate world they shift to.

Obviously these worlds aren't real, but it's interesting that there is a cultural trend of more intensive imagination. It's anyone's guess if this is a dead end, or if it's leading somewhere.

Related: a smart blog post from 2017, Reality has a surprising amount of detail. The same thing struck me after playing on the Oculus and then taking the garbage out. In VR, there's a limit to how deep you can zoom before you get to one pixel. In reality -- and you could even use this as a definition of reality -- no matter how deep you zoom, there's always more. That's why physicists will never find a final particle or a grand unifying theory.

December 9. Smart article on decline, America Is Running on Fumes. (alternate paywall workaround)

There's lots of stuff about the decrease in new ideas, why it's happening, and how to fix it. But my favorite part is about all the changes at the end of the 19th century:

Imagine going to sleep in 1875 in New York City and waking up 25 years later. As you shut your eyes, there is no electric lighting. There are no cars on the road. Telephones are rare. There is no such thing as Coca-Cola, or sneakers, or basketball, or aspirin. The tallest building in Manhattan is a church.
A quarter-century hibernation today would mean dozing off in 1996 and waking up in 2021... Compare "cars have replaced horses as the best way to get across town" with "apps have replaced phones as the best way to order takeout."

I think this is unfair, but it's also a really powerful idea, to look for 25 year periods where one kind of thing changed a lot. If you're lgbt, you'd probably rather have the cultural changes from 1990-2015 than the technological changes from 1875-1900.

Or consider all the cultural inventions and openings from 1960-1985. If I could time travel to 1875, I'd rather have that upgrade, than the upgrade that actually happened. A world with punk rock and horses sounds pretty cool.

Of course, the tech changes were necessary for the cultural changes. The music of the 1960's required fully distributed phonographs and radios. And yet, phonographs and radios were around for decades before they drove a renaissance. So I'm wondering, what things have already been invented, that are still waiting for their golden age?

December 18. Wolves make roadways safer, generating large economic returns to predator conservation. Related, from a Reddit comment in a thread about quicksand:

Wolves. Never a threat. Often encountered them doing field research in the Canadian wilderness. We could walk right through the middle of a pack. They'd trot over to our camp, lay down and just stare with a mild curiosity. Sometimes they'd have a bit of blood on their faces where it had been deep in a carcass but zero aggression towards us. Their cubs would play with anything dangling. After a while the pack would get up and just trot off as if 'nothing interesting here.'

December 20. A few notes on Las Vegas. The best food we had was the Korean-Mexican fusion at Best Friend. But the best restaurant overall was Superfrico, which had great food, interesting cocktails, and a really cool environment including a live DJ and performers who played saxophone and juggled right above our table. All for less than half the price of seeing Donny Osmond.

The best immersive environment was easily Omega Mart. It's like if a supermarket were designed by an AI, or by aliens. The whole place is packed with creativity, and I want to avoid spoilers, but behind the scenes it's even better. Impressionism was only invented 150 years ago, and already we have trippy art that you can go inside of.

What I found most interesting about Las Vegas in general was its advanced artificiality. Even where it's done without creativity, it's mind-boggling how many dollars and hours have been poured into shaping coarse matter into eye candy. This is something humans have been doing since ancient times, and we've never been this good at it.

You could make the argument that we will never again be this good at it, given that we've done it with nonrenewable resources and a social order that's losing its grip on human motivation. But I like to imagine that we've barely scratched the surface of our potential as world-builders.

I probably don't do as much LSD as I should, but when I do, I always get this insight: that compared to the beauty and complexity of nature, the human-made world is clunky and ugly, like toddlers playing with blocks.

At one store in The Venetian, I saw a six foot H.R. Giger-style alien sculpture, all made out of stainless steel machine parts. But if it were to actually work, the parts and their arrangement made no sense. I saw cool steampunk costume goggles, too fragile to be used as real goggles. The Conservatory at the Bellagio tried to make something beautiful out of living plants, and it was inferior to an actual forest, and also to many of the completely artificial environments nearby.

My point is, we have a lot of room to integrate the aesthetic with the functional. Deep in Omega Mart is a musical instrument whose strings are lasers, each making a different sound as you block it with your finger. Someday, when we've solved the paradox of labor-increasing technology, and we all have lots of time for creative projects, that kind of thing might be common.

And we have even more room to integrate the human-made and the non-human-made. Instead of an artificial tree with glowing leaves, we could have a real tree where the lights feed its photosynthesis. We could do sewage treatment by running the waste through dense arrangements of water-cleaning plants. And those are technologies that we already know about. What might we do in a thousand years, when we have morphic field generators, and silicon dendrites, and fractal-iterating fabricators?

Related, from 2012: Any Sufficiently Advanced Civilization is Indistinguishable from Nature

December 24. For the holiday, I want to write about Christianity. I was raised Catholic, and it occurs to me, I'm still more Catholic than I am Christian. It's not a coincidence that my favorite singer-songwriter, Colleen Kinsella, and my favorite sci-fi author, Roger Zelazny, are both ex-Catholics. Catholicism, more than any other spiritual tradition, knows how to make the woo-woo luminous.

Growing up, I always understood the idea of God, but the idea of Jesus never clicked for me. Now I identify as an esoteric monotheist, where "God" is the incomprehensible universal consciousness. But it doesn't make sense for that kind of God to have a son -- that would be more like Zeus.

If "the son of God" is pagan, then "died for our sins" is Dadaist. What do dying and sins even have to do with each other? A sin is a mistake, and the thing to do for a mistake is to be in the same situation and behave correctly. I know there's an ancient tradition of human sacrifice, where a person is killed to make things better, but that doesn't make it any less nonsensical. And yet, like unboxing videos, "The son of God died for our sins" resonates on a deep level with people of many cultures.

After I wrote some of the above in a Reddit comment, I had a dream, in which the actual message of Jesus was both difficult to understand and difficult to put into practice. So the early leaders of Christianity, seeking to grow their movement, changed it to an easier message. Of course dreams are not a reliable historical source, but probably that's what really happened, because that's what happens with everything famous.

My best guess is, Jesus was a guy with high spiritual intelligence who did a lot of mushrooms and had some great insights. "Judge not, that you be not judged" is probably the most useful advice ever given, and I love the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. For me, the crucifixion and resurrection are a metaphor, for how each one of us can transcend suffering by fully facing the pain before us.

January 2, 2022. The turnover of the year is a nice motivational tool to make changes, and there are different kinds of changes. When people talk about New Year's resolutions, they're usually talking about changing habits, or default behaviors. The main thing I want to work on this year is being more physically present in every moment. I'm making it a game, where I break my actions down to small things: open dishwasher, put spoon in, close dishwasher; and I count how many things I can do in a row before I mess up and have to do something twice. This includes typing without having to hit backspace all the time.

Another kind of change you can make is in your priorities for living. The last couple years I've been thinking more about death, which generally feels like a relief. But the closer I get to understanding it, the more I see that I really don't want to die -- I want to continue living with no responsibilities. So that's my number one priority from here on: to minimize the number of things I have to do. Part of this is that I'll probably be blogging less, especially on hot-button subjects. Or, as I wrote last month in this thread: I used to want to be Gandalf, the famous wizard who saves the world. Now I want to be Radagast, the obscure wizard who hangs out with trees.

January 5. Again with the new year, I want to check in with the ongoing collapse. It's going pretty fast lately -- if you were to take the rate of change and breakdown over the last five years, and keep it going for a hundred years, it would be way more than in any hundred year period of the decline of Rome.

Maybe the rate of collapse will slow, but it can't turn around. The nonrenewable resources are almost gone, the climate is sliding into chaos, and our institutions are bloated and ossified. The skillbase is shrinking, to continue the world as we know it, as that world's needs increase.

But it would be a mistake to take a general forecast of decline, and project it on every place and every person. I have a hypothesis that a falling society is more granular than a rising society. If you go from town to town in the 2050's, or from neighbor to neighbor, you'll see bigger differences in how people are living, and how happy they are, than you would have seen in the 1950's. Already, during Covid lockdown, some people were having the worst time of their lives while other people were having the best.

One thing that would shift the whole bell curve toward worse, is if people are going hungry. But wherever there's enough food, I'm optimistic that human ingenuity will come up with some cool stuff. In the best places, they won't even tell the story of having gone through a crash, but of figuring out better ways to do things while the old ways died out.

It's fun to imagine what the world might look like in a few hundred years. Some things we could never guess, but I expect the population will have fallen, and because of that, there will be a lot of ghost towns and abandoned urban sprawl. The economy will not be based on exponential growth, unless it's hurrying toward another collapse. Will they be digging up our landfills for scraps, and reading our mouldering books for ancient wisdom, or will they have moved on to a way of life that doesn't need us?

January 10. Today's subject is anxiety. Here are two transcripts of interviews with anxiety specialist Judson Brewer, one by Ezra Klein (paywalled) and one by Rich Roll (with transcribed ads).

The basic idea is, anxiety is something that your brain constructs. And the more time you invest in watching your brain in action, the more skill you have in consciously choosing what it does.

There's a lot of discussion of anxiety as a habit, and I've noticed the same thing. I have a physical habit, when I'm stressed out, of blinking my eyes really hard. It must have a genetic basis, because my grandmother did it all the time. The way to fix a physical bad habit, eye-blinking or teeth-grinding or whatever, is to build a meta-habit of noticing that habit, and immediately stopping it. This isn't just something you can decide to do -- you have to practice until you get good at it.

Telling a depressed person to just cheer up, is like telling an out-of-shape person that they can climb Mt. Everest by just walking uphill. That advice vastly underestimates the difficulty, but it's not wrong. One of my favorite sets of lyrics, Camper Van Beethoven's Lulu Land, has the line "How can you lose when you choose what you feel?" Choosing what you feel is probably harder than winning an Olympic gold medal or a Nobel Prize, because people have done those things while still being emotionally unhealthy. But I think it's possible.

Something I did last fall, which was surprisingly helpful for my mental health, was dogsitting with two neurotic dogs for more than two weeks. The way to clean up a dog's behavior is to give it plenty of attention, and the moment it starts to do something you don't like, immediately correct it. How exactly to discipline a dog is a huge subject, with plenty of room for error -- as is correcting your own mental behavior. But they're not that different.

There are TV shows and movies in which a person has multiple people inside their head. That's a valuable metaphor, but what the shows get wrong, to fit the medium, is making the people verbal. The stuff you have to notice, to straighten out your emotions, is pre-verbal. By the time your head is making words, it's too late.

January 12-14. Continuing on anxiety, I think that it's correlated with a pattern of attention, in which you're small in space and big in time. For example, you're fixated on a single social media post, worrying that it will ruin your career, which can actually happen. Conversely, you can reduce anxiety by being big in space and small in time: focusing on your full sense experience in this moment.

I have a new exercise, when I'm going for a walk, where I alternate my visual attention between big and small. For a few seconds, I'll focus my mind on my full field of view, periphery to periphery, and then for a few seconds I'll focus on some tiny detail. Something I've noticed is, the big view feels better than the small view, but going small feels better than going big.

Related: Nightwalking is a 1991 article about the practice of walking around at night, without artificial light, focusing only on your peripheral vision. "Fear, anxiety and even physical pain are seemingly associated with focused vision, while peripheral processes engender relaxation and delight."

Also related, an animated video about Iain McGilchrist and the divided brain.

And Dominic quotes Scott Thybony's book Burntwater: "...the Navajos have two ways of looking at the landscape. One's with hard eyes and the other's with soft eyes. Hard eyes are used when looking for things like game, water, pop machines. Soft eyes are used to take in the beauty of the scene."

January 20-24. Two new articles on virtual reality. When art transports us, where do we actually go? It's a good question, but the answers are just a bunch of fancy language for stuff that should be obvious. Conclusion: immersive experiences are valuable for how they change us when we come back to the real world.

It's hard to say anything on this subject that's both correct and interesting. This article starts with something interesting but incorrect: Virtual reality is genuine reality, says philosopher David Chalmers. Then he backs off and says, yeah, we still have to respect the physical world.

Even professional philosophers struggle to define "real". Real is other people, whether they be humans, cats, or entities that we can't understand from our tiny perspective. Real is a direction of consciousness, toward the relationships that connect the illusory self to the Universal. Real is turning outward, and unreal is turning inward to our own creations: dreams and nightmares, gardens and prisons, video games and cryptocurrencies.

I love video games. I wish I could step into the world of Legend of Zelda Wind Waker, and cross the edge of that game into an infinite world with the same vibe. And maybe somewhere there is a real world with that vibe. But you can't get there through a game.

It's possible right now to make a game that teaches basic ecology better than a real forest. But at some point you have to go to a real forest if you want to keep learning. That's why future humans are not going to spend their whole lives in VR, tied by a thread to the physical world.

I don't think we have a lot of room to go deeper into artificiality than we already are. The next frontier is not packing more pixels into our vidscreens, or hacking our brains to sense what's not there. The next frontier is hacking our brains to sense what is there, better -- or through a different filter.

My favorite thing to do is take a walk in the non-human-made world, on drugs. Then I take the same walk sober, and I'm like, damn, sobriety sucks. Human default cognition is great for general purpose use. You can drive, do your job, make dinner, read a book, whatever. But for almost any specific purpose, there is a better cognitive mode, if we can get there.

So, will future humans take different drugs all day, to fit what they're doing? That has already happened. People drink coffee in the morning and take melatonin before bed. We get drunk or high to party, and athletes take whatever performance enhancing drugs they can get away with. The reason steroids are forbidden, is that if everyone does them, the whole baseline shifts, and then everyone has to use a substance that's bad for them in the long term.

But again, that already happened with cigarettes, which make a lot of service industry jobs tolerable. I wonder if that's part of why so many people are quitting their jobs now, because the jobs were designed in a context of near-universal cigarette use, and non-smokers can't put up with that shit.

Imagine a drug that gives you microsecond reaction time, so everyone takes it for driving, and then we can greatly increase speed limits with only a small increase in traffic deaths. Then you have to take the drug every time you drive, or you'll crash. That's the kind of mistake we have to watch out for, as we develop better drugs.

There's a third way that technology can claim to improve our perception: augmented reality. And if I'm trying to build a dystopia, augmented reality is a lot more exciting than VR and drugs. If China could afford it, they would already have everyone walking around with a headset, showing everyone else's social credit score. Augmented reality is an overlay of stories, about whatever you're looking at, where those stories are told by whoever controls the technology.

January 26. It's funny how times have changed. I've written stuff about God that would get me burned at the stake in the 1600's. In the 2000's, "God" is a big-tent word -- whatever it means to you, you're in. This seems like progress in religious tolerance, but only because the word "religion" points to two different things: 1) beliefs about the unseeable world, and 2) beliefs that anchor your identity and meaning of life.

The word "religion" has stuck with the first thing, while the second thing, the tribalistic fervor about how things are, has shifted from the divine to the mundane.

I think this is what we wanted all along. Only now do we have the speed of information to keep tabs on the physical world, and the breadth of interpretation to disagree about stuff that you can actually look at.

January 31. Great thread on Ask Historians: In pc games like Civilization, technology is portrayed as linear and progressive, i.e., once something is invented, it stays invented. In light of history, is that a generally correct representation?

The short answer is no, and in the top comment, Iphikrates explains why:

To put it simply, technology is practice. It does not emerge or exist outside of its practical application within a society, economy, or culture. It is not pursued or preserved for its own sake. It has no intrinsic value. A given technology either has a use (in which case it may be developed and passed on) or it doesn't.

Also from Iphikrates, this comment from six months ago explains it in more detail: is only one element of industrialisation, and arguably not even a causal one. The process doesn't happen because of new tech; new tech is invented to facilitate the process. The actual causes have more to do with the availability of certain resources (capital, labour, ingenuity) to meet certain economic and political challenges within a global network of trade and colonialism. Without this complex system of factors in place, industrialisation could never have happened anywhere. Plunk a fully functioning steam engine down in Bronze Age Mesopotamia and I guarantee you that absolutely nothing will happen.

There are several directions I can go with this. One is to notice that the same thing can happen with cultural technologies: ways of thinking and perceiving, ways of being human, that only develop in certain conditions.

But today I'm thinking about the fate of mechanical technologies in a general collapse. With the infrastructure decaying, it's easy to extrapolate to a world where all bridges have fallen. Really, the skillsets for building and repairing bridges will be in high demand everywhere. So those skills will not die out -- but places that can't compete for bridge-builders will lose their bridges.

Historically, complex technologies start in places with dense populations, and work their way out to the sticks. So the present collapse -- with some exceptions -- will go the other way. Rural areas will become postapocalyptic, and well-managed cities will muddle through.

So what counts as a "city"? John Mellencamp's song "Small Town", which romanticizes a lot of terrible hellholes, was actually written about Bloomington Indiana, a city of 80,000 people, the same as ancient Thebes at its peak.

My point is, in the coming decades, there will be huge local variation in quality of life, and some of the best places will be smaller cities with a high proportion of educated people.

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