November - December, 2022

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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.

November 3-4. 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. 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.

November 7. "Fascism" has become a propaganda word, in the sense that everyone agrees that it's bad, and we only disagree about how to define it. 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.

One popular definition comes from this 2003 article by Lawrence Britt, The 14 Characteristics of Fascism. Umberto Eco, who grew up under Mussolini, had already published a different list of 14 Features of Fascism in 1995.

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).

November 11. 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.

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 14. Octopuses caught on camera throwing things at each other. This reminds me of a 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 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.

November 28. 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?

December 1. 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.

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 9. Physics study shows that sheep flocks alternate their leader and achieve collective intelligence. Basically, when a bunch of sheep are deciding how to move around, they "give full control of the group to the temporal leader, but there is also a rapid turnover of temporal leaders." When are humans going to finally be as smart as sheep? Seriously, if rich people had to spend most of their lives being poor, they wouldn't be so clueless. And if they knew they had to go back to poverty, they would make sure it's tolerable.

December 12-14. Last week, while thinking about karma, I started thinking about another question: What does deserve mean? If you have a few minutes, bend your brain trying to come up with a non-circular definition.

If you frame the use of the word as an action, "deserve" is an appeal, maybe to human society, maybe to fate, that situation X be tied to result Y.

When you say the word "should", you're at least admitting that things are not the way you want them to be. But when you say the word "deserve", you're talking about how you want things to be, in the language of how things are.

Deserve is a cognitive error, and also a strategic error, because it's a weak way of asking for things. Deserve puts nebulous longing above cause and effect.

For example, "Everyone deserves food and shelter." This conjures up images of all the people without food and shelter, walking around with an aura of wrongness about them. A stronger phrase is "It would be a better world if everyone had food and shelter," which asks us to imagine what that world would look like. Still stronger, "Here is a law that will make sure everyone has food and shelter."

Does Elon Musk deserve his money? Well, he did the necessary actions to get his money. And it would be a better world if he didn't have it. Do you deserve to be happy? The question does not make sense. Instead ask, what are the actions that will make you happy?

Some feedback on the motivational value of "deserve". Alex comments that the word "makes more sense when it's a story you tell yourself to reinforce a generally desirable, but intermittently-rewarded behavior." And Wesley comments, "People 'deserve' things when I feel I have an obligation to provide those things to the best of my ability."

Making another attempt to define it, "deserve" is an invocation of an open-ended arbiter of rightness outside the self. That open-endedness is an advantage, if you want to feel good about things being a certain way, without getting into the fiddly details. But I still think in the long term it's better to be precise about why you favor things being one way and not another way.

December 19. They Fought the Lawn. And the Lawn's Done. "After their homeowner association ordered them to replace their wildlife-friendly plants with turf grass, a Maryland couple sued. They ended up changing state law."

I remember when I was growing up, every house in the neighborhood had a regular lawn, except this one house where a weird couple lived. One night, someone stole the "Yard of the Month" sign from whatever yard had won it, and stuck it in their yard. They interpreted it as social pressure, and made a half-assed lawn. Now, in the same neighborhood, at least a third of the front yards have no lawns. Also the trees are less pruned, and the whole vibe is more like a wild area. This is all part of a cultural change, where people take less meaning from imposing their will on nature, and more meaning from giving nature space to do its own thing.

December 22. To polish off the year, I've just gone through the text file where I draft posts, and picked out some half-baked short bits.

Why do drugs feel good? Are there substances that have the same effects on consciousness and perception, without the euphoria? If so, I'm curious to try them. If not, why not? Is there a deeper connection between altered perception and feeling good?

What we call the "mind" is the part of the mind that can go off and do its own thing; what we call the "body" is the part of the mind that's connected to other beings.

If you could spawn as a character in a video game, would you rather be struggling to survive and given an exciting quest? Or would you rather be comfortable, with nothing in particular you have to do? How many of our political conflicts could be explained as seeing the world as more or less gamelike?

IQ tests should not be timed. Someone who finishes in 20 minutes, and someone who finishes in three hours, should get the same score if they get the same number of questions right. You might object, what if someone sits in the testing room for a whole week making sure every answer is perfect? I say, give that person an important job.

The effect of AI on creative work, is that human creatives will have to learn to do stuff that AI can't do. Under this pressure, humans are going to learn a lot about what we're good at.

The great creative works of the 2300's will be fanfic, transparently copying the past. They'll look at our copyright law like we look at feudalism.

December 29. Finishing off the year with some music. I've already mentioned the album of the year, Wet Leg's self-titled debut. It's my favorite non-obscure album since Camper Van Beethoven's Key Lime Pie in 1989. Also great, Viagra Boys' third album, Cave World.

Excluding songs from those albums, or maybe not, the song of the year is Hurray For The Riff Raff - Pierced Arrows. It's an instant classic.

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