April - May, 2020

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April 1. A nice trick for understanding economics is to factor out money. An economy is just a bunch of people doing stuff that keeps the system going. The strength of an economy is the overlap between what's necessary to keep it going, and what people want to do anyway. By this definition, a weak economy has to threaten people with hunger and homelessness to get them to do their jobs, and at the other extreme, Utopia doesn't even have the concept of freeloading.

This has actually been done. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers mentions tribes where some people do no productive work their whole lives, and nobody cares. Obviously not every tribe has done it, but even if it's just one, that tells us that it's possible.

In a complex high-tech society, the challenge is distribution, getting stuff to people who aren't making stuff. Communism tried it through central management, which didn't work, and capitalism is trying it through money, which is now also failing. I think the failure of capitalism is a slip between two functions of money: 1) a mechanism of exchange, and 2) a source of the meaning of life.

The problem is, money is zero-sum. If you hang meaning on it, then meaning is zero-sum, and it gets sucked up by people at the top. The poor become NPC's in the quests of the rich.

That system is now breaking down. Human motivation is the most powerful force on the planet, and as the economy collapses, there is more and more human motivation languishing, waiting to be tapped.

April 3. I'm envious of the countries that have handled Coronavirus well. As an American, I can't imagine what it's like to have everyone put trust in public institutions, and have them earn that trust. Matt writes:

I wonder what it will take for the people of the United States to stop seeing the British Empire in their own government. Our founding mythos is steeped in rebellion and so there's a tendency, I think, for Americans to define themselves in terms of the rebel. If you think of yourself as a rebel, then there has to be a shadow king.

April 6-8. When athletes perform badly, they're said to be "in their head." I don't think I've ever been out of my head. When people say "listen to your heart" or "listen to your gut," they might as well be talking about telepathy. My head does all the work, forcing my body to do stuff all day, and also my head has all the fun: daydreaming, philosophizing, and creative work. But now my head is just about at the end of its rope. If I don't lower my center of gravity, I'm going to flip.

So yesterday, with that intention, I ate four grams of mushrooms, which is like one or two grams for a normal person, and I managed to get far enough outside my head to see how it's working against me. When I reached the plateau, I went for a walk, and tried to keep my attention down. (A couple days later I tried a bottom-up hierarchy of attention, with the highest priority on the soles of my feet, then my center of gravity, then my breathing, and brain last.)

When people talk about their amazing psychedelic trips, it's almost all neck-up. Now I'm thinking, all that eye stuff and head stuff is mostly distracting and ephemeral.

There's a Buddhist parable, where a guy is afflicted by a demon, and he tames it by giving it a curly hair, and telling it to keep the hair straight. The demon keeps running its fingers along the hair to straighten it, and it keeps getting curly again, so the demon can't do anything else.

It's about breath meditation. The reason you focus on your breath, is not because you learn anything from the breath, but because it keeps the head in its place. As long as you're running your attention along that breath, you can't lose yourself in thoughts, and you can still notice your body.

The word "thinking" means so many things. Most people think in a combination of language and pictures, but for some people, it's only one or the other. Then there's completely inside-the-head thinking, which can either play with stuff that's already inside the head, or create new stuff.

Then, when the head looks to the world, it can either look for surprise, for stuff that challenges its internal models, or it can look for recognition, for confirmation of its own models. I have a new theory of collapse: that a culture, or an individual, is in danger of psychological collapse, when inside-the-head thinking and confirmation thinking start echoing back and forth, not anchored by enough model-testing thinking.

April 10. Here's an example of how head intelligence can work against us. Compare the Pics subreddit to the No Context Pics subreddit. The latter has a strict rule, that all pics must be titled simply "PIC". The result is that the quality of images is much higher. In the regular Pics subreddit, upvotes are less about the actual images, and more about clickbait titles: symbolic expressions that are rewarded for how well they fit Reddit culture.

April 12. Some quick notes on Easter. I was raised Catholic, and I totally get the idea of God, and of Jesus as a spiritual leader. But the story of Jesus dying for our sins just never clicked for me. Dying and sins have nothing do to with each other. The ancient meaning of the word that the Bible translates as "sin", is "missing the mark". I don't believe in original sin, but I believe that mistakes are inevitable. And the only redemption for making a mistake, is being in the same situation again and doing the right thing.

If there's a message in the death and resurrection of Jesus, it's that each one of us, by completely accepting all the pain the world gives us, can undergo a kind of spiritual renewal.

New subject, still Easter. This time of year, my town is full of rabbits. While I'm against lawns, a nice side effect is that they provide spring forage for rabbits, and the coyotes come in from the hills to eat them. We hear coyotes howling, inside city limits, several times a day now. Because of Coronavirus, there are way more people out walking around, and the coyotes must know something is up.

April 16. Dougald sends this video, a great conversation between Iain McGilchrist and John Vervaeke.

Around the five minute mark, Vervaeke describes four kinds of knowing: propositional, procedural, perspectival, and participatory. Propositional is what philosophers and computers do. It's all about what statements are true and false. Procedural is knowing how to do something, like ride a bicycle. (The examples all seem to be stuff you do with your body, so I wonder how he would categorize mental procedural skills.) Perspectival knowing is tricky, but his examples are about knowing "what it's like to be" in certain states of consciousness, plus the ability to shift perspective. And participatory is "attunement, fundamental connectedness, being at home... the sense you lose when you're in another culture."

Yeah, I don't have that one at all. This whole human-made world feels like an alien culture to me, always has, and that's a common problem of our times. When people seek "meaning", what they're really seeking is participatory knowing -- and because our culture is front-loaded with propositional knowing, people seek meaning and belonging through beliefs. That's why we have flat-earthers and crazy political ideologies.

Framing it as a mechanism of collapse: when a society 1) fails to give its members fundamental connectedness, and 2) is fixated on propositional beliefs, the inevitable result is that people seek connectedness through beliefs; and when they're looking at a belief, the first thing they're looking at is how it satisfies their need for connectedness, rather than how well it fits reality.

This is an even bigger problem if some people have too much power, or not enough power, because in both cases, they suffer no consequences for beliefs that don't fit reality. And right now, we have a lot of people with either too much power or not enough, so there's a lot of room for beliefs to go wrong. And when public policy is driven more by belonging-based propositions, than by doing-based and being-based knowing, there's trouble.

April 20-21. There's a famous Alan Watts line, "When you get the message, hang up the phone." He wrote it in the context of psychedelic drugs, immediately after this line: "Psychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs are no longer necessary or useful." In other words, all of drugs have only one good message, and once you get that message, you should never do drugs again.

But every time I do psychedelics, including cannabis, I get a new message -- as long as I don't do them too often. I find another piece of advice more useful: "Don't chase the pink elephant." The pink elephant could be weirdness, or euphoria, or the tease of final truth, but whatever it is, it leads you farther and farther into drug-land, and no good will come of chasing it.

Instead, when you get something that you can apply to sober-land, come back and apply it. And then, from that place of balance, go out again.

Matt comments: "I've had spiritual teachers warn me away from psychedelics, and cannabis, on the idea that they scramble your aura or something. But I can't help but feel that most of the aversion to them in spiritual circles is a remnant of Old-World morality."

I agree. I've put a lot of time into meditation, and it has yet to give me even a hint of spiritual, philosophical, creative, or euphoric value. The value is entirely practical: I can more quickly notice the onset of bad mental states, and get out of them, or through them. It's completely different from the value I get out of drugs, although it is a big help in managing drug trips.

April 22. Stephen Wolfram article, Finally We May Have a Path to the Fundamental Theory of Physics. The basic idea is that you can get an extremely complex system, by applying a simple rule recursively, and he's trying to find the rule that will create our universe.

The kind of rules he's looking at, are rules for transforming a system of relations. This fits with an idea that's strange to western metaphysics, but common outside it: that relations are more fundamental than things.

At the end of the article, after a lot of heavy technical stuff, he concludes:

So what does all this mean for our original goal - of finding a rule to describe our universe? Basically it's saying that any (computation universal) rule will do - if we're prepared to craft the appropriate description language. But the point is that we've basically already defined at least some elements of our description language: they are the kinds of things our senses detect, our measuring devices measure, and our existing physics describes.

This reminds me of Donald Hoffman's work, summarized in this article from last year, The Case Against Reality. The basic idea is that our senses have not evolved to see reality as it is, but to see increasingly useful representations, like how our computer shows us desktop icons, instead of silicon chip schematics. Even physics and astronomy are not seeing reality, only squinting at pixels. From Hoffman's conclusion:

We suppose that the long sweep of spacetime, with its countless stars and planets, is the preexisting stage for an accidental drama in which we are bit players. We think it's faintly mad to suppose otherwise. But we're mistaken. We are the authors of space and time; their myriad contents are our impressive stagecraft.

And from Wolfram's conclusion:

While we view our universe - and reality - through our particular type of description language, there are endless other possible description languages which can lead to descriptions of reality that will seem coherent within themselves, but which will seem to us to correspond to utterly incoherent and meaningless aspects of our universe.

I've always assumed that any entity that exists in our universe must at least "experience the same physics as us". But now I realize that this isn't true. There's actually an almost infinite diversity of different ways to describe and experience our universe, or in effect an almost infinite diversity of different "planes of existence" for entities in the universe.

May 11. Catching up on Coronavirus, of all the experts I've seen on CNN, Laurie Garrett is the most interesting. She mentioned that most of the people who die from Coronavirus have high blood pressure, and that it's turning out to be more of a cardiovascular disease than a respiratory disease. It's also really weird as viruses go, with new vectors of transmission popping up, and an incubation period anywhere from two days to two weeks.

More weirdness: Last month I saw an interview with a nurse at the Seattle-area rest home where it hit early, and she said that not one patient had a runny nose, but that all of them were red around the eyes, like red eye shadow. That's the only time I've heard mention of that symptom.

Garrett says the best case scenario is three years, and that's if we get a slam-dunk vaccine and vaccinate everyone in the world. My comment: as potential vaccines take longer, are more expensive or fiddly, and have more bad effects, we come closer to the best move being global herd immunity, where most of the world gets it, and we just slow it down enough so that hospitals don't get overwhelmed.

Here's a big Reddit thread, What positive effects has the quarantine had for you? Also, Small Farms in N.Y. Are Experiencing a Surprising Boom.

May 15. Just read this in an email:

We have homo sapiens, the people who know, which somehow became homo sapiens sapiens, the people who know they know. Maybe someday we'll reach homo sapiens sans sapiens, the people who know they don't know.

May 22-27. This week, Leigh Ann and I have been watching two TV shows on Hulu that are near opposites. Little Fires Everywhere is a social horror show. Everyone is hypervigilant and super-nice, because the environment is so delicate that the slightest mistake could lead to disaster. I hate it, but I'm watching it anyway because it's really well done.

At the other extreme, Letterkenny is a rapid-fire deadpan comedy about smart hicks in Canada. Everyone says exactly what they're thinking all the time, conflicts rise and fall like waves in the ocean, and at the end of the day everyone is friendly.

Now, which of those worlds would you rather step into? And why do we find ourselves in the other one?

When I think more about Letterkenny, its fictional citizens achieve social utopia, not through a simple rule that you can say anything, but through a really difficult skill. The best I can explain it is that they remain playful at all times. It takes a lot of social agility to keep playfulness from veering into meanness. People need to know each other and trust each other at a level that gets more difficult as a community gets larger and has more people entering and leaving.

I wonder if this is part of how social media is causing mass anxiety. The internet is too thin a connection to discern playfulness from meanness, so we're all afraid to be playful and afraid of other people being mean.

Matt comments:

People are more playful when status matters less and meaner when it matters more.

My friend recently wrote a play about male body issues and, after a reading of it, the men got into a discussion about how when guys are one-on-one, we can be vulnerable. When guys are in a group -- at least, American guys my age -- there's an invisible social pressure to assert dominance, which is usually done through being verbally mean. Ragging on each other. In the best guy groups, the meanness is matched with playfulness. You might say something superficially mean, but there's affection underneath. Once you leave your group, though, or the dynamic changes because of a new member or woman, there's less guarantee of playfulness.

I think the playfulness comes from trust, but there's also a way in which trust is built through tests of superficial meanness. If the superficial meanness gets answered with real meanness, then there's no trust and just more meanness. But if the superficial meanness gets answered with more superficial meanness -- that is, if you signal that you can handle rough play -- then you get more rough play. And the playfulness leads, sometimes, to real moments of vulnerability with each other.

And Rob sends this reddit comment by Gizortnik on male bonding, with a great metaphor of testing boundaries by throwing rubber balls, versus throwing bricks to actually hurt people.

Taking a step back, even if we perfectly understand the skills that each individual needs for a social organism to be healthy, we're still talking about really hard skills. I mean, I've aced college-level math classes, I've written a novel, I've fixed up a house, I'm more than 50 years old, and I still have no clear sense of where the line is between a social rubber ball and a social brick. In some future utopia, either kids are going to need years of training in this stuff, or the culture needs to still run smoothly if our skills are second-rate.

May 29, late. I'm watching TV the sound off, listening to music, and these riots are awesome! It's street theater, with just the right level of violence, in which the peasants are confronting the guards.

If the peasants are too aggressive, it hurts their cause. If the guards are too aggressive, the city burns. So the two sides meet on equal terms, in lines in the streets, and suddenly it's completely social. Women come forward and stand there chewing out the cops, and the cops have to listen.

Meanwhile, the men have evolved a gesture. They stand there with their hands up, technically a show of submission, but leaning forward dangerously. In 2050 you can buy a t-shirt of a guy with his arms upraised like that, wearing a covid mask.

May 30. Compare these protests to literally any war. The damage to buildings is less, the rate of serious injury is a tiny fraction, it's much easier to opt out, and a lot of people are having a good time, while in a war, no one is. And yet people will apologize for war and say that it's necessary. Maybe there's a necessary level of domestic unrest.

2020 is supposed to be a bad year, but I'm really impressed with how good a job humans are doing. Coronavirus is a cutting-edge pandemic, and it hasn't even killed one in ten thousand of us. It wasn't long ago that protesters would be cut down with live bullets. Compare the death of George Floyd to the death of Emmett Till, a 14 year old who was lynched after being falsely accused of flirting with a white woman, nobody was held accountable, and that was only 1955.

In 1955 Spain had a strict-definition fascist dictator, and now they have a guaranteed income. In 1955 there was no ecology movement, homosexuality was a mental illness, the average woman had five children, and psilocybin hadn't even been named yet. I mean, we still have a long way to go in terms of policy, but if you look at our understanding, it's like humans are finally starting to figure shit out.

May 31. It occurs to me, the people now fighting each other, will be fighting on the same side if the Trumpers try a revolution. I wonder if this ever occurred to the authors of the Second Amendment: that political factions with a lot of guns would be made weaker by their guns. It's because humans have improved morally to the point where deadly force is really bad, and nobody wants to use it, at least domestically. So as soon as someone actually uses a gun, militarized police will respond with overwhelming force.

Meanwhile, other political factions have developed ways to engage the police without deadly force, and they have carved out a small grey area in the state monopoly on violence.

I know this was all sparked by bad cops, and these protests are a tactical move to reform policy. But that's not the only thing going on. This is also an attempted revival of primitive warfare, best described by Stanley Diamond in the book In Search of the Primitive. Of course low tech doesn't magically make people nice. But a lot of tribal cultures, and a lot of wild animals, know how to settle conflicts with physical aggression, while minimizing death and serious injury.

This archaic revival is still really clunky. Humans are not ready to revoke the state monopoly on violence. But that should be our long-term goal: laws about attacking people or property, that are blind to whether the attackers or victims are wearing uniforms.

And even if the police were perfect, I still think there is a healthy level of social unrest, and a good society will have room for careful street fighting, and well-constrained destruction of the human-made world. Some day, this kind of thing could be part of a festival.

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