October - November, 2020

previous archive

October 2. Yesterday I ate five grams of Psilocybe cubensis and went to a patch of ancient woods at the edge of town. It's called Magpie Forest. Here's a photo I took. The trees are mostly hawthorn, wiry and gnarled. We used to walk across the wheat fields to get there. Now the apartment district has expanded right to the edge of it, and WSU has bought the property as a nature preserve.

I'm not going to drive on mushrooms, so I had to ride my bike there, and the first thing I noticed was how far uphill it is. For almost half an hour, I was mostly climbing, sometimes so steep that I had to get off and walk.

When I got there, the drugs were taking effect, and I locked my bike to a tree and went down a little-used footpath, and then up a wildlife trail aiming for the center. It got too dense, and there were ants, so I backed up, and borrowed a bed from a deer to ride out the launch.

I have a thick head against mushrooms. The trip's plateau, even after I smoked weed on top, was hardly trippy, and I was disappointed to not see crystalline geometry in the branches, or sense the personalities of individual trees, like I did on my last trip.

But I did get a sense of the vibe of the forest. Compared to river trees, hill trees are hostile and suspicious. But they really know how to have fun. If you could get outside of time, you'd see them dancing in the meadows.

I found some cool places, including a patch of bare dirt, made by a large bird for dust baths, before a great thistle luminous in the sun. It felt like a temple, and I scattered some catnip seeds I brought from the river trail.

The biggest insight I got, was after a few hours in the woods, coming to the edge and looking down on the human-made world. It didn't strike me as evil, or ugly, but unreal. These strange animals, with their clickety-clack machinery, have taken the bounty of the earth and used it to go ever deeper inside their own insane constructions, and they don't even like it. It's anyone's guess how long they can keep going.

October 7. We Learn Faster When We Aren't Told What Choices to Make, and we also learn faster when our choices have consequences. It seems like both of these are increasingly missing. More than our ancestors, we're told what to do all day, and we don't see how it matters what we do. "This insight could also help explain delusional thinking, in which false beliefs remain impenetrable to contrary evidence. An outsize feeling of control may contribute to an unflagging adherence to an erroneous belief."

Or, human society has become so constricted and insulated, that our only opportunity to make real choices and see real feedback, is to make clearly wrong choices.

October 9. Today I want to make a reality-based case for Donald Trump. But first, the anti-reality case: that Trump is a man of high character, a skilled entrepreneur, who has come to Washington to clean up corruption.

The reality is just the opposite. He's probably the most immoral president since Andrew Jackson; if he'd taken the money he got from his dad and just put it in normal hands-off investments, he would have more money than he has now, so he's not even a good businessman; and more than any recent president, he uses the office to serve his friends ahead of serving the whole, which is the definition of corruption.

If Trump is really an enemy of the super-rich, why hasn't he called for mass cancellation of debts? He himself has huge debts, and he's had them cancelled many times in the past by declaring bankruptcy. Debt cancellation was a big part of ancient agrarian cultures, whose patriarchal and xenophobic values still echo through the Republican party. Trump won't do it, because he's an authoritarian, who believes it's good and right to leverage power over others into greater and more secure power.

The reality-based case for Trump is to accept all this, but flip its meaning, by supposing that he is serving America, not on the level of politics, but on the level of psychology. In that case, the worse he is, the better he is.

You have to admit, Trump has made America more alive. He's made us less comfortable, and more alert. CNN goes on about his lies, and they're not wrong, but what they're missing is how much hidden stuff he has brought into the open, especially the mental weaknesses of his followers, and the structural weaknesses of our democracy.

Trump did everything he could to help COVID-19, because the harder the virus hits us, the more we have to learn to be adaptable -- which we need to learn, because our civilization is collapsing.

Trump is a controlled burn of a system with too much dead wood. He's a vaccine to strengthen us against future dictators. He's a shaman who has exposed our poor reality creation hygeine. He's an auditor who came in to see how much bad shit he could get away with, and it's way too much. If you get mad at him, you've missed the point. Trump is the big bad wolf, who blew down our house of straw, and now we'll have to build a house of sticks.

October 12. A preview of the coming tech crash, a Hacker News thread, Ferrari is bricked during upgrade due to no mobile reception while underground. Basically, the car has a built-in thing that can disable it, but the thing to un-disable it is not built in, but requires a fully functioning technological civilization. So, if products that are easier to brick than unbrick reach a critical mass, then a single breakdown can cascade to brick them all.

October 16. This subreddit post quotes Noam Chomsky on human intelligence as a lethal mutation. It's true: the key genetic difference between us and chimps is that we have a gene that makes way more neurons in the neocortex, and our brainpower has led us to do terrible things.

I'm not interested in human extinction, because I see it as a less interesting subset of human transformation: the most likely way we'll go extinct is to change ourselves into something that seems better, but it turns out to be much less robust.

The top comment in that thread, by Voidgenesis, speculates that we're now getting ready for a change as big as the change from Neanderthals to modern humans, or from hunter-gatherers to farmers, "though which group of humans does something crazy and succeeds is anyone's guess."

Voidgenesis thinks we're moving toward hypersocialization, like how honey bees shifted from being solitary to living in hives. An argument for that prediction would be that recent cultural changes are away from tribalism and toward universal brotherhood. I wonder if we're just shifting from vertical to horizontal tribalism. It's like, when I was in middle school, there was a clear hierarchy of cliques. In high school, all those groups were still there, but they lived in peace, and every group thought they were the best.

But you could argue that we're becoming less social. First, the internet has already impoverished our deep and close connections, and our shallow and distant connections are unsatisfying and fragile. Now COVID-19 has separated us even more, with large gatherings basically illegal. There's never been a better time to be an introvert.

Meanwhile, under identity politics, you have the right to identify as almost anything, and not have it held against you. This includes identities that didn't exist before, so inevitably we'll have a larger number of smaller tribes, even tribes of one.

And what's up with autism? I think "the autism spectrum" is a bunch of different things, but one of them could be the leading edge of a biological shift to a new kind of human. A classic sci-fi novel on "homo superior" is Odd John by Olaf Stapledon.

I could be wrong about any of these things. The hardest part of forecasting metamorphosis, is knowing what's the butterfly, and what's the cocoon. For a more human-like metaphor, I'd go with Tolkien: we were orcs, and we're trying to become elves.

So what are elves like? They're long-lived, slow-paced, contemplative, and culturally complex. They have high tech but it's subtle and modest, like super-light ropes and super-nutritious food. Elves would not have freeways or Facebook, but they would have lots of little workshops doing cool stuff. And they would have rules to prevent technology from degrading quality of life. Right now we're at the stage of trying absolutely everything to see what happens. So I imagine, after the next tech crash, we'll at least know about a few things to avoid.

Matt comments:

The spirit of technology is ultimately anti-consumerist, because the spirit of technology says, "Let's make things cheaply, that last a long time, that are easily repaired, and that make the major tasks of surviving less hard." And it's obvious to me that we're already arriving at this point with technologies around water and electricity. Decentralized food-growing tech is only slightly behind.

On my better days, I truly believe that if humans have basic necessities taken care of, then it's only a sick culture that can distort our innate curiosity and sociality into a madness for wealth and (illusory) independence.

October 21. David Graeber on the Extreme Centre. It's about how liberal moderates lack any kind of vision, while "the right wing pretend to be stupid" to get votes from people who resent the cultural elite, and those two sides play out a drama that blocks progressive reform.

I don't disagree with those points, but I disagree with his framing. Graeber was more of a statist than he thought he was, if he thought it was the job of politicians and the government to have a positive vision of the future.

I have a theory, that a person's attitude toward government is a reflection of their attitude toward their parents. So if you had controlling parents and liked them, you like authoritarian government; if you had controlling parents and didn't like them, you fear authoritarian government; if your parents gave you a sense of meaning and purpose, you look to political leaders for a sense of meaning and purpose.

My parents gave me free housing and food, and left me alone to do my own thing, and it was wonderful, so that's what I want from government. They also made me go to school, so what I fear is forced participation in any activity, even if it means well. But if I can just have enough slack, I'm confident that I can find my own path. I don't need Obama to have a vision for me.

So with the election close, I want to make the case for the Democratic party. Yes, they're owned by big money. They lack both the will and the understanding to make America finally adequate. Civilizations have a life cycle, and industrial capitalism is in its prolonged death. It's just a question of who's going to pick the carcass. As always, the main pickers are going to be whoever already has power. But under Democrats, there will be more pickings for the powerless. You're less likely to have to give your energy to some rich person or corporation to be permitted to eat. And if we can just get enough scraps of time and resources, we can build the foundations of the more bottom-up systems of the future.

October 26. I've been thinking about the goal of economic equality, and what that could even mean. Surely it doesn't mean everyone has the same income and assets. The normal answer is equality of opportunity -- but opportunity to do what? To get a position doing something you would not do for free, just because you need the money to not be homeless? Or the opportunity to hire other people who need money, pay them less than their labor is worth, and build power over others on the difference? That's not something everyone should have a right to do -- it's something no one should do.

The only definition I can think of, where "economic equality" is a good thing, is social equality in the realm of economics. Social equality means that no one has power over anyone else, so economic equality means no one has power over anyone else through money. But that's basically what money is for. So economic equality is better framed as freedom from money: in an economically just society, any given person can realistically live a good life without money.

That's already been done, many times and many ways, before money. I'm not imagining a world after money, but a world where money has diminished to a mini-game, like casino chips are now.

Related: The Possibility of Life Without Money, a smart essay about the benefits of making more things free at point of use, like we already do with public restrooms (in the USA) and health care (outside the USA). Also, a classic essay on The Economics of Star Trek.

A reader comments:

It is helpful for me to think about the Communalist concept of the Irreducible Minimum instead of trying to puzzle out a means of economic equality. Simply put, the Irreducible Minimum is comprised of the basic human necessities that a good society should guarantee every member.

Right now, in a money-based society without guaranteed necessities, people with not enough money have to obey people and institutions with excess money. If necessities were guaranteed, workers could to say no to employers a lot more easily. It would be like universal "fuck you money", without the money. Economic inequality would no longer be a problem of justice, only convenience. The whole money economy could no longer prey on desperation, but would have to feed itself on the desire for luxury and status -- which would still make quite a large economy.

So, what stuff exactly would be guaranteed, and how? Right now both questions are hypothetical, and the second is more interesting. For every necessity, from water to health care, I see a spectrum from socialism, which is easy to imagine, to anarchism, which is harder.

So, for guaranteed housing, we could all be provided rooms by the state, and they might be nice, or dreary. The angle I'd rather take, would be to change the whole system to elevate homelessness. First, an absolute right to public sleeping. Second, the right to cross public or private land and camp on it -- and with that right, the obligation to respect the local people and ecology. Third, dedicated parking lots for living in vehicles, next to permanent fairgrounds for rent-free commerce. Fourth, no one may be discriminated against for not having an address.

We have the technology right now to make addresses obsolete: drones that can make deliveries to GPS locations. What if that became cheap and normal? Related: Ghost roads of robot workhorses will power cities through the shocks of the 21st century.

The Last True Hermit is a nice video interview of Michael Finkel, the journalist who covered Christopher Knight, who lived in the woods of Maine for 27 years. Knight had to steal a lot of food to survive, but if drones could bring food to his camp, then he could survive without stealing, on much less money than what's been suggested for a basic income.

So with a modest basic income, the legalization of informal camping, and drone delivery, it would be a realistic lifestyle choice to be a hermit -- or a nomad.

Matt comments:

One high-profile amenity, already in existence, are the showers for homeless people in Vatican City. If we took that concept to the borders of civilization, then we'd have public waystations with free showers and water -- and maybe even food and internet -- at remote locations, allowing people to backpack for a couple weeks and then return and go out again. Allowing this, on say BLM land, would create more jobs: we'd need more rangers.

I know some people who work for the BLM or NPS who already do spend half the year backpacking and river-running around. If the BLM created more infrastructure, and allowed more camping, while observing Leave No Trace rules or something close, I think we'd see an explosion of nomadic communities across the Southwest. I don't even think they'd have to change their 14-day camping rule. With a little forethought, and more rangers, you could loosely organize movement through those areas to minimize impact. (The biggest way they could minimize impact, I think, is by installing a series of composting toilets and outlawing ATVs except in "sacrifice areas.")

If we accede to homelessness and camping on private/public land, then instead of enabling wood burning we could invest in safe, distributed infrastructure for heating. Like, imagine a sprinkling of passive solar heaters across the high desert. When you're ready to camp for the night, in winter, you set up your tent by one and run an air hose to your tent. I mean, I love open fires, but it's fun to think about low-tech, ecologically friendly infrastructure spread across the wilderness. Plus, the very existence of the infrastructure would be an affirmation that it's your right to be there and that someone cares about you even if they choose to live in cities a hundred miles away.

November 2. Posted last week to Weird Collapse, a poorly written and important article, Can too many brainy people be a dangerous thing? There are actually two things going on here. The first is that too many people are being trained in head skills, for sitting in offices manipulating abstractions, when we need more hand skills, for repairing the infrastructure, and emotional skills, for service jobs and de-escalating conflict.

Everyone knows we never use the algebra and geometry that we have to learn in school. I wish I could have taken a class in horticulture, or plumbing, or reading microexpressions. The closest thing schools have, to formal instruction in social intelligence, is sensitivity training based around left wing identity politics. It's a good start. But racism is a subset of classism, treating different categories of people better or worse, and I've never heard of anti-classist training.

That brings us to the second thing the article is about: too many people are being raised to feel entitled to have power over others. And that's something that happens in families. I remember in high school I wanted to take wood shop, because I really liked lathe working in middle school, and my dad made a rare intervention, and said I had to take electronics, because wood shop was low class.

My generation was the first in American history to be poorer than our parents -- and since then every generation has been poorer by a wider margin. But at the leading edge of that decline, I just assumed that because I was "smart" (good at manipulating abstractions), one day I'd be rich. That's why, at age 20, I was a standard evil libertarian. Then when I figured out I was going to be poor, I changed my politics to favor reforms that would make poverty tolerable.

But some people don't. When they see themselves slipping in status, they can't imagine a world where it's okay to be at the bottom; instead, they want to make sure there's always someone below them who they can drop power on. If a bigger monkey can hit me, I should be allowed to hit a smaller monkey. And that's why the political right surges in failing economies.

On a tangent, I wonder what the "right" would be like if they could finally let go of domination. If they quit glorifying "property" as a way to preserve and extract wealth, if they quit defining wealth as a way to make other people do stuff they'd prefer not to do, if they didn't think wearing a uniform should give a person more right to use deadly force, what would be left of the right? Mostly stuff I agree with, like favoring the informal over the formal, and fun over safety. I always say my most right wing opinion is that they should bring back lawn darts.

Election day, 2020. Our whole culture has fallen into a bad head-space about public policy, and it happened through two mistakes. First, the mechanisms of the state have been turned into a performance, a show, which we call "politics". Second, we look to that show to give meaning to our lives.

Put them together, and the actions of the state now follow the rules of myth-making, instead of following the practical interests of the people. That's why rural Americans enthusiastically support a TV host who reflects their culture back at them, while cancellation of farm debts is not even on the radar.

That's why social thinkers who should know better, like me and David Graeber, have critiqued the Democratic party for not having a compelling vision. When I think about it, I don't want politicians to be for anything that's dumb enough to be inspiring on television.

The duty of politicians is to boringly arrange the mechanisms of the state to serve individuals and small groups pursuing their own peculiar visions. Mass media has made that impossible. Enjoy your civil war, America.

November 5. After the election, the big surprise is that Republicans are doing better than Trump. He's hanging by a thread, while they picked up a bunch of seats in the House.

Partly it's because the cultural left has gone too far. I heard about an academic speech code where "grandfathered in" was declared ageist. But I want to focus on the economic right and left, and I'm not claiming any timeless definition of "right" and "left", just looking at what they mean here and now.

This is America, so both sides will say they stand for freedom, but neither does. The right wants you to be forced to serve the more powerful, and the left wants you to be forced to help the less fortunate. Both sides will claim morality, but really it's about personal preference. Do you feel better about serving the powerful, or helping the weak?

Or, to be truly free, in a left wing society you have to be at the bottom, and in a right wing society you have to be at the top. Which of those do you aspire to? Or which do you think is more realistic?

I've been thinking about John Rawls. His big idea is that a society should be judged by the quality of life of its worst-off member. If the left is failing, it's because their idea of minimum quality of life is about industrial comforts, rather than feeling alive. From Vachel Lindsay's War Bulletin #3, 1909:

Let us enter the great offices and shut the desk lids and cut the telephone wires. Let us see that the skyscrapers are empty and locked, and the keys thrown into the river. Let us break up the cities. Let us send men on a great migration: set free, purged of the commerce-made manners and fat prosperity of America; ragged with the beggar's pride, starving with the crusader's fervor. Better to die of plague on the highroad seeing the angels, than live on iron streets playing checkers with dollars ever and ever.

November 9. From the psychonaut subreddit, two no-drug trip reports. When I was a child I fell asleep, woke up inside a womb, was born, lived an entire life, died and woke back up in this life. It's rare, but other people have independently reported the same kind of thing, and the comment thread links to this report of a ten year alternate life in a near-death experience.

This experience is more psychological than metaphysical:

Suddenly, my vision changed and I was inside my body for the first time in my life. I remember looking at my hands and thinking: omg I am a human too! I have a body! ... When my relative came into my room, I felt separated from them for the first time. I could think and choose what to say, I no longer reacted and no longer cared so much about how they perceive me. I did not feel connected any more to anyone. I felt fully inside myself, and other people were other people, with their own thoughts and problems and personalities.... I felt really good and I remember thinking "so this is how everyone else feels, this is what it's like to be human."

We're all walking around assuming that everyone experiences reality the same way that we do, but there are radically different ways to be human, and we only find out if we can somehow shift from one to another. What this person reports, feeling starkly separate from other people, is how I feel all the time.

November 12. My favorite film of the 2010's is The Witch (2015). Every October we watch a lot of horror movies, and when we watched it last year, it stuck with me for days afterward. So this year I rewatched it, and it's not a horror film -- it's an art film: slow-paced, meticulously crafted, with top-notch acting and a radical personal vision. The writer-director, Robert Eggers, went on to make The Lighthouse (2019), which is even more stark and ambitious, and right now he's filming a Viking revenge saga called The Northman.

The Witch is about a Puritan family, in 1630's New England, who are exiled from their fortified town and make a farm at the edge of a spooky primal forest. Spoilers follow... Where a normal horror film might keep the audience in suspense about whether witches are real, we find out right away, when a baby vanishes and the next shot is a hunched figure carrying it through the forest. And then, where a normal movie would have a balanced conflict between the two sides, the overly moral Christians and the amoral forest creatures, The Witch gives us a total curbstomp by the baddies. The family fails to score a single point, except against each other, falling into suspicion and conflict as they're destroyed.

The protagonist, a teenage girl named Thomasin, is the most sane member of the family, and the first one the others blame when anything goes wrong. That's something a lot of us can relate to, being around crazy people who are hostile to anyone who doesn't share their insanity. Also, it was the first big role for Anya Taylor-Joy, who's been in a lot of stuff lately, including the very highly rated show The Queen's Gambit. Her acting is great, but the remarkable thing about her is her look, with eyes almost impossibly large and far apart. If humans really do turn into elves, that's what we'll want to look like.

November 16. The apocalypse continues, as One in five COVID-19 patients develop mental illness within 90 days:

The study analysed electronic health records of 69 million people in the United States, including more than 62,000 cases of COVID-19.... In the three months following testing positive for COVID-19, 1 in 5 survivors were recorded as having a first time diagnosis of anxiety, depression or insomnia.

And the apocalypse continues, as Scientists grow bigger monkey brains using human genes. The study author says: "To let them come to be born, in my opinion, would have been irresponsible as a first step." So, how many steps before Petgenix is selling us talking dogs?

November 23. I just got back from Seattle, where the woods by my sister's house now have a bunch of homeless campers, and the retail neighborhoods are half boarded-up. To prep for the drive home, I took a longer-than-usual break from weed, and my dreams have been more vivid. This morning, I was eluding a tracker in a city, and I entered a library, where I found a tiny book, published in 1898, called Thoughts on the Flat Earth. I read it, and there was nothing about the earth being literally flat, but it was very beautiful.

Then I woke up and saw this awesome video (thanks Arne), Celui qui tombe, a dance that represents life, done on a rotating platform.

November 24. Welcome to the new Middle Ages:

In our economic structure, our politics, our identity and our sex lives we are moving away from the trends that were common between the first railway and first email. But what if the modern age was the anomaly, and we're simply returning to life as it has always been?

I'm not sure if the author is really onto something, or if he's just cherry-picking similarities between us and pre-modern people, that are mostly accidental rather than having some common cause.

For example, celibacy. It was high in the Middle Ages because almost everyone belonged to a religion in which almost everything sexual was immoral. That's no longer the case. My guess is, celibacy is rising now for two reasons. First, we've invented a lot more ways to feel good, which sex has to compete with. Second, our social landscape has become so delicate and complex, that in the journey from first meeting someone to having sex, there are a lot more ways to fail. And keeping a relationship going is even harder.

Related: a review of a new book called The Light Ages, about how medieval people were a lot smarter than modern people think.

next archive