August - October, 2023

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August 2. Continuing on the subject of moral recovery, a thread on Ask Old People, Do bad people as they get older ever "get it" and realize they were a bad person? The answer is mostly no, and the top comment lays out the recipe for a bad person: "low self awareness and poor moral development."

Farther down is a link to this fascinating page, Down the rabbit hole of estranged parents' forums. Basically, the parents in these forums say nothing about what they've been accused of doing, unless the accuser makes a mistake they can jump on. Meanwhile, forums for adult children of abusers are loaded with details, and they even challenge each other to make sure they're getting the details right.

Another word for "self-awareness" is metacognition: a perspective that looks inward, and neither reflexively condemns nor reflexively excuses, but tries to understand and suggest adjustments. I've seen it called "the science of self-observation", and it's a difficult skill to learn. Without it, you may fall into the pseudoscience of self-observation, where you start with what you want to believe and pick out evidence.

There's a cartoon trope, where a character has an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, giving advice. That's three voices: the angel, the devil, and the self, and three voices is too many for someone with low cognitive powers. Instead, most bad-doers have two voices: the self, who is completely selfish, and the justifier, who tells the self that they're behaving correctly, and blanks out all evidence to the contrary.

Again, if someone else is doing this, there's nothing you can do. But if you're doing it, you can chip away at those habits with innocence and curiosity. An interesting question is, where does the angel voice come from? Somewhere I read about a hypnotist saying that when people get deep enough, they all have the same calm and reasonable voice. I suppose the goal of meditation is to be in that mental state all the time.

August 7. Checking in on doom. My fifty year prediction is unchanged from last year: The world will continue to get more techno-utopian, more techno-dystopian, and more post-apocalyptic, all at the same time. Massive camps of climate refugees will be watched and clumsily fed by drones. Polar bears will go extinct and coyotes will thrive. Broken things will increasingly exceed the motivation and skills to fix them, and infrastructure will fail first in places with less money. Complex systems will be hollowed out and filled in by simple systems, some better and some worse. Fanatical movements will destroy stuff and burn themselves out.

My one thousand year prediction is a wide variety of mellowed-out low-tech societies. Our best buildings will have been preserved, but they won't know much about us because our records are on short-lived media. Attempts to revive old tech will lead to interesting stuff, but there will never again be a global internet or space travel, and they may eventually believe that those are fanciful myths. Instead, through paradigms we can't imagine, people will do different kinds of impossible things. If we go extinct, it will not be through failure but success. From this 1999 Bruce Sterling short: "Not only is humanity extinct but, strictly speaking, pretty much everyone alive today should be classified as a unique, post-natural, one-of-a-kind species."

August 9. How too much daydreaming affected me. The author of the linked post, and some people in the thread, have an actual problem. I'm a heavy daydreamer but I can always turn my attention to the outside world if I really need to. Also, there's a lot of talk about daydreaming because you're bored. I would frame it the other way around: I have such an abundance of daydreams that I can never be bored. Or, I can't suffer from not having enough to do, but I suffer all the time from having to pay attention to stuff that's not interesting. It's not my fault if the world outside my head is not as good as the world inside it.

But then I'm wondering: Is that true? The outside world is more colorful, more detailed, and more surprising than the inside world. I suppose I just enjoy the process of reality creation. One of my favorite daydreams is an apocalypse where everyone splits off into their own universe.

August 11. Normally I ignore personal criticism, but a post on the subreddit compared me to Nietzsche's "last man", and I have to follow the coincidence, because I was already planning to use that quote in another project. "We have invented happiness, say the last men, and blink." It's a trope in sci-fi, future humans made insipid by material comforts.

Of course those characters are based on us. Our upper classes have been made clueless, not by comfort, but by power over others. Our lower classes are apathetic because schools and workplaces are designed to break their spirits. In a world of universal abundance, neither of those things can happen, because even the poorest can say fuck off.

The techno-utopian doctrine, that we either go extinct or colonize space, carefully excludes the most likely timeline. Humans are tough and space is big -- another ten thousand years of trying stuff on Earth is realistic. And if in that time we manage a minimum standard of living that's sufficient for us all to do our own thing, it could serve as a platform for the next level of humanity.

The present age is a Gordon Ramsay cooking show, everyone rushing around on the thin edge between fame and elimination. Imagine a cooking show where a baker could spend a week crafting a dough cathedral. We sit passively watching people who are really good at flashy achievements. Imagine that same level of skill and ambition, fully distributed to a billion subtle obsessions.

August 16. Gary writes, "I would love to hear your take on the recent UAP hearings and disclosure rattlings."

UAP (unidentified aerial phenomena) is the new word for UFO, and it's better because "phenomenon" is more accurate than "object". I've read a lot of books on this stuff, and I think it's neither space aliens, nor secret human tech, nor unreliable witnesses. It's something we can't understand with our present way of thinking. There will never be proof, because proof means we capture it in our present way of thinking. And the sightings will never go away. There will continue to be waves of sightings and waves of public interest, which will always fizzle out because we can't do anything about it on a practical level. Maybe when enough people are doing psychedelics, we'll develop a way of thinking that is better able to engage with weird stuff.

Related, two key paragraphs from his book Wild Talents: Charles Fort on magic

August 30. Lately I've been playing with this new AI Human Generator. The Hacker News comment thread is mainly about how shitty the images are, and how it seems optimized for porn. But I approach it like a game, plugging in different parameters and seeing what comes out. I haven't had this kind of fun since Picbreeder. You can't combine two images, but what you can do is follow evolutionary threads. If you download an image, that long sequence of characters at the end of the filename can be pasted into the URL, so you can revisit any image you've saved, and take it in different directions.

August 30. On a recommendation from the subreddit, I bought a physical copy of the book Top 10 Games You Can Play in Your Head, by Yourself. It seems to be a goofy daydreaming manual, for kids, from the late 1980s, when really it's a potent adult spirituality book from 2019. From the introduction:

One of the many tasks required of you throughout this book is fragmenting your mind to create opposing selves within yourself. This is not as daunting as it may sound. You do it every day. Consider that you shape shift as you walk though the halls of your school, shifting from child to scholar to athlete to hungry beast as the bell tolls.

Or, if you are an adult who attempts to function as a cog in the blood-soaked machine we call the American Dream, consider how you swallow your own soul as you daily enter the factory where you go to die, piece by piece, five for every seven days.

September 1. What coincidence has occurred in your life that pretty much convinced you that we are living in the matrix? My explanation for all this stuff is simply that the fundamental unit of reality is the first person perspective. Each of us is dreaming the world on the fly, and we've dreamed up a physical universe as one way to be characters in each others' stories; but it's not seamless and it's not the only way.

September 6. Thanks Karthik for sending this video, The Art of Life. It's about Michael Behrens, who is basically the Unabomber's good twin. He was a math genius who took the position vacated by Ted Kaczynski at Berkeley, and later built a house on primitive land. He has lots of cool stuff to say, but don't romanticize his lifestyle too much -- if he got his food in any other way than driving into town, they would have shown it.

Some people think my values have changed because I no longer write about the critique of civilization or try to live outside it. Those were both spinoffs of my number one value, which has not changed since I was five years old: I love giant blocks of time with nothing I'm supposed to be doing. Some people are horrified by the thought that after death, it's just your consciousness floating in the void. I'd be like, free at last!

Seriously, my new favorite thing to do when I'm high, is silent darkness. The ringing in my ears, and the dim shapes on the backs of my eyelids, are so interesting that I keep forgetting to focus on my breathing. When I do, I've noticed a subtle catch in my throat at the top and bottom of every breath, and I've been working on cleaning it up, which is hard because it's halfway buried in involuntary.

I'm not claiming causality, but at the same time that I've been doing this, I've been getting better at being present in each moment. Buddhists talk about "craving", but I didn't really get it until I got down to the micro scale. I was watching soccer and noticed the difference between watching the player kick the ball, and hoping for some result of that kicking.

One of my favorite lyrics, from Camper Van Beethoven's Lulu Land, is "How can you lose when you choose what you feel?" That sounds like a magic power, but again, the key is the micro scale. When something happens, you have a habit of how it's supposed to make you feel, but if you can make yourself small enough in time, you can cut that habit off and do something different.

September 12-13. I've been thinking about the difference between intelligence and wisdom. Wisdom is one of those things that everyone believes in, even though nobody can define it -- let alone test for it. And it occurs to me: both smart people and stupid people will stand up and say, "I am smart." But neither wise people, nor unwise people, will stand up and say "I am wise."

Simon comments, "Plenty of unwise people claim common sense is on their side, though." That's a great point, and that's why I don't think common sense is a real thing. When people talk about "common sense", they mean other people sharing their implicit biases. If there seems to be less common sense, it's because implicit biases are getting more diverse.

And Matt takes a shot at defining wisdom:

In the 1950s, Communist China -- in trying to save grain -- began a campaign against sparrows. It was nominally successful: they killed millions of sparrows and saved tons of rice. But they inadvertently triggered years of famine, because sparrows don't only eat rice. They also eat bugs.

We could call their campaign "stupid," but it was observant (sparrows are eating our rice), and it was backed by efforts in mathematics (they measured how much rice each sparrow was eating on average, and calculated the potential savings in tons of rice if sparrows were removed).

Maybe the divide between intelligence and wisdom can be described as the difference between a parts approach and a holistic approach. The Chinese were smart (for a while), but not wise.

I'm thinking about John Vervaeke's concept of the four kinds of knowing, which I summarized in this post. What we call intelligence is about propositional knowing: knowing what statements are true and false, and how to derive true statements from other true statements.

Imagine some future Chinese utopia wants to design a test, such that anyone who passes it would not make that mistake with the sparrows. You couldn't just give them a math problem about sparrows eating bugs, because the real problem is looking for data in a direction that you don't know about. The skill you want people to learn is to disconnect their propositional mind from whatever framework it's in, so they can look outside it.

This reminds me of a bit from James Carse's book Finite and Infinite Games: "Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries." Also, from chapter 71 of the Tao Te Ching (Ellen Chen translation): "From knowing to not knowing, this is superior. From not knowing to knowing, this is sickness."

September 22. My girlfriend is getting into golf, so I'm playing golf now. I still have more fun getting high in silent darkness, but the golf community is friendly and conscientious, and it's good for me to practice a whole new set of difficult mind-body skills.

We're listening to a podcast called Chasing Scratch, in which two guys who both talk like Ron Swanson spend year after year down the rabbit hole of buying clubs and reinventing their swings, trying to get to zero handicap. In one episode, they talk to a coach named Adam Young. He asks his students, what are the basics of good form? Then whatever they say, he does the opposite, and still hits one good shot after another. His point is that form is overrated, and the important thing is how exactly the club face contacts the ball. To get better at that skill, he has an interesting idea: While practicing, instead of trying to hit the ball in the center of the club face every time, try to intentionally slightly miss in specific ways. This has been tested and proven to work in developing precision.

So last night at the driving range, that's what I worked on, while still ironing out basics, like loosening my grip, and not raising my body on the backswing. My biggest breakthrough came a couple weeks ago, by specifically doing something they say not to do. As a poor intuitive athlete, I'm always having to figure stuff out with my head, that other people are doing with their bodies and don't know they're doing. They say not to flip your wrists, because if you do that in the middle of hitting the ball, it creates chaos. But after being told I was over-rotating, over-swinging, and still lacking power, I started consciously generating power with my wrists on the downstroke, and suddenly the balls went a lot farther.

September 27-29. I'm reading Terence McKenna's True Hallucinations, the fun story of how he and his friends, in 1971, went to a paradise village in South America and did lots of psychedelics. It's full of language like this:

These had become the compass and the vehicle of our quest: the rose window topologies of the galacterian beehives of the di-methyltryptamine flash, that nexus of cheap talk and formal mathematics where wishes became horses and everybody got to ride.

If you want to hear that in McKenna's wonderful voice, there's an audio version on YouTube, with some stuff that's not in the book. Personally, I don't have the patience for a nine hour talk, and I ended up skimming the book. It's great for what it is: young people doing lots of drugs, getting goggle-eyed about the nature of reality, and talking about it with fancy language. I've explored woo-woo stuff long enough to know that small impossible things happen all the time, but they never lead to a shake-up of consensus.

Still on the subject of drugs, I can report that I got a practical benefit from cannabis in silent darkness. On those trips, I noticed subtle catches at the top and bottom of my breath, so I focused hard on cleaning them up, and now my breathing is smoother than it's ever been. More generally, weed is like a step ladder to let me reach a higher shelf of consciousness. I can't stay up there all the time, and I've spent the last few years experimenting to see how much I can get away with before the next trip is not beneficial. My ceiling seems to be around five sessions a week.

On some of those sessions, while going for walks or just looking out the window at the city while listening to certain music, I've achieved a mental state in which I can feel the preciousness of every moment. Now that I know what it's like, I can get there more easily, and even without weed, I can get closer than I could before.

I'm sure this has also been helped by the practice of being present, and I've mentioned some tricks in other posts: Imagine that I'm the POV of a video, or that I'm testing a super-realistic VR rig, or that I just noticed I'm dreaming. But the simplest trick is just to repeatedly tell myself what psychonauts often report: that only this moment is real.

October 5. Psychonauts are always talking about the importance of love, with little explanation beyond that vague and non-controversial word, and just the word you'd expect from the intersection of feeling good and "we are all one." But this comment by logicalmaniak explains it really well:

Like, what's a game of football? Just humans chasing a bag of air. It's nothing at all. But what's a game of football with your mates? It's communion, bonding, positive competition, fun, and so on. The love makes the not real thing a vehicle for transmitting the real thing.

October 8. I'm sure I wrote this before, but can't find it, a thought about cults. Post-apocalypse fiction is full of cults, as if the ruins of a complex society are fertile ground for charismatic leaders and fanatical followers with crazy beliefs.

That fertile ground is right now, during a still-standing complex society that is losing the ability to motivate its citizens. Fanaticism fills the void of meaning. If a society gets to the point where it can't feed its citizens, that's worse, but the dangerous groups will be less culty and more pragmatic, less wild-eyed and more steely-eyed.

October 8. What Plants Are Saying About Us, a careful argument that plants are intelligent without brains:

If cognition is embodied, extended, embedded, enactive, and ecological, then what we call the mind is not in the brain. It is the body's active engagement with the world, made not of neural firings alone but of sensorimotor loops that run through the brain, body, and environment. In other words, the mind is not in the head.
"Words like cognition, memory, attention, or consciousness -- those words for me are properly applied to the whole organism. It's the whole organism that's conscious, not the brain that's conscious. It's the whole organism that attends or remembers. The brain makes animal cognition possible, it facilitates and enables it, but it's not the location of it."

October 13. Vacationing in Port Townsend, today we went on a whale watch cruise, a three hour tour on Friday the 13th with a new captain on his first run. I was so disappointed that we didn't end up on Gilligan's island. Anyway, when we found the whales, there were several other boats gathered around, maybe 200 humans who paid a lot to watch five orcas cavort. We've come a long way in a short time from when humans would be trying to kill or capture the whales.

At the same time, the local islands were packed with houses so new that the streets didn't show up on google maps. While human ecological consciousness is higher than ever, so is our ecological footprint.

October 18. A rant on progress. I was reading an article arguing that climate change is not that bad, because it will only slightly reduce global GNP per capita. Of all the ways that human quality of life is commonly measured, nothing is dumber than measuring the amount of money flying around. If you want to read the best thinking on this subject, check out Tools for Conviviality or Toward a History of Needs by Ivan Illich.

Imagine you're living in a little house you built yourself, drinking water out of a stream, and you've got some fruit trees and a garden that provide all your food. Don't actually do this -- for complicated reasons, homesteading is really hard. But we all have ancestors who lived happily on zero money. And then someone comes along and dams the stream and sells you the water in bottles refined from oil drilled by wrecking your garden. Your trees are cut into lumber, you have to work in a terrible factory to survive -- and every one of these changes grows the money economy, by gobbling up stuff formerly outside the money economy.

This is the history of colonialism everywhere. It's true that rising GDP is good for the third world. But before people can be made happy by money, they first have to be made miserable by destroying their ability to live without money.

Money is not the root of all evil. If there is a tree of all evil, its roots go much deeper. But money is definitely on that tree. It's a way to make people do stuff they would not do except for the money, which they turn around and spend to make other people do stuff they would not do except for the money, in a giant global carnival of extrinsic reward. Meanwhile, the void in intrinsic reward is being filled by tribalism and opioids.

October 20. Picking up from the last post, it's an interesting question: Our ancestors got all their needs from the local environment for a quarter of a million years, or four billion if you count nonhumans. If we're so much better than them, with all our technology, why can't we do it?

One reason is the landbase. They were nomadic, or lived in extremely fertile areas. Now the land is depleted and carved up, and we're stuck on whatever sketchy acreage we can afford to buy.

At first I was thinking that tribes work better than individuals, and certainly there's less risk with more people. But whatever you think the optimal tribe size is, you can find a back-to-the-land commune of exactly that size that failed. And from the other side, a fascinating article on feral children.

This is a clue to the main reason we can't do it. Humans are extremely adaptable at birth, not so much later, and now we're all adapted for modern society. It's not just that we lack technical survival skills, or that we expect certain comforts. Our whole way of being is tuned to modern living, which is why when we go "back to the land", through a series of completely reasonable decisions, we end up basically as remote suburbanites.

October 23-25. Continuing from the last post, Matt comments:

I'm sure a lot of communes have failed simply because they try to be all things to all people in some fixed location, and it's rare for humans to meet all their needs through a single community and/or place.

Which made me think about Indigenous Americans and clans. I don't know a lot about the clan system, but I know clans extended beyond tribes and nations. So you could leave your tribe, and maybe nation, and find someone else belonging to the same clan -- and bond with them through that affiliation.

This reminds me of something I read in a zine in the 90s, where a young traveler explained why she dressed like a punk, because anywhere she went, other punks might give her a ride or a place to stay; but if she dressed normally, normal people would not help her.

I wonder if there's anything like that now, where a chosen identity will get you help from strangers. There are immigrant communities, and also communities based on race and gender, but all of those are like tribe/nation, something you're born into, and not something you can choose. I think this lack of voluntary mutual aid groups is peculiar to this fragmented time, and one way or another, there will be more of them.

Devon comments:

I grew up Seventh-day Adventist, a Protestant religion that is more organized than a lot of other denominations.... I can go to almost any church in any state and find someone who has a mutual friend or knows some of the same people I do. Even if I don't find anyone with a mutual acquaintance, I can generally get a free meal, place to stay for the night, help if I needed it.

Adam comments:

I've been a sober AA member for about eight years, and exactly what you described is a major facet of the program's culture.... I find attending an AA meeting in another location I am visiting to be my favorite experience on trips. The fact that I am an AA gets me immediate welcome in any meeting anywhere. On my recent visit to Ireland, I went to a meeting and was treated like a special guest by strangers. The cool thing to experience is the immediate "tribal" recognition and welcome you get or give, and this transcends so many other cultural or socioeconomic differences that typically separate people.

Fabian comments:

I got in touch with a "group you can choose" during my travels in Latin America: The "artesanos", i.e. craft people who travel the world while selling their crafts on the streets. More than once did I notice how they immediately helped each other out, even so far as giving away some of their stuff to someone else they just met at a bus station and who had been robbed the day before. These traveling craft people are mostly Latin American, but I have a German friend who traveled like this for many years and had the same experience.

October 30. I've been thinking about the question: What do Americans boast about? We never boast about being rich, unless it's in the context of boasting about how much poverty we climbed out of. And we don't boast about luck -- if someone says they're lucky, they're being modest, saying their success did not come from being better than other people. I think luck is a real thing that can be cultivated, but when Americans say "I make my own luck," they mean something completely different: that they don't believe in luck so they succeed through hard work.

"Hard work" is the main thing Americans boast about. But who counts as a hard worker? A CEO who does nothing all day but make snap decisions? A fanfic author who puts in a lot of hours for a tiny audience and no money? Surely a full-time janitor is a hard worker. How about someone who spends the same amount of time cleaning stuff, but unobserved and unpaid? Who's a harder worker, someone who works in a munitions factory, or someone who puts in the same hours building bombs in their garage?

People will answer these questions differently. But if you look at the common answers, I think the consensus is that "hard work" is a social activity, a performance of obedience to the dominant system.

Another thing Americans boast about is self-discipline, by which they mean internalizing the dominator, something like: "When I was a kid, parents and teachers forced me to do stuff I didn't feel like doing. Now that I'm grown up, I force myself to do stuff I don't feel like doing." I mean, this is a necessary skill to not end up homeless. But I don't think it's something to be proud of, I think it's a tragedy. There are eight million species in the world and only one has this problem, and only recently.

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