November - December, 2023

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November 1. I like to walk around trying different ways of focusing my attention, and the latest thing I've learned is how to dodge people on the sidewalk. This happens a lot in the city: Someone is coming the other way, and it's not totally clear who's going to take which side. I've discovered that if I put the center of my vision somewhere else, and watch them with my peripheral vision, it's a lot easier to get it right.

Why has no one told me this? Probably other people are doing it subconsciously. My particular kind of brain damage is that my body has no autopilot. This makes me think back to P.E. class, in which I got no physical education whatsoever. I don't remember a single instruction about how to angle a body part, not even how to flip my wrist to throw harder, something a friend taught me when I was 30 years old, in ten minutes.

Imagine it's your first day of math class. The teacher says, instead of doing boring math instruction, we're just going to go straight to the test. Everyone else in the class is a math genius, and they're all like, woo-hoo, a test! They're breezing through it and you're staring at the symbols completely clueless. At least they're not mean. They watch awkwardly and give you a decent grade for effort. This happens every day for ten years.

Now I walk past homeless people and wonder, how much better would they be doing, if they had got the right kind of basic personal attention when they were five years old, instead of being put through the meat grinder of public schooling? Related: a Hacker News thread on Home schooling.

Anyway, now that I'm old, I have to give a lot of attention to body mechanics to stay ahead of chronic injuries. I finally worked out the formula for good posture, and it's not at all intuitive: firm stomach and tucked chin. The tucked chin forces me to keep my breastbone raised.

I also practice basic moves with my arms or legs, and I've noticed a difference between the two sides of my body. My left side is like a guy in a suit of armor, confident but stiff and clumsy; my right side is like a wounded cat, agile but wavery and hesitant. So I'll alternate a move between the left and right, and try to work out the best of both.

November 3. A super-fun video that I discovered through bibliomancy, when my finger landed on the word "Lindy": Lindy Hop JnJ Finals. If you want more, here's the Lindy Hop scene from the 1941 movie Hellzapoppin.

November 6. Great Reddit thread, Is there anywhere in the world someone can just live for free? What people mean by "live for free" is the same thing I mean when I say my highest value is free time. I want to have fewer relationships with modern society.

For the last few hundred years, humans have been experimenting with a radical new way of thinking and living, based on individualism, competition, number and measure, predictability and control, linear progress, and naive ideas about quality of life. Life is getting better in the most simple-minded and obvious ways, at the expense of many subtle ways that life is getting worse, and because our culture doesn't show us these things, we don't know why we're unhappy.

The mainstream left is completely blind to this. The right can feel it, but they don't know how to think about it, and they're unable to imagine any alternative except strong leaders backed by violence.

November 8. The previous post was inspired by a book I just read, Hospicing Modernity by Vanessa Machado de Oliveira. Now I'm wondering about the difference between the critique of "modernity" and the critique of "civilization". I don't think we're talking about two different things, but two different semantic strategies for talking about the same thing.

Calling it civilization turns our attention to things that are thousands of years old: cities, money, violent conquest. Anti-civ discussions are often hypothetical and puritanical: What technologies would we have to give up -- or force other people to give up -- in order to save the world?

Calling it modernity turns our attention to cognitive habits that are only a few hundred years old, and invites us to examine and change our own ways of thinking. Morris Berman has written some great books on this subject, starting with The Re-enchantment of the World.

A key quote from Hospicing Modernity: "The end of modernity may not manifest primarily as economic or ecological collapse, but as a global mental health crisis where the structures of modernity within us start to crumble."

I think the crumbling started 250 years ago with Romanticism, which rejected modernity's rationalism, while intensifying its individualism. So we're not looking at one monolithic thing, but an ongoing negotiation among a bunch of things. I don't see the future as a return to the past, or a transcendence to a new level, but a continuing exploration of the landscape of the human potential.

November 15. Where Does Religion Come From? This is a radical statement for the NY Times: "that atheist materialism is too weak a base upon which to ground Western liberalism in a world where it's increasingly beset." The author, Ross Douthat, distinguishes three aspects of religion: 1) the personal desire for meaning; 2) "the societal need for a unifying moral-metaphysical structure"; 3) the mysterious origin of religion in uncanny experience.

One way to get at this weirdness is to look at situations where there's a supernatural experience without a pre-existing tradition that makes sense of people's experiences and shapes their interpretations. By this I mean that if you have a mystical experience in the context of, say, a Pentecostalist faith-healing service or a Roman Catholic Mass, you are likely to interpret it in light of existing Christian theology. But if you have a religious experience "in the wild," as it were, the sheer strangeness is more likely to come through.

From there, he goes into UFO sightings! UFOs are not exactly in the wild, but in the firm context of the modern story of outer space as the realm of the unknown. A good book on this subject is Passport to Magonia by Jacques Vallee, and there's a promising book I haven't read yet, UFOs: Reframing the Debate.

November 17-19. I get a lot of ideas for this blog from readers. A week ago I met Conner for coffee, and he gave me a good hard question: How do you make yourself believe something?

After some thinking, this is my answer. First, you have to want the belief. Then, you have to feed it. You could feed it intellectually, by reading and thinking about it. You could feed it socially, by hanging out with people who believe it. You could feed it with sense experience, by noticing when it matches the belief. Or you could feed it with emotions, just by feeling good about it.

But now I'm wondering, why would you want to make yourself believe something? It has to be because you want to do something, and you think belief will help. Will it?

Now I want to bring in John Vervaeke's concept of the four kinds of knowing, which I summarized in this post in 2020. Here, my point is that one kind of knowing, propositional knowing, is so overrated by modern culture, that we forget about other kinds of knowing.

In 2019 I struggled to define confidence, and concluded that it's not the intellectual belief that you will succeed, but something deeper, which I described as "your energy leaning forward". Now I would say: to the extent that confidence is helpful, it is not propositional, but you could still call it a "belief" on another level.

I wonder about the New Age idea that beliefs create reality. It's clearly false, but maybe that's only because we're believing propositionally, and if you can get down to the sub-propositional level, your beliefs have real power. Consider the non-human world, which is full of miracles and totally devoid of propositional knowing.

The internet is full of rational arguments, acting like they're in charge, but usually people decide what to believe for non-rational reasons, and then cook up the argument. My point is, your propositional mind is mainly just along for the ride. At worst it can block you from the right move. At best it can tell you where to put your energy. It can navigate, and maybe steer, but not push.

If you're my age, you might remember a cartoon called The Adventures of Gulliver. Gulliver is a regular sized guy who runs around an island of tiny people, who often cling to his shoulders as he tries to do things. One of them is a pessimist named Glum, whose catch phrase is "We'll never make it." Gulliver could listen to Glum, and give up, or he could listen to a tiny person who is saying something more encouraging. But in the end, he doesn't have to listen to any of them. He just has to do the thing.

November 27. Today, some technology links. I still think the overall influence of modern technology has been harmful, but I like picking out the good ones.

The Cassette-Tape Revolution is about how powerful and radical it was, when we got an overwritable medium that anyone could use. There's also some stuff about how it made music better.

New study finds ChatGPT gives better advice than professional columnists. This is something that Philip Dick predicted, especially in We Can Build You.

Ultra-white ceramic cools buildings with record-high 99.6% reflectivity

The world's 280 million electric bikes and mopeds are cutting demand for oil far more than electric cars

To Free The Baltic Grid, Old Technology Is New Again. It's about the growing use of very heavy spinning things to smooth out frequency and voltage.

An artificial glacier growing in the desert. This is so low-tech the Romans could have done it. Water from melting glaciers is piped through gravity to a lower elevation, where it sprays in the air and freezes in a giant cone of ice that melts to provide water in the dry months.

December 1. Merriam-Webster's 2023 word of the year is authentic, and at the top of that article is who else, Taylor Swift, the world's most authenticity-deprived person. I'm sure, if you could really know her, she'd be as authentic as anyone -- because authenticity is everywhere. The problem is not source but distribution.

Or, authenticity is not a thing but a relationship, in which both parties have to do work: the perceived must let go of what other people expect, and the perceiver must integrate the unexpected. The perceived lets down a filter and the perceiver adjusts one. This is hard, and the bigger the crowd, the harder it is -- especially if professional media get involved, because they profit by making the content more easily digestible. At the highest level of fame, the only way to pass the filter is to be completely unsurprising, or to do something wrong.

The opposite of authenticity is bullshit, a.k.a. propaganda. Not only is this different from misinformation, they're sort of opposites. Any source with a tight filter against weirdness, is also likely to have a tight filter against factual incorrectness. For example, CNN is high in bullshit and low in misinformation: everything is what you expect and nothing is factually incorrect.

Meanwhile, some websites are low in bullshit and high in misinformation. I've just started hanging out on the Spirituality subreddit, which is loaded with unverifiable statements and people presenting themselves without much filtering. This is an exceptional comment, Effects of sex work on the spiritual body.

By the way, I've tried to listen to Taylor Swift, and I find her music impressively uninteresting. It's like vanilla has never been so pure. I've heard that when Jimi Hendrix was living in London, he would go see bands every night, and he could learn something from the worst band in the world. What I haven't heard, but I'm sure it's true, is that you can learn more from an amateur band, than from a polished successful band.

December 4. Continuing on authenticity, Imre comments:

I feel like I need to grab this word in the context where I mostly hear it being used nowadays - authentic experience. And in this sense, the mere fact that such a construct came into being and is widely used, it speaks of the extreme deficiency of the real that people are suffering.

I was overlooking the problem of authentic experience, because I have a weird practice that most people don't have: aggressive appreciation of nature. This is something I learned to do on psychedelics, and now I do it all the time. Just walking around the city, whenever my eyes aren't needed to navigate, they're in the trees. Even watching TV, my gaze will wander from boring human scenes to landscapes in the background.

And it occurs to me, this is a learned skill. Telling an authenticity-hungry person to go out and look at trees is like telling a depressed person to cheer up. It's not something you can just do without building a foundation of knowing how to do it. Before something can be experienced as authentic, it must first be experienced as not alien.

Another place to find authenticity is by feeling your own body from the inside -- but again, you have to learn how to do it, and it's harder than looking at nature, because your body gives you pain.

December 7. Lots of cool stuff in this r/Psychonaut thread, Weird events take place when you are tripping, right? There's a big sub-thread about electronics malfunctioning, and I've read elsewhere that people who have had near-death experiences, often have continuing problems with electronics. My crazy theory is that modern technology is not just miraculous, but literally miraculous, and a different mental state can break the spell.

December 11-13. I've written before that the word "boredom" points to two things: the pain of having nothing to do, and the pain of having to pay attention to something uninteresting. I noticed this distinction because I'm good at entertaining myself inside my head, so I like having nothing to do. But that makes it even worse when I have to listen to a boring speech or watch a boring movie. And now I have a better definition to explain why.

Boredom is hedonic blowback from entertainment. The longer you are entertained, the more pain you feel in its absence. Modern people are haunted by boredom. We are so loaded with entertainment that we live in fear of the emptiness when it stops.

The cure for boredom, of course, is embracing it. A few years ago, I was watching a spare and slow-paced movie called Shell (2012). I could tell it was good, but the lack of explosions or conventional plot gave me an increasingly desperate urge to switch it off. Having already experimented with completely feeling anxiety, I decided to completely feel boredom, and to watch it all the way through. I felt like the kid in Dune who has to hold his hand in a box of fire -- a scene brilliantly parodied by Elmo. Anyway, in hindsight, that was a key moment in my mental health. Since then I have not felt that intensity of boredom, and now I'm using it as a meditation instruction, to seek, and expand into, the pain of non-entertainment.

Matt comments:

Your post made me think about how actors deal with the boredom of doing the same show dozens or hundreds of times. One, we start playing games. There's Pass the Quarter, where you have to find a way of giving a quarter to another actor, and the quarter is never supposed to leave the stage. Then there's the less rule-bound game of trying to crack other people up. In comedies, there's the game of trying to get laughs on lines that don't usually get laughs, trying to push a scene into maximum funniness.

The other main way of dealing with boredom is being present and paying such close attention to what the other actors are doing that you're not anticipating and therefore become willing to follow the scene into different nuances of emotion. For me, there's no other way to get through a long run than to make the performance a meditation.

December 18. From r/Psychonaut, a long post arguing that Psychedelics do not cause hallucinations, but increased sensory sensitivity. Skip to the end for a great video game metaphor. If there's too much data for your video card, you can get stuttering and visual artifacts that are not that different from hallucinations. This also explains why a strobe light helps with closed-eye visuals.

I find it fascinating that people get such different effects from substances. Alcohol makes me dumb and chatty, but it doesn't make me feel better in any way. For a lot of people, it makes them feel so much better that they can't stop. And while I haven't tried any hard opioids, the prescription stuff has never felt good enough to make it worth the dehydration.

I'm guessing that serious addicts, to whatever drug, are getting the same effect that I get from LSD. Sobriety feels like trudging through a hostile and meaningless world. Cannabis, and also the practice of being fully present, can help with that. But on LSD, and no other substance or practice, I feel like I am at home in a living world. I've never had an abundant source, so I only do around a tab a year, but when I do, I always think of the line from Bob Seger's Fire Lake: "Oh Lord, am I really here at last?"

December 21. Fascinating essay about the occult origins of tech culture. "I'm suggesting that the once-transgressive ideology underpinning the Western esoteric tradition -- that our purpose as humans is to become as close to divine as possible -- has become an implicit assumption of modern life."

This touches on a lot of stuff I've been thinking about. I'll just say that I think modern technology is totally a manifestation, a giant magic spell, and not only that, it's dark magic, because as the essay points out, it's about bending reality to our will. Reality doesn't like being bent to our will, any more than another person does. We're running out of room to dominate nature, so our culture, which still romanticizes domination, is now turning inward.

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