"Look at the sunset from the sun's point of view."
- Steven Wright
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September 19. A reader wants me to say more about anxiety and depression being disorders of attention. Of course that's not all they are — sometimes there's actual brain damage. But I think a lot of us can go a long way toward mental health, just by practicing different habits of where and how we turn our attention.
Lately I've made some progress on managing anxiety, with a practice that I call expanding into pain. Every self-help guru will tell you, expansion is good and contraction is bad. What they don't tell you is what exact thing you're expanding, because it's really hard to explain. Another thing they don't tell you is that expansion feels terrible. If it felt good, we wouldn't have to be told to do it.
But for me, the pain is the key to the practice. I usually do it in the morning, when I'm still lying in bed, making the mental transition from the world of dreams to the world of earthly responsibilities. I'll be thinking about something that feels bad, and the practice is, never mind the thing, focus on the feeling, and amp it up, as strong as I can, as long as I can.
I'm sure a brain scan would reveal some action in the amygdala or wherever, but what it feels like, is that the world is made of needles and knives, and I'm expanding my astral body into them. I've started to call it my morning stretch. And after doing it enough, it becomes like a muscle that I can flex at will.
So if I'm out in the world, in some anxiety-causing situation (typically driving, which is so dangerous that if your attention lapses for half a second it can ruin your life) I can expand into it, and it's like the martial arts move, where someone throws a punch, and you move toward the punch, so that it hits you before it builds up any power.
Or it's like, anxiety is paying interest on pain, but if you catch it in time, you only have to pay the principal.
September 16. I'm in a weird place mentally, and also I'll be on the road this week without my laptop, so I might take the whole week off from posting.
September 12. Going early into the weekend with some happy links. The Future of Wind Turbines? No Blades. Do you ever drive past a dusty field, and see tiny funnel clouds? You might think those things only happen in dust, but the dust just makes them visible. They're everywhere, because air likes to do that, and this new design can harvest that motion.
Why industry is going green on the quiet. It often makes sense economically, but they don't talk about it because people are cynical about greenwashing.
Is the Modern Mass Extinction Overrated? It's an interview with a conservation biologist who argues that we might be gaining as many species as we're losing, if you count plants and insects, and hybrids adapting to climate change. More generally, the best way to increase biodiversity is to work with change, and not to try to keep things exactly as they were in the recent past. Related: Bring Back North American Elephants.
Glasgow Police Stop a 3000 Person Hide-and-Seek Game at an Ikea. I'm thinking, a hundred years in the future, if the human population is falling, there will be cool abandoned buildings everywhere to play hide-and-seek in.
September 9. I'm feeling uninspired this week, so I've gathered some one-liners that I've jotted (actually typed into Notepad++) over the last few months, while high:
Cannabis resets the kind of memory that causes boredom.
Ninety percent of wisdom is been-there-done-that.
Indecisiveness is grief: your options are your pets.
Anxiety and depression are disorders of attention.
A religion is a social organism that feeds on spiritual experience.
The presidential race is a reality TV show. They're all performers pretending to be authentic, and trying to avoid getting voted off.
Confidence is that which enables you to move on from mistakes as if you'd meant them.
September 6. A few health links. Burning Sage Kills 94% of Airborne Bacteria. They burned it for an hour, and "The room remained almost entirely disinfected for over 24 hours, and seven strains of disease-causing bacteria previously present in the room still could not be detected 30 days later."
The Fundamental Link Between Body Weight and the Immune System. Basically, your immune system decides which bacteria will be permitted to exist in your gut, and different gut bacteria digest food differently. So your immune system can make you fat or thin. I'm the rare person who can lose weight much more easily than I can gain it, which must mean that my immune system hates bacteria that are good at extracting calories from certain kinds of food.
That's probably why I hate fasting. Earlier this week I did a 36 hour fast, partly inspired by this new study about the benefits of short term fasting. Back in my 20's, during the excessive self-control phase I mentioned the other day, I did a four day fast, and I never reached the no-hunger plateau that other fasters report. For me the hunger just gets worse and worse. I'm sure the science is right that it's good for my body, but the only benefit that I personally experience, is that I don't have to floss.
Brain food: a nutrient vegans lack. It's a very short article about choline, and "an impending choline crisis brought about by the trend towards plant-based diets." Some fast food places are rolling out plant-based burgers, but those are highly processed, and not good for you. If you want to reduce your climate footprint, you can go a long way by just switching from beef to chicken. And I'm looking forward to burgers made from mealworms or other insects.
And some music for the weekend. In 1983, the Scottish post-punk band Altered Images recorded this cover of Neil Diamond's Song Sung Blue, and it sounds like children's music on acid. A great original by the same band: I Could Be Happy.
September 4. Over on the subreddit, Voidgenesis makes a serious attempt to answer Monday's questions. I think the root of the problem is that humans have pushed our power so far beyond our understanding, that it's hard to even figure out the right thing to do, let alone feel like doing it.
I've been thinking a lot lately about thinking vs feeling. After my social media post, Jeff sent this video, The Science of Internet Addiction and Brainpower, which frames the prefrontal cortex (thinking and willpower) as the angel on one shoulder, and the reward circuit (doing what feels right) as the devil on the other. That's fair enough if you're trying to quit Facebook, but as a general idea, it's dangerous.
In my 20's, I went so deep into forcing myself to do stuff I didn't feel like doing, that I started having nightmares about being dragged to death. Ever since then I've been skeptical about the value of willpower, and I've been struggling to integrate feeling into my decision making.
I'm still not sure what the difference is, if any, between following your gut, following your heart, and whatever feelings push us to do obviously harmful things. If only there were an actual angel and devil, so we could just look and know which voice was right.
September 2, Labor Day. Continuing from last week, Eric comments on what the author of the intentional community piece might have meant by restless dreamer syndrome: "What that phrase conjures for me is the person who floats into a group looking for some ideal experience, then wanders off when it is time to do some heavy lifting."
The more I think about this subject, the more questions I have. Why do we have so little faith in the dominant system, that we expect a better experience from a system that's new and untested?
How can there be a scarcity of people willing to do useful work, in a species that has done such an excess of useful work that we have turned forests to deserts and destabilized the climate?
Why do small communities always have a shortage of workers, while the big economy always has a shortage of jobs?
What if a community actually succeeded in building a way of living that was clearly better? How could they avoid being violently taken out by the dominant system?
Why is there so little overlap between what we feel like doing, and what's good for us to do? Why are humans the only species in the world that has this problem?
August 30. Posted the other day to the subreddit, a smart Aeon essay about why intentional communities fail. My comment in the thread picks on one detail. In the list of reasons that communities fail, one of these is not like the others:
Malarial infested swamps, false prophecy, sexual politics, tyrannical founders, charismatic con-men, lack of access to safe drinking water, poor soil quality, unskilled labour, restless dreamer syndrome, land not suitable for farming.
I can find no reference to "restless dreamer syndrome" anywhere else on the internet. The author just made it up, and she neither defines it nor explains why it's bad for communities.
To me it sounds like the voice of a culture that has gone astray from human nature, disparaging two aspects of human nature that it no longer has a place for: nomadism and imagination. Even utopian communities can't make a place for those things, because the surrounding society has property laws that prevent communities from being nomadic, and because they set up rules that limit the ongoing contributions of imagination and creativity -- which is basically another form of nomadism, social or spiritual rather than geographical.
So a deeper reason communities fail is because they imitate the settled nature of the dominant culture. The Aeon essay has a similar conclusion:
Perhaps a more useful construct than intentional community is the idea of 'shadow culture', defined by Taylor as a 'vast unorganised array of discrete individuals who live and think different from the mainstream, but who participate in its daily activities'. Shadow cultures have the potential to hold distinct values, but also utilise the infrastructure and opportunities of mass society.
And the next comment in the thread, by MakeTotalDestr0i:
The most resilient intentional communities are gutter punk types because the conditions they live in are extremely variable. They build community and break apart in geography only, not as much socially, but continue existing and reforming over and over in different places with somewhat varying groups of people but usually enough crossover that there is a consistent feeling of continuity.
Two good books on the differences between settled and nomadic culture are Morris Berman's Wandering God and James C Scott's Against The Grain.
August 28. Spinning off from Monday, my comment on traffic noise led Kyle to send me this video, John Cage about silence, in which he says, "If you listen to Beethoven, or to Mozart, you see that they're always the same. But if you listen to traffic, you see it's always different."
John Cage is famous for a piece that's supposedly four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. When I dug deeper, it turns out that description misses the point. The music in 4'33" is not silence, but whatever subtle ambient sounds the silence reveals.
So then I looked into Cage's solo piano. From 1948, Dream sounds like someone randomly hitting keys, and it's also perfectly beautiful. That's really hard to do. This summer I've been playing lots of piano on a digital keyboard, and I might start by randomly hitting keys, but then I'll narrow it to set of keys that sound good together, and then I'll find a riff and just jam on it. What Cage does is to avoid falling into any seductive pattern, to stay in the chaos of early experimentation, but keep it sounding good.
This is basically the same as meditation, where you avoid falling into patterns of thinking, and just keep your mind loose and wide without getting bored. Quoting my favorite song: "The choice, every part of this groove is quiet."
Digging deeper, even John Cage's "Dream" is like a pop cover of Erik Satie's Vexations. It's half a page of sheet music, in a weird notation, with instructions to "play the theme 840 times in succession." It was forgotten until Cage published it and organized the first performance, which took 18 hours.
According to this New Yorker essay, A Dangerous and Evil Piano Piece, Vexations is so anti-earworm that "Even after hundreds of repetitions, players are forced to sight-read from the beginning, as if learning for the first time." And from Wikipedia:
Maybe Satie's intent was nothing more than to prove that any harmonic and rhythmic system was only a matter of habit for the hearer: so that after listening 840 times to a chordal system that is at odds with any habitual one, and set in an odd metre, one would possibly start to experience this new system to be as natural as any other."
August 26. This is the best article I've seen yet about social media, The machine always wins. It might not have any new ideas, but it's a great presentation of what we already know, including the similarities between social media and slot machines.
I've never used Twitter (except to view sports highlights) so I was surprised to read this: "On Twitter, if the replies to your tweet vastly outnumber the likes and retweets, you have gambled and lost." Apparently, if you agree with something on Twitter, you normally just like or retweet, and if you add a comment, it's normally because you disagree. That unwritten rule means that Twitter is a platform for shouting back and forth, and not for exploring or learning.
Imagine a social media site with this code: clicking the downvote button counts your downvote and then closes the tab; only if you first upvote, can you post a reply. Ideally every thread would be building up from the original idea. Of course, someone could easily get around that rule, but I wonder if it would be enough to shift the culture.
The article's next paragraph concludes that Twitter "is a terrible place to idly propose provocative theses." So now I'm thinking, how do we make a good place to idly propose provacative theses? That's basically what I've tried to do with this blog. I've done it by not enabling comments, by avoiding hot-button subjects, and by writing in a dense style that you have to slow down to understand.
I'm also thinking about the psychology of getting drawn into conflict. The other day I had my best meditation session yet, after reading some instructions that used the word "entangled". Entanglement is what you're trying to avoid. It's okay to let thoughts emerge, it's okay to bump into them (I imagine bumper cars), but the practice is to go as long as you can without your attention getting caught on any one thing.
I should also say, although I was sober at the time, cannabis has been a big help in learning to focus widely and accept whatever comes up. My session the other day was not that different from the night, a few years ago, when I laid on the back patio in Spokane and heard the traffic noise as a symphony.
August 23. Bunch o' links, starting with three from reddit. This is juiciest thread in a while, Redditors with thin walls, what have you heard in your apartment?
Conscience is a three week old subreddit with an interesting focus. It just needs higher quality posts.
And a good thread about permaculture.
Related: How is China able to feed a billion people? It's a really good Quora answer, with lots of satellite photos and closer-up images of China's extremely dense agriculture.
A cool art installation, Teresa van Dongen's Mud Well light uses microorganisms to create electricity.
A smart article about Sao Paulo's outdoor advertising ban, and how it not only made the city look better, it also revealed problems with the city that were being covered up by billboards.
A Life of One's Own is about a great 1930's self-help book with that title. The article basically goes through the book picking out the best bits.
And a particular idea on self-improvement, Personal Kanban. Kanban is a system invented by Toyota to make their factories work better, by limiting the number of projects they're working on at any time.
August 21. How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition. I completely agree with the author's general idea, but I don't quite like the way he frames it. He centers his argument on the word meritocracy, which he defines in terms of "talent and effort." But the crisis he describes is not at all about talent, but about the overvaluing of effort.
Here's a thought experiment. Imagine a society that still describes itself as a meritocracy, but in its definition of merit, it completely factors out the quantity of work you've done. So college admission might be determined by a series of tests, which are designed so that preparation gives you almost no advantage. Then, when you're applying for a job, you could be tested by doing the actual stuff you'll be doing in the job, and your score is simply the quality of your work.
I think that society, overall, would be a lot better than this one. Nobody would be in a hurry and everything would be done well. Some kind of balance would be even better. But we're all the way at the opposite extreme. We don't have even one college, or one job, that rewards the quality of your work and doesn't care about quantity.
I've seen some buzz lately about the male-female pay gap. But at least men and women are in the same ballpark. I'd like to close the much wider pay gap between hard workers and lazy people. I'm completely serious. Nobody really wants to do nothing all day. "Laziness" means holding out for activities that you find intrinsically enjoyable.
Another thought experiment. Imagine if the unconditional basic income, and the maximum income, were the same. If there were no connection between how much money you get, and what you do all day, then we'd find out what we really want to do all day. That's how I view the UBI, not as a way to soften the robot takeover of human work, but as a way to rebuild the world of human work, out of what we actually like doing.
New subject, a quick note on jury duty. There were 34 of us in the courtroom, getting cut down to 13 for the trial, and I was in the second round of cuts. But one thing I noticed was how unattractive everyone was -- or really, how the media skews our perception of the attractiveness of the average person. For example, on a show like Masterchef, the contestants are supposedly ordinary people, but every person on that show is hotter than every person I saw at jury duty.
August 18. I have jury duty tomorrow, so I'm posting Sunday night.
The Population Bust is a review of two books, both arguing that not only will the global population decline, it will happen faster than the UN is predicting. Earlier this year I wrote:
It turns out, humans don't just mindlessly reproduce. When we have access to birth control, when society takes care of old people, and when women are educated, we have the opposite problem: birthrates are too low to replace ourselves.
It's funny, just twenty years ago, this doom scenario wasn't even on my radar: the whole world voluntarily having fewer kids, leading to a collapse of growth-based economies, and a glut of old people without enough young people to take care of them. But that's probably what's going to happen, at the same time as climate change, and whatever crazy stuff happens with AI and biotech.
Into this mess, I want to throw one idea: psycho-geography. Basically, some towns, cities, and neighborhoods, will be more mentally healthy than others, and those places will become magnets for the dwindling population. Meanwhile, the less mentally healthy places will become nasty, and eventually abandoned.
I mean, this is happening already, but now the migrations are more about money, which is sometimes the opposite of mental health. In a post-capitalist economy, developed nations will be preventing famine through social services that you can get almost anywhere. So migrations will be more about culture, or other non-financial measures of quality of life.
Looking farther ahead, the most successful localities could define the next age, maybe in different ways, as nation-states fade.
August 15. Stray links, all with an anti-progress angle, starting with one from the subreddit, How did millennial comedy get so surreal? "One explanation for all this un-realism is that it's a response to a world that has stopped making sense."
This Johann Hari piece is a good summary of what careful observers have known for years, that depression is caused almost entirely by social and environmental factors, rather than chemicals in the brain. We're still a long way from applying this knowledge, because it's much easier to prescribe antidepressants than to change society. (But in a small low-tech society, it would be the other way around.)
The Hidden Costs of Automated Thinking is a smart essay about the growing use of technologies that work in ways we don't understand, and how that lack of understanding can come back to bite us.
Two health links from the Return to Now blog: Why it's better to get a tan than wear sunscreen, and Sunglasses increase risk of sunburn and skin cancer.
Finally, A superstar city is born is a fun rant against certain urban development trends: "You can't just throw some affluent millennials into a neighborhood and use the fact that they make a lot of money to say that the city as a whole is improving."
August 8. Today, some weird science, starting with The star that's older than the universe. I like this because I'm a Big Bang denier. That 2012 post argues that the universe might not be expanding, and even if it is, it need not have a beginning. But what I believe now is even crazier. I think we humans are at the mental center of our own private cosmos, that what we see in the sky is not filled in until we look at it, and it's filled in according to our own culture and expectations.
That explains Velikovsky's evidence that ancient people saw events in the heavens that we now consider impossible. It explains Charles Fort's evidence, mostly in the book New Lands, about the wild variability of observations in early astronomy. And it solves Fermi's paradox, the puzzling absence of aliens, because any other life smart enough to dream a universe, will be dreaming their own. I think if humans ever settle down as a perpetual species, and not a flash in the pan, we'll look to the sky and see a universe that has always existed and always will.
Speaking of humans getting smarter, Recursive language and modern imagination were acquired simultaneously 70,000 years ago. I'm not going to try to summarize "recursive language". The important thing is that it requires both a certain kind of brain, and a certain kind of culture, which has to be learned in childhood. That means, people must have had the capacity, here and there, but it didn't take off until two children figured it out in the same time and place, built it up by talking to each other, and then taught their own children.
I'm thinking the two people would have been friends, and not a couple, because we're wired to not be sexually attracted to people we spent a lot of time with as kids. Still, what a story! Two kids inventing their own private langauge, that's so much better than other languages that their descendants conquer the world.
I mean, it hasn't worked out so well for the world. But our story isn't finished. There's evidence humans didn't actually see blue until modern times. What other cognitive upgrades are lurking in the realm of unknown unknowns?
And now, the first people to work it out it don't have to know each other. They could be on opposite sides of the world, or even years apart, because we can transmit media dense enough to encode culture, and save it. Related: When you listen to music, you're never alone.
One last crazy idea. Suppose we've reached a stage where there are multiple upgrades available, that are not consistent with each other. I think biotech makes this even more likely: humanity diverging into many species that, as they get better, have less in common.