"He hauled in a half-parsec of immaterial relatedness and began ineptly to experiment."
-James Tiptree Jr
September 22. A personal note. My girlfriend has become obsessed with golf, so I'm playing golf now. I still have more fun getting high in silent darkness, and I'd still like to see golf courses replaced by food forests; but realistically, modern people would rather buy food at the supermarket than get it free off nasty trees. 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 great 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 18. I'm mostly taking the week off. But last night I went to see John Cooper Clarke, and if you ever get a chance to see him, I can't think of a rock star or stand up comic who puts on a better show at his age. Here's a video of him performing Evidently Chickentown eleven years ago, and he hasn't lost a step.
I also think he wrote the best poem of the last 80 years, Valley of the Lost Women. The theme is the human attempt to create utopia, and how it's bland and unsatisfying, and comes unraveled.
September 15. Stray links. On a tangent from sparrows in China, something similar happened with Vultures in India, except they were killed accidentally by a cattle drug.
Without vultures, carcasses attracted feral dogs and rats. Not only do these animals carry rabies and other diseases that threaten humans, they are far less efficient at finishing off carrion. The rotting remains they left behind were full of pathogens that then spread to drinking water.... The authors estimated that, between 2000 and 2005, the loss of vultures caused 500,000 additional human deaths.
A surprising psychology article about nostalgia. "Contrary to the belief that nostalgia primarily revolves around the distant past, the results suggest that individuals are experiencing nostalgia for time periods that are relatively recent."
Some happy local news, Artist's giant troll sculptures bring whimsy to Seattle-area woods
And a thread from r/Psychonaut, What's a lesson that you were taught while on psychedelics? The only one I've received personally is "Trees. Just trees, man." But this one is nice:
On DMT I met an entity. It emerged from the wall opposite me, an agender being made of light. In a moment outside of time I asked without language all the questions I had about life, the universe, and meaning. Its response to every question was the same: "It doesn't matter. Look around you. Isn't it beautiful?"
September 13. Continuing on the subject of wisdom, I wrote that 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. There isn't less common sense than there used to be -- there never was any. 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 12. My new favorite blogger is Skunk Ledger. From two weeks ago, a thoughtful post about Scenes and Villages as two different kinds of communities. "I suspect great cities have both scenes and villages; scenes as exports, villages to keep the city human and anchor it in time, beyond the volatile epicycles of scenes."
And from two days ago, Redemption is a bit of short fiction inspired by a glib quote about how telling simple stories lowers your IQ. The theme is the conflict between doing stuff with your brain that makes people respect your intelligence, and doing stuff that you enjoy.
My serious take on the same quote is that IQ is a simple story. People use those two letters to point to anything a brain might be good at, when actual IQ tests measure a very specific thing. Someone gave western intelligence tests to African villagers, and they had a whole different framework. We would match a broom to a mop, because they serve the same function. They would match a broom to a house, because you sweep out the house.
I've also 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."
Loosely related: a Hacker News thread, What is an emotion? Whatever they are, emotions are squarely in the grey area between body and cognition.
September 8. Some medical knowledge from Reddit: Your calf muscles act as a pump for your lymph fluid, "which is basically the garbage pick-up and immunity doordash of your body." A few of the comments mention something I thought immediately: Restless legs syndrome is my body trying to help me, because every night I have to do a few hundred calf muscle pumps before I can fall asleep.
Another medical link, a video: Could the sun be good for your heart? When that speech became famous, that the one thing we can be sure about is sunscreen, I knew at the very least it would turn out that sunscreen is not something we can be sure about.
And some music for the weekend. Over on my songs and playlists page I've added a new Spotify disco playlist. I'm not a big fan of disco, but I found almost an hour of stuff that I continue to enjoy listening to, and my new favorite disco song is Amii Stewart's Knock On Wood.
I've also been listening to this 2021 jangle pop album, Modern Fiction by Ducks Ltd. And this is a cool page, A Guide to Alternate Tunings on Bandcamp.
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.
It's funny, for someone who talks about the value of doing nothing, he's very good at doing something, or he wouldn't have cleared that land and built that house. In my experience, western Buddhists are naturally busy people who are drawn to Buddhism to keep themselves in balance.
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 4. For Labor Day, a repost from exactly six years ago:
Imagine you live in a world where money is completely disconnected from work. Not only is there an unconditional minimum income, there's also a maximum income -- and they're the same! Corporate executives, sled dog racers, insurance agents, and people who just watch TV all day, all make the same amount of money.
In that world, what would you do with your time?
And how similar is that to what you actually do with your time?
To the extent that those things are the same, you're successful -- even if you're poor. To the extent that they're different, your quality of life is being constrained by cultural assumptions and economic rules that tie activity to money.
You've all seen that political grid, where one axis is social freedom and the other is economic freedom. That's always rubbed me the wrong way, and now I can say why: because it has economic freedom exactly backwards, defining it as the right to trade your labor for money, even if it's something you wouldn't do if not for the money, and then turn around and trade your money for the labor of others, even if they're only doing it for the money. That's not people being free -- it's money being free to control us.
In a value system that puts quality of life first, economic freedom is not freedom of money but freedom from money, and the more disconnected money is from activity, the more free we are.
September 1. Three trippy links for the weekend, starting with a scientific article. Insular Stimulation Produces Mental Clarity and Bliss:
For the first time, an ecstatic aura has been evoked through the electrical stimulation of the dorsal anterior insula during presurgical invasive intracerebral monitoring in a patient who did not suffer from an ecstatic form of epilepsy.
On the MEQ‐30 questionnaire, completed to describe the ecstatic symptoms experienced during the AI3‐4 stimulations, the patient had a total score of 130 of 150 points... which is considered a "complete" mystical experience.
From the Psychonaut subreddit, What's the most interesting thing to happen to you on a psychedelic? Of course selection bias is going to make psychedelics seem more reliably mind-blowing than they really are. This whole thread is better than my answer, which would be sensing the personalities of trees.
And from Ask Old People, 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.
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. There are a ton of options for ethnicity, and I'm looking forward to some future generator with that many options for facial expression.
New subject, still reality creation. 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.
Perhaps you have heard this spoken in other ways. The id and the ego and the superego; the conscious and the subconscious; the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. You may not know it, but that impulsive voice in your head -- the one that tells you to throw rocks out your bedroom window at cars passing by -- is one of the many fragments of your own personality and one that will be a great ally in the games to come.
Dr. Miyawaki's prescription involves intense soil restoration and planting many native flora close together. Multiple layers are sown - from shrub to canopy - in a dense arrangement of about three to five plantings per square meter. The plants compete for resources as they race toward the sun, while underground bacteria and fungal communities thrive. Where a natural forest could take at least a century to mature, Miyawaki forests take just a few decades, proponents say.
Finding Hope In The Dark Power Of Fungus is about using fungi to clean toxic sites. It's working well in the laboratory, but they haven't quite figured out how to make it work on a large scale.
Why Bumblebees Love Cats and Other Beautiful Relationships. Related: Do Insects Feel Joy and Pain?
August 24. This Can't Go On is an argument that economic growth can't continue at the present rate. This article could have been written 20 years ago, and given what's happened in the last 20 years, this is my prediction. First, there is no limit to how much the economy can grow by expanding the definition of "growth" to include more and more vaporous things. Second, actual human prosperity will continue to decline, except for the very rich. At some point in the future, the Dow Jones will be ten times higher than it is now, and there will be ten times as many homeless people.
And two Reddit threads. Oddly both of them are marked as "removed", which means they don't show up on Reddit but you can still link to them. I don't know if it's Reddit's policy now to remove all threads that are more than a couple days old, or just the interesting ones. What's the one thing that makes you think "I'm with the boomers on this one?"
And Men who play as women in video games, why?
August 22. Amsterdam to use "noise cameras" against too loud cars. That link goes to the Hacker News comment thread, which is mainly a discussion of the psychology of wanting your car to be louder. Some of the comments say it's "just" to feel powerful, as if we all understand what that means, but "power" is a strange and complex thing. As I said in my July 26 post about evil:
It requires a sense of "self" that's not just your stream of experience, but a third person view of who you supposedly are, and a preoccupation with the status or significance of that self, in competition with the not-self, such you can score points by setting apart the self and the not-self, and by bringing the not-self down.
What's the difference between a graffiti artist and a graffiti tagger? The artist is thinking, "I'm going to create something beautiful and maybe people will look at it and feel good." The tagger is thinking, "Read my name, bitch!" Nobody has to think like that. It's like a disease that possesses people. When I see an evil person, I try to remind myself that inside is a good person who let themselves be hijacked. You can't get mad at the good person inside, nor can you get mad at the evil behavior, which is as mindless as a hiccup.
August 18. Stray links. Every so often there will be a big Reddit thread where people confess their secrets. The best one ever, eleven years ago, was What's your secret that could literally ruin your life if it came out? A couple weeks ago there was another good thread, but noticeably sadder: What's one thing you've never told anyone - but will tell us?
A happier thread from Ask Old People, Who was the coolest person you ever knew?
Last week, when I mentioned daydreaming, this video was posted to the subreddit, a promo for a book that's basically a daydreaming manual: Top 10 Games You Can Play In Your Head, By Yourself
A thoughtful post, Is this a good book for me, now? The idea is non-controversial but people don't think about it enough, that the value of a book is in the context of where you are when you read it, and where it can take you from there.
August 16. It's too hot this week for thinking. 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 14. Negative links, starting with a new Reddit thread, What American city has fallen the furthest in the last 5 years?. A key comment:
Strong towns has been talking for 10+ years about how urban sprawl creates massive infrastructure liabilities that low density development doesn't generate the tax base to support. The only reason cities have stayed solvent is due to new investment from continuous growth, which has allowed them to kick the can down the road for decades. But cities can't grow forever. Once the population levels off the house of cards comes crashing down. The pandemic was just the catalyst for this in some major cities, but it will eventually happen everywhere if we keep building our cities the way we do.
Cory Doctorow is Kickstarting a book to end enshittification, because Amazon will not carry it. More precisely, he won't sell it on Amazon because they require DRM, and I wouldn't either. "When a tech company can lock in its users and suppliers, it can drain value from both sides, using DRM and other lock-in gimmicks to keep their business even as they grow ever more miserable on the platform."
Carrot Problems starts with a story from WWII, when the RAF covered up their new onboard radar, by saying the pilots could see better from eating lots of carrots.
Once you look for Carrot Problems, you see them everywhere. Essentially, any time someone achieves success in a way they don't want to admit publicly, they have to come up with an excuse for their abilities. And that means misleading a bunch of people into (potentially) wasting their time, or worse.... Most business biographies become useless once you realise that they're Carrot Problemmed. For this reason, Carrot Problems greatly increase the value of being an insider.
Finally, with recent controversy about what elite colleges can look at, to decide who gets in, this argument is refreshing: Maybe the problem is that Harvard exists. Specifically, the practice of dividing society into future winners and non-winners is harmful, especially when it's done so early in life.
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.
I've got multiple obsessions going on right now, and while most of them putter along out of sight, I keep cranking out short playlists. A lot of people use Spotify as a library, where a playlist is every song they can think of in that category. My lists are tested by actual listening, and I'm really happy with my new 93 minute Prog Rock sampler. Also I've overhauled and tightened my favorite songs page, now called songs and playlists, with Spotify on the side bar, and other stuff in the center, including a Not On Spotify playlist, and two top ten lists.
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 7. Thanks Doug for sending me the full text of this paywalled article, Hospicing Effective Altruism, in which Daniel Pinchbeck reviews two books, What We Owe the Future by William MacAskill, and Hospicing Modernity by Vanessa Machado de Oliveira.
MacAskill starts with a bland idea, that it's good to try to make the future better, and then tells a tale of pure bullshit, by which I mean that it's easy to think about, unsurprising, and transparently pushes your emotional buttons. Specifically, either humans exterminate ourselves soon, or we make it through to full-on Star Trek, and it all depends on what we do right now. The word "we", in this kind of book, is a call for you to get stressed out about the actions of billionaires and dictators and the blind forces of history. My position is, if it's big enough to be on the news, there's nothing you can do about it, except try to get out of its way.
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."