"You know, I'm sick of following my dreams, man. I'm just going to ask where they're going and hook up with 'em later."
- Mitch Hedberg
January 22. New academic article (thanks Jeff), Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time (pdf). The conclusion argues that rising perfectionism is related to "higher levels of depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation" and other mental illness.
My guess is that perfectionism is not some kind of deep cause, but just one more symptom of some process that we don't understand yet. This week-old reddit thread is a massive compilation of symptoms: What's something that's bothering you that you need to get off your chest, but are afraid to talk to someone about?
I want to call this process "psychosocial collapse", so I googled that phrase, and the top results are all from books. One of them is fascinating! It's a 1978 sci-fi story by Barrington J. Bayley, "The Problem of Morley's Emission". There's actually a four-part audio version on YouTube, and this is my condensation from the middle of part 3:
The Theory of the Social Black Hole: if continued additions are made to force fields, they become so powerful as to create weird and abnormal states of matter, such as the neutron star and the black hole. Social scientists have speculated on the results of endlesssly adding to human populations, since the Social Energy Field also contains a gravitating principle: population tends toward centers.
There being no theoretical limit to the size a population may ultimately assume, it has already been proposed to build a vast artificial sphere several hundred million miles in diameter, to trap all solar energy so as to power and accomodate a truly titanic civilization. Leaving aside considerations of physical mass and gravity, the question that arises is what would happen to the SEF inside such a sphere, if it were to fill up entirely with human population.
It is believed that a condition of 'psychosocial collapse' would occur toward the center. Individual and collective mentalities would assume unimaginable relationships. Reality would bear no resemblance to our perception of it. The whole of mankind within the sphere would ultimately be drawn into a 'social black hole', and would be totally unable to perceive or conceive of an external physical universe.
January 19. Fun and surprisingly deep reddit thread, What is a very minor thing you do in secret, but people might look at you differently if they found out?
And for the weekend, some psychedelic music. From England in 1969, an impressively noisy jam, Arzachel - Metempsychosis.
From Japan in 1971, Flower Travellin' Band - Satori Pt 1. I would tag this as prog metal more than heavy psych, because it's so structured and riff-based.
From England in 1971, Hawkwind - You Shouldn't Do That. When I first heard this as a teenager it sounded like noise, and now it sounds like almost the best jam of all time.
And from Japan in 2008, my new favorite instrumental, Nisennenmondai - Mirrorball. It took me several listens to understand it. The dominant instrument is some kind of keyboard or guitar, which starts with a simple riff and builds to a hypnotic groove, and once it gets there, it holds the center while drums, bass, and lead guitar all swerve around it like birds.
January 18. Yesterday on the subreddit, A computer program is writing great, original works of classical music, and here's a short comment thread.
After I posted about this subject a week ago, I thought about quality. What is it? The book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is about a guy who gets so deep into that question that he goes insane and independently derives Taoism. My latest idea is that quality can be viewed as a message.
This is easy to see with music. Suppose you play a song that sounds great to you, with no thought of whether it sounds good to anyone else. The message is more than "this is what I like" -- the message is the pleasure that you get from listening, and if someone else gets that pleasure, then it's like you've encrypted that feeling in sound, and the listener has decrypted it.
At the other extreme, if you play a song that sounds boring to you, but you know other people will love it, it's like you've hacked their musical quality receptors. It's still a message, but it's less like having a conversation, and more like plugging in a code that makes an ATM spit out cash.
Quality-as-message also works with seemingly objective stuff. A reliable car is higher quality than one that breaks down a lot -- unless you're so rich that repair costs are nothing, and you want to look good and go fast. The makers of those cars, and the buyers, are communicating a value system.
Another example, The Cult of the Costco Surfboard, where a cheap surfboard spawned a subculture based on fun stuff that is not being done with expensive surfboards.
That composing computer is working within the value system of respectable classical music. Over the last few years, I've been getting into "hard listening" -- music that sounds bad at first, but eventually it sounds really good. I'm not saying computers can never do that, but I'd like to see them try.
January 15. I have no smart ideas today, so I'll do some film reviews. Last night we watched the new Blade Runner, and I loved the dreamy slow pace and the visuals. It was like if Andrei Tarkovsky had a big budget. But I didn't like much else. The story looked promising at first, but it got more and more clunky and finally fell into the rut of a by-the-numbers boss battle and an ending that pretended at emotional depth that it never earned. I didn't have a clear sense of anyone's motivation. The replicant underground is looking for that thing, and so is the evil corporation, but what is the difference in their intentions, and how exactly are they working together? If Jared Leto needs more replicants, why does he keep killing them for no good reason? Why don't the garbage thugs attack the orphanage? And what's up with the bees? Where do they even get nectar in a radioactive dead city? The bees, like everyone in this movie, are not grounded in any ecology -- they're just there to look cool.
Last week we watched the new It, and it's impressively scary, but I just don't like the way Stephen King relentlessly jerks the emotions of the audience with cartoon evil and good. The Harry Potter books are almost as bad. Once I notice that I'm being pushed to feel a certain way, my attention shifts from the characters to the storyteller's lack of subtlety. I mean, you expect a killer sewer clown to be pure evil, but even King's human villains are just scary masks lacking any inner life.
The best horror film of 2017 is Get Out, and I also want to plug my favorite horror screenwriter, Stephen Volk. He wrote a great 2015 miniseries, Midwinter of the Spirit, a brilliant 2011 film, The Awakening, and is best known for the 1992 classic Ghostwatch.
Two of my recent favorites are both action films from 2014. One is John Wick, a fun masterpiece of fight choreography, and the other is Edge of Tomorrow. It's just like Groundhog Day, except that instead of Bill Murray exploring a small town, it's Tom Cruise fighting aliens. Trust me, it's better than you think. Despite good reviews and massive marketing, it underperformed in American theaters, probably because people like me assumed it was stupid, while action audiences found it hard to wrap their heads around.
January 11. Bunch o' links. First, Legends of the Ancient Web is a text version of a great talk on the history of radio and what it might tell us about the internet. "In just a few years, radio completes the transition from an eclectic group of participatory amateurs, to a mass audience of passive consumers and a professional class of producers."
Someone has edited Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from minor key to major key, plus some other changes to make it sound more like a pop hit: Nirvirna - Teen Sprite. Of course the original was already a huge hit, so I'm wondering if this version, back in 1991, would have been more or less popular, and more or less influential. This also touches on one of my favorite subjects: how much of artistic quality is subject to logic? Could a sufficiently powerful computer make better music than Mozart or Led Zeppelin?
I think it will turn out that computers are most valuable, not on their own, but serving humans in just the right way. For example: How more than 2500 virtual reality reps helped transform Case Keenum's game. If you don't follow the NFL, Case Keenum has been playing at a level that's unprecedented for a third string quarterback in his first year with a team.
Albert Hoffman tells the story of the first LSD trip. Despite being really careful in the laboratory, he got an accidental dose leading to "an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors." Then he intentionally took what he thought was "the smallest quantity that could be expected to produce some effect," which we would now call two or three hits, and tripped even harder.
Why People Walked Differently in Medieval Times. Basically they came down on the balls of their feet because their shoes weren't good enough to come down on their heels. It's funny that we've now gone full circle, and I wear really good shoes that encourage me to come down on the balls of my feet to protect my leg joints.
Finally, some good news: Britain's Next Megaproject: A Coast-to-Coast Forest.
January 9. Thinking more about yesterday's subject, there's an old cliche in collapsism, "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." The message is obvious: stop caring about the ship and get people on lifeboats. The tricky thing is mapping the metaphor.
I used to think the ship was the entire modern way of life, the iceberg was technological unsustainability, and the lifeboats were low-tech subsistence kills. Now I think the ship is a whole fleet of nation-states, the iceberg is psychological unsustainability, the sinking may take centuries, and there will be many kinds of lifeboats, some of them not yet even knowable.
So that means it's not yet time to abandon the ship. We can still work within the system to make a better world -- it's just that the system is no longer the thing that finds the solutions. At best, it's the thing that moderates the transition, that keeps people alive and sane to find solutions too flexible for bureaucracy, and doesn't get too much in their way.
January 8. Losing Faith in the State, Some Mexican Towns Quietly Break Away. You might guess this is a good thing, but if you read the article, these independent city-states are mostly terrible places to live, and they're all unstable.
The Hacker News comment thread links to this article, The Twin Insurgency, which argues that states are threatened from below by crime gangs, and from above by the global elite. The most interesting idea is that hardly anyone is trying to change the world by taking over the government. Instead, everyone is trying to carve out zones where they get the benefits of the state without the costs.
Lately I've been watching lots of nature documentaries, so now I'm seeing all the old institutions as giant dead animals on which predators and scavengers gather to feast. I don't see how this is not going to get worse. And I find that I've lost the urge to tell a compelling story: to blame it all on one thing, or to offer a solution. I used to see human society as a sandbox, where it makes sense to talk about what we can do to change it. Now I see it as a landslide, an unfolding disaster where we're only trying to survive.
January 5. I haven't had any interesting thoughts lately, but here's a great bit I just read in Alasdair Gray's novel Lanark:
God, you see, is a word. It is the word for everything not speaking when someone says 'I think.' And by Propper's Law of Inverse Exclusion (which enables a flea in a matchbox to declare itself jailor of the universe) every single 'I think' has intimate knowledge of the surface of what it is not. But as every thinker reflects a different surface of what he isn't, and as God is our word for the whole, it follows that all agreement about God is based on misunderstanding.
January 3. For the new year, some links about changing times:
Do civilisations collapse? It's a long article with a main point that's easy to summarize: States collapse, while cultures adapt and survive.
Why Teens Aren't Partying Anymore. The article is all about social media, but the smarter Hacker News comment thread looks at other factors like an increasingly restrictive culture.
French chef gives up a Michelin star. At first I'm thinking this is about the vanishing middle class. But when I read about the expense and waste that's required for even a single Michelin star, I'm thinking the upper class needs to vanish too.
Chess's New Best Player Is A Fearless, Swashbuckling Algorithm:
Unlike other top programs, which receive extensive input and fine-tuning from programmers and chess masters, drawing on the wealth of accumulated human chess knowledge, AlphaZero is exclusively self-taught. It learned to play solely by playing against itself, over and over and over... But maybe it's more illustrative to say that AlphaZero played like neither a human nor a computer, but like an alien.
January 1, 2018. Instead of new year's resolutions, I call them "points of emphasis" because that way no amount of failure is discouraging. Last night I decided on three: 1) to notice unnecessary muscle tension and relax it; 2) to put more attention on my gut; 3) to make a mental note of where I put something down that I'll need to find later.
These are all about metacognition, about building an internal perspective that can manage where my attention is and what it's doing. Last night, walking around (on drugs) I was thinking: with enough metacognitive stamina, I could do fun experiments, like walk for ten minutes with attention on footsoles and peripheral vision, or sit by the stream and focus on that sound and the moon. Meditation books are all about focusing on the breath, but that's like a safety net, or a ladder, to get to focusing on things that are more interesting.
Also, here's Leigh Ann's playlist of her favorite songs of 2017. I don't have a Spotify account, so here's a simple txt file with a list of the songs, including three that are not on Spotify, including maybe the catchiest, Ty Segall - Thank You Mr K.
December 30. Interesting Reddit thread: What's a sensation that you're unsure if other people experience?
And a bit more music for the holidays. A reader sends Capac - O Holy Night. I don't think it's a cover, more like a tribute, but this is really good heavy ambient.
And I love this raw and beautiful rendition of Silent Night by Auburn football players.
December 27. Like everyone else, I feel like I'm on vacation this week, so I'll just post some links:
In Japan, Small Children Take the Subway and Run Errands Alone. It's because their culture is built on greater trust, and also greater responsibility toward strangers and shared spaces.
Also from Citylab, The Backlash Against Piped Music. It turns out that more people prefer quiet in public spaces, but businesses are slow to adapt.
Philosophy Needs a New Definition. This is not controversial, but it's a nice argument for a particular case of a general truth: that the academic world is too clean and cautious, and anything really valuable is going to be messy.
The Case Against Reading Everything. The point is, advice for writers is never universally helpful, and even though everyone says to read widely, some writers will do better getting obsessed with one thing. This is also true for other kinds of creative work: Jeff Mangum, when he was doing his best stuff with Neutral Milk Hotel, said that he barely even listened to music other than Robert Wyatt.
December 25. It's funny that I was just writing about the power of intentional badness, because it's time for my Christmas tradition: posting The Abominable O Holy Night. The singer, Steve Mauldin, was consciously imitating mistakes he'd heard from bad singers, and on top of that, no song inspires singers to really let go like O Holy Night. Check out this O Holy Night Metal Cover that Gene posted to the subreddit.
This new subreddit thread has some great comments about how different we all are in levels of perception and skill: some people can see colors 100 times better than other people, and olympic athletes have won gold medals with less than 30 hours of practice.
I have a terrible ear for pitch -- when I started playing guitar as a teenager, I could barely tell that notes a half step apart were even different. But I believe I have a good ear for timbre, for the quality of vibration that makes, say, a trumpet and an electric guitar sound different playing the same note. Talent is when you don't understand why everyone else is bad at something, and I don't understand why no one else can hear that Joanna Newsom does something with her voice on The Milk-Eyed Mender that she has not done on any other recording.
As a listener, for the last five years I've been chasing sounds that are increasingly raw and weird, and in my own creative work, this year I wrote a novel that went so hard into my own personal taste that no one else might ever get it. Will this become more common? Lukey's comment mentions "the frontiers of human potential," and I wonder if the long tail of new technology is encouraging those frontiers to spread in a greater number of more unusual directions.
December 23. I want to take another shot at yesterday's subject, because if you don't read the linked article or read the post carefully, it sounds like I'm talking about jobs, about a world where people live for work that's obviously work.
That's not it at all. It's about a culture where the mindset of work has swallowed every activity, so even if you're unemployed, or on vacation, or playing with your kids, you're still thinking, "What's the right way to do this?" or "How is this an investment in a better future?" or "If I post this on social media, how will people judge me?" Even if an unconditional basic income leads to a 100% leisure utopia, we might still not know how to have fun.
Again, in this comment thread, you can see the tension between creativity that is done for some benefit and feels like a chore, and creativity that's so intrinsically enjoyable that it doesn't have to lead to anything.
As I say in my own comment, that's not easy. Apart from any technical skill, you need the psychological skill of letting go. I've seen this advice for fiction writers: that if you're having trouble getting started, try writing something intentionally bad. It works because objective quality is oppressive, it's about what you should do and not what you feel like doing, and willful badness breaks you from that hold and opens exciting doorways. But then you have to keep going, to stay in that unconstrained mindspace, step after step, without falling down.
That's also the right way to live -- but in life, intentional badness can be severely punished, so it's that much harder to break the hold of always doing the right thing. It seems to be especially hard right now, with both the left and right stacking up rules and punishments, and with the tech world making more paths that start out fun but trap your mind.
December 22. A link from the subreddit, If work dominated your every moment would life be worth living? The author argues that total work, a dystopian thought experiment, "is unmistakably close to our own world." We're always doing stuff because it's useful or productive, even play becomes a task, and "there is concomitantly the looming question: Is this the best use of my time?"
I think the author himself is caught in this trap, because his description of the world inside the trap is detailed and spot-on, while his description of the world outside the trap, in the final paragraph, is insipid and unhelpful, as if he's never been there and doesn't know the way. To be fair, it's the hardest problem in modern life. Obviously it starts with letting go of expectations and just doing what feels good in the moment. But that path is also full of traps, and technology keeps creating more of them.
This subject reminds me of a saying from Buddhism: "It takes 20 years to become enlightened -- or if you really push it, 30 years."
Related: a thread on the subreddit, Is anyone here compelled to be creative even if there's no audience? The comments show that even creativity is hard to pull from the realm of work into the realm of fun.
December 19. Another good post by Accountt1234, just cross-posted to the subreddit: Sowing the right seeds.
I'm not in the mood for big ideas this week, so I'll write about some personal stuff. For more than a year I've felt, off and on, like life is an uphill struggle, like I'm washing an endless sink of dirty dishes and can never get in the flow. I thought it might be cannabis withdrawal, but other people who report that symptom have been smoking massive amounts for years, not vaping a thimbleful over three days. And a seven week break this summer didn't fix it.
Now I think it has something to do with dopamine. Since I slashed internet use, I haven't had a bad episode. It's not just that I'm spending less time online -- I'm also trying to notice when I'm about to click a link or a bookmark in anticipation of a reward, and catching myself, and not clicking it.
I'm also trying to move some of my attention from my head to my body. I've never had much "gut" intelligence, and it occurs to me, developing it might be as simple as literally focusing my attention on my gut. So I've been trying that, and I've also been working with a balance board.
The balance board turns out to be a great metaphor for something much harder. I'm working toward following this rule: Never get emotionally invested in anything happening on a screen. So I was watching a football game, and trying to not care which side was winning, and it's exactly like trying not to lean the board on one edge or the other. The funny thing is, sports announcers always keep this balance, but viewers almost never keep it, even though they have the constant example of the announcers.
December 15. For the weekend, some happy links, and like the negative links I posted last week, many of these came from No Tech Magazine.
Non-Electric Hearing Aids Outperform Modern Devices, partly because other people can see the device, so they know to talk more clearly. I wonder if there's a lesson here for other ways that people try to hide their weaknesses. Now I'm imagining walking around with a Subtextotron, which converts subtle hints into clear language, and everyone would be objecting, "That wasn't what I meant!"
The Human Power Plant is a working prototype of an exercise machine that generates and stores hydro-pneumatic energy.
How to Build a City That Doesn't Flood? Turn it Into a Sponge, with stuff like permeable pavement, bioswales, and forest restoration. Related: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature.
Fun reddit thread: You've got exactly 60 seconds to come up with a movie plot, what comes to your mind?
The Ornamental Hermit: A Real Person Paid to Dress like a Druid. With a few changes, like being allowed to trim my nails, this would be my dream job: to hang out in a rustic cabin and entertain guests who expect weirdness.
And a funny video, made to look like one of those pharmaceutical commercials, but it's for Cannabis Delivery.
December 13. On the subreddit a reader just posted something I wrote six years ago, about high-tech artificial worlds and what they contribute to the world that contains them. I started a comment there which I'll expand into today's post: my latest thought is that the internet is the matrix. We're seeing what really happens in the early stages of the creation of a global artificial reality.
Fifteen years ago, the internet was the most amazing thing ever. Since then it has been improved into a clunky mess of addictive traps, annoying distractions, and seductive lies. It's getting harder to use the internet in a way that makes life better, but now it's almost impossible to live without it.
What went wrong? The behavior of any subworld is shaped by the values of the containing world, and human society does not hold up human improvement as its highest goal, or even human happiness. Its highest goal is the leveraging of power into more power. So increasingly that's what the internet is being used for.
This is oddly related to all the sexual assault stuff that's coming out, because that's a reason to seek power, to make powerless people do sexual stuff they'd rather not do. Somewhere someone is thinking, "Damn, if powerful people have to follow the same sex rules as losers now, what's even the point?"
My utopian vision is to shine the light way beyond sexual assault, eventually at everything we don't feel like doing but some authority commands it. When power no longer enables coercion, then it's no longer power as we know it, only responsibility, and only the best people will seek it. (That's how we fix personal power, but institutional power is a harder problem.)
December 11. Continuing on the subject of antisocial media, we're all in a war for attention, and I've been seeing it from the perspective of a content creator: there are all these abstract messages, competing for views from disconnected eyes. Readers remind me of the view from the other side: those eyes are people with social needs. We have a biological expectation of sitting around a campfire with friends and family, and the attention you get from other people is what makes you feel valuable and real.
The digital campfire seems much improved. You can share more exciting stuff, faster, to more people, anywhere. But this bandwidth is bottlenecked by the same human biology. The dizzying spectacle becomes the new baseline, and we're no happier. The medium is infested with parasitic robots, so less human attention gets through to actual humans, who have some sense of the quantity of attention they're getting, but no sense of the quality.
Even if you get face to face with people, you're competing with their phones -- and they're competing with yours -- because what's on the phone really is more interesting.
I'm not sure how we'll get out of this trap as a society, but as an individual, you get out of it through a commitment to going into boredom and out the other side. I just read this in an email: "It's crazy that when I am not on my computer, I find myself doing creative projects out of boredom. I think that's how it is supposed to work!"
And another line from my weed journal: "When you burn out looking for beauty in beautiful things, look for beauty in ugly things."
December 8. When I was in high school and college, back in the 1980's, I don't think I even once heard the words "social anxiety". I mean it existed, but it wasn't enough of a problem that ordinary people gave it a name. Now it's everywhere, and I don't think it's limited to the millennial generation, because I've got it too, and worse than when I was younger. So where does it come from?
Yesterday, cog-boosted by cannabis, I wrote this: "Does the internet cause anxiety by normalizing a socially easier simworld?" In more words: The internet is an unprecedented global artificial world (I call it Internesia) in which social behavior has looser rules and less serious consequences than the world of modern society. If you're at a job interview, or at a party, or even just going to the store, the rules are tighter and the stakes are higher than when you're goofing off anonymously in some comment thread.
So what happens to someone who spends more time on the internet than out in society? The easier world becomes the new baseline, and what used to be the normal world now feels difficult and frightening. As the social internet grows, this happens to more and more people.
Notice that I haven't used the word "real", because even before computers our world was already unreal. If we avoid social interaction for being difficult and frightening, then why do we embrace the danger of something like rock climbing? Because it's a better fit for our bodies and minds than the nightmare of modernity. It used to be rare for teenagers to cut themselves, and now it's almost normal, because the pain of our culture has wandered so far from human nature that the pain of drawing blood feels comforting. It's a cliche now that Orwell was wrong and Huxley was right, but I think the guy who really nailed it was Kafka.
Anyway, I'm so serious about this that I've decided to slash my internet time, especially Reddit, which might reduce my posting.
December 6. It's been a while since I posted a bunch of links about what's wrong with the world. This article from the Guardian has a lot more about last week's subject: 'Our minds can be hijacked': the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia. There's some good stuff about how the atmosphere of competing for scarce attention has made politics shallower and more impulsive. Also, I trimmed this bit from the original URL: "?CMP=share_btn_fb"
Related: an abstract of a scientific article, The influence of the number of toys in the environment on toddlers' play. Unsurprisingly, "an abundance of toys present reduced quality of toddlers' play," and "fewer toys at once may help toddlers to focus better and play more creatively." Obviously this is also true for adults.
Another long one from the Guardian, sent by a reader, From inboxing to thought showers: how business bullshit took over. It covers the whole 20th century, and ten years ago my take would have been, "Look at all the ways that evil corporations have tried to trick their workers." Now I'm thinking, look at all the ways that well-meaning humans have tried to make a better world, but it remains impossible in a social mechanism that puts profit first.
From Reddit, a good rant against suburbs, arguing that bad urban design has poisoned American culture and politics.
The Switch to Outdoor LED Lighting Has Completely Backfired. Instead of reducing energy consumption, cities are burning the same amount of energy to create more light pollution.
Related, and written with spirit: Bitcoin = Death Processors. The rules for generating bitcoins make it increasingly difficult and expensive, proportional to computers getting more powerful, so that more and more real resources go into something completely imaginary and useless. It reminds me of one of the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy books, where Earth's first humans used leaves as currency, and then to make their value meaningful, they burned the forests.
December 4. Three old Ask Reddit threads on the same subject. This fascinates me because I have low intuitive intelligence and I'm envious.
Have you ever had a gut feeling that something was bad so you left, only to find out that something bad actually did happen?
Have you ever had a "something isn't right" feeling, and you were right?
What's the craziest gut feeling you have ever had that actually became true?