"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
March 23. Continuing from Wednesday, where I framed "good at dancing" as two definitions with no necessary overlap, Eric writes:
I believe that there is some overlap. Consciously training your body and senses to be receptive and responsive to your partner, then giving your partner movement, stimulus that has been smoothed, reduced, refined so that there is a clear 2-way conversation in (unconscious) body language. Dancing like this is not an intellectual activity, in fact feels opposite of intellectual, but only the greatest dance geniuses can do it without making the conscious effort to build the necessary skills.
Of course I should have known that. I'm not a good dancer, but as a writer, I have exactly that partnership inside myself. There's that voice that spits out words from who knows where, and if I were to put that stuff on the page unfiltered, it would be terrible. But I also couldn't ignore that voice and write anything good. Good art, and good living, are about skillfully walking the line between conscious and subconscious, or rational and sub-rational.
But if art and living are similar skills, then why are highly creative people so often bad at life? I think it's because their subconscious energy, which can illuminate invented worlds, is too wild to be integrated in a world shared with other people -- or at least this world.
On a personal note, I've been doing a lot of work lately to clean up bad subconscious habits, but I still haven't got to the core problem: the lack of overlap between what I feel like doing and what's good for me to do. I wonder what it's like for other people. I mean, every night I force myself to floss my teeth because I know it's good for me -- but most people don't, and if they can't even force themselves to floss, how are they forcing themselves to cook and clean and pay bills and do their jobs? That's why I've become so interested in channeling spontaneity, because I imagine that if I could learn to do it right, I could coast through life instead of having to drag it around.
March 21. Sometimes I think that all disagreements come down to semantics. Or, if we somehow had perfect communication, there would be no conflict -- but then, that depends on your definition of "conflict".
Anyway, after some feedback from the last post, I realize that being "good at dancing" has a range of meanings, which could be framed as two competing definitions with no overlap: one is when the head trains the body to make a set of precise moves; the other is when the body moves on its own. Both kinds of movements become smoother and more complex with practice. I think it's obvious that some cultures are much better than others at loose and spontaneous movement, and that it has something to do with social class and authoritarian politics.
I was thinking it had something to do with intellect, where more cerebral people are also more stiff, but now I'm doubting that, because intellect can be either allied or opposed to authoritarian culture. In Nazi Germany, you had an anti-intellectual ruling party whose members were terrible dancers (definition 2), and an underground culture that was both looser and smarter.
Those people mostly got killed, but their values lived on. I believe that top-down systems, whether inside or outside the body, tend to break down from their own inflexibility, while bottom-up systems... but now I've hit a semantic wall, because what exactly is the "bottom"? The first line of the Tao Te Ching says: the Tao that can be described in language is not really the Tao.
And now I'm getting into theology. Imagine the unknowable Divine, not as an authority we obey, but as a wave we ride.
March 19. I'll continue on music because I just got an email from Eric with two different fertile ideas. First, that "music serves as a cultural marker. Listening to a certain kind of music makes us feel like we belong somewhere."
Suddenly I understand why my musical taste is so "weird" -- I've always felt that I belong nowhere in this world, so I look for music that makes me feel like I belong in some other world that doesn't quite exist. This line from The Picture of Dorian Gray is exactly how I feel about many of my favorite songs:
...the silent spirit that dwelt in dim woodland, and walked unseen in open field, suddenly showing herself, Dryad-like and not afraid, because in his soul who sought for her there had been wakened that wonderful vision to which alone are wonderful things revealed; the mere shapes and patterns of things becoming, as it were, refined, and gaining a kind of symbolical value, as though they were themselves patterns of some other and more perfect form whose shadow they made real: how strange it all was!
Most people listen to music to feel at home with some human subculture, while I listen to music to talk to God -- typically after breathing cannabis vapors, and sometimes kneeling before two large vintage speakers.
Eric's second idea is that many genres of popular music have their roots in some kind of fringe dance music. As the sound becomes mainstream, people no longer dance to it.
This reminds me of something I often wonder: why are white people so bad at dancing? I think it's because dancing comes from the body, and European culture has been consistently heady for hundreds of years now. That's why Elvis was so popular. Just as television was emerging, he was the only white man whose movements were fluid and not stiff.
What would it take for everyone in the world to be good at dancing?
March 17. Linked the other day on the subreddit, an interview with indie rock star Julian Casablancas about money, music, and politics. I'm not sure where to start. Of course I agree with him that this is a dark age for popular music, but I see his music as part of that dark age. His band's biggest hit, Reptilia, has 95 million YouTube views, and sounds to me like by-the-numbers indie rock, nowhere near as creative as someone like Ezra Furman.
This is a good point:
The Oscars obviously have blind spots, but with movies it's generally the authentic artistic endeavors that get recognized. But when you look at what gets nominated for a Grammy? I don't understand what the hell it's all about.
It's also interesting to compare music with TV, which has been in a golden age for a while now. The 1970's cannot hold a candle to the last ten years of television, so we're not talking about a general cultural decline. I think there's something about the medium of music, in the context of our economy and technology, where popularity has become strongly correlated with blandness.
Casablancas sees the evil music industry excluding the best artists, but I see it the other way around: with cheap home recording and internet distribution, the best artists no longer have to fight for a place at the table of big money. They're happy to stay independent and do exactly what they want, and big money is happy to go on with beautiful people and algorithmic songwriting.
Is it better this way? With all the great TV shows out there, there still has not been a single episode that speaks to my soul the way my favorite songs do. Maybe some future technology will enable visual storytelling to be cheap enough to take the risks to reach that level.
By the way, a 2018 album has emerged as my favorite non-Big Blood album of the decade: Insecure Men. That's the album on YouTube and here's an article about it. I would tag it as space lounge music. The songs have the structure and melody of classic pop, with so much strange beauty layered on top that I guess people find it hard to wrap their ears around it. For an argument that music is getting better, compare Dire Straits' 1985 hit "So Far Away" with Insecure Men's "I Don't Wanna Dance With My Baby".
March 14. Taking the week off from heavy thinking, here are four links from Nautilus. The Case for Making Cities Out of Wood, specifically, wood processed in a new way that makes it as strong as steel but only one sixth the weight.
Why Is There So Much Hate for the Word "Moist"? People imagine that it's about the sound of the word, but studies show that it's completely about the meaning, which people project onto the sound. Similarly: "In one study that exposed Americans and Canadians to different British accents they were unfamiliar with, they couldn't guess with any accuracy which ones belonged to people in the upper classes and which ones to people in the lower classes." But once we know, then the sounds of the accents sound upper or lower class.
Inheritance Is Moving Beyond Genetics and Epigenetics, to weird neo-Lamarckian stuff that we can't completely explain.
This Neural Net Hallucinates Sheep. It's about how artificial intelligence works more by correlation than understanding. So given the kind of landscape that often contains sheep, an AI will identify anything white as a sheep -- yet actual sheep, colored orange, it will mistake for flowers, and it's terribly confused by goats in a tree. The practical upshot: "Want to sneak something past a neural network? In a delightfully cyberpunk twist, surrealism might be the answer. Maybe future secret agents will dress in chicken costumes, or drive cow-spotted cars."
March 12. Some doom from reddit: What significant changes to the environment have you noticed throughout your life?
And some techno-optimism mixed with some doom: What BIG THING is on the verge of happening?
On the lighter side, Concert venue workers, what band/genre of music has the worst fans? Which has the best? There are a lot of nominees for worst, but everyone agrees that metal fans are the best.
March 9. Important new David Graeber essay, How to change the course of human history (thanks MakeTotalDestr0i). The whole thing is worth reading, but I'll try to summarize it.
Graeber wants to overturn the "conventional narrative": that primitive life was good, agriculture changed everything, and now we're stuck in big systems that can only work with hierarchy. Recent archaeology refutes this. There were complex civilizations before agriculture. Then agriculture didn't suddenly capture us -- it was one of many food options, tried and sometimes abandoned over thousands of years. Hierarchy also didn't capture us -- there were cultures where politics were seasonal, authoritarian in summer and anarchist in winter, or vice versa. Prehistory wasn't a row of falling dominoes -- it was a time of massive experimentation.
In Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, "cities with sophisticated civic infrastructures flourished for over half a millennium with no trace of royal burials or monuments, no standing armies or other means of large-scale coercion, nor any hint of direct bureaucratic control over most citizen's lives." This leads Graeber to his most radical point, made explicitly in one of the comments: "there is no correlation between scale and hierarchy."
This gives us hope for a better world. But it also leaves a void, by taking away a beautiful answer to an important question: How did the world get so fucked up? If it wasn't agriculture or cities, what was it? If our ancestors experimented and found Utopia, how did they lose it? It's suspicious that we have no written record of a non-repressive large scale society. Did the world get fucked up by writing?
Taking another angle, imagine we're in Utopia now. I mean clearly we're not -- even with all the antidepressants, depression is probably higher now than it's ever been. But imagine if someone from Gobekli Tepe traveled to the present day. What would they like most about our world?
March 7. Loose ends. This new subreddit thread, social bumper cars, has some good discussion of Friday's post. Gene makes an important point, that people with social disorders find each other difficult to be around. So we can't build a social utopia out of total incompetence. But I still think bumper cars are a good metaphor. If we can all develop the skill of being thick-skinned, then we don't need to develop the skill of not saying anything offensive.
Also linked from the subreddit, The Role of Luck in Life Success Is Far Greater Than We Realized. I would go even farther, because if you look deeply at things other than luck, it still comes down to luck. What is talent if not luck? Even "hard work" might come down to genetic stamina, or having people around you who are skilled motivators, or that you happen to really enjoy doing something that society happens to find valuable.
New subject: several ex-doomers are writing fiction now. James Kunstler has his World Made By Hand novels, John Michael Greer has written Lovecraftian fantasy, Tim Bennett wrote a novel about aliens, All of the Above, Paul Kingsnorth wrote an acclaimed historical novel called The Wake, and an ex-peak-oiler and reader of this blog, Gregory Jeffers, has just released his second novel.
I find fiction much more rewarding than nonfiction, and I'm only continuing this blog through force of habit. My unusual fear is that my novel will get popular too soon, and complicate my life so that I can't continue writing at the same level.
March 5. I don't have a post today, but do I have some news. This summer I'll be in Europe for a month, from July 10 to August 10. Leigh Ann will be there for a class, so I'll be based with her in Bonn. During the last two weeks we'll be traveling together, and during the first week my sister might join me. If anyone wants to host me, or me and one other person, for a night or two, let me know, ranprieur at gmail. Trains are very expensive, so I'll have to stick to an efficient route. I still need to research buses and possibly hitchhiking.
March 2. Continuing on psychology, this new Nautilus article is about schizophrenics and how they do lot better in developing countries, supposedly because their cultures are more collectivist and value "empathy and social competence".
But the article also mentions autism, which in one model, is the opposite of schizophrenia: "Where an autistic person's sense of self is cripplingly narrow, schizophrenics' selves are cripplingly expansive."
So I'm wondering, would someone on the autism-aspergers spectrum also do better in a more traditional culture? Or worse? This smart Twitter thread (thanks Gabriel) argues that even the developed world demands too much social competence:
You don't need to be on the autism spectrum to lack social tact or find yourself disgusted with the need to demonstrate social tact everywhere. When people talk about "neurodiversity" it's not because there's giant group of oppressed Aspies. It's because Aspergerdom is a cultural symbol of what it means to be undersocialized.
I like Starcraft but my reaction time is never going to get up to the level necessary to compete with the pros. So I play casually. I'd get destroyed if I played with people of even a moderate skill level. This is how undersocialized people see the world of oversocialized people.
I've never been to a professional for a diagnosis, so I don't know if I would come out neurotypical, aspie, or schizoid. But when I imagine my ideal culture, it's like social bumper cars: everyone is having fun, because no matter how big of a mistake you make, nothing bad can happen.
February 28. Continuing from Monday, in this subreddit post, goocy describes a ketamine trip where he became aware of his "subprocesses" -- the different personalities and roles of all the voices in his head. I've had similar experiences on cannabis, but it's vague and dark, like I'm going in there as an undercover boss and finding a nest of snakes. I wonder how many people have the same experience, call it anxiety or paranoia, and avoid it.
Then Myles reminded me about that new chess computer, Alpha Zero, which learned the game from scratch and outplayed a top chess computer, Stockfish, that was running 900 times faster. The old computers look ahead and calculate the value of individual moves, while Alpha Zero somehow evaluates whole-board positions, but the way it works, even the programmers can't say what it's "thinking".
So now I'm wondering, do some of my sub-personalities work like Stockfish and some like Alpha Zero? If some inner voice tells me something that doesn't make sense rationally, how can I tell if it's reliable? Highly successful people can follow their "heart" or "gut" and make consistent good decisions, but I've never seen an explanation of how they do it. Can they somehow tell the difference between reliable and unreliable urges? Or are they somehow free of unreliable urges?
This also reminds me of what Rupert Sheldrake says about "instinct", that biologists have no idea what it is, and just throw that word around to describe behaviors that they cannot yet explain.
February 26. Great reddit thread from the weekend, What's the biggest culture shock you ever experienced?
There was also a good thread about important psychological experiments.
Just lately I've been thinking about psychology and culture in terms of layers. This is all so obvious that it can't be original, but I find this model helpful. The top layer is society, the rules that we have to publicly follow. The next layer down is persona, the way we present ourselves to fit society. Most of us are aware of a difference between how we present ourselves and how we really are. So the next layer down is the "self", what we think of as our true identity.
But the more you look at this level, the more shaky it becomes. What we call the self is not even a thing, more like an interference pattern, a standing wave of habits and strategies and stories that are determined partly from above, by culture, and partly from below, by a still deeper layer of subconscious psychology.
This deeper layer is not intrinsically subconscious -- you could look at it, but you usually don't. But now the language gets tricky, because who are "you"? I think we're talking about two different things. One "you" is the constructed self, that nest of habits and stories; and the other "you" is the ongoing choice of where to put your attention.
Normally, without being aware that we're making a choice, we direct our attention to maintain the constructed self: "There's something I like, there's something I don't like, this is who I am." To direct it differently requires a mental leap, to stop being the person with this set of tastes and values and goals, and start being the project of investigating a wider landscape in which we see that person from the outside.
This is difficult and painful, so why do we do it? Typically it's because the constructed self is dysfunctional, the layers are no longer working together, and this is more likely to happen in a society that changes fast and recklessly.
I'm wondering how many collapses happen because social rules get so far from our unchangeable deep nature that most people can't bridge the gap. I'm also wondering if it's possible to have a human world with only one layer, where society fits our deep nature so perfectly that self-reflection is not necessary.
February 23. For the weekend, music. This post is an upgrade of a comment I just made on this subreddit thread (thanks Marills59) about Big Star, the legendary band who were loved by critics and other musicians, but totally flopped commercially. This is usually blamed on their record company, but I think it had more to do with their music itself, and their timing.
There was a brief window in the late 1960's when popular audiences wanted to be challenged, and somebody like Jimi Hendrix could get his foot in the door. By 1972, people wanted to hear stuff like the Carpenters, who did have an undertone of sadness in songs like Superstar, but smothered it with super-smooth production. Meanwhile Alex Chilton was going the other direction.
In 1967 he had a huge hit with the Box Tops, The Letter, a perfect gem of songwriting, but in that video you can see him being intentionally sloppy with the lip sync, already pushing back against the bullshit that comes with fame.
Big Star's first album had great catchy songs, in a power pop style not far from what Badfinger was already doing, but the music was too good, too dense and raw and personal in its beauty, for casual listeners to go there.
So Alex Chilton doubled down. Compare this song from their first album, The Ballad of El Goodo, with this song from their second, What's Going Ahn. It's like the sound got drunk. The notes are more dissonant, the rhythms more sprawling, the sadness deeper.
When their second album also flopped, Chilton doubled down again. In Kangaroo, it's like he set the Big Star sound on fire and watched it burn, with rising swirls of luminous noise and Jody Stephens' drums not even keeping rhythm but slapping accents on Chilton's dissipated strumming.
If you like Kangaroo, I know one other song with the same sound, from 1992, The Garbage and the Flowers - Carousel.
What does it mean to lack aesthetic freedom? For Adorno, this is about freedom in experiencing, interpreting and understanding artworks. This freedom requires an artwork to give us space and time to inhabit it, and to experience it as a unified whole. However, popular culture has lost its ability, Adorno claims, to create these integrated, unified wholes. Instead, works are now being produced that are a loose collection of moments experienced in a rapid and disconnected series.
In my own struggles with motivation, I've noticed that my consciousness is like a vehicle transmission, where it takes a lot of mental energy to shift between "gears" -- which might represent different kinds of activities, or different speeds. Some people keep super-busy, even by taking on unnecessary tasks, just because they don't know how to function in slow mode -- if they slow down, they stall. So it makes sense that we've evolved popular entertainment that moves fast and can be enjoyed in disconnected bits.
The article also mentions predictability:
When the opening scene of a film shows someone waking up in a messy bedroom, we are reasonably sure that this is our main character, and that when the alarm rings that character will wake up worried about being late for something... We are put to work in organising, checking and filing the moments of the film as it passes by... engaged in the very sort of classification and sorting that characterises the world of work we thought we were escaping from.
For the opposite of this, I recommend Terry Gilliam's Tideland. And I'm also thinking about my own recent fiction, and why people find it so hard to read despite having popular tropes and perfectly normal patterns of grammar and plot. It's partly because I try to keep it surprising, but mostly it's because my style is extremely low-gear. My goal is to have every word do something important, but that means you have to read it word by word to get it.
Music is different from fiction, because we can read at any speed, while our listening speed is fixed. My fiction style is about narrowing of focus, but Adorno likes music that demands widening of focus to hold the whole thing at once, and only then does it make sense. Here's a challenging example -- even after I was obsessed with this band, it took me a long time to understand this song, the Stairway to Heaven of psychedelic folk: Big Blood - Secret Garden.
February 20. I have no ideas this week, and also a distaste for writing about what's wrong with the world. So here's a fun article, Rediscovering the Blazingly Bright Colors of Ancient Sculptures. That archer's pants are full-on psychedelic, and it makes me wonder what ancient music was like.
February 16. Last weekend (using some of a donated Paypal balance) I bought the game Inside a Star-Filled Sky. That link is a review, and you can buy it here for $12.
I don't enjoy the shoot 'em up gameplay, but the big idea is brilliant: worlds within worlds, with no end in either direction, and the narrower/lower levels are easier, while the wider/higher levels are harder. So if you're bored, you can awaken to a more challenging level, and if you're struggling, you can go inside yourself to make adjustments.
Why can't life work the same way? One difference is that life contains many challenges, some that are too easy and some that are too hard, depending on who you are. I'd like to move to a world with a ten hour work week, a global 30mph speed limit, and a social culture where everyone says exactly what they mean.
But there is one place where I go out of my way to make life harder: listening to music. Over on my favorite songs page, I've just put together an "autobiography" of what I've liked over the years, and lately I've been chasing weirdness so hard that my gateway to classical music is Beethoven's notoriously difficult Great Fugue.
Now, I'm not just gobbling up any crazy music -- I'm scouting a particular path, but still, there's something driving me to challenge myself. This raises a general question: Most of us have some area where we like to seek greater difficulty. How realistic is it to pick out that attitude, and apply it to other things?
February 14. So last week I was watching the Olympics opening ceremony, and the costumed dancers reminded me of wild animals in a nature documentary, like this Blue Planet excerpt, Predators Attack Fish Bait Ball. But the animals are much better dancers! The humans are well-drilled and mechanically synchronized, but the animals are making it up as they go, and moving with exciting beauty that reveals greater beauty the deeper you look.
Humans approach that in some of the events, especially relay speed skating. But what would it be like, if a hundred people put in a thousand hours practicing increasingly complex improvised movement? How much room do we have to get better?
For Valentine's day, an article about the world's most romantic postbox, a tree in Germany where people send and find love letters.
And a great song about breakups, The Old 97s - Valentine.
February 12. Doom! This new article predicts an information apocalypse: "Technologies that can be used to enhance and distort what is real are evolving faster than our ability to understand and control or mitigate it." So fake news is still in its infancy.
My first thought is that people will just stop caring what's real, and the article covers this and has a term for it: reality apathy. It also reminds me of the saying, coined in the novel Alamut and popularized by the Assassin's Creed video game: "Nothing is true; everything is permitted."
My next thought is much weirder, because I've studied the paranormal enough that I already don't believe in truth. I think objective and subjective are theoretical poles on a spectrum, and you can never quite get all the way to either. On the near-objective end, a few years back the metal cylinder that defines the kilogram changed its weight and nobody knows why. On the near-subjective end, even our dreams are anchored in a shared social reality.
In the New Age movement, you can find the idea that physical reality is 100% created by human belief. That's silly, but in this context it leads to a crazy thought experiment, where the information apocalypse is not about people being wrong about what's true, but about a fragmentation of truth itself. Flat-earthers might break away into an alternate world where you can actually fall off the edge.
I'm not joking, just exaggerating. I think reality is some kind of compromise between matter, human consciousness, and levels of mind we're not aware of, and it need not be universally consistent. In the coming decades I can see humanity diverging into internally consistent worlds that can no longer be reconciled. Eventually, through technological collapse or technological sophistication, these reality factions might not even be able to communicate.