"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
June 23. I'll be too busy to post on Monday. Over on my Favorite Songs page, I've just posted a new flagship playlist that I've been working on for months, where I tried to put a bunch of my favorite songs in chronological order and still have it flow well from one song to another. I know I should eventually get on Spotify, but I haven't got around to it, and I think some of these songs aren't on there. The last two aren't even on YouTube.
June 21. Of course, as soon as I write about running out of ideas, I have a ton of ideas. Following up on yesterday's subject -- our internal voices that mediate our experience -- Matt mentions something that hadn't occurred to me: "Religions could be understood as asking everyone to manifest the same sub-personality inside themselves."
I was raised Catholic, and even though the priest talked about nuclear disarmament, and the nuns wore normal clothing, and hippies sang the hymns, and I no longer believe in a human-shaped deity, I still have that voice that says: if I don't do the right thing, it will go badly for me.
Last summer I went back to Michigan to visit family, and noticed something: my dad's brothers and sisters are almost all still serious Catholics, but almost none of their kids are. I think it has something to do with television.
Does television do a better job than religion at guiding human behavior? My first thought is, of course it does! Look at all the terrible things that religion has told people to do, and the worst thing TV tells us is that happiness comes from material wealth. But then you could go meta, and say that the worst thing TV tells us is that a hypnotic and distraction-saturated sound-and-light show is a good guide for how we should live. (The internet is too much for this post.)
I'm not completely joking when I say that my religion is Gilligan's Island, with a touch of Hogan's Heroes. We're in a difficult place, and we want to go home, but we have to stay here for a while, among other people with diverse personalities and skills, and have some crazy adventures.
There was a good AskReddit question a few weeks back: If you could make a TV show, with five characters from five different shows, who would you pick? My answer at the moment: Walter Bishop from Fringe, Missy from Doctor Who, Andy from Parks and Rec, River from Firefly, and Vod from Fresh Meat. Next five: Mr. Spock, Chad Radwell from Scream Queens, and going outside television, Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter, and two musicians, Kim Shattuck and Calvin Johnson. I don't know if those are the voices in my head, but they occupy the same general personality-space as the characters in my fiction.
June 20. After the last post, a couple people said they want me to keep doing the blog and they don't even care what I write about.
Yesterday I vaped some cannabis, and despite having just taken an eight day break, the high had no spiritual value. I'm not going to try to explain what that means. But it did have some intellectual value. I realized that sports announcers, political pundits, internet comment threads, and the chorus in ancient Greek theater, are all doing the same thing: using a stream of words to moderate the interface between experience and understanding, or breaking down a complex external world into mental artifacts that are more manageable.
And then I thought: don't we all do the same thing inside our heads? It's like, on a barely conscious level, we all have a "broadcast booth" or a "news desk" where several sub-personalities sit and pass judgment on what's good or bad, what's important or unimportant, what you want or don't want. And it's possible for us to reprogram those personalities to behave differently.
The word "meditation" points to at least two different practices. One is metacognition, where you turn your attention inward to that normally unnoticed machinery. But who are "you"? If you're tinkering with the voices in your head, then what still unexamined voice is doing the tinkering? And who examines that voice?
Another meaning of meditation is to try to completely silence the internal commentary, what Buddhists call the "chattering monkey". Now I understand why that's important. Because if you don't completely stop the chatter, your metacognition might play out like revolutions in Haiti, with one autocrat overthrowing another and never getting anywhere.
I think this question has an answer, but I don't think it can be put into words: if you completely stop the chatter, what's left?
June 18. After fourteen years of doing this blog, I might be finally running out of steam, as I focus on other kinds of writing. Fiction writers are sometimes divided into storytellers and stylists. At one extreme you've got Dan Brown, a great storyteller and a bad stylist. At the other extreme you've got James Joyce, a great stylist whose storytelling (in his novels) is not incompetent but aggressively unreadable. It's interesting that the literary establishment lionizes stylists and despises storytellers, a value system that to me seems completely arbitrary.
In my fiction, I aim to maximize the power and density of both storytelling and style (and also worldbuilding). This book excerpt, Breaking Up with James Joyce, is about people who have spent decades struggling with Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake. It's like his goal was to tease readers but never satisfy them. My goal is to intensely satisfy readers who put in the time, so not only is the second reading better than the first, the tenth will be better than the ninth.
Last weekend for my visitors I read aloud from a work in progress, and Jordan asked if I can think of anyone else who writes like me. I didn't have a good answer then, but now I do. I love to stack up mouth-heavy words like late-1950's Sylvia Plath. My favorite line from her is "the spindrift raveled wind-ripped from the crest of the wave." I try to write like that all the time. Last month I was watching an English Premier League match, and sat up in awe when the announcer spoke this perfect gem: "A welcome respite for the men in red."
In storytelling, I like to push the plot hard and fast. Raymond Chandler said something like: when the story starts to get boring, have a man come through the door with a gun, and figure out later why he's there. But because I'm writing sci-fi, the man with a gun can be a warptube cracking, or an AI leveling up, or reality itself shifting to another track. Of course Philip K. Dick did that, maybe most exuberantly in The Game Players of Titan, but the vibe of my landscapes and storylines is more like the psychedelic adventures of Roger Zelazny.
Some readers have mentioned similar stuff, and the closest I've seen so far is David Lindsay's 1920 novel A Voyage to Arcturus. That link is the full text online, and here's an article about it from this year, One Long Discomfort. Lindsay's worldbuilding is even weirder than mine, and his plot moves even faster, but his emotional tone is more puritanical and nightmarish, where mine is more hedonistic and dreamy.
A line from Lindsay's dialogue: "For him, in his sullen purity of nature, all the world was a snare, a limed twig. Knowing that pleasure was everywhere, a fierce, mocking enemy, crouching and waiting at every corner of the road of life, in order to kill with its sweet sting the naked grandeur of the soul, he shielded himself behind pain. This also his followers do, but they do not do it for the sake of the soul, but for the sake of vanity and pride."
And a line from mine: "Those squirrels are so far upcogged that they only fight over style. Here their nests are like pagodas, but in the east they're spherical, and at the quarrelsome boundary both designs are tested for strength. Because they keep their birthrate sub-capacity, they have so many spare nuts that they use them as feed for breeding extravagant caterpillars."
June 15. And some doom links. A week ago on reddit there was a suicide prevention megathread, full of sad stories and a few happy stories from people who were close to suicide and turned it around. I've never seriously considered suicide, but I can relate to this: "a lot of suicidal people don't want to kill themselves, they just want to stop existing." If life suddenly became like a video game, where you could just quit without hurting anyone or leaving a mess, I think a billion people would be gone within a month.
In a thread about economics, this long comment argues that market-driven reforms have increased social instability and led to greater incidence of anxiety, alienation and depression. The conclusion: "To separate labor from other activities of life and to subject it to the laws of the market is to annihilate all organic forms of existence."
This Hacker News comment thread discusses a linked article in which researchers find IQ scores dropping since the 1970s. Are we being distracted by technology and losing our abiliy to focus? Are we dumber because computers are doing mental work for us that we used to do for ourselves? The most interesting explanation is that IQ tests are culturally biased, and have not kept up with recent changes in culture.
June 13. Some optimistic links. Research Finds Tipping Point for Large-scale Social Change:
When a minority group pushing change was below 25% of the total group, its efforts failed. But when the committed minority reached 25%, there was an abrupt change in the group dynamic, and very quickly the majority of the population adopted the new norm. In one trial, a single person accounted for the difference between success and failure.
A nice video, Alan Watts Chillstep Mix #1.
From earlier this year on reddit: If they made a show called "White Mirror" that was about all the positive aspects of the human/technology relationship, what would be the plot of certain episodes? Lately I've been thinking about therapy bots, AI's that can talk people through metacognition and changing their mental and emotional habits. On the one hand, AI is still really clunky for that kind of thing, but on the other hand, old-timey Freudian psychotherapists would just listen and reframe the patient's talk into new questions, something that AI's have been doing for decades, and sometimes that helped.
Related: Ask Hacker News: Is there a new habit you cultivated recently that is really paying off? I've been doing a few things lately that seem to be helping. One thing is going two or three times a week to a weight room and swimming pool. That practice is rubbing off on the rest of my life, so now when there's some little thing I don't feel like doing, I frame it as a "workout" and push through it more easily.
I'm also using a crazy practice to deal with anxiety, where a couple times a day I'll relax, close my eyes, and "turn up the volume" -- try to feel that fear as long and as hard as I can. In theory, we should be able to burn out on pain just like we burn out on pleasure, and it seems to be working. Here's a bit of verse from a creative project I haven't made public yet: "If you want to fly / You must love your fear / As you fear to die"
June 11. Big thanks to Jordan and Ryan, who were here over the weekend to interview me for a documentary. It was strange hanging out with people who seem interested in everything I say, and never disagree. That must be what it's like for dictators and billionaires, or anyone famous enough to have an entourage. Over the long term that has to be mentally unhealthy, and I'm not sure I didn't go a little nutty in just a couple days.
On day one I wore a tie-dye shirt and talked about roots, carefully ruminating on my deep history and my early writings. Then on day two I wore my picbreeder spacewalk t-shirt and raved about musical obsessions and my insane sci-fi: "Thereafter I yearned to make every paragraph doubly incomprehensible!"
I told Jordan hopefully that someday people will be obsessed with my fiction, but I have no way to know that. I've written stuff that I, as a reader, would be obsessed with, but I don't know if my own taste has wandered so far into the wilderness that its relics will never be found.
Here's a funny coincidence. My friend Carey mentioned an obscure cult novel called The Golden Book of Springfield, so I'm reading it. Jordan mentioned an obscure cult novel called A Voyage to Arcturus, so I'm reading that too. The former was written by Vachel Lindsay and published in 1920, and the latter was written by David Lindsay (unrelated) and published in 1920.
June 7. The dying breed of craftsmen behind the tools that make scientific research possible. It's about one retiring glassblower, but this problem goes deeper and wider. From the Hacker News comment thread:
We see this scarcity in other industries that require traditional master/journeyman/apprentice systems, like master machinists, masons, or plasterers. That there are no baseline jobs, like light bulb manufacturing in glassblowing, that allow a sufficient pool of talent to acrue so that the very best, the "10x" artisans, can be found. That pool also gives a fallback so that people who are trained but do not possess the talent or dedication to become masters can still be gainfully employed.
This goes back to mechanization. Supposedly, mechanized manufacturing allows tedious labor to be done by machines. But making stuff by hand is not unrewarding -- it was made unrewarding by an economic system designed top-down for profit, not bottom-up for people to continue enjoying what they do all day. I'm not sure how hard the system has to crash to get from here to there, or how many generations it's going to take. But at the very least, as a culture, we have to stop measuring success in terms of economic growth.
Related, from the subreddit: Steven Pinker's ideas are fatally flawed. Pinker's gig is to tell beautiful lies to the neoliberal elite, linking their ideology to real improvements in quality of life that are mostly happening for other reasons.
I've stopped writing about this stuff because there's nothing any of us can do about it. But I do find it darkly fascinating that the people with real power are so out of touch.
I have visitors arriving this afternoon, so I probably won't be posting again until next week. Some good news: last week when I posted that video of sacred harp singing, I had no idea it was still going on, and there's no religious requirement to participate. Thanks Rochelle for pointing me to fasola.org.
June 5. More stray links. Michael Pollan on What It's Like to Trip on the Most Potent Magic Mushroom. He's a very good essayist and this has to be one of the best trip reports ever written. I'm envious. I microdose Psilocybe cubensis to clear the cobwebs out of my brain, but larger doses make me feel sick without any additional mental effects. I've also tried LSD, which gave me something short of the communion with nature that Pollan describes, and I've yet to have my first hallucination.
More weird stuff: a redditor interprets Terence McKenna's statement that the world is made of words.
And a thread, What's the most paranormal thing you've experienced? It turns out to be mostly about visits from dead people.
Every so often reddit will have a good confession thread, like this one, What is your secret? My favorite is from I_am_here_to_serve, who faked suicide to get away from a controlling family.
Two links confirming stuff I already suspected. Why Rich Kids Are So Good at the Marshmallow Test. The famous test seemed to show that kids who are able to delay gratification are more successful later in life. It turns out, kids from families that are already successful, are more willing to delay gratification because their world is more reliable.
Are Hit Songs Becoming Less Musically Diverse? Yes, because the process of creating popular songs has become more factory-like, with a larger number of writers on each particular song, but a smaller number of masterminds behind it all. "On the other hand, fewer barriers to entry means every aspiring artist has a chance to compete on originality, perhaps one day diminishing the outsized role of elite producers."
On that subject, my favorite band has a major new album, Big Blood - Operate Spaceship Earth Properly. It's not officially out until June 15, but the record company sent me the CD anyway, and I think it's their best album since Unlikely Mothers four years ago. They're continuing to push their music toward sharper edges around its ethereal heart.
May 31. Not a lot of ideas this week, so I'll go straight into the weekend with some sounds. With Leigh Ann's help, I recently discovered sacred harp singing. It was practiced in southern American churches in the early 20th century, and it's as raw as anything I've ever heard. I need to listen to more, but my initial favorite is Alabama Sacred Harp Singers - Windham.
Shakespeare: Original pronunciation. That ten minute video is mostly background and explanation, but you can hear good examples of the accent at 3:00 and 6:20. To me it sounds a lot like the "pirate" accent (which is largely derived from Scottish pronunciation) and a little like the accent that Vic Chesnutt sings with. In other words, totally awesome.
Finally, Guy Plays A Cat Organ. Like the first commenter, I really admire this guy's obsession: to make a bunch of stuffed cats, that make catlike sounds when squeezed, all tuned to notes, and then to practice squeezing them just right to play a song. I'd love to hear a whole album of cat organ songs. Still, it's not as mind-blowing as this version of Greensleeves on Otamatone.
May 28. Bunch o' links, starting with two from the subreddit:
Image gallery, I live in a modern EcoVillage and it's pretty much the real-world Shire. I'd like to think this is the cutting edge of some future utopia, but realistically, it's just a nice twist on suburbia.
Experience The Trippy Life Of An Ancient Redwood. Now this could actually be a cornerstone of utopia: using virtual reality to change human consciousness to understand the aliveness and complexity of nature. If this kind of understanding becomes normal, the human-made world will inevitably get better.
Great White Sharks Have A Secret Cafe. Scientists tagged sharks and noticed them going to what they thought was an ocean desert. But it turned out to be a rich and complex ecosystem, too deep in the water to be seen by satellites.
Too Clever By Half is a smart article about coyotes, who are really good at small-scale gamesmanship, but bad at the "meta-game" necessary for survival. This Hacker News comment thread has some thoughts about how this relates to the human world:
This reminds me of a turning point that I had in high school. When I was young, I would get in trouble and try to get around the rules. But at some point I realized that most of the time you aren't getting in trouble because you are breaking the rules. You are getting in trouble because you are making the rule makers unhappy. Once I had that realization I was able to focus on relationships with the rule makers and figure out what they actually cared about. This allowed me to break the rules just as much but without getting in trouble.Finally, with summer starting, another Hacker News comment thread about fan placement to move cool outside air through a warm space. Summary: it's best to have two fans at opposite sides, one blowing in and one blowing out; but if you have only one fan, blow it in, because if it blows out it will be pulling air in through nasty stuff in the cracks.
May 25. Finishing from Wednesday, thanks to everyone who gave me suggestions about dancing. I figured out that I've been overreaching, trying to do too many moves at once to songs that are too difficult. So with some help from my "instructor", I'm stripping it down to fundamentals. 1) Don't even allow my arms to move until I'm good with my feet. 2) Start with the most danceable song in the world, which is going to be different for everyone, but for me, it's Yo La Tengo's cover of the Beach Boys' Little Honda. 3) Practice moves, starting with this Northern Soul basic dance tutorial, and focus my attention to match the beat with increasing precision.
New subject, a reddit thread from yesterday: What was the worst change in a person you saw at your High School reunion? It's mostly sad but still loaded with good stories.
May 23. From Monday's post, I want to write more about dancing. When I wrote about this a few months ago, it emerged that being "good at dancing" has at least two meanings. One is that your head has trained your body to make a set of precise movements, and music is not even strictly necessary. The other is that you feel as if your body is moving to music without your head even being involved.
This has to be an illusion, because your ears are connected to your body through your brain. What's really happening, in definition-2 good dancers, is that their subconscious mind is moved by music to improvise complex body movements.
How would someone would train for this? I went to dorm dances in college, I spent a lot of time out on the floor, and I was terrible. I still try to dance at home, and I remain stuck in a rut somewhere between Thom Yorke and a seizure. My head throws all kinds of ideas at my body, but my body never finds a groove of moving on its own, except that if a song really rocks, I might feel moved to crudely hop.
More generally: How can the conscious mind lead the subconscious mind to do things that the conscious mind can't do on its own?
My strategy right now is just to practice moving my attention from my head to my body, as many times throughout the day as I remember. I've heard about people who are so body-centered that it actually feels to them like their "self" resides in their torso, and their head is like a tower or a periscope.
May 21. Fascinating Reddit thread from the weekend, People with OCD, ADHD, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dissociative personality disorder, or any other mental condition sensationalized in the media, what is it actually like? This sentence about ADHD could fit a lot of things:
It is a heinous disorder, and it leads to a life fraught with feelings of failure and inadequacy, as though we simply don't have the same capacities that other individuals seemingly inherently and nonchalantly possess in spades next to our pittance.Diagnosing myself, I have a shred of OCD: when I go up or down stairwells, I have to overrule the urge to counter-spin at alternate landings so that my left and right turns balance out. And I have something like ADHD hyperfocus, in that it's easy for me to focus narrowly, and hard to focus widely or even not-narrowly. When Leigh Ann and I are watching stuff, she's always telling me to move the cursor off the screen, because for her it's an annoyance, while I've just tuned it out.
May 18. Music for the weekend. Long, slow, simple, heavy, and luminous, this is one of my favorite songs of the decade: The Rutabega - Turn On The Summer.
May 16. Why does Laurel sound like Yanny? Someone has discovered an audio clip that makes different listeners hear radically different vowels and consonants. I hear Laurel and not Yanny no matter how hard I listen. It works because different people's ears are tuned to different frequencies, and Laurel is lower pitched than Yanny. If the pitch of the whole thing is dropped, then Laurel falls out of my range and Yanny falls into it, and I hear... well, more like Yammy.
Now I'm wondering how many other things are like this. My favorite song sounds terrible to almost everyone, and the explanation probably goes beyond mere taste, and into what sounds make it through to our brains.
In politics, there's a thing called a "dog whistle": words that sound innocent to most people, but send a message to a particular subculture. Donald Trump is like a dog-whistle savant. He's gone beyond words to craft an entire persona that whistles "salt-of-the-earth statesman" to some people and "authoritarian ass-clown" to others. Like a motor that runs from the positive and negative poles of a battery, he is using the tension between two American perceptual filters to drive his career.
More generally, in an information landscape in which everyone sees everything, whether it's a presidential debate or a family dinner, the real action is on the level of subtext: messages encrypted not by math but culture, not by frequency but "vibe".
As our tech system moves toward dystopian universal surveillance, we'll just get better at hiding in plain sight.
May 14. Back to the inner world, two different readers have reported getting a lot of help from this video and other videos by the same guy, Joe Dispenza. He basically does motivational talks for metacognition: getting inside your head and changing deep habits. If I had to distill his instructions to one point, it would be to aggressively practice observing, thinking, and acting differently than you normally would.
He also has this interesting line: "We don't pray in this work to have our prayers answered; we get up as if our prayers are already answered." Now, that could be bad advice, if you're praying for some practical benefit and acting as if it's true when it's not. But I thought of another way to twist it. Imagine that there are many versions of you living in multiple timelines, and just this moment, an alternate "you" has shifted into your life, and for reasons you don't remember, that other you was asking for just exactly the situation that you're in right now.
This takes some imagination and practice, but it's basically a way of hacking gratitude and being fully present. I've also been practicing a different move with similar results, and it's hard to do it right, but if I remind myself that I'm going to die, it can make the present moment feel precious, and can also sweep away trivial fears.
Last week there was a thread on the Elder Trees subreddit, about using weed anxiety as a therapeutic process. Now, "weed anxiety" means different things, but for me, it all began about two years ago, when I started looking back at my own life with cannabis-enhanced emotional intelligence, and noticing all these mistakes I've been making. Because I'm curious, and because weed was also doing things that I really liked, I stuck with it, and for the last two years I've been cleaning up a lot of bad subconscious habits. It feels like releasing an army of auditors that cast critical eyes on my entire internal landscape. I almost look forward to it.