November 2. This election is getting bizarre. As scandals go, Hillary Clinton's email thing is chicken feed, and it does not begin to explain Trump's surge in the polls over the last week. It's like those people were going to vote for Trump all along and as the election gets closer they'll take a smaller and smaller excuse. And why has Trump fallen in the polls when he's been most in the public eye, right after the conventions and debates? He's like that thing you do that you hate and you always promise yourself you'll never do it again, but then as it fades in your memory it becomes more and more attractive.
I see Trump as a correction, bringing together two things that have grown too far apart. On the one hand is how our civilization really works, a vast and inhuman network that is best managed by competent and dispassionate technocrats. On the other hand is the show, the public perception of how it works, that it's all about the personalities of human leaders, like the tribal leaders of our ancestral memory, and if your life sucks then we just need someone strong and decisive to straighten those folks out.
I appreciate Trump as a performer, and I agree with his instinct that the political show has become a farce and deserves to be played like a farce. But if he actually becomes president, people will learn that their primal view of politics is bullshit, that you can't fix your computer by getting the most confident person to smack it with a hammer.
November 9. Trump's victory is the 9/11 of the American left. The Tarot card for both events is The Tower, a sudden shocking catastrophe in which something that appears secure is brought down. It's one of many tarot cards that is called a "trump", so you could call it the Tower Trump, and our new president actually has a Trump Tower. It's like we're already living in a world of myth.
Also, both the election and 9/11 were centered around New York City, and both events had a much milder precedent: the 1993 bombing, and Bush's victory over Al Gore.
In both 2000 and 2016 (and 1980) Republicans nominated a gunslinger, a candidate with great political instincts who inspired the base and didn't care about his own flaws. In both of those years (and 2004) Democrats nominated an uptight, awkward moderate who tried to avoid the appearance of having any flaws, but the result was that smaller flaws got magnified, voters were apathetic, and the Republican won. And in 1992, 1996, 2008, and 2012, when Republicans nominated a dignified moderate, they lost. The only reason Bush Sr won in 1988 was that Dukakis was even more of a dweeb.
Remember in 2004 when Howard Dean lost the Democratic primaries after making that weird scream? Compare that to the ten thousand worse things Donald Trump has done in front of a microphone. My point is not that Trump is bad but that this is what a winning attitude looks like. Dean was loose and impulsive and raw in a way that general election voters actually like -- but Democratic primary voters fear it.
The American left has been on its back foot since the 1980's, and I'm not sure why. My guess is that in the decades before 1980, they were so successful working within the system that they lost the skill and confidence to work outside the system. You need that confidence to not be afraid to lose, and you need to be fearless before you can stand behind a flawed candidate. This is a dark night of the soul for a lot of Americans, but it's also an opportunity for us to organize in new ways and reinvent ourselves politically.
November 14. If you watch UFC, you know that everyone talks trash before the fight, and during the fight they hit each other, and then after the fight they embrace. Donald Trump seems to understand that politics works the same way. For the general election I thought he would reinvent himself as a lovable moderate, and instead he doubled down on being dark and divisive -- and it worked! Then, the moment he was declared the winner, he talked about making peace and bringing America together. So I'm wondering, how much of Evil Trump was a performance? What's under that scary clown mask?
I barely considered the possibility that Trump would turn out to be basically the same as every other president. I said he'd be a great ceremonial president, but I might have underestimated how much the presidency is already ceremonial. When the whole Bush family endorsed Hillary, I was sure the oligarchy feared Trump. Now I think we all fell for a deep con.
Imagine you're the secret ruler of an America that's been hollowed out. All the power is in the cities now, and the peasants want a revolution. But there's nothing you can do for them. The manufacturing jobs are lost forever to automation, the immigrants will keep coming in, old-time white culture is dying -- but you still need those people to work at Walmart and maintain the infrastructure, and they have a lot of guns.
So you let them have their messiah, a big city billionaire who talks the language of the rural working class, and he pulls a shocking upset. Urban liberals are genuinely horrified -- they don't even know they're part of the show. And Trump does his best. He gets eight years, because the charismatic ones always do, and he gets a few symbolic victories. But on a deeper level the world continues on its inscrutable path, and Trump serves to pacify the right just as Obama pacified the left.
I don't believe in sinister rulers who consciously planned exactly whatever happens, and that we make a better world by overthrowing them. My actual belief is much weirder. Did you ever get in a totally baffling conflict, and years later you looked back and discovered a subconscious level on which it all made sense? So there's an example of one single link where the subconscious mind is in control and the conscious mind is just along for the ride. What if these links can form networks? What if they form a global subconscious civilization that is secretly running everything? Never mind the Reptilians -- the enemy is within.
November 18. Meditation is sometimes described as watching a stormy sea and trying to still the waves so you can see to the bottom. The other day I noticed something: the waves are not in the "sea" -- the waves are in the watcher. Now I better understand the value of observing the breath. There's a metaphor about a guy who tames a demon by giving it a curly hair and telling it to make the hair straight, so the demon just runs its fingers over the hair again and again and can't do anything else. When you can focus your attention finely enough, observing the breath is exactly like that, because you're no longer observing a whole breath but running your attention carefully along it.
November 28. With all this buzz about the alt-right, last week on the subreddit there was a piece trying to define an "alt-left", but this comment goes through it point by point and explains why it's more right than left.
If I defined an alt-left, the core of my definition would be economics. Libertarians want a "level playing field" but I want a playing field slanted so hard that trying to turn a lot of money into more money would be like climbing a mountain, and being content with just enough money for basic dignity and comfort would be like coasting downhill on a bicycle.
December 1. Moving from the political back to the personal, I've never felt grounded in any aspect of modern society. Belonging is not something I've lost, but something I've never experienced -- except that some music makes me feel like I belong in a luminous world outside the walls of this one. Like a sci-fi dimension shifter stuck in a Kafka hellworld, I try to remain cheerful and keep trying different stuff, but I'm not sure if there's something I'm supposed to be doing here or if it's just a big accident.
Teachers always got frustrated that I was smart but not interested in anything they were teaching. In college the few papers I actually enjoyed writing were punished by my lowest grades. I traveled around America by car, train, bus, and hitchhiking, but didn't find any place that felt any better. I visited multiple back-to-the-land communities, I tried homesteading, I thought total technological collapse would be a good thing, and now I think those are all false escapes.
So I understand why young people are drawn to forbidden politics and chaos. But why the right wing? To me, the right is all about flags and uniforms, which I find repulsive. These people think they're Nietzschean heroes, but in a movie they'd all be the buddy character -- they haven't given up enough on belonging. The recent left thinks individualism has gone too far, but I think it hasn't gone far enough. It's like when something dies, it breaks down into toxic molecules before it breaks down into soil and air and water.
My latest utopian vision, which is probably still inadequate, is to use automation and a guaranteed basic income to gradually universalize dropout culture. One percent, then ten percent, and finally nearly one hundred percent of humans will just putter around all day following their peculiar obsessions, as long as they don't interfere with others doing the same, and eventually these atomized individuals will reconnect into a new living polyculture.
December 7. Michael Bennett, one of the best pass rushers in the NFL, was asked which offensive linemen were easier to beat. He said something like, "If you go looking for ducks, you'll never find them. You have to assume they're all ducks." That's some serious Lao Tzu shit, and you can apply it in all sorts of contexts. If you go looking for a time when it's easy to be happy, you'll never find it. You have to assume the time is now.
December 12. Years ago, when I first started thinking about collapse, it was all about collapse of the practical infrastructure: power will go out, food will stop coming into the city, government offices will shut down, and so on -- but the culture will stay basically the same. Now I'm thinking it could be exactly the opposite. I call it the Zoo Animal Apocalypse: that we will pass through catastrophic cultural upheaval, but without any serious breakdown in the systems that keep us fed and sheltered.
December 14. Two year old reddit thread, There's nothing I "want to do". How to translate goals and ideals into motivation?
For most of all humans who have ever lived, this was not a problem. Internal motivation only becomes a problem when external motivation breaks down. External motivation can run the whole range from a brutal work camp to an exciting and well-moderated group project. The 20th century was the peak of a system of external motivation that we view as generic and normal when really it's very specific and very weird.
It starts with money, which is like the whip of the work camp, and also like the emotional reward from meaningful activity, but unlike both of those it's completely quantifiable and completely lifeless. Then you get businesses, machines made out of human labor, whose goal is to pass more and more money through themselves, by paying workers less than their labor is worth.
All these social breakdowns are happening because the business-and-wage-labor model of external motivation has run its course, and we have nothing to take its place. One problem is that machines increasingly work better than humans. But the deeper problem is that money was never a good motivator in the first place. If you're poor, the need for money is oppressive and you're still in a work camp. And if you're not poor, money is like a game token that only feels satisfying when you're getting more and more of it, which can't go on for long.
I don't have a solution. Of course I support an unconditional basic income, but that only compounds the social problem of no external structure. Eventually, things that are now small will expand into that void.
December 21. The chilling stories behind Japan's 'evaporating people'. Japanese culture has such heavy social pressure to be successful that some people, rather than live with failure, choose to disappear from their normal lives and start dreadful new lives in a hellish neighborhood in Tokyo.
My first thought is that it's just like Mortville in John Waters' Desperate Living. My next thought is, what if there were a way to start a new life that was in some ways better? Like fewer luxuries, but more freedom and less stress. That's the kind of niche I've tried to carve out in my own life, and it's really hard -- there's no convenient middle ground between a job with full benefits and desperate poverty. If there were, so many people would do it that the dominant economy would be in danger.
But that would be the smoothest way for a big system to go through a transition: with a new way of living, better adapted to present conditions, that can upscale fast enough to absorb all the refugees from the old way of living.
January 7. I used to see the world as some kind of holy war, like things were in perfect balance, and then one time things got out of balance, and as soon as we get it back into balance we win the game. Now I'm seeing reality as an eternal journey through a magical forest, and we're just in a really weird part right now.
January 9. This weekend I wrote a long email explaining why I don't believe in evil, and I want to post some of it here. We can start by looking at stuff we call "evil" and looking for deeper causes. I once had a guy tell me that religion is the root cause of evil, so I asked him "What's the root cause of religion?" He said "I'm not interested in that."
According to Christianity, God is perfectly good, and the root of evil is Satan. How did Satan become evil? He decided God was doing things the wrong way. So why did God banish Satan, instead of explaining why his way of doing things was better? I think this story comes from prehistoric tribal behavior, where people who violate the rules of the tribe are banished because the tribe doesn't have the resources to reform them. And sometimes the banished people are right, which is related to why some people think maybe Satan had the right idea.
So at the heart of Western culture we've got this story that takes the practical behavior of tribes, and recasts it as something mythic and moral and simple and absolute.
When children violate the rules of their culture, they are shamed, but again, this is economy disguised as morality. We don't have the resources to explain to children why the rules are this way, and sometimes the rules are wrong and the kids are right. And this habit, generating the illusion of morality out of our own lack of time and energy to actually work things out, carries over into the adult world.
My point is that good vs evil is a way of putting off understanding. Everybody, from their own perspective, is doing something that makes sense, and when we think we see evil, it's because we haven't fully made sense of the other person's perspective. Even when someone says "I knew it was wrong but I did it anyway," they're talking about an inability to work things out inside themselves.
I'm not a moral relativist -- I'm an amoral Taoist: I believe in an objective standard for correct and incorrect action, but we can never reach it; we can only approach it by looking more broadly and deeply into cause and effect. And to call something evil is to stall this process and imagine that we're already finished.
January 16. This great reddit comment explains how modern propaganda works by getting you to believe nothing:
If they can get you to believe that all the news is propaganda, then all of a sudden propaganda from foreign-controlled state media or sourceless loony toon rants from domestic kooks, are all on an equal playing field with real investigative journalism. If everything is fake, your news consumption is just a dietary choice.
Okay, but who are "they"? Who is behind this phenomenon? Who benefits? Why is it happening now and not some other time?
I think it's a bottom-up movement. Humans aren't the only animal that makes mental maps, but we might be the only animal that sometimes makes our maps backward from what we want to believe instead of forward from evidence. If squirrels remember their nuts being buried in more convenient locations, they starve and die. And in the long term, humans and human cultures that veer off from reality are corrected or eliminated.
Where we've gone wrong is not having enough short-term correction. Look at all the lies that people continue to believe, and what they have in common is that wrong beliefs have no clear consequences. This is partly because the modern world is so complex that causes and effects are hard to trace. And it's partly because ordinary people have no fine-scale political power, so believing lies doesn't lead to bad stuff happening, until the public capacity for believing lies gets so big that it can be exploited by cynical leaders, and then a bunch of bad stuff happens at once.
January 13. How Video Games Satisfy Basic Human Needs. It's a great short article, but it limits itself to games and barely touches a bigger subject: that ordinary life is failing to satisfy basic human needs.
A 1996 article identified four personalities in multiplayer RPG's: Killers, Achievers, Explorers, and Socializers. I'm not much of a Socializer so I'll get that out of the way: information technology has remade the social landscape so that we have an abundance of brief, shallow, and distant connections, when human nature still craves deep and enduring local connections. That's why the most satisfying relationships in multiplayer games are with small, close, long-term groups.
I'm definitely an Explorer, and sometimes I think we need an information apocalypse, where all maps and records are destroyed and we start over, because it's much more fun to discover something first-hand than to read about it in a book. This could actually happen if everything is stored in the cloud and the cloud crashes.
I also want to add a fifth type that's more common in single-player games: the Strategizer or Optimizer. It's where you have all the parts but the challenge is to put them together in the right way. Lately I've been satisfying this need through Windows Freecell and music playlists, and when I'm writing these posts I think a lot about how to put the ideas in the best order.
The tragedies of history have been done by Killers and Achievers. In the ancient world there were only a few Achievers leading armies of Killers. Then in the modern world, with the rise of the commercial class, achievement moved into economics and opened to more and more people. This trend peaked in the late 20th century, when accumulation of wealth and status became such a dominant cultural value that people with other values were marginalized as freaks and losers. Even science has been ruined by achievement, with the joy of exploration snuffed by the demand to publish more articles.
Now, with the end of growth, the exhaustion of resources, and the watering-down of status tokens, real achievement is once again limited to the lucky few. The rest of us face a void: achievement is unrealistic, exploring is down to the fiddly details, socializing is not what it used to be, and killing is increasingly forbidden.
What will fill that void? The re-emergence of killing? Psychoactive drugs to turn exploration inward? Video games could become the main satisfier of psychological needs, but the best thing would be to make games unnecessary by using principles learned from games to design ordinary life.
January 23. You probably heard about neo-Nazi Richard Spencer getting punched. What fascinates me is that he got punched immediately after mentioning Pepe the Frog, fast enough to put it outside the intentions of the puncher and into the realm of meaningful coincidence. The message is that Pepe is not a static alt-right icon, but a living apolitical trickster deity.
January 26. Autistic people of Reddit, what is autism really like? I don't think of myself as autistic, I don't need routines, crowds don't bother me, but I can totally relate to some of these comments. I would explain it like this:
Ordinary people are literal mind readers. They just intuitively sense the right things to say and do, and they don't even know they're doing it; it's like a superpower that they take for granted. Lacking that superpower, I have to grind through the process of figuring stuff out with my conscious mind.
This makes me wonder if the recent surge in aspergers/autism is temporary, or if it's the leading edge of an evolutionary trend in which the conscious human mind is taking on more responsibility and power.
February 3. Cannabis, like many drugs, brings divine grace that carries a price. They call it "being high" and "coming down" but for me it feels like the opposite. Being sober is like skimming across a still ocean on a catamaran -- everything is fast, sharp, clean, even a bit bleak. Then a good dose of THC is like putting on scuba gear and diving to the bottom. It reminds me of the Shakespeare verse:
Full fathom five thy father lies
Of his bones are coral made
Those are pearls that were his eyes
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange
There are treasures in the deep that you'll never find on the surface. Everything unfolds with more beauty the closer you look. I'm a better person -- happier, more playful, more perceptive, with enough social intelligence to understand a subtext-heavy show like Mad Men. In a few sessions last spring I gained more self-knowledge than in the whole rest of my life. I see connections, and I feel connected.
Typically I'll do only one vape bowl per day, or one dose of homemade edibles. The second day is often better than the first, and the third day can be almost as good. Around the fourth day I mostly just feel numb, I'm not finding anything of real value, and my body is protesting the constant thirst and deepening tiredness. So I come up to the surface, and then it's like having the bends. But I'm learning to see it less like a burden and more like a challenge, to stay on top of irritable impulses, and to get stuff done despite low motivation. Then as soon as I feel normal again, it's back to the deep.