February 26, late. Tonight's Academy Award fiasco, in which the shoo-in feel-good white people movie was announced as best picture, and it turned out they read the wrong card and the serious black people movie was best picture... that's the weirdest thing that's happened in America since 9/11, even weirder than the Red Sox breaking their curse during a full lunar eclipse.
I'm not even going to try to explain it rationally. It's best understood on a subverbal intuitive level. And I don't think it was any kind of conspiracy, at least not by humans. It was the Trickster breaking through the screen and then vanishing into irreconcilable happenstance. (This is how I write when I'm high.)
By the way, over the weekend I made a decision to change the tone of this blog. I've decided to go at least a few months without writing anything about politics or social philosophy. That leaves technology, entertainment, drugs, psychology, music, personal stuff, and like tonight, vague hints about esoteric sub-politics.
February 28. Continuing on woo-woo philosophy, Did the Oscars Just Prove That We Are Living in a Computer Simulation?
Here's how I would make the argument: Really unlikely things have been happening lately, but they're not unlikely in arbitrary ways -- they're unlikely in ways that tell good stories. I mean, not only was the wrong card read on the biggest award of the night, but if you put any two other best picture nominees in the spots for apparent winner and actual winner, the story wouldn't be as good.
This is outside the range of science, because science requires repeated experiments, and fate happens but once. When real-world fate unfolds like fiction, we wonder if there is an unseen storyteller.
I don't think we're in a literal computer simulation. That's like cavemen thinking their gods made them out of clay because clay is the most advanced simulation technology they possess. Computers are just our best metaphor for reality creation tools beyond our imagination. I see it like this:
Philosophical idealism holds that mind is the fundamental reality, and matter is like a dream. Actual dreams can go anywhere fast because you're alone. When we're dreaming together, change is slowed by the need to form consensus, and reality appears so sticky that matter seems to exist independently of mind.
Not only that, our conscious minds are not the sole reality creators, and might even be more like an audience. I think the power gets stronger as you go deeper, first to your individual subconscious mind, and then to something like a collective unconscious, which might be like a great hidden city hosting agents and motives from outside humanity.
What do they want? Here's where people fall into black-and-white thinking, with perfectly evil master conspirators or a wise and benevolent God. I think the "gods" are somewhere between distracted scientists and playful children. My most reasonable guess, for the motive behind these spectacles of sudden reversal, is that we're being prepped for a time when ordinary life will be more surprising. And my funnest guess is that the dream is breaking up.
March 6. This week I'm raving about what makes me happy. Today it's my biggest science fiction influence, and it's not Philip K Dick. Of course Dick is the best. In some of his early novels, like The Game Players of Titan or Dr Futurity, it's like you're watching figure skating, and nobody's ever done a triple axel, and then this guy comes out and pulls a quintuple axel. A Chinese philospher wondered if he was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man, and after two thousand years suddenly Dick turned that shit into a fractal.
But Dick's protagonists are mopey and angsty. In the face of uncertain reality, they're treading water in a dark ocean. Then along comes an author whose reality-tripping characters are surfers: Roger Zelazny.
I'm thinking of two Zelazny works, and neither is his serious and brilliant early novel Lord of Light. That one pleased the critics, and he was probably thinking, with that out of the way, now I'm just going to write experimental shit and have fun.
The first Chronicles of Amber are the funnest books I know. The story hits the ground running, with a first person narrator who wakes up with amnesia and super powers, but the star of the books is Zelazny's colorful, dreamy mechanism for shifting through parallel worlds by using attention to make the world change around you.
What I don't like about Amber is that the characters are too often motivated by vengeance, competition and fear. Zelazny's secret masterpiece is a little book about time-traveling highways, with an emotional tone so playful that even deadly adversaries usually turn out to be old friends. Roadmarks is luminous on multiple levels, and poetic, and totally trashy.
March 8. Today I want to rave about Picbreeder, a website where you can make art by selecting images as a computer alters them with an algorithm based on biological evolution. Here's a 40 minute video by one of the guys who made it, mostly about how the best images come from headlong improvisation instead of planning, and from individual judgments rather than consensus.
For me, Picbreeder is the most valuable technology of the 21st century. I've put 50-100 hours into it, way less time than someone might spend on video games, and I feel like I've already learned more about creativity than in decades of writing, and made images that I could never make alone even if I mastered painting software.
Suddenly I understand that creativity has two components that are completely separate. One is the magical well that ideas come from. And the other, almost as magical, is how you decide what ideas to trash and what ideas to run with. What I mean by "magical" is that my conscious mind has no creativity at all. It's like the manager for an art department where the "artists" are hard to explain with current theories of mind.
In this condensed video of the 1956 film The Mystery of Picasso, you can watch Picasso's creative process as he starts with a sketch and puts it through changes until sometimes there's no trace of the original idea. Of course he does everything: the ideas, the rendering, and the selection. But Picbreeder allows someone with no skill in ideas or rendering to still practice creative selection, ten times faster than Picasso, plus a back button.
Another way to say it: the stuff that bubbles up from the Picbreeder computer is not that different from the stuff that bubbles up from your own mysterious subconscious, and might almost replace it. If I can use only selection to make an impressionistic landscape like Mordor, or a near-realistic portrait like Sunbathing or Spacewalking... could someone with no ideas still use selection creativity to produce good fiction, or choreography, or architecture, out of nothing but AI-rendered noise?
If you want to try Picbreeder, here's my strategy guide: 1) Go immediately to advanced with color. 2) At first, breed for color and structure together. At some point you'll probably want to keep the colors while you breed structure, or you'll nail the structure and want to color it differently. In a long project you might go back and forth. 3) Usually it's best to select only one image. A good reason to select two is if you can't decide between them. 4) Combining two images into one with elements of both is really hard, but it gets easier the more similar they are, and the more patience you have. 5) When in doubt, go for gut aesthetics over rational thinking. Pretend you're looking at a bunch of album covers and deciding which one to reach for even if you can't explain why. 6) If you're in a rut, either use the back button to find your last exciting image and go a different direction, or go forward with big changes. 7) Marijuana.
March 13. Doubling down on last week, I've been getting back into an old TV show. At its best, it's the most mythic and iconic achievement in the history of storytelling. Of course, it's Gilligan's Island. In ten thousand years, when Breaking Bad is long forgotten, even if Gilligan's Island is also forgotten, it will be reinvented. It seems to be a children's show only because of its fathomless purity. The jokes are obvious like an approaching train, their impact undiminished no matter how long you see them coming.
The Skipper is the best straight man because he's the most joyful, unable to hide that he's having a great time even when he's angry. Gilligan is the best trickster because he wears the mask of the fool so well that neither Gilligan himself, nor the other characters, nor half the audience understand that staying on the island is his motive.
The show's very absurdity is a blinding sun of metaphor. How can an island remain unknown and attract so many visitors? Because the Island is the liminal space between consensus reality and the world of myth -- and this weirdness extends into our own world: in the pilot episode, as the ship leaves port, the flags are at half mast because Kennedy had just been shot.
In the best episodes, the characters enter the world of dreams and return to their homeworld not as exiles but as gods, acting out its most primal stories and characters: cavemen and vampires and pirates and cowboys and secret agents. This great video fits Gilligan's Island dream scenes with the 1967 garage psych song "I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night".
March 15. Remember Matt Savinar? He was a top-tier doomer with a popular website called Life After The Oil Crash, and then all at once he quit and became an astrologer. At the time I was baffled, but in hindsight, Savinar is my new hero. He probably figured out that he had been accidentally lying to people, and rather than spend years trying to salvage a position that was still exciting without being incorrect, he just cut the knot, and turned his talents to another form of lying that is benign and endlessly creative.
I've been continuing to enjoy writing this blog, and I was comfortable with my practice of asking important questions and aiming for concise, original answers. But it felt more and more like I was wrestling with the ghost of my past self. I thought about Neil Young, who sometimes argues with his fans about what he's playing, and I thought, if Neil Young started playing black metal, the people who want him to play "Old Man" wouldn't even come to his shows.
I'll always be a writer, but I'm probably finished writing seriously about politics and social philosophy. It's taken me a long time to see that there is no middle ground between anchoring a cultish echo chamber and serving up a bland soup of facts (unless it's comedy). And I think my bigger mistake was years earlier, when I caught the habit of writing about what's wrong with the world. That road just leads deeper into a swamp where in the end there are no monsters to fight except other lost travelers.
March 17. I've been noticing some crazy coincidences lately. It no longer feels like life is random, or like I'm being jerked around by fate. It feels like I'm starting to understand the kinds of stories that the unseen storyteller likes, and I can almost synchronize with that flow.
Yesterday a reader emailed me with a quote from the Gospel of Thomas that I was already thinking about: "Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the all." In my interpretation, the key word is "astonished", and the whole thing could be condensed to "Seek until astonished." Being troubled is like a distasteful WTF, and then being astonished is like the merging of WTF and total happiness. And once you've got that, it's like a handhold to climb out of the pit of the human condition.
Something cool (thanks Nick), This Man Is About to Blow Up Mathematics. It's about math so weird that it reads like science fiction: "Set theorists can construct proofs using large cardinals, which deal with higher levels of infinity and are too large to be proven to exist within ZFC." Or: "He created a sophisticated state-of-the-art machinery to turn combinatorial objects into universes." Basically we're on an island of normal math, in a sea of weird math, and this guy has built a really good boat ramp.
March 20. I've been thinking about plot twists in fiction. There are at least two kinds: twists about what we think happened in the past, and twists about what we expect to happen in the future. I call the former the Basic Instinct twist, because that's the movie that drove it into the wall. Writer Joe Eszterhas goes back and forth so many times on who the real killer is, that in the end it's like a split reality where they're both the killer. Eszterhas is annoyed that some viewers disagree with him about the ending, which means he doesn't even know he did something that radical, and nobody since then has pushed it that far, because it doesn't work. The backward-confounding twist has a low ceiling in the patience of the viewer.
The other, I call the Pulp Fiction twist. At least three times in that movie, you think the story is going one way, and then some crazy accident takes it somewhere absurd, not just into different things happening but into a different storytelling tone. Any hack can write a Basic Instinct twist, but a Pulp Fiction twist requires creativity. That's why nobody has taken it farther, even though viewers would love to see it. The forward-confounding twist has a high ceiling that we haven't reached yet.