February 2019 - ?

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February 1. Why Do Rich People Love Endurance Sports? The article mentions three reasons. The first is selection bias, that triathlons are expensive. The second is that endurance sports provide something missing from most white collar jobs, "a clear and measurable goal with a direct line back to the work they have put in." And the strange third reason is the pursuit of pain.

Back in 2017 I did a post that linked to this long post, The opponent-process theory of emotion. Everyone knows that pleasure often rebounds into pain, and vice versa; but sometimes the rebound is stronger than the initial feeling, so someone could feel more pleasure by actively seeking pain.

That's never worked for me. It's easy to assume that everyone's inner world is like your own, but they might be radically different. The other day there was a short Ask Reddit thread, What does anxiety feel like? The answers are all over the place, and the most interesting difference is that some people feel the wrongness inside them, and some people feel it out in the world.

For me anxiety feels like the world is made of needles and knives, all poised to stab me if I make a move to extend myself. And I've made some progress against anxiety by seeking pain: when I notice that something bothers me, I try to amplify that feeling as long and hard as I can. It feels terrible, and it doesn't feel good when I stop. The mechanism is not like a rebound, but like draining my pain battery, until the charge becomes weaker and less frightening.

It's actually a lot like this technique from the meditation subreddit, an extended metaphor of hunting baby thoughts. Edited:

To catch baby thoughts, first build a fortress -- normally your own breath, but it can be anything. Soon, the baby thoughts will start knocking on those walls, and the method to kill a baby thought is simple: notice it.

If you don't notice it early, the thought will get older and eventually die after several long minutes. During those minutes, you will be absorbed by that thought, and then another thought will wait for its turn, and another. This is what happens to people in their everyday life: the birth, growth and death of long strings of thoughts.

During meditation, you shorten this cycle and hunt the thoughts as young as possible. After many hours of hunting, as you get better at killing them, they will come more sparsely, until you will find yourself alone, in peace and silence.

February 4. Last week Leigh Ann and I watched the new Netflix Ted Bundy documentary. One thing that struck me was how he talked about his youth. In reality, he was a mediocre student and athlete, a social failure, and was probably beaten by his grandfather. But the story he told was not only false -- it was empty, a bland mask of the all-American boy.

The week before that I read a new novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green. (Thanks Alex for recommending it.) What I like about it is its detailed view of how fame works in the age of social media. It's terrifying! Suddenly your name and face are at the center of a battle, where everyone is busy trying to shape your image for their own motives.

The motive of the public, and anyone who can make money off you, is to make your image simple and bold and familiar, something both exciting and easy to understand. The more you play along with that, the more you're rewarded.

For example, there was just a scandal at Der Spiegel. It turns out the prestigious magazine's star reporter has been making stuff up for years. In the words of the reporter who caught him:

One thing you can learn from reading pieces by Claas Relotius, is that this is an easy world. It's easy to explain. It's easy to understand. And this is what Relotius really offers.

I'm thinking of all of this in terms of social ecology. Modern media have created a niche, which is filled by people who are most willing to build their public image backward from the bullshit the public wants, instead of forward from the reality inside them. So it favors people who don't have much reality inside them in the first place.

It's funny because we all wonder what that celebrity is really like, and not what that random person on the bus is really like. But the person on the bus is probably more interesting.

February 6. Still thinking about religion, and I've decided that religion is not a thing -- it's a confusing word, which points to several different things, which sometimes go together but don't have to. These include: 1) a community for doing any of the below; 2) an idea, that you refuse to doubt, and that serves as a foundation or anchor for your mental models; 3) a set of rituals, where a ritual is a highly predictable activity that turns physical energy into mental energy; and 4) an existential theory of mind. I got that last one from this article posted to the subreddit.

The idea is, when you talk to other people, you need to know how they tick, what it's like to be this person, what they want from you, what you should expect each other to do. That's a human theory of mind, and you might have a different theory of mind for dealing with nonhumans, like your dog, or your phone, or the government. An existential theory of mind is about reality itself.

In olden days, the dominant EToM was a bearded man in the sky pulling strings. You would look at things out of your control, and speculate about what God wants. Somewhere in the 1990's, I started to notice a shift, where people still do this, but instead of saying God, they say "the universe". This is full-on pantheism, and I think pantheism is now the dominant EToM of educated people who are not materialists.

Materialism is an existential theory of mindlessness -- not just wondering, but being certain that there is no mind or meaning beyond what humans create. Rene Descartes, the father of materialism, actually believed that if you torture a dog, its howls of pain are no different from a bell ringing on a machine. The funny thing is, Descartes did believe in God. But he separated God from the world in such a way that God could be easily cut out of the equation.

I think materialism is a useful tool for switching from one EToM to another, like a transmission for the engine of meaning. Whatever you thought was important, is now just bouncing particles and waves, and you're free to decide that something else is important. But you can't keep driving in neutral. The Wikipedia page on nihilism is a good survey of all the ways people have continued to look for meaning after giving up on meaning.

Suddenly I understand the religion of progress -- I'm comfortable in calling progress a religion because it fits all four of my points above. The community is the whole modern economy. The undoubted idea is there is no value, meaning, or motive beyond what is created by human activity. The ritual is that your alarm goes off, you go to a job to make money, and what makes a job important is how much stuff it moves, from the empty realm outside humanity, into the realm of human-defined value. For example, turning a forest into board-feet of lumber, or a river into megawatts of hydropower.

But now progress is dying in the face of ecology. If a dog can feel pain, maybe forests and rivers have intrinsic value, which humans have been destroying. With climate catastrophe looming, even human value is now served by undoing the progress of the past.

That's why the Pope of Progress, Elon Musk, wants to colonize Mars -- because re-terraforming Earth means undoing what humans have done, while terraforming Mars means humans doing more things. Green Mars is more valuable than green Earth, because green Earth happened without us, and green Mars will be something we did.

The other way progress is dying, is that more of us are feeling drained, not energized, by its rituals. That's a whole other subject.