April - June, 2021

previous archive

April 5-7. Fire in the Sky is about the psychology of exploring weird phenomena.

We seem to have a psychological block that prohibits us from entertaining a class of "strange ideas" outside some personal, identity-based window of acceptable thinking.... Conceptually, the block is related to, but notably different from, the Overton Window, which concerns socially-acceptable speech. Our focus here is not exactly what one can or cannot say for fear of social ostracism, though it likely does contribute to the phenomenon, but is rather what one can or cannot say for actual inability to conceive of a subject.

It's funny, because I'm the opposite. This is probably the one way that I want life to be harder. I'm hungry for stuff that stretches my ability to conceive it, so I've devoured the most challenging woo-woo books I can find, from Charles Fort's The Book of the Damned to Ted Holiday's The Goblin Universe to George Hansen's The Trickster and the Paranormal. My conclusion is that it's our world that's unusual. Reality is a roiling sea of first person perspectives, and we live on an island where the illusion of a third person reality becomes plausible, if you don't look too closely.

More weird stuff in this reddit thread: What's something creepy that happened years ago but to this day you can't figure out why it happened?

April 8. Long reddit comment about How actors talk about acting. Being believable is the bare minimum, and then there's stuff like understanding your character's motivation, disappearing into a role, "outside-in" technical stuff, and making interesting choices:

For example, actors seem to love Jeff Goldblum, Nic Cage, and John Malkovich. Even in something like Holy Man, or Rounders, or Wicker Man, where they're giving pretty much objectively bad performances, other actors sometimes love those performances. Choices come up a lot in conversations about these. It's just so amazing to see people who naturally make choices that we have to work towards.

My definition of creativity is making a choice that's unpredictable with foresight, and yet, in hindsight it seems inevitable. And as a writer, I respect small-scale surprises more than large-scale surprises. There's lots of bad popular entertainment, where they surprise you about which character is evil, but every character's emotional reaction to every little event is exactly what you expect.

April 20. For the holiday, I want to write about weed. Most people I know either never use it, or use it every day. Maybe my brain is different, but those would be my last two choices.

Lately I've been doing two or three sessions a day, and then taking two full days off. I might use it two days in a row, but if I go a third day, it just makes me feel numb, which is not what I want.

In no particular order, these are some of my favorite things to do while high:

1) Put on headphones, walk around outside, and pretend I'm the POV in a video. With the right song, and in the right place, this is absolute heaven. Lately my favorite song is New Yorker Cartoon by Jenny and Johnny. At the same time, I practice turning my attention to my physical senses. My goal, which I'm nowhere near, is to last a whole song without falling into my head.

2) Improvise on piano. Whenever I find a good chord, I'll use label paper and colored markers to show it on the keyboard, and then I'll keep my fingers on the colors and jam. For a while I've been practicing keeping my left hand doing the same thing while my right hand does increasingly complex stuff.

3) Write fiction. When I'm high, I get much better ideas, on everything from plot to how to put words together. The problem is that I think all my ideas are great, when some of them are dumb. To know the difference, I have to edit while sober. Oddly, blogging is almost the opposite. I get ideas high, draft posts sober, and then for major posts, I'll get high and do a style polish.

4) Explore emotions. Weed raises my emotional intelligence to nearly normal. People always say "listen to your heart," and I wish they had more precise instructions. It occurred to me, maybe I've been taking it too metaphorically. So I've been focusing a lot of attention on my literal blood-pumping muscle, and I noticed something. When I do my "expanding into pain" exercise, my heartbeats are sharper. Also, focusing on anything below the neck seems to settle my anxiety.

5) Strobe-enhanced CEV's. I close my eyes, turn my bike taillight to flashing, and point it at my eyelids. If I'm high enough, I'll see all kinds of crazy patterns, and can consciously navigate from one pattern to another. I told Leigh Ann, "I'm afraid this is too self-indulgent." She replied: "You're you!"

April 26. I've been thinking about virtual reality. So far, it's almost all head-based. Worlds are simulated for your eyes and your ears, and mainly navigated by your fingers. The most advanced VR can also interface your arms and legs.

But your arms and legs don't care what world they're in. They don't care if you're scrubbing the bathtub or slaying dragons. It's your brain that cares, and VR is pulling your arms and legs into worlds that the brain wants.

What about the rest of the body? When people talk about following the heart, or the gut, are they projecting the subconscious brain, or do those organs have their own intelligence? That's how primitive we are, that we still don't know the answer.

I think it will turn out that organs do have their own intelligence. This 2005 article, Organ Transplants and Cellular Memories, has a bunch of reports of personality changes after heart transplants.

Maybe in 2050, when you're playing Fallout 9, there will be a wire in your belly so you can get a gut feeling about whether to go into that building. If technology can do that, I'd rather get a wire in my amygdala to nullify unfounded fear. Or, the best case for virtual reality, is that in figuring out how to bring the whole body into an artificial world, we will discover how to finally bring it into the real world.

It's just like terraforming Mars. The science doesn't add up, but in the attempt, we'll come to appreciate how much easier and more valuable it is to re-terraform Earth.

May 3. The 'Capitalism is Broken' Economy. It's about how American employers are having trouble filling their crappy jobs:

Stick with me here, but what if people weren't lazy -- and instead, for the first time in a long time, were able to say no to exploitative working conditions and poverty-level wages? And what if business owners are scandalized, dismayed, frustrated, or bewildered by this scenario because their pre-pandemic business models were predicated on a steady stream of non-unionized labor with no other options? It's not the labor force that's breaking. It's the economic model.

I would explain it like this: Of the many reasons a person gets a job, two of the big ones are 1) to rise from poverty to wealth, and 2) to not fall from poverty to death. Now, with economic decline, and the rich bunkering up with their money, upward mobility is a lot harder. At the same time, through moral progress and upgrades to the safety net, falling from poverty to death is also harder.

More doom, a long speech transcript, How Tech Loses Out. The idea is, big companies now outsource everything. Tech companies have become intellectual property and finance companies, and they no longer employ anyone who knows how stuff actually works.

And at some point, the technical skills of the company become negative. And what does that mean? That your company knows so little about what it does that if you would ask a random person on the street for advice on the thing that your company makes, they are more likely to provide correct answers than the people that actually work for the company.

May 24. Soon, all good news will be local news:

Senegal architects ditch concrete for earth

Homeless Oaklanders have built a cob village

When One City Gave People Cash, They Went Out and Got Jobs

The Number of Cities With Municipal Broadband Has Jumped Over 450% in Two Years

Newark cops, with reform, didn't fire a single shot in 2020

Renton physician cuts health insurance out of the picture

May 27. I've been on the fence about whether COVID-19 came from nature or a lab, because I'm not a biologist studying the issue, so any opinion I had would have been based on social factors, not scientific. It's better to say nothing than to be right for the wrong reason. But as the social buzz dies down, and the evidence comes in, it's looking more like the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan. Here's an article making that case, The origin of COVID.

May 31. Wading back into politics, the weirdest thing that's happened recently, was when Caitlyn Jenner, who's running for governor of California, said she didn't vote in the last election -- but then it turned out she was lying and did vote. Why would someone vote, and say they didn't vote?

I think Caitlyn Jenner is nutty enough to be in tune with the zeitgeist, in which voting is now uncool. Voting is for saps. If you really want to make a difference, the cool thing to do is have a violent revolution and install a charismatic leader.

To be fair, voting is really unsatisfying. Until you're in an election that's decided by one vote, your vote has never made a difference. I'm a serious supporter of random ballot voting, where for each candidate or measure, the election is decided by picking a single ballot at random. The best thing about random ballot voting is there's no incentive for tactical voting. So a no-bullshit no-charisma candidate has an actual chance of winning.

It's going to be hundreds of years, or thousands, before humans figure out a good large-scale political system. In the short term, I expect many of our half-assed democracies to be overwhelmed by a tide of authoritarian sentiment.

Something I learned from James C. Scott's book Against The Grain, is that human prehistory was politically very complex, and there were some groups that alternated seasonally between top-down and bottom-up systems. I think that's where the present authoritarian sentiment is coming from. We have something like an ancestral memory, in which, when the system has too much cruft, someone with a strong personality can come in and sweep it away. That probably works pretty well in a group of a hundred people who all know each other. But when it's a hundred million people, you get an insane dictator and piles of dead bodies.

June 3. The other day I took my annual early summer LSD trip. My supply is low enough that I'm only doing it once a year now, but this time I decided to try a tab and a half. The only difference I noticed was that it came on a lot faster. I've still never hallucinated on any substance -- I see what everyone else sees, but differently.

I should also say, LSD is serious, and the younger you are, the bigger the risk. If you're over fifty, your brain is a rusty old engine, and psychedelics are like whacking it with a pipe to loosen it up. You wouldn't whack a cat with a pipe, and that cat is your sixteen year old brain. And unlike cannabis, LSD can bend your brain so it can't be bent back. Anyway, if you're going to do it, my advice is to stock up on fresh fruit, and go walk around outside.

First I took a walk downtown. I've never liked the metaphor that people are asleep, and should wake up. Metaphors should be based on something that makes sense literally, and literal sleep is wonderful. What I saw on my walk, is that humans are not so much asleep, as we are deeply unalive. I mean, we're getting better. But still, what a delicate balance, to be alive enough to set a good example for others, but not so alive that they kill you.

Then, as I always do, I walked up the river trail out of town. I was reminded of the Wallace Stevens line, "We live in an old chaos of the sun," and the Steven Wright line, "God is a huge amplifier and life is just feedback." Nature is not a temple. Nature is a filthy nectar-dripping riot, and human hedonism is pinched and clunky in comparison.

June 7/11. Posted a couple weeks ago to Weird Collapse, The tragedy of the commons is a false and dangerous myth. Here's a 2008 article on the same subject, Debunking the 'Tragedy of the Commons', and here's how I've explained it before:

If you go out and look, land held in common tends to be managed well, and privately owned land tends to be exploited. But in 1968 a eugenicist named Garrett Hardin pulled a paper out of his ass that said exactly the opposite with no evidence, and the owning classes thought it was brilliant.

Does it matter that Hardin was a eugenicist? Yes, because it's the same kind of evil thinking. To support control of human breeding, you have to be comfortable that the people who will be doing the controlling, are people like you. So you have to be confident that you are a member of a justifiably power-holding class. Hardin also wrote a paper on "lifeboat ethics," again a thought experiment with no evidence, arguing that it's bad to give money to the poor.

Note that the ecological destruction of the modern era is not an example of the "tragedy of the commons," but the tragedy of central control and private property. Related, from 2007: Iain Boal: Specters of Malthus, a smart interview arguing that population only outruns food supply when there's non-local control of resources.

Matt comments:

To me, the most obvious rebuttal to the tragedy of the commons is the roommate who picks up after everybody else. It sucks to be that guy. I've been that guy. But I wasn't going to wash a cup every time I wanted a cup.

The tragedy of the commons assumes no one will care about their surroundings unless they fully own them. It's a weird thing to assume.

It also speaks to a weird sick pattern of possessive people: they express care for others/things in proportion to how much they can control others/things. There's also the weird sick pattern of assigning value only to that which can be controlled.

This reminds me of a Steven Wright line: "I have the world's largest collection of seashells. I keep it on all the beaches of the world."

June 9-10. On the subject of eugenics, I've been reminded that the definition of that word is broad enough that it can point to two things with no overlap. First, you can have laws that say people with bad genes aren't allowed to procreate -- but inevitably, the definition of "bad genes" is calculated backwards from whatever makes the people in power uncomfortable.

Second, on a completely voluntary basis, we could use technology to improve the human genome. If biotech keeps progressing, this will turn into a huge issue, maybe the biggest issue of the 22nd century. Because after we fix obvious genetic diseases, like Huntington's, we'll get into stuff where the benefit is less clear. Do we want to eliminate sickle cell anemia, which also gives resistance to malaria? Is autism something to be cured, or a valid way of being human?

I expect trends, where the vat-babies of the 2190's have green eyes and wide noses. Or, if different populations go for radically different looks, it could exacerbate tribalism. (Is there a gene for tribalism?) Humans are short-sighted, especially when we're doing something new, so we're sure to make changes that seem to make humanity better, but end up making it worse.

And it's not like we can just tweak a gene to do whatever we want. Little changes will have cascading effects that we don't expect, so that everyone with the gene for pointy ears gets kidney failure.

Over on the subreddit, zeroinputagriculture has a great explanation of the limits of eugenics. Basically, as with drug design, we can't just reverse-engineer any effect we want, even if we can build molecules atom-by-atom. Instead, we have to throw a bunch of molecules at the wall and see what sticks.

Personally, I think DNA is overrated, and it will turn out that a big part of who we are, is neither genetics nor environment, but something we haven't discovered yet. Maybe in the 26th century, the biggest issue will be morphic field generators, or ancestral memory wipes. And if get Homo Superior, it will be a lucky strike on a cluster of changes that have synergy, and whatever those changes are, that's what humans will be next.

June 18. I've been watching the Euro 2020 soccer tournament, and I want to argue that VAR (video review) is being misused for calling players offside. It happens in a lot of games now, that an exciting goal is called back when a high-tech screenshot reveals that an attacking player had a toenail stuck out farther than the last defender. It makes the game worse for both players and fans, and when the smart commentator points that out, the dumb commentator says, "Well, was he offside?"

My answer is, no, he wasn't. Because if you pull back your bean-counter perspective, and look at the offside rule as a part of a traditional game, then you see that the rule was written for human observers in real time. And a human observer can't see if a player is offside, unless it's by a foot or two. It follows that a player is not offside unless it's by a foot or two. The people who wrote the rule didn't write it that way, because they couldn't imagine machine observers.

More generally, when you change the method of perceiving, you have to change the rule, to prevent dysfunction. How fun would driving be if you got a speeding ticket every time you went 25.01 mph in a 25 zone? Soccer is being ruined in the same way.

So how do we fix it? For now, either VAR should not be used at all for offside, or the officials should have to review it with no slow-mo, no ability to pause the shot or draw a line across the field that no human can see.

In the future, with better tech, it would be cool if every player had a chip implant that buzzed when it was beyond the chip of the last defender, and that same data was used to make the call in real time. Then there would be no stalling of the game, and no reason for arguing.

June 21. So sports become less fun when rules written for human eyes are enforced by machine eyes. Now I'm thinking, this is the same subject as the effect of social media on mental health.

Human social behavior has been evolving since we became social animals, before we even became human. Suddenly, our social behavior is being hosted and moderated by something that's not even biological, an alien algorithm not even fully understood by its human coders, with a cold eye that misses nothing and forgets nothing.

On top of that, the whole thing is being managed not for the benefit of humanity, but for the benefit of giant concentrations of money, trying to leverage their money/power into greater money/power by hijacking human attention.

So it's not surprising that people who spend a lot of time in this world are going insane in multiple ways, from anxiety and depression to mass delusion.

June 23. A new article on one of my favorite subjects, How to think about pleasure. It doesn't actually say how to think about pleasure. Rather, it's an overview of how philosophers have thought about pleasure through the ages, with emphasis on how many of them believed that pleasures of the mind are noble while pleasures of the body are trashy.

Yeah, they were wrong. Maybe in ancient times, the kind of people who sought bodily pleasures were more likely to do it carelessly, and rebound into pain. Now it's the opposite: people sit at screens all day chasing mental pleasures, rebounding into anxiety, and getting sick from ignoring their bodies.

There's more in the Hacker News comment thread, and some good stuff in this 2010 blog post on Richard Solomon's opponent-process theory of emotion. But I want to jump straight to my own beliefs.

I call my philosophy omniscient hedonism: the meaning of life is to feel good, while respecting the interests of others, and your future self, to also feel good.

Buddhism makes a valuable distinction between pain and suffering, where pain is inevitable and suffering is optional. Suffering is meta-pain, feeling bad about feeling bad. It's possible to interpret life's painful parts as the dissonant parts of a symphony.

Our tendency is to turn away from pain, and plunge headlong into pleasure. It's better to do it the other way around -- not to seek painful situations, but when you notice yourself feeling pain, dive straight into that feeling and try to burn it out. And when there's something you enjoy, don't burn it out, but tease it, stretch it out as long as you can.

I think a person's capacity for pain, and capacity for pleasure, are aspects of the same thing. The better you are at completely facing pain, and absorbing it, the better you are at feeling and appreciating pleasure. Or, the skill of feeling deeply applies equally to all feelings.

June 21 - July 1. I think the internet is doomed. Every year it becomes more fragile, as it depends on a more complex technological infrastructure (both hardware and software) that fewer people understand.

Greg comments:

My beloved Ubuntu Linux, formerly elegantly simple, now has 4 packaging systems. I played with 'flatpak' yesterday to see new features in a PDF viewer I use constantly. I was confident that there would be no changes to my system - that's the whole idea of flatpaks.

It bricked my system in a way that I haven't seen in 20+ years of using Linux. It took me five hours to fix it - and I'm not sure exactly what happened because I had to take big whacks at the problem (ie. deleting entire caches).

Not long ago, these things were worse, but were at least understandable - I knew the boot process of my PC, email was plain text, and you could watch clients and servers communicate in plain text.

I think the reason things keep getting more complex, is the same reason that Elvis and Michael Jackson died. Both of them had a personal doctor, with only one patient, and each doctor got bored doing nothing, and had to justify his existence by doing a lot of unnecessary and ultimately harmful stuff. That's what engineers (and managers and executives) of tech companies are doing. If they don't make upgrades, they feel useless, and I guess it's really hard to upgrade something without making it bigger or more complicated.

After some feedback, it looks like I overstated the psychological factor in runaway complexity. The more powerful factors are economic and technological -- but they're really hard to explain. Probably nobody fully understands what's happening. This subreddit post, On complexity in software, mentions "technical debt from persistently going overly tactical vs. strategic," and the arms race with spammers.

An edited comment from Baltasar:

In industrial mass production, the more nails or screws you make, the cheaper each one of them becomes. In software, the costs go from a lot for the first copy to negligible. I'm trying to get at how there's something about software (and less so, other technology) that by making things more complex it also makes them cheaper. It's much easier to construct a complicated piece of software than a simple one; turns out the cost just got transformed into complexity.

More precisely, a piece of software that is extremely flexible, powerful, useful in many cases is also quite complicated. But the complexity does give something back, it allows a centralization of power, and there's something about having one hammer that works for all nails.

A couple people mention that when things get too complex, someone comes out with a stripped down alternative that takes over, and then in turn gets more complex. This has happened many times with music, but I can't think of any recent examples in IT. Do we really expect a new kind of computer and operating system, that's as simple as 1995, but you can still use it to check your bank balance and buy stuff online?

I actually think that zero-growth complexity is possible. Consider sharks. They've been the same for hundreds of millions of years, and we could do a lot with a social system, or a tech system, as complex as a shark. Maybe in the future we'll be able to enforce a law that puts a hard ceiling on the size and complexity of systems. So a computer operating system is limited to X lines of code, or the laws of a nation are limited to X words, and going above that is a crime.

But that's not going to happen this time around. And with no way to freeze complexity, or do a clean reset, it can only keep rising until there's a messy reset. To knock the internet down, to the point where it will not fully recover, any of the following will suffice:

1) Some nation with EMP weapons sees a clear benefit in using them. 2) Our planet takes a direct hit from a major solar flare. 3) There's a popular movement to sabotage fiber optic lines. 4) Through a general malaise or decline, humans are no longer competent to maintain information technology at the current level.

It's fitting that I have to link to the page of this paywalled article from the Atlantic, The Internet Is Rotting. It's mainly about broken links, but more generally it's about how the internet is not designed for long-term storage, and is really terrible at it, and yet a lot of good practices for long-term information storage have been abandoned because of the internet.

I've said this before: we are right now in a dark age, in the sense that future historians will have few surviving records from our time. Eventually, they won't even think the internet was real. They'll see it as myth or metaphor, like the Aboriginal Dreamtime, or Atlantis, or the Tower of Babel:

In ancient times, a series of tubes covered the whole world, through which anyone could talk to anyone. Great demons battled to control the tubes: the evil Google, the seductive Apple, the all-seeing Facebook, the crazy-making Twitter and the trickster god Trump. The people believed the mutterings of the Net over their own eyes, and the world fell into madness and strife.