"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."
- Terence McKenna
Apocalypsopolis, book one
Civilization Will Eat Itself, Superweed 1-4, best of
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October 7. Continuing on the same subject, there's a famous quote by Karen Blixen, "all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story," but this was taken out of context, where she qualified it with "perhaps this is not entirely untrue." If I were making a general statement about humanity, it would be: People will cause any suffering if they see it as part of a story. All of history's religious wars and violent conquests and utopian disasters were driven by the desire to make reality fit a compelling story. To influence the world in a good way, you have to understand it with so much complexity that it doesn't feel like a story.
So I was serious when I said ancient video games would have saved forests. Masanobu Fukuoka wrote, "The increasing desolation of nature, the exhaustion of resources, the uneasiness and disintegration of the human spirit, all have been brought about by humanity's trying to accomplish something." And entertainment, including fiction, sports, and gaming, is a safety valve that takes our drive for accomplishment and channels it to where it does less harm.
You would think, as technology gets more powerful, that humans would get more destructive. But the last 50 years have been the most peaceful time in history. I think this is because technology, which used to be directed completely outward, is increasingly being directed inward. This is good! Even the worst inward-directed technologies, like slot machines engineered for addiction, are less harmful than guns or cars.
Most of my personal experience with motivation comes from video games. Sid Meier's Civilization series combines three things that make me want to keep playing. The first is improvement: you can see your empire getting stronger in thousands of tiny steps that are clearly visible, and directly caused by your own actions, more than anything in reality. The second is abstract puzzle solving, and people who aren't into this prefer RPG's and other action games to strategy games. The third is exploration, which could be subdivided into the novelty of seeing the map open up, and the excitement of opening "goody huts" with random benefits. This last thing is what slot machines are pushing to the extreme.
I'm highly motivated by novelty, which is why I get bored with 4x games in the late stages, and why I was excited to turn my yard into a food forest and now I can barely get myself to water it. The point is, if you understand what motivates you, you can try to set your life up so that you get the right motivational feedback from activities that you have rationally determined are good for you.
October 5. Continuing last week's subject, 13 months ago I posted some comments about motivation from a guitar teacher, about how his best students break the practice down into a series of tiny goals, so they're always getting a feeling of reward. And Friday I got this comment from Sheila about how she stuck with working out and losing weight:
What keeps me on target is seeing the positive changes in my life. I think it would be nearly impossible if I were trying to do something where I could not see or feel improvement in some way.
Now I'm thinking you can hack your motivational system by learning to notice smaller and smaller improvements. But also, there has to be a context in which the improvements are valuable. Two winters ago I worked out for a few months, but it wasn't worth the trouble. Doing squats enabled me to climb hills better on my bike, but I was already climbing hills well enough, I was already thin and healthy, and the main practical difference was my bigger thighs ripped out a pair of expensive jeans. Being able to do more pull-ups would be great if I was climbing trees every day to pick fruit.
If we are all guaranteed basic survival (which I support) then there's less room for improvements to have practical value, and what counts as an improvement is mostly a function of personality and culture. If you like listening to music, and your friends are musicians, getting better at playing music will have high value. What if you like killing and your friends are killers? Destruction is easier than creation, and I think most of the tragedies of history happened because whole cultures discovered that they could feel good by telling themselves that something easy was an improvement. If ancient civilizations had video games there would be more forests left. And even in modern society, how much meaningful activity is really just people motivating themselves at the expense of others?
Finally, a comment from Aaron:
It's been a while since I read the Continuum Concept but I remember Jean Liedloff describing the elders of the community and how their focus on life was achieving bliss. From what I understood they were aiming to have a perfectly still mind and to just let bliss wash over them. I know that western eyes see a stone age people as living in a state of extreme deprivation but as far as the Yequana people were concerned they had everything they needed - which is why the elders could indulge themselves by aiming to live in a perpetual state of bliss.
October 2. Motivation Part 3: the starter and the engine. I still haven't addressed the big practical question. Everyone wants to look back and say I worked out and got in shape, I learned to play guitar, I wrote a novel, but hardly anyone wants to do that stuff. How do you get yourself to do something that you know is good for you, but you totally don't feel like doing?
The simplest move is to just bite the bullet and force yourself to do it. That's how I brush my teeth every night. But if you try it on a long term project or a deep lifestyle change, you're going to crash and burn.
I think motivational speakers and motivational sayings are even worse, because you're not learning grit, and the benefit is still short-lived. It's like there are a bunch of cars with faulty engines, and popular "motivation" is about jump-starting them so they go for a bit and then break down again.
Except the "engine" is not a feature of individuals. It's a relationship between personality and environment. The right way to apply social motivation is not through the goal but through the process. Goal support would be "I believe in you, you can build a house and everyone will admire you." Process support would be "Nail this board to this other board because I'm your friend and you don't want to let me down."
Process-based social support is so difficult and time-intensive that you almost always have to pay for it, and even then it's usually not that good. Being self-taught is impressive not because learning is hard, but because without social support you can't devote thousands of hours to learning something unless it's something you are made to do.
We're always told to follow our dreams, but committing to an activity that you dream about but haven't really done is like marrying for beauty. It only works out if you're very lucky, because your dreams are in no position to know what you're going to continue to enjoy doing hour after hour, day after day, year after year.
So my answer to motivation is to use brute force for the little things, and for the big things, try a bunch of different stuff until you find what you tend to keep doing. This must be what writing teachers mean by "finding your voice": your voice is whatever kind of writing feeds back into you and keeps you going. For me, that's blogging, but I'm trying to find a way to do it with fiction.
September 30. Motivation Part 2: the end of poverty. Continuing from Monday's subject of what to put at the top of the hierarchy of needs: Lefty political culture would say that once your basic needs are met, you should dedicate your life to meeting the basic needs of everyone in the world. Of course this is a good idea, but what happens if we get there? Imagine it's the year 2500 and nobody in the world needs anything. If motivation is driven by necessity, what do we do all day?
One answer is to find increasingly trivial ways to be dissatisfied. There's already a phrase for this, "first world problems", like The Starbucks down the street from me doesn't have drive through, so I had to drive to the one further down the street.
Another answer is to use virtual reality to have the best of both worlds: all our needs are met, but we can enter an illusion of struggling to survive, or fighting for epic goals that don't destabilize the actual system. In a hundred years video games will be seen like we now see books: some are trash, but others are valuable tools to expand our minds.
Another answer is to see unstructured time as an opportunity for spiritual growth. From this week's Guardian: Boredom is not a problem to be solved. It's the last privilege of a free mind. This Hacker News thread has some semantic discussion of the word "boredom", and also a great comment about how animals in the wild have a different spirit than animals in zoos.
This leads to the first-thought utopian vision that we'll all be happy if we just crash the system and bring back the excitement of not knowing where your next meal is coming from. This idea will never go away, but hardly anyone will act on it because on some level we know it's irresponsible. We're smarter than lions, and it's possible for us to have wild spirits without giving up the benefits of modernity, and without disconnecting from reality. Figuring out how to do this will be humanity's next big challenge.
September 28. Before I start this week's big subject, I want to comment on something posted yesterday to the subreddit, a series of eleven photographs of wild stuff taking over ruins, titled Nature against Civilization. I don't view it as a conflict -- I see an artistic collaboration between nature and human builders to create beauty that neither could create alone. Both are trying to create something useful to their world, not with hostility but with indifference to the needs of the other world. But nature knows how to use the human world without actively destroying it, and humans are not good at that yet. Now...
Motivation Part 1: the hierarchy of needs. All this month I've been thinking about motivation, the inner drive to do stuff. As I get older, motivation is the one psychological skill that doesn't get any easier. It might even be getting harder.
I can explain this in terms of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs: the higher you are in the pyramid, the more motivation is a problem. So if you're starving, your only problem is finding food, and the issue of motivation doesn't even arise. But if you're well fed and comfortable and have a decent social role, motivation might be your only problem.
If motivation comes from urgency of need, and you're totally unmotivated to do something, then you should ask yourself whether you really need it. Maybe you just don't fully understand that you need it. For example, you might be unmotivated to eat better and exercise until you almost die of a heart attack. This reminds me of the line from William Blake: "If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise."
Or maybe your lazy self is right: you can't motivate yourself to do that thing because it's not something you would actually enjoy, only something your culture tells you is cool.
The top of Maslow's pyramid is "self-actualization", which sounds like a 1970's fad. Maslow died in 1970 and he had already changed his mind and said the top of the pyramid should be "self-transcendence". A traditional culture might say the top of the pyramid is honoring your ancestors. Elon Musk would say it's colonizing space. Is there a correct answer, or is it pure cultural relativism? Maybe each culture fills the top of the pyramid with whatever best perpetuates that culture, so the top level is just a projection of the respect and belonging levels below it.
September 25. It's been a while since I've written about entertainment. Leigh Ann and I finally finished watching the entire series of House MD. If I were in charge, at the end of every episode they would find a final anomaly that disproved the diagnosis that cured the patient, and the patient would go home and they would never, ever have an airtight answer. Because that's how reality works. (And if you know the Enneagram, I would make House a 5w4 not a 5w6.)
More recently we've been watching Sense8, the Netflix series by the Wachowskis, and it's pretty terrible. The big ideas are good but the writing is on the emotional level of a twelve year old, with adult themes and profanity so I don't know who the audience is supposed to be. Episode 9 is one of the worst things I ever sat through. But an earlier episode had a great line about drugs: "Drugs are like shoes: everyone needs them, but they don't always fit."
On that subject, I've mentioned before that alcohol doesn't work for me. It makes me chatty because I lose awareness that what I have to say is not interesting, and I never get any euphoria. But I like the taste so I'll often drink a few sips of wine or half a beer. I love marijuana but only if I'm above a . Here's a funny 1-10 high scale where someone just took the medical pain scale and replaced the words, so don't take it too literally but it's surprising how well it fits. Read it bottom to top.
Anyway, to get that high I have to wait about two weeks between each session, and I always listen to music because I can hear it much better. A week ago I made a chronological mix of my favorite hits from when I was a teenager, and discovered some things: 1) The Go-Go's have really interesting voices. 2) Duran Duran sucks. 3) King of Pain by the Police is the best mixed song I've ever heard. 4) Most 80's new wave was just watered down Gary Numan.
September 23. More technology links. What Happens Next Will Amaze You is a dumb title for a well-made text-and-image version of a great talk by Maciej Ceglowski about internet surveillance and how to fix it. He suggests six reforms: 1) the right to download what companies have on you; 2) the right to delete it; 3) a 90 day limit on storing behavioral data; 4) the right to disconnect devices from the internet and they still work; 5) a ban on data collection by third party ad networks; 6) voluntary enforceable privacy promises, which would lead to competition in privacy.
There's also some good criticism of the techno-elite and how San Francisco has terrible poverty despite all the internet money: "You wouldn't hire a gardener whose houseplants were all dead. But we expect that people will trust us to reinvent their world with software even though we can't make our own city livable."
How to Rebuild an Attention Span is about a video game that "helped reverse signs of aging in the brains of players." Of course there's no link where you can play the game. In the coming years I expect virtual reality self-improvement to get more and more powerful, and to fall into two categories: clinically tested stuff that most of us can't afford, and free stuff that you have to test on your own.
Here's the Hacker News comment thread on that article, and the top comment argues that we don't need the game because meditation works just as well. This ignores human psychology. Meditation is great for people who value self-discipline. (I changed my mind about it being related to social status, because there's not much overlap between meditators and self-promoters.) But if games can have similar benefits, then those benefits are available to people who just want to have a good time.
By the way, I practice two kinds of meditation. One is to try to keep my mind empty of thoughts for as long as possible. I only do this when I can't sleep, and it usually puts me out within ten minutes. (Not that I can blank my mind for ten minutes. It's more like two seconds hundreds of times.) The other is mindfulness, which is hard to explain, but Charles Tart has written some great books about it, including Mind Science and Living the Mindful Life. I've figured out a great mindfulness hack: I imagine that my stream of experience is the POV in a music video.
September 21. A couple years ago I started donating blood, mostly because I suspect it's good for my health; and it could be a coincidence, but since then I've been accidentally cutting myself less often. Yesterday for the first time I did double red cells, and it was fun watching the machine drain my blood, separate it, and pump the plasma and platelets back in. But my brain is still not working well and posting this week will be light. Today, some links about technology.
Wonderful widgets: components become more elegant with software that produces the most efficient shape. (Thanks Erik.) The title explains the article but you have to click on it to see how much more beautiful the computer-designed components are. This reminds me of the idea that any sufficiently advanced civilization is indistinguishable from nature.
Related: Edward Snowden: we may never spot space aliens thanks to encryption, because when encryption gets good enough, the signals are indistinguishable from random cosmic background radiation. Now I'm thinking, what if all randomness is actually well-encrypted meaning? Maybe our brains are nothing more than decryption keys.
September 17. I don't plan to post again until next week. Some fun stuff for the weekend: The mystery of Devil's Kettle Falls is about a big waterfall that goes into a hole, and nobody can figure out where the water goes. Compounding the strangeness is that this happens immediately after the river splits in two. It's like the river is a quantum function that can go two ways, and one way stays here and the other way leads to another universe.
And three reddit links. Homeless people's dogs are always the best behaved dogs, with some good explanations in the short comment section. By the way, my position on homelessness is they should legalize it.
There's a cure for ringing ears. It only works temporarily, but if you keep doing it, it might lead to long-term improvement.
Finally, I'm cynical about how much difference the President can make, but sometimes the biggest improvements come from decisions that seem trivial at the time. Jimmy Carter made the American microbrew industry possible by legalizing the selling of malt, hops, and yeast to home brewers for the first time since Prohibition.
September 14. More stray links. I like to remind people about No Tech Magazine. Despite its name, it's about how wonderful technology can be when it's used right, which usually involves a mix of old and new ideas. A few weeks ago there was a nice book excerpt about why trains are the best aid to thought.
Also on the subject of transportation, Public Transit Should Be Uber's New Best Friend. It's a lot of words and numbers for a simple idea: if you need a car a hundred times a year, it's cheaper to own a car, but if public transit is so good that you only need a car five times a year, it's cheaper to not own a car and use Uber.
Last week on reddit there was a great comment about how war fucks you up. I used to think deadly violence by independent agents was better than deadly violence by people obeying orders, because, well, acting independently is better than obeying orders. But that ignores human psychology: people who kill and feel good about it are dangerously mentally ill and need to be locked up, while soldiers quickly become cynical about the value of killing, as they should be.
From the BBC, The best and worst ways to spot a liar. The worst way is by trying to read body language, and the best way is by asking questions until the lies break down. Of course this only works if the people asking the questions have higher social status than the liars, otherwise the liars can just refuse to answer.
Finally, after Roberta Vinci, a 300-1 underdog, knocked off Serena Williams in the US Open, she gave this great post match interview. The best bit is where the interviewer asks what made her think she could win, and she just says "No." She never expected to win and had already scheduled her flights assuming she would lose. This debunks an annoying motivational doctrine, that success comes from believing in success. More often it's the other way around: success comes from letting go of results and focusing on the process.
September 11. Bunch o' links. I just wrote this comment on the ask men over 30 subreddit, about how the world has changed during my life. Here's me being grumpy:
More and more products are advertised for what they don't have instead of what they have. Everything is this-free and that-free. It troubles me that the word "free", which is supposed to mean something like wildness, is now used for puritanism. "Woo-hoo, the wind is blowing through my hair because of my dietary restrictions!" And what's with all these food allergies anyway? Whether or not they're psychosomatic, something new is causing them.
Also on the subject of food, I knew it! Why salad is so overrated.
This probably won't amount to anything, but it's cool: Physicists Show Molecules Made of Light May Be Possible.
More science: a great long article about the discovery of Homo naledi, a new human-like species remarkable for its small head, long legs, and abundant skeletons. The best part of the story is they had to recruit very skinny people with scientific credentials to get into the cave where the bones were discovered.
Finally, this is one of the best articles ever posted to the subreddit: Why boring cities make for stressed citizens. There's stuff about how we're biologically adapted for complex environments, how rats in stimulating environments are much smarter, and a bit at the end about how boredom might be good for us. I just got the idea that boredom is like drugs: it's good in moderation, and with the right set and setting.
September 9. [permalink] After my August 31 post, a reader thought I wanted to fool myself into being happy. I'm going to continue to use the term "feeling good" because it's both broader and clearer than "happiness". And if it makes sense to fool myself into feeling good, then of course I don't want to do it. But what if it doesn't make sense? What's the difference between real feeling good and fake feeling good? It's not the feeling itself. It's that feeling good is supposed to be a secondary effect of living well. Okay, then what is the purpose of living well? I think it ultimately comes back around to feeling good -- or if there's something more than that, it's in the realm of metaphysics.
My thesis, in its most shocking form, is that all morality and meaning are grounded in hedonism or God. But I have to qualify that because "God" implies a human form and I'm thinking of something more like the Tao. And "hedonism" implies feeling good in a short-sighted way -- the hedonist gets drunk without full awareness of the hangover.
But imagine omniscient hedonism: seeking all kinds of feeling good, in all life, for all time, and all in balance. This is my idea of the immanent Divine -- the deeper intelligence or algorithm that is identical with the world. The transcendent Divine, if it exists, would be an unseen larger world served by this world, probably by making it feel good in ways beyond our understanding.
So hedonism and God, if defined broadly enough, overlap into the same thing. Where does this leave other sources of morality and meaning? Well, it's hard to keep track of the good feelings of all life everywhere, so we take shortcuts, like "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Most moral shortcuts are not so benign. Ideology is what happens when our minds get so fixated on an idea that we forget why it's supposed to be valuable. It feels good to focus your mind to a point, but when this mixes with morality or meaning it leads to tragedy. Think of your favorite nutcase fundamentalists and all the harm they would do if they had more power.
Ideology can be deconstructed by "doing the math": explaining precisely how this value or goal leads to feeling good all around. (To quote Neil Young, love and only love will break it down.) We can never do this perfectly, but just trying to do it keeps us grounded in reality. And it's good to start with our own feelings because we know them more reliably than the feelings of others.
Going back to the original point: if feeling good is the source of all meaning, is there any reason not to game the system, to use drugs or other hedonic shortcuts? One reason is if you're in a position of power, because you need to be tuned into the feelings of the people affected by your decisions. But in the modern political system, who has any power? If you have no power even over your own life, there is no reason not to feel good through drugs. This is why drug addiction is not a moral issue but a political issue: the less socially connected you are, the more likely it is that disconnected good feeling is your best choice.
Even in Utopia, there's a place for good feeling that's disconnected from the outer world, because you're still connected to an inner world. This opens up a whole new subject: the difference between using a drug (a game, a show, a song, a fantasy, an idea) to explore your inner world, or to avoid exploring it. If you trust yourself to make this decision, you have more fun.