"He hauled in a half-parsec of immaterial relatedness and began ineptly to experiment."
-James Tiptree Jr
December 7. Stray links, starting with a new issue of The Whippet, with a discussion of "aha moments". Studies show that the experience of suddenly understanding something, makes you more likely to believe that thing is true. This leads to a strategy where, if someone wants you to believe something, they give you hints instead of telling you straight out.
Lots of cool stuff in this r/Psychonaut thread, Weird events take place when you are tripping, right? There's a big sub-thread about electronics malfunctioning, and I've read elsewhere that people who have had near-death experiences, often have continuing problems with electronics. My crazy theory is that modern technology is not just miraculous, but literally miraculous, and a different mental state can break the spell.
From r/AskOldPeople, a thread about the world getting better, What generational trauma have you ended?
More getting better, Results are in from one of the world's biggest experiments in fighting poverty. A charity gave different versions of an unconditional income to villagers in Kenya, and results suggest that universal works better than non-universal, unconditional works better than conditional, and a lump sum works better than a gradual payment.
The UBI is often misunderstood as a way for everyone to do nothing all day. But most people love being busy, and a UBI would allow more people to be busy on their own terms. Related, from r/AskReddit, People who wouldn't quit their job even if you won the lottery, what's your job?
December 4. Continuing on authenticity, Imre comments:
I feel like I need to grab this word in the context where I mostly hear it being used nowadays - authentic experience. And in this sense, the mere fact that such a construct came into being and is widely used, it speaks of the extreme deficiency of the real that people are suffering.
I was overlooking the problem of authentic experience, because I have a weird practice that most people don't have: aggressive appreciation of nature. This is something I learned to do on psychedelics, and now I do it all the time. Just walking around the city, whenever my eyes aren't needed to navigate, they're in the trees. Even watching TV, my gaze will wander from boring human scenes to landscapes in the background.
And it occurs to me, this is a learned skill. Telling an authenticity-hungry person to look at trees is like telling a depressed person to cheer up. It's not something you can just do without building a foundation of knowing how to do it. Before something can be experienced as authentic, it must first be experienced as not alien.
Another place to find authenticity is by feeling your own body from the inside -- but again, you have to learn how to do it, and it's harder than looking at nature, because your body gives you pain.
On a different tangent, I was trying to think of an example of a website with low bullshit and high misinformation -- one where people present themselves without a lot of filtering, and where there's a lack of verifiable facts. And I've actually been hanging out on such a site recently: the Spirituality subreddit.
A week ago there was a thread with some great answers to the question, What Is Your Purpose In Life?
And from another thread, an exceptional comment, Effects of sex work on the spiritual body. A key paragraph:
When I was actively doing sex work, it has given me psychosomatic illnesses like you cannot even imagine. Some days I couldn't get out of bed because my body wouldn't move at all even though I felt completely healthy in my mind. I had close to 4 months of severe labyrinthitis after a traumatic experience. I learned to dissociate with my body and I would black out in the middle of a sentence sometimes and come right back to fight or flight mode once awake. Sex work gave me ptsd and anxiety that I still am trying to heal to this day.
December 1. Merriam-Webster's 2023 word of the year is authentic, and at the top of that article is who else, Taylor Swift, the world's most authenticity-deprived person. I'm sure, if you really know her, she's as authentic as anyone -- because authenticity is everywhere. The problem is not source but distribution.
Or, authenticity is not a thing but a relationship, in which both parties have to do work: the perceived must let go of what other people expect, and the perceiver must integrate the unexpected. The perceived lets down a filter and the perceiver adjusts one. This is hard, and the bigger the crowd, the harder it is -- especially if professional media get involved, because they profit by making the content more easily digestible. At the highest level of fame, the only way to pass the filter is to be completely unsurprising, or to do something wrong.
The opposite of authenticity is bullshit, a.k.a. propaganda. Not only is this different from misinformation, they're sort of opposites. Any source with a tight filter against weirdness, is also likely to have a tight filter against factual incorrectness. So CNN is high in bullshit and low in misinformation, while some websites are low in bullshit and high in misinformation. Misinformation spoofs authenticity, merely by being different than the information provided by propaganda. When people are so hungry for authenticity that they embrace misinformation, I wonder if they're looking at screens too much, and they need to go outside and look at trees.
By the way, the kind of bullshit I notice most is in emotional reactions, and you can see this both on the news and in fiction. In the very first episode of Succession, when the kids all think their mean billionaire father is about to die, they don't shed a tear but get straight to scheming. In season four, when he finally dies, their reactions are Hollywood boilerplate. On IMDB, it's the highest rated episode.
Also by the way, I've tried to listen to Taylor Swift, and I find her music impressively uninteresting. I've heard that when Jimi Hendrix was living in London, he would go see bands every night, and he could learn something from the worst band in the world. What I haven't heard, but I'm sure it's true, is that you can learn more from an amateur band, than a polished successful band. Human perception contains two opposite motives, one for surprise, and one for recognition, and Taylor Swift has taken recognition to a new level of purity.
November 29. One more negative link. Henry Kissinger, War Criminal Beloved by America's Ruling Class, Finally Dies
November 29. And some negative tech links, starting with a minor one, Smart drugs reduce quality of effort, and slow decision-making. That link goes to the Hacker News thread, in which everyone already knew that smart drugs make you dumb and productive.
Reddit thread from a few weeks ago, What's the most dystopian thing happening right now that we never thought could happen just 25 years ago? "Robots are composing poetry and painting art-pieces while the minerals for the devices said robots are made out of are mined by human children."
The transcript of a Charlie Stross talk, We're sorry we created the Torment Nexus. It's about how sci-fi has influenced technology and culture, usually in a bad way, and especially when the authors were trying to warn us. "Did you ever wonder why the 21st century feels like we're living in a bad cyberpunk novel from the 1980s? It's because these guys read those cyberpunk novels and mistook a dystopia for a road map."
Who are "these guys"? This Douglas Rushkoff piece explains: the unbearable hubris of Musk and the billionaire tech bros. "Their words and actions suggest an approach to life, technology and business that I have come to call 'The Mindset' -- a belief that with enough money, one can escape the harms created by earning money in that way."
November 27. Today, some technology links. I still think the overall influence of modern technology has been harmful, but I like picking out the good ones.
The Cassette-Tape Revolution is about how powerful and radical it was, when we got an overwritable medium that anyone could use. There's also some stuff about how it made music better.
New study finds ChatGPT gives better advice than professional columnists. This is something that Philip Dick predicted, especially in We Can Build You.
Ultra-white ceramic cools buildings with record-high 99.6% reflectivity
The world's 280 million electric bikes and mopeds are cutting demand for oil far more than electric cars
To Free The Baltic Grid, Old Technology Is New Again. It's about the growing use of very heavy spinning things to smooth out frequency and voltage.
An artificial glacier growing in the desert. This is so low-tech the Romans could have done it. Water from melting glaciers is piped through gravity to a lower elevation, where it sprays in the air and freezes in a giant cone of ice that melts to provide water in the dry months.
November 26. A few days late, but this is my recipe for unsweetened cranberry sauce. Take one 12oz bag of cranberries, and throw out all the squishy ones. Put the rest in a food processor or powerful blender with one apple, cored and cut into chunks, one orange, peeled and cut into chunks, and a half cup tart cherry juice. Other juices could be substituted, especially if you want it sweeter, but I don't think orange juice would work. Using the lowest setting you can get away with, grind it all up and you're done.
November 21. Today I was planning to write about science, and how some people believe in it like a religion. Maybe another time. Instead, I want to apply multi-level knowing to motivation. Chris tells the story of how he struggled for years to go to the gym, and now, after making multiple changes to make it easier, he looks forward to it.
I now "know" going to the gym is good, whereas before I just didn't. Previously, I hadn't truly internalized why or how going to the gym was good, nor that it was realistic for me. Now that I've actually started doing it, it's no longer possible for me to avoid "knowing" that going to the gym is good. The results speak for themselves.
Three weeks ago I described self-discipline as internalizing the dominator, splitting yourself into two, where one forces the other to do stuff. But highly productive people are not actually doing that, or they would get burned out. I wrote about this in 2019 in this post, Why willpower is overrated.
The other way to get yourself to do stuff, is to have an expanded sense of self, such that you know that what you're doing will help you. But propositional knowing doesn't work. At best it just gives you fuel for self-domination. And deeper understanding, that what you're doing will help your larger self, is really hard -- at least for me. I forced myself to floss for over 20 years before I started to enjoy it, and only because, in that time, I skipped two nights and lost two teeth.
Related: We're watching a new TV show called The Curse. It's painfully dark and relentlessly awkward, but well done, with great music and a timely theme. It's about a young wealthy couple who gentrify a neighborhood while making a TV show about it. On the propositional level, they totally care about poor people and want to help them. But on a deeper level, they're selfish and so clueless that they make things worse. My point is, choosing what to think is easy; understanding is really hard.
November 19. I have more to say about belief. First, zooming out from the original question: Why would you want to make yourself believe something? It has to be because you want to do something, and you think belief will help. Will it?
Now I want to bring in John Vervaeke's concept of the four kinds of knowing, which I summarized in this post in 2020. Here, my point is that one kind of knowing, propositional knowing, is so overrated by modern culture, that we forget about other kinds of knowing.
In 2019 I struggled to define confidence, and concluded that it's not the intellectual belief that you will succeed, but something deeper, which I described as "your energy leaning forward". Now I would say: to the extent that confidence is helpful, it is not propositional, but you could still call it a "belief" on another level.
I wonder about the New Age idea that beliefs create reality. It's clearly false, but maybe that's only because we're believing propositionally, and if you can get down to the sub-propositional level, your beliefs have real power. Consider the non-human world, which is full of miracles and totally devoid of propositional knowing.
The internet is full of rational arguments, acting like they're in charge, but usually people decide what to believe for non-rational reasons, and then cook up the argument. My point is, your propositional mind is mainly just along for the ride. At worst it can block you from the right move. At best it can tell you where to put your energy. It can navigate, and maybe steer, but not push.
If you're my age, you might remember a cartoon called The Adventures of Gulliver. Gulliver is a regular sized guy who runs around an island of tiny people, who often cling to his shoulders as he tries to do things. One of them is a pessimist named Glum, whose catch phrase is "We'll never make it." Gulliver could listen to Glum, and give up, or he could listen to a tiny person who is saying something more encouraging. But in the end, he doesn't have to listen to any of them. He just has to do the thing.
November 17. I get a lot of ideas for this blog from readers. A week ago I met Conner for coffee, and he gave me a good hard question: How do you make yourself believe something?
After some thinking, this is my answer. First, you have to want the belief. Then, you have to feed it. You could feed it intellectually, by reading and thinking about it. You could feed it socially, by hanging out with people who believe it. You could feed it with sense experience, by noticing when it matches the belief. Or you could feed it with emotions, just by feeling good about it.
Loosely related, The Truth is Always Made of Details. It's about the value of zooming in, something you can easily do with your senses, and you can also do it with ideas. But...
The Information Age is clearly pushing us towards low-res conclusions on questions that warrant deep, long, high-res consideration. Consider our poor hominid brains, trying to form a coherent worldview out of monetized feeds made of low-resolution takes on the most complex topics imaginable.... Unsurprisingly, amidst the incredible volume of information coming at us, there's been a surge in low-res, ideologically-driven views.
And some music for the weekend, a really nice new indie folk album, forestlike.
November 15. Today's subject is religion. I've tried to define it in other posts, and last week I got a couple emails from a reader who took a shot at defining it, and he included something that never occurred to me: A religion almost always has a special person at the center, Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad. I still don't want to make that a necessary part of my definition, because thinking that way about a human would be a big turnoff if I were to join a spiritual community.
Lately a lot of people are reporting having an existential crisis. From that article:
Existential crises are often seen as a phenomenon associated specifically with modern society. One important factor in this context is that various sources of meaning, such as religion or being grounded in one's local culture and immediate social environment, are less important in the contemporary context.
I'm not sure what I'm grounded in, something inside me I guess. I see my internal world as friendly and the human-made world as hostile. My anxiety is about people getting mad at me for doing it wrong, which has happened many times, or my money running out and having to be inauthentic to beg for a job.
Thanks Andy for sending this new paywalled piece, Where Does Religion Come From? This is a radical statement for the NY Times: "that atheist materialism is too weak a base upon which to ground Western liberalism in a world where it's increasingly beset." The author, Ross Douthat, distinguishes three aspects of religion: 1) the personal desire for meaning; 2) "the societal need for a unifying moral-metaphysical structure"; 3) the mysterious origin of religion in uncanny experience.
One way to get at this weirdness is to look at situations where there's a supernatural experience without a pre-existing tradition that makes sense of people's experiences and shapes their interpretations. By this I mean that if you have a mystical experience in the context of, say, a Pentecostalist faith-healing service or a Roman Catholic Mass, you are likely to interpret it in light of existing Christian theology. But if you have a religious experience "in the wild," as it were, the sheer strangeness is more likely to come through.
From there, he goes into UFO sightings! UFOs are not exactly in the wild, but in the firm context of the modern story of outer space as the realm of the unknown. A good book on this subject is Passport to Magonia by Jacques Vallee, and there's a promising book I haven't read yet, UFOs: Reframing the Debate.
November 13. A few quick health links, starting with mental health. This subreddit post references a post I made in 2020, and adds a new report about talking to the subconscious.
Why You Should Talk to Yourself in the Third Person
Why walking backwards can be good for your health and brain
And the unexpected benefits of sun exposure. The basic advice is to get moderate sun and avoid burning.
November 10. Trippy stuff for the weekend. Earlier this week was probably the thread of the year on Reddit, For those who have careers that keep them out at sea for long periods of time, what is the creepiest thing you've seen out in the water?
Hilarious r/psychonaut thread, Has anyone actually tripped on nutmeg? "Wasn't fun, spent 3 days in hospital for the equivalent high you'd get from being a house over from a guy watching a Snoop Dogg video."
And I've posted this before, from 2005, Rudy Rucker's mind-blowing Reality is a Novel theory:
If we fully know everything about the Now moment, we know the entire past and future. With this in mind, explaining any given draft of the universe becomes a matter of explaining the contents of a single Now moment of that draft. This in turn means that we can view the evolution of the successive drafts as an evolution of different versions of a particular Now moment.
I disagree with his assumption that physics is deterministic. Reality might be deterministic on a level deeper than physics, but physics itself says no such thing. Not only is quantum physics non-deterministic, but this article, The Dome, expains how "even quite simple Newtonian systems can harbor uncaused events."
November 8. Monday's post was inspired by a book I just read, Hospicing Modernity by Vanessa Machado de Oliveira. Now I'm wondering about the difference between the critique of "modernity" and the critique of "civilization". I don't think we're talking about two different things, but two different semantic strategies for talking about the same thing.
Calling it civilization turns our attention to things that are thousands of years old: cities, money, violent conquest. Anti-civ discussions are often hypothetical and puritanical: What would we have to give up -- or force other people to give up -- in order to save the world?
Calling it modernity turns our attention to cognitive habits that are only a few hundred years old, and invites us to examine and change our own ways of thinking. Morris Berman has written some great books on this subject, starting with The Re-enchantment of the World.
A key quote from Hospicing Modernity: "The end of modernity may not manifest primarily as economic or ecological collapse, but as a global mental health crisis where the structures of modernity within us start to crumble."
I think the crumbling started 250 years ago with Romanticism, which rejected modernity's rationalism, while intensifying its individualism. So we're not looking at one monolithic thing, but an ongoing negotiation among a bunch of things. I don't see the future as a return to the past, or a transcendence to a new level, but a continuing exploration of the landscape of the human potential.
November 6. Today's subject, modernity and doom. We have used too many levels of abstractions and now the future looks bleak. It's not well written but it makes an important point:
In e.g. software development, too many specialists have been abstracted away and replaced by tools and automation and fewer and fewer people understand anything even one layer directly beneath the layer they are working on. This is a major problem because we will eventually reach a point in which very few people can fix anything in the layers below.
My rude-ass car is about all the new features that are supposed to make cars more safe and convenient, and instead they make the driving experience frustrating.
China's Age of Malaise is a long article mainly about how bad their dictator is, and while this is true, America is also in an age of malaise and we don't even have a dictator yet.
Great Reddit thread, Is there anywhere in the world someone can just live for free? What people mean by "live for free" is the same thing I mean when I say my highest value is free time. I want to have fewer relationships with modern society.
For the last few hundred years, humans have been experimenting with a radical new way of thinking and living, based on individualism, competition, number and measure, predictability and control, linear progress, and naive ideas about quality of life. Life is getting better in the most simple-minded and obvious ways, at the expense of many subtle ways that life is getting worse, and because our culture doesn't show us these things, we don't know why we're unhappy.
The mainstream left is completely blind to this. The right can feel it, but they don't know how to think about it, and they're unable to imagine any alternative except strong leaders backed by violence. So we're going to get more of those, as shit falls apart.
November 3. Stray links, starting with an interesting thread from r/psychonaut, Why is the lonely god thing so commonly experienced? The consensus is, because it's true, but we're still not quite understanding it from our limited perspective.
Some good news, the US community that banned cars, a new housing development outside Phoenix, that's designed so you can realistically live there without a car.
A nice thread on Ask Reddit, What is something you think Gen Z is doing right?
And a super-fun video that I discovered through bibliomancy, when my finger landed on the word "Lindy": Lindy Hop JnJ Finals. If you want more, here's the Lindy Hop scene from the 1941 movie Hellzapoppin.
November 1. Despite Monday's post, I actually do a lot of self-improvement, especially when I'm high. I like to walk around trying different ways of focusing my attention, and the latest thing I've learned is how to dodge people on the sidewalk. This happens a lot in the city: Someone is coming the other way, and it's not totally clear who's going to take which side. I've discovered that if I put the center of my vision somewhere else, and watch them with my peripheral vision, it's a lot easier to get it right.
Why has no one ever told me this? Probably other people are doing it subconsciously. My particular kind of brain damage is that my body has no autopilot. This makes me think back to P.E. class, in which I got no physical education whatsoever. I don't remember a single instruction about how to angle a body part, not even how to flip my wrist to throw harder, something a friend taught me when I was 30 years old, in ten minutes.
Imagine it's your first day of math class. The teacher says, instead of doing boring math instruction, we're just going to go straight to the test. Everyone else in the class is a math genius, and they're all like, woo-hoo, a test! They're breezing through it and you're staring at the symbols completely clueless. At least they're not mean. They watch awkwardly and give you a decent grade for effort. This happens every day for ten years.
Now I walk past homeless people and wonder, how much better would they be doing, if they had got the right kind of basic personal attention when they were five years old, instead of being put through the meat grinder of public schooling? Related: a Hacker News thread on Home schooling.
Anyway, now that I'm old, I have to give a lot of attention to body mechanics to stay ahead of chronic injuries. I finally worked out the formula for good posture, and it's not at all intuitive: firm stomach and tucked chin. The tucked chin forces me to keep my breastbone raised.
I also practice basic moves with my arms or legs, and I've noticed a difference between the two sides of my body. My left side is like a guy in a suit of armor, confident but stiff and clumsy; my right side is like a wounded cat, agile but wavery and hesitant. So I'll alternate a move between the left and right, and try to work out the best of both.
October 30. Three links about doing nothing. The Joy Of Being A Spiritual Loser is a video about how the modern values of productivity and striving have influenced spiritual practices that are supposed to be about relaxing and letting go.
A blog post, Staring at a Wall: Embracing Deliberate Boredom.
And an article about desert island tourism, which sounds like a lot of work and money to get something you could get for free, a quarter mile off the highway in any national forest. People sometimes ask me about Chris McCandless, and while I like the general idea of what he was trying to do, he could have just done it in Montana or something. It was the culture of striving, which he failed to escape, that drove him so deep into Alaska that he couldn't go for help.
On a related subject, I've been thinking about the question: What do Americans boast about? We never boast about being rich, unless it's in the context of boasting about how much poverty we climbed out of. And we don't boast about luck -- if someone says they're lucky, they're being modest, saying their success did not come from being better than other people. I think luck is a real thing that can be cultivated, but when Americans say "I make my own luck," they mean something completely different: that they don't believe in luck so they succeed through hard work.
"Hard work" is the main thing Americans boast about. But who counts as a hard worker? A CEO who does nothing all day but make snap decisions? A fanfic author who puts in a lot of hours for a tiny audience and no money? Surely a full-time janitor is a hard worker. How about someone who spends the same amount of time cleaning stuff, but unobserved and unpaid? What about a chain gang worker, also unpaid, who breaks the biggest rocks? Who's a harder worker, someone who works in a munitions factory, or someone who puts in the same hours building bombs in their garage?
People will answer these questions differently. But I think the general consensus is that "hard work" is a social activity, a performance of obedience to the dominant system.
Another thing Americans boast about is self-discipline, by which they mean internalizing the dominator: "When I was a kid, parents and teachers forced me to do stuff I didn't feel like doing. Now that I'm grown up, I force myself to do stuff I don't feel like doing." I mean, this is a necessary skill to not end up a homeless addict. But I don't think it's something to be proud of, I think it's a tragedy. There are eight million species in the world and only one has this problem, and only recently.
October 25. Continuing on the lack of voluntary mutual aid groups, Devon writes:
I grew up Seventh-day Adventist, a Protestant religion that is more organized than a lot of other denominations.... I can go to almost any church in any state and find someone who has a mutual friend or knows some of the same people I do. Even if I don't find anyone with a mutual acquaintance, I can generally get a free meal, place to stay for the night, help if I needed it.
And Adam writes:
I've been a sober AA member for about eight years, and exactly what you described is a major facet of the program's culture.... I find attending an AA meeting in another location I am visiting to be my favorite experience on trips. The fact that I am an AA gets me immediate welcome in any meeting anywhere. On my recent visit to Ireland, I went to a meeting and was treated like a special guest by strangers. The cool thing to experience is the immediate "tribal" recognition and welcome you get or give, and this transcends so many other cultural or socioeconomic differences that typically separate people.
It's interesting that both of these groups encourage belief in a higher power. I'm reminded of this post from 2019, and the posts that follow, where I wonder why there are no secular monasteries, and grapple with the definition of religion.
The word "religion" points to a lot of different things, and I'm increasingly thinking that one of them is important for our mental health: to see reality as something other than selfish rational agents in a meaningless physical universe. "Secular" is not a clean neutral ground, but an active way of thinking that can be bad for us.
Two books I'm reading right now that are helping me on this subject, and are surprisingly similar despite coming from completely different angles: Hospicing Modernity by Vanessa Machado de Oliveira, and Physics as Metaphor by Roger S. Jones.
October 23. Continuing from last week, Matt comments:
I'm sure a lot of communes have failed simply because they try to be all things to all people in some fixed location, and it's rare for humans to meet all their needs through a single community and/or place.
Which made me think about Indigenous Americans and clans. I don't know a lot about the clan system, but I know clans extended beyond tribes and nations. So you could leave your tribe, and maybe nation, and find someone else belonging to the same clan -- and bond with them through that affiliation.
This reminds me of something I read in a zine in the 90s, where a young traveler explained why she dressed like a punk, because anywhere she went, other punks might give her a ride or a place to stay; but if she dressed normally, normal people would not help her.
I wonder if there's anything like that now, where a chosen identity will get you help from strangers. There are immigrant communities, and also communities based on race and gender, but all of those are like tribe/nation, something you're born into, and not something you can choose. I think this lack of voluntary mutual aid groups is peculiar to this fragmented time, and one way or another, there will be more of them.