"He hauled in a half-parsec of immaterial relatedness and began ineptly to experiment."
-James Tiptree Jr.
January 17. No ideas this week, but some of you will like this article, "Home-Free" Man Lives in Sheep-Drawn Covered Wagon, Thrives on Mostly Milk and Wild Edibles. And here's his YouTube channel, 123Homefree.
Loosely related: Station Eleven: Where the end of the world is a vibrant, lush green. This reminds me of something I wrote back in 2008, in a brief review of Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road:
In reality, if there are dead trees, there will be grubs and insects eating the wood, and if there are dead humans, or living humans leaving shit, there will be flies, and if there are insects, there will be birds eating them, and feral cats eating the birds, and coyotes eating the cats. If there is enough sunlight to scan distant cities with binoculars, there will be enough for plants adapted to living in dense forests. There will be mosses, lichens, beetles, earthworms, and crows. McCarthy has excluded all these creatures for purely literary reasons.
January 14. Continuing from yesterday, Nightwalking is a classic article about the practice of walking around at night, without artificial light, focusing only on your peripheral vision. What I wrote the other day, whether or not it's true, is not a new idea. This was written in 1991: "Fear, anxiety and even physical pain are seemingly associated with focused vision, while peripheral processes engender relaxation and delight."
Last night I walked around shifting between soft and hard looking, and I noticed that it's easy to go suddenly from soft to hard, and then gradually from hard to soft, but it's difficult to do it the other way around.
Also, a reader comments: "You talk about attention, motivation, and focused awareness a lot, but you don't often talk about ADHD which is a biological dysregulation in controlling these things."
Yeah, I don't feel qualified to write about ADHD, because I basically have only one symptom, the one it's named after, that I don't have enough attention to go around for all the things in this world that demand my attention. And I think that's the world, and not me.
January 13. Wow, lots of responses to yesterday's second paragraph. Something I've linked to before, an animated video about Iain McGilchrist and the divided brain.
And Dominic quotes Scott Thybony's book Burntwater: "...the Navajos have two ways of looking at the landscape. One's with hard eyes and the other's with soft eyes. Hard eyes are used when looking for things like game, water, pop machines. Soft eyes are used to take in the beauty of the scene."
January 12. One more note on anxiety, and where the last post was based on science and personal experience, this is mainly speculation. I think that anxiety is correlated with a pattern of attention, in which you're small in space and big in time. For example, you're fixated on a single social media post, worrying that it will ruin your career, which can actually happen. Conversely, you can reduce anxiety by being big in space and small in time: focusing on your full sense experience in this moment.
I have a new exercise, when I'm going for a walk, where I alternate my visual attention between big and small. For a few seconds, I'll focus my mind on my full field of view, periphery to periphery, and then for a few seconds I'll focus on some tiny detail. Something I've noticed is, the big view feels better than the small view, but going small feels better than going big.
January 10. Today's subject is anxiety. Here are two transcripts of interviews with anxiety specialist Judson Brewer, one by Ezra Klein (paywalled) and one by Rich Roll (with transcribed ads).
The basic idea is, anxiety is something that your brain constructs. And the more time you invest in watching your brain in action, the more skill you have in consciously choosing what it does.
There's a lot of discussion of anxiety as a habit, and I've noticed the same thing. I have a physical habit, when I'm stressed out, of blinking my eyes really hard. It must have a genetic basis, because my grandmother did it all the time. The way to fix a physical bad habit, eye-blinking or teeth-grinding or whatever, is to build a meta-habit of noticing that habit, and immediately stopping it. This isn't just something you can decide to do -- you have to practice until you get good at it.
Telling a depressed person to just cheer up, is like telling an out-of-shape person that they can climb Mt. Everest by just walking uphill. That advice vastly underestimates the difficulty, but it's not wrong. One of my favorite sets of lyrics, Camper Van Beethoven's Lulu Land, has the line "How can you lose when you choose what you feel?" Choosing what you feel is probably harder than winning an Olympic gold medal or a Nobel Prize, because people have done those things while still being emotionally unhealthy. But I think it's possible.
Something I did last fall, which was surprisingly helpful for my mental health, was dogsitting with two neurotic dogs for more than two weeks. The way to clean up a dog's behavior is to give it plenty of attention, and the moment it starts to do something you don't like, immediately correct it. How exactly to discipline a dog is a huge subject, with plenty of room for error -- as is correcting your own mental behavior. But they're not that different.
There are TV shows and movies in which a person has multiple people inside their head. That's a valuable metaphor, but what the shows get wrong, to fit the medium, is making the people verbal. The stuff you have to notice, to straighten out your emotions, is pre-verbal. By the time your head is making words, it's too late.
January 7. Fun stuff for the weekend. First I want to recommend the new Netflix movie, Don't Look Up. Don't watch the trailer -- it has too many spoilers. All you need to know is that it's about a comet heading for the earth, and all the dumb things people do in response to it. Maybe the most interesting thing about the movie is Mark Rylance's performance as a billionaire tech guru. The character is absolutely a villain, but he's unlike any movie villain I've ever seen, and yet totally believable.
Thread on the Psychonaut subreddit, What if people on psychedelics aren't actually hallucinating? I was expecting dumb stuff about the machine elves being physically real, but it actually has a lot of thoughtful comments about how psychedelic mental states can be better than our default mental state.
By the way, a couple weeks ago I made tea out of seven dry grams of psilocybe cubensis and liberty cap, and the high was totally lame. The launch was a mildly unpleasant delirium, and on the plateau I went for a walk on a beautiful winter day and it wasn't any different from being sober, except that I was mentally foggy. Seriously, I've had better results from a 20th of a gram of weed -- except that two days after a mushroom trip, I always feel like the cobwebs have been cleaned out of my brain. But I can get that from one gram, so I think I'm done with large doses.
From yesterday, an Ask Reddit thread, People who used to not believe in the paranormal but do now - What experience changed your mind? It's mostly about ghosts. And it makes me wonder, suppose there are actually millions of ghosts floating around, and it's only a tiny fraction who make themselves known to the living.
Finally, I don't think I've ever posted NFL highlights, but this video is exceptional: Every One of Joe Burrow's 15 Touchdown passes of 30 yards or more. Burrow may turn out to be the most accurate passer of all time, and right now Ja'Marr Chase is the most dangerous receiver.
January 5. Again with the new year, I want to check in with the ongoing collapse. It's going pretty fast lately -- if you were to take the rate of change and breakdown over the last five years, and keep it going for a hundred years, it would be way more than in any hundred year period of the decline of Rome.
Maybe the rate of collapse will slow, but it can't turn around. The nonrenewable resources are almost gone, the climate is sliding into chaos, and our institutions are bloated and ossified. The skillbase is shrinking, to continue the world as we know it, as that world's needs increase.
But it would be a mistake to take a general forecast of decline, and project it on every place and every person. I have a hypothesis that a falling society is more granular than a rising society. If you go from town to town in the 2050's, or from neighbor to neighbor, you'll see bigger differences in how people are living, and how happy they are, than you would have seen in the 1950's. Already, during Covid lockdown, some people were having the worst time of their lives while other people were having the best.
One thing that would shift the whole bell curve toward worse, is if people are going hungry. But wherever there's enough food, I'm optimistic that human ingenuity will come up with some cool stuff. In the best places, they won't even tell the story of having gone through a crash, but of figuring out better ways to do things while the old ways died out.
It's fun to imagine what the world might look like in a few hundred years. Some things we could never guess, but I expect the population will have fallen, and because of that, there will be a lot of ghost towns and abandoned urban sprawl. The economy will not be based on exponential growth, unless it's hurrying toward another collapse. Will they be digging up our landfills for scraps, and reading our mouldering books for ancient wisdom, or will they have moved on to a way of life that doesn't need us?
January 2, 2022. The turnover of the year is a nice motivational tool to make changes, and there are different kinds of changes. When people talk about New Year's resolutions, they're usually talking about changing habits, or default behaviors. The main thing I want to work on this year is being more physically present in every moment. I'm making it a game, where I break my actions down to small things: open dishwasher, put spoon in, close dishwasher; and I count how many things I can do in a row before I mess up and have to do something twice. This includes typing without having to hit backspace all the time.
Another kind of change you can make is in your priorities for living. The last couple years I've been thinking more about death, which generally feels like a relief. But the closer I get to understanding it, the more I see that I really don't want to die -- I want to continue living with no responsibilities. So that's my number one priority from here on: to minimize the number of things I have to do. Part of this is that I'll probably be blogging less, especially on hot-button subjects. Or, as I wrote last month in this thread: I used to want to be Gandalf, the famous wizard who saves the world. Now I want to be Radagast, the obscure wizard who hangs out with trees.
One thing I did in 2021 was get better at playing piano. I just follow whatever is fun to do with the keys, and I've ended up putting at least 50 hours into polyrhythms, before putting one hour into chord changes. My usual style is to park my fingers on the same keys for an entire piece and improvise. I have my favorite chords that I come back to, and over time I develop melodies and patterns that I come back to.
Over the holidays, I had a brief housesit at a house with a real piano. It's a bit out of tune, some of the keys are half-dead, and my recording system is super lo-fi, but it still sounds better than MIDI on my digital keyboard. So I recorded some stuff and ended up with three decent tracks. I call them Faewater, Jam in F, and Sunburst.
December 29. Unrelated links. "Autism is a Spectrum" Doesn't Mean What You Think. People think it's a gradient where you're more or less of one particular thing, when really it's more like the visual spectrum: farther along the spectrum from green isn't deeper green -- it's blue.
The article divides autism into seven things, where any given person might be high in one and low in another. Personally, whenever I take a test, I come out barely neurotypical, but probably where I'm the most autistic is neuromotor stuff. It takes an unreasonable amount of mental energy for me to keep track of where every part of my body is so I don't bump into stuff. It's also difficult for me to give anything a medium amount of attention -- I tend toward obsession or indifference.
The Mysterious Bronze Objects That Have Baffled Archaeologists for Centuries. Some people think they're calendars, or range-finders, but there's never any writing on them. Another guess is they're something metalworkers made to prove their skill. Update: Tim sends this video about using the device to knit glove fingers.
One of my big projects this year was transcribing the key chapter of an important out-of-print philosophy book, The Psychic Grid by Beatrice Bruteau. The chapter is called What is Real?
Also added to my readings and mirrors page, a fascinating doom speculation by mathematician Steven Strogatz, from 2013: Too Much Coupling
And some music. Surely my favorite song of 2021 will turn out to be something I haven't heard yet, but so far it's this live track from Big Blood's Quarantunes performance: 1000 Times.
December 27. I don't plan to have any new ideas until next year. Today, three minor science links.
Watching A Lecture Twice At Double Speed Can Benefit Learning Better Than Watching It Once At Normal Speed
Water drinking acutely improves orthostatic tolerance in healthy subjects. Translation: if you stand up and get a head rush, you're probably dehydrated.
If this is true, it's the best news ever: Bugs are evolving to eat plastic. But this Hacker News thread casts doubt on whether it's true, and there's also some speculation about plastic being eaten when we're still using it.
December 24. For the holiday, I want to write about Christianity. I was raised Catholic, and it occurs to me, I'm still more Catholic than I am Christian. It's not a coincidence that my favorite singer-songwriter, Colleen Kinsella, and my favorite sci-fi author, Roger Zelazny, are both ex-Catholics. Catholicism, more than any other spiritual tradition, knows how to make the woo-woo luminous.
Growing up, I always understood the idea of God, but the idea of Jesus never clicked for me. Now I identify as an esoteric monotheist, where "God" is the incomprehensible universal consciousness. But it doesn't make sense for that kind of God to have a son -- that would be more like Zeus.
If "the son of God" is pagan, then "died for our sins" is Dadaist. What do dying and sins even have to do with each other? A sin is a mistake, and the thing to do for a mistake is to be in the same situation and behave correctly. I know there's an ancient tradition of human sacrifice, where a person is killed to make things better, but that doesn't make it any less nonsensical. And yet, like unboxing videos, "The son of God died for our sins" resonates on a deep level with people of many cultures.
After I wrote some of the above in a Reddit comment, I had a dream, in which the actual message of Jesus was both difficult to understand and difficult to put into practice. So the early leaders of Christianity, seeking to grow their movement, changed it to an easier message. Of course dreams are not a reliable historical source, but probably that's what really happened, because that's what happens with everything famous.
My best guess is, Jesus was a guy with high spiritual intelligence who did a lot of mushrooms and had some great insights. "Judge not, that you be not judged" is probably the most useful advice ever given, and I love the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. For me, the crucifixion and resurrection are a metaphor, for how each one of us can transcend suffering by fully facing the pain before us.
Here's a Christmas song I haven't posted before, from 1965, The Sonics - Santa Claus. And the one I post every year, Steve Mauldin's Abominable O Holy Night.
December 20. A few notes on Las Vegas. The best food we had was the Korean-Mexican fusion at Best Friend. But the best restaurant overall was Superfrico, which had great food, interesting cocktails, and a really cool environment including a live DJ and performers who played saxophone and juggled right above our table. All for less than half the price of seeing Donny Osmond.
The best immersive environment was easily Omega Mart. It's like if a supermarket were designed by an AI, or by aliens. The whole place is packed with creativity, and I want to avoid spoilers, but behind the scenes it's even better. Impressionism was only invented 150 years ago, and already we have trippy art that you can go inside of.
What I found most interesting about Las Vegas in general was its advanced artificiality. Even where it's done without creativity, it's mind-boggling how many dollars and hours have been poured into shaping coarse matter into eye candy. This is something humans have been doing since ancient times, and we've never been this good at it.
You could make the argument that we will never again be this good at it, given that we've done it with nonrenewable resources and a social order that's losing its grip on human motivation. But I like to imagine that we've barely scratched the surface of our potential as world-builders.
I probably don't do as much LSD as I should, but when I do, I always get this insight: that compared to the beauty and complexity of nature, the human-made world is clunky and ugly, like toddlers playing with blocks.
At one store in The Venetian, I saw a six foot H.R. Giger-style alien sculpture, all made out of stainless steel machine parts. But if it were to actually work, the parts and their arrangement made no sense. I saw cool steampunk costume goggles, too fragile to be used as real goggles. The Conservatory at the Bellagio tried to make something beautiful out of living plants, and it was inferior to an actual forest, and also to many of the completely artificial environments nearby.
My point is, we have a lot of room to integrate the aesthetic with the functional. Deep in Omega Mart is a musical instrument whose strings are lasers, each making a different sound as you block it with your finger. Someday, when we've solved the paradox of labor-increasing technology, and we all have lots of time for creative projects, that kind of thing might be common.
And we have even more room to integrate the human-made and the non-human-made. Instead of an artificial tree with glowing leaves, we could have a real tree where the lights feed its photosynthesis. We could do sewage treatment by running the waste through dense arrangements of water-cleaning plants. And those are technologies that we already know about. What might we do in a thousand years, when we have morphic field generators, and silicon dendrites, and fractal-iterating fabricators?
Related, from 2012: Any Sufficiently Advanced Civilization is Indistinguishable from Nature
December 18. Just got back last night, and while I work on my next post, some happy links.
They say writers should write what they want to read, and mostly I do, but some of my favorite works of fiction have a certain vibe that I could never achieve, including John Crowley's Engine Summer, Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar, and most of all Hitoshi Ashinano's manga Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou. Thanks Alex for sending this fan page with download links, YKK Project.
Wolves make roadways safer, generating large economic returns to predator conservation. Related, from a Reddit comment in a thread about quicksand:
Wolves. Never a threat. Often encountered them doing field research in the Canadian wilderness. We could walk right through the middle of a pack. They'd trot over to our camp, lay down and just stare with a mild curiosity. Sometimes they'd have a bit of blood on their faces where it had been deep in a carcass but zero aggression towards us. Their cubs would play with anything dangling. After a while the pack would get up and just trot off as if 'nothing interesting here.'And some music. Some people find this unbearable, but I find it soothing: a loop of the Mr. Sandman intro.
December 11. Next week I don't expect to post because I'll be on vacation in Las Vegas. We're going for the immersive experiences including Omega Mart. I don't plan to do any gambling, and here's a good page of gambling simulators where you can test out a bunch of strategies and see that you'll still lose.
December 9. Smart article on decline (thanks Greg), America Is Running on Fumes. (That link is a paywall workaround. If it doesn't work, try this one.)
There's lots of stuff about the decrease in new ideas, why it's happening, and how to fix it. But my favorite part is about all the changes at the end of the 19th century:
Imagine going to sleep in 1875 in New York City and waking up 25 years later. As you shut your eyes, there is no electric lighting. There are no cars on the road. Telephones are rare. There is no such thing as Coca-Cola, or sneakers, or basketball, or aspirin. The tallest building in Manhattan is a church.
A quarter-century hibernation today would mean dozing off in 1996 and waking up in 2021... Compare "cars have replaced horses as the best way to get across town" with "apps have replaced phones as the best way to order takeout."
I think this is unfair, but it's also a really powerful idea, to look for 25 year periods where one kind of thing changed a lot. If you're lgbtq, you'd probably rather have the cultural changes from 1990-2015 than the technological changes from 1875-1900.
Or consider all the cultural inventions and openings from 1960-1985. If I could time travel to 1875, I'd rather have that upgrade, than the upgrade that actually happened. A world with punk rock and horses sounds pretty cool.
Of course, the tech changes were necessary for the cultural changes. The music of the 1960's required fully distributed phonographs and radios. And yet, phonographs and radios were around for decades before they drove a renaissance. So I'm wondering, what things have already been invented, that are still waiting for their golden age?
My bet is on psychedelics and transcranial brain-hacking. Future archaeologists, looking at physical artifacts, will surely see our century as one of decline. But if you can stay out of the worst places, it might be a good time to be alive.
December 6. Lately I'm feeling burned out on blogging. Sometimes people caring what I think is not worth people caring what I think, and that's becoming true for more subjects. But this is a cool subject (thanks Jed), Reality shifting: psychological features of an emergent online daydreaming culture.
RS, described as the experience of being able to transcend one's physical confines and visit alternate, mostly fictional, universes, is discussed by many on Internet platforms.... The experience of shifting is reportedly facilitated by specific induction methods involving relaxation, concentration of attention, and autosuggestion. Some practitioners report a strong sense of presence in their desired realities, reified by some who believe in the concrete reality of the alternate world they shift to.
Obviously these worlds aren't real, but it's interesting that there is a cultural trend of more intensive imagination. It's anyone's guess if this is a dead end, or if it's leading somewhere.
Related: a smart blog post from 2017, Reality has a surprising amount of detail. The same thing struck me after playing on the Oculus and then taking the garbage out. In VR, there's a limit to how deep you can zoom before you get to one pixel. In reality -- and you could even use this as a definition of reality -- no matter how deep you zoom, there's always more. That's why physicists will never find a final particle or a grand unifying theory.