"You know, I'm sick of following my dreams, man. I'm just going to ask where they're going and hook up with 'em later."
- Mitch Hedberg
August 17. Sorry for the volume of posts, but again I'll be busy tomorrow, and I want to go back to the subject of retirement while it's fresh in my head. A week ago I wrote a paragraph about why I'm less afraid of running out of money in retirement, because I have experience living dirt cheap, and that spawned this subreddit thread.
It's true, old people can't do what young people can do, and maybe I'll get some medical condition where I can't do anything. But that will ruin my life even if I'm rich.
Here's a thought experiment to explain my retirement strategy. Imagine that the neo-Nazis take over, and like the original Nazis, they aggressively enforce the activity-morality of industrial capitalism, in which high-activity people are considered morally superior to low-activity people. They enforce it so hard that we're all in work camps, and we'll be shot if we don't spend all day doing something useful like digging ditches, or something harmful like adding bloat to software.
Would I do the work? Well, I'd start out doing it, and gradually I'd try to get around it, and eventually I'd just say, fuck it, shoot me. Now take a step back, and notice how benign our society is compared to an actual work camp.
Ever since my first day of school, my number one priority has been to spend my days doing my own stuff at my own pace. The penalty? If I can't find a job with nothing to do all day (those jobs exist and most people don't like them), and if I don't get help from friends or family, and if I can't get some kind of public assistance, and if I get chased out of a squat house or a homeless camp right before a big freeze, then at last I'll die.
Or I could go to prison. Out of all the jobs in the world, picking up litter along highways seems like one of the best. You're outside, you're not forced to hurry, and you're free to daydream while doing something that clearly makes the world better. Even solitary confinement would at least give me lots of free time.
Retirement is about weighing costs. The cost of retiring earlier is, if I'm unlucky, my inevitable death will come sooner. The cost of continuing employment is, those years of my life are down the toilet, 100%.
August 16. Yesterday I called yard sale resellers "demonic", but the better word is machine-like. They have put aside their humanity to enter a mental space that is completely quantitative: how many monetary units can I buy this for, and how many can I sell it for? They might say they're doing a service, but if their intention was to do a service, they would not make lowball offers. And yet, they are doing a service -- one that could be done better by actual machines.
It would not require any new technologies, only improvement of existing technologies, to replace eBay and thrift stores and even garbage trucks with a legion of drones. You set out a pile of stuff, and they sort it into four categories: 1) Stuff that they will not even haul away unless you do something more. 2) Stuff that they will haul away to the landfill or incinerator or recycler. 3) Stuff that they'll bring to someone who wants it, but you won't get any money. 4) Stuff that they'll bring to someone who wants it and you'll both get a fair deal with no parasitic middleman.
But in that utopia, something would be lost, because without some radical new technology, machines can't recognize beauty, and many beautiful things would be miscategorized as trash and destroyed. Also, requesting an item from the Dronosphere is a completely different experience from falling in love with something that you never expected to see.
So the system we have now might be hard to improve on -- except that most of us have been forced to put aside our humanity and focus on money, just to get food and shelter. Hammering my favorite cause: with an unconditional basic income, falling into quantitative thinking would be optional, and people who do it could face harsher sanctions.
August 15. Funny story. Yesterday, after months of spending hundreds of hours going through many thousands of things that I've held onto for years without using them, I craved a pumpkin pie. I found a can of pumpkin and realized I didn't have a can opener. Despite having at least four USB to mini-USB adapter cables, we only have one can opener, and Leigh Ann has it in Pullman. So I dug around and found a multitool, so old that it was hard to open. I went out to my bike for my one and only bottle of lubricating oil, and it had completely emptied itself in a slow leak. Also I was out of milk because I've been too busy to go to the store. But I pried out the multitool can opener, threw in an extra egg, and the pie was okay.
Having a yard sale, you meet interesting people. The nicest folks are the ones who buy something old or pretty with no resale value, just because they like it. It's also great to sell clothing to someone who walks away wearing it. The worst people are the predatory eBayers who find the most screaming good deal in the entire sale and try to offer you even less. And the most pathetic buyers are obsessively fixated on one rare category of thing that is likely to be underpriced. When they don't find their constricted desire, they always ask if you have it inside the house and somehow haven't put it out.
I was struck by the personality differences between people buying stuff to use themselves, and people buying stuff to resell. Does money make us a little bit demonic, or does it merely attract people who are already that way? I like to think this would be cured by an unconditional basic income, but it wouldn't. Even people guaranteed comfortable survival can still get caught in the game of trying to turn a pile of abstract tokens into a larger pile.
August 14. There was a cool link on the subreddit yesterday about flying humanoid sightings over Chicago. Long before I was into social philosophy, I was into the paranormal, and it's probably the subject on which I know the most compared to the average person.
By now you've all seen that photo of the car running into protesters on Saturday. Its licence plate: GVF 1111. The number eleven appears strangely often in the context of... I want to say "weird stuff", but I haven't seen any weirdness in the car attack. It's more like, whatever uncanny power has its fingers in UFO's and monster sightings, also takes an interest in political spectacle. The 9/11 event also has some elevens, with both towers having 110 floors plus a 110 meter antenna, and irreconcilable reports suggesting two different flight 11's from Boston.
So I consider "conspiracy theory" a branch of the paranormal, but I don't imagine evil gods pulling strings. It's probably just our own collective subconscious playing games with us. And I haven't found any practical use for this stuff. Scientists are right to exclude the paranormal from science, because it cannot be reliably duplicated. But it would be wrong to exclude it from reality.
Our culture divides the issue into two rigid camps: the skeptics, who think it's all hoaxes and careless observations, no more real than Harry Potter, and the believers, who think it's as real as the Empire State Building, and sooner or later we will find proof. But the phenomena, sighting after sighting, year after year, relentlessly refute both positions.
My position: there is no thing or non-thing that is completely objective or completely subjective, no edifice on which all observers can sustain perfect agreement, and no dream on which two perspectives can't collaborate. "The Paranormal" is just what we call that segment of reality that reminds us of this continuum by refusing to be classified on one side or the other.
August 10. Posting early because I'll be busy tomorrow and all weekend with a yard sale. When I was traveling with my sister in Michigan, we talked about retirement, and she wondered: even though she has way more assets than me, plus a pension and Social Security which I won't be getting, why am I less worried about running out of money when I'm old?
I thought of a few answers, but the best single answer is that I have experience living a notch or two above the gutter. I've done it before, and I know I can do it again. Even if I don't have friends or family to help me out, I could rent a tiny apartment in some rust belt city, ride public transportation, get online at the library, eat bulk pinto beans and homemade bread, and still have enough money for small luxuries like pastured butter and Ardbeg Uigeadail.
Actually that sounds better than what I've been doing the last few months, digging out from under years of accumulating stuff. Looking through all of it, some of it was a massive waste, like the crossbow that I bought and sold and ended up paying about $20 for every time I shot it. Some of it was mixed, like the motorcycle that gave me the fun and confidence of riding a motorcycle, but also a concussion from the inevitable crash. The best investment, financially, has been my house, which has almost doubled in value in six years. But it's hard to think of a single thing I spent money on, that led me to a valuable and ongoing life path that I could not have taken without that thing.
Okay, there's weed -- but even that has been mixed. Tetrahydrocannabinol has given me priceless insights and creative powers, but it probably has something to do with my heavy motivational burden, where sometimes just getting up to fill my water bottle feels a little like doing my taxes. I'm now five weeks into a tolerance break, and given that I've always struggled with motivation, I'm probably back to normal.
I've had to push back the release date of my novel, after several smart people couldn't make sense of it. It still makes way more sense than James Joyce, and I don't want to write the next Harry Potter, but I decided to add some stuff to make it marginally accessible or it won't have any readers at all.
Some music for the weekend. Leigh Ann has been catching up on post-punky stuff from the last few years, and I love this 2016 track by a French duo, Heimat - Pompei.
August 9. Today, some stuff from email. Greg comments on Monday's post:
I have a book called The Un-TV and the 10 mph Car. It's full of weird experiments the reader is implored to actually perform. One of the first is standing in a public place without doing anything.
It sounds easy but you cannot LOOK like you're doing something. You have to just stand there, and you have to be seen by people, for 10 minutes. I did this standing in the middle of sidewalk. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done.
One of the supposed points was that society pervades us to the point of actually controlling our actions when we're not doing anything. To be socially-acceptably "not doing anything" we need to actually look like we're doing something.
And this is something I wrote to Christine, who was curious about my response to this YouTube channel of people arguing about politics:
I've just lost interest in political drama. I sense that Trump's underlying agenda, which he's serving intuitively rather than calculatingly, is to intensify us-vs-them thinking. Everything he does is feeding off of, and feeding into, a growing trend of ingroup-outgroup tribe war consciousness. I think even smart liberals like Stephen Colbert have been sucked into this dark movement.
My response is to refuse to get caught up in it, and instead to look at underlying psychological influences. What exactly drives people to get into these conflicts?
In general I think that external conflict is the projection of internal conflict. People choose their identities, and especially choose their enemies, based on things inside themselves that they haven't fully faced.
Also, in an authoritarian society, which we totally still have, everyone feels powerless, and arguing about politics gives people the illusion that they're actually influencing the world.
August 7. Back in Spokane, and I'll probably be back to posting MWF for a while. Today, a great interview with Michael Finkel, the author of a new book about the guy who lived alone in the woods of Maine for 27 years.
On this planet, we don't know what to do with people who don't belong. I don't mean murderers, or people who are, clearly, mentally insane. I'm talking about someone like Chris Knight, who was a gentle person but who didn't fit in with the rest of us. It's heartbreaking. We don't have a spot for him.
Personally I think Knight is heroic. He only had to live in secrecy and break the law because we live in barbaric times. In a world with less authoritarian property laws, and an unconditional basic income, someone could live alone in the woods openly and legally.
Also this Hacker News comment thread has some good stuff, including discussion of the psychological differences between being with other people and being alone:
It's like coming from bright light into a dark room. Gradually your eyes adjust and you start to see more. Coming back into the civilization is similar to someone pointing flashlight into your eyes. So much external triggers for behaviour. Realizing that I'm not actually me with other people and I'm disappearing into network of others. Me with others is mainly just bunch of triggers that fire based on conditioning.
August 1. I have a little time to post some stray links from the road. This reddit comment lists a bunch of theological answers to the problem of evil. I accept both "God is not omnipotent" and "Purgatory on Earth."
A big reddit thread, How do you know you're in a healthy relationship?
And on one of my favorite subjects, motivation, Sometimes Not Working Is Work, Too. It's about people with the exact opposite of my problem: they are so highly motivated that they're in danger of overworking themselves and burning out, so they actually have to force themselves to be unproductive. The only way I can wrap my head around that is to imagine a world where playing video games, or getting high and listening to music, is considered useful by society.
July 26. In the Phoenix airport with my sister, and our flight to Detroit is delayed, so I have time for a post. The flight down was a lot like the lyrics of this song, Timber Timbre - Grand Canyon. Before we flew over the canyon, we flew over the Great Salt Lake, and it turns out the top part has turned red from adaptable microbes.
And here's a funny image. It might take you a few seconds.
July 24. I've got some family stuff for the next two weeks, so posts will be few or none. Today, a few good news links. Hunting Down the Lost Apples of the Pacific Northwest
How a Reddit forum has become a lifeline to opioid addicts
The Rise of Pirate Libraries
July 21. Making an exception to my rule of not writing about politics, there's some interesting stuff in this chat transcript, Who Killed The Health Care Bill? Summary: the Republican party is ruled by ideologues, who insisted on slashing Medicaid, which made the bill extremely unpopular, but rank-and-file Republicans didn't want to admit they were against it, so Senator Jerry Moran killed it for them because his seat is super-safe.
My take is, American health care is so vastly and deeply dysfunctional that it's almost impossible to tinker with it and not cause a total disaster. It's not going to be fixed until we have another president who's a highly competent consensus builder, whose party controls congress, and demographic changes have made the public more friendly to single payer.
But I'm wondering: How did American politics get so ideological? I mean, there are always going to be people who act on the basis of simple compelling stories, untested against reality, rather than facing the full complexity of the issues. But they rarely have this much influence.
My theory: Ideological thinking is easier and more fun, so people will always do it, unless they get stung -- unless they have the experience of thinking ideologically and something bad happens. Two factors that can block this correction have both happened in America over the last few decades.
One is that some people have so much power that when they think ideologically, bad things happen to other people and they don't notice. The other is, most people have so little power that the way they think doesn't make any difference at all... until they reach a critical mass where they can force their kitsch narratives onto public policy.
July 19. A reader asked me about minimalism, a movement to have less stuff. I agree with them, even though I'm not the kind of person to join named movements. Buying stuff is like taking a bad drug. It feels good, but then owning stuff that you don't use puts you at a lower baseline for happiness, and then getting rid of stuff is like painful withdrawal. And then when it's gone you feel good again.
I'm tempted to give up the last few hundred dollars in sale value and just hire a junk truck to take everything away. If you've ever been to the dump and seen what gets thrown out, a lot of people must do that. But I really do have to go through and pick out what I'm keeping, so I might as well try to maximize the value of the rest.
July 17. Some personal stuff. A week ago I got my novel close enough to final draft to send it to three people, and I'm still awaiting feedback, but I hope to have it online in a month. It's shorter than I expected, around 27,000 words, roughly the length of The Old Man And The Sea, except the words are much longer, and a lot more stuff happens. I'm still not sure about the title! The working title uses someone else's words, and while waiting for permission, I thought of a backup title that I probably like better.
If there's enough demand, I'll do a physical book on createspace or something, and I want to have cover art something like Barbara Remington's trippy Lord of the Rings covers, but not so similar as to get in legal trouble. If anyone feels qualified and interested, let me know, ranprieur at gmail.
I'm nine days into a long break from cannabis, because my last few highs did not produce any insights or creative work. I'm also not playing any video games, so no fun at all. Ideally I want to spend every day fixing up the house and sorting my stuff to sell/thrift/trash. But that's so painful that I can only do it for a couple hours a day.
So the rest of the time I've been working on a chronological playlist of soft hits of the 70's. This site, the Hot 100 Singles Chronology, is really useful. There's this one song in my head, it's not even that great but I've become fixated on finding it, and I'm starting to think I've slipped to an alternate universe where it doesn't exist. But searching for it has led me to forgotten gems like Steve Forbert - Romeo's Tune.
July 14. As usual, light stuff for the weekend. Last weekend in the NWSL, Sam Kerr scored a hat trick in 12 minutes. She makes it look easy, but nobody else in the women's game is so casual and consistent in front of goal. Just the previous week she made a bicycle kick.
I don't like to write about race, but this article about Martellus Bennett, NFL player and now children's author, has a great quote: "What if Macauley Culkin were black in Home Alone? Most people would write it differently... but I would write it the same way."
To generalize from that point: if there's something about the world that you don't like, complaining about it is a weak strategy. A good strategy is to persistently trace it to deeper and deeper causes. And another good strategy is to envision a world where it doesn't exist.
July 12. Matt has some surprising comments on Monday's post. This is my condensation:
Maybe people get pleasure from pain -- either from literal mortification or feats of endurance -- because of their beliefs about their bodies. I mean, why do cutters feel relief? It only makes sense if I understand the relief coming from their mental interpretation of being wounded. Otherwise, you'd hear about guys feeling euphoria when they lose a thumb in a factory. There's no straightforward push-this-button-and-get-this-result: it's about how individual personalities process the sting, the throbbing, the blood. Or the sweat, the panting, the racing heart.
I've talked to people who have gotten runner's high, of course. I don't doubt the existence of endorphins. But I've also talked to people who hate the experience of exercise -- and it's not because they're out of shape or haven't tried. It's tempting to say, "They're not doing it right, or for long enough." But maybe that's akin to saying everyone should like being spanked hard during sex and if you don't then you're not doing it right. People talk about runner's high as a universal, but maybe... it's a kink.
July 10. A few months back, I wrote this:
Will science ever cheat withdrawal? Could you go on a drug bender, and when it starts to get ugly, you just take a shot of brain-cleansing nanobots and you're painlessly clean and sober and ready to start again? I doubt it, but I do think it should be possible to bunch the pain, so instead of days or weeks of grinding through rehab, you could reset your pleasure with a few minutes of agony.
A reader replied, "OK, but if pain and pleasure are in balance, could you give yourself a few electric shocks one day, and maybe that would lead to good times down the road?" I said:
Clearly the answer is no, which leads to two options. One is that it is possible, even on a metaphysical level, to have pleasure unbalanced by pain. The other answer is that pleasure must be balanced by pain but pain does not have to be balanced by pleasure, because God hates us.
It turns out, this has been studied by science, and that electric shock trick might actually work. The opponent-process theory of emotion is a long brainy blog post about Richard Solomon's research into pain becoming pleasure and pleasure becoming pain. If you don't want to read the whole thing, the practical advice is to moderate your pleasures, exercise, and take cold showers.
I'm also wondering how much individual variation there is, because none of the author's examples of pleasure-from-pain apply to me. I don't get exhilaration from stress, or runner's high, or "a sense of well being" from donating blood. After my epic and painful moving day last week, I did not feel one shred of euphoria. I just felt tired. But when I listen to music, or write something good, I get pleasure that echoes to the baseline without ever going negative.