"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
December 10. Quick note: long time reader Darren Allen has written a book, 33 Myths of the System. That page has free download links, and a there's also a post on the subreddit. I haven't read it yet but it looks promising.
Continuing from last week, I've had some email conversations about biotech surpassing cybertech. Eric writes, "I am having trouble imagining a self-replicating robot as smart as a dog that is created and powered entirely by a couple handfuls of kibble per day."
And Matt writes:
What if, one day, we could design organisms that we could live in? A bioengineered creature that can feed itself with sunlight, or other gradients of energy, but that's also hospitable to humans. And, what if while the residents might choose its basic structure, it grew in ways that surprised us, like a living art project?
Is the future of humanity one of high-tech animism, in which everything around us is not only alive, but capable of carrying on conversations?
I love that idea, but I think there's a trade-off. Machines do exactly what we tell them to do (which is never quite what we want them to do) but they're expensive to build and maintain. Biology can self-replicate from common materials, but because it's self-organizing, it will have its own motives.
I don't think we can have the best of both worlds, but now I'm thinking like a science fiction writer: imagine two competing utopian cultures, one based on cybertech and one based on biotech. The biotech culture will win, because 1) it's more efficient with energy and resources, and 2) its people will be mentally stronger, because they have to negotiate with allies instead of commanding servants.
Related: a long NY Times article, Can Dirt Save the Earth? We can move a lot of carbon from the atmosphere into topsoil, but we have to change the way we do agriculture.
December 7. Last year I didn't do a year-end music post, because I hadn't heard anything that great from 2017, and I still haven't. But in the universe of my musical taste, 2018 looks like the best year since 2014, with one album and three songs for the ages -- and thanks Leigh Ann for introducing me to all of them.
The album is the self-titled debut by London duo Insecure Men. It's loaded with intoxicating melodies and complex sonic textures, with a vibe like the bottom of a tropical lagoon. The best song, Whitney Houston and I, turns the tragic lives of celebrities into an epic metaphor of the divine feminine.
My song of the year is Wiggy Giggy by the Lovely Eggs. Like my favorite band, Big Blood, the Lovely Eggs are a married couple who started recording in 2006. It's hard to find a heavy song as warm and fun as Wiggy Giggy, let alone with its message of mind expansion: "Spaceman, take me out to a place, that I don't want to go."
And the third great song is Destroyer by Lala Lala, a Chicago band whose singer-songwriter, like everyone above, is originally from England. The quiet parts sound a lot like the quiet parts of Smells Like Teen Spirit. Then the chorus is nothing like Nirvana, but it reminds me of another Seattle band, Carissa's Wierd, and their layered vocals in songs like like Drunk With The Only Saints I Know.
Big Blood released two albums this year, from which my favorite normal song is Underneath He Is A Girl, but I've been getting more into their space-ghost soundscapes, like Make Way and Wishy Wishy I. And lately I've been listening heavily to their 2014 double vinyl blowout, Unlikely Mothers, especially the hypnotic and filthy So Po Village Stone.
There are also two old songs that I got obsessed with this year. One is bright and clean and popular, a UK radio hit from 1979, known to Americans through Tracey Ullman's less brilliant 1983 cover: Kirsty MacColl - They Don't Know.
The other is dark and erratic and obscure, released in 1997 by a New Zealand indie band, but probably recorded in 1992: The Garbage and The Flowers - Carousel. I love the impressionistic lyrics:
Filing your shells by the fire
Creasing the water with violets and sighs
Asking every simmering quasar if you know it well
Autumn and the paint glowing brightly at the Carousel
December 5. Continuing from Monday, I like Rupert Sheldrake's distinction between self-organizing and non-self-organizing arrangements of matter. In the video it's from minute 22-26. A chair is not self-organizing, so it doesn't make sense to ask what it's like to be a chair. But it might make sense to ask what it's like to be an atom, or the sun.
And now it occurs to me that modern technology has created a lot of stuff that's not self-organizing. Our nature-based ancestors were animist, because almost everything in their world was self-organizing, and could be realistically viewed as a person. Even a tool would be made by the person using the tool, or by someone they knew, so it would already be integrated into the world of people and stories.
I always thought the emptiness of modern life came from how society is arranged. But now I'm thinking it could be caused by manufacturing, which has surrounded us, far more than any other people, with objects that are not alive, and not part of the sphere of meaning of anything alive. Instead of making a tool to serve our needs, we buy a tool, as part of some aspirational project that we hope will make us a better person. (Thanks John for that idea.) We spend our lives seeking the feeling of aliveness from things that are not alive.
Sometimes I think that our whole high-tech world is a fad. But it's hard to think of an alternative, of where we could realistically go next. Now I'm thinking the answer has something to do with either artificial intelligence, making the leap to self-organizing intelligence, or biotech, making living systems that increasingly replace machines.
December 3. First, two loose ends from last week. On the subreddit, 2handband has a lot to say about the origins of the blues. And on the subject of young people, this long article explores some theories for why they're having less sex. My own guess is that newer generations have higher emotional intelligence, so they're more aware of all the emotional messiness around sex, while past generations were more likely to be oblivious.
Today's main subject: a new video of a talk by Rupert Sheldrake, Is The Sun Conscious? He makes a strong argument, starting with how the sun was always seen as conscious until Descartes invented mind-body dualism, and arbitrarily decided that only God, angels, and humans have minds. Later that got whittled down to only humans, and then expanded into other animals -- but there's no good place to draw a line and stop it from expanding back into other arrangements of matter, especially if they're self-organizing.
My position on the "hard problem of consciousness" is that it's not a hard problem for anyone. For materialist metaphysics, it's an impossible problem, and it's not a problem at all for any metaphysics that makes consciousness fundamental. There are different flavors of consciousness-based metaphysics, including animism, pantheism, and pan-psychism. I like to think that mind-matter dualism works like the particle-wave dualism of light, where reality can be either matter-based or mind-based, depending on how you look at it. Sheldrake mentions a fascinating model in which mind/body equals future/past equals possibility/resolution in quantum physics.
Later in the video he speculates about what it's like to be the sun, and how it might make conscious decisions about where to shoot its flares. Maybe that's the answer to Fermi's paradox: if a planetary civilization gets too advanced, its electromagnetic emanations become annoying to its sun, which zaps it back to a lower tech level. He also argues that "volitional stars", steering their own galactic orbits, would allow us to explain galactic motion without dark matter. Related article: Is the Universe Conscious? I think this is why physics has stagnated, because it can't get any farther without putting mind back into matter.
This also reminds me of fringe astronomer Halton Arp, who discovered a strong statistical correlation between quasars and nearby galaxies. If quasars are not extremely bright and extremely distant, then their light is being redshifted by something other than recession velocity, which casts doubt on the theory that cosmic redshifts are caused by an expanding universe. Anyway, Arp thinks that quasars are like seeds shot out by galaxies to become new galaxies, and this fits right in with the idea that the universe is alive.
November 30. It's been too long since I've written about music. The other day on Hacker News there was a good article about the origins of acid house. It starts with a synthesizer, the Roland TB-303, which sold terribly and was discontinued. Then a guy bought a used one for $40, without a manual, and he and his buddy just started turning knobs to see what sounds they could find. They ended up using it in ways the manufacturer never imagined, and made a revolutionary recording. Now old 303's sell for thousands of dollars.
The article exaggerates the newness of the sound. Krautrock bands like Cluster had been making spare, hypnotic synth music for years. But there are some brainy ideas about the intersection of art and technology, including the idea that the blues came from musicians with an African heritage, using European instruments differently than they were intended. I see this as a particular case of my general belief, that creativity always starts with doing something you're not supposed to do.
The Hacker News comment thread has a ton of links to other electronic music. I happen to not like acid house, and I haven't listened deeply or broadly to electronica, but I can recommend the bands Holy Fuck and The Octopus Project, and the Machinarium Soundtrack.
November 28. Sort of continuing from my last two posts, two reddit threads about young people. From ten days ago, Older people of Reddit, what do you think is BETTER about today's youth? And from yesterday, Teachers of Reddit, what are some positive trends you have noticed in today's youth?
What comes up again and again is how much nicer they are. This kind of testimony derails the normal ways that old people complain about young people. But I'm wondering if kids are becoming too nice, if humanity is losing its wild spirit. This idea goes back at least as far as Nietzsche. I just found out that sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison died this summer. He was a big influence on my essays, and he had several stories about the last disobedient person in a world where everyone else is tame and bland.
Before I go farther in this subject, I want to try to separate out different trends. It's good that kids are more curious, and less mean, and this could be part of the trend that Lloyd deMause massively simplified in his book The History of Childhood, that child-rearing practices have steadily shifted through history, from neglect and domination toward helpful socialization.
At the same time, I think we're already seeing the cultural numbing of surveillance. Kids have to be nicer now, because they're being watched so closely that they reliably get in trouble for not being nice. What other behaviors are they self-censoring?
I wonder if this is part of the reason for the trend toward right wing politics. Sometimes the left seems to be pushing niceness to suffocating extremes. Personally, I would hop right on board with a cultural movement toward taking bigger risks, and easing the consequences for making mistakes. But I can't get on board with the right wing because my deepest political conviction is being against authority.
November 26. So I thought I wanted to follow up my post from a week ago, but what I have to say isn't interesting enough, and I'm still not feeling smart. The last four days I was really busy, and it wore me out so much that I have back pain and I'm making grunting noises every time I do something. So I'll just post a couple links.
Iron_dwarf has just posted an original essay to the subreddit, The Twilight Saga and The Yearning for Intimacy.
And a scary Washington Post article, Wanted: The 'perfect babysitter'. Must pass AI scan for respect and attitude. (You might have to right click the link and open in a private window to get around the paywall.) This is the same thing China is trying to do with their social credit system: using technology to make judgments about the moral value of individuals.
This is going to be a major political issue of this century, because there are powerful interests with huge incentives for giving people ratings, and they now have the technology to do so; but at the same time, people who know they're being rated on every action, become conformist, timid, and finally neurotic, and it drains the life out of a culture.
I'm not sure how we're going to solve this. We can make laws against keeping personal ratings, or using them to make decisions, but those laws will be broken, in secret, as the normal way of doing business.
Here's a crazy hypothesis: The only realistic solution is the collapse of the technological system. Or: Information technology is self-limiting, because if it gets beyond a certain level, personal ratings are both unavoidable, and fatal to the public spirit.
What I really think is, this not a ceiling against the power of computers, but a bottleneck, which we can pass through by finding a way to do personal ratings that is not toxic to the human spirit -- or might even be good for us. Imagine a human-rating AI that is more tolerant of deviance than the surrounding culture, that doesn't turn us into trembling drones, but dashing rogues, that creates new ways we can get away with being "bad", for the greater good.
I suppose this is a follow-up to last week, because I was talking about cracks where aliveness hides from the light of control, and now I'm thinking of a utopian AI, that sees what you're doing in the cracks, and winks.
November 22. I want to follow up on Monday's post, but I'm busy with holiday stuff and probably won't post again until next week. There are some Thanksgiving-related recipes on my old misc page.
And since this is an American holiday, here's a reddit thread, Americans who have visited other countries, what is America behind on?
November 19. An email conversation has got me thinking about frontiers, and how many different kinds there are. The simplest kind of frontier is geographical. Fifty thousand years ago, if you didn't like your tribe, you and your friends could go over the mountain and start a new tribe. If it's easy to live off the land, and if the human population is low, then it's almost impossible to have a bad society, because everyone will leave it.
It would be cool if we could achieve those conditions again in the future, at a higher level of technology. But right now the geographical frontiers are gone. Every inch of the world is either ruled by some industrial capitalist state, or unlivable. So we have to fight for a better world at the frontiers of culture and politics.
Now those frontiers are also being sealed off, by surveillance. Bruce Schneier explains how Surveillance Kills Freedom By Killing Experimentation:
We don't yet know which subversive ideas and illegal acts of today will become political causes and positive social change tomorrow, but they're around. And they require privacy to germinate. Take away that privacy, and we'll have a much harder time breaking down our inherited moral assumptions.
I believe that some kinds of frontiers are endless. As the light of control probes deeper into the cracks where aliveness hides, aliveness can always find deeper cracks. This is why science will never find a grand unifying theory. And in politics and culture, when nothing can hide from the eyes of control, aliveness can still hide from its understanding. I'm thinking of internet communities where young people hide behind irony and strange language, and the Bob Dylan line, "Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you?"
Still, it's not enough for aliveness to escape detection. It also needs channels to change the dominant system. And the system needs to allow those channels, or it will stagnate and collapse. I don't think our world is completely locked down, but I think one reason so many people are depressed, is they can't find a way to be alive, that doesn't get them in trouble.
November 15. Going early into the weekend with some optimistic and useful links. For how much room the world has to get better, a reddit thread: What are some of the worst examples of the "We've always done it that way" mindset?
And for some examples of the world getting better in just one generation: What is a parenting technique used on you as a child that you will never use on your own children?
I've probably linked before to this brief 2012 article about the value of not thinking.
With Thanksgiving coming up, How To Make The Perfect Pie. I would add: a good way to add the butter to the flour is to freeze it and use a cheese grater. Also, the way she cuts apples is wasteful. You get more apple if you cut it into quarters first and then cut the cores out, like in this video. Personally I cut the stem skin off with the cores, after quartering.
Related: Sourdough Hands: How Bakers And Bread Are A Microbial Match.
Build a do-it-yourself home air purifier for about $25. You just tape a HEPA furnace filter to a box fan.
Finally, a inspiring and informative reddit post about guerrilla edible landscaping.
November 14. Two links about technology. Is anyone still surprised that Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression? And yet, it's hard to say exactly why. Maybe it's that we're hungry for healthy socializing, and social media is like junk food, offering sugary but unnourishing connections. It could also be what someone says in the Hacker News thread: "The problem with social media is you only see the interesting parts of people's lives, so you're forced into a loop of thinking your life is pointless and boring."
And a scary essay, Why Technology Favors Tyranny:
Currently, humans risk becoming similar to domesticated animals. We have bred docile cows that produce enormous amounts of milk but are otherwise far inferior to their wild ancestors. They are less agile, less curious, and less resourceful. We are now creating tame humans who produce enormous amounts of data and function as efficient chips in a huge data-processing mechanism, but they hardly maximize their human potential.
The author focuses on ownership of data, but I'm thinking more about how tech shapes our moment-to-moment lives. Wild animals are practicing deep skills to engage with a living world. A squirrel keeps a watchful eye for hawks while building its nut stash. Meanwhile, a human spots a red light camera and makes a hard stop before turning right, or wonders if an operating system upgrade will disable file sharing. I've said this before, but the author who best saw this century was not Orwell or Huxley -- it was Kafka, and our nightmarish rules and punishments are coming from our own tools.
November 12. Back to psychology, I've been struggling for a few years now with anxiety and free-floating psychic pain. With physical pain, if the doctor asks where it hurts, you usually know exactly where. The best I can describe this feeling is, it's like I'm surrounded by an aura of thousands of needles pointing inward, and every time I think about doing something out in the world, it's like pushing my soul out onto the needles. Lately, my experimental strategy has been to isolate that feeling, not think about the things out in the world that cause anxiety, but just amp up the inner pain as high and long as I can. Of course it feels terrible, but the idea is, eventually I'll get used to it, and that will be the new baseline.
This TEDx talk, Depression and spiritual awakening, seems to describe something similar that happens in the brain. She doesn't explain it well (and I disagree with her about the point of having kids) but the idea is that depression can be processed in a way that thickens the brain like a growing tree.
Another TED talk, by Lisa Feldman Barrett: You aren't at the mercy of your emotions -- your brain creates them. This one is really good at explaining the science. Emotions are not hard-wired in the brain; the brain does not have "emotion circuits". What really happens is, the body starts with a very simple feeling, something that could be interpreted all kinds of ways, and then the brain extrapolates, or embellishes, that body-feeling into a complex emotion, into predictions, and into actions. All of these brain behaviors are learned from our culture and our family, and usually become so habitual that it doesn't occur to us that we can behave any differently.
Depressed people are often told to "just cheer up", which implies two ideas: that we can choose how we feel, and that it's easy. It's probably a harder thing than most people have ever done, but the video hints at how it could be broken into tiny steps. Barrett gives this example: Your heart is pounding before a test, and you could interpret that heart-pounding as crippling panic. Or you could interpret it as your body gearing up to go into battle!
So this is what I've been practicing when I feel an unpleasant emotion: 1) immediately notice, 2) trace the emotion to its simplest root in the body, and 3) move that body energy in a different direction. I haven't found a better mental direction yet, but I've already been able to channel it into an urge for physical exercise.
November 9. Yesterday this was posted to the subreddit, probably because my last post used the word "tribalism": America's Problem Isn't Tribalism -- It's Racism.
The way I use the word, tribalism is a biological urge that we inherited from our primate ancestors: to divide our species into in-group and out-group, and make judgments based on that division. Racism is just one flavor of tribalism, and certainly a big one, but I use the more general word to also capture non-race tribalism. For example, why do Republicans hate solar energy? Not for any rational reason, and it has nothing to do with race, or any supposed Republican values. The right hates solar energy simply because the left thought of it first, so that whole technology has been colored by its association with the enemy monkey tribe.
Moving on, various links on the subject of observation, starting with another article from the Atlantic: That Cute Baby-Bear Video Reveals a Problem With Drones. A viral video shows two bears inspiringly climbing a ridge, but it turns out, they were only climbing it out of fear of the drone that was filming the video! The article's angle is that drones are scary. But I'm thinking about the broader philosophical issue, that we think we're observing how things are, when really we're observing how things respond to our own observation.
A Fighter Pilot's Guide to surviving on the roads. It's about how our eyes and brains are not made for the world of automobile traffic, but there are techniques we can practice to make up for that.
Earlier this year I wrote about the difficulty of dancing, and this comment has some good advice on how to dance better: "Dancing is just painting music with your body. How would you convey this song visually to someone who couldn't hear?"
Finally, a great bit from an interview with jazz pianist Keith Jarrett:
I was trained classically. But one time, I missed my entrance in a very simple Mozart piece because I was listening to to the orchestra and they sounded so beautiful. And the conductor turned around and said, "Don't listen." That ruined me, man. That destroyed my interest in constantly staying in that world, because my main job is listening. If you're improvising and you're not listening, the next second that comes up, you have nothing to say.
November 7. Quick election update. A couple weeks ago I linked to this article about thirteen candidates who are trying to revitalize the Democratic party from below, by having actual progressive positions and not taking corporate money. Of course, they all lost (except Jared Golden in Maine who still has a chance). This is why I've stopped following politics -- it's too depressing. With every election, big money tightens its grip while voters get more distracted by culture wars.
Supposedly these things go in cycles. In the 1930's we had labor movements and the New Deal. In the sixties we had massive cultural upheaval. Then the nineties, if anything, were an authoritarian decade, with economic power being concentrated by globalization. Now the police are militarized, young people are listening to bland music, and the only energy rising from below is ugly tribalism.
A few things still make me optimistic. One is demographic changes -- that is, old people with terrible politics dying. Another is the change in human consciousness if psychedelic drugs become more widely used. And then there's the big structural change, when we finally come to the end of economic growth, which has been the fuel for a lot of things being done the wrong way.
I don't think Donald Trump is a friend of the common man, or an agent of chaos, because if he were either, he would tweet two words that would change the world: fake debt.