"Look at the sunset from the sun's point of view."
- Steven Wright
April 19. I've got no ideas this week, or maybe there's just less stuff that I think is worth writing about. Here's a pretty good article about people living in cars in beach parking lots.
And a really interesting article about nightingales, who now prefer Berlin to London and we don't know why. It might be that Berlin's parks are more wild, because they "haven't been managed properly for years," which really means that other cities' parks haven't been managed properly. Other cities manage their parks to satisfy the human urge to impose control, rather than for ecology, or even aesthetics.
How weird is it, that the kind of landscapes we put on our walls as art, or choose to go hiking in, are so different from the kind of landscapes we create, when we have power over land? It makes me wonder if the same thing is happening with the landscapes of our minds.
Anyway, the article also has some cool stuff about what nightingales actually sound like:
Nightingale songs are made up of an impressive variety of trills, gurgles, whistles and rapid "beats". During the latter, Schneider said, "the tones don't just come out rapid and hard, but almost mechanically precise -- it's almost like techno."
April 16. On Sunday, Gene Wolfe died. He was the best living science fiction author, and he really raised the bar for how much intelligence a sci-fi author could demand of readers. I met him once, in the 90's, at a book signing in Seattle, and I asked him about a mystery in The Shadow of the Torturer: Why is Agilus, after taking off his mask, still wearing a mask? He said, "I just write 'em, I don't explain 'em." Last year I reread the series and poked around online, and I still don't know the answer.
Wolfe is best known for the Book of the New Sun series, but I want to write about two lesser known works. One is a little novel called Castleview. I've read a lot of books on the paranormal, and I only know two pieces of fiction that really capture the strangeness of actual paranormal experience. One is the X-Files episode "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," and the other is Castleview. The ending baffles me -- I think it requires knowledge of Arthurian myth that only a few people in the world have.
Some of Wolfe's best stuff is in his collections of stories. My favorite is the Book of Days, which includes a weird Kafkaesque novella called "Forlesen", and a three page story called Against the Lafayette Escadrille. The narrator has built an almost-perfect replica of a German WWI plane, and one day, in the sky, he encounters an incredible replica of a Confederate hot air balloon, sewn from silk dresses, and circles it, waving to the woman in the basket.
Has he actually traveled through time and seen the original balloon? Or glimpsed some in-between universe where replicas and originals blur? Or is it a metaphor, about all of us in this dim physical world, seeking the Divine? No answer is offered, but this is the final paragraph:
I have never been able to find it again, although I go up almost every day when the weather makes it possible. There is nothing but an empty sky and a few jets. Sometimes, to tell the truth, I have wondered if things would not have been different if, in finishing the Fokker, I had used the original, flammable dope. She was so authentic. Sometimes toward evening I think I see her in the distance, above the clouds, and I follow as fast as I can across the silent vault with the Fokker trembling around me and the throttle all the way out; but it is only the sun.
April 15. Over the weekend there was a subreddit thread quoting a comment from that interview, where someone got really mad at me for not supporting a revolution to bring down industrial civilization. My comment was, I find it strange that that guy even cares what I think. But when I think more about it, it's a good illustration of infighting. For example, it often happens that two nearly identical sects of some religion will hate each other more than they hate anyone else.
Infighting is about identity signaling. People like to have a well-defined identity, and to communicate it to other people. If I say I don't like Donald Trump, that's low-quality information -- I've just uselessly lumped myself with six billion other people. But if a Republican senator says it, it's interesting. So as someone who agrees with the critique of industrial society, but doesn't support its violent overthrow, I'm a useful navigational beacon for other people in the same general idea-space, to say where they are.
If I can indulge in my own identity signaling, I'll say that Thomas Kuhn is just Charles Fort watered down for academics, and that my three favorite albums of the 2010's had a combined release of 850 physical copies.
On a completely new subject, coincidentally cross-posted to the DepthHub subreddit by a frequent contributor to the ranprieur subreddit, here's a fascinating comment about the diet of medieval nobles. They ate almost nothing but meat, white bread, and wine. So obesity and gout were common. Meanwhile, lower classes were much more likely to eat fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy, but they also lived on the edge of starvation and had diseases of malnourishment. And nobody ate salad, because they thought raw vegetables were unhealthy.
April 12. Earlier this year I answered some questions for an email interview, and it's just been posted, on the Wild Will Project, Conversation with Ran Prieur.
Music for the weekend. I've been listening to a band from Adelaide, Australia, called Wireheads. Their sound is basically garage space rock, and their great album is Country Space Junk (2014). Sonic Spaces Blues is the best space rock song since classic Hawkwind. Their most recent album, Lightning Ears, is also pretty good, and deepened by Calvin Johnson's production. I love The Overview Effect.
April 10. I'm not feeling smart this week, so I'll just mention that my town had a flood last night. Here's a short video on Twitter. It's funny because of the three streams that come into town, this one is normally the smallest. In September you could walk in it and barely get your ankles wet. But that means its channel is not big enough to hold the water that came through when we got two hours of heavy rain on top of normal spring runoff.
April 8. Continuing from last week, I've been trying to figure out exactly what I mean by emotional or psychological pain. Physical pain is pretty clear-cut. If the doctor asks where it hurts, you can point right to the spot, and we can assume that other people's pain feels basically the same as ours. But emotional pain might turn out to be several different things, with different people feeling one or another more strongly.
For me, pain is all about attention. It usually happens like this: my mind is focused on something that I like focusing my mind on, it could be writing, or music, or a game, or just daydreaming. And then something else demands my attention: the phone rings, or someone wants me to do something, or I just have to do some chore of daily life like washing dishes or going to the store.
Every time that happens, it's like a punch to the face, and I want to get angry, but that's not helpful. The best move is just to absorb the blow, and fully feel the pain of shifting my attention from something pleasant to something unpleasant. The quicker I can get my attention completely focused on the new thing, the better. A great trick here is curiosity, because the more unpleasant something is, the more opportunity there is to investigate that unpleasantness.
Now I'm wondering if all pain can be defined in terms of attention. Grief is when there's something you want to give your attention to, but it's gone. Physical pain is mentally painful because you want to ignore it, but the stronger it is, the more attention you have to give it. Fear is the anticipation of having to shift your attention to something you don't like.
There are at least two things I still can't explain. One is why we get so much pleasure and pain from watching sports -- because whoever wins, our attention is on the same stuff. I'm guessing this goes deep into our ancestral memory, when a win by the enemy monkey tribe meant real-life suffering.
Another mystery is why we fear death -- because nobody expects that after death they'll have to give their attention to terrible stuff. Everyone either expects a pleasant afterlife, or total oblivion. I'm not qualified to answer this, because I'm not much afraid of death -- on a bad day, it feels like a relief. But I'm guessing that when we get really close to dying, we remember all the stuff in our lives that we like giving our attention to, and that we've been taking for granted.
April 5. A couple weeks ago, in my first post about Kevin Kelly's piece on inevitable technology, I mentioned music, and now I want to say a little more. The broad outlines of popular music do seem inevitable. Given classical music, there was going to be something like prog rock. Given blues, there was going to be heavy blues. Once you have electronic music, electronic dance music will not be far behind. Any kind of creative work can pile on unsatisfying complexity, and then something fresh and raw comes along, like punk, and strips it down, and then it gets more complex in new directions.
I don't think the sounds of particular artists are at all inevitable. But sometimes there's musical synchronicity, where the same ideas pop up independently. I have three examples, and I can't prove that the second artist wasn't influenced by the first, but in all three cases it seems unlikely.
A little-known song from 1991, Screaming Trees - Bed Of Roses. And from last year, strangely similar in vocals, melody, and title: El Radio Fantastique - Chain of Roses.
Two acoustic guitar instrumentals from 1973, which might have both been recorded before either was released: Bob Dylan's Main Title Theme from Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, and from Lula Cortes & Lailson, better known as Satwa, Valsa Dos Cogumelos.
Finally, two songs that are musically very different, post-punk from 1981, and dreamy folk from 2004. But they have the same uncommon theme, the conflict between the world of spirit and the money economy; they use the same meaning of the word "flesh" for how your body chains you to an unpleasant material world; and they use basically the same riff! In Joanna Newsom's En Gallop it starts at 21 seconds, and in Wall of Voodoo's Back In Flesh it comes in, much faster, at 2:09.
April 3. Continuing on personal stuff, years ago a friend told me he was having trouble dealing constructively with his emotions. I said, I don't know what that means. To me, emotions were not something you could deal with. They were like clouds in the sky. If they're good, appreciate them; if they're bad, ignore them. Also, do what feels good, and don't do what feels bad. It was that simple.
Somewhere in this decade, that strategy stopped working for me. Now, more of the things that feel good make me feel bad later, and more of the things that feel bad are impossible to avoid. And it turns out that ignored bad feelings don't actually go away.
The thing I'm getting better at, that I didn't want to get better at, is absorbing emotional pain. I understand now that pain is a muscle: to completely feel the pain, as it happens, is like lifting weights, and the more you practice, the more you can lift. But it still feels bad. And I'm paranoid, that the better I get at absorbing pain, the more pain the world will give me.
April 2. I was in bed with the flu on Saturday, and my brain still hasn't recovered enough to do a good post. Here's a pretty good article, The Disease of More. It has some interesting details, but the main message, to stop trying to improve yourself for the sake of improvement, is not something I need to hear. I have the opposite problem. I fight and fight to make my life easy and boring, and I keep losing. All I want to do is play games and get high and do creative work, but things keep going wrong and forcing me to get better at stuff I don't want to get better at.
I wonder if this is a class thing. Young urban elites are highly driven, and they can pay other people to do the grind work of modern life, so they have excess energy to put into dumb stuff like mountain climbing and clean eating. The rest of us just want to chill, but we have to keep solving the problems that appear as the system slowly collapses.
March 29. Taking a different path from Monday, I've been emailing with Matt about the difference between technologies that are in a big hurry to happen, like the light bulb, and technologies that are possible for decades before they finally appear -- a comment on the inevitability essay mentions the crock pot. I wrote, "I think the difference is that the successful ones are more glamorous. They're part of a story about humans becoming more like gods."
Here's an idea that I call the Superhero Test. What it tests, is how quickly a given technology will appear after it becomes realistic. And the test is to imagine a superhero named after that technology, and ask how popular his movies would be, at that time. So in 1878, Light Bulb Man would be a popular superhero, even if you called him Incandescent Man, or Glowing Filament In A Void Man, or See In The Night Man. But Crock Pot Man, or Slow Cooker Man, or Easy Soup Man... not a lot of people would see that movie.
Matt mentions cheap and frequent blood testing, as a possible tech that hasn't happened yet, and would save a lot of lives. Okay, which of these medical procedures would sell more tickets? 1) Look inside yourself and see if you need to eat more potassium. 2) Wait for the disease to appear and then fucking blast it!
I do believe in a human collective subconscious -- I call it subconscious rather than unconscious because I think it is conscious: it makes sense to ask what it's like to be that thing. So what is it like? If humans have a group mind, what it its personality?
I think it's impulsive and childish. It's smart enough, and powerful enough, to stop us from having a nuclear war, which would spoil the game. But it's unwise enough that it would rather terraform Mars than restore Earth's ecology. Two questions I can't answer: Is there a single monolithic human group mind, or is it more like a subconscious congress? And how much does it change, as our conscious personalities change?
New subject. There was a Reddit question a while back: if you were reincarnated, what aspects of your present self would you take with you into the next life? I thought about it, and if I could take only one thing, it would be my musical taste. It's my most direct connection to the Divine, it's highly developed, and it's not like anyone else's.
So I don't know if anyone cares, but I've made some upgrades to my flagship playlist. I call it Chrono Sunburst, because it's ordered by year, and it's most of my favorite songs, plus or minus ones that fit or don't fit the flow of the list. I've just added an extra Neil Diamond, an extra Camper Van Beethoven, replaced one Exuma song with another, added Brian Eno's "On Some Faraway Beach" (thanks Mike), and added a song I just discovered, "Love in the Time of Ecstacy" by Withered Hand. The whole list is at the top of my favorite songs page, and missing 8 of the 29 songs on Spotify. Update: after more listens, I decided that Love in the Time of Ecstacy fits better on my suicide playlist.
March 27. Continuing from Monday: What's inevitable about our future? The answer depends on whether we think that inevitability is part of some hidden intelligence. I'm going to start by pretending that it's not. If the universe is mindless and meaningless, then humanity is driving blind into ever-increasing danger, and it's only a matter of time before we go off a cliff. Probably we'll develop virtual reality so good that we lose interest in the physical world, and go extinct. At the same time, we'll probably use biotech to change ourselves so much that we're no longer viable in nature, and go extinct.
Now, if there is a mind behind the movement of technology and history -- whether it's a human collective subconscious, or space aliens, or whoever runs the simulation -- then they might have a plan for us, and they'll make sure we survive. Or they might not have a plan -- they might be improvising. In that case, I still think we're okay. As a sci-fi writer who makes up stories on the fly, I would never kill off humans, because we make such good characters. But I might kill off most of us, or I might change us to make us even more interesting.
If there is a mind, and a plan, then it still might not be about us. I've seen this idea more than once: that aliens are using us to change the earth's atmosphere to match their home planet, so they can live here and we can't. A nicer idea is that Gaia is using us to bring the carbon to the surface, which will eventually be turned into plants and animals, and the biosphere will be more rich and abundant than it's ever been, whether or not we're here to see it.
But suppose we are the heroes of the story. The popular story is that we colonize space. But remember, this is no longer a meaningless physical universe, because in that scenario, we have no chance. This is a mind-based universe, a big dream where matter is nothing more than condensed dream-stuff. In that case, why make the physical universe so big and so spread out? Without faster-than-light technology, even traveling to other starsystems is unrealistic, let alone to other galaxies. Why put them there if we can't go there?
One possibility is that it's all been set up for us to develop really good FTL tech, to go far out into the universe. But I think the physical universe is a metaphor. It's there to inspire us to imagine space exploration, to stretch our dreams enough that we'll be ready to explore a different kind of universe, one that we haven't discovered yet, or quite imagined.
Update: I thought of a scenario that fits through the cracks of my argument. 1) Sadly, we do live in a mindless physical universe. 2) The guiding intelligence behind technology and history is a human collective subconscious, and it's smart enough to keep us from going extinct. 3) In a thousand years, it might totally be realistic to send probes, terraformers, and finally human colonists, slower than light, to other starsystems, and gradually spread through our own galaxy.
March 25. This was posted a week ago on the subreddit, a ten year old Kevin Kelly essay, Progression of the Inevitable. It starts with a long and mind-blowing catalog of all the technology and science that was invented/discovered by multiple people at around the same time.
There are a bunch of directions to go with this. One is to ask if the same thing happens with creative work, and Kelly describes how several core details of the Harry Potter books existed in other books that J.K. Rowling probably didn't read. Still, he's talking about ideas and not execution. You can see this better with music. Without Led Zeppelin, we would still have heavy blues, but beyond that general description, it would be missing what makes Led Zeppelin great, especially in a song like Kashmir.
Another direction is to wonder about some kind of collective consciousness. Kelly rejects that idea outright, but Harry Potter works against him here, because you can tell a purely mechanical story about how conditions were ripe for incandescent light bulbs, but not about how another writer came up with "Larry Potter, an orphaned boy wizard wearing glasses surrounded by Muggles."
Of course he's just following the culture of his time, and a philosophical doctrine that I call antipsychism: whatever it is, you must assume there's no consciousness behind it. (The one exception is that we have to assume other individual humans are conscious, otherwise there would be social chaos.)
But this leads to another question: Is there an inevitable progression of social and philosophical ideas? I think there is. As much as I'd like to go back in time and kill Descartes, someone else would have come along and showed us how to think of reality as intrinsically lifeless. And there are already a lot of thinkers trying to re-animate the world, probably in better ways.
The final question is the hardest: What's inevitable about our future?
March 22. Today's post comes from an email conversation with Matt. On the last post, he comments: "In most renderings of 'Heaven', the rhythms and contrasts of life have been flattened." So I'm wondering, why is the heaven myth that way, and not some other way? Is it cultural, or biological? In squirrel heaven, would there still be winter?
I think our concept of heaven emerged from ancient settled cultures. Only when people start having year-round dwellings, and building physical wealth, do they start to see the perfect life as something that needs to be protected from change. That's why the Christian heaven, like ancient cities, has walls and gates. I'm curious about ancient nomadic cultures, and how they saw the afterlife. Update: Gannon mentions that the Tarahumara, described in the book Born To Run, believe "that upon death they shed their earthly bodies so they can more quickly glide across the earth."
Anyone who believes in a better life after death has to explain why we're not there already. Why do we have to spend any time in a world that's not the best available? Three guesses: 1) The next world is hard to appreciate, without being in this world first. 2) This is a simulation, or a prison world, where we have to develop certain skills and habits before we can be permitted to live in the real world. 3) The whole thing is not well-managed, and we're here by accident.
Of course Hindus believe in reincarnation, and I have a crazy idea that we're reincarnated as progressively "lower" creatures. Like, we start as miserable gods, and end up in the total bliss of being bacteria. Matt writes:
I have a conviction that, as bio-engineering and cyborg tech really gets going, a number of people will not only choose not to enhance themselves -- they'll choose states of consciousness closer to wolves and owls.
I'm thinking, we don't even need to imitate particular animals. All we need are technologies that can temporarily and precisely shut down different parts or functions of our brains. That's basically what recreational drugs do now, but future tech might make our drugs seem crude and clumsy.
Related? When Gut Bacteria Change Brain Function. It seems that eating yogurt can help with anxiety and depression.
March 20. I always buy the same grass-fed ground beef at Winco, and normally it's about 20% fat. But the latest batch is so lean that my hamburgers don't even leave any grease in the pan. So I'm wondering if the cows burned up all their fat in the long cold winter.
Whether or not that's true, until recently it was normal for the weather to affect our food. The food system is now so industrialized that we expect total uniformity of every product, and little deviations bother us.
When we talk about "meaning", and how little of it is left in the world, we're talking about connections, relationships, things influencing other things. If you're designing a game, it would be a great touch to make the fall meat fatty and the spring meat lean. It would make the world feel more alive.
So why is our society increasingly being designed to make the world feel less alive? Probably it's because we've been overvaluing predictability, undervaluing connectedness, and not noticing that we can't have both. If things are connected in a meaningful way, then things are influenced by other things enough that they're no longer predictable.
I was reading an article about the failing American Dream, which mentioned that we want to see life as a story, when really it's a bunch of random stuff that happens. I disagree. When I look at my own life, it's totally like a story, and if it gets too boring for the unseen audience, some painful and unlikely event will advance the plot.
The American Dream is not an attempt to make a story where there isn't one -- it's an attempt to control the story, to replace life's wild ride with a steady and predictable climb. And that level of control was only realistic for a few generations of the wealthiest nations in a brief age of perpetual growth.
Now that we're past that peak, we need to change our deep values, and I'm thinking of James Scott's book Against The Grain, and Morris Berman's book Wandering God. Settled peoples try to build wealth and security, so that nothing bad happens. Nomadic peoples try to set up their lives so that when bad stuff happens, they can keep going, and keep having a good time. That's a change we can make in our laws, and also in our heads.
March 18. I'm not feeling smart today, but here are two articles with the latest science on a problem I don't have, Why you shouldn't exercise to lose weight, and Death of the calorie. Basically, you should exercise for general health, and lose weight by permanently changing your habits to eat less-processed foods in moderate portions.
I still don't think we have the whole story, because lab animals on fixed diets are fatter than they used to be, and there was also a study that obese people who lose the weight become less healthy. Maybe there's some yet undiscovered medical condition, for which obesity is a defense.
New subject. Dick Dale died yesterday, and I realized that his most famous song was the missing piece in an instrumental playlist I've been working on. That link is the new playlist on Spotify, and here are YouTube links for Dick Dale's double-speed surf cover of Misirlou, and an old Greek version that's very different but also great.
March 15. Happy links for the weekend. An inspiring article on people living in converted school buses. I'm thinking, on the one hand, nomadic living is awesome and more of us should be able to do it. On the other hand, it takes a lot of energy to drive a school bus around, and to maintain roads good enough for school buses. I'm wondering what nomadic living will look like in a few hundred years.
Related: The Case for Getting Rid of Borders Completely
A popular article on How Inuit Parents Teach Kids To Control Their Anger. "Across the board, all the moms mention one golden rule: Don't shout or yell at small children."
'Extinct' Formosan clouded leopard spotted in Taiwan. I actually believe that nearly extinct animals can survive in a grey area, where they cannot be proven to exist, but there are still sightings. The Tasmanian tiger has been there for a while. Related, from the subreddit, A quantum experiment suggests there's no such thing as objective reality.
March 13. Moving from the outer world to the inner world, Against Willpower. The idea is that willpower is a pre-scientific concept, a social invention, that doesn't match what's really going on. But for me, it seems to match pretty closely. I don't feel like going to the gym, or taking the garbage out, or brushing my teeth, but I force myself to do that stuff because I know it's good for me; and if I force myself to do too much stuff that I don't feel like doing, I get burned out.
But when I take a second look at the article, it's completely about negative self-control, blocking yourself from doing stuff you think is bad for you, and not at all about positive self-control, forcing yourself to do stuff you think is good for you. The latter is usually framed as "procrastination", which is stupid. The problem is that there's all this shit we don't feel like doing, and to frame that problem as putting off doing that stuff, is like framing a knee injury as walking with a limp.
Anyway, one useful concept in the article is "intrapersonal bargaining". I would explain it like this: instead of "me" forcing "myself" to do or not do something, there are different voices inside me, with their own personalities and motives, and they need to have conversations and reach consensus about what to do. It's funny, because the phrase "inner peace" is such a cliche that we don't bother to unpack the words, but that's exactly what the words describe: the voices inside us working together instead of fighting. Maybe in some future enlightened age, they'll look back at our concept of "self-control" as a weird symptom of an authoritarian culture.
March 11. Two links from the subreddit. Is a Harvard MBA Bad for You? It's becoming more obvious that, not only do people with MBA's make the world generally worse, they're also unhappy. The article blames a deeper cultural shift "towards valuing profits and markets." I think it's something even deeper, but I can't put my finger on it. What have we lost, that we're so receptive to the idea that money is a good measure of value?
And this video, Thief vs AAA gaming, compares a great 1998 PC game with its lame 2014 remake. It's funny because the new game is bad in the same way that our whole society is bad. Instead of being immersed in a story with an unfolding mystery, in which we enjoy the process of growing our understanding, we're just given a bunch of quest markers for a tedious grind.
In my last post I wrote: "The real reason society is going to collapse, is when enough of us sense that we'll be happier living in a much simpler society." But "simpler" isn't the right word. Leigh Ann and I have been playing a really complex board game called Spirit Island. It's much better than a simple board game like Risk.
If a game designer looked at our world, they would see that it's highly complex in a way that's not at all fun. We don't actually want to live in a simple world -- we want to live in a well-designed complex world. But the best path from one complex world to another, is through simplicity, by stripping it down and building something different.