"Look at the sunset from the sun's point of view."
- Steven Wright
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January 23. On a loose end from the last post, readers send two more examples of jobs where you're engaging with the non-human physical world in a non-dominating way. One is field ecologist, and the other is certain jobs working with domesticated animals, who of course we're permitted to dominate, but sometimes it's better for us if we don't.
New subject: this was posted to the subreddit, a new Venkatesh Rao post, The Internet of Beefs. It's very long, but most of the good stuff is in section 2, "Mooks and Knights":
Conflict on the IoB is shaped not by the strategic intentions of its nominal leaders (who largely have none, beyond keeping the conflict profitably alive and growing), but by emotional energy flows in the field of mooks. The best knights on the IoB, such as Trump, operate by an entirely reactive philosophy: "there go my mooks; I must find out where they are going, so I can get out in front and lead them."
I would frame the whole thing as a game: inside every mook is a fully complex human, but there aren't many niches in this society where you can thrive as a fully complex human, so they spend some time every day allowing their identity to be consumed by a character in a MMORPG. The game is cyber-tribalism, flinging social media comments at the enemy monkey tribe.
I'm optimistic that this is something humanity will grow out of. Look at critiques of television from the 1960's. They imagine all of us turning into TV zombies, just sitting and staring slack-jawed at the screen all day. What happened instead is that most of us learned to integrate TV into our lives in a balanced way.
Looking farther back, a big factor in Hitler's rise to power was radio. It was a new technology, and a voice coming out of a box had a lot more power over people than it does now.
Sometimes I wonder if the internet is a fad. In terms of the quality of the experience of using the internet, it peaked around 15 years ago, and just in the last two years it's become much worse. Ads have won the arms race against ad-blockers, and it's hard to find a website where you don't have click an X, or ignore some unwelcome demand on your attention, to do whatever you came to the site to do. An increasing percentage of the internet does not have the content to be worth the hassle.
January 21. The other day I was skimming Matthew Crawford's book Shop Class as Soulcraft. His basic idea is that our culture has lost touch with the physical world, that thinking has been separated from doing, and that we can be smarter and happier if we have to solve problems with our hands and minds working together.
But a lot of his examples are from motorcycle repair, and possibly all of his examples are from the man-made physical world. So you could argue that it's still humanity staring at its own navel. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a job where you're engaging with the non-human physical world, in a non-dominating way. Professional surfer?
I've also been working through a book on a similar subject, Tim Ingold's Perception of the Environment. In a bunch of essays, Ingold explores the idea that our identities are not inside our heads, but out where we meet the world. He mentions tribal people in the south Pacific, who take canoes on the open ocean, and they're so adept at reading the waves that they can "see" islands over the horizon.
Last night I was practicing piano (a Yamaha digital keyboard) and it occurred to me that it's the opposite of motorcycle repair. Instead of wrestling with a tool that's not working right, I was using a tool that does exactly what it's supposed to do, to wrestle with my own mind and body: trying to keep my left fingers moving in an unchanging pattern, while my right fingers improvise.
I'm not sure where I'm going with this, but the best selling piano album in history, Keith Jarrett's The Köln Concert, was played on a crappy piano that the piano warehouse sent to the concert hall by accident. So the instrument didn't just obey his will -- he had to work with its limitations, which made him more creative.
Related? This video was just posted to the subreddit, Top 7 Girls in Beat Saber, a VR game where blocks fly at you and you smack them with swords. This is also related to last week's post. As the supposedly useful world no longer gives us satisfying challenges where our perceptions meet our actions, we can find that satisfaction in play worlds. But then, who maintains the lame useful world?
January 20. Last month I linked to a 26 minute documentary about me. Last night I found out that the guy who made it, Jordan Mechano, died a few days ago. Thanks Ryan for sending this photo of Jordan and me at the magical place where his film ends.
I wonder how much of the wisdom of old people comes from knowing more people who have died. Every time it happens, we get better understanding of something that's easy to put into words but hard to really understand: life's simple pleasures are more valuable than life's accomplishments.
Jordan was also a Big Blood fan, so this song is for him: Time Stands Still. And for everyone still alive, my favorite line from the Bible, Ecclesiastes 9:7. "Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works."
January 16. This week I'm mostly taking a break from writing to play lots of Starsector. Lately, as a social philosopher, I've been thinking about how to make society more like a good game. But now I'm wondering if it's more realistic to make society a substrate for games -- not a great game in itself, but a well-functioning game that's loaded with great minigames. If there were something like reincarnation, and I had to make the case for being a human at this time in history, I wouldn't talk about our earth-shaking technologies, but our music, our drugs, and our games. So since I'm here, that's what I want to enjoy.
Related: 7 Reasons Why Video Gaming Will Take Over.
And congratulations to Morgan Weaver, from my hometown soccer team, on going second overall in the NWSL draft. It's interesting because, other than being fast, she's not an elite athlete. What raised her draft stock was a growing awareness of her psychological skills: motivating her teammates, and playing better in big games. Here's a video of her 2018 hat trick against Washington.
Last week I was unfair to Neil Peart, juxtaposing some of his clunkier lyrics with two great songs. My favorite Peart lyrics are from the 1984 song Between The Wheels:
It slips between your hands like water
This living in real time
A dizzying lifetime
Reeling by on celluloid
Struck between the eyes by the big time world
Walking uneasy streets
Hiding beneath the sheets
Got to try and fill the void
January 13. On the subreddit, an excerpt from a book by Peter Thiel on the Unabomber, arguing that people are losing faith in technological progress because we think there are no secrets left. Personally I'm a big believer in unknown unknowns -- I think we've barely scratched the surface of what we can potentially understand. I've lost faith in technological progress because it has created a world where I'm constantly asked to do stuff I don't feel like doing, and when I look at wild animals, or at anthropology literature about the nicer primitive cultures, none of them have that problem.
Related: yet another article trying to reframe willpower, with a depressing argument that we can force ourselves to do an unlimited amount of stuff we don't feel like doing, if we only believe we can. As if that would be a good way to live. But near the end is a smart idea: instead of thinking of willpower as a resource, think of the need for willpower as an emotion, telling us to "find new paths that may not require us to do things we fundamentally don't want to do."
Yesterday morning I went to my dad's house and shoveled a bunch of snow, and I actually enjoyed it. If the temperature is below freezing, so that everything is dry and not slushy, shoveling snow is a fun workout, and every shovelful feels rewarding.
This is a simplification, but we have lost faith in technological progress because all the fun jobs have been replaced by machines, and the only work left for humans is bullshit jobs -- unless you're in the top tenth of one percent, and then life is a fun game of accumulating capital, with the rest of humanity as game tokens.
From 2017, Table-top Generals is about board games, and how much better they are now than the games we grew up with. I'm thinking, human society is the same way. The world we have right now is like Monopoly, a terrible game that we're all playing because we don't know there's anything better. Out there in the space of possibilities, there's a human society like Settlers of Catan, which is not even the best game, just a popular game that was finally actually fun.
Of course, you can't swap out human societies like board games, and every attempt to "change the game" through top-down power has been a disaster. I think the key technology, to enable bottom-up game-changing, is some kind of sci-fi food fabricator, something robust and decentralized, so that we can really cut loose, knocking stuff down and trying new stuff, and still have enough to eat.
January 10. Neil Peart has died. It's pronounced "peert" and not "pert". He was the drummer and lyricist for Rush, and when I was a teenager, I loved both his drumming and his lyrics.
I still love his drumming. I don't have any obscure Rush songs with better drumming than their famous songs, but this is my favorite Rush song that's never played on the radio: Cygnus X-1.
As for Peart's lyrics, let's just say, in Myers-Briggs, he was a total S, but at least he aspired to be an N. Here's a verse from the Rush song "Mystic Rhythms":
More things than are dreamed about
Unseen and unexplained
We suspend our disbelief
We are entertained
On the same theme, from Joanna Newsom's "En Gallop":
Palaces and storm clouds
And the rough straggly sage and the smoke
And the way it will all come together
In quietness, and in time
And from Beat Happening's "Secret Picnic Spot":
This is our secret picnic spot turned inside out and made pure
by the heavy wind and rustling leaves
From now til we greet again
Joining hands and feet
Digging and scraping
January 8. Adam Elkus has a really smart blog. Usually when I link to something, I'll read a bunch of long-winded paragraphs, figure out the basic idea, and condense it to a couple sentences. But Elkus defies condensation. Sometimes I can't even say what his argument is, but he always gives me tangential ideas.
His latest post, Lift Up The Receiver, I'll Make You A Believer, is about artificial intelligence and human emotional needs, and it reminds me of some thoughts I've been having about authenticity, about people being real or unreal.
Leigh Ann and I have been watching the TV series His Dark Materials, based on the series of novels by Philip Pullman. It's full of sci-fi gold: a steampunk alternate universe, a divinatory gizmo, a knife that cuts between worlds. I liked the novels, but I absolutely hate the show, and it's hard to explain why. All the characters are bullshit -- only the villain, Mrs. Coulter, is slightly interesting. Everyone else is a polished-to-death cartoon of a certain type of person. Their emotional reactions are always exactly what you expect. The dialogue could not get any worse without getting better -- because then the badness would let some light in.
I don't want to pick on this particular show. Harry Potter and Star Wars are just as bad. And I don't want to pick on Hollywood -- I loved Knives Out, and I can't wait for season three of Future Man. There's still room to do interesting stuff. But in general, in entertainment and also in social media, it's like we're all under a suffocating blanket that tells us how we're supposed to behave, and the result is, on the surface, humans are less weird now than maybe we've ever been -- but underneath we're still totally weird, because reality is weird. At some point, that realness has to break out.
Possibly related: People are seeing Cats while high out of their minds.
January 6. Over on Hacker News, someone posted the 2010's prediction thread from ten years ago, and here's the new thread on that thread, mostly about "how little of current importance was even mentioned."
And some feel-good links. My favorite band released a new album at the end of 2019: Deep Maine. I love the first track, "Hail The Happy Hourlings".
The Goodreads page about the book Wilding, about a couple who let nature take over their farm: "Thanks to the introduction of free-roaming cattle, ponies, pigs and deer - proxies of the large animals that once roamed Britain - the 3,500 acre project has seen extraordinary increases in wildlife numbers and diversity in little over a decade."
Energy startup achieves solar breakthrough: "For the first time, concentrated solar energy can be used to create the extreme heat required to make cement, steel, glass and other industrial processes."
Finally, just saw this on the NFL subreddit, a 27 second video with some inspiring words from Marshawn Lynch.
January 2, 2020. I think of the zero years as part of the previous decade, not the next decade. And it's not because of calendar math, but culture. The music of 1970 sounds more like the 60's than the 70's. The clothing and hairstyles in 1980 looked like extreme 70's and not like the 80's at all. The 90's didn't start until "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was released in fall of 1991, and didn't end until 9/11/01.
I'm hoping for a 30-year cycle, where the next decade will give us a loosening like the 60's and 90's. Because things are so tight right now. There have never been so many rules that we'll get in trouble for not following, from cultural niceness rules, to the number of different payments we have to make, to password rules so labyrinthine that I don't go anywhere without a sheet of old-fashioned paper where I've written them all down.
In general, the trend of the 2010's was that the burden of an increasingly maladapted society has been put on the shoulders of disconnected individuals. That explains the explosion in homelessness, depression, anxiety, even autism. There's a video, I don't have a link, but it mentioned a two year old who developed full-blown autism. So they took him to a treatment center, which put him in a very low stimulation environment, and the therapist gradually built up his ability to deal with more stimulation. By age 8, he was neurotypical.
People are the same as ever, but every time the human-made world drifts farther from human nature, there's another group of people who can't deal with it, and they're diagnosed with some disorder that makes it their fault. It reminds me of the "First they came..." thing from Nazi Germany. "First there were a lot of homeless people, then there were a lot of depressed people..."
But it's not like there's anything we can do about it. Our ancestors could stand up at a village meeting, and actually convince the village to do things differently. Now, even though we're still talking about human behavior, it's more like an unfolding disaster. You're not going to talk a storm or a fire into changing course.
My prediction for the coming decade is slow psychological collapse, in which more and more of the things that need to be done, to keep the system going, someone says fuck it. And they're right. My advice is, take care of your own mental health first, even if it means not doing your duties, and have compassion for other people who put their own mental health ahead of serving you.
That commercial is everywhere now: "Just okay is not okay." That's the voice of the dominant system, trying to shovel back the tide of dying motivation. In ten or twenty years, you'll be grateful to find anything that's even just okay, and if you find someone who's actually highly motivated to do something well, they'll either be doing something society considers useless, or dangerous.
December 31. Continuing from Sunday, some woo-woo stuff. Hallucinations Are Everywhere. I would say it like this: it's normal to perceive things that other people don't perceive, and these perceptions can be helpful. Some people wonder if quantum indeterminacy could ever happen at the macro level. Well, what would that look like? It would look like conflicting reports from reliable witnesses, and that happens all the time! Our culture declares that all but one of them was wrong from the beginning, but I see many competing options for what we eventually decide to call true.
This Crowdsourced Map Documents UFO Sightings, Cryptids, and the Supernatural. It's done by two guys I knew in the early days of this blog, Garrett Kelly and Jeremy Puma. Here's a long podcast interview with them, A Paranormal Planet with Liminal Earth. It's funny how the paranormal is just like music or any kind of creative work: when you first start getting into it, it's all popular cliches, but as you get deeper, you find weirder and weirder stuff.
Hysteria High: How Demons Destroyed a Florida School. The school was founded by an authoritarian huckster, and he created an atmosphere so repressive that eventually the student body exploded in mass hysteria -- except that their insanity had some internal consistency, with some physical manifestations that are hard to explain.
I'm undecided on whether paranormal entities have existence outside human observers. If they don't, it's almost more interesting, because that means we alone decide their character. Maybe demons and scary entities only emerge from nasty human cultures, and nice cultures will create/attract entities that are benign and helpful. Related: Hallucinatory voices shaped by local culture.
Finally, something more philosophical, Imitation and Extinction: The Case Against Reality. We might think that natural selection favors seeing what's really there, but game theory says that's not so. It's like, if reality is a computer, we don't evolve toward seeing silicon chips and bits, but seeing increasingly useful desktop icons. So when we look really closely at our apparent physical reality, and see atoms, that might be like looking really closely at desktop icons, and deciding that pixels are the fundamental reality.
Coming back around to Fermi's Paradox:
We search outer space and assume that ETs must lurk there. But space is not reality; it's our virtual reality, the idiosyncratic interface of our species.
We suppose that the long sweep of spacetime, with its countless stars and planets, is the preexisting stage for an accidental drama in which we are bit players. We think it's faintly mad to suppose otherwise. But we're mistaken. We are the authors of space and time; their myriad contents are our impressive stagecraft.
December 29. This subreddit thread about Fermi's paradox has some good stuff, including a recommendation of a book that I'll start looking for in large libraries and ebook sites, The Metaphysics of Technology by David Skrbina. Skrbina is best known as "the Unabomber's penpal," and it's interesting that only people with extreme views on technology -- with Ray Kurzweil at the other extreme -- are looking for something behind it.
Anyway, it's been a while since I've written about Fermi's paradox, which was neither originated by Enrico Fermi, nor is it a paradox. It's just wondering why, in such a big universe, we haven't found any aliens.
My solution is just increasingly weird versions of the same idea: that we're looking for aliens who are too much like us.
Starting with the most conventional: the universe is full of planets with biological life as we know it, and sometimes a species evolves what we call intelligence, and they do the same kind of stuff that we do -- send out electromagnetic signals and spacecraft. Then they either go extinct, or they chill out, and settle into the ecology of their home planet.
More weird: the aliens soon move on to technologies that we don't know how to look for. It's like, some tribe that uses drums and smoke to communicate with other tribes, thinks it's alone, because it doesn't know how to look for radio waves. We're looking for radio waves when we should be looking for sub-etheric beacons or three-spin particles.
Or maybe the aliens are so weird, that they're actually trying to talk to us, but our science doesn't recognize their communication as data. There's a good article on this, Incommensurability, Orthodoxy and the Physics of High Strangeness.
My craziest idea is just taking philosophical idealism seriously. If mind is the root of matter, then outer space is just a projection of the mind of humanity. We won't find aliens there, because it's our dream, and they'll be dreaming their own universes. Or, we're looking for space aliens, when we should be looking for mind aliens.
This is hard to explain. It's like, in Plato's allegory of the cave, we're looking for aliens in our own shadow, when we should be turning to the light behind us, and seeing who else is making shadows on their own wall -- or who else might have seen the light already, and now they're trying to get our attention by messing with our shadows.
December 25. For Christmas, I want to write about Jesus. I'm not a Christian, more like a pantheist, and I don't believe in hell, a place with arguably no biblical evidence. So salvation is not necessary, except being saved from the illusions of this world. I like the neo-Gnostic idea that we're in a simulation and Jesus hacked it.
Matt comments over email, "I think the appeal of Jesus, on one level, is the appeal of Superman. The universe sucks and we want someone to fix it in one fell swoop." I would add: they both came from the sky, they both have magical powers, they both have no character flaws, and they even have a similar iconic posture -- Superman's arms are just more above his head.
As a character, Superman is boring. I would find the story of Jesus more inspiring if he started out as a bad person, and then became a good person, like Ryan Leaf. George Carlin has said that the story of Jesus would be better if he were not the son of God, just some loser who God decided to adopt. Then we'd think twice about being mean to someone, because God might adopt that person next. Update: there's actually a fringe Christian doctrine, Adoptionism, that believes this.
Jesus said: Judge not, that ye be not judged. It occurs to me, if you judge anyone for being not as good as you in any way, then your advantage is a matter of luck. If it were skill, then you would have had to climb up from being where they are; and in that case, you would know what it's like to be where they are, and you wouldn't judge them.
December 24. For Christmas eve, these are my top five Christmas songs that you won't hear on the radio:
Ramones - Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight)
Clarence Carter - Back Door Santa
Big Star - Jesus Christ
Steve Mauldin - The Abominable O Holy Night
Ramsey Lewis Trio - What Are You Doing New Year's Eve
December 23. Another thought about that hypersanity article. The author is trying to reframe our thinking about weird people, as a spectrum with normal people in the middle, the insane on one side, and the supersane on the other. He thinks he's being helpful: "Be nice to that weird person, they might be supersane."
Speaking for the weird people, stop trying to divide us. Consider supposed supersane Nelson Mandela. He started out as a violent militant fighting for racial justice, exactly like American abolitionist John Brown. If history had gone differently, we would see Brown as a saintly patriarch, and Mandela as a failed loony.
Or, the difference between the "insane" and "supersane" is not their personality or their mental state, but how useful they are to the normals.
December 22. Posted to the subreddit, The Hypersane Are Among Us. I like the idea of the article, but not the execution. The author is romanticizing a form of mental achievement, arguing that three different things -- sanity, understanding, and happiness -- all naturally go together. And his evidence is purely anecdotal, naming certain famous people who are supposedly high in all three.
Sanity is a popularity contest. Seeing something that nobody around you sees is pretty much the definition of insanity. Maybe history will look back and say, "that crazy person was right!" But being sane in an insane world is hardly a recipe for happiness. My examples of "sometimes those who seem a little crazy are the ones who really get it," would be people like Philip K Dick, Vincent Van Gogh, or Emily Bronte, all of whom attempted or succeeded at suicide. But then, maybe they would have been happy if the people around them could keep up.
In my experience, the happiest people are often the most clueless. I was happiest at age four, before I went to school and found out how fucked up the world is. I still feel driven to increase my understanding, but mostly it's like learning more and more rules of a game that's not fun.
But suppose it's true, that if we persist in seeking understanding, eventually it stops being a burden and becomes liberating. That raises the question: what will it be like when all of humanity has done that?
Last night I went to a Christmas park, where all the trees were covered with lights, and there was an old locomotive with a bell you could ring by pulling a rope. Every single person who rang the bell was under 12. When you're a kid, it's awesome to pull a rope and make a big noise, but adults are like, been there, done that. So I'm thinking, maybe humanity is going through a similar process, and when we become a mature species, we'll no longer get pleasure from imposing our will on the world.
This is a solution to Fermi's paradox. The universe could be full of intelligent aliens, but they've all lost interest in doing anything that would attract our attention.
December 16. I was reading an article about wealth inequality, and remembered my critique of the word "privilege". I've said that it points to two different kinds of things, but now I can see three. First is things that some people have, that everyone should have, like not going hungry, or being free to travel.
Second is things that some people have, where it's okay that only some people have them. Would you rather live in a mansion or a cottage? Would you rather go to a five star restaurant or a dive bar? It's like asking your favorite color. Just because something costs more money, doesn't mean it should be universally available, or unavailable.
The problem is that money is closely related to the third category, the thing that some people have, that no one should have: power over others. And that's the real problem with wealth inequality: that our whole society is built to make us all NPC's in the game of leveraging money into more money, where only one in a thousand can play.
I was reading an article about personality differences between men and women, which tries to describe some differences without interpreting them as either biological or cultural. I think most of the described differences are cultural. Women are more "compassionate, polite, anxious, self-doubting" because they're still emerging from thousands of years of having lower social status.
Right now, the phrase "women's voices" implies voices of the oppressed, voices of the excluded. Only when it no longer has that meaning, will we know who women are.