"Look at the sunset from the sun's point of view."
- Steven Wright
February 20. More than a year ago, a reader donated a promo code for three months of Spotify premium (thanks Josh), and last weekend I finally got around to making an account and posting some playlists. Here's my user page. I don't plan to use it for listening, because I prefer to keep mp3's on my own machine and use VLC. One thing I do all the time on my computer, that Spotify can't do, is configure the columns, for example to show song length and not album name. Also some of the best musicians, probably for good reasons, keep their music off Spotify. My newest playlist is duel between Big Blood and Camper Van Beethoven -- and Spotify is missing 14 of the 19 songs! (If you're curious, there are YouTube links on my favorite songs page.)
Spotify has all but one of the songs on my soft hits of the seventies playlist. I started that project back in summer of 2017, and it was a lot of fun. Using these two resources, the Hot 100 Singles Chronology and the Weekly Top 40, I went through thousands of titles, whittled it down under a hundred, and started listening. Eventually I got it down to 27 songs in order of when they peaked on the charts. One thing I discovered is that music from 1970 still sounds like the sixties, and 1980 still sounds like the seventies. I don't think the eighties really arrived until MTV launched in the summer of 1981.
Anyway, I was playtesting that list, and I switched over to Sleep's Dopesmoker, and started wondering about music recommendation engines. Imagine your favorite songs that are farthest apart, and what it would take for an AI to connect them. Right now I think music recommendation uses the same idea that Google used to take over the internet: the computer doesn't even try to understand what you're looking for, but just looks at other people who were looking for the same thing.
Here's my crazy startup idea. Shazam already has code for listening really closely to the actual music. What if you could put that code through some kind of learning loop, where it learned to correlate sounds with personal preferences? How good could it get?
I do see an absolute limit in music recommendation, in that sometimes our favorite songs are situational -- whatever happened to be playing at some important time in our lives. But then, when I was making my seventies list, there were some songs with big nostalgia value, like Robbie Dupree's "Steal Away", that now sound totally lame, and some songs I don't even remember, like Steve Forbert's "Romeo's Tune", that now sound brilliant. When I listen to my favorite songs across genres, they have a raw and epic quality that a well-trained AI should be able to pick up on.
Recommendation engines stretch the long tail of culture. The better they work, the more unpopular something can be, and you can still find it. Imagine if AI recommendation gets so good, that you can plug in your favorite stuff, not just music but illustration, prose, dance, design -- and it can find some unknown person on the other side of the world who's doing exactly what you love. And if you've created something good, it can find you a tiny and far-flung audience.
In the future, everyone will be famous among fifteen people.
February 18. I'm not smart enough to do a real post today, so here are some stray links, starting with three about substances.
Is Sunscreen the New Margarine? It always seemed too good to be true: that a magic lotion can block the bad stuff in sunlight and let the good stuff through. Now the evidence is building that we need raw sunlight to be healthy, but the trick is knowing how much. A weird finding: while people who get a ton of sunlight do get more skin cancer, it's mostly benign, and deadly melanoma is more common among people who don't get enough sunlight.
A scientific article, Consumption of a dark roast coffee blend reduces DNA damage in humans.
And an explanation of the orange juice industry. Only at this time of year is "not from concentrate" real orange juice. The rest of the year, they store the unconcentrated juice in a way that strips the flavor from it, so they have to add flavor back; and they're not even trying to restore the flavor that was lost, but to give consumers whatever they think orange juice should taste like.
And three Reddit threads. Why learning how to draw is a near-perfect analogy for mindfulness meditation, because you're practicing seeing with your eyes and not with your mental expectations.
What is your favorite "holy crap this actually works" trick?
Those who have taken LSD, what can you share with people who have never done it? My advice is, if you want to watch TV or listen to music on drugs, use cannabis; if you've taken LSD, go outside.
February 15. I want to continue bashing IQ, and I have a better metaphor than people who are good at bureaucracy making the rules harder. It's more like human society is a giant board game. Have you ever played a board game, and there was that one guy who was both really good and totally ruthless, so he almost always won, and nobody wanted to play with him? Well, those guys have been winning for thousands of years now, and every time they win, they change the rules to make the game fit their skill-set even better, so they can win even bigger, and the game keeps getting worse for everyone else. But we're all still forced to play.
A short piece from 2011, Neil Postman, Technopoly, and Technological Theology. It's a review of Postman's book Technopoly, a word he defines as "the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology." He lists the beliefs of technological theology, and one of them is: What cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value.
The defenders of progress will point out the many ways the world is getting better, like longer lifespan, and more "wealth", defined as more units of money passing through more people's hands. But there's a trade-off, in which easily measurable gains come with losses that are hard to measure. That's why we're all unhappy, and our culture doesn't give us the mental tools to understand why, so we think it's our fault.
For example, just posted to the subreddit, a long article about millennial burnout, which links to this more interesting article, an argument that laziness does not exist. I would say, laziness is an invention of a society that has gone astray from human nature, to morally shame us for its own dependence on tasks that people don't enjoy doing.
Two days ago there was a massively upvoted reddit comment about the hospital fantasy: that you'll get injured, just seriously enough that you can spend a few weeks in a hospital bed with no obligations and people taking care of you. I have that fantasy and I don't even have a job. I would suggest that anyone who doesn't have the hospital fantasy is a member of the motivational elite: the lucky individuals who fill the shrinking number of niches, in the social ecology, where your responsibilities perfectly fit your nature.
I actually do well on IQ tests. A few years ago I took an unofficial online test where I got every answer right. But my score was still not that high, because I was penalized for taking too long. IQ tests are always timed, they have to be, because IQ is not a measure of intelligence -- it's a measure of fit with the technopoly, and another of Postman's rules is: The primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency.
In an adequate society, the primary goal is subjective quality of life. I don't know how we're going to get there from here, or how long it will take. But I do know that, from the perspective of the theology of progress, the world will be worse than it is now. Maybe eventually we'll all be happy and not know why.
February 13. I want to pick up from a week ago, where I wrote, "The other way progress is dying, is that more of us are feeling drained, not energized, by its rituals."
Are Intellectuals Suffering a Crisis of Meaning? The article is full of a word I don't like: gifted. In practice, that word is bestowed on young people who are good at manipulating abstractions. Out of all the things you can be good at, that very specific skill is held up like a magic token that makes a person objectively superior.
Some people think the world would be better if we all had higher IQ's (and don't start with me about how that's impossible under the strict definition of IQ). I think the world would be worse. People who are good at manipulating abstractions are not wiser or more correct -- they're just better at building intellectual fortresses around the things they're wrong about. If everyone were as smart as Einstein, we would just make bigger and more tragic technological mistakes.
I think that's sort of already happened. Here's a 2007 article by Malcolm Gladwell on the Flynn effect, in which we're all getting better at taking IQ tests. He thinks this is caused by an increase in a detached and abstract style of thinking. I always say that the prophet of our time was not Orwell or Huxley, but Kafka. It's like the people who are better at filling out nightmarish bureaucratic forms, keep making the forms harder, to give themselves a competitive advantage, and now we're all stuck in that world.
More links on 21st century malaise: Let Children Get Bored Again. Kids used to be left to entertain themselves, and now adults think it's their duty to keep kids constantly stimulated. So they grow into adults who need constant stimulation -- which is no longer provided by benevolent parents and teachers, but by exploitative technologies and workplaces.
Ketamine Could Be the Key to Reversing America's Rising Suicide Rate. The article argues that the difference between people who attempt suicide, and people who don't, is that the non-suicidal people are better at blocking the impulse to kill themselves. That means, everyone wants to die!
If You're Often Angry Or Irritable, You May Be Depressed. Strangely, anger is an official symptom of depression for kids, but not for adults, so a lot of them go years without the right diagnosis.
I followed the Hacker News comment thread on that article to this great comment from a year ago, which argues that depression is a breakdown in our predictive model of reality:
When an individual's model of reality is broken, and society cannot guide them towards a more accurate one because society itself is still operating on the model that individual has determined to be flawed, then chronic depression is a likely result. Our current societal philosophy, the one our health care system is also based on, sees this individual's suffering not as a transition period in which they form a new model, but a severe disorder. To them, the rejection of the model is a form of insanity, and unclear thinking. This is why you sometimes see people tell a depressed person an obvious platitude in an attempt to cheer them up, only for it to further frustrate the depressed individual: they are aware that the platitude is part of a flawed model.
February 11. A few days back the subreddit had a post about religion with several long comments. The main post mentions Julian Jaynes and his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, with a link to this great post about it, Gods, voice-hearing and the bicameral mind.
I don't think I've ever written about Jaynes. I'm sure that ancient people had different consciousness than modern people, but Jaynes thought it was really different: that they were basically all schizophrenic, hearing voices and seeing visions, which they interpreted as gods. Then around the time of Socrates, those voices faded.
Another good explanation, Mr. Jaynes' Wild Ride. It mentions that ancient Greeks had no word for "body". They didn't need one, because they had not yet formed an identity separate from their bodies.
Some people say the distinction between mind and body is an illusion. I think the disembodied mind is a real thing, a living pattern in our brains, which models an external world and a discrete self. You can't make it go away just by disbelieving it. But with good drugs, or really difficult meditation, you can temporarily shut it down, and become one with your stream of experience.
My guess is that prehistoric people weren't schizophrenic, but tripping. And then gradually, our detached, rational, self-reflective mind became more and more dominant, until educated westerners lost the ability to imagine any other way of being.
I think we're already recovering. That's why it seems strange to us that Julian Jaynes used the word "consciousness" for self-conscious introspection, and not the broader way that we use it now. Now we're curious about the subjective experience of wild animals, and we're learning to see the human subconscious, not as a pit of primal terror, but as a helpful resource.
This is a hard subject, so I'll leave it with a hard question. Is the "unconscious" conscious? What is it like to be the voice in your head?
February 8. For the weekend, some happy links.
How Early Humans Handled Aggression. I read somewhere how miraculous it is, that you can pack an airplane with hundreds of humans who don't know each other, and there will be no violence at all. If you did that with chimps, they would tear each other apart. This article argues that we became so peaceful through prehistoric eugenics! Our male ancestors teamed up to ambush the most violent males, and our female ancestors refused to mate with them. I think that was the right idea -- but now that we have biotech, I expect that kind of thing to go too far. By the way, I think it's crazy that there are libertarians who like eugenics. Who doesn't trust the government to redistribute wealth and power, but does trust the government to say who can have kids? Rich white guys, that's who.
The World Might Actually Run Out of People. I remember this poster from the 1970's, when we thought overpopulation was the biggest problem facing humanity. It turns out, humans don't just mindlessly reproduce. When we have access to birth control, when society takes care of old people, and when women are educated, we have the opposite problem: birthrates are too low to replace ourselves. According to this article, global population decline will happen sooner than we thought, because now even women in the slums of India have smartphones, and with that expanded perspective, they're pushing back against being baby machines for men.
I think this bit is wrong: "Once that decline begins, it will never end." If it looks like humans are going to die out, society will create stronger incentives to have kids -- or just start growing them in vats and raising them without parents. But before that can happen, the population decline will force us to abandon growth-based economics, and that's such a radical change that all bets are off.
Arborists are bringing the dinosaur of trees back to life, planting groves of redwoods all over the world.
Pigeon Towers: A Low-tech Alternative to Synthetic Fertilizers. Not only do they gather pigeon poop to fertilize fields, they can also look really cool.
Ferrock: A Stronger, Greener Alternative to Concrete? It's made from steel dust and ground up glass, and it's carbon-negative, but it's not cheap.
Solar Farms Shine a Ray of Hope on Bees and Butterflies, by letting wildflowers grow in the spaces between the panels.
February 6. Still thinking about religion, and I've decided that religion is not a thing -- it's a confusing word, which points to several different things, which sometimes go together but don't have to. These include: 1) a community for doing any of the below; 2) an idea, that you refuse to doubt, and that serves as a foundation or anchor for your mental models; 3) a set of rituals, where a ritual is a highly predictable activity that turns physical energy into mental energy; and 4) an existential theory of mind. I got that last one from this article posted to the subreddit.
The idea is, when you talk to other people, you need to know how they tick, what it's like to be this person, what they want from you, what you should expect each other to do. That's a human theory of mind, and you might have a different theory of mind for dealing with nonhumans, like your dog, or your phone, or the government. An existential theory of mind is about reality itself.
In olden days, the dominant EToM was a bearded man in the sky pulling strings. You would look at things out of your control, and speculate about what God wants. Somewhere in the 1990's, I started to notice a shift, where people still do this, but instead of saying God, they say "the universe". This is full-on pantheism, and I would argue that pantheism is now the dominant EToM of educated people who are not materialists.
Materialism is an existential theory of mindlessness -- not just wondering, but being certain that there is no mind or meaning beyond what humans create. Rene Descartes, the father of materialism, actually believed that if you torture a dog, its howls of pain are no different from a bell ringing on a machine. The funny thing is, Descartes did believe in God. But he separated God from the world in such a way that God could be easily cut out of the equation.
I think materialism is a useful tool for switching from one EToM to another, like a transmission for the engine of meaning. Whatever you thought was important, is now just bouncing particles and waves, and you're free to decide that something else is important. But you can't keep driving in neutral. The Wikipedia page on nihilism is a good survey of all the ways people have continued to look for meaning after giving up on meaning.
Suddenly I understand the religion of progress -- I'm comfortable in calling progress a religion because it fits all four of my points above. The community is the whole modern economy. The undoubted idea is there is no value, meaning, or motive beyond what is created by human activity. The ritual is that your alarm goes off, you go to a job to make money, and what makes a job important is how much stuff it moves, from the empty realm outside humanity, into the realm of human-defined value. For example, turning a forest into board-feet of lumber, or a river into megawatts of hydropower.
But now progress is dying in the face of ecology. If a dog can feel pain, maybe forests and rivers have intrinsic value, which humans have been destroying. With climate catastrophe looming, even human value is now served by undoing the progress of the past.
That's why the Pope of Progress, Elon Musk, wants to colonize Mars -- because re-terraforming Earth means undoing what humans have done, while terraforming Mars means humans doing more things. Green Mars is more valuable than green Earth, because green Earth happened without us, and green Mars will be something we did.
The other way progress is dying, is that more of us are feeling drained, not energized, by its rituals. That's a whole other subject.
February 4. Last week Leigh Ann and I watched the new Netflix Ted Bundy documentary. One thing that struck me was how he talked about his youth. In reality, he was a mediocre student and athlete, a social failure, and was probably beaten by his grandfather. But the story he told was not only false -- it was empty, a bland mask of the all-American boy.
The week before that I read a new novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green. (Thanks Alex for recommending it.) What I like about it is its detailed view of how fame works in the age of social media. It's terrifying! Suddenly your name and face are at the center of a battle, where everyone is busy trying to shape your image for their own motives.
The motive of the public, and anyone who can make money off you, is to make your image simple and bold and familiar, something both exciting and easy to understand. The more you play along with that, the more you're rewarded.
For example, there was just a scandal at Der Spiegel. It turns out the prestigious magazine's star reporter has been making stuff up for years. In the words of the reporter who caught him:
One thing you can learn from reading pieces by Claas Relotius, is that this is an easy world. It's easy to explain. It's easy to understand. And this is what Relotius really offers.
I'm thinking of all of this in terms of social ecology. Modern media have created a niche, which is filled by people who are most willing to build their public image backward from the bullshit the public wants, instead of forward from the reality inside them. So it favors people who don't have much reality inside them in the first place.
It's funny because we all wonder what that celebrity is really like, and not what that random person on the bus is really like. But the person on the bus is probably more interesting.
February 1. Why Do Rich People Love Endurance Sports? The article mentions three reasons. The first is selection bias, that triathlons are expensive. The second is that endurance sports provide something missing from most white collar jobs, "a clear and measurable goal with a direct line back to the work they have put in." And the strange third reason is the pursuit of pain.
Back in 2017 I did a post that linked to this long post, The opponent-process theory of emotion. Everyone knows that pleasure often rebounds into pain, and vice versa; but sometimes the rebound is stronger than the initial feeling, so someone could feel more pleasure by actively seeking pain.
That's never happened to me. That post doesn't even consider the possibility that different people get different amounts of hedonic rebound, but I think it's obvious, and I'm wondering if that difference is related to some kind of personality difference, like the old Type A - Type B theory.
It's easy to assume that everyone's inner world is like your own, but they might be radically different. The other day there was a short Ask Reddit thread, What does anxiety feel like? The answers are all over the place, and the most interesting difference is that some people feel the wrongness inside them, and some people feel it out in the world.
For me anxiety feels like the world is made of needles and knives, all poised to stab me if I make a move to extend myself. And I've made some progress against anxiety by seeking pain: when I notice that something bothers me, I try to amplify that feeling as long and hard as I can. It feels terrible, and it doesn't feel good when I stop. The mechanism is not like a rebound, but like draining my pain battery, until the charge becomes weaker and less frightening.
It's actually a lot like this technique from the meditation subreddit, an extended metaphor of hunting baby thoughts. Edited:
To catch baby thoughts, first build a fortress -- normally your own breath, but it can be anything. Soon, the baby thoughts will start knocking on those walls, and the method to kill a baby thought is simple: notice it.
If you don't notice it early, the thought will get older and eventually die after several long minutes. During those minutes, you will be absorbed by that thought, and then another thought will wait for its turn, and another. This is what happens to people in their everyday life: the birth, growth and death of long strings of thoughts.
During meditation, you shorten this cycle and hunt the thoughts as young as possible. After many hours of hunting, as you get better at killing them, they will come more sparsely, until you will find yourself alone, in peace and silence.
January 30. Quick loose end from yesterday. I said a religion's object of focus "has no practical value, but great psychological value." But nothing has more practical value than motivation! I should have framed the distinction as being between external and internal practical value. And I'm wondering if it's even possible to get both from the same thing. I've started looking at the meditation subreddit, and for some people, meditation is a path to becoming a better person, while other people say you have to let go of the expectation that meditation will help you in any way, because only then can you do it right.
January 29. I want to say a little more about religion, and in general about old things coming back. A reader was asking me about "nomadic communities arising" as states and economies break down. My answer was, I don't see old-world nomads coming back, but nomadism might emerge in new ways. Already, people are changing jobs much more often than in the 1950's. And a lot more people are living in their cars.
It's the same with religion -- I don't think we're going to see more people praying to a sky father deity, but we might see new trends that only look like religions if we shift the definition. My latest definition is: a community of people united by a point of focus, which has no practical value, but great psychological value. If the object of your religion had practical value, if you liked it because it was good for something else, then that other thing would be what's really important. The religious object must be self-justifying.
So money can't be the focus of a religion, because money is good for other things. The actual god of capitalism is not money, but increasing money. Both as a society, and as an individual, you're never supposed to say, "Okay, we've grown our wealth enough now, we can quit." The game is to keep it growing forever. I think that game is dying, and in fifty years everyone will be talking about sustainable zero growth, or smooth degrowth.
I do see a big new thing, something that's not considered a religion, but a lot of people are focusing on it to give meaning to their lives, and it's both self-justifying and impractical: colonizing Mars. It's not physically impossible, but it's way beyond our present technology, and Mars will never be as hospitable as the planet where we already live -- which we've been busily de-terraforming for thousands of years.
Colonizing Mars is only the most dignified of several new points of focus inspired by science, including reversal of aging, unlimited energy, uploading consciousness, and the singularity. Or you could say all of these (and also economic growth) are just different denominations of the religion of progress.
January 25. I've done too much heavy thinking this week, so today I want to write about TV shows. We've just finished season one of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, and Future Man. They're both sci-fi comedies where an ordinary guy is swept up in crazy adventures driven by time travel. The two protagonists, played by Elijah Wood and Josh Hutcherson, even look the same.
Beyond that, the shows are totally different. In Dirk Gently, the plot is like a giant puzzle. In the first episode you have no idea what's going on, and then gradually the pieces fall into place, until it all makes sense at the end. And holding the puzzle together is a metaphysics of time travel where it's impossible to change anything.
Future Man allows big changes, including multiple timelines, and the plot feels like headlong improvisation. It's also better written. Dirk Gently has some boring scenes, and a lot of dumb fights between characters who should be on the same side. In Future Man the motivations are clean, the storytelling is tight, and the dialogue is brilliant.
In Dirk Gently, the characters are like widgets to move the plot, and there's only one who I really like, a "holistic assassin" played by Fiona Dourif, who kills people seemingly at random, but of course it's all connected, and as long as she stays on the right path, she has luck that makes it impossible to harm her.
In Future Man, some characters have different personalities in different timelines, and the two best characters, Tiger and Wolf, start out as brutal warriors from a dystopian future, and gradually become more human and more complex. Most of this happens in my favorite episode, Beyond the TruffleDome. There's also a hilarious episode, Pandora's Mailbox, where they break into James Cameron's house.
Leigh Ann has been watching a third time travel show, 11.22.63, where James Franco goes back to try to save JFK. It has a really interesting time travel rule, where the past pushes back against attempts to change it, and it's not clear if big changes are even possible. But I hate Stephen King, with his Norman Rockwell vibe and his black-and-white morality.
Anyway, Future Man season two is out on Hulu, and we haven't started it yet, but I'm hopeful, because season one is the closest thing I've seen, so far, to the way I try to write fiction: funny, profound, dense, and unpredictable. There are even flashes of beautiful language, like this line from the finale: "Dingo plucked me from a Biotic necrochamber." Or this bit of poetry from the pilot: "Everything in Biotic Wars is true -- the Biotics, the wars, everything."
January 23. In the last post, I wrote, "If I have to do some cleaning, I forget the entire context of why I'm doing it, and just focus completely on the task itself." Tess writes:
I used to do exactly this when I was a novice nun because I spent hours doing manual work like cleaning and laundry. There were very precise rules about how everything should be done, and I knew that it would drive me crazy if I thought too much about other things I preferred to be doing.
So I focused all my attention on my senses, the light coming through the windows, the smell of the air, the texture of the bed linen I was ironing or folding, the smoothness of the cloth running along the kitchen work surfaces and so on. I ended up appreciating the moment so much that I lost all interest in trying to finish early so I could do something 'more interesting'.
Now I'm wondering, why is this only done in religious communities? Couldn't someone start a secular monastery, and say, "We're just going to give you a bunch of work, and if you think about it right, you'll feel good."
Tess writes, "The joy is kinda secondary and would go away if you made it the goal." I'm also thinking of a quote from Christopher Lasch: "The secret of happiness lies in renouncing the right to be happy." And it's oddly similar to a rule in fiction writing, that I saw the other day in this reddit comment: "If the plan is explained beforehand, it will fail. If it's not, it will succeed."
For some reason, happiness only comes from where we're not looking. So any institution that makes people happy, has to turn their attention elsewhere, and the simplest way is to have one point of fixation, that's the same for everyone, and while they're all looking at that thing, the happiness sneaks in sideways.
You could even use that as a definition of religion. Around 2005 I spent a month at the Twin Oaks community, which seems to be secular, but you could argue that their religion, their point of fixation, is the ideal of community.
Could you argue that capitalism is a religion, whose point of fixation is money? This subject is too big, so I'll cut it short with this thought: Of the many differences between money and God, the most important is that money can be used to transform work into power over others.
January 21. Odds and ends. A couple readers have challenged me on feelings vs thoughts, which has changed my thinking a bit, and I just wrote this in an email:
Everything we do comes from feelings, and the stuff that seems to come from thoughts, is coming from thoughts that we've chosen to listen to because they rationalize hidden feelings. So the secret of motivation is to find those hidden feelings, and tune into them, because they're stronger than thoughts.
I go to the gym because I remember, from other times, that afterwards I felt good and was glad I went. But all the feeling is gone from those memories. I have to use thoughts and willpower to jump the gap. So I'm wondering if highly motivated people just have better feeling-memory, and if it's possible to develop it.
Lately I've been making some progress in motivation by using my superpower: narrowly focusing my attention. For example, if I have to do some cleaning, I forget the entire context of why I'm doing it (to fit in with a culture whose standards of cleanliness are a waste of energy and a trick to avoid boredom), and just focus completely on the task itself. The book of Ecclesiastes said it best: "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might."
New subject. Over on Hacker News, I just saw this article, The bed that saved me from the Taliban, which contained this description of the emotional vibe of the shooters: "Each time they would laugh afterwards, like they were just playing around, or like it was a big party or something." And I made this comment:
Terrorists in TV and movies are never like this. They're always super-serious evil, like Voldemort, like nobody ever is in real life. I wonder how much violence could be prevented if Hollywood didn't give us such a bullshit view of human nature.
Last week this was posted on the subreddit: The nightmares of the past about today. It's a long and thoughtful blog post about dystopian fiction in the late 1800's. My favorite bit: "Art is not the seed of wealth. Art is its fruit."
Posted on the subreddit yesterday, Is religion a universal in human culture or an academic invention? It's a subtle point. The author is not disputing the reality of all the stuff that we call religion, but arguing that the line between religion and not-religion is artificial, and that what we generalize as religion is better viewed as "a patchwork of particular beliefs, practices and experiences."
Also from Aeon.co, a nice article about Cosmopsychism, with some of the same ideas I mentioned in my December 3 post.
January 19. Fun links for the weekend, starting with three from reddit. What short YouTube video (30 seconds or less) makes you laugh uncontrollably every time you watch it? My favorite is Joaquin Phoenix's forehead.
I've started looking at the Casual Conversation subreddit, which is less active than Ask Reddit, but has a nicer vibe. This hilarious thread, I just realized I could let the shower warm up before stepping in, is full of other stories of people taking a long time to figure out obvious stuff.
And just this week, a post on Casual Conversation led to a new subreddit, BrokeHobbies. It's a response to all the hobby subreddits that have become elitist, where you get downvoted for posting something made without expensive equipment. I also see a lot of time/attention elitism. People who are obsessively into something, want everyone else to do it 100% perfectly, when I want to know how I can do it with half the work and still have it be pretty good.
And two more great songs from 2018. Viagra Boys are a Swedish band who have somehow made an extremely American song, Sports.
Also from Sweden, Anna von Hausswolff - The Mysterious Vanishing of Electra. It's six minutes of epic vocals over a slow pounding beat. If you like it, Big Blood's Water is slower, dreamier, and more than twice as long. [Update: also check out Angels of Porn II by Nicole Dollanganger].
January 17. First, a loose end from the last post. Josh mentions that wild animals seem to have an internal conflict when they want to get food or water but they're afraid of predators. My first thought was, that's different from humans who feel like playing video games when they should be exercising. But now I'm thinking, what if it's the same? Choosing the water, and risking being eaten, is like choosing the game, and risking death from heart disease.
One difference is, indecisive animals are torn between two feelings, while humans are smart enough to mentally understand dangers and opportunities that we don't feel, so we're torn between feelings and thoughts. And that leads me to a speculative definition of neuroticism: the distress that arises when we realize that our feelings are not reliable guides for our actions. So as our world gets more complex and alien, our feelings become less reliable, and neuroticism increases.
Related: What's Causing the Rise of Hoarding Disorder? I've been hearing a lot lately about Marie Kondo, a decluttering guru with a show on Netflix. Her big idea is sparking joy. You look at your possessions and ask if this or that sparks joy, and the more you do it, the more skilled you get at sensing your own positive feelings and acting on them.
My thought on hoarding, and the cure for hoarding, is that it's about animism. Quoting my December 5 post:
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.
Now manufacturing has surrounded us with mass-produced objects, and we don't have a clear sense of how to assign meaning to all these things. From the article:
Rather than see an object as a member of a large group (say, one of 42 black T-shirts), [hoarders] see it as singular, unique, special. Each black T-shirt is perceived apart from the others and carries its own history, significance, and worth.
The genius of Marie Kondo is not fighting animism, but embracing it: Go ahead and think of all your objects as people, and then politely send away the ones that aren't making you happy.
January 15. Why willpower is overrated. There are people who report having high self-control, and there are people who do well on cognitive tests measuring the power of the mind to overrule habit and instinct. The shocker is, there is little or no correlation between those groups. People who actually exercise a lot of willpower to get through the day, are not more successful, only more depleted. The most likely explanation is that people who report high self-control are really experiencing less temptation. Somehow, they just have more overlap between what they're supposed to be doing and what they feel like doing.