"Do you want your heart to feel like it has been pulled across by a rasp? Then don't look away."
-Serial Experiments Lain
July 21. For the next five days I'll be busy with family stuff, so I'll leave you with three links that are challenging but not controversial. Thanks Gabriel for this long reddit comment about other cultures being less serious than anthropologists imagine.
I experienced several incidents of this kind which, I must now admit, I left out of my books on Yukaghir animism, as they posed a real danger to my theoretical agenda of taking indigenous animism seriously. One time, for example, an old hunting leader was making an offering to his helping-spirit, which is customary before an upcoming hunt. However, while throwing tobacco, tea, and vodka into the fire, he shouted, "Give me prey, you bitch!" Everyone present doubled up with laugher.
More anthropology: Rethinking cities, from the ground up. The article is hard to summarize, but the basic idea is that ancient hunter-gatherers were not that different from us, in terms of their social connections. There were extended families, who also belonged to diffuse large groups that shared a cultural identity.
It is not the case that small societies became large societies, which led to more conflict. Both scales were always there, and conflict was always possible. A lot of early cities were peaceful and egalitarian. This leaves us with a hard question: why are recent large systems so repressive? The good news is, it's not because they're large.
More urbanism: How to Build a Small Town in Texas. This is a careful and ambitious thought experiment about designing a town for 3000 people, on 82 acres (33 hectares), that is not dependent on the grid, has no cars within city limits, and is nice to live in.
July 19. Greg has an interesting comment on the last post: that after dismissing the connection between hard work and success, I posted links to three people who did exceptional things through a huge amount of activity.
The problem here is language. "Success" can mean many things, including status in a hierarchy, whether or not you've earned it, and being really good at something really difficult, whether or not anyone cares.
And "hard work" can mean many things, including forcing yourself do something you don't enjoy, so you can achieve some goal, and enjoying something so much that you can't help putting thousands of hours into it.
The former, I call the grind; the latter, I call obsession. When people do difficult things, and they credit "hard work," we assume they mean the grind, and they don't mind that assumption, because obsession is uncool. If you're obsessed with something that society considers useless, you're a weirdo; if you're obsessed with something that society considers valuable, you're a workaholic.
When people talk about "passion," they mean obsession without the negatives, which doesn't exist. I'm in favor of obsession, but we need to acknowledge the negatives. With the grind, the challenge is to get yourself to do this shit. With obsession, the challenge is to keep the thing you're doing in balance with the rest of your life.
July 16. Yesterday I had a highly upvoted reddit comment. Anwering the question, "What is the biggest lie you've been told by society?" I said, "That success comes from being smart or hard-working. It comes from some combination of luck, social intelligence, and tolerance for lying."
Of course, as one of the replies points out, "success" isn't even a good thing to aim for. As American culture defines that word, it means wealth and status in an economic domination system. As long as we all need money to live an adequate life, money is a tool of power-over, a way to make other people do things they would not do, if they didn't need the money.
One of those things is to validate the world-view of the people above you. As another reply points out, tolerance for lying includes "a willingness to lie for the benefit of people who hold power over you at the expense of yourself."
The popular myth of "lying" is, "I, who am evil, shall say something I know to be false, for my own advantage, ha ha." The reality is more like, "Oh shit, if I don't tell these people what they want to hear, I'll be in so much trouble." And then, "So I don't have to keep track of two things at once, I'll just tell myself the same thing I'm telling them."
Now, through the miracle of social media, the universe of tell-them-what-they-want-to-hear has expanded to include all of us -- as cringing slaves, crafting our profiles to preserve our delicate status, and also as corrupt dictators, who can always find a voice confirming our comfortable beliefs.
New subject: three cool DIY links. Dozens of shattered failures behind me, I have finally succeeded in forging a nearly indestructible knife.
Inventor harvests methane gas from ditches and ponds to power his moped.
And the Alexander piano, about a teenager who wanted to hear a piano with super-long strings, so he built one.
July 14. After some feedback, I want to take another shot at the Covid vax.
I don't get the flu vaccine, because I've had the flu before, and I know from personal experience that my immune system can deal with it.
People who think Covid-19 is no worse than the flu, have chosen that belief for deeper reasons that they should examine. Covid-19 is probably an escaped bioweapon, something totally new, and you can guess your risk with statistics, but in the end, you don't know what it's going to do to you.
If I were to make an argument against getting the vaccine, it would be this: Everyone, eventually, will be exposed to the virus. So that's one unknown thing in your body. While the vaccine has been proven to protect you from the virus, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use a new technique, based on mRNA, with no large-scale long-term testing. So if you get it, now you're dealing with two unknowns, instead of one.
Personally, without perfect knowledge, I've made the call that mRNA biotech is a promising medical innovation, and certainly not an evil plot. If it's harmful, that harm is probably in the future overuse of mRNA, when people are shooting it up for less and less of a good reason.
July 12. A few links on Covid-19. From No Tech Magazine, Number of Hospital Beds per 1,000 Inhabitants (1960-2018). It's going down almost everywhere, making medical systems weaker against the next pandemic.
A scientific article, Brain imaging before and after COVID-19:
We identified significant effects of COVID-19 in the brain with a loss of grey matter in the left parahippocampal gyrus, the left lateral orbitofrontal cortex and the left insula. When looking over the entire cortical surface, these results extended to the anterior cingulate cortex, supramarginal gyrus and temporal pole.And 99.2 Percent of All U.S. Covid Deaths Are Unvaccinated. I don't like the way the blue tribe media has been framing this: "Those poor deluded red-tribers. If only we can show them that the vaccine is good for them, we can save them from themselves."
July 8. By now you've all heard about the lying flat movement in China. I'm trying to think of something to say about it that's not totally obvious, and what I've come up with is, this is the end of "communism".
I put the word in quotes because for a long time now, the word has been more important than the thing. In America, "communist" is a word used to denigrate any attempt to use the state to redistribute wealth or help the poor. In China, "communist" is a word used to give the impression that a capitalist economy with an authoritarian government is for the people.
So in both places, the word is being used to protect a domination system from any attempt to make it more bottom-up -- the opposite of the original intention of the word.
Communism, the thing, came out of the industrial cities of the 1800's, with deeper roots in the 1700's -- the Age of Reason, when domination shifted its metaphysical foundation away from an imaginary sky father, and toward an imaginary clockwork universe.
If the fundamental reality is the Machine, then the fundamental values are efficiency, productivity, usefulness, and central planning by an elite trained in reductionist thinking. That's why all communist states turned out that way. It's also why, in communist literature, human beings are called "workers" -- as if human existence has no meaning other than utilitarian toil.
When Oscar Wilde said "Work is the curse of the drinking classes," his point was that the meaning of existence is to have a good time, and we're blocked from that by the often unnecessary imperative to get things done.
Jeff Bezos has said that he doesn't like the term "work-life balance". Here's a reddit thread about how out of touch that statement is. It's easy for a billionaire to see work and life as a seamless whole. For the rest of us, we need a generous UBI -- or any other public policy such that nobody has a reason to take a job except that they love it.
I don't know if we'll ever get completely there, but we can get a lot closer than we are now. And on the way, maybe someone will write a manifesto that refers to humans as players.
July 5. After last week's pessimism about the internet, today I have some optimistic links about other technologies. Chemical space is big. If we consider all the ways that atoms can be put together into molecules, it's like that Borges story about a library that contains every permutation of characters:
The best guess for the number of plausible compounds up to molecular weight 500... is around 1060. That is a number that the human mind is not well equipped to handle. That collection, assembled into compound vials at, say, 10mg per vial, would exceed the amount of ordinary matter in the entire universe.
Acousto-electric devices reveal new road to miniaturizing wireless tech. A lot of the stuff that computers are now doing with electrons, could be done better with sound waves. Maybe this could save the internet, if we had to rebuild the entire information-processing infrastructure from the ground up, using sound computers, and later, quantum computers. And each rebuilding would force a re-simplification.
Simple, solar-powered water desalination "could provide more than 1.5 gallons of fresh drinking water per hour for every square meter of solar collecting area." It looks like it could also be done on a small scale, which is better politically, because everyone could desalinate their own water instead of depending on a centralized institution for their survival.
Michelin Puts Puffy Sails on Cargo Ships. "The project joins a growing fleet of wind-assisted propulsion initiatives around the world."
Even lower tech, a video about a Tree House Bicycle Elevator.
And Fluid Paint is a cool browser-based paint program.
July 2. For the weekend, drugs. Michael Pollan has a new book called This Is Your Mind on Plants, about three plant-based drugs: caffeine, opium, and mescaline. Greg sends this interview of Pollan by Tim Ferriss. It's loaded with good stuff, on subjects including the war on drugs, which was completely political, and the future of psychedelics after legalization, in which the original substances will be competing with proprietary substances that don't cure people but "mask symptoms or suppress symptoms for better business models." There's also a bit about how 90% of the world is currently mistaking caffeine consciousness for sobriety.
And music. The best song of 2021 is surely something I haven't heard yet, but from what I have heard, it's Kiwi Jr. - Omaha.
July 1. Continuing on the doomed internet, it's fitting that I have to link to the archive.org page of this paywalled article from the Atlantic, The Internet Is Rotting. It's mainly about broken links, but more generally it's about how the internet is not designed for long-term storage, and is really terrible at it, and yet a lot of good practices for long-term information storage have been abandoned because of the internet.
I've said this before: we are right now in a dark age, in the sense that future historians will have few surviving records from our time. Eventually, they won't even think the internet was real. They'll see it as myth or metaphor, like the Aboriginal Dreamtime, or Atlantis, or the Tower of Babel:
In ancient times, a series of tubes covered the whole world, through which anyone could talk to anyone. Great demons battled to control the tubes: the evil Google, the seductive Apple, the all-seeing Facebook, the crazy-making Twitter and the trickster god Trump. The people believed the mutterings of the Net over their own eyes, and the world fell into madness and strife.
More transitory links: Why some biologists and ecologists think social media is a risk to humanity.
The Future of Games is an Instant Flash to the past. It's about an attempt to revive browser games, which the author argues, were largely killed by Apple because they don't want us to have any fun without going through the app store.
Finally, a popular Hacker News thread, A foreign seller has hijacked my Amazon Klein bottle listing. An Amazon apologist comments that all you have to do to prevent this is pay $2000 for a USPTO trademark. The world wide web was designed for distributed bottom-up power, and it's getting to where nobody can participate except large institutions and criminals.
June 29. After some feedback from yesterday's post, it looks like I overstated the psychological factor in runaway complexity. The more powerful factors are economic and technological -- but they're really hard to explain. Probably nobody fully understands what's happening. This subreddit post, On complexity in software, mentions "technical debt from persistently going overly tactical vs. strategic," and the arms race with spammers.
An edited comment from Baltasar:
In industrial mass production, the more nails or screws you make, the cheaper each one of them becomes. In software, the costs go from a lot for the first copy to negligible. I'm trying to get at how there's something about software (and less so, other technology) that by making things more complex it also makes them cheaper. It's much easier to construct a complicated piece of software than a simple one; turns out the cost just got transformed into complexity.
More precisely, a piece of software that is extremely flexible, powerful, useful in many cases is also quite complicated. But the complexity does give something back, it allows a centralization of power, and there's something about having one hammer that works for all nails.
A couple people mention that when things get too complex, someone comes out with a stripped down alternative that takes over, and then in turn gets more complex. This has happened many times with music, but I can't think of any recent examples in IT. Do we really expect a new kind of computer and operating system, that's as simple as 1995, but you can still use it to check your bank balance and buy stuff online?
I actually think that zero-growth complexity is possible. Consider sharks. They've been the same for hundreds of millions of years, and we could do a lot with a social system, or a tech system, as complex as a shark.
But that's not going to happen this time around. And with no way to freeze complexity, or do a clean reset, it can only keep rising until there's a messy reset.
June 28. Returning the subject of the doomed internet, Greg comments:
What the heck are we doing, making things more and more complex, so that fewer and fewer people know how they work?
My beloved Ubuntu Linux, formerly elegantly simple, now has 4 packaging systems. I played with 'flatpak' yesterday to see new features in a PDF viewer I use constantly. I was confident that there would be no changes to my system - that's the whole idea of flatpaks.
It bricked my system in a way that I haven't seen in 20+ years of using Linux. It took me five hours to fix it - and I'm not sure exactly what happened because I had to take big whacks at the problem (ie. deleting entire caches).
Not long ago, these things were worse, but were at least understandable - I knew the boot process of my PC, email was plain text, and you could watch clients and servers communicate in plain text.
I think the reason things keep getting more complex, is the same reason that Elvis and Michael Jackson died. Both of them had a personal doctor, with only one patient, and each doctor got bored doing nothing, and had to justify his existence by doing a lot of unnecessary and ultimately harmful stuff. That's what engineers (and managers and executives) of tech companies are doing. If they don't make upgrades, they feel useless, and I guess it's really hard to upgrade something without making it bigger or more complicated.
Maybe in the future humans will be able to enforce a law that puts a hard ceiling on the size and complexity of systems. So a computer operating system is limited to X lines of code, or the laws of a nation are limited to X words, and going above that is a crime.
Until then, it's runaway complexity and collapse, over and over.
June 25. A few happy links for the weekend. Sleep Evolved Before Brains. That's because brains still haven't evolved. More seriously, sometimes I think sleep is the purpose of life, and the purpose of being awake is to gain nutrients and shelter for sleeping.
Two reddit threads. Was there ever a time you're thankful the pandemic happened? And from Ask Old People, What is something that was taboo when you were an adolescent but has become normalized today? It's mostly stuff that's good, or at least harmless. More generally, while I'm skeptical of technological progress, I'm a big believer in moral progress.
And a great NWSL goal, in which Ebony Salmon, an English player just subbed in for the first time, keeps the ball away from four defenders inside the box, and then basically passes to herself to set up the goal. Having watched a lot of men's and women's soccer, I think they're on the same level in terms of technical skill and creativity -- the men's game is just faster.
June 23. A new article on one of my favorite subjects, How to think about pleasure. It doesn't actually say how to think about pleasure. Rather, it's an overview of how philosophers have thought about pleasure through the ages, with emphasis on how many of them believed that pleasures of the mind are noble while pleasures of the body are trashy.
Yeah, they were wrong. Maybe in ancient times, the kind of people who sought bodily pleasures were more likely to do it carelessly, and rebound into pain. Now it's the opposite: people sit at screens all day chasing mental pleasures, rebounding into anxiety, and getting sick from ignoring their bodies.
There's more in the Hacker News comment thread, and some good stuff in this 2010 blog post on Richard Solomon's opponent-process theory of emotion. But I want to jump straight to my own beliefs.
I call my philosophy omniscient hedonism: the meaning of life is to feel good, while respecting the interests of others, and your future self, to also feel good.
Buddhism makes a valuable distinction between pain and suffering, where pain is inevitable and suffering is optional. Suffering is meta-pain, feeling bad about feeling bad. It's possible to interpret life's painful parts as the dissonant parts of a symphony.
Our tendency is to turn away from pain, and plunge headlong into pleasure. It's better to do it the other way around -- not to seek painful situations, but when you notice yourself feeling pain, dive straight into that feeling and try to burn it out. And when there's something you enjoy, don't burn it out, but tease it, stretch it out as long as you can.
I think a person's capacity for pain, and capacity for pleasure, are aspects of the same thing. The better you are at completely facing pain, and absorbing it, the better you are at feeling and appreciating pleasure. Or, the skill of feeling deeply applies equally to all feelings.
With mental health, it's hard to know what practices are actually working, and what practices are coincidental with improvement for some other reason. But I've made some headway against anxiety, and this improvement is at least coincidental with the practice of getting into a relaxed state, and focusing my attention on the pumping of my heart muscle. It also feels good.
June 21. Last week I said that social media, for reasons we don't fully understand, is bad for your mental health. In another post, I said that sports become less fun when rules written for human eyes are enforced by machine eyes. Now I'm thinking, those two ideas are the same subject.
Human social behavior has been evolving since we became social animals, before we even became human. Suddenly, our social behavior is being hosted and moderated by something that's not even biological, an alien algorithm not even fully understood by its human coders, with a cold eye that misses nothing and forgets nothing.
On top of that, the whole thing is being managed not for the benefit of humanity, but for the benefit of giant concentrations of money, trying to leverage their money/power into greater money/power by hijacking human attention.
So it's not surprising that people who spend a lot of time in this world are going insane in multiple ways, from anxiety and depression to mass delusion.
Related: The Lindy Effect. (web archive link) It's about people who, I think, are taking a simple idea too seriously in terms of guiding their behavior. But the idea is sound: things that go farther into the past are more likely to go farther into the future. So a play that's been running for five years is more likely to run for another five years, than a play that's been running for a week; and a human behavior that's thousands of years old is more likely to continue than one that's only a few decades old.
Of course, every long-running play has a first week. Some new things are so simple and great that they will still be around in a thousand years, including ball bearings, electric light, and the song "We Will Rock You."
But I think the internet is doomed. Every year it becomes more fragile, as it depends on a more complex technological infrastructure (both hardware and software) that fewer people understand. To knock it down, to the point where it will not fully recover, any of the following things will suffice:
1) Some nation with EMP weapons sees a clear benefit in using them. 2) Our planet takes a direct hit from a major solar flare. 3) There's a popular movement to sabotage fiber optic lines. 4) Through a general malaise or decline, humans are no longer competent to maintain information technology at the current level.