"This is the wilderness! Was there ever any other? This is savagery! Do you call it freedom? This is barbarism! The struggle for survival is right here. Haven't we always known it?"
- Fredy Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan
January 15. Coming up for breath, some fun stuff and good news. On Weird Collapse, Young and Clumsy Group Stories is an optimistic post about the promise of micro-cults.
Cool reddit thread, What's something odd that happened in your childhood that only you seem to remember?
Two from the BBC, The great bicycle boom of 2020, and Japan developing wooden satellites to cut space junk.
Also from Japan, 'Rent-a-person who does nothing' receives endless requests, gratitude. Most of the people who rent him just want him to listen.
And some music. A few months ago, Big Blood did a QuaranTunes live show. I've time-linked the video to my favorite song, "What's Wrong With Me?"
January 13. I'm ready to comment on the storming of the Capitol. It's important to keep in mind that the rioters are not monolithic. That mob, and the bigger mobs to come, contain all kinds of motivations and mindsets. Some of them want to exterminate Jews and some of them just want to fight the police.
I distinctly remember a mythic image, a blurry pic of a scruffy guy with a trickster smile, raising a stick or something, leaning over a podium. Now I can't find it anywhere, and I wonder if my brain constructed the memory, or if I glimpsed fairyland.
Anyway, in a more topically symbolic moment, someone tore down an American flag and replaced it with a Trump flag.
Donald Trump has no creativity, and no awareness of truth and falsehood. I'm defending him. CNN is like, he's making up all these lies to lead his followers astray. No, he's a salesman filling a market. He's practically a bot, testing the feedback from his audience until he's giving them exactly what they want.
Trump is a mean rich kid who figured out that if he does a good Archie Bunker impression, every lost soul with an authoritarian father will think he's the messiah. We're lucky that he cares only about himself, instead of having some crazy utopian agenda. But the power, and the agency, is with the disaffected citizens of a declining empire, tasting barbarism.
This is all about people wanting to be part of a group that's part of a story. Lately, some of the big group-stories have been dying: sky father religion, American supremacy, the conquest of nature, the virtue of wealth-seeking. In their place, young and clumsy group-stories struggle and rise.
Matt comments on Monday's post: "I like the term 'manichean tribalism' because it acknowledges there might be inclusive types of tribalism." I'll spell it out:
It is possible to divide the world into us and them, without dividing the world into good and bad. The best example I can think of, is fanbases of different metal bands.
The danger is when a vigorous group-story stacks us-them with good-bad. Because then, attacking the baddies makes you feel alive. To prevent the spread of this emotional pandemic, I suggest two rules of moral distancing:
1) There are no bad people, only bad actions. (I wonder if there aren't even any people, if personality and identity are illusions.)
2) Morality is not transitive. Associating with a doer of bad actions, does not make one a doer of bad actions, let alone a bad person.
January 11. A Game Designer's Analysis Of QAnon is the best thing I've read on the dangerous intersection of information technology and human cognitive weakness.
The author argues that QAnon is a massive alternate reality game. In a normal ARG, "there are actual solutions to actual puzzles and a real plot created by the designers." But players can lose the plot in apophenia, "the tendency to perceive meaningful connections between unrelated things."
In a stroke of genius, QAnon uses apophenia as its engine. A fictional whistleblower named Q leaves clues that are actually meaningless. The players create meaning, and then Q integrates that meaning into the next clues. "It's like a darwinian fiction lab, where the best stories and the most engaging and satisfying misinterpretations rise to the top and are then elaborated upon for the next version." Players have the feeling that they're getting to the bottom of mysteries, when really they're veering off into madness.
(By the way, I think this is what happened to Elisa Lam. On a solo apophenia trip, she read clues all the way up to a roof and into a water tank.)
The author believes that QAnon is a coordinated propaganda campaign, and says its ideology is authoritarianism. I would call it manichean tribalism, where manichaeism is a cognitive filter that divides the world into good and evil. Under that filter, when Q says "Follow the Owl and Y," the players look for owl and Y symbols as evidence that people are bad. You could just as easily look for the symbols as evidence that people are good, but for whatever reason, the game is not in that emotional space.
Take the game far enough, and everyone is evil except the players. If this kind of movement gains power, you get piles of dead bodies. In Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, people were killed just for wearing glasses, supposedly a symbol of being a bad kind of person. Really glasses are correlated with education, which is correlated with an antidote to insanity: metacognition.
There's a cryptic line in the Gospel of Thomas: "Blessed is the lion which becomes man when consumed by man; and cursed is the man whom the lion consumes, and the lion becomes man." I think it's about metacognition, or you could say it's about sub-personalities, or ego. The wrong move is to let a belief or identity consume you, and become you, so that changing your mind feels like dying. The right move is to be a larger you, who can make use of beliefs and identities without getting lost in them.
January 7. I'll be busy all day tomorrow, so I'm going early into the weekend with this excellent writeup, on the Ask Historians subreddit, about Fascism:
In essence, it is swaying people to your political side not by argument or reason but giving them the intensive, almost lustful, experience of being part of something greater, a movement that will solve whatever ails them, of history, so to speak. And this is achieved through ritual, staging, and performance... By displays of violence, Fascism seeks to transform politics from the - admittedly often skewed - exchange of ideas into an aesthetic experience itself: Aesthetic violence is the end point of fascist politics, not just its tool.
Something aesthetic but less exciting, an update on my piano playing. I've become obsessed with polyrhythms, specifically playing one time signature with my left hand and another with my right. I practice when I'm lying in bed with restless legs, by wiggling my feet in different polyrhythms, usually 3-5, my favorite. This one minute exercise goes through the following sequence: 1-1, 4-5, 2-5, 1-2, 3-5, 2-3, 3-4, 4-5, 1-1. My goals are to get cleaner, to move easily between any of those, and between right and left hand dominant, and to add melody. My November 24 piece was already using melodic polyrhythms, but only 2-3 and 3-5, and the poor recording made it hard to hear the individual notes.
January 6. I want to wait for some perspective before I write about the Trumpers who right now are storming the Capitol. But this is a good time to post this image of what Trump really looks like, if his orange makeup and hair are photoshopped off.
Some reddit links I've been saving up, starting with psychology, which now especially I think is more important than politics. Mental Health professionals, what small things do parents do that give their kids mental health issues later in life?
Redditors in Therapy: What is One Thing That a Therapist Has Told You That Changed Your View on Life?
Most of What You Read on the Internet is Written by Insane People. The author doesn't mean it in a bad way, just that most content on the internet is created by people who are totally obsessed with that particular kind of content.
And posted yesterday on Weird Collapse, Call for suggestions for "Welcome Post", as the subreddit gets more readers. My favorite bit: "I really enjoy being able to read collapsy posts that are also shruggy."
January 4. Out of all the board games I've played, my favorite for theme is Spirit Island, because you play nature spirits trying to stop colonizers. And my favorite for gameplay is also Spirit Island. It's a super-brain-burner where you're trying to optimize a bunch of moves by different spirits working together.
Nobody I know likes to play it, but that's okay because it's perfect for solo play. A month ago I got the Jagged Earth expansion, and since then I've been playing three-spirit solo games whenever I have the time. My goal is to play a nine-spirit solo game, which will require bending the rules, buying more tokens, and getting access to a giant table.
Anyway, when you play any game a lot, you tend to see it as a metaphor for other things. In Spirit Island, there's a trade-off between gaining energy, drawing and playing cards, and placing presence on the board. So I'm thinking, in modern society, there's too much energy and card-playing, and not enough placing of presence.
What is placing of presence, in the real world? It reminds me of my favorite definition of love, by Thaddeus Golas: "Love is the action of being in the same space with other beings." It also reminds me of the practice of being fully present in each moment.
A week ago, I mentioned the metaphysical idea that heaven and hell are in this world. So a good trick for being fully present is to let go of any notion of an afterlife, or greater success in this world, and just say, what if this, right here, is heaven. Of course, if you're having a bad day, or a bad life, it's more realistic to say this is hell. But you can start with a good moment on a good day: smoke some weed, go on a walk, watch a sunset, and imagine that you're already in heaven, this is it.
From the Tao Te Ching: "Without desire, to observe the mystery." And if you can do that, then you can practice the same move in increasingly difficult times and places.
January 1, 2021. I can't think of anything to say about the new year that's not completely obvious, and I seem to be in a mental fallow period right now. Posted yesterday to Weird Collapse, Alienation and Doublethink is a smart blog post that starts with a Twitter thread "in which Allison Pearson claimed that she knew 'hardly anyone' who knew somebody who'd had Covid only to immediately say that her whole family had had it." The point is, a lot of people have two minds, one for practical stuff, and one for ideology.
The author mentions Soviet doublethink, and corporate doublethink, but I'm thinking, in those cases, you can get sent to the gulag, or lose your job, for allowing practical understanding to inform your ideology. Where's the penalty for accepting the medical consensus about COVID? For that matter, what's behind the recent surge in flat-earthism?
I think ideology exists for its own sake, and can thrive in the total absence of extrinsic penalty and reward. There's something about humans that compels us to tell stories about the world beyond our senses, and we get in trouble when we depend on those stories to feel good about ourselves.
Is this something we can overcome?
December 30. I'm tired of the topics of contemporary society and politics, and I expect to write about them less in the new year. But I'll probably still post links.
Here's a Weird Collapse comment thread, COVID was the West's Chernobyl. It quotes Samo Burja, and this is a nice piece he wrote earlier this year, Why Civilizations Collapse.
December 28. This year, my favorite social idea on this blog was an alternate view of collapse. In the context of ancient ruins, we imagine that people at the time were saying, "Oh no, our buildings are falling to ruin." But they were probably saying, "At last, I have better options than maintaining these stupid buildings."
Going back to the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction, Alex reports that astrologers say it's "a great mutation from earth to air cycles." Earth-to-air fits with a societal shift to living in a way that leaves fewer traces, which historians call a "dark age".
My two favorite metaphysical ideas from this year are from the same post on July 8. Verbatim repost:
Two important links from the Psychonaut subreddit. What I've figured out so far is a fascinating metaphysical framework inspired by DMT:
There is only one reality. Heaven, Hell, and mortal life are not three different things. They are one single thing.... This one single reality is connection to all things, if you are ready for it you experience this as Heaven. If you are not ready for it you experience this as Hell.
And an article, Mainstreaming Psychedelics: Secularizing spirituality with the aid of Eastern religion. The main idea is that we can put psychedelic experiences on a spectrum, where at one pole is the Eastern unitive-mystical state, being one with everything, and at the other pole is the Western interactive-relational state, where you can get specific practical insights.
Back to year-end, I see another way to frame it. Over here, you've got a clunky and unsatisfying human-made world. Over there, you've got the total bliss of union with the void. I'm interested in the stuff that's in between those things. It could be better things we could do with this world, or it could be other levels of reality, whether this reality is a simulation, or a game, or a work of art.
Finally, my song of the year, like the coronavirus, is actually from 2019: Automatic - Humanoid. The complete lyrics: "I see you, turn into, turn into, humanoid." The obvious interpretation is that we're overly domesticated, and we can draw some energy from our primal roots. But I also like the idea that all this time we've been not yet human, and now we're finally getting close.
December 27. Just a quick note. If you follow the NFL, you already know about this, and if you don't, last night was probably the greatest pass of all time. Here's the thread on r/NFL.
December 20. I'm taking this week off for family stuff. Also the world is ending tomorrow. I mean, probably not, but if you were to look at the sky for a sign that the world is ending, it's hard to beat a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction on the winter solstice. The two largest planets have not been this close in the night sky for 800 years, and humans have probably never seen them this close on the winter solstice.
Some people thought the Mayan calendar predicted the end of the world, and we're not even totally sure what astronomy the year 2012 is based on. This is something you can go outside and see. On top of that, it's happening at the end of an epic year. So I'm surprised there isn't a bigger deal being made about it, by people who believe in some kind of synchrony between heavens and earth.
And two trippy instrumentals I recently discovered. From 1960, Duke Ellington - Chinoiserie. And from 1995, Slipstream - Pulsebeat.
December 17. I want to take a different angle from Monday's post, one more favorable to libertarians. Their experiment failed because all the unregulated living attracted bears. But maybe bear attacks are not such a bad thing. Bear with me....
It's anecdotally obvious, although I haven't seen a study, that American blue tribe culture is correlated with food allergies. At a group dinner in Seattle, you always have to work around what all the different people can't eat. But when I visit my cousins in rural Michigan, or Leigh Ann's family in central Florida, everyone can eat everything.
Somewhere I read, if you're having an allergic reaction, and suddenly you're being chased by a bear, the allergic reaction stops. I even read about a treatment for allergies, where first you activate the allergy, and then you activate the fight-or-flight response.
In high school health class, in 1982, they told us that the fight-or-flight response is harmful. (They also told us that marijuana has reverse tolerance.) But now I'm thinking that hyperarousal is good for us, and we need to do more of it.
I think this is part of what's fueling the right wing. They see mainstream left culture as too bland and safe, and they want to take risks and feel danger. I still think not wearing a mask in a pandemic is a dumb risk. Some risks I like include restoring the right to roam for kids, abolishing the TSA, and not buying insurance.
Don't get mad at me if you take my advice and lose everything, but if nobody bought insurance, the average person would benefit, because insurance companies have to take in more than they pay out. A lot more, judging by all the advertising they buy. Also, a continuing insurance payment is chronic pain, while a sudden catastrophic loss is acute pain, and acute pain is usually preferable. Also, if nobody bought insurance, we'd have to rely more on people we know.
December 16. On the subreddit, there's a comment thread on the subject of money, and I want to back off from my statement that money is irredeemable. There are several reforms, all of which I've written about before, that would make money more useful than harmful. Maybe we wouldn't even need all of them.
First, make all necessities free at point of use. If it's realistic to live your whole life without money, then the money universe has no power over you.
Second, some kind of depreciating currency. I wrote about this a lot in 2008, at the top of this archive and this archive. Basically, right now we need the government to redistribute wealth because concentration of wealth is baked into the system. But if both assets and debt lost their value at a few percent per year, wealth distribution would tend toward equality.
Third, full liability for businesses. If a business commits a crime, every co-owner is prosecuted as if they did it themselves. This would eliminate the stock market, because nobody would buy stocks with that risk. It would force every business to be only a few people who all know each other. This would be a radically different world, but I think a better one.
Fourth, redefine property to be based on physical possession of an item or occupation of a place. I wrote about this in 2009 in this post.
Of course, all four of these are impossible right now, especially the last two, which if done suddenly would cause total collapse. But we could go a long way toward the first two, just with a UBI paid for by steadily increasing the money supply. COVID stimulus is already leaning in that direction.
The other problem, with any reform that eliminates the possibility of getting rich, is that in the modern world, getting rich is the meaning of life.
December 14. Sent by two readers, A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear. It's an interview of the author of a book with that title, about a bunch of libertarians who took over a town in New Hampshire, and tested their utopian vision of minimal government. It did not go well.
I often wonder why there still is a Libertarian Party. Together, democrats and republicans have been pushing the libertarian agenda for decades, moving steadily leftward on social issues and rightward on economic issues. Now weed is legal, and there are homeless people everywhere because all the money has been sucked to the top.
Hey right wingers, if you hate billionaires so much, why not propose a tax of 100% of assets over 999 million dollars. Presto, no more billionaires. Seriously I think the rich are mostly good people who haven't done anything immoral except follow their own luck, and bad laws, into having more money than good laws would permit anyone to have.
Libertarians love money and hate government, which doesn't make sense, because money is completely created by government, and inequalities in money are protected by government force. And not just money. From this Ribbonfarm comment (thanks Baltasar):
The private is always an invention. And it can only exist to the degree there is a power structure, typically a state in the modern world, to legally and violently enforce its private status. Private property is always a socially-constructed and state-sanctioned entity that disappears or loses its valence when the state no longer functions.
I would respect an ideology that opposed both government and property (beyond personal items). The precedent is almost all the non-state peoples of history and prehistory. But I'm not ready to give up yet on government. I think we have a lot of room to make it better, while money is irredeemable.
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with money, because it can buy everything that a kid thinks is awesome. Now I understand that money is a way to make other people do things that they would not do if it weren't for money. Capitalism is the ideology that money magically makes selfishness beneficial, when really it's the exact opposite: because it insulates us from the effects of our use of power, money makes it possible for completely nice people to participate in evil.
December 10. I've got no ideas this week. So here's a full repost of a post from 2011:
March 7. I've had several emails lately from people worried about "government", and I want to do a little rant. We are in the midst of an ancient struggle between central control and... well, the opposite is so complex that if we try to describe it with a single word, that word gets distorted by the forces of control. For example, "liberty" and "freedom" have come to mean the freedom of the powerful to crush the weak under their boots. Even "autonomy" implies individualism, and ultimately, the strong individuals crushing the weak under their boots.
The opposite of central control is a system where all powers are distributed to all: group decisions are made by consensus of all members, and anything that anyone is permitted to do, everyone is permitted to do. So there are no official secrets, no restricted areas, no licenses, no uniforms. There are restraints, but they apply to all. There are people with greater physical and mental powers, but there is no mechanism to leverage these internal powers into external powers written into the system. The only "authority" is when someone is respected for understanding something better than others.
Obviously, we're a long way from building a system like that at a high level of complexity. I think it's going to take us thousands of years. In the meantime, we will pass through many rises and falls of control systems under many guises. It's like a bunch of plagues passing through us until we gain immunity to all of them. And if our immune systems are lazy, they will always be fighting the previous one instead of the new one.
The last round of really bad control systems was in the mid-20th century. The Nazis were the scariest, but the Soviet system was more stable, and over time, more harmful. Two of the most influential political writers of the 20th century, George Orwell and Ayn Rand, were both reacting to the Soviet system. Their reactions, among others, have come down to us as a set of cultural immune system habits: the enemy is big government, existing for its own sake, fed by taxes, building ugly concrete monoliths full of dull-minded bureaucrats, justifying itself through stories of happy people working together.
If you haven't noticed, that system is dead, except in China, where it's not quite dead. The new dominant control system is big money, existing for its own sake, fed by profits, building sparkly glass monoliths full of depressed cubicle monkeys, and justifying itself through stories of strong and free individuals working hard to earn shiny toys. Government remains only as a buffer between big money and all other life, or in some cases, as a weapon that both sides are grappling with to use it against the other. In the third world, soon including America, big money controls government absolutely. But most Americans, stuck in the old immune response, see the hammer of government coming down on them and don't notice who is holding the hammer.
I don't mind the government. It's true that most federal spending makes its way (through bank bailouts and military contractors and medical insurance companies and the mortgage payments of entitlement recipients) to the giant concentrations of money. But my income is low enough to not pay federal income tax, and I expect to be able to keep it that low. It's true that governments are still strong enough to crush anyone who gets in their way, but they're also so slow and predictable that it's easy to get out of their way. Governments are like glaciers, while private interests, unhindered by government, are like fires.
I'm thinking that even big money is dying, because it can't concentrate any more wealth at the top without the bottom falling out. So what's the next phase of control? Don't answer that, but keep your eyes open.