"You know, I'm sick of following my dreams, man. I'm just going to ask where they're going and hook up with 'em later."
- Mitch Hedberg
April 24. A personal announcement: Leigh Ann will be attending Washington State University in the fall, and I'm planning to move down there with her. That means I have fix up the house for renters and sell a ton of stuff. Those are the chores I mentioned last week.
My latest thought about motivation, and why it's sometimes so hard to do physically easy stuff, is that it's about retooling the mind. You know how painful it is to do your taxes (if you're American) because you have to shift your whole being to an alien way of thinking. It's the same with washing the dishes or even brushing your teeth. You have to pass through pain, and the length and severity of the pain depends on how large and complex the new task is. Brushing my teeth takes only a few seconds of pain before I get in the flow of the task, but getting in fix-up-the-house mode has taken days and I'm still not all the way there. Yesterday, just walking around, I felt physical resistance like walking through syrup -- that's how much the mind can affect the body.
Rehab from an addictive substance must be the same basic process, retooling your mind for a different universe, and it takes even longer. And the hardest thing is if you've somehow developed an entire personality that doesn't fit the world. But that raises more questions, because if your personality is right and the world is wrong, then you should be able to fight the world and carve out a space where you can still be yourself -- but how do you know? What is the deeper test of "right" and "wrong"? That kind of question has led me to Taoism.
Anyway, today I was just installing two light fixtures, but there were complications within complications and it ended up taking hours, including a trip to the hardware store to buy two 14 cent screws. I was thinking about how different that world is from the world of playing video games and writing words on the internet, and my first thought was to distinguish between the universe of information (easy) and the universe of physical stuff (hard). But then I thought about Legos, which are physical but simple and gamelike, and programming, which is information-based but deeply complex and difficult.
So my next thought is to distinguish between worlds that are modular and fiddly. Modular is plug-and-play and fiddly means there's no telling how deep the rabbit hole goes. Going from fiddly work to modular work is like coasting downhill, and going from modular to fiddly is like climbing a mountain -- unless it's something I'm obsessed with, which is a whole other subject.
April 21. So on 4/20, instead of a day of pleasure, I took a day of pain, digging into some chores I'd been putting off. It was worse than food poisoning. As a thinker, I like to tackle hard subjects, and motivation must be the hardest subject there is, otherwise Einstein would have loved doing laundry. But I'm not going to write about it on a Friday.
Last weekend the NWSL started a new season. Among the many things I like about women's soccer, one is that it's still so under-analyzed that I can discover stuff on my own. If you follow the NBA, everybody already knows what Russell Westbrook is good at. But I've never heard anyone say that Sydney Leroux's great skill is her one-touch hair-trigger striking, or that Rachel Daly is really good at nailing the upper corner from a distance. Here's a bullet from last summer, and a curler from last weekend.
Music! This reddit comment explains in detail why The Velvet Underground were so important. Basically, when the trend was toward middlebrow music with increasingly sophisticated production, the VU merged high art with crude production, and redefined music as being about creativity rather than polish. What if human society was about creativity rather than polish? Anyway, I now believe that the greatest VU song is Venus in Furs.
The other day when I said I normally wouldn't link to such a weird sharp-edged song, I lied. Here's an even more challenging song that I just discovered, a feral chant by four Japanese chicks, OOIOO - Ina. I stand in awe of its luminous rawness. Another great song by the same band, Be Sure To Loop, sounds like Hawkwind produced by Joe Meek.
April 19. Tomorrow is 4/20, and I'm continuing to experiment to find the best pattern of marijuana use, but it's strange how little has been written about it. On reddit, there's Trees for everyday stoners, and Leaves for people trying to quit forever, and the much smaller Petioles about how to use in moderation -- but it's almost all about self-control. I have good self-control but it's still a massive challenge to figure out the timing, the resonant frequency that brings the best pleasures and benefits of being both high and sober.
I don't use drugs to numb pain but to harvest transcendence, and transcendence tapers with time. The second day might have as much as the first, but the third day always has less, and by day four it's almost all numbness, plus I'm frazzled from low-quality sleep. So that's 1-3 days on, and how many days off? I've found that 48 hours is the worst break, because I go through withdrawal without ever getting fully sober. Right now I'm experimenting with a break of 72 hours, or two calendar days. And I noticed something interesting.
On day one I'm high (typically eating cannabutter with lunch) and in terms of pleasure it doesn't matter what I do, because everything is wonderful. Last summer I would lie in the backyard hearing the traffic noise as music. On day two, getting sober, I pass through anhedonia, and it doesn't matter what I do because everything is bleak and empty. Yesterday we had a thunderstorm and a rainbow at the same time and I felt nothing. Today I'm pretty much back to normal, which means it's possible to do one thing while wishing I was doing something else.
There's a cartoon: in the first panel, a guy is sitting at his desk at work with a thought bubble over his head, daydreaming about playing golf. In the second panel, he's playing golf and thinking about sex. And of course in the third panel he's having sex and thinking about work.
The normal mental state of modern humans is to be holding tension between where we are and where we want to be. In a tight cycle of THC, I'm out of that state in one direction, fully present in bliss, then out of that state in the other direction, fully present in pain, then back in that state, but not quite. If I'm spending less than half my time in modern disconnection, it feels accurately peculiar.
A techno-utopian footnote: Will science ever cheat withdrawal? Could you go on a drug bender, and when it starts to get ugly, you just take a shot of brain-cleansing nanobots and you're painlessly clean and sober and ready to start again? In materialist metaphysics, this is totally possible -- we just have to find the right configuration of matter that generates perpetual bliss on the level of mind. I don't think it will ever happen, and the longer it doesn't happen, the more it suggests a level of consciousness beneath matter, in which pleasure must be balanced by pain. But I do think it should be possible to bunch the pain, so instead of days or weeks of grinding through rehab, you could reset your pleasure with a few minutes of agony.
April 17. This week I think I'll just do short posts about fun stuff. A reader sends this hyper-trippy video, Deeply Artificial Trees. Here's an article about how it was made, This is what AI sees and hears when it watches The Joy of Painting. Basically they trained an AI to see faces and animals in meaningless shapes, and to show us what it sees as it watches Bob Ross videos. Everyone says it's like LSD. Having never used LSD, it reminds me more than anything of Hieronymous Bosch.
I find the audio track boring -- it just sounds like backwards speech but more scratchy. So I tried out some trippy music, and normally I would never link to this weird sharp-edged song, but if you play it with the video it almost sounds normal: Big Blood - Sequins.
From a philosophical angle, when some idiot sees Jesus on a tortilla, we imagine that's a human weakness from which the logic of machines can protect us. But it turns out that machines can do it much better than us. And if machines are better than us at finding nonexistent meaning in noise, then they're also better at finding deeply hidden meaning in noise. But which one is it? In the future, we might wonder more and more often: Does the computer really see something, or is it crazy?
April 14. I was talking with a friend about drugs, and how some people "on a spiritual path" have rules about what drugs they use and don't use, and it's hard to tell where the rules come from. One person might not drink any alcohol, but chain-smoke cigarettes, while another person might use hard psychedelics but no cannabis.
Then I had another thought. What's the difference between a spiritual seeker and a hedonist? It's mainly in what they tell themselves. The spiritual seeker thinks "Verily, I am doing something meaningful," and the hedonist thinks "Woo-hoo, I'm having fun." But either one might succeed or fail at raising their awareness or becoming a better person. A year ago, vaping weed with the goal of listening deeply to music, I stumbled on some troubling and valuable insights about my hidden self. So my general rule for drugs and life, is first to have a good time, and then be open to whatever happens, even if it's unpleasant.
People who say life has no meaning might have the right idea. I think life does have a meaning, but it's not something the rational mind can pin down, so by telling yourself that there's no meaning, you can keep your rational mind from blundering onto your path and holding you back.
Loosely related to drugs, here's a fun little thread on the psychonaut subreddit, Ideas on death, parallel universes and past lives.
April 12. Monday I said I want to distance myself from people who scan the world for wrongness. Today I want to distance myself from doomers.
One reason is something that comes up on this page, Subreddit Similarity and Algebra, where you can add or subtract reddit communities. So if you put in "ranprieur" minus "collapse", you get a list of subreddits that are unusually likely to have subscribers who are also subscribed to ranprieur but not to collapse. And the result is some really cool stuff, including cryonics, neurophilosophy, two European subreddits that I can't read, and best of all, a subreddit for music that sounds like Blue Oyster Cult.
Anyway, it's tricky to say where I disagree with the normal collapse idelology. I agree with a lot of the details, for example that economic growth can't continue on a finite planet, and that modern life is a worse fit for human nature than most of the ways we lived in the past. But I don't think the human response to these crises is limited by my own imagination, that just because I can't see a way through, billions of people at the edge of survival will just roll over. I have a lot of respect for unknown unknowns.
Also, I frame the story differently. Western culture likes to tell stories with a tight structure of conflict, buildup, climax, and resolution. We like stories where something bends and bends and then it breaks, and we're either dead or in heaven. I don't think reality works that way. History neither circles nor ends -- it just rambles around like a picaresque novel.
April 10. I've been thinking about my relation with my audience. Content creators who need to make money are always thinking, "What do people want, and how can I give it to them?" That's just not the way I think. I mean, I can go into that mode, but my default narrative, in both writing and life, is "What can I get away with?" How much can I be honest and transparent, how much can I feel good and have fun, how much can I relax and let things slide, before I get smacked down?
My writing starts and ends with what I like to read myself, but in between, feedback from other readers is powerful. Sometimes I'm given new ideas, sometimes I see that I was wrong and change my thinking, and sometimes I pull back from writing about certain ideas or even whole subjects.
Back in the 90's I was totally into "conspiracy theory", but the emotional tone of the community changed, from marveling at strangeness, to compulsive paranoia, and finally to a religion of despair, in which your imagined enemies are so powerful that whatever happens is exactly what they planned.
Over the last year I've sensed more toxicity when I go online. Maybe I just got better at noticing it, but that's why I'm trying to quit writing about what's wrong with the world. My working theory is, thinking about what's wrong with the world is linked to a general attitude, a subconscious habit of constantly scanning for wrongness, and it's like a dark universe that I'm trying to escape.
Why do I even make my writing public? Because I feel like a castaway on an alien planet, or a prisoner tapping messages on pipes. What exactly am I trying to accomplish? I don't know, and increasingly I don't feel qualified to know. The best things in life seem to happen through serendipity rather than goal-setting.
April 7. For the weekend, music. My favorite album of 2017, so far, is
America's Velvet Glory by The Molochs. The singer reminds me of Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes, and the songs remind me of Camper Van Beethoven or the Kinks. Their most interesting song is Charlie's Lips.
Most of the reviews are like "This is good but sounds like old stuff," which leads me to this theory: music has entered a post-novelty stage. I mean, eventually we'll get a revolution so alien that it makes rock and jazz sound the same, but for now, there are no more good new ideas. Critics need to adapt by not considering novelty at all, and just looking at quality -- which of course is much harder to pin down than novelty, so we're also in an age of greater subjectivity.
Also, sports. The one sport I'm really into right now is women's soccer, and Rose Lavelle has dazzled in her first few caps with the US national team. Highlights from last night's game: Rose Lavelle vs Russia. Jump to 2:42 for an astonishing back heel pass.
April 5. Free Roaming is a fascinating essay by a guy who loves to wander around open world video games after all the quests have been completed:
This part of the game -- the illicit, post-story part -- is better than anything that might have preceded it in the name of story. In a world empty of fate, gone slack without a narrative, my character, alone and aimless, has a life for the first time.
The weird thing is, most open world games allow you to wander around without doing any quests at all, or just enough to level up so you don't get killed. Why does he have to exhaust every scrap of content before he feels "free at last"? This has something to do with the world outside games -- I don't want to call it "real" -- where we do stuff to "get stuff done", but like waiting for a river to flow past, we never get to the end of it.
What the author is seeking is not the freedom to wander, but a higher-order quest, where the reward for getting stuff done is not the character's satisfaction that Skyrim is free of monsters, but the player's satisfaction, impossible in his own world, that he has come to the end of getting stuff done.
Now I see two angles. One is practical, that we're always being told to do stuff we'd rather not do. The solution is to work toward a post-scarcity utopia, like the pre-scarcity utopia in Jean Liedloff's The Continuum Concept, where the right to say no is so powerful that it's forbidden to even ask someone to do something.
The other angle is philosophical, and I don't see any solution. In games, the meaning of life is a set of clearly defined tasks, and if you're not doing those things, you're in a space that is clearly defined as having no meaning. In our own world, we can never be sure.
April 3. Another angle on Friday's subject: For me, the world inside my head is pillows, and the world outside my head is knives. Or, the inner world is rainbows and the outer world is shit (mainly human society). We all want a tangible, persistent outer world rainbow, but that's not how it works.
Beauty in the outer world is subtle and obscure. The divine manifests every day as a weed in the cracks, crushed by people who imagine the divine coming with trumpets in the sky. The most beautiful sound I've ever heard was a cacophonous flock of tiny birds in dead winter.
It's hard to even talk about this in English. How would someone say it who had experienced the unity of inside and outside? Something like: Inner light and outer light are two halves that come together with suspension of the self. And Utopia is not a perfectly luminous outer world, but a world that fits.
I wonder how many people can't even find any inner light, and what happened to them that snuffed it. And I wonder if this is related to drug preference: alcohol turns inner shit into rainbows, cannabis turns outer shit into rainbows, and some drugs do both. My favorite line about drugs is from the Tao Te Ching, 52.3: "Use the bright light but return to the dim light."
March 31. I had a nice comment on my favorite bit from the last post, which I'll repeat:
Fame is when idiots make a mythic character in their own heads, and pick out a few things that you've said and done so they can put your face on that character, and then when you don't fit what that character is supposed to do, they get personally offended.
This struck me as being precisely the dynamic that has governed my 4-time-divorced, now 84-year-old mother's approach to romantic relationships her entire life... What is it about the way we try to fill the empty places in our hearts with, not the companionship of other frail, flawed humans, but with avatars of our projected craving for superheroes and archetypes?
This is a really good question, and my answer is that we need two words for "real": one for the unseen deeper realness that we sometimes feel, and one for things that persist when they're being tested in front of everyone.
Our world is a dialogue between these two forces. The archetypes are where the light comes from, but we can't just have living archetypes walking around, because they're too strong and simple to match the complexity of a world shared among billions of perspectives.
Our challenge is to glow with the ambient light of myth, to absorb the raw bolts from the world of dreams and pass them through ourselves to feed the fragile circuits of every moment.
The internet has changed the nature of "fame". In the past, you needed to generally buy into fame. To be famous, you needed managers, publicists, etc. Media access was a limited resource that was handed out only to those that met approval.
This created in the audience certain expectations about what it means to be famous. Don't treat the audience wrong or do anything too far outside those expectations or face the audience's wrath.
The internet changed what it means to be "famous" because the internet is media access. Unfortunately, the sociology of the audience hasn't caught up and often still apply the old expectations.
I can relate to this, and unlike the examples in the article, I'm not even trying to please an audience or make money. I'm just writing what I enjoy writing, and putting it out there, and even though I'm very careful with words, I still get in trouble with some readers.
Nobody who understands fame wants to be famous. Fame is when idiots make a mythic character in their own heads, and pick out a few things that you've said and done so they can put your face on that character, and then when you don't fit what that character is supposed to do, they get personally offended.
But also, fame is created by technology. You can't be famous among people who really know you. Fame requires thin and distant connections. And the internet enables thinner and more distant connections than ever before.
But the internet at least allows the possibility of thick connections, and that's my optimistic vision of the future of fame. Andy Warhol said everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, because in his time there was a single monolithic public eye. Now every person can be their own eye, and we haven't learned to work with this yet, but when we do, it's possible for everyone to be a content creator with a tiny and dedicated audience: In the future, everyone will be famous among 15 people.
March 27. My life with Oliver Sacks is from a memoir by Bill Hayes, who became Sacks' partner late in his life. Hayes calls Sacks "without a doubt the most unusual person I had ever known." Then it gets even better when they go to Iceland to visit Björk.
For me, this is a glimpse of heaven: two people who have managed to get away with being totally weird, without going mad or being crushed by poverty, hanging out in a little world of tree-stump chairs and rock-carved stairways, and a lighthouse where you do creative work while trapped by the high tide.
Going back almost 200 years, over the weekend I watched a biographical film about the Brontës, To Walk Invisible. Emily was the one with talent, and she died of tuberculosis at age 30 after writing only one novel, but she was actually lucky to be in a weird family that gave her some freedom to follow her peculiar obsessions.
Is the world getting better in this way? In ten thousand years, will everyday life be like Oliver Sacks at Björk's house? This is a vision that I call Neckbeard Utopia: that as we all reach our greatest potential, we become more different. Everything that rises must diverge. Unhappy families are all alike, but each happy family is happy in its own way.
One limiting factor is that it will fall apart if we get so different that we can no longer communicate. And I think the biggest obstacle is that we don't do our best with total comfort and freedom. We need just the right challenges and constraints, and I doubt that's something that could ever be encoded in laws or calculated by computers.