"I was a peripheral visionary. I could see the future, but only way off to the side."
January 1, 2024.
For the new year, some predictions. I'm very pessimistic about one category of the near future: events that are covered on the news. Climate disasters are going to get worse -- here's a short video of giant waves in California -- while climate change denial will not get any better.
Wealth inequality will get worse, while the political will to fix wealth inequality will not get better until our whole culture changes how it thinks about money, from "Poverty sucks but you can climb out of it if you're not lazy," to "We have to make poverty fun because we're stuck in it forever."
There will be more and more homeless people, but that will make the world of homelessness better, because more functional people will be pulled into it.
Worst of all, the world is entering a phase of authoritarian politics and military conflict, which will not end until the generations that have not experienced that stuff find out how shitty it is. Here's a depressing Reddit thread (removed because the internet is also getting worse), What would be the ramifications if Ukraine aid is stopped and Russia wins and takes over Ukraine? Basically, if international cooperation fails to keep the peace, every country will build up their military to try to stop invasions, or to do them. This is looking a lot like right before WWI.
Here's where I'm optimistic. If you add up the death tolls of WWI, WWII, and the Spanish flu, it was about seven percent of the world population at that time. Seven percent of the present world population is more than half a billion people. I don't expect that many deaths, because humans are no longer mean enough to do that many murders -- although nuclear war is still possible.
I'm confident that we will neither go extinct, nor colonize space. We're going to be stuck working shit out on Earth for a long time, without cheap resources, and I think when we get used to that, life could get pretty good.
Where I'm most optimistic, in my lifetime, is in the normalization of psychedelics, and the effect of all that tripping on culture. Posted to the subreddit, The zeitgeist is changing. A strange, romantic backlash to the tech era looms.
I think western culture bottomed out in the 1700s, in terms of how little of reality we saw as alive. For a while after Descartes, you needed propositional cognition to even exist. Emotions weren't real again until Romanticism. The word "ecology" was not even invented until 1873. I predict that by 2200, the Pope will say that trees are people, as the old religions retool for bottom-up theology, and we rebuild participating consciousness from scratch.
December 25. Some nice links to close out the year. Why scientists are making transparent wood: "In tests measuring how easily materials fracture or break under pressure, transparent wood came out around three times stronger than transparent plastics like Plexiglass and about 10 times tougher than glass."
'Green Roads' Are Plowing Ahead, Buffering Drought and Floods. This is mostly happening in the third world, positioning those places to eventually surpass the present first world, which is too set in its ways to reinvent infrastructure.
How a Cartographer Drew a Massive, Freehand Map of North America
Having a Game I'm Really Into Makes Every Day Incredibly Enjoyable. I've noticed that during times when I'm gaming a couple hours a day (either video or tabletop) I'm no less productive than when I'm not gaming. I think it's because games get me in a mindset of being active and decisive.
This strange vine can mimic other plants. Specifically, its leaves take on the shapes of other leaves, and we still don't know how. Related, an article from October about plant intelligence.
And some music, two ambient albums from 2023. I haven't been following Big Blood lately, but Big Blood's sonic architect, Caleb Mulkerin, has been mastering albums for The Floating Mountain Band, and my favorite of those is called 204, especially the track "B", which reminds me of Symphonies of the Planets, but more complex.
And Soundtrack from an Imaginary Western reminds me of the Heroes of Might & Magic IV Soundtrack, but smoother.
December 21. Posted to the subreddit, a fascinating essay about the occult origins of tech culture. "I'm suggesting that the once-transgressive ideology underpinning the Western esoteric tradition -- that our purpose as humans is to become as close to divine as possible -- has become an implicit assumption of modern life."
This touches on a lot of stuff I've been thinking about. I don't feel smart today, so I'll just say that I think modern technology is totally a manifestation, a giant magic spell, and not only that, it's dark magic, because as the essay points out, it's about bending reality to our will. Reality doesn't like being bent to our will, any more than another person does. We're running out of room to dominate nature, so our culture, which still romanticizes domination, is now turning inward. Millions of people who can't imagine a meaning of life other than seeking power over others, are getting increasingly frustrated, and I expect it to get a lot worse before it gets better.
Music for the holidays, and instead of posting the usual stuff, I have just one obscurity, a great honky tonk piano version of Auld Lang Syne.
December 18. I'm saving the heavy stuff for the new year. Today, drugs. The r/psychonaut thread on Matthew Perry's death disagrees with blaming ketamine: "When someone dies in a drunk driving accident, or falls off the side of a balcony drunk, they don't say they 'died from acute effects of alcohol.'" Also, a lot of people think it was suicide, since taking that much ketamine in a hot tub is more likely than not to lead to drowning.
This is interesting: Ligare, a Christian Psychedelic Society
And back to r/psychonaut for a long post arguing that Psychedelics do not cause hallucinations, but increased sensory sensitivity. Skip to the end for a great video game metaphor. If there's too much data for your video card, you can get stuttering and visual artifacts that are not that different from hallucinations. This also explains why a strobe light helps with closed-eye visuals.
I find it fascinating that people get such different effects from substances. Alcohol makes me dumb and chatty, but it doesn't make me feel better in any way. For a lot of people, it makes them feel so much better that they can't stop. And while I haven't tried any hard opioids, the prescription stuff has never felt good enough to make it worth the dehydration.
I'm guessing that serious addicts, to whatever drug, are getting the same effect that I get from LSD. Sobriety feels like trudging through a hostile and meaningless world. Cannabis makes the present moment beautiful and important. Meditation is forcing my attention on the present moment even though it sucks -- and yet some people love it. On LSD, and no other substance or practice, I feel like I am at home in a living world. I've never had an abundant source, so I only do around a tab a year, but when I do, I always think of the line from Bob Seger's Fire Lake: "Oh Lord, am I really here at last?"
December 15. Music for the weekend. My song of the year is by Grian Chatten, the front man of Fontaines DC, an Irish band with some great songs including Liberty Belle from 2018. His first solo album, Chaos For the Fly, is quite good, and contains one masterpiece, All of the People. It's a hymn to introversion, with cynical verses about human relationships, and a transcendent chorus about being alone. The sound recalls old-time crooners, but none of them had lyrics like this.
A few more from 2023, all of them quiet. High On a Rocky Ledge is a cover of a Moondog song by Ghost Train Orchestra and Kronos Quartet. Even more dreamy, Beach House - Holiday House. And a video from the album I mentioned a few weeks ago, forestlike - sinking stone.
The best old song that I discovered in 2023 is Souvenir by Pretty & Twisted, a 1995 project of Johnette Napolitano and Marc Moreland. It sounds a lot better if you play it loud. And a very uplifting song from 2008, You! Me! Dancing! by Los Campesinos. I've stuck it in at the climax of my Spotify Aughties playlist.
December 13. Matt comments on boredom:
Your post made me think about how actors deal with the boredom of doing the same show dozens or hundreds of times. One, we start playing games. There's Pass the Quarter, where you have to find a way of giving a quarter to another actor, and the quarter is never supposed to leave the stage. Then there's the less rule-bound game of trying to crack other people up. In comedies, there's the game of trying to get laughs on lines that don't usually get laughs, trying to push a scene into maximum funniness.
The other main way of dealing with boredom is being present and paying such close attention to what the other actors are doing that you're not anticipating and therefore become willing to follow the scene into different nuances of emotion. And if your scene partner is going through the motions, then that itself can become fodder for the scene.
For me, there's no other way to get through a long run than to make the performance a meditation.
December 11. Today, practical psychology. I've written before that the word "boredom" points to two things: the pain of having nothing to do, and the pain of having to pay attention to something uninteresting. I noticed this distinction because I'm good at entertaining myself inside my head, so I like having nothing to do. But that makes it even worse when I have to listen to a boring speech or watch a boring movie. And now I have a better definition to explain why.
Boredom is hedonic blowback from entertainment. The longer you are entertained, the more pain you feel in its absence. Modern people are haunted by boredom. We are so loaded with entertainment that we live in fear of the emptiness when it stops.
It's often said that cannabis "makes you ok with being bored." What it really does is turn your own perspective into a beacon of interesting, so that whatever you focus on, you're entertained. That's not being ok with being bored, it's being immune to it.
The cure for boredom, of course, is embracing it. A few years ago, I was watching a spare and slow-paced movie called Shell (2012). I could tell it was good, but the lack of explosions or conventional plot gave me an increasingly desperate urge to switch it off. Having already experimented with completely feeling anxiety, I decided to completely feel boredom, and to watch it all the way through. I felt like the kid in Dune who has to hold his hand in a box of fire -- a scene brilliantly parodied by Elmo.
Anyway, in hindsight, that was a key moment in my mental health. Since then I have not felt that intensity of boredom, and now I'm using it as a meditation instruction, to seek, and expand into, the pain of non-entertainment.
December 7. Stray links, starting with a new issue of The Whippet, with a discussion of "aha moments". Studies show that the experience of suddenly understanding something, makes you more likely to believe that thing is true. This leads to a strategy where, if someone wants you to believe something, they give you hints instead of telling you straight out.
Lots of cool stuff in this r/Psychonaut thread, Weird events take place when you are tripping, right? There's a big sub-thread about electronics malfunctioning, and I've read elsewhere that people who have had near-death experiences, often have continuing problems with electronics. My crazy theory is that modern technology is not just miraculous, but literally miraculous, and a different mental state can break the spell.
From r/AskOldPeople, a thread about the world getting better, What generational trauma have you ended?
More getting better, Results are in from one of the world's biggest experiments in fighting poverty. A charity gave different versions of an unconditional income to villagers in Kenya, and results suggest that universal works better than non-universal, unconditional works better than conditional, and a lump sum works better than a gradual payment.
The UBI is often misunderstood as a way for everyone to do nothing all day. But most people love being busy, and a UBI would allow more people to be busy on their own terms. Related, from r/AskReddit, People who wouldn't quit their job even if you won the lottery, what's your job?
December 4. Continuing on authenticity, Imre comments:
I feel like I need to grab this word in the context where I mostly hear it being used nowadays - authentic experience. And in this sense, the mere fact that such a construct came into being and is widely used, it speaks of the extreme deficiency of the real that people are suffering.
I was overlooking the problem of authentic experience, because I have a weird practice that most people don't have: aggressive appreciation of nature. This is something I learned to do on psychedelics, and now I do it all the time. Just walking around the city, whenever my eyes aren't needed to navigate, they're in the trees. Even watching TV, my gaze will wander from boring human scenes to landscapes in the background.
And it occurs to me, this is a learned skill. Telling an authenticity-hungry person to look at trees is like telling a depressed person to cheer up. It's not something you can just do without building a foundation of knowing how to do it. Before something can be experienced as authentic, it must first be experienced as not alien.
Another place to find authenticity is by feeling your own body from the inside -- but again, you have to learn how to do it, and it's harder than looking at nature, because your body gives you pain.
On a different tangent, I was trying to think of an example of a website with low bullshit and high misinformation -- one where people present themselves without a lot of filtering, and where there's a lack of verifiable facts. And I've actually been hanging out on such a site recently: the Spirituality subreddit.
A week ago there was a thread with some great answers to the question, What Is Your Purpose In Life?
And from another thread, an exceptional comment, Effects of sex work on the spiritual body. A key paragraph:
When I was actively doing sex work, it has given me psychosomatic illnesses like you cannot even imagine. Some days I couldn't get out of bed because my body wouldn't move at all even though I felt completely healthy in my mind. I had close to 4 months of severe labyrinthitis after a traumatic experience. I learned to dissociate with my body and I would black out in the middle of a sentence sometimes and come right back to fight or flight mode once awake. Sex work gave me ptsd and anxiety that I still am trying to heal to this day.
December 1. Merriam-Webster's 2023 word of the year is authentic, and at the top of that article is who else, Taylor Swift, the world's most authenticity-deprived person. I'm sure, if you really know her, she's as authentic as anyone -- because authenticity is everywhere. The problem is not source but distribution.
Or, authenticity is not a thing but a relationship, in which both parties have to do work: the perceived must let go of what other people expect, and the perceiver must integrate the unexpected. The perceived lets down a filter and the perceiver adjusts one. This is hard, and the bigger the crowd, the harder it is -- especially if professional media get involved, because they profit by making the content more easily digestible. At the highest level of fame, the only way to pass the filter is to be completely unsurprising, or to do something wrong.
The opposite of authenticity is bullshit, a.k.a. propaganda. Not only is this different from misinformation, they're sort of opposites. Any source with a tight filter against weirdness, is also likely to have a tight filter against factual incorrectness. So CNN is high in bullshit and low in misinformation, while some websites are low in bullshit and high in misinformation. Misinformation spoofs authenticity, merely by being different than the information provided by propaganda. When people are so hungry for authenticity that they embrace misinformation, I wonder if they're looking at screens too much, and they need to go outside and look at trees.
By the way, the kind of bullshit I notice most is in emotional reactions, and you can see this both on the news and in fiction. In the very first episode of Succession, when the kids all think their mean billionaire father is about to die, they don't shed a tear but get straight to scheming. In season four, when he finally dies, their reactions are Hollywood boilerplate. On IMDB, it's the highest rated episode.
Also by the way, I've tried to listen to Taylor Swift, and I find her music impressively uninteresting. I've heard that when Jimi Hendrix was living in London, he would go see bands every night, and he could learn something from the worst band in the world. What I haven't heard, but I'm sure it's true, is that you can learn more from an amateur band, than a polished successful band. Human perception contains two opposite motives, one for surprise, and one for recognition, and Taylor Swift has taken recognition to a new level of purity.
November 29. One more negative link. Henry Kissinger, War Criminal Beloved by America's Ruling Class, Finally Dies
November 29. And some negative tech links, starting with a minor one, Smart drugs reduce quality of effort, and slow decision-making. That link goes to the Hacker News thread, in which everyone already knew that smart drugs make you dumb and productive.
Reddit thread from a few weeks ago, What's the most dystopian thing happening right now that we never thought could happen just 25 years ago? "Robots are composing poetry and painting art-pieces while the minerals for the devices said robots are made out of are mined by human children."
The transcript of a Charlie Stross talk, We're sorry we created the Torment Nexus. It's about how sci-fi has influenced technology and culture, usually in a bad way, and especially when the authors were trying to warn us. "Did you ever wonder why the 21st century feels like we're living in a bad cyberpunk novel from the 1980s? It's because these guys read those cyberpunk novels and mistook a dystopia for a road map."
Who are "these guys"? This Douglas Rushkoff piece explains: the unbearable hubris of Musk and the billionaire tech bros. "Their words and actions suggest an approach to life, technology and business that I have come to call 'The Mindset' -- a belief that with enough money, one can escape the harms created by earning money in that way."
November 27. Today, some technology links. I still think the overall influence of modern technology has been harmful, but I like picking out the good ones.
The Cassette-Tape Revolution is about how powerful and radical it was, when we got an overwritable medium that anyone could use. There's also some stuff about how it made music better.
New study finds ChatGPT gives better advice than professional columnists. This is something that Philip Dick predicted, especially in We Can Build You.
Ultra-white ceramic cools buildings with record-high 99.6% reflectivity
The world's 280 million electric bikes and mopeds are cutting demand for oil far more than electric cars
To Free The Baltic Grid, Old Technology Is New Again. It's about the growing use of very heavy spinning things to smooth out frequency and voltage.
An artificial glacier growing in the desert. This is so low-tech the Romans could have done it. Water from melting glaciers is piped through gravity to a lower elevation, where it sprays in the air and freezes in a giant cone of ice that melts to provide water in the dry months.