July 2. On the previous post, Anne comments: "Models have to be built for a purpose - usually as a guide for some action or response - otherwise they aren't even useful." And "you can generally judge prophets not by the accuracy of their models but by the uses for which they've been designed."
In the context of collapse, I see three kinds of modelers. First there are powerful institutions like oil companies or DARPA, who need information about the future to make strategic decisions. Then there are writers like me, who enjoy having an audience, and might also make money selling doom prep products. Writers who need an audience can be trapped in an echo chamber where the audience and the writer prevent each other from changing their thinking. Finally there are models made by powerless individuals, who have all kinds of motives.
My new theory on the Guy McPherson crowd: Why would anyone go out of their way to believe in something (near-term human extinction) that's both depressing and unsupported by the evidence? It's because these are people who are already depressed and despairing for a variety of reasons, and by telling a story about the whole world, they can all be depressed for the same reason, and feel a sense of community.
I was a doomer optimist. My position was: society sucks, there's nothing I can do about it, but this coming unstoppable event will destroy the big systems and make room for a better world. Now, whether it would really be a better world is an even harder question than how to define "collapse" in the first place. But the worse your present position, the more you're willing to gamble on change (which is why governments will try hard to keep everyone fed). And now that I'm in a better position, I don't have an incentive to cheer for a particular future. My biggest fears, being in debt and having to look for a job again, are unlikely in any scenario. There's a Spanish saying, "I don't have a dead guy at this funeral."
I'm still fascinated by the future of humanity, and my motive is curiosity. But this is still a kind of bias, because challenges caused by failure, like energy decline and climate change, are less interesting than challenges caused by success, like artificial worlds that are better than reality, or the lifelessness of too much comfort, or the unintended consequences of using biotech to make ourselves better.
June 30. Thanks Ian for letting me know that the full interviews for the film What A Way To Go have been put up on YouTube on this page. This includes a hundred minutes of me talking, almost ten years ago, and my ideas have changed a lot since then.
The reason I'm no longer a doomer is simply that I got tired of being wrong. And I started to feel contempt for other doomers who shamelessly made the same wrong predictions year after year. And you have to make precise predictions because otherwise what does "collapse" even mean? Do you think we're still going to have internet? Container ships? Large scale grain farming? Banks? Taxes? Electrical grids? Hospitals? Stock markets? Elections? These are all different subjects that require different specialized knowledge. Even something like "manufacturing" could have vastly different answers for different products. And for each thing that's going to go away, how long will it take, and by what chain of events?
Everyone wants to be right, but people who persist in being doomers want to be right in a different way than I do. I want to say what's going to happen, and then it actually happens. Some people want to feel like they understand the mechanism for how things happen. But the real world is much too complex for any one person to understand, so we make simplifications. In the context of collapse, the simplest idea is business as usual plus sci-fi extrapolation. The next simplest idea is total collapse: every one of the above things goes away, because they're all part of the same One Big Thing, and some of the conditions that made the One Big Thing possible are disappearing.
Everyone is stupid, but smart people know how they're stupid. I know that modern civilization is only One Big Thing inside my head, and out in the world it's billions of people I don't know, their knowledge and habits and intentions, plus trillions of physical objects and all the connections between everything. I know that you can't have perpetual economic growth on a finite planet, that renewable energy is not coming online fast enough for a smooth transition out of fossil fuels, and that presently fertile regions will become deserts; but it would be arrogant to think that large complex high-tech society cannot adapt to these conditions, just because I can't personally imagine how it can adapt.
video from one I called April Shrine. And when I happened to be watching one I called Mayan Calendar while listening to
June 25. I'm busy this weekend and will probably not post again until Tuesday. On a tangent from my previous post, a reader posted this one hour radio program to the subreddit, Musical Language. I've been thinking a lot lately about musical quality and musical taste. How can people in the same culture hear music so differently? Why is musical judgment more varied and subjective than, say, judgment of landscape photographs? What internal process makes us like the sounds we like? The radio show tries to answer this with brain science, and it has two good stories about musical sense developing. The first is the observation that if you record someone speaking, and play the same section over and over, it starts to sound musical, and your brain becomes trained to permanently hear that bit as musical. This makes me think that a big part of musical taste is deciding what we want to like (often subconsciously) and then listening until we like it. A hundred years ago people just liked the music of their culture. But now, with so much choice, the kind of music you like is part of your individual identity. You might feel drawn to dark and angry music, or refuse to like anything by someone in a cowboy hat. As a teenager I got into prog rock because it was musically complex, mildly noisy, and had smart lyrics.
But sometimes you catch yourself liking something you don't want to like, or didn't expect to like. This means there's something at work deeper than culture and choice.
The radio show's other good story is about Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. At its first performance in 1913, it was so dissonant that fights broke out in the audience and people threw things at the orchestra. Only a year later audiences loved it. And if you look closely enough at the brain, you can see physical events that correspond to our mental process of turning noise into beauty.
I'm not interested in the mechanism, only how wonderful it feels when I do it. (If you're into Enneagram, this is why I'm 5w4 not 5w6.) But now I have more questions. Why does some challenging music sound incredible after repeated listening, while most challenging music merely sounds not bad? If this varies between different people, and if it's independent of number of listens, does it point to the deeper component of musical taste?
Is this related to other practices of transforming pain into pleasure, like BDSM, or certain schools of meditation? Is the same thing happening with difficult fiction? Are we decoding something in the art, or is the art decoding something in us? And are we making progress? If we exchanged music with people from a thousand years ago, would it be an equal exchange? And if not, if their music would bore us and our music would shock them, what does that say about changes in human consciousness?
May 18. I've started reading by Matthew Crawford. Here's an with an excerpt. In the book, he starts with the obvious complaint that the world is increasingly saturated with advertisements and other demands on our attention, and then he puts this in an interesting philosophical context. According to Enlightenment metaphysics, your "self" is inside your head, and you make an abstract mental model of the world outside your head and make rational decisions about how to navigate it.
June 22. Saturday night I was listening to music and had a thought. One song, which I had originally classified as pretentious and boring, and later as interesting, this time sounded radical and brilliant. So how does that mental model change, or not change? What do I do inside my head so that tomorrow I think of this song as great and not average?
Earlier I was watching baseball and having a similar thought about how batters see pitches. As an amateur I would just see a ball coming at me, but a professional batter sees the pitch within a classification system of different kinds of pitches, and if they're familiar with the pitcher, they see it in the context of what they expect from that pitcher. This is more than a mental model -- it's burned into their instinctive body motions by practice, so they hardly have to think at the moment of the swing. Pitchers do the same thing to learn how to pitch to different batters. And they're both aware the other one is doing it, which is how the mental game develops: if you know the other player's mental landcape, you can take advantage of it, or even hack it. Greg Maddux once intentionally gave up a home run to a batter in a regular season game, so in the playoffs the batter would be looking for that same pitch and never get it.
So here's my theory. Our landscapes of mind and habit are mostly shaped by emotion. The more intense my feelings when I'm listening to that song, the easier it is to start thinking of it as a great song. This might be obvious to anyone who's not an intellectual, and if it's true it explains a lot. In conflicts between companies or empires or sports teams, why do young upstarts defeat established powers? They're living more on the edge, so in every little success or failure, their emotions are more acute, and lead more easily to valuable mental adjustments. Why do people get stupid when they get comfortable? Because they have insulated themselves from the extreme events and strong emotions that would help them stay on top of a changing world.
This also explains why job interviewers look for enthusiasm, and why it's so dangerous to fake it, because it gets you in situations where you're not as adaptable as you need to be.
The singer, Sue Tompkins, has a style that sounds like a hybrid of two of my favorite singers. She doesn't have Colleen Kinsella's unearthly vocal timbre, but she matches and exceeds the raw, punchy aliveness of great Big Blood songs like
June 19. Fun stuff for the weekend. Speculative Evolution is a subreddit "for images, discussion, and articles about life forms that could have existed in a different world. Speculative organisms may be from the future, an alternate timeline, or alien planets."
And I've discovered another great obscure band, Life Without Buildings. That's a 2014 article and interview about their only album, from 2001, Any Other City. All the songs are great but my initial favorites are Let's Get Out and Daylighting.
The singer, Sue Tompkins, has a style that sounds like a hybrid of the styles in my two favorite songs. She doesn't have Colleen Kinsella's unearthly vocal timbre, but she matches and exceeds the raw, punchy aliveness of great Big Blood songs like Destin Rain. And she has the same half-talking half-singing stuttery repetition as Al Joshua of Orphans & Vandals in songs like Mysterious Skin. Except she predated both of them, and Al Joshua was clearly influenced by her. Two years ago I didn't know about any of the above music, so I wonder what else is out there...
June 17. Thanks naringas for giving me something to write about today, posting to the subreddit this article from the New Yorker, A New Theory of Distraction. It's a review of Matthew Crawford's book The World Beyond Your Head, and it has a critique of Crawford similar to the one I wrote a week ago.
Crawford thinks that modern people have too much freedom, which leads to boredom, depression, and being victimized by high-tech distraction, and we need to build a culture of benevolent authority and meaningful constraints. I think we've only begun to learn self-regulation, and unstructured time is not a burden but an exciting opportunity to practice the skill of navigating freedom. The reviewer, Joshua Rothman, uses James Joyce's Ulysses to argue that constant distraction is not a bad thing, and instead of avoiding it, we should own it. (I'm glad he summarized Ulysses for me because I find Joyce unreadable.)
On a tangential subject, Rothman mentions that comedian Louis C.K. and author David Foster Wallace think we seek distraction to avoid facing some unbearable pain at the heart of our being. But I've heard that Louis C.K. is privately a sad man, and of course Wallace hanged himself. Maybe that "emptiness inside" is something that only a small proportion of people feel, but it drives them to success or self-destruction, so they get most of the attention. And the reason I haven't written a bunch of novels is that I enjoy doing nothing.
June 15. There's a subreddit called Shower Thoughts, and that might be the direction I go to keep this blog going, just random small ideas. A couple weeks ago I had this one: what I despise about hypocrites is not that they lack the self-discipline to practice what they preach, but that they lack the courage and empathy to preach what they practice. I'm thinking of anti-gay politicians who have secret gay sex, or women who have had abortions and still think they should be illegal for other women. You might say, what about behaviors that are clearly wrong? Well, if Ted Bundy had stood up and said it's okay to rape and kill women, he wouldn't have got away with it for so long.
May 15. For the weekend I'm ready to unveil a personal project, moving my favorite band from my