Apr 102022
 

Compulsory schooling is net-harmful. Here’s my reasons why, starting with my three major objections, which apply to mid-teen and late-teen public schooling (called “high school” in the USA). These are followed with several more commonly heard points, which apply more to early schooling for pre-teen children.

I – High School Steals Life-Years During Crucial Psychological Transition States, Causing Immense Mental Anguish

By their mid-teens most humans are at a developmental stages where they have a drive to begin their lives. There is a strong desire to contribute something of value to their community or family, or to begin accumulating worth for themselves. This doesn’t necessarily mean material wealth — reputation, respect, and advancement are extremely valuable. In the pre-modern era, by this age most people would have duties and responsibilities that matter. Their peers or family would be counting on them in some way.

Teens in school, on the other hand, are acutely aware that nothing they do matters. They are given endless hours of busy work, which is thrown away after it’s done. They are prohibited from doing anything of value, locked in a holding pattern of meaningless stasis for years. Not only are these years subjectively far longer than the years that older adults experience, they are also some of the most energetic and healthy years of most people’s lives. They are burned for nothing.

II – High School Is Literally Low-Intensity Physical Torture Via Sleep Deprivation

Most teenagers naturally have later sleep cycles than older adults. They also need more sleep than older adults. Older adults run schools, and they don’t care about the natural cycles of legal minors. In addition, since teens are compelled to waste so much of their waking hours on schooling yet still desire other activities, they will often cram in more activity at the cost of even more sleep. As a result, 3/4ths of teens are chronically sleep deprived. Severe sleep deprivation is a tool of torture. Less severe but chronic sleep deprivation is low-key torturous, and also causes long-term psychological damage.

III – High School Has The Social Dynamics of a Prison

Rates of depression and mental health disturbances by teenagers outstrips that of all other demographics. This was not the case in the pre-modern era. Much like criminal prisons, many in school turn to alcohol, prescription drugs, or illicit drugs to claw their way through this time. With no way to measure status via metrics that matter, students form into cliques and form hierarchies based on surface appearances and local popularity. Anyone not in a clique suffers social isolation and sometimes harassment, and it can be difficult to join one. Even within cliques, many people spend much of their time tearing down rival members in zero-sum status games, or abuse of low-ranking or new members.

 

Nearly 100% of our population endures these years of torture, and it’s been deranging us for generations.

The thing is, I had a pretty darn good schooling experience. I was a precocious child. I loved learning. I honesty and thoroughly enjoyed a well-delivered lecture, and scribbling notes as fast as I could. I loved taking tests and scoring well on them. Test taking is a skill all of its own, and it’s fun to be good at something hard. My teachers loved my enthusiasm for learning, and by extension loved me. I sometimes got special privileges. My school was in a progressive middle-class suburb, with minimal social nastiness. And yet…

And yet everyone I know (including myself) feels like we “survived” high school. Yes, almost everyone survives high school, it’s designed to take people to the brink without pushing them over. The fact that the experience is one of having survived an ordeal by so many is a very strong sign that something is wrong. More importantly, the survivors come out scarred and deranged in significant ways, and they make up nearly the entire populations of our country. Despite my relatively “good” experience, I was deeply depressed in high school, especially the later years. I cut myself for some time, and came to the brink of suicide at one point.

I’m in my early 40s now. When I see a school, I still get a powerful frisson of awe and horror. Especially large, institutional buildings, with multiple wings sprawling over a wide campus, with several areas 2-3 stories tall. I am drawn to them, wanting to be inside that alternate reality once more, despite feeling all the old scars throbbing at the sight. It hurts, and it’s sweet, and I think this is what Stockholm Syndrome must feel like.

Is there some social benefit that justifies this mass emotional scarification?

 

Other Harms of Schooling, Which Are Also Not To Be Overlooked:

(many of these are also variations of “destroying years of life for no gain is very bad”)

1. Compelling Those Who Don’t Want Schooling To Be Confined With Those Who Do Is Damaging To Both

Children and teenagers who don’t want schooling are forced to attend anyway. These include both students who won’t learn, and those who already know that which they’ll be instructed on. They are confined in boring rooms with nothing to stimulate them. This style of low-grade sensory deprivation is already damaging. These students will often resort to rebellion and disruption, which makes it impossible for even those who would benefit from the instruction to gain anything from it. The result is fruitless confinement for everyone, wherein no one learns anything, and vast time and resources are wasted.

If the students who didn’t want to be there were not compelled to attend, they would have much better lives, and the students who do want to attend would have a chance to learn something.

2. The Majority of pre-5th Grade Instruction is Wasteful

When humans need to learn something, especially humans under the age of 30, but SUPER ESPECIALLY humans under the age of 20, they will learn it quickly of their own accord. Anyone who’s watched a child master a game they are interested in already knows this. Anyone who’s watched a child teach themselves to read so they can consume another story knows this. Anyone who’s seen a child experiment with tools or physics or bugs already knows this. Anyone who has created a website, or podcast, or renovated their home, or stayed a few months in a foreign country, already knows this.

When you need to know something, you learn it. You learn it quickly, and you know the value this knowledge has to you. There are a lot of things that people need to know to function in our society, such as basic literacy and numeracy. When they aren’t shackled by plodding instruction, imprisoned in an institution that doesn’t let them see how this knowledge is useful to them, and plied with extraneous trivia, children can learn all the basics in just a few hours per week, rather than burning every non-weekend day (before accounting for homework).

3. The Vast Majority of Learning is Wasted

All students are instructed in roughly the same things. This is a gross misuse of time, because students have very different aptitudes. Some excel in math, and should be spending a lot of time honing and exploiting those skills. Some pick up reading very quickly, others languages, or physical systems. When everyone is instructed at the same pace, many are instructed in things they have no aptitude for. They shouldn’t be wasting any time in those areas after they master the basics needed to function as an adult (usually what we call the “fifth grade level,” those most people could achieve that level of mastery long before the traditional fifth-grade age). Continuing to compel students to take instruction on topics they don’t have aptitude for and will not use is a destruction of their life-years.

4. The Vast Majority of post-5th Grade Instruction is Useless

In harmony with point #1, when you don’t need to know something, you forget it quickly. Everything learned after elementary school is knowledge that is only needed in limited domains. Every single student will lose 90% of what they learn by the time they are in their 30s. No matter how smart they are and no matter how demanding of a career they pursue, at most 10% of what they learned will actually be used by that career. Therefore, it will be forgotten. The greatest physicist of our generation won’t remember anything worth remembering from Honors Biology or World History. The few things s/he will remember are things they would have picked up as an adult anyway. Every hour spent on that unused 90% of compelled schooling was pure waste.

In summary, no one should be compelled to go to any school. Compelled schooling is in some ways worse than incarceration, as confined students are guilty of no crime.

If the populace is taxed to provide for general education (which I agree is a public good), the parents of minors (or teenagers who’ve reached majority) should be allowed to direct that money to any school they desire. If they attend no school, but pass tests proving competency, that money should be refunded directly to the parents/student for having done the labor of educating the child/themselves.

The amount of suffering and the vast amount of life-years lost by compelled schooling in the US is unconscionable.

Sep 162021
 

Disease Burden is a conceptulization of how much value is destroyed by ill health. It’s a topic that’s been on my mind more ever since I lost ~1/3rd of my life. Much of our progress as a species has been attributed to the increased productivity we achieved by unlocking new energy sources, and creating new tech to exploit them. But I can’t help wondering how much is attributable to the reduction of disease burden as well.

I.

Until recently, I don’t know how many people got anything aproximating decent sleep in their lives. You know how hard it is to be fully energetic, and to think sharply and quickly, after a night of shit sleep? How the hell did anyone get really good sleep on straw mattresses, in poorly insulated homes? After a day of labor that leaves you bone-weary without aspirin?

Most people had been scarred by a major childhood disease that permanently diminished them in some way. Other common diseases were endemic. People were often hungry.

With vaccines, antibiotics, modern hygiene, and the vast wealth we create nowadays, most of these problems have been wiped away. I would wager the typical human is at least 30% more productive than their premodern counterparts, if not significantly more. As a baseline multiplier, that effect can’t be understated. No matter how much productivity a person gains with using modern tools, having the ability to use them 30% more per day just stacks with that.

Somewhat worrisome is that as the old disease burdens were cleared away, new ones have sprung up. The obesity epidemic must have some effect. Major depression is listed as the #2 disease burden at the wilipedia link above. HIV is a relatively new endemic disease. And of course, there’s COVID…

What really worries me about COVID is that it looks like eventually everyone will get it, much like the flu. I don’t know how much to believe about Long COVID. But if it exists, and chronic fatigue is one of its effects, we could see total human productivity permanently drop 20% or more. I don’t want to say this is catastrophic, but… if 20% of the work force died, the effects would be disasterous. A work force that’s 20% less productive is in the same ballpark of problem.

II.

Disease Burden isn’t just an individual-human issue. Cost Disease is common in most organizations/civilizations. It can be as simple as corruption and graft acting as deadweight costs. More commonly, regulation and legal codes slowly accumulate cruft until it’s too expensive to do anything new in a society, and only the behemoths already in place can continue to lumber on.

I’ve seen this happen in a professional context. Someone screws up somewhere, makes a minor mistake that is very costly, and a company implements a new rule to protect against that happening again. It’s a small rule, and on its own it doesn’t matter. But these rules accumulate. Procedures get longer and more labor intensive. Two levels of approval are needed for any action, verified and filed in triplicate. Eventually work that could be done in one hour now takes one and a half, and your admin staff has to increase by 50%.

If you’ve ever been on a forum or discord server that just keeps adding more and more rules, until the Welcome doc takes 40 minutes to read through and you’ll never remember it all, you’ve been subject to this process.

One major advantage of capitalism over other economic systems is that old companies that have become ossified with all this immune-response baggage can be replaced by young upstarts that aren’t saddled with all this disease. The old die, crushed beneath thier own burden, and the young take thier place. They then start to accumulate injuries and cruft of their own, because no one ever learns.

III.

Civilizations follow similar patterns on longer time scales. They start young, quick-moving, and nimble. As they grow in age and power, they are beset by parasites, injuries, and edge-cases. Laws and regulations and customs grow around these insults like scar tissue. They protect, but come at a cost. Slightly less efficiency, slightly less flexibility. Eventually you get an empire so enmeshed in beuarocracy that it’s name is still a synonym for absurd complexities.

Empires fall too, and when they do it’s generally a bad time for anyone in the area. But it’s never been a species-wide problem, because the world was large enough that no matter how big an empire it was, and how hard it collapsed, there was a civilization somewhere else carrying the torch of human progress. Now that we have a globally integrated system, I’m not sure how true that will remain. As COVID has shown, every single part of the modern world is incredibly interlinked with every other. It’s possible that a large enough disaster could bring down every civilization that exists. Recovery from this could take many centuries, if it’s possible at all.

In the past, humanity as a whole was protected because the spaces between civilizations were so large, they were insulated from each other to a survivable degree. Our level of tech makes that impossible on one planet. The “New World” isn’t a place that’s months away, that most people will never see. It’s right next door.

Other planets are still substantially out of reach. It is often pointed out by anti-space-colony folks that anyone who wants to colonize Mars should start with Antarctica first, because it’s much closer and less hostile. But in terms of survival-insurance, the remoteness of Mars is exactly what we’re looking for. It’s important to have a place that won’t be effected if our planet dies, specifically because it may be necessary for civilizations to periodically collapse and be replaced by new ones that aren’t strangled by their own scars. Disease burden must occasionally be cleared away or it will smother everything. If the Creative Destruction of death and replacement is the only way to do that, we better make sure that we can survive it.

IV.

Regardless of anything else, be very wary of anyone or anything that wants to implement new rules or procedures in order to solve a percieved problem. Every additional restriction is an increased disease burden. It may be necessary to ward off something very destructive. But make damn sure it is, and keep your eyes out for occasions when you can dissolve prior protections. Disease burden is cumulative, and deadly, and should not be borne lightly.

Apr 182020
 

This is about Banks’s The Culture series, but doesn’t really contain spoilers.

Within The Culture it is established that biological humans are nigh-immortal, but that nearly all humans eventually choose suicide after several centuries of life. When I first heard this I thought it was just typical Deathist BS. The same “Ho ho, living forever is terrible, no one would want to do it unless they’re an evil villain” crap we usually get. I failed in properly giving Banks the benefit of the doubt. (In my defense, I didn’t know anything about him yet, knowing only how immortality is portrayed by mainstream media).

Upon reading The Player of Games, I understood why humans in that society choose death. The Culture is explicitly post-human. Anything of actual importance that needs to be done on a galactic scale is done by the Minds. For humans to feel important, their only option is to be important to each other. Unfortunately, that’s also not really an option, because no one needs anything.

At first, this seems like a blessing. That’s the whole point of getting post-scarcity. To truly need something is to be in peril. If you need something and can’t make/grow it yourself, you’re at the mercy of someone who can. Your best option is to find something they want or need and trade it to them for what you need. But ideally, you want to need as few things as possible.

In The Culture, no one needs anything. Everyone is given all the food, health, entertainment, and resources they could possibly want. No one relies on anyone else for anything. No one requires someone else to get any need or want met. And while it’s nice to finally have the safety and security to know that “no matter what happens, I’ll be fine,” it also means that no person is needed by any other. I don’t want to need anyone. But for me to not be needed by anyone feels… empty.

The Player of Games does a great job of portraying that lack of connection to any other humans. All the relationships that the protagonist has are superficial, trivial things. There are no stakes to anything he does in his life, aside from the one mission he is sent on that we read about. Everything before that was killing time. Everything after that was trivial as well. Nothing really matters, it’s all just games he plays. When no one needs you and there are no stakes, you’re just killing time. Eventually you realize you aren’t killing time for any purpose. Maybe just skip to the end already.

Which makes me feel really weird, because deprivation and insecurity SUCK. We’re trying to build this glorious post-human future because we’re tired of the suckiness of life, and we want to fix it. I am now somewhat worried about creating a future were no one is needed for anything anymore, though. Not enough to stop striving for it. But… going full The Culture seems like another Failed Utopia.

Jun 122019
 

A recent episode of Making Sense was basically an hour of two people being confused about consciousness. It was bad, and led quickly to “and therefore it’s probable that fundamental particles are conscious,” which… wow.

However it did bring up one good point. Consciousness is biologically expensive. It’s vanishingly unlikely to have been preserved under evolutionary forces unless it was providing some benefit. And considering how expensive it is, it must be a massive benefit just to survive. And yet, not only has it survived, it’s taken over the planet. And still we cannot discern any survival advantage that consciousness gives us. It seems to cost a ton with literally no benefit.

(aside: this is the reason we regularly see Science Fiction with advanced non-conscious aliens. It seems intuitively obvious that a non-conscious species would have a huge advantage over a conscious one, and contact with one would lead to our quick extinction. This is also how the Harrises fell into the “the answer must be that consciousness is a fundamental property of physics” trap.)

By coincidence, at about this same time Scott Alexander posted his review of “The Secret of Our Success”. A truly fantastic book which argues, in short, that our species survives and thrives due not to our individual intellect and reasoning ability (which isn’t even up to the job of keeping us from starving to death in a friendly environment overflowing with natural resources and food), but due to the creation and transmission of cultural knowledge. Read Scott’s review at the very least, and pick up the book if you can, you won’t regret it.

Wherein it occurred to me – perhaps consciousness it necessary for culture. In order to be incensed that food isn’t prepared in the right way, and that dress norms have been violated, and that god will become wrathful if our children aren’t taught the special way of planting corn that honors Him, one first needs to have a sense of self. If there isn’t an object at the center of self to feel aggrieved at decorum not being followed, there will be no decorum.

Consciousness is partly that which distinguishes the Self from all that is non-Self. Culture is partly that which separates Us from Them. Our shared dialect, dress, food, taboos, norms, etc, make us distinct from those who are not Us. One must first have a Self to locate before one can locate it within an ethnic group distinct from those who don’t share our culture. And the more complicated and refined one’s culture is, the greater the consciousness needed to support it, until you get to the crippling sack of neurosis that is the human psyche, constantly demanding to know why it exists.

A barely-conscious agent like a bat will barely squeak past basic reciprocity. But a completely non-conscious stimulus-response process will never develop any culture. And an intelligent but non-conscious rational agent bound purely by observable inputs and outputs will never stumble into a process that removes cyanide from manioc. Only a tangle of neurosis, awe, and confusion has the required depth of social architecture which can act as the scaffolding on which such a complicated process can arise. A process that is unbeknownst even to the user of it. That takes a rich cultural hivemind, built upon countless generations of taboos and group-signifiers that separate the Us from the Them.

Obviously culture didn’t start out this complex. The book argues that culture co-evolved with technology. And if culture is indeed built upon the foundation of consciousness then consciousness very likely co-evolved with culture as well.  Which is to speculate that we are very literally more conscious than our human ancestors of even a few millennia back. And our descendants will be more conscious than us.

 


 

These are just some initial thoughts I wanted to get out while I was still having them, and are pure speculation. If anyone has similar thoughts, and in particular can think of reasons or examples of how Culture Depends On Consciousness (which is what I’m most interested in), please let me know. And/or point me to links which explore this.

Jul 172018
 

This post is gonna sound kinda dumb to most people. I figure it’ll be a lot like finding out that a friend is scared of leprechauns. And you’re like “Really? Leprechauns??” But here we go.

I find the short story “Steve Fever,” by Greg Egan, horrifying–and here’s why.

(spoilers below, so go read it first if you’d like. It’s not too long, introduces a cool idea that will get you thinking, and most people will consider it mostly fun)

Steve is a tech genius/entrepreneur, signed up for cryo, that creates an AI hive-mind and dies shortly thereafter. He’s constructed the AI so it’s primary goal is to revive him in the future. Unfortunately he died in a fiery car accident, and there’s no brain left to preserve. But the AI’s utility function is robust against corruption or drift, so it sets about trying to revive him. Steve left a ton of personality data behind. Lots and lots of personal writings, recorded public appearances, social media posts, interviews, etc. So the AI creates a best-guess approximation of his mind, installs it on a currently-living bran (temporarily hijacking a person’s life in the process), and then tests to see how good of a fit it is. It does this testing by recreating the initial conditions of an event in Steve’s life, and seeing if their Model Steve reacts the same way that the Original Steve did historically. If so, great, try with another scenario! If not, abort, tweak the model, and try again. Iterate until a functionally-identical Steve can be recreated.

This terrifies me in two ways. The first is that (when I think of it) it scares me to post anything anywhere. Every trace I leave narrows the range of successful Eneasz-recreations, making future-reviving harder. I guess that’s a good thing overall, because it means revived-me will be that much closer to original-me. :) But I’m extremely aware of the fact that there’s a lot of stuff I *don’t* post or make a record of. And those things are also parts of me. The reasons for that are mostly embarrassment and social sanctioning… there’s some things I’d just rather not share with the world. And also the majority of it is boring, nobody needs to hear all my stupid little worries or daily thoughts. But recording some things and leaving out others leaves a skewed record, and since the skew is mostly in one direction, any future recreation based on these will be twisted away from who I am now. Is that a good thing? Should I mostly post the stuff that makes me happy, and shows off my abilities, so future-me will be well-adjusted, happy, and good at stuff? I’d want to keep all my deep fears and neurosis as hidden as possible in that case. But then am I even recreating myself, or just a creating an idealized child/successor?

(and is this why some people seem like super-happy half-people?)

The much more horrifying worry is that I might be the Model Eneasz. I may be running through a simulated historical scenario right now. Am I reacting the way Original Eneasz did? If I slip up in any way, the simulation is aborted and I get deleted, to be replaced by a higher-fidelity Eneasz. My continued existence depends on taking the action that isn’t the morally-best or financially-best or socially-best, but the most like an no-longer-existing-person who I may only partially resemble and whose motivations and psychology I can only guess at. And *not* doing something (like not posting this) might be just as bad, if the Original Eneasz did post it. Do I just do the best thing I can, and hope Original Eneasz was a basically good person? He can’t be that bad, if the future is willing to bring him back, right?

Plus, if I am being simulated to refine a model, it means Original Eneasz probably did something interesting or momentous enough in his life to be deemed worthy of recreating. (unless future society is altruistic enough to want to recreate everyone <3 ) I don’t feel like I’ve done anything that noteworthy yet, which leads me to think… what the fuck is looming in my future?

(Of course, I could just be the first-run of Eneasz, a pleb who will never amount to enough to be worth recreating in the future, and all this worry is for naught. Which may be even worse, because then I die forever. >< )

It’s all very stressful.

Oct 242017
 

Magic in the modern day is basically an extension of the idea that you can do anything if you want it enough. It’s literally an extension of desire. Lily Potter saves Harry with her Love Shield because she just wants him to live so much. In virtually all fiction settings magic is fueled by the caster’s inner state, and the greater their dedication, commitment, and passion, the stronger the effect that can achieve. (I can’t speak for pre-modern conceptions of magic.) I even saw this in real life when I was married to an evangelical Christian, though their term was “believing.” I often heard “I’m believe in a miracle” or “If you believe hard enough, Jesus will heal you,” or similar. But it was just wanting dressed up in faithy words.

It’s not a matter of a desire driving someone to train hard, research intently, and do the strenous work over months or years or decades to achieve their goal. The desiring in itself did the work. And while I saw why this is an attractive fantasy, it just seemed so mindbogglingly dumb that I scoffed at it in fiction, and threw mad shade IRL.

But Scott Alexander’s recent review of “Surfing Uncertainty” put some new light on this old trope. He presents the idea that the way our physical movement works is literally by us wanting to move hard enough it becomes reality.

the brain really hates prediction error and does its best to minimize it. With failed predictions about eg vision, there’s not much you can do except change your models and try to predict better next time. But with predictions about proprioceptive sense data (ie your sense of where your joints are), there’s an easy way to resolve prediction error: just move your joints so they match the prediction. So (and I’m asserting this, but see Chapters 4 and 5 of the book to hear the scientific case for this position) if you want to lift your arm, your brain just predicts really really strongly that your arm has been lifted, and then lets the lower levels’ drive to minimize prediction error do the rest.

Under this model, the “prediction” of a movement isn’t just the idle thought that a movement might occur, it’s the actual motor program.

In a sense, the idea that “wanting something really hard can affect the natural world” is literally true. And on some intuitive level, it seems natural to at least ask “why does this stop with my body?” Magical thinking may just be an extension of our ingrained movement models. If predicting hard enough that our arm will raise causes our arm to raise, why wouldn’t predicting super-hard that the lightsaber will fly into my hand cause it to fly into my hand? It almost seems unfairly arbitrary for the world to draw the line at the body! Maybe I’m the freak for scoffing at the idea, and the natural state is to accept that it should be possible.

I suppose it does make me feel less guilty about dumb thoughts like “Oh god, please don’t break!” when I see a glass tipping from my counter and I can’t get to it in time. Yeah, the thought won’t change anything in the real world, but it’s understandable why my instincts would lead me to send that desire out.

Sep 102017
 

A few things that didn’t fit elsewhere:

I.

The first night there, I watched the Opening Ceremonies, which included a cool performative dance around The Man involving a long, red silk banner. Like, a couple yards across and at least thirty yards long. The dancers swirled and swished it through the air. As the dance wound down, the lead dancer performed a solo piece at each of the four entrances to The Man’s pagoda (this year there was a structure built around Him). The entrance I was watching from (viewing space was VERY limited, I was outside the pagoda with a number of others, peering in through this entrance) was the last of the four, and the dancer slowly sashayed out into the watch crowd. We made way for her and once she broke free of us she yelled “Follow me!” and kept going, holding one end of the silk banner overhead.

I decided I wanted in on this, and this sound like an invitation, and dammit, the end of the banner was dragging on the ground, and that is not appropriate for a ceremonial artifact! So I grabbed one corner and followed. About 8-10 other people followed suit, and soon we were marching out into the Playa, banner stretched out to it’s full length and lifted overhead. None of us knew were we were going, but it was a ways. I began talking to one of my neighbors after a while, and made an exploration-friend for the night. Eventually we reached The Temple, were we concluded the Opening Ceremony by delivering the banner to it’s entrance (only the dancer and two helpers were allowed in the perimeter, it was still under construction).

And that’s how I became one of a handful of people that was a part of the Opening Ceremonies. All it took was luck, and openness to jumping into something new. It set the tone for my week, and it’s a great encapsulation of the ethos that makes Burning Man what it is.

II.

When anyone asks me what’s the most powerful thing at Burning Man, I always answer “The Temple.” I went to visit it on my third day. I did not know what it was. I thought it was just another art installation (albeit a gigantic one). I did not except to find what I did, right in the middle of this gigantic celebration of art and joy and partying. The fact that I didn’t know what I was walking into amplified the impact of the place, so I won’t say much about it, or post pictures. It was intense. I had to eventually just walk away, because I realized I would not come to grips with anything for as long as I stayed there. I will go back every year, but I will only go once per year. I encourage everyone to visit it at least once if/when they attend, preferably after it’s been open for a couple days.

III.

Our camp gathered to watch the climactic burning of The Man as a group. Afterwards, we trekked to just outside The Temple for a camp tradition, which I guess one could call a mini-ritual. Basically it consisted of gathering around a campfire and briefly speaking about what we’re grateful for. It was joyous and felt very intimate, and was the second-best event of the week for me (behind my initial visit to The Temple detailed above).

IV.

cw: this next part addresses a death at Burning Man

This isn’t a highlight, but I guess it has to be addressed somewhere. I did see the guy who ran into the fire. At first I thought he was just a streaker that broke through the perimeter. But he ran almost directly toward the flames, ducking and weaving past the emergency personnel that attempted to stop him. I think I realized when he was a few paces away what was going to happen, and I saw him flop right into the fire. They say he “dived in”, and I guess that’s true, but it was really more of an arms-outstretched full-frontal flop. As soon as he went down I figured he was gone. The fire is INSANELY hot. It was (mildly) painful even from the perimeter a hundred yards away. I can’t imagine anyone surviving for even a few seconds in that blaze.

I guess a lot of people took this hard, but I dunno. It was at a distance of a hundred yards, and it was all in silhouette. And to run into that hot of a fire takes serious determination. I want everyone to live as long as they’d like, even if that’s infinitely long (I hope to be around for thousands of years, at least). And with that comes the acceptance that some people will want to stop going on at some point, and they have the right to end their lives when they want. It’s a basic human right. I can understand wanting to go out in such a glorious way. So I didn’t have any negative emotional repercussions from this myself.

I’m close to someone who’s served in a warzone, and has seen friends involuntarily blown into multiple pieces. I’ve watched bloody depictions of death in Hollywood full-color close-ups. This just didn’t compare. I fervently hope that that man actually made an informed, rational decision, rather than losing control of his emotions while under the influence of too many unfamiliar drugs. But in terms of emotional hurt, this didn’t remotely compare to the ocean of grief that drowned me when I visited The Temple.

I feel sorry for that man’s family, especially if he didn’t warn them what he planned. And I’m upset that emergency personnel were injured pulling him from the fire. But I think only extraordinarily delicate people would have been traumatized by witnessing this. Or I dunno, maybe I’m just callous.

V.

It was interesting watching how humans act in an environment where there is almost nothing to fear, no resources to fight over, and no material wants. I realize this is just one small aspect of how people will choose to act once free of fear and want. But it gives me a lot of hope for how well we’ll handle a post-scarcity future. I no longer fear that we’ll degenerate into ennui and nihilism. As Cory Doctorow said, Burning Man is a trial-run for a post-scarcity society. And it is glorious, and fun, and I think humanity will love it. I am, for the first time, earnestly looking forward to it. :)

Sep 082017
 

In my post on luck, I stressed the importance of openness. But openness invites vulnerability, so people are generally unwilling to be very open unless they first feel safe. This is part of what makes Burning Man one of the luckiest places on earth – the entire event is one of the safest places I’ve been. This is achieved entirely through the culture.

Firstly, with a few extremely narrow exceptions, nothing can be bought or sold at Burning Man. Everything is given away as a gift without obligation. This decommodification of everything removes the status of having things. Almost all the value at Burning Man is found in interaction with other people, and you can’t really steal that. Also, everyone is living in faux-poverty anyway, there isn’t anything valuable around to take! And even if you did take it, what would you do with it? Pile it up next to your tent?

Secondly, because it is such a harsh environment, people are always looking out for one another. No one has to worry overly much about going hungry or thirsty, because there will always be someone giving away food or water, or happy to share what they have. Passing around snacks is a common activity in lines. When someone’s bike jammed near my tent, I gave them all the lube they needed to get going again. I saw one lady having a bad skin reaction in a dust storm, her hands were getting very chapped. A fellow Burner gave her moderately-fancy gloves with lights in the fingers, to protect her skin. The lady protested, but the Burner said “Take them, you need them more than I do.” This sort of thing happens regularly. In the desert everyone helps each other constantly.

This leads to a feeling of safety. You know that no matter what should happen, there are people around you that have your well-being as a priority. The sense of safety allows you to talk to new people easily, and explore things without worry. It, paradoxically, leads to the rallying cry of “Safety Third!”, which is a bit of an exhortation to try things that may scare you for not being perfectly safe – such as jumping between the slabs in the Temple of Gravity. There is an understanding that even if you get hurt, the people around you will immediately come to your aid. It’s what makes people comfortable stripping off all their clothes and having a naked dance/shower party.

I regularly saw women walking alone in the dark of night without any worry. That’s the kind of place this is.

When my bike popped a tire, it was repaired for free in a jiffy. When I was hungry, I was given food.

This openness extends to the interpersonal. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I have a very hard time speaking with people I don’t yet know. All my life I’ve felt basically unwanted. Yet at Burning Man, when I showed up at a random fire-spinning event alone, the people next to me struck up a conversation. They made me feel welcome, we had a good talk, and later that evening we met up to dance. As a single dorky male, I’ve never in my life felt like people wanted me to approach them. Dancing in the desert, the pretty young thing from the fire-spinning was delighted to see me, and afterwards thanked me. I still can’t entirely believe it. I was valued just for being me. It was bizarre, and wonderful.

This care-for-others thing is super-charged at your home camp. I camped with a group of 30-40 people, two of whom I’d met for less than five hours previous to this, and the rest strangers. Yet everyone treated me incredibly warmly. The standard greeting to Burning Man virgins (possibly everyone?) is “Welcome Home.” It sounds weird at first, but quickly you understand it. Your camp WILL take care of you. They will show you around and take you places. They’ll sit and chat with you when you need to rest, and they’ll give you food or water if you need it.

Of course nothing is completely without obligation. I learned my first night out that one doesn’t simply show up at a bar and ask for food or alcohol. Well, one can ask for food or water if in need, of course. But in the normal course of events, one is expected to make the provider’s day a little better in thanks, and that is done by socializing with them. When you first reach the counter, you do not just slap down a cup or a plate. You chat first. Recount what new or exciting thing you saw today, or what you’re looking forward to, or what interests you in life. Did you recently take a trip to Russia? Lets talk about that! Are you working on a new song or story? Tell me! You’re a Burning Man virgin? How does it compare to what you were expecting? etc.

At Burning Man, no one is a part of an economic transfer process, simply there to facilitate the exchange of currency. Everyone is a person, a full human being, and the only way to acknowledge that and be present in the community is to treat them as a person rather than an economic unit. And that means creating a relationship, however fleeting. It means socializing with them.

A note – while this is beautiful and very fulfilling, it’s also inefficient. Imagine going to Starbucks and having to chat with your barista for four or five minutes each time you go. If there’s a line of four people in front of you, you’ll be there for twenty minutes before you even get to order. So… not workable if you have other things to do. While you’re in Burning Man, chat and art is why you are here, so it’s fine. Delightful, even. But for modern-day efficiency, dehumanization of human labor inputs seems necessary.

This also means there’s lines for most things at Burning Man. They aren’t too long, because there’s people giving away alcohol or other stuff EVERYWHERE. But they exist. Fortunately, the people standing next to you in line are just as interesting as the servers! Everywhere you go you’ll be striking up conversations with the people beside you in line. You’ll talk about gender, or their camp theme, or dozens of other things. You may share snacks or gifts. It will be a good time. This is not like the lines in the grocery store, or Disneyland, where people are silent and can’t wait to leave, and the waiting is awful and hateful. This is just another place to discover the coolness and intricacy of the human beings around you. Take advantage of it!

Sep 062017
 

A friend discovered I had scored tickets to Burning Man the day before I left, and commented appreciatively on my good fortune by saying “Lucky!” They then quickly modified that to “not lucky, he actually probably worked hard for that shit.”

Which, ya know, is appreciated. It’s a pretty common sentiment nowadays, and I like it. But it downplays the importance of creating luck in your life, which I think is pretty important. As Lefty Gomez said, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” And creating luck can take a lot of work.

My getting the ticket was very lucky. “Edward” had recently started listening to the HPMoR podcast, and happened to be binging on it while driving cross country. He was going through Denver, so he emailed me to ask if I’d like to grab dinner while he was there. I said sure, and we hit it off quite well. A couple months later he found himself with an extra ticket, and all the mutual friends him and his SO had asked to attended either couldn’t make it or weren’t interested. They said “Hey, that Eneasz guy seemed pretty cool, lets invite him.” Being between jobs, I was in a perfect position to accept, and I jumped on that.

So basically – tons of luck. Yet a lot of work went into creating those conditions. The podcast was over 1000 hours of labor across 4.5 years. I have my real name, city I live in, and email address all publicly available, and I agreed to meet a stranger. Socializing is energy-consuming for me, and the process of getting enough social skills to actually be likable has been a 10-year-long project itself.

And of the work listed, none of it was goal-oriented tasks. I didn’t decide I wanted to go to Burning Man, and then pursued a rational strategy to accomplish that. So stumbling into a ticket was luck. But each decision along the way helped to build a structure that is conducive to luck. I put out a podcast into the world because I wanted it to exist, which created many opportunities for people to find out about me. I said Yes to things that could be unpleasant, on the chance that they might be interesting. I got better at interfacing with others, which allowed me to form more productive connections.

Notice also that I couldn’t have done this alone – much of the work was on Edward’s side. He remembered where I lived as he drove across the country. He looked up my email address while on the road. He reached out, risking an unpleasant evening with a stranger, on the chance I might be interesting. He has also put effort into social skills. He took a chance that someone he barely knew wouldn’t be awful to camp with for eight days in the desert.

There is much luck that is just plain random. I’m lucky to have been born a white male in a time and location where white men are held in high esteem. I’m lucky to be reasonably tall and healthy. But lots of other luck is a direct result of effort by people to keep their lives as lucky as possible.

To maximize luck, I would strongly recommend the following:

A. Do things for others. ESPECIALLY things that interest you, or that you already like. I love HPMoR. Making the podcast wasn’t a chore. I enjoy cleaning. When a friend is recovering from surgery, I sometimes go help them clean their house. It’s ridiculous the amount of goodwill you receive for a few hours of socialization and doing a small chore that you already kinda enjoy. I actually feel guilty about it. Do you play an instrument? Do that for people for free, sometimes. Any skill you have can be shared.

B. Say Yes often. Be open to new experiences. Embrace the unusual or uncomfortable. Yes, we all have our limits, so don’t exceed them. Remember to say no sometimes, to rest, or when you don’t feel safe. But make it a habit to say Yes unless you have a compelling reason not to, as opposed to the other way around.

C. Stay sociable. You don’t have to be a charming socialite! Just be a Hufflepuff. (Hufflepuffs are great finders because they’re so damn lucky. :) ) You don’t even have to go to parties, often one-on-one dinners/events are better. But you do have to reach out to humans. The root of luck is other people. To cut away vast swaths of people is akin to cutting away all your chances for luck.

These things together create a lot of opportunities for coincidence, and every now and then one of them will snag something. And you think “Holy shit, that was really lucky!” And it was. But you created the edifice that made that luck possible. Stay open. Stay excited. Keep doing neat stuff without expectations, and you’ll be surprised what you can stumble into.

 

I had planned to write this post before I left for Burning Man, but I ran out of time, which is why it’s being posted now. However I do have an addendum, now that I’m back. Burning Man is an INCREDIBLY lucky place. It is possible that it is The Luckiest Place on Earth, and I say that without exaggeration.

This is not an accident. The entire event is designed to maximize every factor that leads to luck. The openness there is off the scale. Everything is given freely, and people are constantly doing things for others without expectation of reciprocation or reward. Everyone is incredibly open to everything, all the time. Part of the ethos is to go and try and do anything that strikes your fancy. People will not shut you down, or judge you. Generally they encourage you. Everyone is constantly happy to meet everyone else and speak with them in very friendly terms. All of this leads to a non-stop constant explosion of luck everywhere you turn. It’s fascinating.

Since this blog is kinda a personal diary anyway, over the next several days I plan to write about my Burning Man experience in a greater level of detail. Spoiler alert – I think everyone should go to at least one Burning Man event in their lifetime, it’s a very strange and unique experience. You don’t even have to have crazy sex or do any drugs! I didn’t!

Jul 172017
 

The Welcome To Night Vale live show came to Denver yesterday. It was great fun, I loved it! And one of the best things about it is that everyone in the audience is the sort of person you want to know. There’s a very strong “these are my peeps!” feel there. :)

The show, as usual, involves a bit of audience participation. A friend sitting by me didn’t participate very much, for which I teased them a little right afterwards (the participation makes it so much more fun!!). They responded that they don’t participate in ritual lightly, and weren’t comfortable joining in this one. My initial reaction was “lol, audience participation isn’t ritual,” but after about ten seconds of reflection I realized “Oh yeah… it kinda is.”

Which got me to thinking.

Rationalists are aware of the power and importance of ritual, and there are ongoing attempts to harness that power. They meet with various levels of success, depending on group and area. In Denver they haven’t taken hold. A fair number of us here are rather allergic to the trappings of religion. Personally I have no problem with anyone else doing it, but to me it feels forced and hokey. Like putting on your parents’ clothes as a kid and pretending to be adults. Religious ritual works because the participants think it really does tap into a higher power. Mimicking the form without believing in the substance feels… uncomfortably silly.

A different friend has recently asked if Universities could take the place of Churches in the secular community (after reading the excellent “Man As A Rationalist Animal” post by Lou Keep). I think that if they could have, they would have by now. They’re halfway there. They have the instinctive respect of the populace, the arcane credentialing and clergy, and of course the miracles. But they’re missing the interface with the common man–the language of ritual and community.

Welcome To Night Vale has that. WtNV is the start of a church for the modern urban/suburban areligious person. It tackles the fundamental question that plagues the educated proletariat–the meaninglessness of existence in a post-community capitalist society, where everyone is interchangeable and replaceable. And it answers it not with speeches or therapy or advise… it answers it by giving us a mirror made of myths. Modern myths, spun just weeks ago.

The podcast creates the foundation of myth that informs the spiritual layer of all its listeners. On its own it doesn’t do much. It is interesting art, of varying quality, that can sometimes touch deep emotions. The true power of WtNV comes about in its live shows. Here they take the common base of myth that the audience shares and they do something wonderful with it. They transform it into ritual. They bind the audience together, guiding their emotions down the tracks of a mythical story, until it resolves in a catharsis and an instruction (“be good to each other”) that means something.

But VERY importantly – it does it tongue-in-cheek. It is funny, self-referential, and irreverent. Because that is what it means to be areligious in a world that doesn’t need you. Taking things seriously simply does not work. Life is a farce, and we all know it. So the absurdity is played up. We are here to have fun. To make jokes and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ about how stupid all this is. And when the merriment is high enough we can all join hands are jokingly chant to a story book character, because in it’s fun to do so in the spirit of the story. And if, along the way, we manage to say something deeper and more important, and feel uplifted at the end, well, so much the better. We came for the lols, and we left having touched something within that united us all for a few hours.

It only worked because no one comes SEEKING a deep experience at WtNV. We came for fun, and the masterful story led to something deeper. It’s like dating–if you’re seeking a relationship, it is apparent, and it doesn’t work. It’s only when you’re just dating around for the pleasure of an evening with interesting company that you are in a state where a relationship can begin.

This is what Rationalist Rituals get wrong. They are trying for deep experience and wonder, like we had in our childhood when our parents took us to church. That is not available via the same route of reverence and worship that the religious rituals used. The mindset of one who doesn’t instinctively revere the greater power being channeled is inimical to that sort of ritual. The ritual of the educated areligious must start in a different place. Our priests are comedians as well. Our religion must laugh first, or be rejected by our immune system.

Someday a Welcome To Night Vale community theater will form at a university. A group of fans have a lot of fun reenacting favorite WtNV episodes, and form strong bonds, and the university institution will lend them support and prestige in other aspects of life. And maybe, a couple generations down the line, their children will have a fully-formed religious life tailored for the concerns of an early 21st century proletariat, which fulfills their emotional needs with myth and community, while slowly becoming less relevant as the centuries grind on. And it’ll all have started with people needing to laugh at the absurdity of this sort of thing happening in the first place.

Until that happens, check out the live Welcome To Night Vale show “All Hail,” even if you aren’t a listener of the podcast. It’s good, and it’s instructive. Likely even if you don’t listen to the podcast.