Saturday, February 21, 2015

Review the Future Podcast

I went on a podcast! If you would like to hear me talking about suicide, drugs, control over consciousness, and far-future scenarios then listen to Review the Future - it's about an hour long. So far people have told me that you can take the girl out of the Western mountains but you can't take the Western mountains out of the girl's voice.

Friday, January 16, 2015


Core Frameworks

Peripheral Frameworks



Saturday, January 10, 2015

Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture

See my latest, on varieties of human consciousness and the power and danger of ritual, on Ribbonfarm - Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Every Cradle Is A Grave

My book is finally a real, physical book! It can be ordered from Createspace or Amazon or Nine Banded Books. (Note that the ISBN number was changed from the original - sorry about that, an unavoidable hassle!) Thanks so much to Chip Smith of Nine Banded Books for book midwifery and to everyone who helped read drafts and edit.

Also, if you like, check out my recent work on my other, wordpress View From Hell blog on cultural evolution. (I have been progressively avoiding blogspot as it has become progressively unfriendly as a tool, and will likely migrate over to a wordpress blog in the future.)

Thanks to everyone for your support and patience!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Impro and the Cultural Destruction of Creativity

Suppose an eight-year-old writes a story about being chased down a mouse-hole by a monstrous spider. It'll be perceived as 'childish' and no one will worry. If he writes the same story when he's fourteen it may be taken as a sign of mental abnormality. Creating a story, or painting a picture, or making up a poem lay an adolescent wide open to criticism. He therefore has to fake everything so that he appears 'sensitive' or 'witty' or 'tough' or 'intelligent' according to the image he's trying to establish in the eyes of other people. If he believed he was a transmitter, rather than a creator, then we'd be able to see what his talents really were.

We have an idea that art is self-expression — which historically is weird. An artist used to be seen as a medium through which something else operated. He was a servant of the God. Maybe a mask-maker would have fasted and prayed for a week before he had a vision of the Mask he was to carve, because no one wanted to se his Mask, they wanted to see the God's. When Eskimos believed that each piece of bone only had one shape inside it, then the artist didn't have to 'think up' an idea. He had to wait until he knew what was in there — and this is crucial. When he'd finished carving his friends couldn't say 'I'm a bit worried about that Nanook at the third igloo', but only, 'He made a mess getting that out!' or 'There are some very odd bits of bone about these days.' These days of course the Eskimos get booklets giving illustrations of what will sell, but before we infected them, they were in contact with a source of inspiration that we are not. It's no wonder that our artists are aberrant characters. It's not surprising that great African sculptors end up carving coffee tables, or that the talent of our children dies the moment we expect them to become adult. Once we believe that art is self-expression, then the individual can be criticised not only for his skill or lack of skill, but simply for being what he is.

Schiller wrote of a 'watcher at the gates of the mind', who examines ideas too closely. He said that in the case of the creative mind 'the intellect has withdrawn its watcher from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude.' He said that uncreative people 'are ashamed of the momentary passing madness which is found in all real creators . . . regarded in isolation, an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, but it may acquire importance from an idea that follows it; perhaps in collation with other ideas which seem equally absurd, it may be capable of furnishing a very serviceable link.'

Keith Johnstone, Impro, pp. 78-79. One of the most important books that exists.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Ride the Crab

My recent work on Carcinisation:

Two Patterns, on the structure of public, intimate, and sacred space, and how this structure mirrors that of our conscious selves;

The Last of the Monsters with the Iron Teeth, on the destruction of children's culture; and

Socially Enforced Thought Boundaries, on the nature of community and mental boundaries.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


Jean Améry was tortured by the SS as an anti-Nazi resistance fighter, and survived internment in the concentration camps. He committed suicide in 1978. He described his torture in his book At the Mind's Limits.

The first blow changes everything, he says - while the physical pain is surprisingly bearable, the dark realization that the torturer is allowed to do this changes one forever. Help is not coming; there is no help.

"Help" or "support" in this sense is not a function of present material circumstances, but of the community from whom the tortured person is presently cut off. It is a function of their standards, what they will and won't stand for. The idea of "help" in the tortured person's mind is also a function of the community's agency, its ability to miss him and to organize its forces to aid him. It is the community that supports the notion of "help" in his mind, through its sacredness and its actions, and the notion of "help" in his mind fundamentally changes the subjective experience of victimization.

This "help" is justice. It has a component of sacred law - the community's standard for the permissible ways to treat a human being. It has an element of the material, in the sense that the community must gather material force in order to do its duty for its member. It is an idea in each community member's mind, and it being held in common with other community members facilitates the coordination necessary to render material aid. Its sacredness allows it to transcend time, punishing the torturer long after the act of torture occurred, in order to enforce its standards.

The opposite of justice, in this sense of society's "help" existing materially as well as psychologically in victim's minds, transforming their experiences, is Rotherham, UK, police arresting an eleven-year-old girl for being drunk and allowing her rapists to go free.

No person by himself, estranged from a community, can experience justice. Justice is a function of the community, and the community does its duty both psychologically (by having sacred standards) and materially (by coordinating to enforce its sacred standards).

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Something Equivocal

Nic Pizzolatto, writer of the television show True Detective, has said that he found Thomas Ligotti's book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race to be "incredibly powerful writing," a major influence for the show. In this book, Ligotti advises that if you hope for any audience at all, then you had better say something positive about humanity; and if you don't have anything nice to say, then at least say something equivocal.

The final moments of the show are a careful implementation of this advice. The very last two sentences of the finale, if interpreted according to the ordinary cultural connotations for "light" and "darkness," provide a note of hope at the end of a grisly but heroic adventure. The darkness seems to occupy a lot of territory, yes, but once the whole universe was all darkness and no light - and now the light seems to be winning!

However, relating his near-death experience just seconds earlier, Rust Cohle offers a different - and entirely reversed - set of meanings for "light" and "darkness." Darkness - a deeper, darker, warmer darkness than mere unconsciousness - seemed to enfold him peacefully, and he felt surrounded by the love of his deceased small daughter. He "let go," hoping to stay in this darkness, but then he woke up. Back to the light.

This speech and its proximity to the final sentences indicate a smart equivocation - with one voice, "light" and "darkness" have their everyday connotations; with another, they are flipped. The latter voice, consonant with Rust Cohle's earlier presentation of his philosophy, also seems consonant with having just visited the worst basement in literature since Cormac McCarthy's The Road, from which basement, like McCarthy's, no one was rescued.

(Originally published by me at

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Rationality of Catastrophizing

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a form of psychotherapy that was popularized in the 1990s. It is based on the premise that people with mental illnesses experience cognitive distortions, and that these distorted, broken patterns of thought are responsible for their feelings of depression and distress.

One of the cognitive distortions identified by cognitive-behavioral therapists is catastrophizing - the tendency to worry about something uncertain, and then immediately update toward believing that the worst possible outcome is true. Rumination - an involuntary replaying of social memories viewed through a harshly self-critical filter - reliably produces worries for the mind to turn into catastrophes.

At first glance, catastrophizing seems silly and self-defeating. The catastrophes predicted rarely come to pass. So why do brains continue to do this even after years of evidence of their own poor predictive powers? Why would a person tend to instantly and without evidence believe the worst, over and over again?

It is my hypothesis that catastrophizing is a completely rational behavior when viewed from the perspective of a self involuntarily trapped in a mind, attempting to minimize pain inflicted on it by the mind. It is a literal "mind hack" - gaming the emotional and cognitive system, rather than meeting opponents in the external world.

First, the self obtains information about the pain-delivering algorithm of the mind. A major feature of this algorithm, descriptively speaking, is that the worst pain is generally delivered in response to a loss - a loss in resources, perhaps, but more importantly a loss of social status or social belonging. A change in social status or other resources appears to matter much more to the pain-delivery algorithm than absolute levels of either. The mind rewards the self when the level of external resources or social status increases, punishes the self when it falls, and does not do much when it is stable. Another major feature is that a loss has much more impact than an equivalent gain, in absolute terms. The self's best strategy is to minimize the likelihood of loss in the future, and it is motivated to do so by rumination and fear.

However, the self has another option to avoid being punished by the mind for losses over which it has limited or no control: the self can manipulate its own beliefs to avoid perceiving a loss as a loss. It accomplishes this by catastrophizing.

When the self catastrophizes, it updates toward believing that a loss has already happened. Since this epistemic manipulation is, first, imaginary, and second, under one's own control, the ordinary pain response to loss is not engaged. Meanwhile, one's internally-tracked "position" is made less precarious and vulnerable to uncontrollable factors; instead of risking a fall from a tightrope, one climbs down to the bottom by catastrophizing.

Should the catastrophe materialize, the self will not be punished by the mind (as much), since it did not subjectively experience a loss - it experienced the world being the same as it predicted. More commonly, should the catastrophe fail to materialize, the self will experience a reward, since from the self's perspective, its position just went from rock bottom to much improved.

In summary, catastrophizing is a strategy the self employs in order to "game" the reward and punishment system of the mind - in a manner that is likely totally at odds with the genetic interests of the organism hosting the self. Rumination, fear, and the infliction by the mind of intolerable levels of pain or shame are likely predictors of the catastrophizing "mind hack."

Monday, August 11, 2014

Beauty is Fit

Crabs are natural, crabs are fun;
Crabs are the endpoint of carcinisation

(A synthesis of beauty and fit in the design sense, by me)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Carcinisation is the new insight porn blog some of us from twitter recently started.

I post as Birgus latro (the coconut crab) - here are my two posts so far:

What is intelligence? - a brief model of the things we mean by intelligence, whether machine or human, and their relationship to consciousness.

Toward the Synthesis of Flourishy Forms - applying concepts from Christopher Alexander's design method and elaborating them into space and time.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Children, Education, and Status

In my previous post I argued that a culturally transmitted change was responsible for the fertility decline: education. The fertility decline is not simply a price effect within an existing context, though children are certainly more expensive than they have ever been, but rather a cultural transformation that changed the relationship between parents and children. 

My most controversial claim is that children used to be valuable, in the way that slaves and farm animals are valuable. A line of evidence against this is that children in some hunter-gatherer and farming societies did not, on net, contribute positive economic value to their families in terms of material production. In "Economics in the Family Way," Ted Bergstrom relates a few examples of studies of hunter-gatherers and peasant farmers; Peruvian and Paraguayan hunter-gatherer children consumed more food than they caught up to age 18, and the same was true of peasant agriculturalists in contemporary India and Egypt. The rate of return on the "investment" in children, measured by their providing for parents' retirement, was only 1%. In some societies, measured by material consumption and production, children appear to have been a very poor investment indeed!

However, not all studies agree - methodology strongly influences the result, and populations vary in terms of their children's helpfulness and self-sufficiency. In many populations studied, children make significant and even net positive economic contributions, and the upward wealth flow is measurable even in merely material terms. Karen Kramer summarizes the many studies that have investigated whether children "help" in "Children’s Help and the Pace of Reproduction: Cooperative Breeding in Humans," and reports that Maya subsistence agriculturalist children produced more than half of their consumption by the age of seven for boys and six for girls, and produced the equivalent of their consumption at sixteen for boys and fifteen for girls. Though children are not very productive compared to adults, they are cheap - they have a very low opportunity cost for work compared to adults, and are expected to work long hours even with low productivity. Kramer reports that agriculturalist children spend many more hours per day working than hunter-gatherer children, and pastoralist children most of all. Hunter-gatherer children frequently become self-sufficient at a very young age. Farm children cannot become self-sufficient so early, and therefore need more from their parents, but their parents demand more from them in return.

But the impact of children in terms of material production compared to consumption, and on net wealth, is not the main driver of fertility; children were valuable in other ways, and mass education interfered with all of them, not just their economic contribution. To return to the central analogy, slaves are valuable for many reasons besides their ability to produce more than they consume: they may help with childcare, provide companionship, and serve as status goods (from the point of view of peers). The type of companionship slaves provide is relevant: they are low-status beings, and with their servile behavior they provide the owner with constant reminders that he is powerful and high-status. A slave of this type's mere presence represents a type of consumption on the part of the owner, similar to the consumption of entertainment.

The practice of apprenticeship and child servitude suggests that many children even in complex societies contributed positive economic value at a young age. Much of the value that they contribute, though, is social: they make parents (or other adults) feel both needed and comparatively high in status. Submissive, servile behavior, instilled by harsh treatment and often violence, likely made them more pleasing for parents to be around. Having low-status underlings around seems to be a common human desire, expressed in a celebrity's "entourage" and in pet ownership. This human trait may even be relevant to the formation of complex hierarchies. In a sense, children used to provide a social service; education deprives them of most of their ability or willingness to engage in these behaviors.

What do children help with? They are primarily useful for the work of having a large family. Among the Maya, Kramer reports:

If children produced nothing, Maya parents would have to work 2.5 times as hard as they do to maintain their children’s consumption between the 20th and 33rd years of the family life cycle. Were it not for the economic contributions of children, parents in their fourth and fifth decades would have to increase their work effort by 150%, each parent working more than 16.5 hours a day (real-time hours).

Children's work makes it possible for parents to raise large families. This may be even more true among agriculturalists and pastoralists than hunter-gatherers; among a group of Pacific Island agriculturalists, the Ifaluk, Paul Turke found that having a daughter (or better, two in a row) increased the completed fertility of women compared to those who had sons first; this was not the case among !Kung foragers. The nature of available work and the gender division of labor accounts for the difference; Kramer finds that the percentage of childcare provide to infants by their sisters ranged from 10% to 33% in the available studies. In no case, however, did care from fathers account for a higher percentage of an infant's time than care from sisters.

But there is another way in which children used to contribute: they gave a parent his status as a free adult, and marriage and children were the only path to free adulthood. In The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe, John Boswell notes that in Greek, Latin, Arabic, Syriac, and many medieval languages, terms for "child," "boy," or "girl" were frequently used to mean "slave" or "servant." He reminds us that only a few hundred years ago, only a small proportion of the population married and raised children; the rest remained under someone else's control, often as servants. Similarly, in the Nakaya language, a "child" is someone who has not yet had children; one does not obtain adult status until having children of one's own. Having children was formerly the only path to achieving adult status; education changed all that, providing a new means by which to measure status and changing the status relationship between parents and children.

In summary, children used to be:
  • hard working and helpful, especially at the work of raising a large family;
  • self-sufficient at an early age;
  • submissive to adults;
  • the only path to adult status
Education, specifically Western education promoting democratic values, interferes with children's work and their parents' expectations for their work. It makes them more dependent on their parents, and makes them less likely to be servile and submissive to parents. And education itself provides an alternate means of achieving adult status other than having children. In the presence of these conditions, the demand for children is apparently low.

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