Going Sessile

One of the biggest changes in my personality with middle age is that I no longer really enjoy travel beyond local weekend getaways. Almost no destination has a pain/novelty ratio that makes it worth it. On the one hand, I’ve traveled enough that few places hold the promise of real novelty and stimulation. On the other hand, even though travel has gotten way more convenient overall (smartphones, eSIM cards, cashless payments, Uber, Google Translate — though at the expense of phone-loss anxiety), my tolerance for discomfort has plummeted. I don’t like shitty hotels/hostels, awkward couchsurfing, wrangling luggage, driving unfamiliar cars, figuring out transit systems, or spending the night in an airport as I did once in Paris in 1998. I especially don’t like wading through lots of options figuring out food options. The net effect is that I’ve gradually gone sessile. I avoid travel when I can except when one of two conditions holds — either the destination offers some genuine novelty (Antarctica maybe?) or someone, preferably not me, is paying for a business class, high-touch managed experience. If younger friends don’t make arrangements I can parasitically hook into, I tend not to wander far from hotels in new places. I made a graph illustrating my evolving preferences:

Pain beats novelty when you’re young (where the pain is simply lack of adult agency and resources) and when you’re 45+. In the middle, there is a window of 20 or so years when the equation favors exploratory wandering despite pains. For me that was 1998-2018 or so. The bookend travel experiences in those two years were a 3-week backpacking trip to Europe in 1998 and a side trip to Northumberland after a conference in Newcastle (highlight: puffins on Farne islands). The latter was the last time I made personal efforts to go to an out-of-the-way place (it involved inconvenient trains, buses, taxis, and a boat).

I still enjoy being in different places once I’m comfortably settled into a nice hotel with a charged phone and a nice restaurant or two and walking areas scoped out. I just no longer find the pain of getting there and back to be worth it. There was a time when it wasn’t even pain. Airports were exciting! New transit systems were fun to figure out! (The exception is border controls/passports/visas — always painful, even with an American passport).

When I notice people older than me enjoying travel hugely, it usually turns out they can go business class or better all the time, and have handlers everywhere dealing with the friction. Or they’ve spent a lifetime traveling very little, and have a lot of pent-up hunger for novelty to work through in retirement.

The calculus of travel applies to life generally. Growing felt-friction beats marginal novelty in every activity eventually, so you go sessile in one modality after the other. Your music and reading tastes go sessile. Your political openness goes sessile. Your tolerance for weather ranges goes sessile.

Speaking of weather, I’m headed to Singapore and India during peak monsoon for the first time in 25 years. I’m not looking forward to it. Though the Indian monsoon is amazing experienced from a comfortable balcony nursing a hot chai and a plate of pakoras, the same cannot be said of navigating Indian traffic snarls with flooded streets. I expect to be in Bangalore for a few days this time (first visit since 1996 when I interned there) and am not looking forward to the flooding the overgrown city appears to be famous for now.

My pain-vs-novelty utility curve also explains why I am skeptical of longevity tech. It’s not sufficient to extend life. You have to suppress the pain of the friction of life enough to keep it below the declining novelty curve (or manufacture increasing amounts of novelty). Money alone will do the trick up to about 80. Given reasonable health, with luxurious-enough curated experiences you can continue to find things like travel stimulating. But at some point you’ll have pains that money can’t ease enough to make it worth the effort.

Longevity tech as it exists today, even for the wealthiest, seems to require far more investment of time and energy than I’m willing to put in for the “return on life.” Maybe it’s just me, but the equation doesn’t compute. I simply don’t have the kind of appetite for life that can survive arbitrary amounts of friction pain.

To be clear, I don’t think this is a good thing. I occasionally fight the sessile tendencies and am often glad I did. But more often, I don’t, and find myself wondering why I bothered when I could be home relaxing.

Arbitrariness Costs

I’ve long held that civilization is the process of turning the incomprehensible into the arbitrary. The incomprehensible can be scary but the arbitrary tends to be merely exhausting. Unless the stakes are high, such as in paperwork around taxes or passports and visas. Then the exhaustion becomes tinged with anxiety. Either way the steady increase in arbitrariness creates, in the name of progress, a growing ocean of mind-numbing details you just have to know. Or figure out the hard way by reading instructions. Or by brute force trial-and-error. For example:

  1. Which way does the USB cable go in?
  2. Where is the hood button on this rental car?
  3. Which way do you insert the card into the machine?
  4. How do you get to the city from the airport in this city?
  5. You need to get over to the second lane from the left on this exit
  6. The option you need is in that sub-menu
  7. This is how you check-in in this particular airport
  8. This is how you replace this filter in this weird device
  9. This is how you repack an appliance you want to return
  10. This is how you use codes and apps to get a package
  11. Everything to do with health insurance
  12. All technical shopping

Not surprisingly a lot of such knowledge is symmetry-breaking knowledge or raw information about names or numbers. As tech gets more complex, things seem to get more intuitive locally, but overall the arbitrariness keeps going up. The number of YouTube videos explaining arbitrary shit keeps going up.

Automation often pretends to solve arbitrariness but usually just moves it around. Uber makes getting a ride in a new city supposedly easier, but then you have to learn local stupid games the drivers play, weird edge cases, and so on. GPS makes some aspects of driving much easier but when everyone has GPS you get new kinds of arbitrary.

I think arbitrariness costs are an undertheorized variety of transaction costs. I find them particularly exhausting to deal with. Often I’ll forgo a potentially fun new experience because the arbitrariness burden is too high. Arbitrariness neutralizes intelligence and strategic intuitions. It slows you down to the speed of entropy. It creates barriers around value.

There are only two real solutions to arbitrariness burdens: Paying for premium experiences that lower it, or paying flunkeys to deal with them for you (not always possible). Either way, the fact that costly solutions exist shows that the transaction costs of arbitrariness is real. I’m usually willing to pay to not deal with it if I can afford to. For example, I’m always happy to pay for valet parking. Or “expedited” processes. Or luxuries I don’t otherwise care for just to get lowered arbitrariness benefits. Or a human interface.

There’s something not quite right about this tendency of civilization towards exhausting arbitrariness. Maybe AI will fix it by learning all the arbitrariness rather than moving it around. I’m not optimistic. I suspect the so-called meaning crisis is in fact an arbitrariness burden crisis. Things that might otherwise feel meaningful aren’t anymore once wrapped in sufficient arbitrariness.

Decision Brownouts

In thinking about decision-making under stress, most people focus on fight-or-flight responses. Both fighting and fleeing are obvious courses of action that inherit a clear sense of direction from the characteristics of the threat itself, and are energized by the automatic mobilization of emergency reserves by an acute hormonal response. It’s barely even a decision, since you’re likely to pick one or the other very quickly and intuitively.

But the most difficult modern decisions are marked by the lack of a legible threat (the opposite of a “clear and present danger”), and a slow build-up of a maladaptive chronic stress response. As Robert Sapolsky argued, this is why zebras don’t get ulcers but humans do. Our default impulse is neither to fight or flee — there is no clear adversary to fight or flee from — but the under-theorized third F: freeze.

To freeze due to a sense of an acute stressor is to go into hypervigilance and scanning mode. You think there’s a lion but you can’t tell which direction it might come from. This is not what I’m talking about.

Under chronic stress there is no lion. The threat is really your own compounding inaction and lack of imagination and creativity to break out of it. You sense vaguely that you should make a change in your work, family, or creative life. You sense energy slowly draining away. There’s a slowly ticking countdown clock at the edge of your awareness. You’re losing life traction. Maybe you’ve even tried some half-hearted and ennervated experiments to shake things up but they didn’t work — you fucked around but found out nothing.

So you slip into a low-vigilance, non-scanning freeze mode. One where the only thing you do is conserve energy, which just leads to a downward spiral of progressively falling energy levels, like in a strategically lost company that is trying to cost-cut its way back to a decisive vigor. There is no impetus or acute threat to do anything in particular, and no cue to pick a direction. Most importantly: No energy source has been unlocked. Decisiveness is not about making clear choices as much as it’s about unlocking energy. Indecisiveness is enervation.

I think of this state as a decision brownout, as in an electronic device shutting down, getting unreliable, or slipping into a failed reboot loop, due to insufficient or unstable supply voltage. While you’re in a brownout, you procrastinate on all decisions to conserve energy because you have no sense of what’s important. The mail piles up, the hallway gets cluttered with boxes, you defer obvious purchases and repairs, you stop taking vacations or breaks, or even doing anything fun on a small scale. You pull clothes to wear straight from the dryer, or from a pile on the floor, and throw used clothes directly into the washer or on the floor, like in the famous laundry xkcd. You stop fighting entropy beyond the bare minimum, letting your life gradually enshittify. There is no goal to optimize around, so any high-energy, low-entropy state of preparedness seems pointless. You pick the path of least resistance every time. Your OODA loop has collapsed, like a deflated tire, and needs reinflation.

To get out of a brownout you need two things: a new sense of direction, and the energy to pick a path of greater-than-least resistance. Of the two, the energy is the more important thing. A non-default decision option will feel right primarily because it feels energizing enough to make at all, not because of its external effects. And if you make enough non-minimum-energy decisions in a row, the chances of locking on to a new direction increase (but there is no guarantee). The goal is not a particular new vector but a positive-feedback energization spiral. When you want to push-start a car with a dead battery, the correct direction to push is “downhill.” Once the energy is flowing, you can worry about steering.

Another physics metaphor. You’ve probably heard the heuristic that in driving you should accelerate through a turn. You brake before the turn to decelerate to just below the right speed for the turn, then accelerate through. This is because the turn requires extra traction force, generated by the acceleration. If you do the braking, but not the subsequent acceleration, it’s a bit like a brownout. You lose traction. Except with a general decision brownout, there isn’t even a road curving in a clear direction forcing your hand. You just drift around on a featureless 2d parking lot for the brain.

I think one reason I’m so interested in decision-making is that I’ve been prone to decision brownouts all my life (I’ve spent maybe a third of my days browned-out), which I think of as being a “low-energy” person. This is not quite accurate. I’m capable of sustained periods of high energy activity. I just don’t get motivated by the sorts of clearly defined activity where a reliable “voltage supply” is trivial to find. It’s probably a mix of literal energy patterns, personality, and having the most aptitude for uncertain, ambiguous, exploratory activities in domains without reliable power outlets.

I think I’ve made my peace with this, but it never gets easier. Almost by definition there is no formulaic way to exit a brownout. If there were, you wouldn’t be in a brownout-prone decision regime. All you can do is cultivate patience, and learn to endure long periods on subsistence levels of psyche energy. I suspect many people incorrectly pathologize this life pattern as bipolar disorder or other conditions, rather than attributing it to the decision environment you’ve become adapted to. Roving on Mars, reliant on solar power and vulnerable to dust on the panels, is simply a different state than being on Earth with reliable grid-power outlets around you all the time.

But it’s not just me. Lately it seems most of the world, at all levels of organization and abstraction, is in decision brownout mode. I used another metaphor for this earlier: a world becalmed as in sailing, lacking worldwinds. I think that metaphor is essentially the same, but I like brownouts better for thinking about decision freezes.

The prospect of picking a presidential candidate to vote for, for instance, is brownout-inducing. Both candidates are deeply de-energizing to even think about. The competition is not between Biden and Trump. It’s between the least-resistance path of just not voting and even thinking about it. In this case it’s not me, or any individual bipolar tendencies. It’s the nature of the decision and the energy environment available to navigate it.

News from the Universe

I did not expect to see auroras in the Seattle area. Or ever in my life without a special bucket-list effort I had no particular intention of making. Though now I might. It feels a bit like I’ve just seen giraffes in the wild without going to Africa.

You’ve probably seen some of the thousands of photos being posted online. My wife’s contribution to the global photo collection is below. This is probably the most widely photographed geomagnetic storm in history, and it’s amazing how much better the latest phone cameras are than the naked eye. The photo is far more dramatic than it looked naked-eyed. It was still pretty great live though.

This is a rare example of news from the universe. Not counting predictable events like eclipses and periodic comets, or events manufactured by humans via space missions, actual news from beyond our planet is rare. This unexpected aurora treat belongs on a very short list of newsworthy events from beyond our planet in my life so far:

  1. Auroras 2024
  2. Betelgeuse dimming in 2019
  3. The Oumuamua visit in 2017
  4. Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashing into Jupiter in 1994

If you disregard telescopic events, only 2 of these count. The universe is a pretty uneventful place from the perspective of our blink of an existence in it so far. Only a few naked-eye supernovas have ever been observed in all recorded human history. I’d like to witness one but I’m not hopeful.

To turn it around, so far the existence of humanity has not registered on the rest of the universe at all either. We don’t get much news out here on our backwater planet, and aren’t newsworthy on any meaningful cosmic scale yet.

“Mostly harmless” indeed.

Or here is another bit of perspective: I’ve experienced 4 extraplanetary news events in just under 50 years of life. Which means in a typical human life you can expect maybe 7. Up to maybe 10 if you live long during a particularly eventful blink of the universe’s eye. If you witnessed auroras this week, there’s a good chance this is the peak for you. You’re stuck on this boring planet where basically nothing ever happens on interesting cosmic scales.

Worse: this lifetime highlight bit of cosmic news is weather news. We don’t get headline stuff out here.

I learned that NASA runs a space weather service with exciting 30-minute updates. Mostly about local sun. And that I mostly saw high-altitude oxygen emission radiation. I saw mostly red with some green. I saved this chart from some random tweet. (Source: alienyrox2 on Reddit it seems; ht Crul in the comments).

Sons of the Soil, Migrants, and Civil War,

We read an interesting paper today (ht Sachin Benny with an assist from ChatGPT) in the Yak Collective weekly governance study group (Fridays at 9 AM Pacific). Sons of the Soil, Migrants, and Civil War, by James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin (World Development, V 39, No. 2, 2011). It compiles, codes and analyzes data about a subset of modern civil wars that could be considered “Sons of Soil” (SoS) civil wars, marked by conflict between an ethnic minority which views itself as being “sons of soil” of a regional base, facing demographic incursions by a larger ethnic majority (possibly with its own adjacent “sons of soil” claim in an adjacent territory) expanding into the minority territory. The paper compiles 139 examples from 1949-2008 (yes, Israel-Palestine is in the set, no the US Southern border is not) and codes them, and concludes that worldwide about 22.3% of civil wars are SoS civil wars.

The paper focuses on the settled (for now) Sri Lankan Tamil case as the main illustrative case study, but obviously the Israel-Gaza is top of mind worldwide. In the US, the southern border migration crisis is equally salient but is unfortunately not coded into the dataset of the paper.

My brief notes on the paper:

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There Is No Antimemetics Division by qntm

I’m a little late to the party, but I just finished the wonderfully imaginative There Is No Antimemetics Division (2020) by qntm. The premise is that our world is full of things with antimemetic properties. An antimeme is “an idea with self-censoring properties; an idea which, by its intrinsic nature, discourages or prevents people from spreading it.” Many of these are dangerous and require “secure containment procedures.” The story follows agents of a mysterious bureaucratic organization called The Foundation who chase down an increasingly bizarre menagerie of increasingly dangerous SCP critters.

The book originated in an online experimental fiction community called SCP, which stands for Secure, Contain, Protect. The project’s contributors write their contributions in a dry bureaucratic-reporting language, and seem to take their cues from random real-world things they pretend are dangerous things needing containment.

The title of the book is a line spoken by a Foundation character early on, who has forgotten that the Antimemetics division exists due to the influence of a dangerous uncontained SCP entity. The whole plot is built around agents having to work with things like that. They deal with their own unreliable memories with a mix of puzzle-box protocols and “mnestic” (mnesia being the opposite of amnesia) drugs. The plot is reminiscent of the Doctor Who antagonists Silence — aliens who you can see but forget about immediately once you turn away — but much more fully realized.

The whole thing is very clever (at times too clever — there’s a chapter with large parts redacted to make a plot point), but just charming enough that you don’t mind. The style is somewhere between Lovecraftian cosmic horror and Ballardian banality, with a stiff dose of near-Douglas-Adams camp.

I’ve just started exploring the underlying experimental metafiction community at SCP-wiki and it makes me feel old with its inventiveness. The book is a relatively conventional offtake from a very unconventional narrative corpus with very weird rules that nevertheless work (for example, it makes no attempt to maintain canonicity and everyone can contradict everyone else). No wonder it feels fresh.

Simon De La Rouviere of the excellent Scenes with Simon newsletter, which I’ve mentioned before, did a talk about SCP for the Summer of Protocols last year that tries to unpack the community and evaluate it as a kind of protocol metafiction.

Whatever it is, I like it. I’d like to try doing something like SCP in the future.

Antimemes, as I understand, are just one aspect of the Foundation universe. They’re a very interesting premise. Antigenes make no sense of course; a gene that doesn’t spread would by definition not survive. But the same is not true of memes. Memes happen to be adaptive for humans, since they power our cultural evolution, but they need not be. Clearly there are creatures whose survival depends on antimemetic phenotype traits, like camouflage coat patterns. Humans too make use of secrecy and stealth in some behaviors. The generalized notion here is powerful. Maybe every creature has a communication phenotype that’s X% memetic and 100-X% antimemetic.

I’ve been unconsciously practicing antimemetic blogging here to some degree for the last few years, for example in the anti-SEO numbered entries of the Captain’s Log blogchain. It’s quite amazing but I can’t remember a single idea from that series. It’s a personal memory blank. There are weaker antimemetic patterns, like titles with series parts, blog posts with few/no inbound or outbound linking etc. Newsletters are much more strongly antimemetic than blogs.

There are lots of writing techniques you can use to prevent an idea from going viral, and not even being noticed by people not primed to detect it. You might wonder why you’d ever need such techniques, but once you’ve had your fill of viral writing and meme-making (which I have), and are well known enough the default amount of attention you get is > δ > 0 (which I am), this becomes both creatively interesting to explore and pragmatically useful for some topics (for example when you want to openly write controversial things but go unnoticed by trolls primed to attack you for them). The trick is doing antimemetic writing without resorting to brute-force secrecy, cryptography, or steganography. Any idiot can simply write posts in private cozyweb channels, encrypt posts and only share keys with trusted people, or use steganographic deceptions. The real trick is to write in intrinsically anti-memorable ways where despite the reader wanting to retain an idea they think is important, they forget it. Cognitive burn-after-reading techniques.

Anyhow, highly recommend the book, the community, and Simon’s talk.

The Dark Forest Anthology of the Internet

My essay The Extended Internet Universe, where I coined the term “cozyweb” (probably in my top 5 most successful memes) is featured in this cute little collectible book, The Dark Forest Anthology of the Internet put together by Yancey Strickler (whom you may have heard of as the cofounder of Kickstarter). Yancey’s essay, The Dark Forest Theory of the Internet, which I referenced in mine, leads this collection.

Both our essays appeared in May 2019, and the idea of a Dark Forest internet has since become something of a meme, joined at the hip to the cozyweb meme. I recall writing my post (a side-quest of sorts from the domestic cozy series I was writing at the time), and coming across Yancey’s (which had appeared a few days earlier) just as I was about to hit ‘publish.’ I paused for like 15 seconds to reference it, since ‘Dark Forest’ seemed to exactly complement ‘cozyweb.’ Four years later Yancey reached out about this book. Serendipitous peanut-butter-and-jelly hyperlinking moment, which is ironically what made the old internet (RIP) so great. Then the damn Trisolarans arrived and ruined everything. The book features several other pieces by other contributors in what is essentially an extended eulogy for the old internet, and a grimdark celebration of the brave cowardly new internet 😬☠️, where we all cower fearfully in cozyweb holes, behind antimemetic fields, whispering softly so the Trisolarans don’t find us. In the grim darkness of the far future, there are only antimemes (can you tell I’m currently reading There is No Antimemetics Division? That book pairs beautifully with this one btw).

The publishing model is also unique, and uniquely cozy, published in small samizdat-type batches that can escape detection by Sophons. The book is published by Metalabel, Yancey’s new venture, which attempts to bring cozy indie-music-label vibes and anti-memetic defense shields to publishing. The first printing of this volume sold out within a week, so if you want a copy you should grab one while copies of this second printing last. It will be securely delivered via sneakernet dead drop, and self-destruct within 5 minutes of opening if it has been tampered with.

For the Poe’s Law types out there in the Dark Forest: that last bit was a joke. The book will be delivered by normal mail, which as far as we know hasn’t yet been compromised by Trisolarans.

The group of contributors now forms a metalabel artists’ collective and will publish more things under the Dark Forest label. I’m considering publishing my recent short story, The Dark Forest Marketing Agency, under the label. And maybe this post on cozy hypertext. We’ll see.

Yancey’s post Rethinking Labels has more details on this labels model, and he also did a Protocol Town Hall talk on the genesis of the model.

I’ll be participating in a book-launch round-table tomorrow (being held in an underground bunker at an undisclosed location), limited to verified book buyers who can prove they’re not Trisolaris spies. I’ll share that recording when it is published and it is safe to do so.

In the meantime, grab a copy, and be sure not to tell anyone about this book. And please burn this blog post after reading.

Stack Map of the World

I’ve been buried neck deep in work stuff this week, but I did find time to make this stack diagram of the world, inspired by the xkcd Dependency cartoon. Randall Munroe draws better than me, but in my favor, I use more colors.

Did you know most of the high-purity quartz needed for the semiconductor industry (for the equipment more than the wafers if I understand correctly; I’m foggy on that end of the industry) comes from one mine in North Carolina, and that the making of high-purity quartz is a closely guarded trade secret known only to a handful of organizations? I’m guessing China is close to figuring it out. It’s weird to think how fragile the world’s infrastructure is. Mess with one mine and take enough potshots at shipping near Yemen and you can shut the world down.

It’s funny how the utopian/dystopian discourses at the highest levels of abstraction, AI and crypto (the two domains that keep me busy at work) never worry much about the fragile bottom of the stack. I made up some non-starter political slogans about this situation:

Non-starter political slogans

  1. Decentralize the quartz mines!
  2. Permissionless 99.9% purity quartz for everyone!
  3. Open-source EUV machines!
  4. Oil from backyard CCS stills!
  5. Lithium salts for the people!

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes

I started reading Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes while I was in Istanbul last November and finally finished it last week. It’s a really solid and absorbing book, and far too dense and rich with detail to zip through, which is why I read it a dozen or so pages a night over months (it is 600+ pages, plus 200 odd pages of notes and references).

It’s rare for an actual history book, just a straight-up telling of a dense, long tale, to reorient your sense of history. I read my first world history book in high school and have felt pretty well-oriented since then. Books I’ve read since then have mostly served to deepen my sense of particular periods in particular times. They didn’t change my overall sense of history. This one did.

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Storytelling — Philosophical Stakes

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series Narrativium

Via the latest issue of Simon de la Rouviere’s excellent Scenes with Simon newsletter, I found a video on good endings by Michael Arndt, screenwriter of Little Miss Sunshine, that basically answers the question I explored in Just Add Dinosaurs, where I argued that Matthew Dicks’ approach to analyzing stories in terms of stakes falls short because it leads to obviously ridiculous (to me) conclusions like “Jurassic Park is about Alan Grant’s relationship with children rather than dinosaurs.” In Dicks’ model, the dinosaurs are “just” stakes. In a treatment that’s in other ways very similar to Dicks’, Arndt unbundles the idea of stakes into three kinds: internal, external, and philosophical. He argues that the difference between good and great endings lies in some sort of moral inversion around the philosophical stakes (which not all stories have), and that these stakes in fact constitute the meaning of the story. Without these philosophical stakes, other bits feel mechanical.

In these terms, it’s easy to see what is actually going on with Jurassic Park:

  • Internal stakes: Alan Grant’s relationship with children is flipped
  • External stakes: Hammond’s dangerous scheme of starting a dinosaur theme park is thwarted
  • Philosophical stakes: A world with live dinosaurs is shown to be cooler than one with just fossils

This point is subtly made in the original, with the climactic battle being raptors vs T-Rex, rather than humans vs. T-Rex, and with the ominous shot of the Barbasol can. But it’s in your face with the series arc finale. By Jurassic World: Dominion, we’re just living in a world where dinosaurs in the wild is normal, and the theme park villain is trying to weaponize them. The philosophical stakes are now trying to save the cool world.

So yes, my first naive instinct was correct. Jurassic Park is about dinosaurs. Why does an accomplished, champion storyteller miss this point that’s obvious to any narrative-illiterate 8-year-old?

I think it’s because Dicks specializes in telling personal stories from his own real life. In fact it’s a rule of his that’s the only kind you’re allowed to tell in the oral tradition his book is about. You’re not even allowed to tell someone else’s story. So while his theories may be sound for that narrow scope, Jurassic Park doesn’t actually belong in the reference set.

Personal stories are of course very meaningful to those who live them, but let’s be honest: Most have zero philosophical stakes. They may be entertaining yarns with fun external stakes and modest internal stakes, but the nature of reality and the moral dimension of the universe aren’t involved.

This also explains why personal stories mostly bore me. Even my own. If there are no philosophical stakes, I’m not interested. If there are good philosophical stakes, I’m actually fine without either internal or external stakes.

Philosophical stakes are a neat lens. They explain many puzzles. For example the original Toby Maguire Spider-Man worked much better than the Amazing Spider-Man because the philosophical stakes (“with great power comes great responsibility”) are front and center in the former and basically missing in the latter. They‘re front-and-center again in the Tom Holland reboot (“be friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, not Avengers member with all the status and perks and famous friends”). You know it’s the right decision because Tony Stark gives him the fancy suit anyway. The Friendly Neighborhood stakes are apparent in the sequels as well. Even if Holland Spider-Man is fighting cosmic battles in the multiverse, he’s always fighting for friendly neighborhood stakes over Nick Fury stakes. He’s never going to want to be a god even if he has the required abilities (in contrast to Hawkeye who plays cosmic god hero without quite having what it takes, often neglecting his friendly-neighborhood scale life to do so).