Captain's Log

A Captain's Log with entries titled with Modified Julian Dates (MJD). Unrestricted scope of themes. This is an experiment in writing without memorable headlines (and hey, that part worked! I can't for the life of me remember what I've been writing in this blogchain). Like those Star Trek ones with Star Dates. Though I prefer Zapp Brannigan's version:

Zapp Brannigan: Captain's journal; Star date... uh...
Kif: April 13th.
Zapp Brannigan: April 13th... point two.

MJD 58,851

This entry is part 1 of 21 in the series Captain's Log

I’m starting a new experiment: blog entries in a blogchain without a declared theme or proper headlines. The blogchain itself is called Captain’s Log, since I don’t want to be too Dada about this, and a Star Trek reference sounds like fun without being thematically confining. But I won’t use that phrase within post titles. Entries will be titled MJD xxxx, where MJD stands for Modified Julian Date, and xxxx is the day number in that scheme. I thought of using the Star Trek star date convention, but turns out that’s not actually very coherent. My other too-clever idea was to follow a naming convention based on a) writing a post b) computing a hash from the text to serve as a title, as a cleverly self-referential True Name. This seemed too much work so I’m going with an uncommon date-based convention that only specialists like astronomers will be able to read intuitively.

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MJD 58,854

This entry is part 2 of 21 in the series Captain's Log

To be present in a seat in a movie theater is to pay attention to a movie for a couple of hours, tuning out the few distractions, and giving in to the carefully crafted temptation to escapism. To be present, outside of a vehicle, in the middle of a busy, high-speed intersection, is to pay attention to half a dozen largely unrelated things every second, with the set of things changing every few seconds, while everybody gets mad at you.

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MJD 58,855

This entry is part 3 of 21 in the series Captain's Log

When I was a kid, several of my friends owned a kind of toy remote control car with only one control: forward/backward. These cars had three wheels, and the third rear wheel was a caster. The car went forward in a straight line, but backwards in a circle. You steered by backing up to reorient, then going forward again. The caster was either left or right-handed, so backing up always turned you in a consistent direction. To go the other way, you’d have to back up more than 180 degrees.

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MJD 58,866

This entry is part 4 of 21 in the series Captain's Log

An idea can leak to the extent it has a name that is meaningful within a larger context. A name is, in a sense, a key that unlocks the significance of the contents of the interior of the named idea in terms of signifiers that exist in the exterior environment. But a name also binds and reshapes a new idea to forms that already exist, via metaphor, symmetries, isomorphisms, or rhymes. What one might call idea-socialization mechanisms.

In the Rick and Morty multiverse, our universe is “Dimension C-137 on the Central Finite Curve”. The logic of the vaguely topological sounding pseudomath name appears to have eluded fans so far. It is a name that only makes sense at the multiverse level, where the context of reference is a plurality of universes. Our universe wouldn’t even need a meaningless number without a multiverse reference context. But a number is a rather empty context in a sense: one that contains nothing but reference pointers to subordinate universes. It’s a pure addressing layer, with all actual content and structure, including distinguishable Ricks and Mortys, existing at the leaf level. The alphanumeric designator vaguely suggests two dimensions, and “central finite curve” suggests some sort of manifold within a higher-dimensional space of possibilities (Reddit suspects it is the subset of realities where Ricks exist).

The same kind of logic also applies to our own non-fictional universe. In my lifetime, I’ve seen the address of our home galaxy acquire a new level of named referencing. The Milky Way is no longer just part of the “local group” and “Virgo supercluster” (now an appendage). We are now part of the larger Laniakea supercluster, which puts us in some meaningful patterns of weirdly synchronized galactic rotations created by large-scale structures of hydrogen and dark matter apparently.

To go from meaningless reference number to meaningful name is to have an idea leak from its original container and enter into a condition of entanglement with neighboring realities. The synchronization of galactic rotations within the Laniakea supercluster, due to large-scale structure, is a leakage of the idea of the Milky Way galaxy, a sort of broader smearing of its identity. And with it, a smearing of your identity.

You, individually, are rotating in synchronization with galaxies 120 million lightyears away.

If you, like me, once wrote down your full cosmic address as a kid, with your name on the first line and “Virgo Supercluster” as the last line, that address now has a new last line, and it actually says something meaningful about you: how you are rotating.

MJD 58,889

This entry is part 5 of 21 in the series Captain's Log

I’ve been trying to make up the simplest, most banal definitions of concepts that interest me lately, and seeing how far I can get with them. One I just made up is: a narrative is a road in time, and a story is a particular journey taken along that road. As an example, premium mediocre is a superhighway of a narrative that connected 2007 to 2015, and many of us living lives in Blue America during that period were living out particular stories within that narrative. That narrative is being extended out to 2020 and beyond, but is struggling now. It is no longer a well-maintained, heavily trafficked 8-lane superhighway. It is slowly turning into a poorly maintained one-lane rural dirt road that is permanently backed up. You need personal off-roading capabilities — read wealth — to stick to the premium mediocre road, or you have to get on a different road.

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MJD 59,004

This entry is part 6 of 21 in the series Captain's Log

I’ve been thinking a lot about experiments. In an interview last year, James Mattis described America as “this great big experiment of ours.” I made a 2×2 to think about this. America falls in the Grand Design Experiments quadrant. The x-axis is self-explanatory, the y-axis is ordinary versus extraordinary in the sense of “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I wrote about this before in Extraordinary Laboratories.

As an experiment, America is a set of extraordinary (and not coincidentally, exceptionalist) claims about the nature of government.

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MJD 59,128

This entry is part 7 of 21 in the series Captain's Log

Covid is the first global downgrade in the average human quality of life since World War 2. Some of the individual downgrades are adaptive for climate change as well, and will likely get locked in for a longer term. Lowered global human mobility at all scales, from local driving to international flying, feels like the biggest downgrade to me. It feels sad. Sad like a pay cut, but also sad like the ending of The Lord of the Rings. The end of an era. A paradise lost.

One sense seems to mitigate the sadness, and that is the sense of a closer connection to distant histories and futures. The world just got bigger in space, but smaller in time.

Reading about the Spanish Flu 100 years ago (1918-19), or the Black Death 670 years ago (1348-50), feels in some ways like reviewing my own memories from 6 months ago. Equally, the future 100 or 670 years out suddenly feels a lot more real. I now feel a lot closer to 2120, when Covid will merely be yet another endemic seasonal sniffle, and climate change impacts will be peaking. And to 2690, when the climate wars will likely have settled as a distant memory of a war won (or at least nobly or ignobly fought and survived by a few).

Thanks to Covid, we can now live more fully in what the Stewart Brand crowd calls the long now. It is one of the few tastes that’s easier to satisfy, rather than harder, post-Covid.

After a few decades of collective historic presentism, attended by a certain historical amnesia and future-blindness, we are once again tapping into historical currents that connect us to lives and events far in the past and future. An abstract sense of history and the future has suddenly turned as visceral as personal memory. Living humans, mostly born 1930-2020, have clumsily merged their stories into the larger story of humanity, 20,000 BC to 3000 AD. Through the merge conflict, those of us alive today can, if we choose, outgrow the sense of temporal exceptionalism that has been the human default for decades.

Paul Erdos was good at living in the long now:

In 1970 I preached in Los Angeles on ‘my first two-and-a-half billion years in mathematics.’ When I was a child, the earth was said to be two billion years old. Now scientists say it’s four and a half billion. So that makes me two-and-a-half billion. The students at the lecture drew a time line that showed me riding a dinosaur. I was asked, ‘How were the dinosaurs?’ Later, the right answer occurred to me: ‘You know, I don’t remember, because an old man only remembers the very early years, and the dinosaurs were born yesterday, only a hundred million years ago.'”

(from The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, by Paul Hoffman)

Before Covid, I was 45 years old, in the middle of say a 90-year life (if I’m lucky). Post-Covid I suddenly feel 670 years old, looking forward to a personal future that extends another 670 years out. I’m in the middle of a 1340-year long now. Some of my old posts in this vein (Immortality in the Ocean of Infinite Memories, 2014 and A Beginner’s Guide to Immortality, 2013) suddenly feel a lot more real.

From a 1340-year long-now perspective, looking out at world events somehow feels less sad. The world eventfully existed for long before you and I were around, and will continue to exist for long after. We may be just passing through, playing at most a small part overall, but we don’t have to restrict our presence in the world to our lifespans. We can expand it to occupy the temporal span of all events we are capable of viscerally feeling.

Still, we can’t actually live for 1340 years, even if we get viscerally better at inhabiting such a long now. Living in the long now means feeling more time than you can touch. That begets a longing. Long-nowing means longing-now.

MJD 59,143

This entry is part 8 of 21 in the series Captain's Log

I’ve been thinking about creative pivots. Discontinuous reorientations in your pattern of creative production, possibly accompanied by a change in the audience for your creative work (lose one kind of reader, gain a new kind of reader). I don’t think I’ve ever really executed a true creative pivot. The kind that’s an abrupt, lossy, high-entropy reorientation maneuver in response to a changing environment.

While my writing has changed over the years, it’s mostly been gentle, smooth turns in response to my own gradually shifting interests, against the backdrop of a world that was changing and aging much more slowly than I was. The turns were powered by picking up new tricks while tiring of old ones, rather than new understandings of the world. For the first time in 22 years of writing online though, I feel like I’m in the middle of a true creative pivot. One driven by sharp changes in the zeitgeist rather than in my own interests. One that will for sure lose me a certain subset of readers, but hopefully gain me a new subset of readers. Of course, my own interests are continuing to shift at the same rate as before, but the broader artistic mood is shifting much more sharply.

One big era is yielding to another. The shift was already underway before Covid (the Great Weirding of 2015-19), but it has now passed some sort of event horizon.

We’re headed into what the future will likely judge to be a Lost decade, much like the 1920s. A temporally dislocated oxbow lake by the river of history. The 1920s were the Roaring Twenties, a decadal pause between Victorian/Edwardian (1837-1920, extending Edwardian to include WW1) and Late/Post-modernist (1930-2020). The 2020s will be the Searing Twenties, a decadal pause between the Late/Post-modernist era and whatever comes next. It too will be a Lost decade. Oddly enough, despite the dramatic nature of historical events, the ends of World War 2 and the Cold War did not trigger lost decades (except in Japan, which is on some sort of alternative timeline). Apparently it takes a pandemic to administer the coup de grace to an age.

The pause of a Lost decade is a grand-narrative pause, between big world stories that persist for 3-4 generations, and span all living memory. You can think of the prevailing mood as one where it is much harder to make up extended universe type stories. The age in decline is a fatally flawed and unraveled reference reality, but the emerging age is too ill-defined to serve as a new reference reality. And since we’re talking 100-year windows, nobody alive has a different reference point to offer. Talking to grandma doesn’t help; she doesn’t remember a truly different reality either. So larger-scale imagination gets hamstrung. I did a thread about this a few days ago. The good news is, if you make it past 2030, you’ll be able to tell kids being born today all about how the world used to be different once.

Lost-decade pauses typically feature anti-grand-narratives, like H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos from the 1920s or the more restricted Godzilla mythos from post-World War 2 Japan. Such anti-grand-narratives induce shrunken rather than extended universes in the imagination. They center human helplessness in the face of larger powers, rather than human agency and universe-denting powers. It’s not that extended universes cannot be imagined, but that they cannot be anthropomorphized and imagined as belonging to humans. The human sphere is temporarily reduced to a footnote in larger cosmic dramas starring non-human forces. Spiritual tendencies get amplified, new religions and cults form, new artistic and literary movements take off. These last are disposed to take a very hard look at the assumptions of the receding age.

To the extent creative production is a way to stay alive to the world, the mood shift is an imperative to either change your pattern of production or grow increasingly dead to the world. So if you are a writer or other sort of creative producer, you have to pivot with the times, and establish a new relationship with the shifting mood.

But because the shift will take an unsettled decade for the world at large to navigate, your new relationship will be a pattern of active negotiation with shifting realities rather than a decoupled one-shot response to them. You’ll be pivoting towards either greater engagement or greater detachment. You’ll either help invent the future, or retreat with the declining age and turn into a producer of nostalgia.

MJD 59,145

This entry is part 9 of 21 in the series Captain's Log

The terms public and private seem to form a balanced opposition, but they don’t really. In modern usage, private is a bounded and circumscribed domain, while public is an open-ended space defined via negation as non-private. It was supposedly the opposite in ancient Greece, at least by Hannah Arendt’s account. In her version of events, public was a bounded and circumscribed domain, and private was an open-ended survival warfront against nature. I’ve come to see her version of events as mistaken on crucial points, due to her over-indexing on the Greek origin myth for the notion of the public. A bunch of islands in a third-generation civilization is not a good prototype for civilization in general, which mostly arose in continental interiors along river valleys.

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MJD 59,151

This entry is part 10 of 21 in the series Captain's Log

It’s been a busy week or so in space. NASA found water on the Moon (at concentrations lower than in the Sahara desert, but perhaps enough to extract and turn into hydrogen for fuel?). The OSIRIS-REx mission took a bounce-by biopsy of the asteroid Bennu, which makes me think mining might be closer than we think. And perhaps most interestingly, SpaceX is making Starlink subscribers sign a Terms of Service document agreeing that Mars will be outside of Earth jurisdiction.

Speaking of Mars, here’s a picture I took (Canon SLR attached to a 4.5″ Newtonian). I still haven’t figured out the fancy image-stacking techniques to produce more detailed output from my ongoing raw photography, but I’ll get there. Mars was in opposition on Oct 6, and it is still unusually large and bright, so it’s a great time to observe it. And it’s I think worth everybody’s time to do so — a reminder that there really is a universe out there beyond Earth. It’s not fantasy. There’s an actual neighboring ball of dirt, a pale red dot, in our cosmic backyard. I’ve seen it more directly than I have Antarctica.

The Starlink news is not a joke or merely of academic-legal interest. Starlink technology could easily be modified to provide broadband WiFi coverage for Mars. We really might see at least robotic space settlements in our lifetimes, and these terms of service will matter. I’m really glad SpaceX is forcing this conversation early, with what I think are the right initial conditions.

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