The Manual Economy

[An attempt at fiction in the style of Scott Alexander. With bits of Lewis Carroll and Douglas Adams thrown in for good measure.]

The hallucination started out so normally, I completely forgot that I was tripping.

I was at the dentist, and I had just had my teeth cleaned. You know the drill, the hygienist goes through your teeth with this little spray nozzle that gets into all the cracks and cavities you pretend don’t exist when you’ve got a brush in there. Then they make you hold some disgusting not-quite-mint not-quite-water in your mouth, and swish, and spit. And spit. And spit. And after about the third blessed mouthful of real water, you can vaguely taste something other than not-quite-mint, until your salivary glands give up the ghost entirely and your mouth turns into the Sahara desert.

As I said, it was weirdly normal for a trip. I’d been expecting unicorns, or aliens, or a sky made up of funky colours and mystical cactus people who could factor large numbers. But I was at the dentist. If I’d wanted a trip to the dentist, I would have just gone to the dentist. It would have been cheaper, and probably better for my teeth.

The entire dental experience was so totally normal I completely forgot I was tripping until I went to pay, and I couldn’t find my credit card. Or any cash. My wallet had a driver’s license and various other identification cards, but no payment at all. The receptionist smiled at me politely.

“Is everything alright? Can I help you”?

I winced. “I’m sorry, I seem to have misplaced all my money, I’m not going to be able to pay my bill today”.

There was a confused pause. A giant hand walked past waving an umbrella and whistling show tunes. The receptionist winked at me with both eyes at once. I suddenly knew, somehow, that I didn’t need to pay, so I turned and walked out the door. Across the street was a bank, so I floated forward until I was inside.

The bank, like the dentist, seemed totally normal. There were no lines, but that was expected for mid-afternoon on a Tuesday. I rolled over to one of the tellers.

“Excuse me”, I said, “I seem to have lost my credit card, can you help me”?

There was another confused pause. The bank teller turned into a giant hand and flew away. The entire bank building sort of dissolved as the buildings on either side squeezed together to fill up the space. I ended up on the sidewalk outside a Starbucks.

I didn’t even like Starbucks.

Sitting outside the Starbucks was a homeless person whose baseball cap kept flickering as if it couldn’t make up its mind. First it was on their head, but then *pop*, it was on the sidewalk in front of them with a few coins in it, and then *pop*, it was gone entirely. And then it was suddenly on their head again. After a few seconds of this my own head started to hurt, so I stared at the sidewalk extra hard until the homeless person turned into a giant hand, and the baseball cap was arrested for multiplying entities beyond necessity.

The hand spoke to me. “Now look what you’ve done! It’s hard enough to coordinate this economy without some yokel trying to physically instantiate all of the mechanisms”!

There was a third confused pause, but this time the hand just sat there looking disgruntled until I finally echoed its statement back as a question. “You… coordinate the entire economy”?

“Yes of course I do”, the hand replied, “somebody has to do it or this whole place would fall apart. How else does food get to everyone who needs it, let alone all the other goods and services”!

I blinked. “So, you’re, literally, the invisible hand of the market”?

“Well I was“, the hand said waspishly. “But do I look invisible to you”?

“Oh, sorry about that”, I apologized. “So my money and credit card, and the bank and everything? They all disappeared because they’re… you? Or manifestations of you, or something”?

The hand glared at me. “I’m a hand”, it said, waving at itself sarcastically. “It seems awfully rude of you to talk to me about manifestations. Until you came along, I had no need of them at all”! It huffed. “Now here I am, trying to coordinate an economy the size of a planet, and instead of being a magical omniscient force I’m trapped in a giant disembodied appendage. What am even I supposed to do with all of these fingers”?

I giggled. “I dunno, you could say that the economy just went… digital“.

The hand rolled its eyes, but I had a lot more ready.

“Oh come on, you’ve got to hand me that one. No? You’re not going to clap back? Well come on then, let me give you a hand coming up with a response. I’m pretty handy with this sort of thing, in fact…”

Ten minutes later, I finally ran out of steam with a complicated pun about greased palms and coconut oil, that even I admitted was a stretch. At this point, the hand had finally had enough.

“Look”, it said, “maybe in your universe the economy is coordinated by these magical distributed pieces of paper and electronic numbers, and nobody has ultimate responsibility for the economy. But in this universe, none of that exists; the buck stops with me. I’ve been listening to you make hand puns for ten minutes, and in that time the entire economy has ground to a halt because I haven’t been there to ensure the right transactions occur at the right time. In some sense I don’t just coordinate the economy – I am the economy”.

I shook my head. “That can’t be right”, I said, “the economy isn’t made up of pieces of paper and numbers, the economy is all of the real things that get moved around because of that coordination. Just because you took a few minutes off to…”, I giggled again, “manifest, as a giant hand, farms are still growing food, factories are still producing goods, the economy is still going! Transport truck drivers didn’t all go on strike because you took a small break”!

“That’s exactly my point!” said the hand. “Truck drivers were on strike when you started your little game, but that strike required coordinated action which I provided. When I started slacking off all those truck drivers got bored and left the picket line to follow their individual inclinations, and now it’s chaos”!

At this point I could feel the drugs starting to wear off, but the hand was still going.

“They’re not striking, or trucking, or anything useful at all! The entire economy is crumbling like the twin towers after that so-called plane crash!”

The bank reappeared beside the Starbucks, and the entire row of buildings shifted down to accommodate.

“It’s all the governments fault, them and their secret mind control beams out to steal your thoughts!”

The not-invisible giant hand shrank in size until it was a normal hand, attached to a normal homeless person, still talking about the implications of omniscient economic coordination and various other conspiracy theories. My teeth started to hurt.

I’ve written this trip report in an attempt to jog my own memory. Something that the hand said during our conversation really resonated with me, and I just know the next Nobel prize in economics is mine if I can only remember what it was…

I just can’t put my finger on it.

An Open Critique of Common Thought

[I was going through a bunch of old files and found this gem of an essay. If the timestamp on the file is accurate it’s from February 2010, which means it’s almost exactly ten years old and predates this blog by about three years. Past me was very weird, so enjoy!]

I am writing this essay as a critique of a fundamental and unsolvable problem in philosophy today. Our greatest minds refuse to acknowledge this problem, so I have humbly taken it upon myself to explore more fully this hidden paradox.

Amongst all of the different philosophies, religions, and world-views, there is one common theme, so utterly pervasive that it has never before been questioned, yet so utterly false upon deeper inspection that it boggles the mind. It is my hope that this short essay will act as a call to arms for the oppressed masses in the field of higher thought, and prompt them to action demanding an end to this conspiracy.

The problem, ladies and gentlemen, in long and in short, is that of existence. Every thought, every idea, every concept that humankind has ever had rests on the central pillar, the core belief, that we exist. Not content, of course, with this simpler sophistry, humankind has embarked on an even more heinous error of logic – we assume not only that we exist, but that other things exist as well.

It is at this point, of course, that your conditioning takes over – “Of course we exist”, you say, “how could it be otherwise”? This is the knee-jerk reaction typical of an oppressed thinker today, and the prevalence of this mindless assertion – calling it a failure of an argument would be too kind – worries me more than I can say about the future of our society. Beyond the obvious lack of critical thinking evidenced by such lemming-like idiocies, this simple error is the cause of deeper, more dangerous problems as well.

But I digress. I will leave the deeper analysis of this crisis to the historians who survive it, and turn my own meagre talents to the task of alerting the public of this travesty. It is with heart-felt distress that I type my final plea to you, the thinking public – “Do you believe”?

Patience

The window on the second floor
Glows gently deep into the night.
The icy wind outside the door
Cannot extinguish candle’s light.

The river, freezing, creaks and cracks,
The swirling snow falls crystalline.
The midnight sky in blues and blacks
Appears whene’er the clouds align.

The window on the second floor
Keeps watch forever and a day.
Whoever it is waiting for,
Has yet to come this way.

Choices

The icy river far below.
The winter wind that warns of snow.
The angry iron stormclouds glow.
The bridge goes everywhere.

The city skyline sparks and burns.
The hungry heart escaping yearns.
A vulture makes its lazy turns.
The bridge goes everywhere.

The shattered pillars shriek and groan.
The marching dead reclaim their own.
A million prayers cannot atone.
The bridge goes everywhere.

They say the bridge goes everywhere,
And takes each soul a separate path.
But I have found the same despair
In every choice; the aftermath
Of chasing futures o’er the span
And never looking back to see
The desolation I outran.
The bridge goes just one place for me.

Possibility Days

I had one of those weird bursts of inspiration and wrote most of the first chapter of a potential novel. Nothing is likely to come of it as I don’t really know where to take it from here, but I’m pretty happy with the prose and the mood, so I figured I’d share. It is definitely a bit on the odd side of course, I hope you’d expect that from me by now. Anyway, here you go, chapter one of Possibility Days:


There were days when the world was empty, when time stood still, and when accomplishing anything seemed almost as monumental as accomplishing nothing. There were days when the world was on fire, when the edge between success and failure seemed thin and sharp, and when the only possible emotion was a panicked, manic, make-believe optimism.

There were days in the middle.

As Andrew woke up each morning, he always had a gut feeling about what kind of day it was going to be. Those feelings weren’t always accurate of course; the days always seemed to be playing tricks on him worse than the weather forecast. But it made him feel better to pretend he had some control over things. Today, for example, had started out like a distinctly middle day, but had unexpectedly sagged towards the end before picking up sharply at the last minute. The pattern reminded him of the bass drop in a particularly formulaic pop song.

Now it was starting to sag again, but that was OK. It was late, he was tired, and as long as he didn’t fall all the way into paranoia a little bit of fade at the end of the day made it easier to get to sleep. It was probably natural, something to do with melatonin or testosterone levels or some other hormonal thing.

Standing in the bathroom brushing his teeth, he made half an effort to recall all of the things he had accomplished today, but the idea seemed just a little out of reach; he was fading fast then. Some of those things had seemed interesting or valuable at the time, but now they were just… there. Mechanistic results of a boring, predictable universe. Like the toothbrush, travelling hypnotically back and forth over his teeth, its position ever-changing but its motion always exactly the same. Andrew paused, and spit, then rinsed off the toothbrush, gargled briefly, and spit again. Tomorrow would be different, he knew, even if it would also be exactly the same. Life was funny like that.

As he made his way out of the bathroom and into the big, open, mostly-empty room that served as his bedroom, his hand batted the wall near the bathroom light switch. He hit the fan switch by accident, turned that off again, then fumbled left automatically until he could kill the lights. The room was plunged into grey, the glow of the city still sneaking around the edges of the big bay window.

Everything about this condo had seemed like a good idea originally: the massive rooms, the floor-to-ceiling windows; even the oddly-located light switches had seemed more cool than frustrating. It was still an impressive place to show off to friends and family, but if he was being honest he’d trade it all back for a bedroom that got properly dark at night. The simple things were underrated.

Crossing the shadows to his bed, Andrew knelt to pray and tried to sink into the comforting thought of all the other people who were praying at that moment. They formed a vast network of humanity in his mind, united by ritual, and reaching out toward something greater than themselves. Andrew didn’t even believe in god anymore, and hadn’t for a long time, but he still believed in the universe, and in humanity, and that was enough to pray to in his opinion. No matter what kind of day it had been, the reminder that he was somehow not alone in the world was usually a comforting one.

This night, praying to the universe quickly turned into a muttered reassurance that tomorrow would be another day, and that things always seemed brighter in the morning. It was time to stop. Giving up on the universe for one more day, he unbent his knees and crawled into bed, pulling the covers up to just under his nose and folding his hands over his stomach. The day finally complete, Andrew waited for sleep to come.

An Evening on the Moon

A lonely star, beside a pale moon.
A midnight sky, that’s gone away too soon.
The city lights are shining brightly below,
But to that star is where my heart wants to go.

A birdcage bridge, against the open air.
A subtle breeze, like fingers running through your hair.
The sound of thunder passing constantly by,
And still that star hangs on in the sky.

A forest, deep, against a riverbank.
A gentle kiss, that tastes of wine we drank.
A firefly, that also wanders alone;
Another star to light your long journey home.

But now the clouds have covered up the midnight sky.
The pale moon has bid the night a sorrowful goodbye.
The city sleeps, and dreams itself another day.
To reach that lonely star, I choose to walk away.