"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."
- Terence McKenna
Apocalypsopolis, book one
Civilization Will Eat Itself, Superweed 1-4, best of
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February 27. If you want to make sense of the new FCC net neutrality regulations, that link goes to a Hacker News comment thread on the subject. Basically the new rules are good but half-assed, and there are two reforms that would be much better: to use antitrust laws to break up the Comcast and Time Warner monopolies into many small companies that would have to compete, or to allow "last mile unbundling", where any company can tap into the cable going to your house and offer a better deal.
Fun article, How Crazy Am I to Think I Know Where MH370 Is? It's by an expert on the vanished airliner, who gradually developed a really good conspiracy theory: that Russian agents hijacked the plane, spoofed the BFO data to make the satellites think it was going a different way, and flew it to a remote airbase in Kazakhstan. Details include an unlikely combination of factors that made that particular plane hackable, and an airbase built for self-landing planes with mysterious earthworks at the right time, and of the right size, to hide the plane. At the end the author questions his own sanity for believing something no one else believes.
Some happy news: Abandoned Walmart is Now America's Largest 1-Floor Library.
And a personal update on marijuana. Three weeks ago I mentioned that I haven't noticed any qualitative difference in the highs from different strains, and some readers said this is because vaporizers don't go hot enough to extract CBD. This is a popular belief among people who smoke, and it might be true of some cheap vaporizers, but any good one is hot enough. If you do a search for "vaporize CBD" you will find many discussions of how to tweak the temperature to get the different components. Typically you would use a lower temperature early in the day to get the energizing THC, and a higher temperature at night to get the "couchlock" CBD. According to this article, Vaporizer Temperatures for Cannabis, the only active ingredient that boils above vaporizer temperatures is quercetin -- so I wonder if it would help to take quercetin supplements before vaping.
Also I'm getting a strange effect that doesn't seem to be happening to anyone else. Back when I vaped every two weeks, or before that when I ate brownies a few times a year, the high would be completely gone after about 12 hours. But since I've been vaping every four days, I have a permanent body high. You know when you're dozing in the morning and your whole body feels so good that you just want to lie there for hours? I feel like that all the time! If I were sick in bed, this would be a miracle. But if I need to do any kind of physical work, it's a big obstacle. So I'm going to cut back and see what happens. I'm hoping it turns out to be some purely coincidental medical condition, because then I have no reason to cut back on weed, and a medical excuse to be lazy.
February 25. I was going to write about something else today but I just got two emails in five minutes about this crowdfunded honey tap for beehives. I've been reading about this for weeks, and it's probably a useful new option for some beekeepers, but I can think of some reasons to be skeptical:
1) How does it fit with beehive ecology? Maybe having a weird plastic thing in the hive all the time is worse for bees than having a beekeeper open it up a few times a year. And most beekeepers will still want to get into hives for reasons other than taking honey.
2) To make sure the bees use the combs for honey and not for pollen and brood, they're going to have to use a queen excluder. That link goes to a basic description of how queen excluders work and some ways they're bad for bees.
3) No matter what combs are being used for, they get dirty with millions of tiny bee footprints, so there has to be a way to take this thing apart and clean it.
4) It's not that bad to harvest honey the old fashioned way. As a top bar beekeeper I never have to lift boxes or use expensive extractors -- I just open the hive, pull out some frames of honey, squish a few bees putting the bars back, throw the combs in a bucket, squeeze them in a wine press, and then spend a long time cleaning up. Also I get lots of valuable wax.
By the way, all my bees died last fall. I knew they were gone at the first snowfall when there was not a melted spot on top of the hive from their heat. Last week I opened the hive and there were fewer than a hundred dead bees inside, which is classic colony collapse disorder. But they left the hive packed with honey. I've been gradually squeezing the combs and I'll probably end up with more than three gallons, in addition to about two gallons that I had already. So with a lifetime supply of honey, and $90 to buy a new package of bees, I think I'll leave the hives empty this year and there's a small chance that a swarm will move in.
February 23. The last Monday of every month is Finger Pointing Day, because it's fun to be negative but not all the time. Let's talk about America's education system. This reddit thread features two long comments by vengeance_pigeon, arguing that the education system is all about money and social control rather than making people smarter.
Morality and the Idea of Progress in Silicon Valley. I love how there's a concise summary at the top:
Silicon Valley's amorality problem arises from the blind faith many place in progress. The narrative of progress provides moral cover to the tech industry and lulls people into thinking they no longer need to exercise moral judgment.
How we created a generation of unsophisticated, picky eaters. This high-bandwidth article argues that human appreciation of food is being degraded by busy parents giving their kids bland processed food designed to appeal to kids, instead of making them eat adult food.
Wasp Without a Sting is not about genetically engineered insects. It's about the total lameness of Bob Hope.
How "Clean" Was Sold to America with Fake Science. Our idea of personal hygiene is historically absurd and was invented by ad agencies in the 20th century to sell us products. Personally I don't use deodorant, mouthwash, or shampoo, but I do floss every day.
February 20. For the weekend, three happy ecology links and more music. How to Grow a Forest Really, Really Fast is about some people who have figured out how to greatly accelerate the rate at which forests grow back, and they even have some money behind them.
Sea Level Change Adaptation Strategy is a highly speculative plan for how people in Florida could build mounds of earth that will turn into food forest islands after the oceans rise.
Life is Flourishing in the Iron Curtain's Death Zone is a looong article about how the strip that used to separate East and West Germany is being turned into a green belt.
A week ago I asked for music in "the grey area between metal and folk." Thanks Ethan, Veren, Tracy, Quincy, Elliot, Hartley, and Erik for recommending stuff. A lot of it was black metal, and I enjoy black metal guitars but can't get into the abrasive vocals. In the last week I've listened to Agalloch, Alda, Angels of Light, Black Math Horseman, Drudkh, Fauna, Finntroll, Giant Squid, Giles Corey, Keiji Hano, Mount Eerie, Neurosis, Pallbearer, Peste Noire, Skumring, Solstafir, Thou, and Ulver. Rose Kemp, an actual folk artist who shifted to metal, is closest to what I was looking for. I found Conifer the most musically interesting for their unique blend of metal and post-rock. And my all-around favorite is Windhand, just really good doom metal with great vocals.
Musical taste is hard to explain. I can use words to tell a story about what I like and don't like, but the actual judgment is made on a deeper than rational level. When I really like something, it feels like my whole consciousness is resonating like a tuning fork exposed to the perfect frequency. The best experience is when I hear something new and it doesn't sound great yet, but it sounds strange in a way that I know will sound great if I keep listening, so it's like growing a new sense.
February 18. After Monday's post, two different readers mentioned this recent John Michael Greer post about voluntary transition to old technology, The Butlerian Carnival. I want to move on to a new subject.
The War Nerd comments on the Islamic State, which is his term for what we call ISIS. He makes three different arguments. First, when American leftists, in the context of ISIS, keep bringing the conversation back to the evils of American foreign policy, that's a form of narcissism. I would add that it's tactically pointless. If Noam Chomsky had spent the last 20 years writing about baseball, the world would not be any worse.
Anyway, Brecher (real name John Dolan) goes on to knock down an idea that almost no one actually believes, that ISIS are oppressed victims. He says they're like the old American KKK:
Former masters, accustomed to ruling through sheer terror, defeated on the battlefield, resorting to what they do best: ultra-violence and exemplary torture-murder, to reassert control of a newly uppity population they're used to ordering around.
His third idea is about the motivations of foreign fighters: that the reason Muslims in Belgium and France and England are hundreds of times more likely to go fight for ISIS, is that they're acting out those nations' colonialist cultures. But a reader from Belgium says they do not have the colonialist culture that Brecher claims, and even if they did, Muslim communities in Europe are much less assimilated than in America and they wouldn't pick up their host nations' cultures anyway. Maybe the simpler explanation is that Muslims in rich countries can afford plane tickets.
New subject, subtly related: How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco's Life. It's about people posting silly, mildly offensive stuff on social media and becoming objects of high-tech witch hunts. I think all of us have done something more offensive than these people got in trouble for, but here and there, almost at random, the wrath of millions will suddenly descend on one person. I think the participants in these shaming frenzies have the same deep motivation as European jihadis: their lives have no meaning and they want to make a difference in the world. They're craving a scarce commodity in the human zoo: to feel powerful.
Are there any better moves when society gives you no participation in power? I can think of two, and they're not mutually exclusive. One is to make small differences in the lives of people around you. The other is to let go of the desire to make a difference and just enjoy the moment, and Japan is ahead of the curve: In violent times, young Japanese just shrug:
Japan's youngest men and women were born into a stalled economy. They grew up in it, are used to it and are now entering it as workers. In 2010, a journalist named Taku Yamaoka wrote a book titled "Young People Who Don't Want Anything". Status, prosperity, success, victory, love, sex, truth, justice - the key motivators of our species since it became recognizably human - mean little to them. A half-ironic description took hold - the "satori generation". Satori is a religious term suggesting the enlightenment that raises an adept above worldly desire.
February 16. I quit my job to set up a post-apocalyptic commune. He ended up suffering from the worst of both worlds, being cold and tired and still struggling with money and bureaucracy. Finally he had a mental breakdown and quit the project -- but the oddballs he recruited kept going without him!
Even now, the author doesn't question his own vision of what the collapse of civilization will look like. I think we fantasize about the Apocalypse because we are drawn to the lifestyle in which we evolved: living in communities where we know everyone, facing physical challenges, and not being constrained by dysfunctional big systems. But even if there were some kind of weird disaster where you and your friends survived, and governments and corporations disappeared, I think the power vacuum would quickly be filled by new dysfunctional big systems probably worse than the old ones. I think the only way out is through: to keep experimenting with big systems until we learn to do them right, which will probably take a few thousand more years.
Related: Are farmers market sales peaking? That might be good for farmers. Ten years ago I thought farmers markets were the cutting edge of utopia. Now I think they're a cultural fad. I haven't been to one in years because I can go to Costco or Grocery Outlet and get slightly lower quality produce for much less money. And it turns out that they're not even good for farmers, because it's a waste of their time to meet every consumer when they can sell in bulk to restaurants and school districts. (I do buy my wheat from a local farmer, but that's a few minutes a year meeting in a parking lot to buy 100 pounds.)
If you're afraid we're headed for techno-dystopia, here's some good news: Why low-tech living is back. It's about the resurgence of books, vinyl records, polaroid cameras, typewriters, and simple cell phones. So we're not talking stone axes, but the point is that we are not being permanently sucked into rising technological complexity; we are capable of pulling back to get subtle improvements in quality of life.
February 13. For the weekend, some music I just discovered this week. SubRosa is a mostly female doom metal band from Salt Lake City, with relatively complex music featuring two violins. My favorite of their songs (and at 7½ minutes one of the shortest) is Cosey Mo. Also here's an interview, and I'd like to hear recommendations of any recent music in a grey area between metal and folk.
Horse Lords is quartet from Baltimore with two drummers and a sound that varies from krautrock to math rock to jazz fusion. If you like Rush, you will appreciate Macaw from their latest album; but their greatest song, and a contender for best stoner track of all time, is Wildcat Strike.
The Stranger is a project of experimental musician James Leyland Kirby, with a 2013 concept album called Watching Dead Empires in Decay. I would describe it as dark ambient or mellow industrial, and my favorite track is Spiral of Decline.
Finally, some humor. I'm writing this on a stand-up desk, and according to The Onion, Health Experts Recommend Standing Up At Desk, Leaving Office, Never Coming Back.
February 11. Today, some feel good links. Anarchists vs ISIS is about a Kurdish region of Syria that is run by an eco-feminist political party and has "female-only paramilitary forces that have been fighting, and winning, against ISIS and the Syrian Army."
The Trip Treatment is a new Michael Pollan piece about growing evidence of the benefits of psychedelics, including making cancer patients feel better about dying, and breaking people out of mental disorders that are based on rigid thinking:
The impediment of a body is gone, as is one's identity, yet, paradoxically, a perceiving and recording "I" still exists. Several volunteers used the metaphor of a camera being pulled back on the scene of their lives, to a point where matters that had once seemed daunting now appeared manageable... Roland Griffiths likens the therapeutic experience of psilocybin to a kind of "inverse PTSD."Why Do Cats Love Boxes So Much? The most interesting thing is that when shelters give cats boxes, it's much less stressful for them.
February 9. I love this 2012 post about Chicken Sexers, Plane Spotters, and the Elegance of TAGteaching:
An untrained eye can't tell the difference between a male and female chick; their bodies are just too similar. Trained masters could sort the birds effectively, even though they could not describe what details they used for their decisions.
This isn't some kind of magical talent. It's a skill that anyone can develop just by repeatedly guessing and being told whether they're right. A similar technique was used in WWII to tell whether approaching airplanes were British or German, starting with people who "couldn't articulate how they did what they did. In fact, when they tried to explain, they had even less success."
The article puts this in terms of the conscious vs the unconscious mind, but I would say that chicken sexers are totally conscious of knowing the difference between males and females -- they just can't put that consciousness into words. So we're really talking about the part of the mind that is constrained by language, vs the part that is not constrained by language.
In western culture we have something I would call the Word Ego: the part of our mind that uses language wants to feel like it's totally in charge, so it builds a wall with a narrow gate where it stands like a sentinel, not letting anything pass from understanding into action unless it can take the form of words. (Or you could say the wall is to keep consciousness from passing out of the realm of words!)
As a writer, I'm like a lawyer who represents people before the Word Gate. Everyone tells me, "You put into words what I knew but couldn't put into words, and now I know I'm not crazy." But my job is only necessary because you have a Word Gate in the first place. It would better if we could all just develop our sub-language consciousness enough that we could trust it to directly drive our actions.
February 6. For the weekend, TV, drugs, and football. Leigh Ann and I have been watching a new TV series called How to Get Away with Murder. Legal dramas are not my thing, but I can't believe that a show of such high quality is on a broadcast network. More generally, given that TV news, popular music, big budget movies, and literary fiction have all been so bad in the 21st century, I don't know why fictional television has been so good. Maybe there's no general trend, and all five of those things have been bad or good for unique reasons.
I've been continuing to vaporize marijuana every four to seven days, and I love it, but I'm becoming skeptical of the supposed differences between strains. When you read about them, especially from sellers like this local shop, you get the idea that different strains have radically different effects. But I've tried Blackberry Kush, Grandaddy Purple, Flo, Jack Herer, Northern Lights, and Sensi Star, and I haven't noticed any qualitative difference in the highs. Maybe my body is just not sensitive to the differences, but I suspect that the reported subjective differences are mostly from placebo effect and random differences in batches and environments. Also, I've just been throwing the leftover toasted weed in the compost, but I've just learned that it can be mixed with food or eaten as-is for a good edible high. There's a whole subreddit about this, already been vaped.
Finally, I was unhappy that my team lost the Superbowl, but I'm happy with how they lost. There's been heavy criticism of a goal-line pass play that led to an interception, when they could have just run it in. But this fivethirtyeight.com analysis does the math and explains why it was a good play call, and this interview with retired quarterback Kurt Warner explains it in plain language. Basically if the second down run gets stuffed, then you're in a weak position on third and fourth down, and that's much more likely to happen than a goal line interception. It was simply a heroic defensive play by Malcolm Butler. Also, this is something I like about the Seahawks, that if they're going to lose, they lose by being bold rather than being cautious, like the way the Packers blew the NFC championship.
February 4. Two links about technology and social networks. The smartest cities rely on citizen cunning and unglamorous technology. It critiques the big tech company concept of "smart cities" in which the citizen is "merely a passive consumer of municipal services", and shows examples of an alternate structure in which "ordinary people used technologies of connection to help them steer their own affairs... outperforming the official bodies formally entrusted with their stewardship."
And a short Paul Graham piece, The Ronco Principle, about an investor named Ron Conway who became extremely successful by being completely benevolent. Obviously, benevolence is not always correlated with success, and Graham tries to figure out why that's the case in recent Silicon Valley startup culture. His conclusion is simple and beautiful: it's easier to tell who the good guys are, if a culture or system is transparent and unpredictable. On the social value of unpredictability:
If you're going to be two-faced, you have to know who you should be nice to and who you can get away with being nasty to. In the startup world, things change so rapidly that you can't tell. The random college kid you talk to today might in a couple years be the CEO of the hottest startup in the Valley. If you can't tell who to be nice to, you have to be nice to everyone. And probably the only people who can manage that are the people who are genuinely good.
This has big implications for utopian thinking. Some imaginary ideal societies are extremely predictable, and predictability is one of the things we mean when we talk about stability and security. But if you want your society to generate good human behavior, unpredictability has to be somehow built into the system.
February 2. Continuing Friday's subject, The Only Baby Book You'll Ever Need. It's an anthropology book about the enormous variety in how children are raised in different cultures and still turn out okay, and about the strangeness of our own attitude toward children. First world parents who read this will be less uptight about doing everything perfectly, and they might get ideas that would be excluded from conventional baby books.
Case in point: When my wife and I were sleeplessly losing our wits, we read through advice books on infant sleep, none of which mentioned that sleeping for eight uninterrupted hours in a bed in separate rooms is a distinct cultural anomaly... Around the world, people sleep in groups; with animals; in briefer chunks of time; without coverings.
Another NY Times article about cultural habits and sleep, A 12-Hour Window for a Healthy Weight. Research on mice, if it applies to humans, shows that it's good for you to go 12 hours between your last food of the night and your first food of the morning.
New subject? Pray for Calamity is an anti-civilization blog that some of you will like. I've been off that bus for about seven years now. Anti-civ ideology is a powerful tool for cutting through the religion of progress, but I think it's a fallacy to take the word "civilization", define it according to the worst mistakes of our first attempts at large complex society, and project that definition onto all possible large complex societies of the future. More generally, I think we've barely scratched the surface of all the possible ways we could live.
January 30. Here's an argument you won't see in the big media. Children are special, but not particularly important. Condensed excerpt:
We seem to place a special value on children because of their blankness, the fact that they have not thought or done anything interesting or important yet and that their identity is still unformed. As children grow up and become more like people, with a life of their own, they seem to become less valuable.
We have it back to front. People's lives get more valuable as they 'grow up' because part of growing up is having more life to live. The greatest part of the value of a human life, as opposed to that of a merely sentient animal like a mouse, relates to the development of personhood. The death of an adult person is a tragedy because a sophisticated unique consciousness has been lost; a life in progress, of plans and ideals and relationships with other persons, has been broken off.
What follows from such an analysis? Not, I suggest, that we should care any less for children but that we should care more for adults. On the principle that a good idea realised is better than a good idea merely, we should acknowledge that oak trees are more valuable than acorns.
I see one thing he's missing: children seem more alive than adults because they are more alive, because we have an education system that punishes creative spontaneous behavior in order to polish us down into interchangeable parts for a machine-like society. In practice, personhood is often a destructive process. Maybe we get so upset about the rare things that kill children physically, to take our minds off the normal things that kill children spiritually.
Loosely related: after a long break from video games, this week I've been playing Lords of the Realm II. It's an intimate medieval strategy game in which you can see down to the level of individual peasants and cattle. My dream game would be the framework of LOTR2, with Dwarf Fortress complexity in town management, and Mount & Blade complexity in combat. Anyway, the game conveniently ignores the time it would take between peasant births and soldiers in armies, and when I noticed that, I suddenly understood why there are child armies in Africa.
January 28. Fascinating technology article, I paid $25 for an Invisible Boyfriend, and I think I might be in love. For a monthly fee, a company will pay nameless freelance workers to send you texts pretending to be your boyfriend. Supposedly the purpose is to fool your friends and family, but the article points out how easy it is for people to use this service to feel loved.
This is oddly similar to Monday's subject of travelers encountering "friendly natives". Wealth inequality creates unreal relationships, in which poorer people do not present themselves according to their own perspectives and their own needs, but according to the expectations of richer people. In one sense the crowdsourced texters and impoverished natives are being exploited, but in another sense they're in the better position, because they're not being made stupid. If the performers and servants are all eventually replaced by AI's and robots, is that progress?
This reminds me of a key insight from the book Mediated by Thomas de Zengotita: that you can judge your environment by whether it is indifferent to your gaze (his example is that your car has broken down in rural Saskatchewan) or whether it is designed around your gaze (my example would be a theme park or anything on television). With continuing advances in artificial intelligence, artificial environments will not just be designed around the gaze of the average person, but each person's particular gaze. We can each have our own Disneyland, and the shared human reality could splinter into billions of tiny echo chambers.
January 26. The last Monday of every month is Finger Pointing day, on which I usually post a bunch of negative links. This month I have only one: Has travel become another exercise in narcissism?
He's been away for two months, spent most of it dancing on the beach addled on diet pills and Sangsom sets -- perhaps punctuated by a week of hungover volunteering building a retaining wall that is destined to collapse within a year. His destination's merits can all be surmised with the brain-dead epithet "amazing"; the natives were "so friendly". But this facsimile, off-the-peg experience has invested him with unprecedented insight into Thailand's society -- indeed, into the very essence of the human condition. Suddenly, he is Marco Polo returning from the court of Kublai Khan. He must write a blog, post endless photos on social media. Everyone must benefit from his remarkable new wisdom!
The key to this whole subject, which the author misses, is that these are people from rich countries traveling in poor countries. That's why the natives are friendly: they're kissing your ass because they want your money. And that's why the travelers fail to gain any wisdom, because their money blocks them from the valuable experience of engaging the natives as equals. Even if you have no money, if you just look like the people with money, your interactions with others will not be real.
I didn't understand this myself until I had a long talk with a guy who spent a year in Asia, who admitted that he loved being treated like a rock star just because of his race. Personally I hate it. I'm not even good at reading people, and even traveling in Mexico, the friendliness is so obviously fake that it just makes me feel dirty. I don't want to be the center of attention -- I want to see a changing landscape while being invisible, which is why I only really enjoy traveling inside the USA.
January 23. For the weekend, some articles about drugs. What heroin addiction tells us about changing bad habits. A study found that "95 percent of the people who were addicted in Vietnam did not become re-addicted when they returned to the United States." At the time nobody believed this because they thought addiction was in the drug. Now it makes more sense because we are learning that addiction is in the environment. So an addictive behavior is hard to stop if it's integrated with other habitual behaviors (I've heard that a big part of smoking addiction is the hand movements) but if your environment totally changes, then the addiction doesn't fit in anywhere.
Another take on the same subject, The likely cause of addiction has been discovered, and it is not what you think. The author, Johann Hari, mentions the Rat Park experiment, in which rats with good lives preferred normal water to drugged water. But I think his conclusion is too nice and simple:
...we should stop talking about 'addiction' altogether, and instead call it 'bonding.' A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn't bond as fully with anything else. So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.
This doesn't fit my experience. What I find most addictive are computer strategy games, but I prefer single player to multiplayer, so I'm seeking something other than human connection. As an introvert, I don't feel like modern society cuts me off like a rat in a cage. I feel like I'm in a Kafka nightmare, overwhelmed with insane and meaningless obligations. The problem is not a lack of connections but an excess of bad connections. Hari claims that Portugal has cured addiction by giving addicts "subsidized jobs so they have a purpose in life." Jobs must be better in Portugal, because in every job I ever had, the only purpose was to make it to quitting time with enough energy to have an hour or two of fun before collapsing into bed. The appeal of computer games, compared to society, is that the tasks in front of me are part of a good story and my choices make a difference. We can't fix society just by adding human connection -- we need to take the power out of the center and distribute it to all of us, and that's going to take hundreds of years.
Meanwhile, sometimes drugs are great. This article is also by Johann Hari from his new book: Why animals eat psychoactive plants. There's good stuff about that subject, and also about the Eleusinian mysteries in ancient Greece. And the main point is that "the overwhelming majority of people who use prohibited drugs do it because they get something good out of it." And we should embrace our desire for altered mental states, instead of seeing it as something dirty.
Loosely related: How to disappear completely is a post on the Raptitude blog about sensory deprivation float tanks. I just want to say that I tried this and it was completely lame. I was hoping for any kind of trippy experience but it was no different, mentally, from spending the same amount of time lying on my bed with my eyes closed. But you should try it because your results might be better.