"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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August 26. Today on Hacker News there's a smart comment thread about Bernie Sanders, including discussion of whether he can win, and why middle America hates socialism. I agree with this reddit comment arguing that Sanders has zero chance to be president, but I'll still support him in next year's Washington caucus if he hasn't dropped out, because the better he does, the sooner his positions will be taken seriously.
On a different political subject, a great reddit comment about South Korea's loudspeakers on the North Korea border. They're loud enough to be heard by all the border troops and even some people in a nearby city, and they establish credibility by reporting weather more accurately than the NK forecasts, and then by reporting trivial news sooner than NK news, and then they start reporting on internal North Korean stuff, and also playing music that's better than North Korea has.
Now I'm wondering how many of the military conquests of history could have been done this way. If you have a stronger military than your opponent, and a stronger culture, it should be possible to use your military in a purely defensive role to protect a physical infrastructure that fights with information and culture. If a nation uses its military for offense, then the people in charge either believe they're culturally weaker, or they're lazy and enjoy violence, or they're fighting for economic reasons.
August 24. Brand new blog post from Anne, Where We Are, explaining the latest stock market crash in terms of diminishing returns in market creation. That is, the more poor people you turn into middle class consumers so you can sell stuff to them, the harder it gets. The stock crash reflects a growing fear that the global economy is falling into a deflationary spiral, a feedback loop where businesses pay people less, those people have less money to spend on products and services that businesses make their money from, and so on.
I see a difficult three part solution. The easiest part is an unconditional basic income. Economically the time is already ripe, but there are big cultural obstacles, because nobody likes to see other people get money for doing nothing, especially if those people are richer or lazier.
The second part is a zero growth economy. This is impossible in the current economic paradigm, which has growth as its cornerstone. With perpetual growth, you can buy a diverse package of investments and over time it will inevitably get bigger. With zero growth, it will tend to stay the same size but then get smaller because of administration fees. So investment as we know it is finished, and even savings accounts will probably have negative interest. On top of that, growth has great emotional power. If we can't look around and see the numbers getting bigger all the time, a lot more people will feel that their lives have no meaning. The only way to avoid a zero growth economy is a perpetual cycle of booms and busts, and humanity may just prefer that.
The third part is a transition from nonrenewable to renewable resources. This is the most painful of all, and also the only one that is guaranteed to happen. Our goal should be to do it as smoothly as possible. The danger I see is not that we will fail and drop into permanent preindustrial poverty, but that we will succeed so well that we get addicted to growth again: more and more of the earth's surface will be used for solar energy, and by the time that gets into diminishing returns, the system will have an even bigger crash with nothing to fall back on.
August 21. From 12 days ago, a good reddit thread about how psychedelics are anti-addictive. They say a mushroom trip is the most awesome thing ever, but so intense that you don't feel like doing it again for a long time. That's exactly how I feel about listening to my favorite song.
Also on the subject of music and drugs, my new favorite jazz album on cannabis is Charles Mingus - The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. It's a lot like Bitches Brew by Miles Davis: loosely structured, mostly improvised, and heavily overdubbed, but Mingus did it seven years sooner, and better. There are bits that sound like proto-metal, and when I mentioned that to Leigh Ann she said, "Charles Mingus invented heavy metal; Bob Dylan invented rap."
August 19. Last week I had a visitor, Erik. Here's his latest blog post, The Iron Law of Story, inspired by some of the stuff we talked about. I told him I think our lives are shaped by creative forces, operating on a level we have not yet discovered, that want good stories.
New subject: last week there was a good reddit comment on political correctness in college. The idea is that students are not making unreasonable demands any more than they were in the 70's or 80's, but that administrators are responding more to these demands. This is the normal behavior of all power structures: to look for excuses to increase their power.
New subject: Why do we turn the music down when parking? Because we're bad at multitasking and music takes attention we need for difficult driving tasks. Personally I avoid listening to music for everything except highway driving. This also reminds me of a bit from Matthew Crawford's book The World Beyond Your Head: that talking on a cell phone, even without hands, makes you more likely to crash your car, but talking to someone in the seat next to you does not, because they can see when the driving gets hard and they shut up or even help you.
August 17. Last week I looked at a bunch of videos of the Tianjin port explosion, and that link goes to the best video by far. (Warning: lots of profanity!) Not only does it have excellent visuals, it also tells a story: the explosions get bigger, and you can hear the changing emotions of the people watching. There are some idiots morally judging them in the comments, but my reactions would be exactly like that, and theirs probably would be too. In actual extreme events people behave in ways that are surprising if you've only seen newscasters and Hollywood actors. Also, this silent dashcam video shows the power of the shock wave.
This event is a good test case for doom forecasters. Here's an overview from the Wall Street Journal, Firms Gauge Impact of Devastating Explosions at Tianjin Port. Shipping of raw materials, manufacturing, and shipping of finished products have all been set back weeks or months, and "even minor delays could ripple across supply chains because major ports like Tianjin serve as focal points for global shipping as well as transportation inland." By watching the ripples, we can get a sense of how fragile or robust the various big systems are.
Also on the subject of doom, here's a new comment from Anne, lightly edited:
I highly recommend Jack Weatherford's Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, for three reasons. One, it's very good history. Second, it makes a strong case that most of what we think of as European or Renaissance ideas were imported from Kublai Khan's imperial court. Third, it might get people off this "collapse of the Roman Empire" meme. The Mongols conquered the world, integrated it into a single trading unit, then lost control as an empire when the black death wiped out northern China and Persia, but all the infrastructure and intellectual legacy they left behind was swiftly incorporated into the Ming, Rus, Moghul and Persian empires that grew up from the ruins within a span of three decades.
August 14. Fun stuff for the weekend. The Cinder Cone is a video of some dudes building an awesome double treehouse on beautiful land overlooking the Columbia river. But watching this and thinking you can do the same thing is like watching a moon landing video and thinking you can go to the moon because you don't know how hard it is to build a rocket. The "rocket" is a group of people who all know each other and have abundant money, skills, time, motivation, and supporting friends with most of the above. Who are these guys? The bank robbers from Point Break? The children of the coolest rich people in Portland? I bet they didn't spend much time in public schools, and this kind of thing would be a lot more common if we had an educational system that just supported kids in following whatever excites them and finding friends with the same interests.
Here's something you could build yourself, but it would still be really hard: a slinky escalator.
From the Explain Like I'm Drunk subreddit, The Trans-Pacific Partnership. There should be a rule that you're not allowed to complain about anything unless you can be funny.
I just discovered the Imaginary Cityscapes subreddit. Notice that it's mostly dark blue and cyberpunk. It's strangely hard to find imaginative art that has obvious sci-fi elements and also wild nature -- even though that's really going to happen. Here's one I found on Imaginary Autumnscapes, Time Out by Kait Kybar.
August 12. Here's a comment I just made on Ask Men Over 30, asking who we want for president.
The media trains us to think about this as if the president is a dictator: I'll support whoever I agree with or like the most, and if elected that person will change everything in the way I want.
In practice, I don't think the president is that powerful. I think Obama really wanted to close Guantanamo Bay, and pass medical reform without an insurance mandate, and it turned out he couldn't do it.
Bernie Sanders is easily my favorite candidate on the issues, but I think if he got elected he would just butt his head against the whole rest of the system, appear to be a total failure, and get crushed in 2020. I'm still supporting him because I don't think it's possible for him to actually become president, and the better he does the more his positions will be accepted in the long term.
I think the country will do best with a non-ideological boring competent moderate, like Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush. But Hillary is like Bob Dole. She's so unlikable that she can't win unless Trump runs as an independent.
I also want to say that I don't think Bernie Sanders and socialism are being held down by rich people. There are plenty of rich people in Europe, and they know they'll keep their money and power no matter what. The enemy of American socialism, and the defender of poverty, is the lower middle class, because they don't want the lower classes to be pulled up to their level, and not have anyone to look down on.
August 10. Continuing Friday's subject of entropy and life, Andy sends this great article, A New Physics Theory of Life, about a physicist who thinks that the appearance and development of life is driven by something deeper than evolution. In a system with an external source of energy, like the sun, and a surrounding heat bath, like the ocean or the atmosphere, matter tends to arrange itself into self-replicating units that are good at dissipating heat, which is basically what life does. Also the same process can lead to structures like snowflakes and sand dunes, so "the distinction between living and nonliving matter is not sharp."
August 8. Quick note: I squeaked through in election 56, thanks to a last minute vote and the mods bumping me over someone who ignored the theme, so I'll be submitting music to the listen to us subreddit for the next month. This, along with another project and a visitor next week, will cut my blogging time.
August 7. Random links for the weekend. This two year old reddit comment has a great explanation of entropy using the metaphor of a box of flipped coins.
There are more combinations of coins that add up to "some of each" than either "all up" or "all down," so pure random chance dictates that we're far more likely to go from the all-up state to the some-of-each state than the other way around.
This reminds me of one of my favorite reader comments of all time, about a physics professor who speculated that the universe will never die from entropy, because no matter how spread out the energy gets, life will always stay one step ahead and find a way to work with it. You could say that there are ways of working with the coins where an apparently random distribution is just as valuable as all heads or all tails.
I Don't Work Here Lady is a trending subreddit for stories about customers mistaking other customers for workers, something that's more common than I would have guessed.
If you're in my area, the Inland Northwest Permaculture Convergence has been scheduled for September 10-13 at a place about a half hour northwest of Spokane. I'm not sure yet if I'll be able to make it this year, but I was at the event last year at the same location and it was great.
Finally, a fun soccer/football video, Lionel Messi vs 3 or More Players.
August 5. In a crazy coincidence, Ugo Bardi also did a post Monday about how people like simple stories with villains: Cecil the lion: understanding the secret of a supermeme. He wonders if we can hurry popular consensus on climate change by crafting memes, and concludes that we will win the war of ideas anyway when the evidence of climate change is overwhelming. That might be the easy part. Even if everyone in the world agrees that we need to stop burning fossil fuels, there's no clear mechanism to actually stop, especially if it will plunge oil-producing nations into poverty, or force whole cities dependent on coal plants to go without air conditioning. It will be easier if we have already suffered economic collapse and have less to lose.
New subject: on the subreddit a reader just linked to this interesting blog post, Could We Evolve into Ants? The big idea is, if technology does something for us for enough generations, we might physically evolve to be unable to do that stuff for ourselves. This is my favorite kind of extinction scenario: that we make ourselves worse by successfully making ourselves better in a stupid way. If machines that do physical work make us physically weaker, and machines that do mental work make us mentally weaker, what happens in Ray Kurzweil's "age of spiritual machines"? (And I'm not going to make this argument for the 50th time, but I don't agree with the author that we will be saved from this fate by energy decline forcing us back to a preindustrial lifestyle.)
August 3. Last week over email Anne had a great comment about how the popular collapse narrative has trouble thinking about disasters that have specific causes:
The permafrost is melting because of wildfires, which are happening because of El Niño. The Fukushima Daiichi reactor exploded because the diesel generators that ran the circulation pumps were flooded in the largest tsunami to hit Japan in several centuries. Specific causes are, definitionally, not a trend. Are the massive refugee camps in Asia minor part of "the collapse"? No, they're part of the Syrian civil war. Which may have been caused by food prices, by drought, and in turn by climate change, but it's a war. Once it ends something different will happen. The idea of a collapse as a consistent sequence of exponentially worsening events (or a single event with worldwide reach) doesn't square with the stochastic pops of unique and unpredictable microcollapses we've been seeing since Katrina. Without a single variable that can be plotted on a graph, how can all these random events possibly be linked? So do they even count?
This reminds me of something I hate about the internet the more I notice it: everything has an emotional or moral subtext. In the context of collapse, people are seeking hope or the purity of refusing to accept hope. Morally they want stories about victims and villains. And simple stories are always more popular than complex stories, partly because simple stories are the only thing beginners can wrap their heads around. "We're not headed for techno-utopia? Then it must be extinction!" Last week I had a visitor who quoted me saying something I don't remember saying, but I agree with it: the future will be more utopian, more hellish, and weirder, all at the same time.
July 30. Looks like I'm in a pattern of blogging twice a week, with serious stuff on Monday and personal and fun stuff on Thursday.
A few weeks ago Leigh Ann injured her right knee when an 80 pound dog ran into it from the side. Obamacare is working better than I cynically expected. She was able to get an MRI, pain meds, and she'll be getting physical therapy for partial tears in two ligaments on the inside of the knee. If you're curious, it's the two thingies on the middle right side of this image.
Last week a reader mentioned how unusual it is that I keep a journal every time I use marijuana. This is partly because I enjoy thinking and writing, and partly because I use it like a psychedelic, taking an occasional big dose to explore a different mental state. (Later this summer I plan to try an actual psychedelic.)
If you're not familiar with the 1-10 scale, here's a fun image gallery using Jeff Bridges. I'd rather be sober than high at less than a , but my lungs are so sensitive that it's hard for me to get there even once a week with a vaporizer. Edibles do the job but they nauseate me and the withdrawal seems to take longer. So I decided to hook my vaporizer up to a bubbler to cool and hydrate the vapors. I bought a Magic Flight Orbiter, which is specifically designed to go in series with a vaporizer, but it's not obvious how to connect it to a Silver Surfer because the tubes are different diameters. I figured out a trick and took pictures for this image gallery.
Finally, some music: Hop Along - Waitress. It has a similar sound to the Life Without Buildings I posted last month, but I listened to Hop Along's whole album and Waitress is the only track with really good singing.
July 27. Something related to last Monday's subject, Technology Is Magic, Just Ask The Washington Post. From the first few paragraphs I thought it was going to be about hoverboards, but it's about how police and intelligence agencies want "back doors" and "golden keys" to the internet, while engineers understand that this would be an information security nightmare. More generally, this is an example of how the big danger of technology is not that it will go rogue, but that humans will tell it to do stupid things because they don't understand the consequences.
New subject. I assume you already know about pirate democracy, but that link goes to a reddit thread with lots of information and resources about the golden age of sea piracy.
New subject. Stop trying to be creative. It's about a computer program that allows you to breed random images into images that look like real things, and it turns out that it's really hard to get to a picture of a car by trying to get to a picture of a car, but you might get there accidentally by trying to get to a picture of a face. This is a metaphor for the whole creative process. When your favorite band recorded your favorite song, they did not start out with that exact song already in their head and figure out how to play it. More likely, they were aiming for something else but were able to "maintain an openness to discovering whatever arises."
July 23. I have nothing to write about this week, so here are some bits from my marijuana journal. I typically eat or vape one night every week or two, sit on the couch and listen to music, and write down evaluations of the music and ideas like these...
Everything you hate must eventually be sorted into what you love and what you ignore.
The Tao is that which heals emotionally infinitely fast.
There are two paths from angry music to happy music: through silence and through noise.
July 20. Thanks naringas for posting this awesome Mark Burgess essay to the subreddit, The Cyborg Compulsion: Why the robots aren't coming in the way you expect. The big idea is that technology changes human society not so much according to economics, but according to the human need for life to feel meaningful. This is why synthesizers did not replace orchestras, and instant coffee did not replace hand-made coffee.
And the big danger is not that humans will give up control to machines that will turn evil or incompetent, but that humans will insist on maintaining control over ever-more powerful machines, amplifying the effects of human evil and incompetence. "The evolution of modern information technology looks a lot more like a cyborg vanity project, in which we equip ourselves with power tools to emulate super-powers."
There's also some great stuff about why computers are not even on the right path to develop human-like intelligence. Condensed excerpt:
Our intelligence grows from childhood over many years of training, through our physical and mental interactions with the world. We learn methods alongside experiences. Concepts are built up through ostensive communication, which is impossible without extensive sensory apparatus. For an intelligence to emerge, in an artificial system, we would have to very purposely build it and train it interactively.
I believe that all of those human qualities that we pretend are weaknesses (and superfluous in robots) like emotion, dreaming, and imagination, are precisely the keys to understanding what we mean by intelligence. The brain is far too non-linear to be a Turing machine, and these contextual states are what makes flat information into actionable intelligence. We seem to be trying to compete with a waterfall by binding together hosepipes.
It seems to me that enhanced intelligence is more likely to come from brain science, than from current ideas of artificial logical reasoning. To imagine that silicon technology is the way to advance intelligence seems like the hubris of computer scientists.