"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 27. Monday was supposed to be finger-pointing day and I forgot all about it. Lots of links this month:
This reddit comment argues in detail that the Obama administration has made a complete 180 on Guantanamo Bay.
Scientists track gene activity when honey bees do and don't eat honey, and they found enough differences to think that feeding bees sucrose and high fructose corn syrup could be a big factor in their decline. One data point: I feed my bees only honey, and have not lost a hive yet.
A fun rant against American consumer culture, What can House Hunters teach us about ourselves?
And this very serious rant was probably last month's most popular reddit comment. A combat veteran admonishes a young recruit for wanting to get combat experience.
What I've learned from two years collecting data on police killings. Mainly that the entire government, from top to bottom, will stall, lie, and break the law to prevent the collection of data on police killings. The data itself is also unsurprising: most urban deaths are black men and most rural deaths are mentally ill men. And here's an article about police killings on fivethirtyeight.com, with links to other sites that are gathering data, and some analysis, including a death toll of around 1000 per year.
Why the Ice Bucket Challenge is bad for you: because ALS is relatively rare, already well-funded, and there are other charities where your dollar does a lot more good.
This reminds me of an idea in the book Mediated by Thomas de Zengotita: that every attempt to "raise awareness" only adds to the numbing information overload, and overall makes us less aware. Related: a study on information aversion finds that "people will actually pay to avoid learning unpleasant facts." I would go farther: it seems like, after basic survival, blocking awareness of unpleasant reality is the main thing that people pay for.
August 25. There's been some action on the subreddit, including some good points about last week's posts, but my favorite comment was over email: "that the man in the woods in Maine just proves there are homeless people everywhere." This is a fascinating subject: Why do we put Christopher Knight in the "inspiring hermit" category and not the "homeless guy" category? Because we romanticize nature? Because the urban homeless are so numerous that we can't see them as people with their own stories?
Check out the Hacker News comment thread, in which smart people who probably do not go around identifying with the urban homeless, identify strongly with Knight. I did a ctrl-f for "homeless" and found this amazing comment, in response to a comment about seeking isolation in the wilderness:
Ironically, you can also find isolation in the heart of cities. A lot of mentally ill people become homeless in order to find that isolation, that release from social requirements. Yes, you see people, so aren't literally physically isolated, but you're not seen yourself.
The story behind homelessness goes deeper than poverty. It's about human society veering so far from human nature that millions of people cannot or will not live in it. And the people who can easily live in it are tempted to feel morally superior to the people who can't, when really they're just luckier.
This comes around to my favorite utopian vision, the unconditional basic income. A German Guy Wants to Give You a Bunch of Money for Nothing. It's an interview with a tech startup founder who loved his own unconditional income so much that he has raised enough for two other people to do it for a year.
Also related, a post from a few months back on Raptitude.com: Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed.
Keeping free time scarce means people pay a lot more for convenience, gratification, and any other relief they can buy. It keeps them watching television, and its commercials. It keeps them unambitious outside of work.
August 22. Thanks Jane and Erik for sending these links yesterday, and saving you from me writing about music again. You probably heard about that guy who lived in the woods in Maine for 25 years. This new article, The Strange Tale of the North Pond Hermit, has new details and updates. It's fascinating stuff, but I don't think Christopher Knight is any kind of hero. He survived almost entirely by stealing from individuals, his diet was terrible, and he spent half of every year holed up at his campsite nearly freezing. Somehow in 25 years in the woods he never bothered to learn primitive skills, or grow a food forest which he could have fed with his poop. The only thing I find admirable is his ambition and success in gaining free time.
In the opposite direction, an excerpt from a new book, How the Web Became Our External Brain, and What It Means for Our Kids. Consumer information technology seems to be physically and permanently changing the brains of kids, so they're better at gobbling up shallow information, but are less able "to focus their attention, be patient and think deeply." The conclusion:
Our own capitalist drive pushes these technologies to evolve. We push the technology down an evolutionary path that results in the most addictive possible outcome. Yet even as we do this, it doesn't feel as though we have any control. It feels, instead, like a destined outcome -- a fate.
People like me who grew up before the internet (especially if we saw little or no television) might be, in some ways, the last intelligent humans. You've probably seen the studies about marijuana affecting brain development, which is why it will remain illegal for people under 21. Imagine if someone said, "These changes are just how the brain adapts to a better world. Responsible parents will give cannabis treats to their infants to prepare them for a future utopia where everyone is stoned all the time." That's exactly what people are saying about tiny computers, and the difference is that computers are much more powerful and dangerous.
Even more depressing, Most Americans Want to Criminalize Pre-Teens Playing Unsupervised. I'm wondering, are these trends temporary or permanent? Are we raising a lost generation, or are we plunging toward extinction?
August 20. Today, another post condensed from one of Anne's email essays. This one is about civil wars and why America is nowhere near having one, especially not between the red states and the blue states:
Civil wars are first and foremost about local score settling. The trigger isn't some guy going door to door saying "you know those Yazidis? We're starting a group to get rid of them, would you like to know why?" Everyone was already itching to kill the Yazidis. The trigger in most civil wars is the sense that the long-repressed vengeance on your nearest and dearest enemies has become possible. This means that much of the killing in civil wars follows the demographics of murder, rather than genocide.
Civil wars are almost never geographic at first. Syria was not divided into "rebel" and "government" territories until after several weeks of fighting. Why? Because the government troops and the people who hated them were evenly dispersed around the country. Once the shooting broke out, some local battles went one way, some went another, and each side eventually had to work out supply lines connecting places where they'd won. Your loyalties aren't determined by your residency, your residency is determined by which army you're running away from.
There is no home front in a civil war. Every action by every side degrades the lives of both sides. Think of the worst divorce you've ever seen your friends go through, and think of the worst moment in that divorce, and that's how everybody feels in a civil war all the time.
Civil wars aren't anybody's program. Usually the two sides each feel like they are legitimate, and can't figure out what the other guys are playing at. They think "shit, these guys are clowns, lets just get them out of the way." Everybody underestimates the consequences of their actions, the time it will take, and the dying that will happen as a result. Nobody in Syria in 2011 was saying "right, lets call a protest, and in three years we'll be holed up in a burning hotel shooting twelve-year-olds in the head as they pull their mothers' bodies from a drainage canal!"
No, we aren't headed for a civil war. For now, the local scores are too stupid to settle -- what would a red-state insurgent mob do if the veil were torn, burn coal? Shoot latinos? Give it a decade, maybe, but not now.
August 18. Two links related to the ongoing drama in Ferguson, Missouri, where police shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. This article is about another incident a few days before, where police shot and killed a black man for holding a toy gun in Walmart: I'm black, and I'm not afraid of the police -- because the police are merely channeling the increasing racism of American culture. The best part is where he points out that white people walk around stores with actual guns all the time and nothing happens.
And a long article, The Civil Rights Movement Is Going in Reverse in Alabama. It's about Hank Sanders, a state legislator who has spent decades working to help poor black people, and in the last few years it's all been undone. But notice: in the 1960's, many laws were passed that explicitly mentioned race. I'm sure the new laws don't mention race at all -- they're just cutting support for the poor. Now, the right wing position might be, "We just want the poor to pull their own weight -- it's not our fault if most of them happen to be black." And the liberal position might be, "Racists are attacking black people and disguising it as an an attack on poor people." I think it's mostly the other way around: These laws are being made by people who hate the poor, and they are marketing an attack on poor people as a defense against black people, to get poor white people to go along with it.
Why would anyone hate someone for having less money? The issue of poverty is haunted by the idea of laziness. Conservatives believe that the poor deserve to be poor because they're less willing to work and therefore morally inferior. They won't say this in public but they hint at it. Then liberals argue that the poor actually work harder than the rich. I don't like this move because it accepts and reinforces what I think is a framing error. A healthy culture would not even have the concept of "lazy". Humans prefer meaningful and autonomous activity to doing nothing, so a society in which work is meaningful and autonomous does not need to tell itself that work is morally virtuous. "Laziness" exists only in the context of a system that depends on work that nobody will do unless they're forced to do it through economic and social pressure.
Maybe the best response to an insane society is not to "work hard" and succeed on the terms it dictates, but to do as little as possible to survive, and use the rest of your energy to undermine the system, build better systems through the cracks, and have a good time.
August 15. Some personal stuff for the weekend. With all the buzz about Robin Williams and depression, I can say that I've never had serious depression, but I do struggle with motivation. Occasionally it's so bad that even going to the sink to get a glass of water feels like climbing a mountain. I think this only happens through a perfect conjunction of 1) not eating enough protein, 2) not getting enough exercise, and 3) short-circuiting my reward center with video games. It's only a matter of time before I get back into Starsector, and God help me if there's ever a hybrid of Dwarf Fortress and Mount & Blade, but for now I have my gaming down to maybe 20 minutes a day of Freecell. And after experimenting with smoking pot every two weeks, I'm going back to every three or four weeks, because two weeks is not enough of a tolerance break to get the experience I'm looking for.
I'm obsessed with another band! They're a married couple from Maine, Colleen Kinsella and Caleb Mulkerin, who play psychedelic folk under the name Big Blood. That link goes to all their music free online. They're highly experimental, so some of it is crap, but some of it is so good that I've lost all interest in Neutral Milk Hotel, for example The Rise of Quinnisa Rose, which I had to put on YouTube myself. That's mostly sung by Caleb, and he also does lead vocals on their catchiest song, The Birds and The Herds, and a good one on their new album, "Sick With Information". So he seems to be the better songwriter, but Colleen is my new favorite singer. She has an enormous range, and her voice has almost the same edge that Joanna Newsom had on The Milk-Eyed Mender, but wilder. Most of you will hate her, but if you're curious, start with her cover of She Sells Sanctuary, and then two of her best, "Oh Country" and the 14 minute "Water". Then you're ready for harder stuff like "Creepin Crazy Time" or "Destin Rain". And my favorite, which almost everyone else would want to kill with fire, is "Song For Baltimore".
August 13. So I've read a bunch of comments on Robin Williams' suicide, and my favorite is this one by David Wong of Cracked.com, Robin Williams and Why Funny People Kill Themselves. He explains the close connection between being funny and being unhappy, and advises us to be there for our funny friends when they stop being funny.
Unrelated, except that it's also about understanding the struggles of other people, this is a transcript of a TED talk from last year, Is the obesity crisis hiding a bigger problem? The speaker, Dr. Peter Attia, argues that obsesity is not the cause of insulin resistance, but a symptom that actually makes insulin resistance less harmful:
We know that 30 million obese Americans in the United States don't have insulin resistance. And by the way, they don't appear to be at any greater risk of disease than lean people. Conversely, we know that six million lean people in the United States are insulin-resistant, and by the way, they appear to be at even greater risk for those metabolic disease I mentioned a moment ago than their obese counterparts.
So what is the cause of insulin resistance? We don't know for sure yet, but the evidence seems to point to refined sugars and starches. As I mentioned the other day, these are massively subsidized, which is why poor Americans tend to be fat and unhealthy.
August 11. Depressing links for Monday. Kids today have a lot less freedom than their parents did. The article tries to show all sides of the issue, including a few ways that kids have more freedom, but overall this is an ominous trend. I can't think of any way to reverse it so that kids can take more physical risks than their parents. But if the trend continues, the human experience will become more lifeless, and either we'll be more motivated to create some catastrophe, or we'll fade away into extinction.
Is a hard life inherited? It's a short article about some of the ways that poverty makes it extra hard to get out of poverty. And another from the NY Times, Don't let your children grow up to be farmers, about how it's almost impossible to make money growing food, and some politically unrealistic ways to fix it.
I imagine in 50 years there will be giant automated food factories, and people growing stuff for personal consumption, and almost nothing in between. I don't even go to farmer's markets because they're not a way for me to eat on a $10,000 income -- they're a way for small farmers to stay barely afloat by charging much more than industrial agriculture to buyers who can afford to care about that.
Related: What I learned after taking a homeless mother grocery shopping. The main thing she learned is that people want to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, but they're really, really expensive compared to processed starches, and that's why poor people eat so badly. My take on this is not to complain about the subsidy system, which seems carved in stone, but to imagine that most of us are going to live this way in the future. As we pass through the bottleneck of resource exhaustion, you'll eat fresh blueberries either by having money coming out your ears, or growing them in your yard.
(By the way, my blueberries did badly in this hot summer, but my apple, apricot, and peach trees are making 30-50 fruits each in just their second year.)
August 8. Quirky stuff for the weekend. Thanks Anne for introducing me to this blog, Rune Soup. It's also titled "Chaos Magic" and the author, Gordon, is doing an AMA tomorrow on the occult subreddit, but he writes about all kinds of stuff. I wonder if he's actually Jeff Wells from Rigorous Intuition.
Should we return the nutrients in our pee back to the farm? We should also return our poop, or we're likely to run out of phosphorus.
And an awesome spoken word piece from 1968, John Rydgren - Hippie Version Of Creation.
The striking difference was that while many of the African and Indian subjects registered predominantly positive experiences with their voices, not one American did. Rather, the U.S. subjects were more likely to report experiences as violent and hateful -- and evidence of a sick condition.
Defining the cultural difference is tricky. It's not fair to Americans to say that we're hyperselfish while other cultures are all happy communities, because Americans are more friendly to strangers, and less likely to exploit bureaucratic positions for personal gain. I would say it this way: that in western culture, things are fundamental and relationships are defined by things, while in other cultures it's the other way around. So maybe the reason Americans can't deal with voices, is that we can't define what thing the voice is coming from.
In a loose end from Monday, there's a post on the subreddit with a good idea about the psychological effect of robot dogs: that they use the uncanny valley effect to be "more sinister than a wheeled vehicle".
And something I almost stuck in with Monday's post but decided to keep it separate, a reddit comment arguing that the unconditional basic income would bring a new Renaissance, as human talents and ambitions are freed from the crushing demands of poverty. I'm thinking, if we use the same strategy as cannabis legalization and gay rights, then we need to fill popular entertainment with highly sympathetic characters who have no obligations and lots of free time. Now I can see that Seinfeld had the worst possible message, because it showed people with lots of free time being totally selfish.
August 4. Some links about mass psychology and politics. First, from Aeon Magazine, Why we can't wage war on drugs. The author looks at the origins of our concept of "drugs", and shows how the perceived difference between legal and illegal mind-altering substances has nothing to do with their effects, but emerged from a cultural fear of outsiders. So whatever drugs people on the fringe of society happen to use, are made illegal to keep them down. Now it occurs to me that marijuana legalization uses the same strategy as gay rights: before you can pass the laws, you have to spend decades working in popular culture to change the image of a group of people, from scary outsiders to harmless ordinary folks.
From February, the War Nerd writes about Boston Dynamics and its Big Dog robots. He argues that wheels are functionally much better than animal-like legs, and therefore this is either a military boondoggle, or it's about the psychological value of machines that move like animals. Then he speculates that robots will eventually be used by occupying powers for counterinsurgency, because they'll be immune to the emotional breakdowns of human soldiers. So the people might eventually see the well-behaved robots as friends, and the fallible human guerrillas as enemies.
But isn't this already happening? That's why conservatives think it's okay for doctors to prescribe opiates, but wrong for you to grow opium in your backyard, and why liberals think police should have more gun rights than ordinary citizens: because the occupying system has convinced us that its own machine-like behavior is more benevolent than raw human action.
Going back to the point above about changing images: humanity itself, in the eyes of humanity, is now an out-group, and high-tech management is the in-group. To reverse this, we need to draw attention to the failures of controlling technologies, and we also need more independent actions that are fun and helpful, and better yet if they're illegal! We need to heal the trauma of 9/11 and make outlaws heroes again.
This is a start: Digital-age detective work can't crack Brooklyn Bridge caper. I'm sure in a few more days the pranksters will be caught, but the nice thing is that they've almost convinced the public that they're the good guys.
August 1. It's been too long since I've written about creative stuff. I mentioned a few months back that I'm watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer for the third time and not liking it nearly as much as the first time. There are some great episodes, but mostly, especially in the later seasons, I just want to slap every character (except Spike) for their unrealistic, cartoonish, irritating emotions. How did my taste change so much? I think, with 15 more years of emotional experience, I can better distinguish between art and kitsch. In the same way, it takes some experience looking at paintings before you can see that Monet is better than Thomas Kinkade.
Is there a Monet of television? Maybe not yet, but we've been watching a 2007 British show called Skins, and I love it! The situations are absurd and yet the characters have great depth and subtlety. It's on Netflix, and you might want to skip the first episode, which has an unsympathetic protagonist and a manic plot. It's all about a group of teenagers, and I like how the adult characters are pompous and childish. Also, after watching Orphan Black season two, I'm even more impressed. How can they push the plot so fast and keep coming up with new ideas?
And some music. Last weekend I listened to a bunch of the American psych rock band Bardo Pond. Probably their most accessible song (assuming you already know how to appreciate heavy fuzz guitar) is Tommy Gun Angel. Another good one is Dom's Lament. And my favorite is from an improvised album they did with guitarist Roy Montgomery, under the band name Hash Jar Tempo: untitled 1. This track is every bit as good as Electric Moon and 13 years sooner.
July 30. Christian Rudder's wonderful OkCupid blog is back after a three year absence in which he was writing a book. The new post, We Experiment On Human Beings!, is full of hard data about human shallowness. In the first experiment, OkCupid removed all photos for seven hours:
People responded to first messages 44% more often, conversations went deeper, contact details were exchanged more quickly, in short OkCupid worked better. When the photos were restored at 4PM, 2200 people were in the middle of conversations that had started blind. Those conversations melted away.
In the second experiment, OkCupid allowed users to rate each other separately on looks and personality, but in practice, everyone just judged each other on looks and assumed personality was the same. On the depressing graph, not a single data point is high in one and low in the other. Similarly, profiles with the text temporarily hidden were rated basically the same as with the text visible, meaning that "the text is less than 10% of what people think of you."
In the third experiment, they lied to people about how good a match other people were, and the power of suggestion turned out to be just as strong as actual compatibility in predicting how far people would go with messaging.
New subject: Adam Curtis has a big new post, The rise of the hidden systems that are stopping us changing the world. What's missing is actual evidence that these systems are slowing the pace of change, but it's a nice story, with creepy details about surveillance. And at the end is the incredible story of the daughter of the guy who invented Boolean logic, who wrote a novel that inspired the Russian revolution, and married the guy who the Voynich manuscript is named after.
Another new subject: two reddit comments trashing popular writers. A historian argues in detail how Chapter 3 of Guns, Germs, and Steel is bullshit. And someone who used to know the author of Fifty Shades of Grey argues that Erika Leonard is not a creator, she is a marketer, who copied all the best Twilight fanfic and cashed in through aggressive self-promotion.
July 28. The last Monday of every month is Finger Pointing Day. This month I'm just going to post part of a group email from a reader about finally paying off undergraduate college loans.
I'm sending this partly out of relief, but partly because its the best chance I'll get to rant and reinforce David Graeber's point that there is nothing moral about debt obligations. In a just world, anyone originating a loan would be accepting a risk that the debtor might default, or die, or the real value of the currency-denominated loan might collapse, and would attempt to cover that risk by securing collateral, charging interest, and seeking insurance.
In fact, however, student loans operate in a realm of moral hazard - although banks charge interest and, in some cases, secure collateral, they are backed by the US federal government, both through federal guarantees and interest subsidies, and indirectly through a set of draconian enforcement laws that include garnishing wages, tax returns, and entitlements, including Social Security, as well as rescinding licenses including in some states a driver's license. Under no circumstance are banks left holding the bag.
In fact, student loans aren't even held by the banks that originate them. Sallie Mae resells them on the secondary market as "student loan asset backed securities" - basically the right to collect the income stream from me or other graduates of my generation.
I would feel less bad about this were I to simply be paying highly trained professionals to educate me, but that is not what's been happening. The explosion in tuition (and debt) has coincided with a collapse in pay for educators. Individual professors have not been earning less, but increasingly they have been replaced with near-minimum-wage non-tenure-track adjunct faculty. Tenure-track hiring has dropped off so precipitously that a newly minted PhD has a 1:350 chance of finding a full-time position.
Instead the increase in tuition has gone towards facilities and administrator salaries. Administrator positions have grown at 10x the rate of faculty positions since I graduated high school, and every year the number of administrators making more than one million dollars per year doubles. To put that in perspective, adjuncts are making $5000 per semester per course, and their pay has remained essentially static.
There are people who think, and I am becoming one of them, that student loans are a way of liquifying a previously untapped resource, specifically the future lifetime incomes of people not born lucky enough to have parents who could pay cash for tuition. "The economy" loves an untapped resource, and has been maximizing the rate of return by upping tuition and decreasing eligibility requirements. To a lot of people, this looks like a bubble.
I wanted to end this rant by encouraging everyone to send $20-$100 to Rolling Jubilee or some other debt abolition group. They buy debts on the secondary (collections) market and, instead of collecting them, abolish them entirely. Unfortunately, for reasons I don't understand, RJ has stopped accepting donations.
I'm just curious how this is going to end. My guess is, eventually Americans with unpayable debt will be a political majority, but because they don't understand that the debt was amoral in the first place, they will not be ambitious enough to force a mass cancellation of personal debt, and instead they'll pass some tame laws to protect debtors from starving or going to prison, and to keep debts from being passed on to family members. The deeper problem is the popular American belief that all income is deserved. Can you give me a non-circular definition of "deserve"? In practice, high income is normally just a sleight of hand to turn power into more power.
July 25. Went up to the land today. A few days ago we had a huge windstorm, and two big trees have fallen across the access road, just a few hundred feet from the edge of the property. I'm thinking of leaving them there to keep people out. I'm also thinking, since the land only costs me $250 a year in taxes, I'll hold onto it, still sell my truck, and just only go up there when I have visitors.
Some happy links for the weekend. A month ago there was a great reddit thread, What's a joke so clever I probably won't get it? My favorite: Kurt Gödel walks into a bar and says, because we're inside the joke we have no way of knowing how funny it is.
Also on reddit, two days ago Jeff Bridges did an AMA, one of the nicest ones I've seen. Someone asked for some wisdom and he said this:
Open at your own speed, but open.
Dig what's happening to you.
By "dig" I mean get into it. There are lessons for you there. And when it gets uncomfortable, that's an important time to open and dig.
Here's a short, inspiring article about GoG.com, a company that makes old games work on new machines and is committed to never using digital rights management, and never forcing you to be online to play them. By the way, today a reader asked if I'm ever going to make a page about my favorite games. I don't know, but I can tell you that my favorites on GoG are Heroes of Might and Magic 2 and Lords of the Realm 2, and I have Ascendancy on my wishlist. And I haven't played it in a while, but I continue to be excited about the development of Starsector.
Finally, check out these geometric beehive sculptures:
The artist first builds transparent polyhedrons and cubes with an inner framework of wooden dowels, at the center of which he places the queen. After introducing the rest of the hive, he then rotates the sculpture every seventh day based on the roll of a die.