"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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The Western child today is mostly kept inside his own home, associating with other children only in highly structured, adult-supervised settings such as school and sports teams. It was not always so. Throughout history, bands of children gathered and roamed city streets and countrysides, forming their own societies each with its own customs, legal rules and procedures, parodies, politics, beliefs, and art. With their rhymes, songs, and symbols, they created and elaborated the meaning of their local landscape and culture, practicing for the adult work of the same nature. We are left with only remnants and echoes of a once-magnificent network of children's cultures, capable of impressive feats of coordination.
I don't know what to make of the fact that on reddit, this link did best on a right wing subreddit called Dark Enlightenment. How did overprotection of children become associated with the left?
October 18. Quick note: we had to cancel Comcast because it went up to $67/month, and it will be a week or two before we have CenturyLink. On top of that, Spokane Community College no longer offers open wifi, so I have to ride three miles to the public library to get online. So posting and emails will be light for a while.
October 17. Read Iggy Pop's incredible John Peel lecture. This is the best thing I've read in a while on any subject. Some excerpts:
I always hated radio and the jerks who pushed that shit music into my tender mind, with rare exceptions. When I was a boy, I used to sit for hours suffering through the entire US radio top 40 waiting for that one song by The Beatles and the other one by The Kinks.
I worked half of my life for free. I didn't really think about that one way or the other, until the masters of the record industry kept complaining that I wasn't making them any money. To tell you the truth, when it comes to art, money is an unimportant detail. It just happens to be a huge one unimportant detail. But, a good LP is a being, it's not a product. It has a life-force, a personality, and a history, just like you and me. It can be your friend. Try explaining that to a weasel.
If who you are is who you are that is really hard to steal, and it can lead you in all sorts of useful directions when the road ahead of you is blocked and it will get blocked.
When I was starting out as a full time musician I was walking down the street one bright afternoon in the seedier part of my Midwestern college town. I passed a dive bar and from it emerged a portly balding pallid middle aged musician in a white tux with a drink in one hand and a guitar in the other. He was blinking in the daylight. I had a strong intuition that this was a fate to be avoided.
The most punk thing I ever saw in my life was Malcolm McLaren's cardboard box full of dirty old winklepinkers. It was the first thing I saw walking in the door of Let It Rock in 1972 which was his shop at Worlds End on the Kings Road. It was a huge ugly cardboard bin full of mismatched unpolished dried out winklepickers without laces at some crazy price like maybe five pounds each. Another 200 yards up the street was Granny Takes a Trip, where they sold proper Rockstar clothes like scarves, velvet jackets, and snake skin platform boy boots. Malcolm's obviously worthless box of shit was like a fire bomb against the status quo because it was saying that these violent shoes have the right idea and they are worth more than your fashion, which serves a false value.
If I wanna make music, at this point in my life I'd rather do what I want, and do it for free, which I do, or cheap, if I can afford to... Every free media platform I've ever known has been a front for advertising or propaganda or both. And it always colors the content... I can't help but note that it always seems to be the pursuit of the money that coincides with the great art, but not its arrival. It's just kind of a death agent. It kills everything that fails to reflect its own image, so your home turns into money, your friends turn into money, and your music turns into money.
I want to mention here that my latest favorite band, Big Blood, all have day jobs and don't even try to make money from their music. And if we ever get an unconditional basic income, we will get to listen to millions of people who don't have to compromise toward what Iggy Pop calls "the kind of music that people listen to when they're really not that into music."
October 15. I got several comments via email on Monday's post. Here's my condensed version of a comment from Jed:
I'm not even sure young people are that unhappy, but to the extent they are, I think it is because of a mismatch between time scales. Young people have only been around a little while, they are immersed in a world where things happen quickly (online, media) and they feel like they can't affect things. They can, they do, but the way water wears away rock. Real social change is multi-generational. The changes that stick are the ones that people live and pass on to their children in a new form.
Regarding "saving the world" - prior to the 20th century we didn't even have a good sense of the whole world, much less any sense that we were responsible for it. With nuclear proliferation, whale management, ivory trade, the ozone hole, etc. we have been pragmatically dealing with the fact that we're all in this together. I'd guess that the sense of responsibility will just get stronger (one of the things we pass on to our children). Young people, especially elite ones, are sloshing around the world, taking for granted that they can live anywhere and quite likely will. They will see it as one world, their children even more so and that perspective will be influential.
That doesn't mean that we'll get the management right. There will be a lot of bad decisions because of ignorance, fixed beliefs, special interests with excessive influence, truly conflicting large-scale interests, etc. We'll keep banging up against those problems and hurting ourselves as we learn. Some mistakes will do permanent damage. But we will learn - slowly, with a lot of regrets, which the next crop of young people won't really grasp unless they get interested in history. I don't think there's a faster or cheaper way.
New subject: Adam Curtis is a filmmaker and blogger who does long thoughtful posts that typically do a close reading of 20th century history to reveal some dark narrative. His latest is called The Vegetables of Truth. First he argues that the role of science changed when we realized that technology creates new dangers:
Because a new breed of scientists came forward and said that they knew how to analyse the dangers - and anticipate the risks. They wouldn't try and build dazzling new futures, instead they would keep the world safe by spotting the dangers before they arrived.
And this goal of avoiding bad things, instead of doing good things, now dominates our culture and has pushed out the older goal of political and economic equality. Curtis brings this together with a scientific study showing that people who eat more vegetables live longer - but the scientists failed to take a political stand for the most likely interpretation: people with more money live longer, and they eat more vegetables, so to increase public health and lifespan we should redistribute wealth.
October 13. The other day I got an email from a reader asking for advice, and while thinking about it, I came up with a theory of why young people are so unhappy. I mean obviously the main reason is economic: they have huge unpayable debts and it's really hard to make money. But on top of that, I think first world middle class Millennials carry a psychological burden that is not shared with other struggling people around the world: they have inherited the Baby Boomer culture of global responsibility, without inheriting the political power to do anything about it.
This fits with an idea from this podcast, In The Dust Of This Planet, which Anne wrote about in this post. The idea is, in the 80's we were all worried about global nuclear war, and we stopped it. Or really, the people who run the world made a show of reducing nuclear tensions while we all watched (because politics has become a non-participatory spectacle like sports but much more scripted) and the danger of nuclear war remains. But the point is, now we're all worried about climate change, and they can't even pretend to stop it. And yet they still ask us to care about it, and they still frame the issue as if power and responsibility are shared by all. What a head trip!
My favorite idea in the podcast is that there is strength on the other side of nihilism. A rapper in a video is wearing a jacket that says "in the dust of this planet" and the message is that he understands that everything falls to ruin and life has no greater meaning, and he doesn't care. My favorite book of the Bible, Ecclesiastes, has the same message: everything you do will come to nothing, but it's wonderful to be alive, so take pleasure in whatever you're doing right now.
I'm also wondering, when did "saving the world" become a popular myth? Did anyone think that way in the 13th century, or even the early 20th century? Did it become popular because of superhero comic books? Because of pictures of Earth from space? I wonder if "saving the world" is a fad, a beginner's way of thinking globally. In a hundred years, when we have a better sense of how "the world" (depending on your definition) is permanent, we'll have more complex ways of thinking globally.
October 10. Anne, a valuable email contributor to this blog who has had her own blogs in the past, has her own blog again: More Crows than Eagles. So far there are three posts: a link to a good article about climate change, a long and very good post about Ebola, and an analysis of the horror novel Harvest Home.
And some culture for the weekend. In the last month I've uploaded three videos of songs that were not yet on YouTube: Rain by The Punkles is a great Beatles cover. Secret Picnic Spot by Beat Happening is simple and spiritual. And this KEXP live recording of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots by The Flaming Lips is better than any other version. I've also continued to shuffle my favorite songs page, with a new number one that almost all of you will hate.
Leigh Ann and I have been watching a British TV comedy called Fresh Meat, about a group of college students living together, and I'm amazed at how much better it is than any American comedy. A lot of the humor is from conversations about awkward subjects done completely in subtext. We've also been continuing to watch Skins. What we call a "season" here, they call a "series", and each cast gets two series before they switch. One and two are great, three and four are lame, and five and six are great again. One thing they do on Skins that they would never do on American TV, is show teenagers taking drugs and simply having fun.
October 8. A few years ago I did this post about the book Gaiome and its vision of ecological space colonies. The other day I got an email from the author, Kev Polk, who is now working on ecological tiny houses. Here's his project page, Seed Home, and a kickstarter where he's trying to raise money to build a prototype.
On another subject, I just saw this sad article in my local newspaper, Swing sets becoming scarce on school playgrounds. This is my new theory of how successful nations and cultures decline and fall: their priorities shift from making good things happen, to preventing bad things from happening. They will sacrifice anything for safety, and will not sacrifice safety for anything. Then a competing culture fills the vacuum, and offers a better balance with less safety and a lot more freedom and fun. More and more ordinary citizens shift their loyalty from the old culture to the new one, until the old political system must either integrate the new culture, or be destroyed. Last week I wrote about depressed people who do political violence, and now I'd say they're on the leading edge of this movement.
October 6. Some psychology and philosophy links. The Case for Delayed Adulthood argues that the adolescent brain is more adaptable and better at learning, and that what we call "delayed adulthood" or "prolonged adolescence" might be making us smarter.
The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later is a good summary of Marshall McLuhan and his ideas about how communication technologies change culture in subtle and powerful ways.
And a great summary of Zen Buddhism and Alan Watts:
In this view, there is no 'stuff', no difference between matter and energy. Look at anything closely enough - even a rock or a table - and you will see that it is an event, not a thing. Every 'thing' is, in truth, happening. This too, accords with modern scientific knowledge. Furthermore, there is not a 'multiplicity of events'. There is just one event, with multiple aspects, unfolding. We are not just separate egos locked in bags of skin. We come out of the world, not into it.
October 3. Today, some technology links. Just discovered this great 2009 post from Low Tech Magazine, Truckloads of hard disks. The author does lots of math about how and when it's better to transfer information by physically moving storage media, than by sending it over the internet. Surprisingly, physical movement is winning:
The bandwidth of a carrier pigeon increases faster than the bandwidth of the internet. Ten years in the future, the information density of storage media will have multiplied by a thousand, while the speed of the internet will only have multiplied by 350. This means that a pigeon will be able to carry 2 terabytes (around 2,000 gigabytes) while our fibre connection will need 8.5 minutes for sending the same amount of data. The carrier pigeon is then faster than a fibre connection if the distance is less than 7 kilometres - compared to 2 kilometres today.Yes we can, but should we? The unintended consequences of the maker movement. The article points out that 3D printers consume 50-100 times more energy than injection molding, have more toxic emissions, and they're mostly being used to make silly stuff that we don't need.
October 1. I'm back in Spokane. Finally found out (thanks Lacy) that John Robb's Global Guerrillas blog is back. If you're into Enneagram, you'll understand when I say that Robb is a rare type 3 doomer. Where the usual type 6 doomer would be like "Oh noes, the world is going to hell," Robb is more like "Wow, look at all these new opportunities for ambitious people to have influence way beyond their apparent power." Anyway, for a while he was writing about resilient communities, and while I agree they're a good idea, I'm a type 5 and want to read the newest ideas about the craziest ways the world could change. Robb has been back to writing about that stuff for a couple years now. Among his many good ideas, my favorite is that the big threat from information technology is not one super-intelligent computer, but trillions of stupid ones.
Two more doom links. America is rapidly aging in a country built for the young. It's about housing, and how too many houses are isolated in the suburbs, require lots of yard work, have lots of stairs, and who's going to live in them when the Baby Boomers have to move out? I imagine that Millennials could buy whole neighborhoods of decayed McMansions and turn the houses into barns and the yards into food forests... except they don't have any money.
A new study finds a link between depression and terrorism. I don't like the framing of the article. "Terrorism" is a faddish propaganda word that asks us to reduce all political violence to a cartoon of a bomber in a turban. But if you step back from this moment in history, there may be a deeper truth here. Imagine that in 500 years, Islam and other sky father religions are dead, the whole world is secular and westernized, but depression is worse than ever because a high-tech security system gives us no participation in power. As people become more unhappy, they have a growing need for the world to change, until even huge risks and destructive changes seem preferable to continuing the nightmare of ordinary life. Any ideology that fills this need can overthrow a depressed society, the same way that a dry forest can be burned by any spark.
September 29. The last Monday of every month is Finger Pointing Day. This month's links have more depth than usual. Battered Worker Syndrome is a good rant about the new corporate culture of not caring about workers. Except it's mostly not about the syndrome, in which workers "fawningly suck up to the hierarchy." It's more about how workers correctly respond by slacking off and gaming the system.
Does responsible consumption benefit companies more than consumers? I first wrote about this issue seven years ago in this post about garbage laws and the organization Keep America Beautiful, which has completely succeeded in making us think of saving the planet as the responsibility of individuals, not politicians and businesses.
From 2005, Are the desert people winning? According to a study of more than 400 cultures around the world, desert cultures are bad, forest cultures are good, and the desert cultures have taken over the world. At the same time, I think we're slowly shifting toward forest culture, or there wouldn't be so many of us who agree that forest cultures are better. Or if you want to factor out forest and desert, you could say that nasty cultures beat nice cultures in a conflict, but that successful nasty cultures gradually become nice.
Finally, Wolves cooperate but dogs submit. It also mentions a study in which wolves and dog puppies were good problem solvers, but adult dogs were stupid because they have learned to obey humans instead of thinking for themselves. So even dogs can be harmed by culture. (By the way, I follow a fringe theory that dogs are not descended from wolves, but from now-extinct wild dogs. I wrote about it in this post in 2008.)
September 25. I'm in central Florida staying with Leigh Ann's family. This is my first trip to Florida and the landscape is impressive. The giant oak trees covered with spanish moss look like something out of Lord of the Rings. Anyway, here are some unrelated links, and I'll try to post again on Monday.
You've probably seen this article about how a low dose of lithium is good for your brain. I'm wondering if my water filter is taking it out, and if I should get a looser filter or drink more tap water.
Psychology article, Personhood: A Game for Two or More Players. It doesn't have any new information, but offers an interesting way to think about human socialization.
Rethinking the origins of the universe. A physicist claims to have mathematically proven that it is impossible for black holes to exist. The article does not clearly distinguish between the infinitely dense singularity at the center of a black hole, and the gravity that prevents light from escaping, so I'm not sure if it's still possible to have one without the other. But if a singularity is impossible, that casts doubt on the Big Bang theory.
September 22. A reader sends this extract from the book Hand to Mouth by Linda Tirado, explaining why poor people don't plan long-term, basically because they're in a closed loop of being too tired and stressed in the present to sacrifice any of the present for the future.
I should say, in the context of Friday's post, that my own writing is aimed at people who have the time, the energy, the education, and the support network to break the script and live well on the fringes of society. Most poor people are completely fucked beyond my ability to help them. At best, I'd like to help change our cultural assumptions, so that we move sooner to the belief that we all have an unconditional right to comfortable survival, without having to "earn a living" by obeying the people and systems that have the money.
But here's a thought experiment: how could we get a guaranteed basic income that somehow is still evil? Imagine if the largest retailers arranged with the government so that instead of getting $10,000 cash, you got $10,000 in credits that you could use at Amazon, Walmart, Starbucks, Comcast, and so on. All your physical needs are met, but not your emotional need to participate meaningfully in the economy. You can't support your local coffee shop or bookstore, and if you're an entrepreneur or small business owner, you can't serve the poor because they can't pay you -- you have to serve the rich. This leads to cultural inbreeding, as the only way to join the world of money is to echo the values of the world of money, and that world might veer off into insanity. Even with no economic poverty, there can still be great political poverty.
September 19. So a couple weeks ago I got an email from a reader that once again made me regret my famous essay "How To Drop Out". What I regret is the title. I should have called it something like "How to gain the benefits of industrial civilization without being in a position of forced obedience." To use the phrase "drop out" was a short-sighted marketing move that got me a lot more readers, but has linked my popular image to the poisonous myth of the heroic puritan, someone whose goal is not to enjoy life but to avoid guilt through an impossible lifestyle that has no connection to a society that is viewed as a cartoonish monolithic evil.
This is related to another mistake I made not once but over and over again: using the word "civilization". I agree with John Zerzan that symbolic language was invented for deception -- and it goes beyond deception of others into accidental deception of the self. We have needs, and we use language to tell ourselves stories about what we need, and then we are drawn toward stories that use language with more elegance and economy, so that we veer off from remembering what we need into telling beautiful stories. The critique of civilization is a great story, but now I find it more accurate and helpful to not blur together schooling and cars and other things I hate into an abstraction that commands me to also hate ice cream and airplanes and good TV shows.
My less-wrong story about what I need is more free time and fewer obligations, without having to go hungry or sleep under a bridge. This is a hard battle to fight, but in the context of yesterday's post, it occurs to me that it's not as hopeless as fighting for increasing financial success.
September 17. Two doom links. The Dying Russians by Masha Gessen examines the mysteriously high Russian death rate. In the absence of war and epidemic disease, nothing like this has ever happened, and it's hard to tell why, but it seems to be psychological. Older Russians are so unhappy and hopeless that they're losing the will to live, which leads them to die more in many ways. The Russian experience is unique, but I have a guess at the deeper pattern, which could happen anywhere: a generation is raised to see the meaning of life in a particular thing, and then that thing is taken away. Maybe this is why Americans continue to believe in upward social mobility.
Is Artificial Intelligence a Threat? This long article is about Nick Bostrom and other thinkers who see the danger that a powerful nonhuman intelligence could destroy humanity by seeking a seemingly benevolent goal without common sense. Isn't that what we're already doing with the global economy, a machine-like system programmed to maximize economic growth?
September 15. Had a great time at the permaculture convergence. This was the third one I've been to, the most rural, and by far the most casual. I spent a lot of time napping and hanging out by the pond. If anyone I met there is checking out my blog, here's my top bar hive page, and a page about building a cobwood hut. Also, I didn't mention this at the convergence, but I will sell my land to a permaculturist for below market value.
A few things I learned: 1) Making cheese is easy, but making a particular kind of cheese is really hard. 2) Milk kefir has more probiotics than kombucha, which has more than water kefir or yogurt. 3) Agritrue is a new system for food producers to describe their practices in detail for consumers, which is better than the big agribusiness system of hiding the details of how they meet an increasingly meaningless organic certification. 4) If you're making cannabis edibles or salves, the OXO ricer is a good tool to squeeze the oil out of the buds, and here's a pdf article with detailed instructions. 5) The entire state of Montana is being gentrified.
More generally, I love hanging out in the country with no responsibilities. While permaculturists have many of the answers for how to improve society, we are nowhere near making the convergence experience permanent. Like Burning Man or Rainbow gatherings, it's a glimpse of a utopia that is hundreds of years in the future if it's even possible. Personally, rural living only makes me feel better for a few days, but I have not yet come to the end of lots of free time making me feel better, which is why I live in the city now.