"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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March 27. Bunch o' links. Two engineering students have figured out how to put fires out with low frequency sound.
Replace Soy with Mealworms as a Protein-Rich Animal Feed Supplement. I think humans are going to have to eat lots of insects to make it through this century without a global famine.
Brand new subreddit, Psych Ward Chronicles. It was started just yesterday, inspired by this AskReddit thread, You have to say one sentence to prove you are insane, which someone answered with a jaw-dropping sentence said by an actual crazy person: "Stare into the sun and tell me if eternity is still there."
Related: Psychonaut is a popular subreddit where people talk about psychedelic experiences and related philosophy.
I've been looking for a weather site that has good information and loads quickly, and I've started using the one at timeanddate.com. Here's the Spokane extended forecast and if you like it you can find your local forecast with the search box.
How to generate an encryption passphrase that even the NSA can't guess. Using a resource called the Diceware word list, you roll dice to come up with seven random words and memorize them.
And an inspiring article about the human potential, The Impossible Physiology of the Free Diver.
March 25. Edited reader comment on Monday's genetic engineering link:
CRISPR is indeed revolutionary in that it enables rapid and efficient genetic manipulation in a wide range of species. However, the notion that CRISPR will result in escape of GMOs from labs is a completely separate question.
Their example, the fruit fly, can itself provide evidence to the contrary. Because of how easy genetic manipulation is in the fruit fly, nearly every gene has already been deleted, and all known markers and tools inserted, in labs for decades all over the globe. Yet despite their small size and wings to fly out of labs, the world is not yet overrun by GM fruit flies.
The reason is simple: evolution gives wild fruit flies the greatest advantage, with an elegant and robust unmodified genome selected over millions of years to function in the world. Nearly all genetic manipulations confer disadvantages that are out-competed by wild flies.
New subject: this excellent reddit comment explains why whole milk is better than lowfat milk, including a calorie to lactose ratio that enables most lactose intolerant people to consume whole milk in moderation.
March 23. Some technology links. Let's talk about designer wild critters, not designer babies.
In a paper published yesterday, Valentino Gantz and Ethan Bier, both at the University of California, San Diego, demonstrated the first successful implementation of a CRISPR-Cas9-based gene drive in the germ line of fruit flies. The CRISPR gene drive is a powerful piece of technology that all but guarantees an engineered trait is passed on to every single offspring. Within months or years, it has the ability to alter an entire population of a sexually reproducing species.
Modified critters could easily escape, or carefully designed species released into the wild could have unintended consequences, sparking a cascade of ecological changes that may be all but impossible to reverse.
Next, Assembly line nuclear reactors are quietly building steam in the northwest. I actually think this is good. My big objection to nuclear power is political: where the energy flows from the center out, the political power flows from the center out, and the bigger the plant, the bigger the control system. But smaller reactors could be run by towns or neighborhoods in which you're more likely to have a voice, and they could stay autonomous and energy-rich as dysfunctional big systems break down.
Back to scary: What cockroaches with backpacks can do. Mostly it's about surveillance, and I wonder if cockroach cyborgs are a better fit with democratic, distributed surveillance, where anyone can watch anyone, or centralized surveillance where powerful institutions can lock their power in place.
And the other day on the subreddit, yiedyie made a post called The Point of No-Return, "the point at which all daredevils and tricksters instead of jumping over cliffs in squirrel flying suits, making cults, or make cyber-scams, etc, start instead messing with the system."
March 22. Personal update. Here's a six year old photo of me and my truck just after buying it. I paid $2600 and just sold it for $2500. Partly that's because Rangers hold their value, but I also put only 5000 miles per year on it, drove it gently, and sold it with nicer tires. Plus I just spent $300 on new shocks, front rotors, pads, and bearings, all of which were surprisingly easy to replace. I'm sad to see it go, but now that Leigh Ann has a car and I have a scooter, holding onto it wasn't worth the cost of insurance and registration. That means I'll almost never be visiting my land, and anyone who plans to do permaculture can have it for below market value.
March 20. I have nothing much to post for the weekend. Here's a minor good news link, LA City Council approves curbside planting of fruits and vegetables, and a good AskReddit thread, People who have grown up in poverty then managed to get out, what was the biggest culture shock for you?
In personal news, I'm trying to sell my truck, and I still haven't figured out what's causing my fatigue. If it's marijuana, then I'm probably the only person getting bad effects from a gram a month.
March 18. Today, two woo-woo links from readers. No one could see the color blue until modern times. That's not quite true - the article mentions that ancient Egyptians had a word for blue because they had blue dyes. But study of ancient texts suggests that our color vision is largely cultural, and that it has grown through history, with red appearing first and blue last. There's also a modern example of tribal forest people who can distinguish fine shades of green but not the difference between green and blue. I assume we're not finished, and there are potential colors that for now only crazy people can see.
This also reminds me of Augustine of Hippo, who astonished Romans with his magical ability to read without speaking the words out loud. And it reminds me of some speculations from Oliver Sacks books: that we are all born with the potential for synesthesia and musical perfect pitch, but most of us don't develop them because our education goes in another direction.
Oneirosophy is a small subreddit for subjective idealist thinking. It's mostly about occult culture and dream practices, because subjective idealist philosophy is really hard. My everyday default philosophy is objective materialism, that "there is" a single physical reality "out there", because it's a necessary and powerful shortcut. But people who get into paranormal phenomena (or fringe science or conspiracy theory) and go a little crazy, could stay sane if they could let go of the idea that the universe is one way, and imagine it instead as a collective dream that has to be forced into consistency.
March 13. The previous post was for readers, and this post is for me. Last month my favorite band, Big Blood, posted a new double album to their free music archive page. This is how prolific they are: their previous album, Unlikely Mothers, was also double length and came out only last June. And this is how they avoid popularity: the best original songs on the new album (New Plan, Go See Boats, Magnetic Green, Time Stands Still) are discreetly lurking on Double Days II, all four finish with sounds that even I don't like, and Double Days I is entirely weird experiments and covers. My favorite on DDI is this cover of Black Sabbath's Planet Caravan.
My favorite on DDII has lyrics based on something their kid said at the ocean, and it occurs to me that this is a good metaphor for the creative process: it's like you have a kid inside you, and you have to 1) make her feel comfortable chattering, 2) listen, and 3) edit it into something good. (Which authors are good at one or two of those things but not all three?) Anyway, I often link to music that younger listeners will like better than older listeners, but if the vocals aren't too strange for you, this is a beautiful folk song that should sound better if you're over 50 than under 30: Big Blood - Go See Boats.
March 11. Today, some intellectual heavy lifting. A week ago Sarah Perry made a new post on Ribbonfarm, Gardens Need Walls: On Boundaries, Ritual, and Beauty. It's so dense with new ideas that it's taken me a week just to wrap my head around it. These are the main points:
1) Good systems are made of many subsystems with boundaries. This enables more diversity and it's much easier to solve problems. Examples would be bodies made of many cells, islands with different ecologies, technological systems built out of modules, and human societies made of many tribes or neighborhoods.
2) The march of civilization has destroyed boundaries and subsystems in order to build one giant system, and this is a bad thing. This is why "the system" is so clunky, so unsatisfying, and why we have no power. The metaphor here is mountain climbers roped together. If one falls, they all fall; but we're like billions of mountain climbers who, because of that danger, are not permitted to move at all, but remain stuck in mediocrity.
3) Ancestral cultures are more elegant and beautiful than modern culture because they are small enough that individual humans influence them, and also because they are constrained by rules. An example would be children who learn to play music together on instruments that force them to all play in the same key.
For another view of what's gone wrong with modernity, check out this David Graeber interview about his new book, The Utopia of Rules. It seems, as a system gets larger, that the rules necessary to make it work become more ugly and messy. Graeber's most interesting idea is that bureaucracy is the inevitable result of the "free market", by which we mean a culture of disconnection and selfishness:
The market is supposed to work on grounds of pure competition. Nobody has moral ties to each other other than to obey the rules. But, on the other hand, people are supposed to do anything they can to get as much as possible off the other guy - but won't simply steal the stuff or shoot the person.
Historically, that's just silly; if you don't care at all about a guy, you might as well steal his stuff. In fact, they're encouraging people to act essentially how most human societies, historically, treated their enemies - but to still never resort to violence, trickery or theft. Obviously that's not going to happen. You can only do that if you set up a very strictly enforced police force.
Also related to this subject, math professor Steven Strogatz on the dangers of Too Much Coupling:
"Coupling" refers to the ability of one part of a complex system to influence another... In all sorts of complex systems, this is the general trend: increasing the coupling between the parts seems harmless enough at first. But then, abruptly, when the coupling crosses a critical value, everything changes... With our cell phones and GPS trackers and social media, with globalization, with the coming Internet of things, we're becoming more tightly connected than ever... But the math suggests that increasing coupling is a siren's song. Too much makes a complex system brittle.
I think he's wrong, but only because the core of the system is completely insulated from the choices of ordinary people. The tragedy is that a large system with no boundaries has to be designed that way. If somehow we all had real power, it would collapse overnight. But it's possible to build a big system out of many "cells". Within your cell, you have power and your life has meaning. And your cell is linked to other cells and has power within a larger system, and that system has power within a still larger system. In the whole system, political power could be almost completely bottom-up, we could smoothly adapt to change, and the connections would not reach the density to make it unstable.
I don't have a roadmap of how to get there from here, but I think total collapse of the present system, as exciting as it feels, is a bad idea. It reminds me of a quote whose source I forget: "It takes 20 years to become enlightened, or if you really push it, 30 years."
March 9. So a reader, Dan, is friends with the guy who writes the War Nerd columns under the name Gary Brecher. He tells me that Brecher is working on a new illustrated version of the Iliad, and is looking for an illustrator in a graphic novel or comic book style. The book will be mostly text with an illustration every couple of pages. If anyone is interested, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I also want to say a little more about last week's subject of potential technology. Imagine you're talking to people who have strong feelings, one way or another, about abortion. If you say anything related to the subject, they're going to assume you belong to one of the two camps, and that whatever you said serves your goal of arguing for one of the two sides. For the same reason, when I say that the whole history of human complex society and technology has barely scratched the surface of what's possible, someone who's wrapped up in the doomer vs techno-utopian debate will assume that I'm making a stealth argument for unlimited fusion power or the religion of progress. I'm against those things. My intention is to argue for the vastness of the Unknown Unknown. It's the same argument Terence McKenna made when he said, in the context of extraterrestrial life, that looking for radio transmissions from other planets is like looking for Italian food on other planets.
This argument has practical implications. If you think civilization as we know it is collapsing, and you also think that the range of human action is limited to stuff we've already tried, then you might expect to get a head start on the future by learning pre-industrial skills like blacksmithing or small-scale farming. If that's what you love to do, cool, you can probably carve out a niche. But if you think it's what you have to do, you're gambling your quality of life on the belief that your own imagination sets the limits of the collective response of billions of people to a historically unique crisis. One example of unexpected technology is the link below about soil-building cattle ranching. Grazing cattle is a pre-industrial practice, but only now do we have the ability to bring in truckloads of compost, and share research on the internet about when to let the cattle into a field. There are similar examples back in my February 20 post.
March 6. Purging my link queue. The Carbon Gatherer is about a cattle rancher with a method of steadily increasing topsoil while producing food, through composting and carefully timed grazing. I heard somewhere that increasing global topsoil by one percent would suck up enough carbon to reverse climate change.
The Drug Lord With a Social Mission is the best headline they could come up with for this wide-ranging article about the explosion of designer psychoactive drugs and New Zealand's innovations in regulating them.
Surprisingly good reddit thread, What are your honest opinions about "the friend zone"? I found this on AskReddit/rising, which filters AskReddit to show the newest posts that are getting upvoted. Because AskReddit gets so many posts and comments, it's like different filters (hot, new, rising, controversial, top) create different worlds with their own content and communities. The rising page is like a chat lounge with constantly changing people and topics. Also, because of my writing I'm often asked serious questions, and sometimes I'd rather answer silly questions.
Also on reddit, Destruction Porn is a trending subreddit for posting pictures of destruction and its aftermath.
The Man in the Van is about a young baseball pitcher who has two million dollars and chooses to live in adventurous poverty. Of course it's more fun to live in poverty when you don't have to, which is one of many reasons I support an unconditional basic income.
Finally, Philip K. Dick's Favorite Classical Music: A Free 11-Hour Playlist.
March 4. A reader sends this Archdruid post about technology and the externalization of costs. I had to do some heavy thinking to get a grip on why I disagree with it, so I might as well share my thoughts with everyone. First, Greer does a great job of explaining how technology, as it has developed over the last few thousand years, has given obvious benefits to its users and owners, while causing harm that is not obvious to its users and owners. An example would be a factory that makes a product cheaper by exploiting workers or dumping toxic waste. Capitalism rewards whoever does the best job of externalizing costs, which leads to higher and higher costs that are now poisoning whole systems like the economy and the biosphere, and leading to collapse.
So far, so good. But western intellectuals can't rest at pointing out what's actually happening; they have to turn it into some kind of universal logical statement. This is the same disagreement I have with Derrick Jensen: he observes the behavior of large complex society over its first few thousand years, uses that behavior to make a universal logical definition of "civilization", and projects that definition onto all possible large complex societies. To me that's like defining the human potential by watching a baby, and Greer does the same thing by defining "technological progress" so that it logically requires increasing externalization of costs. If you want to see Greer's argument as local not universal, you can go through his entire post saying "as we know it" after every instance of the word "technology" or "technological".
His conclusion: "a society that chose to stop progressing technologically could maintain itself indefinitely, so long as its technologies weren't dependent on nonrenewable resources or the like." My conclusion would be: "a society that made it a top priority to not externalize costs could keep improving technologically without destabilizing itself." Or, if we have a culture that is acutely aware of whole systems, then any new technology, in order to outcompete existing technologies, has to externalize fewer costs. You can already see the first glimmers of this in ecological food labeling.
So the externalization of costs is not a feature of technology, but a feature of human lack of awareness, which leads to one particular bad path in the vast landscape of toolmaking. We've been on this path at least since the invention of stone weapons that caused prehistoric extinctions, and I think we can get off the path without going all the way back there. Technological changes that benefit whole systems do not have to be reversals, but can lead us outside the tiny realm of stuff we have already tried.
What might it look like to keep improving technologically without externalizing costs? Probably nothing like Star Trek, and nothing like we can imagine from our amazingly primitive 21st century culture. But we can imagine the possibility of something for which we cannot imagine the details.
March 2. Sarah Harrison: The WikiLeaks Editor Who Helped Hide Edward Snowden. I was about to call this "inspiring", but that implies that you might be inspired to do something similar, when the real message is how much of an exceptional person you have to be, how much you have to sacrifice, and how much you have to risk, to even have a chance of making a positive difference in the world that anyone other than your friends will notice.
A week ago I had a visitor, Kurtis, who was traveling from central Canada to a permaculture conference in San Diego. One question he asked me was about how ordinary people can best engage the political system. I've become cynical on this issue. The system is now so resistant to change that I think the average person might as well give up on "making a difference" in the popular sense. Even running for city council requires more charisma and energy than most of us have.
Of course there are still lots of little things you can do to make a slightly better world that you can see yourself. Every fall I spread several truckloads of leaves all over my yard, and this morning the backyard was full of robins picking worms and bugs out of the leaves.
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.