"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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June 17. Some action over the last few days on the subreddit, including a reader in Spain looking for other readers in western Europe, and a link to a site with thousands of testimonials about WoW addiction. There's also a post about technology and spirituality. I'd like to point out that the word "technology" is much easier to define than the word "spirituality", and also that Early Warning has been blogging the Global Future 2045 conference.
Also, here's a long reddit comment about PRISM and government surveillance. What I take from it is: 1) The personal danger is that if the authorities ever have a reason to destroy you, they could go back and dig up everything you've ever done. 2) The public danger is that this is becoming "military industrial complex 2.0" with the potential to suck more and more money and spend it to keep itself growing.
June 12. Today, personal stuff. Last month I switched cell phone providers. I was on Verizon prepaid for $100 a year, which gave me 400 minutes or 500 texts. Now I'm on PagePlus, which gives me 2000 minutes or 1000 texts for only $80 a year. I had to get a new phone, and after some research I bought a Motorola E815, which has a reputation as the best dumb phone ever made in terms of reception and reliability. The strangest thing about the switch is that if you're on Verizon prepaid, they've probably never told you your account number, and you have to call them and stumble around their system until you can find a human to look it up for you. This is related to yesterday's post: if you think it's disturbing to be turned into a number, wait until you're turned into a number and you don't even know what it is!
Recently there was something wrong with me mentally. Things that normally would make me happy did nothing, and doing even the smallest task, like getting up to drink water, felt as difficult as starting a big project. Even on an actual big project I could never get into a groove, so every little step required a great mental effort. I was still able to force myself to get stuff done, but life itself felt like a painful uphill trudge through a monotone world. This must be how depressed people feel all the time. Anyway, it might have been caused by fumes from painting rooms in my house, or not enough meat in my diet, but most likely it was caused by too much gaming, which recalibrated my reward system for game worlds that are much more rewarding than consensus reality.
Specifically, after playing a bunch of Heroes of Might and Magic, I got back into Starfarer, which for "business reasons" has changed its name to Starsector. It's a role-playing game in a strategy framework; so you're gaining levels and items for one or more characters, but their missions and quests are not predefined like a storybook, but emerge from a simulated world with factions and resources and stuff. This is my favorite kind of game, and I'm excited about seeing more games like this with more depth. So you might play something that looks like Skyrim, has the complexity of Dwarf Fortress, and has a story as good as Planescape Torment, except instead of one story, there's a different story every time you play, or no ending.
Anyway, I've been off Starsector for five days and I'm feeling better, but inevitably I'm going to play it again because it's so immensely fun. I'll have to experiment and figure out how much I can get away with playing before it messes with my outside life. But I'm wondering... How many people do not have the self-discipline to keep this balance? What happens as virtual reality expands to cover people who presently don't like games? Suppose, at the same time, automation gradually reduces our obligations in the physical world. What are the political effects of a population that is highly motivated in artificial worlds and unmotivated outside them?
Finally, a reader in Missoula, Shawn, came for a visit last night. He pointed out that my yard has salsify, and that the young flower buds are a great wild edible. And we talked about lots of stuff including metaphysics. Most of my friends don't like to use the word "God", because it suggests a ridiculous sky father deity and it's used by people who are religious in a stupid way. Instead, to speak of an unseen greater intelligence, some people say "the Universe". I like to talk about "the Flow", which is a good English word for the concept of the Tao in the Tao Te Ching. Shawn says he calls it "the Mystery". I like that better than "the Universe" because it implies something that is beyond matter and energy, and unknowable.
June 11. A different spin on the surveillance issue, Why Should We Even Care If the Government Is Collecting Our Data? The idea is that the relevant dystopian author is not Orwell, but Kafka, and our problem is not a simple one of heavy-handed repression, but a subtle one involving the gap between how much power you have, and how much power the government has, to view and process information.
June 10. This NSA surveillance thing is getting more interesting. Here's a page with a 12 minute video interview of Edward Snowden, the whistleblower. And a great text interview of Snowden, who is now in Hong Kong facing extradition.
Hong Kong would be a bad choice for avoiding criminal extradition, but here's a reddit comment about the difficulty of political extradition from Hong Kong because of the way the treaty is worded:
Ironically, the Senate was trying to stop a potentially Communist Hong Kong from extraditing Chinese political activists from the States all the way back to Chinese prisons, but did not anticipate the possibility of an American activist seeking refuge in Hong Kong and turning the tables.
Also, a speculation that this scandal will destroy the US internet industry, as the rest of the world looks for search sites and social networking sites that aren't tapped. So the good news is, there might be a growing financial incentive for any nation to guarantee the privacy of its internet traffic.
Personally, even though I like Obama and think he's overall a good president, I would love to see him taken down and destroyed on this issue the way Nixon was destroyed over Watergate, even if it benefits the American right in the short term. Because in the long term it would set a precedent that would make authoritarian use of information technology politically difficult.
June 8. Related to yesterday's subject, one of the best reddit comments ever, about what it's like to live in a surveillance state, by someone now living in one of the Arab spring countries. Of course it's not like this in America, but the laws and technologies are in place so that it could be like this if the ruling powers ever think it's their best move.
By the way, if anyone wonders how I find comments on so many different subreddits, it's usually through Best Of or Depth Hub, and Food For Thought is also good.
The only actual blog that I still follow closely is Early Warning, which has had some great stuff lately. Yesterday's post is a few hypotheses about PRISM, specifically how it could be possible that the NSA is inside Google and Facebook while the executives of those companies deny knowing anything about it.
June 7. Okay, I do have some comments on stuff in the news. I see two surprising things about the new NSA wiretapping scandal. First, that we even found out about it, and second, that the scale is so limited. I've just been assuming that the NSA is already tapping every phone call and every email, and that an army of bots is always listening and reading to find stuff for human analysts. Maybe they are, and we still haven't found out about it. Also, while America continues to circle the drain of authoritarianism, this might have a nice backlash that makes Europe more free and open.
And since someone posted this to the subreddit, I'll comment here. Kickstarter must not fund biohackers' glow-in-the-dark plants. Bioengineneering frightens me, but not for the reasons in this article. I think biohackers and glow-in-the-dark plants are awesome! I'd like to see biotech labs in a million garages all over the world. It would cause some moderate eco-catastrophes, but in the long term I think it would be good for life on Earth.
My fear is that biotech will be monopolized by large corporations and governments, which will only permit modifications that strengthen large corporations and governments. So there won't be any miracle plants that do best under intensive human attention like you would have in your garden, because big systems are allergic to labor, and will only make miracle plants that do best in completely mechanized systems with high energy inputs. This is exactly what most GM crops are being designed for now. And there won't be miracle crops that thrive in waste places and provide nutritious food all year, because that would make it easier for people to live without money. Instead, all food will be produced on giant centrally controlled farms and you will only be allowed to eat by obeying the systems that run the farms. And this nightmare will be justified by the need for "proper regulations and safeguards."
June 6. I seem to be losing motivation for blogging, but it might return when something interesting happens. My bees are still thriving. Every week or two I give them a few more bars, either in the middle of the nest or at the end of the hive, to deter them from swarming, and yesterday I pulled out the follower board and gave them access to the full 30 bars of the hive. Also, the Autonomy Acres blog has done some nice posts about beekeeping. Another reader asks what I'm doing about varroa mites. They usually don't become a problem until the second year, and before I do anything tricky, I'm going to see if it's enough to just have foundationless frames: if bees can design their own comb, they regress to smaller cells and smaller bees, and because smaller cells are capped faster, it's harder for the mites to get in. I'm a little worried that they still don't seem to be storing honey, only making more bees, but I think this is because I have a super-fertile queen who is laying eggs faster than the bees can make cells. As soon as there are so many cells that the queen can't keep up, they'll start filling them with honey.
June 4. New book excerpt by George Monbiot in Aeon magazine: Accidental rewilding. It's all about how nature thrives when lots of humans die, with the main examples in Slovenia and the Amazon. And there's a speculation that the little ice age, from around 1550-1850, was caused by forests regrowing after European disease wiped out the civilizations of the Americas. My guess is, there were two overlapping cool periods, the other one starting around 1300 and caused by Genghis Khan.
June 3. With summer on the way, two weather links. Increasing CO2 in air is making deserts greener. Not that I'm a climate change cornucopian. In most ways it's going to be a disaster. But not all ways, because the world is complicated.
And Nine Surprising Facts About Sunscreen. Personally I haven't used it since the 1980's. Sometimes I sunbathe for five or ten minutes to get vitamin D, and otherwise I try to stay out of the sun or wear long sleeves and a hat.
May 31. Inspiring article (thanks James), How Chicago's Housing Crisis Ignited a New Form of Activism, in which people are independently fixing up abandoned houses and moving homeless people in.
And more trippy stuff. Time Regained is a review of a new book by physicist Lee Smolin. Looking at the reviews of Time Reborn on Amazon, this is not really a science book but a philosophy book by a scientist, and it has some fun ideas, including: that time is not another dimension of space, but something different and more real than space; that the laws of nature can change over time; and that relationships are more fundamental than things.
The other day I mentioned the idea that you can see reality differently by focusing your attention on smaller and smaller moments, and Kyle comments:
This was the exact feeling I had on an ego-death amount of mushrooms, and I think it's the essence of "tripping." Your brain is nothing more or less than a moment-generating machine, continually generating beads of "now" out of memories and sense impressions and placing them on the string of your conscious awareness. Mushrooms let you slow this process down until it becomes obvious, and if you're lucky you can hang out on the string for a while in a state of pure awareness without any "moment" in it. This happened to me once, and then I watched in slow motion as my next "moment" was constructed over the course of what seemed like a thousand years: The first thing created was my concept of "I," which I had forgotten about; everything else seemed to get filled in like a web, everything connecting back to "I," and it was fascinating to rediscover tiny facets of my existence in slow motion.
May 29. Some trippy links. In the most awesome science news ever, physicists have applied loop quantum gravity to black holes, and the result is that when you fall into one, you are not destroyed but go through a gateway to another universe!
Multi-part reddit post, Cannabis 101 - I guarantee you'll learn something. I learned that if you want to reset your tolerance, there is no benefit to going longer than six months, and also that you cannot get any effects from eating it raw - it has to be heated to change the chemistry. Personally I never liked smoking it, but I love to eat a big dose about once a month and listen to music and write down dumb philosophical insights. Like: if you can "be in the now", maybe you can learn to be in smaller and smaller nows until you can see things that you would normally be unable to see, like looking through a microscope.
Finally, a reader has made a script to go through Science Frontiers Online and convert it all to .mobi ebook format. The file is around 18 megabytes and there are temporary download links here and here.
May 28. Why suicide has become an epidemic. Closely related: The Science of Loneliness.
Honestly, I only skimmed both articles because they're very long and life's too short! But this issue reminds me of something in the final chapter in Sarah Hrdy's book Mothers and Others: before civilization, food was scarce and emotional care was abundant, so it almost never happened that a child got enough food to survive to adulthood but was emotionally neglected. Now it's the opposite: at least in the first world, physical resources are abundant while emotional care is scarce, so more people are emotionally stunted and damaged. The second article has some suggestions on how to recover from this.
May 25. For the long weekend, thanks Leigh Ann for finding a link to one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes comics, about doing nothing.
May 23. It is indeed a slow week so I'm going to comment on two topics from readers. A few days ago there was a subreddit post on Greer and McPherson and their differing views on climate change and human extinction. Personally, unlike Greer, I don't care why someone predicts apocalypse. Whether someone has a good or bad reason for thinking something is going to happen, has no relation to whether that thing is actually going to happen. I just look at their arguments. And I have yet to see an actual argument for climate change causing human extinction. Instead it's always something like this: 1) Valid science about atmospheric CO2 causing rising sea levels and desertification and superstorms. 2) Vague hand-waving. 3) Every last human dies. I think it's more interesting, more difficult, and more valuable, to imagine catastrophe without extinction.
Another reader mentions Pear Energy. It's a nice idea, and that FAQ link explains it well enough for me to fill in the details that they would never say. If you join Pear Energy, and your utility company burns oil, then when you use your toaster, your utility company burns a little more oil to power it, and a polar bear dies. Then at the end of the month your utility company sends the bill to Pear, and however much energy you used, they dump that much into the grid from wind and solar, and maybe someone else using a toaster will use some of that energy instead of cranking up the oil plant. Then they send you a bill that's a little higher, and the extra money is used to subsidize more wind and solar, which will help moderate the economic collapse from the transition out of fossil fuels.
May 22. Last night I spent four hours listening to Bob Dylan, and today I want to interpret one of his greatest songs, from 1978: Señor (Tales of Yankee Power). That link is the song on YouTube, and here's Señor on songmeanings.net, with mostly accurate lyrics and a huge variety of interpretations.
The song is a dialogue between a hired gun, who is worried and cynical about the mission, and his employer, who rants cryptic metaphors in a menacing voice. The master gets two verses and the servant gets five, one in the middle, two at the beginning, and two at the end.
The song reminds me of this Wendell Berry poem that Early Warning posted a couple weeks ago. The poem is about ecological destruction in pursuit of "the objective", but on a deeper level it's about a state of mind in which people become so fixated on a goal that they forget where they came from and who they are.
This is the mental state of Empire, of civilization as we know it. And in the Dylan song you can see it growing in the servant, even as the master seems to lose his nerve. It's like evil Don Quixote. The servant begins the song afraid of Armageddon, and ends the song hungry for it: "Let's overturn these tables, disconnect these cables. This place don't make sense to me no more."
May 20. This might be a slow week. Here's a plug for my favorite reddit user, Erinaceous.
May 17. Stray links. First, an important article from Michael Pollan, Some of My Best Friends Are Germs. Summary: we're mostly made of bacteria, antibiotics are dangerous, breast feeding is good, processed food is bad, fermented food is good, and it's good to be moderately dirty.
An inspiring article about sensory deprivation tanks:
"We had a Zen master who visited my lab once," says Suedfeld, "and he asked to go in the tank for an hour. Most of his life he had meditated every day for four or five hours or more. And he thought the depth of meditation he reached in the tank was on par with a level he reached maybe once a year in his normal meditation environment."Loosely related, a reddit comment on psychedelics. Having never used psychedelics myself, I can't confirm this, but it's a nice metaphor:
Your brain is like a hill, and as information enters from the outside world, it's like rain running down the hill. It gradually carves rivulets into the soil. Eventually those pathways just become permanent little streams, and the water always runs down the same paths. The pattern that emerges is you. It's your personality.
Taking a drug like mushrooms or LSD is like dumping a bucket of water down the hill. There's so much water that the usual streams are overloaded and water spills out, crossing between the different paths. New and interesting connections form, and you see the world in a different way. That's great, every now and then, but if you constantly and repeatedly dump buckets of water down a hill, well then the rivulets disappear. You erase the pattern without forming new ones.
Completely off the usual subjects, I've been thinking about unusual house colors. The rarest color is black, which is strange since so many cars are black, and a black house in a cold climate would be good for absorbing sunlight. The second rarest house color, at least in America, is orange. Here's an amazing page with 138 photos of orange houses.
May 14. Two smart links. An Original Thinker of Our Time is about Albert Hirschman, who had an interesting life and a great way of thinking:
Hirschman was delighted by paradoxes, unintended consequences (especially good ones), the telling detail, inventories of actual practices (rather than big theories), surprises, and improvisation. In his view, "history is nothing if not farfetched." He invented the term "possibilism," meant to draw attention to "the discovery of paths, however narrow, leading to an outcome that appears to be foreclosed on the basis of probabilistic reasoning alone."The Paradox of the Proof is about a brilliant mathematician who claims to have solved a famous and important problem, but his solution is so difficult that no other mathematician is willing to invest the time to understand it, so nobody knows if he's really solved it or if he's crazy.
May 13. A reader mentions a Time Magazine article from a few months ago, Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us. It's behind a paywall but I found it free here and here. Basically it's a bunch of depressing details about stuff we already know: the system is ridiculously expensive, almost everyone loses, and it's politically impossible to fix it. Also here's a good reddit comment about inconsistent and secret medical pricing. The conclusion:
This is just how the system works. It's not a conspiracy. It's a perfect example of how a a bad system forces a bunch of rational actors to do absolutely batshit crazy things... Any real fix stands to hurt so many players that it's pretty unlikely we'll see change from a political standpoint. I'm kind of hoping the whole thing just collapses under it's own weight and something better can arise from the ashes.
That's a popular hope, but I'm not sure it has ever happened. Instead, bad systems keep going until they are outcompeted. The best historical comparison I can think of is the medieval church. For hundreds of years everyone knew it was completely corrupt, but it held a monopoly on salvation, so it didn't change until protestantism also offered salvation. So we need competing systems that offer medical care much cheaper... or in some cases they could just release us from the belief that medical care is necessary.
May 11. Quick post on the landblog/houseblog, again about bees, this time figuring out how to listen to them with a stethoscope.
May 8. I still haven't finished Morris Berman's Wandering God, but I want to write about it. Berman's main idea is that a lot of the metaphysical baggage that we think goes deep into prehistory, was really invented only a few thousand years ago in the transition from nomadic foraging-hunting to permanent agricultural settlements. This stuff includes earth goddess worship, Jungian archetypes, the desire for oneness with the universe, and all vertical spirituality, including the belief in a higher spirit world.
Finally I understand "salvation". I was raised Catholic and I understand the idea of a sky father deity who will reward or punish us in the afterlife. So life is a test, no problem, but why on top of that do you need the idea of original sin, and why do we need Jesus to save us? Save us from what? And why do people feel that this is so important?
Basically you have two modes of consciousness, which happen to correspond to quasi-scientific ideas about right brain vs left brain. Nomadic people are broadly focused, surfing the flow and watching out for opportunties. Civilized people are narrowly focused and striving for particular goals. This reminds me of something American Indians said about the first white people: that they had wild staring eyes as if they were constantly looking for something and not finding it. It also reminds me of a line from Valerie Solanas (keeping in mind that she put everything through a filter of women-good-men-bad): "Incapable of enjoying the moment, the male needs something to look forward to, and money provides him with an eternal, never-ending goal: Just think of what you could do with 80 trillion dollars -- invest it! And in three years time you'd have 300 trillion dollars!!!"
So civilized religion is a substitute for our lost ability to shift into nomadic consciousness, to be at home in the here and now. This also reminds me of different ideas about meditation. The popular idea is that you meditate to achieve enlightenment, or transcendence, or oneness, to permanently ascend to a higher state. But experienced meditators say that's all a distraction, and meditation is about getting more skilled at noticing and appreciating whatever you are sensing right now.
Finally, there is a great chapter on this subject in a religious book you might have heard of. It's called the Bible, and the chapter is Ecclesiastes. The idea is that nothing we do in this world will amount to anything, but instead of being depressed, we should let go of the desire for achievement, and live every moment to the fullest. Two of my favorite lines from Ecclesiastes: "Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire" and "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might."