"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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April 18. Some happy stuff for the weekend. Happiness makes your brain work better. "Rather than thinking of success as the source of happiness, we should think of happiness as a source of success -- and one that's more under our control than we imagine."
From the Raptitude blog, 15 unexpected side-benefits to living in the present moment.
This tower pulls drinking water out of thin air. Not only that, it looks like Hieronymus Bosch architecture.
Finally, relax with 40 perfectly looped ambient gifs.
April 16. When ordinary Americans say they're busy, they're bragging. When I say I'm busy, I'm complaining. Posting will be light and sporadic for the rest of the week, and maybe for the rest of the month. Today, just a few loose ends. First, thanks RS for a $10 donation.
And two good comments from the subreddit. In the "what you can't say" thread, mooduleur notices something missing from the original Paul Graham essay: "I suppose it didn't even occur to him simply not give a shit what other people think of him?" This fits with my observation that in the modern world we're no longer burned at the stake for taboo ideas -- we merely lose social status. So the less status you have (while still having enough money) the more free you are.
And in the psychedelics thread, zenfulmind uses a Lamborghini as a metaphor for psychedelics, arguing that most recreational users are merely looking at the car, while skilled users are driving the car.
April 14. Today, four good reddit comments. Related to one of the subjects in my last post, Sivel comments on psychedelic drugs, describing how your personality gets taken apart and you can put it together differently, how the drug is a tool that can either help you or harm you, and how to reduce the risk of a bad trip.
Psychedelics should be viewed like climbing a mountain. The mountain peak has its appeal with the sublime feeling of standing atop it if one is daring enough to get there. And while some may find the experience meaningful a lot of people will only find themselves way too fucking high on a big rock. But most important is how the mountain does not move, it does not feel or love, and so it does not care if you live or die on it. The only feelings it will give you are the ones you reflect off of its steep faces.
KF2 explains depression with a role-playing game metaphor, in which a magic cloak gives you immunity to everything bad and also everything good, so you feel nothing and stop caring, you can't take the cloak off, and your original injuries can't be healed.
Depanneur defines fascism, using a narrow definition that confines it to the early 20th century. Basically fascism tapped into the alienation of industrial society, the longing of WWI veterans for the strict order and community of military life, and the desire of the middle class to participate in a revolution without losing their perks. Of course the alienation of modern life remains unsolved, so we could do something similarly scary in the future, but fascism would not be the right word for it.
James-Venn imagines a technological singularity that is similar to the Great Oxygenation Event more than two billion years ago:
Through us, the process of life itself is escaping the biological limitations of 'life'. What may be around the corner isn't artificial life. It is life, just in a new form. Life is a mathematical process currently operating on biological material. It is a process which could operate far more effectively on digital and mechanical life forms.
I like the general idea, but his weakness is being unable to imagine the existence of something for which he can't imagine the particulars. I think mechanics would be a step back from biology, and digital logic processors are unalive no matter how big they get. But our computers might serve as tools to create a new kind of physical medium through which some deeper principle of aliveness could manifest. Or computers could help us create a new technology that would enable our "selves", our continuity of perspective and memory, to transcend the world as we know it.
For a lot of deep thinking on this sort of idea, check out this Ribbonfarm post from last month, Immortality in the Ocean of Infinite Memories.
April 11. Lots of action on the subreddit after my last post, including someone arguing that I should try psychedelics because they're not a big deal, a discussion of forbidden ideas in which people talk about race without distinguishing between biology and culture, and for the second time in two weeks, someone has made a reddit account just to argue with me, in this case about science.
I understand what HTG464 is saying, but my own ideas are harder to explain, so we're arguing past each other. Let me try a scientific metaphor: Newtonian physics is extremely powerful within a certain range. But it would be a mistake to think that Newtonian physics can explain everything, because there is a wider range that you can only understand with quantum physics or relativity. Science as we know it has given us amazing stuff like space probes and the internet. But it operates under deep philosophical assumptions that are not open for testing, and it is a mistake to think that we can explain everything while continuing to make those assumptions.
If you make a different set of deep assumptions, objective materialist science is not wrong. It remains a valuable shortcut, an intellectual tool that works perfectly well within a certain range. Meanwhile, you can begin to understand experiences that modern science must exclude. We might classify these these under "the paranormal" or "fringe science" or even "conspiracy theory". Sadly, even people who explore this stuff with an open mind are rarely using the appropriate core philosophies, so they get frustrated and half-crazy looking for "proof" or "the truth", or they sound stupid trying to explain it. Do you "believe in ghosts"? Where is the end of the rainbow?
Anyway it's Friday and I want to post music. The listen to us subreddit has more good submitters this month than it had last month, and I also got some good stuff from the 40th election thread.
My favorite band at the moment is Manngold de Cobre, a "Psycho Kraut Rock'n Roll Cosmic Big Band" from Belgium that has not yet released an album. Here are two videos, an untitled first official video and a crazier one called IND.
If you can stand the raspy vocals, here's a long atmospheric metal song, Falls of Rauros - Awaiting the Fire or Flood that Awakes It. Something mellower, with the high squishy male vocals that are popular with hipsters lately, Trails and Ways - Border Crosser. And a beautiful electronic piece, Build Voice by Dan Deacon.
April 9. Today, some links around the theme of cultural reality filters. I am a North Korean defector describes the mental prison of North Korean culture, but it's all so unsurprising that it must have been edited to fit the more spacious mental prison of our own culture. One of the rules of propaganda is that it's always what you expect to hear.
This classic Paul Graham piece, What You Can't Say, tries to give us the tools to spot our own culture's hidden taboos and blind spots. One of his ideas is to look for stuff that people get in trouble for saying. Now that we're no longer burned at the stake for ideas, I would look at social status. What does a high status person never say? What could a politician say that would lose them every election? What could a college professor say that would guarantee they'd be denied tenure? Even on the internet there are things that no major blogger or cartoonist would ever say, and some of them will be uncontroversial in a hundred years.
A short diversion into politics: The less Americans know about Ukraine's location, the more they want U.S. to intervene. For me the most interesting thing is that self-identified independents can locate Ukraine twice as accurately as Democrats and Republicans. My interpretation is that the two major parties are targeting stupid people. There are things they won't say, that smart people recognize as true, and become independent.
Back to the main topic, I'm thinking of a philosophical idea that will get you in trouble, but only among the intellectual higher classes: that reality is something other than mindless matter and energy. On reddit, with 27 upvotes and 25 downvotes, Blisk McQueen comments on The Accidental Universe. He describes his background in reductionist hard science, and how he got in serious trouble for writing a paper pointing out the similarity between DNA and primitive programming languages, which would imply a programmer. Blocked from continuing to study genetics, he switched to neurochemistry, where he still believed "that human consciousness is merely an emergent phenomenon mediated by electrochemical signals" -- until he tried psilocybin mushrooms. Now he thinks science is in "a blind corner" by studying only measurable things and ignoring consciousness.
On the same subject, Embrace the Unexplained: how fantastic stories unlock the nature of consciousness. The author cites examples of unexplained visions related to people dying, but they're hard to study because they cannot be replicated or measured. He speculates that strong psychic phenomena are rare because they require intense emotion, that psychic visions are best viewed as hallucinations that somehow correspond to real events, and that the brain is like a radio tuner for some kind of collective consciousness.
I don't use psychedelics, for the same reason a single-player video gamer wouldn't use cheat mode, but I've done more thinking on this stuff than on any other subject. When people suggest that it's easy for science to put consciousness first, they have no idea how deep the rabbit hole goes. This is a book-length subject, and the best book so far, The Trickster and the Paranormal by George Hansen, merely hints at it. I'll give one more hint: It is possible to explore consciousness with science in the sense that you can make hypotheses and test them, but you won't get anywhere until you abandon the requirement that your reality and my reality must be consistent.
April 7. Stray links. A Nation of Slaves by Charles Stross is another good explanation of how our cultural values around work are obsolete. I think this has been happening for hundreds of years: the economic benefits of labor-saving technology are sucked to the centers of control, while bullshit jobs are invented so that the worst parts of our primate brains don't get upset seeing that some people don't have to work.
Struggling to understand eating disorders? Read this webcomic. That's a review, and the actual webcomic is here. This is heavy stuff, and after reading 40 of the nearly 150 pages, I understand eating disorders even less than I thought I did. I suspect they're rooted in some powerful psychic injury that is so deeply buried that the only cure is the destruction of the self. (And I wonder how much of what we consider normal human behavior is equally dysfunctional and hard to change.)
I stumbled on this great reddit comment explaining how a big solar storm would affect the power grid. Basically, the more sophisticated energy companies are prepared for this and should manage to reduce the damage to a few weeks of scattered blackouts and brownouts, but the crude grids in places like India will be hit hard.
In a final loose end from a week ago, Anne comments on Amazon:
I'm trying not to order from them, since hearing the radiolab essay on their fulfillment centers. Which, of course, are independent companies on contract, so Amazon proper isn't liable for abuses that occur there.
One thing Amazon has in common with Google, which may end up playing a larger role in evil than their mail-order business, is their effective joint monopoly on cloud computing. Its not just local newspapers and small businesses that run on EC2 servers -- a majority of bioinformatics computation worldwide is clouded to Amazon as well, and probably heavy-lifting computation in a number of other fields. Even companies that could (and for privacy or espionage reasons probably should) run their own data centers don't, meaning that Google and Amazon set the costs for high-end data analysis.
April 4. Some fun stuff and culture for the weekend. NPR did a brilliant April Fools prank. They posted an article with the title Why Doesn't America Read Anymore? But the text of the article was just a few sentences explaining that it was a trick to catch people commenting on articles they hadn't read. Now that the joke is out, all the top comments are commenting on the gag, but these articles at Gawker, Uproxx, and Kotaku show some hilarious comments by people who got fooled.
My girlfriend has the best aesthetic taste in the world (and she says I'm the clumsiest person in the world). Specifically, her musical taste is so acute that she can make judgments with one listen that I don't come around to until five or six listens over several months. I've just put one of her favorite albums, I Am Alive and You Are Dead by Orphans & Vandals, at the top of my albums page. Have you ever noticed that "adult" means porn in everything but music, and in music it means bland? Why is that? Anyway, the song Mysterious Skin is adult music in two senses: it has sexually explicit lyrics, and it has such maturity and depth that it makes Bohemian Rhapsody sound like a song for children.
Leigh Ann also introduced me to the novelist Albert Cossery. A month or two back I mentioned his book A Splendid Conspiracy. Now I've read his most famous book (and probably the only one you'll find on ebook sites), The Jokers. That link goes to my Goodreads review. Something I don't mention there is that Cossery's perspective on politics and society reminds me of Tolkien and the One Ring. Cossery's view of violent revolution (or even entering politics as a reformer) is like Tolkien's view of trying to use the Ring for good: no matter how good your intentions, you're only feeding evil. There's no real-world analog to Tolkien's idea of destroying the Ring, but Cossery is like Tom Bombadil: he sees through corruption so clearly that it's not a threat to him, only a joke.
April 2. Loose ends from Monday. Someone has made a lengthy and angry subreddit post defending Amazon. I'm mentioning it here because I want to reward people who disagree with me on the subreddit instead of sending me an email. To be fair to Amazon, some of their prices are exceptionally low, and I've spent thousands of dollars on them over the lasts few years -- but I've spent a lot less since they raised the free shipping threshold from $25 to $35. And when I commented on that change a few months ago, I said the same thing as our Amazon defender: that rising transportation costs made it inevitable.
Calling Amazon "eeeevil" is an exaggeration for fun, but in a few years it might not be an exaggeration, if they continue to overwork their employees, drive competitors out of business, and jack up prices when they have a monopoly. They haven't done the last thing yet but they will if they can because it's corporate nature. I'm guessing that Amazon will be the third or fourth most evil company of the 2020's. The most evil company will have to be Google because they rose to power under the slogan "Don't be evil."
Also, on the subject of fire as the thing that made us human, a reader adds: "Once you have a fire, then people are going to gather around it for the light and the warmth, and now you have a captivated audience for all sorts of purposes." So fire must have led to more storytelling, and more transmission of culture across generations. Also in Sarah Hrdy's book Mothers and Others, she argues that fire made large root vegetables digestible through cooking, which led to a role for experienced older women digging up roots, which kept those women around longer to drive the shift to collective child care, which Hrdy thinks was the key to humanity's success.
March 31. Today I'm starting a new feature of the blog. I don't want to feed a mental state of victimhood and outrage, so I often avoid posting links where the main content is "Look at those bad people doing those bad things." But sometimes you want to know that stuff, and sometimes it's fun to write about. So from now on I'm going to save up those links and post them all together on the last Monday of every month. I call it Finger-Pointing Day.
First, let's look at the eeeevil Amazon.com. Amazon's War On The House Of Otto is about a German corporation that has been very successful while treating it's workers well, and now Amazon is cutting into their business through the economic efficiency of squeezing the life from its workers. At the same time, Amazon is exploiting its customers by making Amazon Prime worse, charging more money for fewer benefits -- unless you count the streaming video benefits designed to compete with Netflix. The article continues with more examples of tech giants making their products worse to try to move into the territory of their competitors.
Another example: Apple has done everything it can to put independent repairers out of business, so that Apple has a monopoly on repairing its own products. More generally, any person or system that is both selfish and powerful, will try to leverage its power into more power, typically by limiting your freedom to do anything that works against it.
But don't blame the one percent. This article in the Atlantic argues that the real villains are the top tenth of one percent, or even the top one percent of the top one percent. In the shocking third chart you can see that the bottom half of the top one percent has lost ground since the 60's and 70's. So about half of the "one percenters" have been screwed over by even richer people.
Something less weighty (literally), this reddit comment explains how Breyer's ice cream has burned its brand for profit, replacing expensive and healthful cream with synthetic chemicals and cheap fillers that allow them to whip more air into the frozen dessert (no longer technically ice cream) so they can charge you dollars a pound for air. Most depressing of all, some fool consumers are being tricked into liking it.
Finally, going big again, George Monbiot argues that Humans are diminutive monsters of death and destruction, and not just civilized humans, but that we've been ruining the planet for more than a million years. I believe, following an idea in John Livingston's book Rogue Primate, that the key event was not walking upright, but fire. There's a popular idea that our caveman ancestors used fire to scare predators away. But think about it. If deer learned how to make fire, would wolves be scared away, or would they learn to follow the smoke to their next meal? When our ancestors tamed fire, they began announcing their presence to all other animals, and then they had to become the deadliest animal in the world.
You can see the depressing result in this XKCD comic, Earth's land mammals by weight.
March 28. Good news and fun stuff for the weekend. My city, Spokane, has just greatly expanded urban farming. I'm not planning to raise goats or pigs myself, but if my fruit trees ever make more than I can eat, I can now sell the excess from an unlicensed stand in my driveway.
Recipe for a Happy Life: Less Materialism, More Gratitude. Sometimes when I'm falling asleep at night I try to count fifty things I'm grateful for. (Other times I count wishes.)
And this is easily the best fiction I've ever seen on reddit: KhanneaSuntzu comments on what would happen to the world if Cthulhu showed up.
March 26. Today, technology. Spy Kids is a Charles Stross piece from last year, arguing that government surveillance agencies are being undermined by generational cultural changes, in which the spies will have less and less loyalty to their employers, and more loyalty to themselves or to higher values. (One nit-pick: since most "generations" are defined as spanning 18-20 years, then unless everyone has all their kids at age 18-20, it's not true that the Boomers are the parents of Gen X are the parents of Millennials and so on. It's about equally likely that parents and kids will skip a generation.) Anyway, even if new human generations make the NSA obsolete, I expect the control systems to also spawn new generations that remain in control.
For example, Facebook has acquired Oculus VR. That link goes to the Hacker News comment thread. Oculus VR is the company developing Oculus Rift, a cutting-edge head-mounted virtual reality system that techies were really excited about, and now some of them are crushed that Facebook has bought it, and some of them are trying to convince themselves that we're still on the path to utopia. You know the line from The Matrix, "a prison for your mind"? Virtual reality doesn't have to be a prison for your mind, but of all the possible uses for VR, that's the one that best serves the powers that are now making the decisions about how VR and other technologies will be developed and used.
This reddit comment suggests a possible antidote to virtual reality dystopia, but I expect it to remain uncommon: forcing unstructured time on your kids.
I literally pushed them out the door. Five minutes went by, them sitting on the front stairs moping. Then they tied to get back inside. "This is boring. There is nothing to do outside." I closed the door in their cute little disappointed faces. This process repeated and went on for some time. Eventually they got so bored they started playing. Just like that. And here I realized and remembered something from my own childhood. The best times I ever had was when I was really bored, with a bunch of friends with nothing to do.
Related: What Is Post-Internet Art? As an alternative to art that only exists inside computers, some artists are now using technology to create art with an enduring physical presence.
And a bunch more high-tech: 20 Crucial Terms Every 21st Century Futurist Should Know. There's way too much here for me to try to comment, but I will say that most of these things would not be stopped by energy decline, economic collapse, or climate catastrophe. They would develop in parallel with all that -- unless they're stopped by being half-baked ideas in the first place.
March 24. You've probably seen Steven Pinker's argument that the world is getting less violent, because violent death rates are dropping. This View from Hell post, Homicide Rates, Suicide Rates, and Modern Medicine, argues that this is an illusion caused by high-tech medicine saving victims who would previously have died. "From 1931 to 1998, the United States homicide rate dropped by about 25%. But during that time, rates of aggravated assault increased by about 700%." Meanwhile the suicide rate continues to rise, and Sister Y speculates that "in the absence of modern medicine, up to ten times as many people who poison, cut, hang, or suffocate themselves might succeed."
The deeper problem here is that our culture is obsessed with avoiding death and acute physical injury, while being unaware of the grinding emotional trauma of going to school, looking for a job, being deep in debt, and generally being treated like cattle in a giant scheme to concentrate wealth and power ever more densely at the center.
March 21. Anne comments on yesterday's subject:
What I remember from ecological modeling is that models almost always crash, even when modeling systems that are robust in the real world. Mathematically, you could say that a model progresses to a stable attractor and, for obvious reasons, most attractors in synthetic systems are boundary conditions - the point at which there are no rabbits, or all the biomass is trees. These never happen in real life because correction factors exist that are negligible except in extreme circumstances (and consequently impossible to model accurately). Saying that this model predicts a crash just means it doesn't account for everything that happens when some other factor goes to eleven.
March 20. There's a lot of buzz about a Nasa-funded study predicting collapse. The main thing it shows is that economic inequality weakens the system, because the elites remain unaware of how resource depletion is affecting everyone else. But the study's model lacks the complexity to show how the coming changes could actually play out. Instead it talks vaguely about "collapse" without even making distinctions between economics, politics, and technology. My forecast remains what it was two months ago: global economic collapse, crushing poverty, widespread political chaos, but crappy subsidized food will keep you from starving, you'll still have to pay taxes, and high tech will continue creating new distractions and opportunities.
March 18. Unrelated links. Here's a fascinating speculation about that missing airliner, that MH370 shadowed SIA68, another airliner bound for Barcelona, to sneak through the airspace of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and then veered off to a landing in Turkmenistan, Iran, China, or Kyrgyzstan. Here's the Hacker News comment thread on this idea.
Next, a good two-part article on Why procrastinators procrastinate and How to beat procrastination. Personally I wouldn't frame the issue in terms of procrastination (putting something off) but motivation (getting yourself to do something). Anyway, there are lots of cute illustrations of concepts like the instant gratification monkey, the panic monster, and the dark playground. The basic idea is that if you set precise goals with steady progress and make them part of a meaningful story, it's easier to get through the painful early stages of a project, into a stage where you actually feel like doing what you need to do. For much more on this subject, backed up by research, check out the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal.
Finally, some scary news: Forests around Chernobyl aren't decaying properly because radiation has killed back the decomposers. This increases the fire danger, and a big forest fire would send a bunch of radioactive stuff downwind with the smoke. My position on nuclear power is that it's completely safe unless something unexpected happens, and with the all the economic collapses and political chaos of the coming decades, unexpected stuff is going to happen more often.
March 16. A librarian comments on Friday's barista link:
Customer service is a dying skill. It is all about people, face to face ideally, trying to give them what they need even if that isn't what they start out asking you for, and making it a pleasant experience. Some of the best interns in my library came from tending shitty bars.
And you can't standardize it, although that seems to be the corporate goal. It has to be about *that* specific moment and the people who are sharing it. Maybe you just have to give half a shit about the guy on the opposite side of that desk or counter? If you actually care, people will pick up on that and express appreciation, and that makes a much nicer day for everyone.
I worry lately that with so much tech in the way of kids as they grow up and get out into the world, they have trouble with that kind of thing. They end up being rude or careless without meaning to be, they can't read the signals, so no one knows what's going on or how anyone feels about it.
In the coffee house in the linked essay, the patron wants to be validated in their hipness, but that isn't even a real thing, so what is it that they *really* need? Maybe they are asking the barista to reassure them that they're doing something valuable with their lives?
Loosely related: Why being too busy makes us feel so good. The article explains how we're too busy and why it's bad, but it never actually tells us why being busy makes people feel good, except with an unsupported speculation that it distracts us from facing death. I'm not qualified to answer -- I love free time and hate busyness so much that I sometimes fantasize about being in solitary confinement. But I'm going to be busy tomorrow and Wednesday, which is why I'm posting today and probably Tuesday.
March 14. Unrelated links. First, a surprisingly good reddit comment explaining hockey fights. It's like hockey is a functioning anarchist society, where the refs are mostly there to make line calls, and fights are arranged by the players to blow off tension and sometimes to punish players who are consistently out of line.
Another reddit comment about automation and the coming need for an unconditional basic income.
Inside The Barista Class is an overly long article with some good insights about class and culture in America. One of the main jobs of baristas, after making coffee, is validating customers' beliefs in their own hipness.
And some music for the weekend. Twenty years ago I would have said I hated jazz, and I still hate some jazz (for example this). But the word covers such a wide variety of music that inevitably I'm discovering stuff that I totally love, like the band Sons of Kemet, and this awesome live jam by Project Logic and Casey Benjamin.