"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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July 2. On the previous post, Anne comments: "Models have to be built for a purpose - usually as a guide for some action or response - otherwise they aren't even useful." And "you can generally judge prophets not by the accuracy of their models but by the uses for which they've been designed."
In the context of collapse, I see three kinds of modelers. First there are powerful institutions like oil companies or DARPA, who need information about the future to make strategic decisions. Then there are writers like me, who enjoy having an audience, and might also make money selling doom prep products. Writers who need an audience can be trapped in an echo chamber where the audience and the writer prevent each other from changing their thinking. Finally there are models made by powerless individuals, who have all kinds of motives.
My new theory on the Guy McPherson crowd: Why would anyone go out of their way to believe in something (near-term human extinction) that's both depressing and unsupported by the evidence? It's because these are people who are already depressed and despairing for a variety of reasons, and by telling a story about the whole world, they can all be depressed for the same reason, and feel a sense of community.
I was a doomer optimist. My position was: society sucks, there's nothing I can do about it, but this coming unstoppable event will destroy the big systems and make room for a better world. Now, whether it would really be a better world is an even harder question than how to define "collapse" in the first place. But the worse your present position, the more you're willing to gamble on change (which is why governments will try hard to keep everyone fed). And now that I'm in a better position, I don't have an incentive to cheer for a particular future. My biggest fears, being in debt and having to look for a job again, are unlikely in any scenario. There's a Spanish saying, "I don't have a dead guy at this funeral."
I'm still fascinated by the future of humanity, and my motive is curiosity. But this is still a kind of bias, because challenges caused by failure, like energy decline and climate change, are less interesting than challenges caused by success, like artificial worlds that are better than reality, or the lifelessness of too much comfort, or the unintended consequences of using biotech to make ourselves better.
June 30. Thanks Ian for letting me know that the full interviews for the film What A Way To Go have been put up on YouTube on this page. This includes a hundred minutes of me talking, almost ten years ago, and my ideas have changed a lot since then.
The reason I'm no longer a doomer is simply that I got tired of being wrong. And I started to feel contempt for other doomers who shamelessly made the same wrong predictions year after year. And you have to make precise predictions because otherwise what does "collapse" even mean? Do you think we're still going to have internet? Container ships? Large scale grain farming? Banks? Taxes? Electrical grids? Hospitals? Stock markets? Elections? These are all different subjects that require different specialized knowledge. Even something like "manufacturing" could have vastly different answers for different products. And for each thing that's going to go away, how long will it take, and by what chain of events?
Everyone wants to be right, but people who persist in being doomers want to be right in a different way than I do. I want to say what's going to happen, and then it actually happens. Some people want to feel like they understand the mechanism for how things happen. But the real world is much too complex for any one person to understand, so we make simplifications. In the context of collapse, the simplest idea is business as usual plus sci-fi extrapolation. The next simplest idea is total collapse: every one of the above things goes away, because they're all part of the same One Big Thing, and some of the conditions that made the One Big Thing possible are disappearing.
Everyone is stupid, but smart people know how they're stupid. I know that modern civilization is only One Big Thing inside my head, and out in the world it's billions of people I don't know, their knowledge and habits and intentions, plus trillions of physical objects and all the connections between everything. I know that you can't have perpetual economic growth on a finite planet, that renewable energy is not coming online fast enough for a smooth transition out of fossil fuels, and that presently fertile regions will become deserts; but it would be arrogant to think that large complex high-tech society cannot adapt to these conditions, just because I can't personally imagine how it can adapt.
June 25. I'm busy this weekend and will probably not post again until Tuesday. On a tangent from my previous post, a reader posted this one hour radio program to the subreddit, Musical Language. I've been thinking a lot lately about musical quality and musical taste. How can people in the same culture hear music so differently? Why is musical judgment more varied and subjective than, say, judgment of landscape photographs? What internal process makes us like the sounds we like?
The radio show tries to answer this with brain science, and it has two good stories about musical sense developing. The first is the observation that if you record someone speaking, and play the same section over and over, it starts to sound musical, and your brain becomes trained to permanently hear that bit as musical.
This makes me think that a big part of musical taste is deciding what we want to like (often subconsciously) and then listening until we like it. A hundred years ago people just liked the music of their culture. But now, with so much choice, the kind of music you like is part of your individual identity. You might feel drawn to dark and angry music, or refuse to like anything by someone in a cowboy hat. As a teenager I got into prog rock because it was musically complex, mildly noisy, and had smart lyrics.
But sometimes you catch yourself liking something you don't want to like, or didn't expect to like. This means there's something at work deeper than culture and choice.
The radio show's other good story is about Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. At its first performance in 1913, it was so dissonant that fights broke out in the audience and people threw things at the orchestra. Only a year later audiences loved it. And if you look closely enough at the brain, you can see physical events that correspond to our mental process of turning noise into beauty.
I'm not interested in the mechanism, only how wonderful it feels when I do it. (If you're into Enneagram, this is why I'm 5w4 not 5w6.) But now I have more questions. Why does some challenging music sound incredible after repeated listening, while most challenging music merely sounds not bad? If this varies between different people, and if it's independent of number of listens, does it point to the deeper component of musical taste?
Is this related to other practices of transforming pain into pleasure, like BDSM, or certain schools of meditation? Is the same thing happening with difficult fiction? Are we decoding something in the art, or is the art decoding something in us? And are we making progress? If we exchanged music with people from a thousand years ago, would it be an equal exchange? And if not, if their music would bore us and our music would shock them, what does that say about changes in human consciousness?
June 22. Saturday night I was listening to music and had a thought. One song, which I had originally classified as pretentious and boring, and later as interesting, this time sounded radical and brilliant. So how does that mental model change, or not change? What do I do inside my head so that tomorrow I think of this song as great and not average?
Earlier I was watching baseball and having a similar thought about how batters see pitches. As an amateur I would just see a ball coming at me, but a professional batter sees the pitch within a classification system of different kinds of pitches, and if they're familiar with the pitcher, they see it in the context of what they expect from that pitcher. This is more than a mental model -- it's burned into their instinctive body motions by practice, so they hardly have to think at the moment of the swing. Pitchers do the same thing to learn how to pitch to different batters. And they're both aware the other one is doing it, which is how the mental game develops: if you know the other player's mental landcape, you can take advantage of it, or even hack it. Greg Maddux once intentionally gave up a home run to a batter in a regular season game, so in the playoffs the batter would be looking for that same pitch and never get it.
So here's my theory. Our landscapes of mind and habit are mostly shaped by emotion. The more intense my feelings when I'm listening to that song, the easier it is to start thinking of it as a great song. This might be obvious to anyone who's not an intellectual, and if it's true it explains a lot. In conflicts between companies or empires or sports teams, why do young upstarts defeat established powers? They're living more on the edge, so in every little success or failure, their emotions are more acute, and lead more easily to valuable mental adjustments. Why do people get stupid when they get comfortable? Because they have insulated themselves from the extreme events and strong emotions that would help them stay on top of a changing world.
This also explains why job interviewers look for enthusiasm, and why it's so dangerous to fake it, because it gets you in situations where you're not as adaptable as you need to be.
June 19. Fun stuff for the weekend. Speculative Evolution is a subreddit "for images, discussion, and articles about life forms that could have existed in a different world. Speculative organisms may be from the future, an alternate timeline, or alien planets."
And I've discovered another great obscure band, Life Without Buildings. That's a 2014 article and interview about their only album, from 2001, Any Other City. All the songs are great but my initial favorites are Let's Get Out and Daylighting.
The singer, Sue Tompkins, has a style that sounds like a hybrid of two of my favorite singers. She doesn't have Colleen Kinsella's unearthly vocal timbre, but she matches and exceeds the raw, punchy aliveness of great Big Blood songs like Destin Rain. And she has the same half-talking half-singing stuttery repetition as Al Joshua of Orphans & Vandals in songs like Mysterious Skin. Except she predated both of them, and Al Joshua was clearly influenced by her. Two years ago I didn't know about any of the above music, so I wonder what else is out there...
June 17. Thanks naringas for giving me something to write about today, posting to the subreddit this article from the New Yorker, A New Theory of Distraction. It's a review of Matthew Crawford's book The World Beyond Your Head, and it has a critique of Crawford similar to the one I wrote a week ago.
Crawford thinks that modern people have too much freedom, which leads to boredom, depression, and being victimized by high-tech distraction, and we need to build a culture of benevolent authority and meaningful constraints. I think we've only begun to learn self-regulation, and unstructured time is not a burden but an exciting opportunity to practice the skill of navigating freedom. The reviewer, Joshua Rothman, uses James Joyce's Ulysses to argue that constant distraction is not a bad thing, and instead of avoiding it, we should own it. (I'm glad he summarized Ulysses for me because I find Joyce unreadable.)
On a tangential subject, Rothman mentions that comedian Louis C.K. and author David Foster Wallace think we seek distraction to avoid facing some unbearable pain at the heart of our being. But I've heard that Louis C.K. is privately a sad man, and of course Wallace hanged himself. Maybe that "emptiness inside" is something that only a small proportion of people feel, but it drives them to success or self-destruction, so they get most of the attention. And the reason I haven't written a bunch of novels is that I enjoy doing nothing.
June 15. There's a subreddit called Shower Thoughts, and that might be the direction I go to keep this blog going, just random small ideas. A couple weeks ago I had this one: what I despise about hypocrites is not that they lack the self-discipline to practice what they preach, but that they lack the courage and empathy to preach what they practice. I'm thinking of anti-gay politicians who have secret gay sex, or women who have had abortions and still think they should be illegal for other women. You might say, what about behaviors that are clearly wrong? Well, if Ted Bundy had stood up and said it's okay to rape and kill women, he wouldn't have got away with it for so long.
June 12. As usual, personal and fun stuff for the weekend. Leigh Ann has got me watching the women's World Cup, and in some ways I like it better than the men's game. The men are smoother and more explosive, but the women are more scrappy. Yesterday's highlight: you will never see a better free kick than this one by Norway's Maren Mjelde.
And some music. Has anyone else noticed that Sarah by Ray LaMontagne totally rips off Bob Dylan's Fourth Time Around? Of course Dylan was ripping off The Beatles' Norwegian Wood, but at least he made the song better.
I think popular music has been in decline for decades, but only because creativity is shifting to unpopular music. I've recently become obsessed with this 2014 garage rock gem, Doctopus - Wobbegong.
June 10. I want to go back one more time to Matthew Crawford's The World Beyond Your Head. My favorite parts of the book are where he argues that technology is being designed to take skill away from us and make us powerless consumers of entertainment. The parts I like the least are where he argues that individual freedom has gone too far and we need to be more constrained by authority, custom, and tradition. That's true in some contexts, but I think those contexts are outliers -- his example of a tradition-bound utopia is a business that restores old pipe organs.
I wonder what experiences led Crawford to take that position and seek the unusual examples that support it, because I'm the same age and my encounters with authority and structure have been tedious and painful. Meanwhile, my most interesting challenges have been about navigating life with very little external regulation. I've complained a thousand times about obligations and never complained about boredom -- that would be like a rich person complaining that they don't know how to spend their money.
But apparently I'm also an outlier. Gabriel sends this article, In Europe, Fake Jobs Can Have Real Benefits. There are thousands of dummy companies where people do office work to support the manufacture and sale of imaginary products -- without even being paid! It makes the workers feel useful, and supposedly they're learning skills that will make them employable, but the trend is toward fewer office jobs as they get replaced by better computers. So if the businesses are not grounded in physical reality, and the workers are not learning useful skills, they might as well be playing video games. Or they could be making real pottery or furniture or planting real trees. They could be learning stonemasonry and building castles and cathedrals. At least they're not making bombs... yet.
I like Crawford's vision of a return to skilled trades, and I like my own vision of universal self-regulation, but I don't expect either one to happen in this century. Instead I expect a global struggle to tap the growing resource of people who want someone to tell them what to do all day.
June 8. Sarah Perry has a new essay on Ribbonfarm, Puzzle Theory. It's long and covers many subjects, some of them over my head, but she starts with the idea of fan theories about popular fiction. Here are two reddit threads loaded with examples: What is a fan theory that is too good not to be true? and What fan theory will always be canon to you?
We can also make fan theories about society and reality. This is what most intellectuals are doing, and most religions. Even science, which is supposed to be tested against reality, can veer off into untested beliefs that sound good. I was going to write a post about how dangerous this is: we love to believe beautiful stories, and if these stories claim to be about the real world, they can lead us into terrible decisions. But how often does this really happen?
I wrote a lot of stuff back in the aughts that I now regret, because I was writing nonfiction like fiction, emphasizing some facts and ignoring others to tell compelling stories. But none of my readers tried to blow up an office building or live in an underground bunker. Almost everyone saw it the same way I did: these are fun words, and now I'm getting on with my life.
When I was in college an evangelical Christian student tried to cut off his hand or pluck out his eye, I forget which, because of the line in the Bible. But it's not really the Bible's fault -- that guy was nuts! The actions of sane people come from cultural standards that we pick up socially and follow intuitively, and people only take reality fan fiction too seriously under extreme isolation -- or in sick cultures. I'm thinking of Alice Miller's argument, in For Your Own Good, that the generation that ruled Nazi Germany was raised at the peak of a child-rearing fad where parents thought they had to break the child's will.
More generally, I've been thinking about the human need for life to feel "meaningful": for the individual self to engage with a context in which its minute-to-minute actions make sense. This drive for meaning has caused almost all the tragedies of history, but this happens when consciousness is compulsively narrowly focused, like in addiction or extreme ideology. Fanaticism is a psychological event and the ideas are tacked on later. And the antidote is a broadly receptive consciousness that can build meaning from whatever is in front of it. I think if you get good enough at this, you don't even need stories.
June 5. I'll eventually go back to writing about abstractions but this week I took a break to practice a skill: video editing. It all started a few weeks ago when I wanted to make a video of one song by that band I'm obsessed with. It's a weird cover of a Sumatran folk song called Indang Pariaman, and I wanted to set it to moving images that look as trippy as it sounds, without breaking copyright laws. So I did a YouTube search for "fractal, creative commons" and discovered the Electric Sheep project:
Electric Sheep is a collaborative abstract artwork founded by Scott Draves. It's run by thousands of people all over the world, and can be installed on any ordinary PC, Mac, Android, or iPad. When these computers "sleep", the Electric Sheep comes on and the computers communicate with each other by the internet to share the work of creating morphing abstract animations known as "sheep".
Anyone watching one of these computers may vote for their favorite animations using the keyboard. The more popular sheep live longer and reproduce according to a genetic algorithm with mutation and cross-over. Hence the flock evolves to please its global audience. You can also design your own sheep and submit them to the gene pool.
On this page I found a torrent to download this two hour Electric Sheep in HD video. It has 256 "sheep", each one 7.2 seconds long, looping three times, then a 7.2 second transition to the next one. It played on my computer but not on my TV, so I learned about the program Handbrake which converts almost any video format to one that plays on newer HDTV's.
The conversion took all night, and two weeks ago I ate some cannabutter and watched the whole thing. I became obsessed with naming the sheep, and the next day I wrote a list of all 256, the starting times, and names for about 90% of them. Some of my names were obvious and literal, like Fire Taffy, and others were subtle and intuitive, like Audrey Hepburn. I would eventually make the Indang Pariman video from one I called April Shrine. And when I happened to be watching one I called Mayan Calendar while listening to Don't Trust The Ruin II, its sharp ghostly appearance fit the song perfectly and I realized that I could use the sheep to make a lot more videos.
It's hard to find good advice on video editing software because people use it in so many different ways. The main thing I needed was very precise copying and pasting so I could seamlessly multiply the loops. The problem is that video files do not store a screenshot of every frame. They store a small proportion of frames, called I-frames, plus data for calculating the other frames forward from the I-frames. So cutting at I-frames is easy and cutting at other frames is really hard. I tried a free video editor called Avidemux, and couldn't get it to work, but I found forum threads where people recommended an older version of Avidemux, 2.5.6.
Even that didn't work perfectly. I frequently had to use the tool "rebuild I and B frames". I learned that you can scan forward frame by frame, but scanning backward more than a few frames will freeze the program, so you have to go back to the next I-frame and then forward. When I tried to add audio, Avidemux failed to recognize most mp3's, so I used the Audacity audio editor to convert them to wav files.
Anyway, I started with the giant two hour file, used I-frames to copy blocks containing my favorite sheep into much smaller files without reprocessing, cleaned up the edges of those files and saved them at a smaller size (1280x720), went into those files and bracketed and duplicated the 180-frame loops to just over the song length, trimmed the transitions to fit the song length, and finally added the audio.
This week I made four Big Blood Electric Sheep videos. For each of the two above, and Sick With Information, I used only one sheep. But for one of their greatest songs, Adversaries and Enemies, I decided to use four sheep and sync the transitions with song changes. It took a bunch of drafts, and working around loops of fixed length I couldn't get the first transition perfect, but I'm happy with the other two and the end.
June 1. I'm getting burned out on the internet, and I wonder if this is part of a trend. I mean, the internet is still miraculously useful to support offline activities. Which product should I buy? What's wrong with my car? How do I make this food? Will I like this album? You go on, you get the answer, you get off. (Heh heh, porn.) But as a channel for action, or as an end in itself, the internet is unsatisfying. I don't think an online petition has ever accomplished anything. You have basically zero chance of changing someone's mind in an argument. The communities are shallow because the connections are thin.
The main thing people are doing is seeking the self outside the self. "Does anyone else have this opinion, or this private habit? Wow, lots of people do, and now I feel validated, and strangely empty." I wonder if it makes you stronger to not know whether other people are like you, because it certainly makes you stronger to not care.
I'm not giving up this blog. It's useful for connecting with people who I might meet in person, and there will always be stuff I enjoy chattering about. But I expect my posts to be mostly about surprising ideas and personal stuff, and not about confirming stuff I already believe.
Surprising idea of the day: I only halfway understand this hyperintellectual reddit comment by Erinaceous on ecology. He's saying that humans like to idealize a unified whole, and we project that ideal on nature, but really nature is "a disequilibrium system that requires disturbance and flux at every level to maintain far from equilibrium states." Sounds like Taoism.
May 29. For the weekend, some personal updates. Earlier this year I had some serious fatigue, and one of the changes I made was to cut my sugar consumption. Now every time I eat something sweeter than a carrot, even whole fruit, I eat some Ezekiel cereal along with it because fiber enables healthy digestion of sugar. After a few weeks of this, I've noticed that I barely even like sweet foods. Also, maybe coincidentally, I no longer crave bread at all. On a normal day my breakfast is boiled sprouted wheat with whole milk kefir and prunes, my lunch is red meat and cheese, and my supper is whatever. For a while I was eating meat twice a day, but it gave me body odor that I didn't like, so now I'm eating more beans, mostly refried beans made in large batches with sprouted pintos.
Since selling my truck I miss it sentimentally, but not practically. I still ride my bike a few times a week but mostly I ride my scooter, a Buddy 150. It's great to have fast acceleration and still burn hardly any gas.
Yesterday the first strawberry ripened in the back yard. The apricot and peach and apple have all set less fruit than they did last year, maybe because this year we had late frosts. Peaches are iffy in Spokane and the peach tree is struggling while the apricot is thriving. Also I'm going to get my first crop from the Evans/Bali tart cherry.
I've cut my marijuana use to one night every two weeks. I was thinking I might get away with two consecutive nights every two weeks, but last weekend when I tried that, on the second night my body felt sluggish and crummy and the head high was mediocre. I'm just not built to be a full-time stoner. Even once every two weeks it takes me a few days to feel normal again, but it's worth it.
May 27. Adam sends this interesting article, The Caveman's Home Was Not a Cave -- because they only lived in caves in winter, and the rest of the year they lived outdoors and moved around a lot.
Also on the subject of human habitat, here's a good critique of Colonizing Mars. I think robot space probes are cool, but the idea of putting humans on other planets is pure romanticism by people who think they're rational, which makes it funny. If you're going to base your vision of the future on genre fiction, it's more realistic to aim for bioengineered dragons and elves. At the same time, I think the dream of living on Mars, where there is no ecology, will lead to inventions that reduce our ecological footprint on Earth.