November - December, 2005

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November 5-6. Power source that turns physics on its head? Almost the entire article is about the implications to quantum physics if this technology is for real. The scary thing is what it assumes without question: First, that a cheap source of tremendous energy would be a good thing, as if the present system would magically switch from nightmare to utopia if it only had even more power to work with. Second, that this new system really produces no waste. You have to read carefully, and know some chemistry and physics, to see the problem:

In his "hydrino", the electron sits a little closer to the proton than normal, and the formation of the new atoms from traditional hydrogen releases huge amounts of energy.

So the power plants would consume regular hydrogen and make "hydrino." And since you can't get something for nothing, you would have to put all the energy back to turn the "hydrino" back into hydrogen. This will not happen, and gradually the Earth's hydrogen will be replaced by this freaky new substance that we don't know anything about. I sense an eerie similarity to Kurt Vonnegut's Ice-Nine.

And it gets worse! From the site of BlackLight Power, the inventor of the technology:

The lower-energy atomic hydrogen products of the process can be used to form novel hydrino hydride compounds ("HHCs") which are proprietary to the company, and form a vast class of new chemistry.

Now it really sounds like Ice-Nine! Worse, the new chemicals will be proprietary. If you think patents on life are bad, they're now talking about patenting simple molecules. If the present system keeps going, eventually all molecules will be "owned", and the owners will have unlimited energy to back up their claims.

November 9. Amtrak president fired for saving Amtrak, and now the board of directors will hire a president with the "vision" to kill Amtrak. Here's my take: The Culture of Empire is so hellish that the human collective consciousness wants to destroy it. This manifests as individual humans feeling really good about cars and planes, because they sense how inefficient they are, and hating trains and anything else that will save resources and keep the system going longer, from fuel-efficient cars to intelligent leaders. America wants to return to the stone age -- I just wish people had the courage to admit it to themselves, and to work for it with clear heads.

November 10-13. Lately I've been thinking a lot about finding your center. Chellis Glendinning has pointed out that in western culture we define our "self" in terms of boundaries, while nature-based people see themselves merging into everything (the way all infants do), and develop a completely different sense of self that is based on the center.

In this culture, we're too busy and distracted and stressed out to find our centers, so we have to obsessively define and defend boundaries to feel like we even exist, which is why right wing Christians complain about liberals and gays, and why almost all content on political blogs is in the form of attacking opponents.

So what is this "center"? A practicing Buddhist friend, who has done a lot of meditating, says you discover that all the stuff you thought of as "you" -- your beliefs, your personality, your likes and dislikes -- isn't really you. Under that is what Buddhists describe as "the part of you that's in everything." I've also read about hypnotists who have discovered what they call the "human soul" -- if you get people deep enough, they all have a voice in them that is very wise and seems to be the same for everyone. Patricia comments:

While I think I know what it feels like when I am centered, I'm not sure I could describe my center... I'm not sure that what I think of as my center, is really mine at all, but maybe something shared, or like a place where I connect into something bigger than just this small, temporary creature I call Me.

I would describe my center as that-which-perceives, in the broadest sense of "perceive." One way to get there is with the "not that" meditation: Find a quiet, still place, close your eyes, and ask yourself, "Who am I?" And whatever you come up with, keep saying "not that" and looking deeper. Another way to get there is to try to imagine awareness without existence. (If you say that's impossible, you're dodging the exercise.) Or if you're a computer gamer, imagine a game where you can "zoom in" to play any creature, or any function of that creature, or zoom out to play groups or the whole map. Your "center" is that zoomable perspective, and it's not limited by your human identity. When you find it, you feel both grounded and free, both immortal and egoless.

I think this culture gives us a great opportunity. Our ancestors had strong identites as participants in nature, and as members of tribes. But we're almost completely alienated from nature, and most of the institutions that fill our need for tribes are empty and meaningless, like sports teams, or dominating and destructive, like corporations and nation-states. It's like our islands have sunk, there's nothing to hold onto but sharks, and now we have to learn to swim: the human soul has to learn a deeper, stronger spiritual grounding than ever, which might make us resistant to future empires.

November 11. A primate specialist says that cell phones are making Japanese youth behave like chimpanzees:

Masataka claims that mobile phones have deprived people of brainpower because memory functions now eliminate the need to try and remember phone numbers and GPS functions mean people have no need to learn about their surroundings. "Mobile phones are now performing tasks that minds once did, such as think and talk. If this continues, people will continue losing their ability to think."

We should have seen this coming. Strong machines make humans physically weak. Smart machines make humans mentally weak. What's going to happen with "spiritual machines"?

Adam has a smarter interpretation. It's tempting to think, "technology makes humans stupid," but chimps are not stupider than humans -- they just have a different kind of intelligence. So this is a much more interesting example of unintended consequences: Not that technology is damaging us, but that technology is giving us the freedom to return to our deeper identity -- which will undermine our ability to keep making the technology! It will be a great irony if the tools that are intended to turn us into robots, turn us into animals.

November 14. There's a war coming on the fringe. People who are now in agreement -- that Bush is a psychopath, that cheap energy is running out, that corporations and empires are bad, that civilization is destroying the biosphere -- are going to split on the relative importance of human life, human freedom, human comfort, and the survival of nature. If we can't have it all, what do we sacrifice first?

The eco-"fascists" are those who would sacrifice freedom. They're not fascists in a strict sense, just nice people who believe ecology justifies a strong control system. Last week Tom sent this article, Wake-up call from Woking, about London's "energy wardens." And he wrote: choosing to live in the metropolis, connected to the grid, we enter into a social contract. If we get energy from the grid authorities, then it is reasonable for those authorities to monitor our grid consumption.

Then another reader wrote:

People aren't going to voluntarily start doing things that are good for the Earth. Should we force them? I don't really know. Personally, I despise authority, and I would hate to be told how to do anything. But if the health of planet is a necessary prerequisite for the health of the populace, shouldn't that take priority?

The key mistake here is not thinking a control system might be worthwhile, but identifying that control system with the word "we." That's exactly how power seduces us. A system that forces people to be good to the Earth does not serve the Earth -- it serves Force.

My own position is, the biosphere is more valuable than humans, and death is better than a cage. I would feel better about human extinction than an enduring centrally managed "utopia." And the best of all involuntary corrections is the way we're doing it in America, where people are free to waste energy, the energy runs out faster, the system crashes, and then we'll grow gardens and be responsible, not because we're obeying orders, but because supermarkets and excess resources no longer exist!

November 15. Vine Deloria just died. Here's a NY Times obituary, but no obituary mentions that for the last ten years Deloria has been a champion of fringe science, writing about anomalies and non-dominant hypotheses that fit the metaphysics and oral histories of indigenous people. In his book Red Earth, White Lies, he builds strong arguments that pleistocene megafauna were killed by a global catastrophe, and that Indians did not come across the Bering land bridge, but were here much sooner. He even suggests that they were here from the beginning, and that 20th century science is radically wrong about the whole history of the Earth. The Amazon review section is full of attackers, evidence that it's more dangerous and challenging than any of his other books. And the media, just like they do with MLK, canonize Deloria for his tame ideas while ignoring his radical ones.

November 22. Mad McMaxes, a guest post from Patricia about popular American survivalism:

What's wrong with these people? Not one of them is thinking about working on having a local community in place now, so that in the event of any trouble, the people in your neighborhood will work together and help and protect one another. Not one of them! AND, they are all quite worried about us nasty, brutish "city people" running out to attack them and I guess loot their McMansions of all their battery-run Xbox games and MRE's or something! They seem to be planning to stock up and "fortify" their homes, each family an island, hiding (hey wait -- that's already how they live!)

These suburban people are going to be a BIG problem if anything happens to the system too quickly! Not just because of mental shock or lack of survival skills, but mainly because they totally WANT to play Mad Max.

And they're wrong to expect some mass-exodus of urban people. Maybe from the BIG big cities, but in mid-sized cities like mine, I betcha a lot of us will stay put if we can. I think my particular urban neighborhood, and most of my city even, would be fairly well-behaved and mutually co-operative in any sudden collapse scenario. For one thing, we already interact with each other every day -- we all know one another by sight, if not by name, and we already have had friendly conversations with most of the people around us. So in an emergency it won't be a big deal to start collecting on corners and sharing info and making plans together. And I think we instinctively know, from the way we live now, that people have to be able get along and depend on each other to survive.

In any given city neighborhood you will have medics, carpenters, plumbers, chefs, tailors, mechanics, botanists, vets -- AND just generally educated people who can learn new skills quickly, AND we have the libraries and bookstores and colleges where that knowledge will still be available even if the net goes down. Even better, all those institutions -- like hospitals and colleges, are large ready-made communities of people who know each other and can work together. I doubt we'll even be less "safe" from random crime than we are right now!

Our only city-specific issue will be importing food (and water in some cities) but with so much people-power and co-operation, and so much equipment to work with, we could quickly organize groups to go out to the farmlands (by bus or bike or river barge or on foot) and trade for food. If we run out of things to trade, by then we could have groups of people who make or repair useful things. Not to mention, if we have all the medical people, we can trade their skills for food (how much meat do we get for delivering your wife's baby?)

A total breakdown does not scare me as a city-dweller. What scares me is some kind of surround-and-destroy operation by a still powerful but desperate national authority structure, as happened in New Orleans. THAT is what we are vulnerable to in the cities.

A few more comments: If urban and rural people don't know or trust each other, it will be difficult to trade, since no one is going to bring tradeable goods into the other's territory without an escort, and this escort might be seen as a raiding party -- or might become a raiding party. So it's not enough for us to build connections with our neighbors. We're going to have to build urban-rural connections... or people who already have urban connections are going to have to buy land and grow food.

And there's one other valuable thing urban people will have to trade: their shit! No truly sustainable farmer will export biomass without also importing biomass.

November 23. The human face is shrinking. If you think we're ascending to "homo superior," you might want to read this Loren Eiseley chapter, Man of the Future. Also, Patricia comments:

I had a strange thought while reading this. Does brain size correspond to solipsism, while the face is our primary means of communication with others (not counting language which is really a brain thing)? If so, well then of course big brains and small faces mark the beginning of the end, as we draw ourselves more and more inward and away from the rest of reality...

November 25. "Buy Nothing Day" is another example of what political activism in America has been reduced to: a symbolic action that requires no sacrifice and has no effect other than making us feel good. How many people who buy nothing on Buy Nothing Day are not going to turn around and still buy the same amount of stuff, just on different days? Are we really so deep in consumption that even going one day without buying anything feels meaningful? Here are some more challenging ideas:

Buy Nothing Week. Now you really have to think about what you're spending money on and what life is like without it.

Homemade Food Month. A whole month making all your meals from basic ingredients. You'll get healthier, learn to cook, and save a ton of money.

No Energy Day. For 24 hours, turn your electricity off, turn your gas off, and don't drive your car. While you're at it you can defrost your fridge, and get used to the way we're going to have to live more and more often as the cheap energy runs out.

No Job Day. No one goes to their job, but it's not to get more money or to protest some war, but to protest the very idea of having to do what you're told all day to earn the right to food and shelter.

Rent Strike. One month nobody pays rent, and if you're a landowner, you don't accept rent.

Buy No Gift Year. For a whole year, don't buy anyone any gifts, and ask everyone to not give you any gifts that cost money. You can still give things like homemade pies and massages.

November 27. It's been years since I've looked at this famous R. Crumb drawing of three possible futures, which are a sequel to Crumb's Short History of America.

The first is the "worst case scenario" with ruins and weeds, the second is "the fun future techno-fix," with flying cars and way too many trees for a real techno-future, and the third is "the ecotopian solution" with a fruit stand and dome houses in a forest. I have a confession: I like #1 the best! It's the messiest and the most free. In #2, there's a sign saying "No ground vehicles in this sector," which means the streets can be legally occupied only by flying cars and you have to buy one to go anywhere. In #3 people can walk in the roads. But only in #1 can plants grow in the roads. To me #1 is the fun future because I could go anywhere and do anything. Want to gather car doors and old power lines and build a house? Climb that wall? Look through that building? No one will stop you!

The real worst case scenario is the techno-"fix" the way it would really be: the entire Earth is covered with pavement and strip malls and ugly houses, except there are no cracks. All life -- plant, animal, and human -- is totally controlled. I'm aiming for the opposite, a world with all the wide-openness and chaos of #1, and all the greenness and human community of #3, and only enough of #2 to increase possibility.

November 30. If you want to make a catapult or a ballista post-crash, invest now in a Seacatch, an exceptionally well-made mechanism to release a line under high tension. Although I hope for a peaceful postapocalypse, I can't help thinking how cool it would be to have the best giant crossbow.

December 4. In a comment on a peak oil essay, I just made a point that I'm sure has been made many times before: when "Energy Returned on Energy Invested" drops below 1, when you have to burn more than a barrel of oil to extract a barrel of oil, there will still be a powerful oil industry, because there will still be a lot of machines that run on oil. An airplane can be flown on jet fuel but cannot be pulled by horses -- even if horses are more efficient. So the oil producers will use other kinds of energy to get the oil out, and take a loss on energy to keep the machines going.

More important, oil will still be a means to concentrate energy. We may see "oil plantations" in which human slaves and oxen, fed on organically grown crops, use their muscle power to extract oil, which can be easily stored and transported, and traded for the tools to keep people enslaved. Of course, this will be inefficient and unsustainable -- probably more inefficient than just fermenting crops into alcohol -- but it could still be less inefficient than the system we have now, and there could still be oxen extracting oil in 200 years.

December 12-13. Buyers offered 'turkey cam' deal. A farm is letting turkey buyers watch the bird they're going to eat on their cell phones, and I can't remember the last time I saw such a radical good use of technology. If this takes off, it will ruin the factory farm industry, because it's next to impossible for a large-scale farm to raise animals humanely, so every animal that can be watched by the consumer is one more animal that will be raised by a relatively small and independent farm.

And the same thing is true for human workers, and for all kinds of industries. What if we could watch our food being processed, or our clothing and computers being made? Of course, it's not going to happen, even though the technology is dirt cheap, because it would undermine the very systems that make cheap technology possible in the first place.

Betsy comments:

There's another reason it's not going to happen. I don't think consumers would want it. I hate to admit it, but I would rather imagine an animal having a nice life than have to see visual proof that it does not! It would be too painful to have to look at an animal in miserable conditions. Or even nice conditions! I think most Americans just don't want to think about where their meat comes from.

December 19. In my singularity essay I speculated about the internet thriving through the crash because computers take relatively little energy. Was I wrong? This article says Power could cost more than servers. It's another example of how civilization crashes itself: The "performance" of computers keeps increasing, but that performance is mostly being wasted on fancy graphics and ads, while performance per watt has stayed constant. Thus, usefulness per watt is plummeting.

Adam comments:

Right now the most popular websites on the internet are made up of whole buildings filled with servers -- clearly not sustainable on solar and wind power. But consumers have plenty of low power gear -- laptops, PDAs, etc. There are plenty of projects that make low power PC's for the developing world. We will start to see companies building small, distributed data centers, so that if some go down because of power outages or whatever, there will be others that are still up. Google is already working hard on this, trying to distribute their infrastructure.

Another thing starting to gain popularity are networks that have no central control or big servers. Like the BitTorrent networks -- these are oriented on filesharing for music and movies, but soon will be used for lots of other things. This technology has better performance than the centralized approach -- it's cheaper and faster! Of course, many big corporations are scared of it, since it's hard to see how a corporation based on intellectual property could benefit from decentralized sharing.

So if the big corporations are wiped out in a crash, I think the Internet still may be able to operate just fine. One interesting thing is how new computers are made -- chipmaking currently requires a lot of industrial infrastructure. Will that still happen after a crash? I don't know.

December 22. So Patricia and I have been watching Connections, James Burke's ten hour BBC series about the history of technology, and it's making me think differently about our own time. All this "end times" stuff is limiting our imagination. Suppose, instead, we're in the middle, and what's coming will be neither techno-utopia, nor Hollywood postapocalypse wasteland, nor will it be something so strange we can't even imagine it. It will be something we can imagine, but haven't.

I think we're entering a new Medieval era, a so-called "Dark Ages" that actually will be full of innovation made possible by lack of central control. The last one was built on the ruins of the Ancients -- both physical and technological -- and this one will be built on the ruins of the Moderns. And with the energy gone, the new technologies will not be mechanical, or cybernetic, but social and spiritual -- new ways to form into groups, new ways to relate to the rest of the universe, new ways to be human.

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