July - August, 2008

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July 1-3. The other day I said that Darcy Burner is "looking like the best politician of my generation." She's been doing really impressive networking among progressive candidates, leading the Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq, and just the other day exposing AIPAC for telling her to distance herself from anti-war Jewish group J Street.

The day after that article appeared, her house burned down, very quickly and with her inside it.

Now investigators are saying it was accidental, probably caused by a defective lamp. I see four possibilities: 1) This is an amazing but meaningless coincidence. 2) The investigators are corrupt. 3) The Masters of War have a very clever new way to start fires.

And 4) The fire is a meaningful coincidence -- compounded by the fact that her name is Burner! I think that ultimately all coincidence is meaningful. I agree with the New Age people that "everything happens for a reason", but I reject their assumption that it's always a good reason. It's possible that the metaphysical "higher" powers are evil, or insane, or incompetent, or they're playing the trickster to our straight man, or they have a completely alien value system. Edward Abbey said it best: "There has got to be a God; the world could not have become so fucked up by chance alone."

July 2. Andrew fills in another piece of the puzzle:

A year ago I started eating really healthy for a month. It felt great, I was full of energy. But I couldn't stay in my cubicle. I kept getting up to go somewhere, anywhere else, sneaking ourside for fresh air and sun. Work suffered.

When I'm unemployed I eat well, get daily exercise, adequate rest, and I'm generally healthy and feeling fine. When I work, I don't. It's not that I don't have the time or the energy at the end of the day, because I totally could keep up with the healthy stuff. It's that I need to feel like shit in order to work.

July 3. There was a bit on Kos last night about blogger Al Giordano getting fired by his sponsoring organization for writing about Obama and Saul Alinsky. Deb Kozikowski, who fired him and kept the money he had raised, wrote:

This is not helpful -- do you WANT Barack Obama to lose? Talk about creating the petri dish for beautiful loser syndrome.

At least it's a sound metaphor -- you can grow a disease in a petri dish. But what is "beautiful loser syndrome"? I think the idea is, whatever makes Obama beautiful to his supporters, will make him ugly to everyone else, and he will lose, so instead he has to become bland and inoffensive to the mainstream, and necessarily uninspiring to his supporters, and he will win!

But when has this ever happened? More precisely, when was the last time a bland inoffensive candidate who tried to please everyone beat an exciting and scary candidate in a general election? I don't think it's happened at the presidential level since McKinley beat William Jennings Bryan in 1900, and Bryan would have kicked McKinley's ass if they'd had TV or internet. Bush won the last two elections despite being an obvious fuckup because it was clear to voters that Bush had the courage of his convictions while Gore and Kerry were constantly backpedaling and watering themselves down so they could be president.

What's happening here is that American politics is like an abusive relationship. The people who want Obama to walk on eggshells grew up in abusive families, or at least abusive school systems, so they feel in their bones that anyone who is not completely inoffensive will be crushed. They've lived their whole lives that way and they think everyone else should too. What really horrifies them is not that Obama will be radical and lose, but that he'll be radical and win, because that means they could have done the same thing, and they've wasted their lives.

July 6. The other day Steve wrote this about hypermiling:

I just got back from a road trip round Europe... It takes real discipline to get good mileage. We regularly tried to keep the speed down but the limit in France and Spain is 130 kph and it was hard not to swap money/oil for time.

I've always thought that I have better than average self-discipline, but after thinking about that comment for a while, I've decided that there may not be any such thing as self-discipline, and if there is, I don't have it. What I have is a different internal system of reward and punishment. When I'm on the road, I'm nearly indifferent to how fast I'm going and how soon I get there, but I'm in constant pain from awareness of how much money I'm burning, so I find it easy to go slow and hard to go fast! Also, the reason I'm not a drug addict is not that I'm virtuous, but simply that I've never tried a drug that puts me in a mental state that's worth the money, unless you count video games, a world where I've spent thousands of hours. So the lesson here is, if you want to deeply change your behavior, it doesn't work to force yourself to constantly do what you hate. If possible, you need to change your internal "circuits" so that you love and hate different things.

July 8-10. Obama's supporters have good reason to be disappointed and even depressed by his reversal on telecom immunity. I understand that he's a politician and he has to compromise. I agree with his reversal on taking public financing, because he can raise a lot more money without it and have a better chance of winning. I even agree with his moves to the right on guns and religion, because there are indeed a lot of voters who "cling to guns and religion." That's a voting block that it's smart to compromise with.

But there is no voting block for warrantless wiretapping. Almost everyone who cares about it is against it. His compromise is not only bad ethically, but bad tactically. It ruins his "brand" as a courageous outsider, alienates his activist base, and does deep harm and no good to his campaign.

I think it's obvious that there's a "dark sun" here, something massive that is making Obama and most of the Democratic party behave in ways that otherwise don't make any sense at all. Congress now has the lowest approval ratings in history, and it's entirely because they're giving a deeply unpopular president everything he asks for. This is not only unprecedented -- it's downright bizarre. If anyone thinks this is business as usual, give me an example of any other time in history when an elected assembly went against the will of the people to enable and defend an unpopular executive who belonged to the opposing party.

It's very likely that the "dark sun" is the will of the elite. But that still doesn't answer the question. Even the elite have everything to gain by prosecuting telecoms, then giving them immunity for ratting out neocons, and putting the neocons in jail or even executing them as scapegoats for the collapse of the Empire. Unless they take the pressure off with some prosecutions and reforms, America is going to explode. And don't tell me "the elites are all interconnected and they would never hurt one of their own." It's the most normal thing in history for very powerful people to cut each other's throats. Being coldly rational here, they should throw Bush over the edge, and instead they're going down with him.

I want to make my heresy explicit. There are all kinds of theories about why the people pulling the strings are doing this or that, but one possibility is rarely considered:

The elite are not acting out of rational self-interest.

They're just as human as we are, and probably less emotionally healthy, and therefore more prone to make decisions for twisted psychological reasons. And while they know some deep secrets that we don't know, they're also likely to have a rigid world-view which prevents them from seeing anything that contradicts it, even if it's in plain sight.

I'm reminded of a quote from one of my favorite authors, John Keel: "UFO researchers are not telling the government what they know." The point is, people on the fringe see more clearly than people in the centers of power, because we are more mentally adaptable, because we have no investment in seeing things a certain way.

I think the elite supported the Iraq war for the same reason idiot rednecks did: It made them feel good to be on the side of a strong country violently imposing its will on a weak country. They blanked out the history books showing all the great military powers ruined by ground wars in Asia. When I was protesting right before the bombing started in 2003, I thought about making a big sign with Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, and a voice bubble saying "No... Stop..." Because if you remember the film, that's what he said to the bad kids, in a tone of voice that implied he didn't really mean it, right before they did stupid self-destructive things, which he actually wanted them to do, but he still had to put up token resistance.

The bring-down-civilization anarchists should be supporting Bush, and the Rockefellers and Bilderbergers should be supporting Dennis Kucinich, even though he would check their power, because he would thereby maintain balance in the system they feed on. It would be technically not that difficult to stabilize a mild domination system and keep it going for ten thousand years, but in practice, neither our rulers nor our institutions have the wisdom or self-control to halt the cycle of Empire and collapse.

July 16. The Art of Survival, Taoism and the Warring States. The basic point is something everybody knows: that making a fortified compound in the sticks is a bad way to survive, and making connections with your neighbors is a good way. But there are new details here. First is an explanation of how poor people who have lived in isolated areas for years will beat well-stocked newcomers in any conflict. And it also mentions something I didn't know about the history of Taoism. We might imagine that it's an abstract philosophy developed by monks who spent years living in temples and gazing at flowers, when really it's a practical philosophy developed and tested during a time of great turmoil and warfare.

July 21. This is something I've been meaning to post for months, a PC game called Love. That link goes to the home page, and here's an article about it, For The Love. It's a small-scale multiplayer online adventure game, with beautiful self-generating impressionistic graphics, still being developed entirely by one guy, Eskil Steenberg. And his News page is a very thoughtful blog that starts from game development and goes off onto all kinds of other subjects.

July 23-25. Yesterday there was a good Kos post about how Republicans have driven a wedge between ordinary Americans and progressive politicians by undermining every attempt to use government to do good, until people think their problems can't be solved through government.

OK... but how do they gain from this, really? If they just want political power, then why don't they compete with liberals in using government to help people and win votes? If they want to destroy the government, why? Just to pay fewer taxes? I'm sorry, but that's ridiculous. Very rich people and corporations are already able to dodge taxes, and middle class Republicans seem oblivious to their tax money going to expensive wasteful stuff like the "war on drugs" and toxic food subsidies and unwinnable ground wars in Asia.

If this is the work of elites trying to profit from the Iraq war, why not get much safer profits by starting alternative energy companies and using their inside connections to get fat government subsidies? And if they just want to replace the government with the private sector, then why do they also oppose private actions that help people, like Food Not Bombs or industrial hemp farming? Why do they hate bicycles and energy conservation and Rainbow Gatherings?

Let's stop pretending. These people block the government from doing good not because they hate government, but because they hate the doing of good. Why they hate it, and how it got started, are much harder questions.

Part of it is envy. One of my favorite bits in the Bible is the parable of the jealous workers: Some workers show up at a farm in the morning, and agree to work all day for a certain wage. Then some other workers show up in the afternoon, and they get the same amount of money for only working half a day. And the morning workers whine, "No faaaair!" And Jesus says, "Morning workers, you're fucked up. You consented to that deal and it's wrong for you to resent someone for getting a better deal."

To this day, religious scholars have trouble taking the parable at face value, but if you think it through it makes perfect sense. If the morning workers get their way, then conquerors can massacre indigenous people because "it's not fair that I had to work hard all my life in this nightmare society while these other people get to play in the woods all day." If they're right, then it's not fair for anyone to raise their kids with more autonomy and less abuse than they were raised with, and we have a downward ratchet, where the world can get worse and worse but it can never get better because no one is allowed to go first.

Now I need to back up and talk about language. The Kos post uses the word "Republicans", but when they started out in 1860 they were the good party. I could use the word "right-winger" but then someone would say, "What about Ron Paul? He's a good right winger." Or, "What about Soviet Russia, where the bad people were left wing?" As soon as we use names, we get into pissant semantic arguments and lose the heart of the issue. So in the following comments, I'm going to use a blank instead of a name for this dark spiritual force.

Sally asks:

Do you mean that ( ) envy the poor for being poor and are afraid poverty is actually the better deal?

People who are prone to envy tend to envy anyone who has lower social status and is happier. You even see this between the poor and the very poor. Of course, they also envy richer happier people, but they believe they can get there themselves through self-punishing work. What infuriates them is to see unhappy richer people or happy poorer people, because it means they've wasted their own lives chasing success. So they have a strong motive to make political decisions that will keep people below them miserable.

And Paula comments:

I was raised in a fundamentalist church and grew up holding rather extreme ( ) beliefs. So, I have some insight into where these people are coming from.

The key thing to understand about ( ) thinking is that all their lives they are taught that morality and values are things that come from outside themselves. Anything you want to try to understand about ( ) comes back to this. A person's feelings and experiences have nothing whatever to do with what is right and wrong. Thus it's really quite impossible for someone stuck in a ( ) mentality to discern evil and good on her own; this determination has to come from some authority, and no matter how painful or miserable, she'll stay the authority's course because she believes she does not have the capacity to make moral decisions for herself.

This is why ( ) pundits can become continually more obnoxious, disgusting, and stupid without losing audience; and why parroting the day's party line memo is so much more rampant among ( ) bloggers and political junkies -- people who have never, and because of their cognitive programming likely will never have an original political thought. It is also why appeals to ( ) sense of decency or humanity are futile: the authorities have already been determined, and you and I are not among them, no matter if we speak the genuine truth or lay out a perfectly sensible argument.

( ) oppose government doing good because government actions are determined by the will of the people, and the people have no capacity to make moral decisions on their own. Democratic and representative governments are intrinsically evil because they are subordinate to the people... This is why ( ) seek to use democratic processes to end democracy.

I also believe we are born with an internal moral compass. But in my experience, that compass is like any muscle... If you don't exercise it, it will atrophy and you'll end up dependent upon someone else. Perhaps the best metaphor I can think of is the old Chinese practice of boxing in little girls' feet so that when they grow up, they can't walk. The difference being that it IS possible to reconstitute one's internal moral compass. For me it happened through very, very painful experiences which forced me to make life and death decisions on my own, without the help of any authority.

So what goes in the blank? "Authoritarian" would be a decent word, and Brian recommends a book on the subject, The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer. But this is like a disease that we're only beginning to understand, and I don't think it will turn out to be one simple thing, but a complex combination of things. Some of these people are capable of independent thought, and some are not. Some want power and some just want to fit in. Some are motivated by envy, some by sadism, some believe they're doing good, some know they're being selfish, some haven't even thought that deeply about it, and the really exceptional ones know they're evil. And everyone who looks at the problem, including me, projects their own personality onto it.

And you can't blame corporations or government or money or civilization, because there are some primitive tribes who have none of those things and are still totally repressive and miserable. You can even find tribes going bad among nonhuman primates. This sickness is deep.

July 27. A few weeks ago Holly sent me a beautiful handmade book of a novel she wrote, Crossing the Blue. The execution is rough at times, but the content is state of the art postapocalypse fiction, with an impressive range including crazed murderers, highway bandits, squatter camps, stifling communes, friendly locals, and ecotopia, plus some shamanic visions and debates about technologies. It goes well with Kunstler's novel, because his narrator's son took off traveling, and you can imagine that this is what he saw.

July 30. So after my survival/Taoism post, I figured it's time to actually read the Tao Te Ching. Adam recommends Stephen Mitchell's version. That link goes to the Amazon page, with many reviews that find it helpful and others that attack it for being New Agey and based on other translations instead of the original Chinese. They make it sound like Mitchell is the only one who's ever done that, but it's quite common -- they're just picking on him for being popular. Here is an exceptionally fair review of Mitchell.

So I started looking at other translations. Here's a site that with 15 Tao translations, and a site with 24 Tao translations, and a site with 112 Tao translations, plus many translations into languages other than English. Also here's a good review of published Tao translations, including some that have not been posted online.

I eventually noticed that Tao translations are like Linux distros! Mitchell is Ubuntu, designed to be extremely accessible. The Tao equivalent of a stripped-down distro like Puppy or Damn Small Linux would be Jeff Rasmussen, whose book seems to be unavailable anywhere. And the equivalent of Gentoo, where you get down to the source code, would be a scholarly literal translation with lots of commentary. The best seems to be Ellen Chen. Notice that all the reviews are five stars, and almost all of them say what almost none of the Mitchell reviews, positive or negative, say: "I have studied a whole bunch of translations."

August 5. Cycling Back Around is the best article I've seen yet about the resurgence of bicycling, full of information and beautifully written.

August 5-7. So I heard McCain was running a "dog whistle" ad that seems innocent to general audiences but tells evangelical Christians that Obama is the Antichrist. Last night via this post, I watched the ad, and holy crap! That's not a dog whistle -- it's a train whistle! Paula comments:

There are actually two layers of whistling going on -- one aimed at nominal Evangelicals, and one aimed at folks who are absolutely hard core. The gist of the deeper layer is not merely that Obama MAY be the Antichrist, but that he KNOWS he is the Antichrist and is consciously in league with Satan.

"...a nation healed, a world repaired..."

In Millenarianist doctrine, Christ will return at the end of days to heal the nation of Israel, usher in the New Jerusalem and repair the world. Fundamentalists will interpret this clip as Obama claiming for himself the place of Christ in history, in effect, declaring himself to be greater than God. This is of course what the Antichrist is supposed to do during the Great Tribulation, just before Christ's return.

"Do you have any doubts?" "Never."

One of the longstanding traditions in Christianity is that God anoints leaders who have something about them to keep them humble... Moses couldn't speak well, Jeremiah was too young, Bush is a total idiot, etc. God does this so that the leaders will be too humble to lean on their own strengths and will instead lean on God to make all the decisions. Obama's self-assurance means that he will not lean on God.

"A light will shine down from somewhere..."

In end-times mythology, Satan exercises power over all the world to make them bow down and worship the Antichrist as God. Millenarianists will interpret Obama's statement as being an acknowledgement that he knows he is the Antichrist and is fully expecting Satan to shine a light down from "somewhere" -- that is, anywhere but Heaven.

The long-term implications of this association are really horrible. In end-times mythology, there comes a point when everyone who can be "saved" is saved, there's no more evangelism to be done, and this moment signals the start of Armageddon -- the final war of good against evil, when the armies of Satan face off against the armies of God. It is a clear groundwork for future civil violence within the United States, to the degree that end-times kooks decide Obama supporters can no longer be "saved."

August 8. I knew it! You know that bit in Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, where he argues that Giuliani's policy of cracking down on trivial crimes like graffiti and fare-jumping led to a huge decrease in serious crime? It's totally bogus! Here's a comment in the Guardian, This nudging stuff is nothing new - and it's all a bit shaky:

August 11. I ordered that Ellen Chen book on the Tao Te Ching, and I've been reading it. The translation is clunky, because it's designed to not sacrifice any meaning for readability, and the commentary is incredible. Here's a Hobbes quote she uses to explain chapter 46:

I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death. And the cause of this is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight than he has already attained to, or that he cannot be content with a moderate power, but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more. And from hence it is that kings, whose power is greatest, turn their endeavours to the assuring it at home by laws, or abroad by wars.

That's very close to what I keep saying. I would put it like this:

There are two kinds of power: collaboration and domination, or power-with and power-over. Power-with is stable, and power-over is unstable. It's not that the elite want more pleasure, or need more money, but that the nature of power-over requires that once you have it, you have to to keep increasing it or lose it. (Or if you don't, you fear that you do.) In fact, a good diagnostic test for whether you're looking at power-with or power-over is whether it follows the rule, "What doesn't grow, dies."

August 18. Last week Dylan sent this great transcript of a talk by Jonathan Blow on video games. It reminds me of David Wong's Life After The Video Game Crash. Wong argues that games have never had enough substance to keep us playing them, and the only thing driving the industry is novelty:

We've now advanced from realistic 3D to slightly prettier 3D and... even slightlier prettier 3D with slightly better reflection effects and slightly better animated water ripples and -- oh, look! This game has the most realistic fog yet!

See the problem? What does an art form that relies on novelty do when it can no longer offer up anything novel?

Blow makes the same point, and seeks a solution:

As with exploiting the oil sands, there will be technological achievements that open up bursts of new innovation -- like the Nintendo Revolution controller, holographic display, a direct neural interface, or NPC's that can pathfind without getting stuck on corners or standing in your way. But each burst will exhaust itself in time. So before we run out of new shiny things, we need to build a better model of what a game should be. A sustainable model.

We need "important" games that "speak to the human condition" in the same way that good books do. And Blow's key insight is that games were already moving in that direction years ago, but went astray. So instead of looking for "innovations" in graphics and gameplay, we should be going back to classic games and expanding on what we love about them.

He mentions Ultima IV, in which you're not just building up levels and items but eight different moral attributes. The closest recent game is Black and White, in which a thousand-fold increase in computer power has led not to a more complex moral simulation but a much simpler one.

My own example would be Lords of the Realm II, a medieval strategy game where you grow wheat and cows, try to keep your peasants happy and healthy, and extract ore and wood and make weapons and armies. One great thing about it is its small scale -- sometimes you're dealing with single peasants. It also has seasons, with the map getting snowy in winter and then bright green fading to brown from spring to fall. You get better harvests if you leave fields fallow. And the most radical thing is that there is no "growth". Instead of making everything better and better forever, you are striving to find and maintain a plateau of harmony and abundance.

Of course, there is also conquest and military victory, but with a single tweak, an algorithm for the instability of large centrally controlled systems, you would have cycles of empire and collapse and the game could go on forever. With a few more tweaks to simulate exhaustion of resources, the game could teach ecology. We could add more crops, program a link between diet and health, and use our vast computing power to zoom down to individual fields and do permaculture. Of course, Lords of the Realm III went the opposite direction, prettied up the combat and cut almost everything else.

August 26. Debunking the "Tragedy of the Commons". In reality, land held in common tends to be managed well, and privately owned land tends to be exploited. But in 1968 a eugenicist named Garrett Hardin pulled a paper out of his ass that said exactly the opposite with no evidence, and all the people who stood to benefit from converting common land to private land thought it was brilliant, and proceeded to ruin the world.

I should also point out, the article is on a socialist website, and socialism is a relatively new idea: the land is not held by communities of locals who know each other and know the land, nor is it owned by predatory individuals and businesses -- it's ruled by a strong central government in the name of the common good. So far socialism has a mixed record, and is potentially even worse than private ownership if the land-exploiting interests are able to get control of the government.

August 28. Life in a Lazy Universe argues that the way this universe works is consistent with how it would work if it was simulated. It's mostly writing about programming and math, and doesn't say that a "lazy evaluation", where reality isn't filled in until somebody looks at it, is exactly how our own universe works according to quantum physics. In fact, the post itself doesn't even contain the word "quantum", but the comments immediately plunge into arguing about it, because objective physical reality is the core unproven assumption, the God, of industrial age science.

August 29. Wednesday night Obama accidentally revealed the key to the next eight years. You can tell a lot about people from their speaking mistakes, and Obama seldom misspeaks, but in his surprise appearance after Biden, he was saying that his candidacy is about a shift from top-down to bottom-up politics, and before correcting himself, he said top-up instead of top-down.

On one level, this reveals an uneasiness or hidden conflict about the whole subject of bottom-up vs top-down, which is not surprising since it's the most dangerous part of his message. But if you zoom in on the particular words, it's even more interesting. Taking his uncorrected statement at face value, he is saying that change during his presidency will not be top-up but bottom-up: Obama himself (top) will not challenge the secret levels above the presidency (up), but mass popular actions will be able to shake the ruling powers, either by working through Obama, or working around him.

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