August - October, 2012

previous archive

August 2. Good example of a vertical farm in Chicago. Some people imagine that vertical farming captures more overall sunlight, which is false if you think about it. In this case the building is not trying to capture sunlight, but to densely combine many functions, most of which don't require any light: kombucha, beer, mushrooms, and methane from compost.

August 9. I've been thinking about money and the meaning of life, and how strange it is that we try to get both of them from the same activity. Of course in prehistory there was nothing like modern money. But even through most of history, our ancestors found their meaning of life in family and religion, and the sphere of money was separate. Maybe they started to merge through Calvinism, and the idea that being rich is evidence that God likes you. Or maybe as the money economy expanded, more and more people were so successful at the game of making money that they came to see it as the center of their lives. Also part of the meaning of life is social status, and where it used to come from noble ancestry, it began to come instead from occupation, so if you wanted to feel like you were living well, you would try to get a higher status job.

Even in America 100 years ago, I think most people still saw their job as an unfortunate necessity. But as the 20th century continued, America tried to take all the bullshit in the lives of rich people, and expand it to everyone: Everyone gets a country estate with a lawn, everyone gets a car, and everyone gets told that their job makes them important. In practice this means lifeless suburbia, nightmare traffic, and even people with bad jobs are tricked into being emotionally invested in the system that exploits them. This is the message of the Timbuk 3 song "Just Another Movie":

It's just another movie, another song and dance
Another poor sucker who never had a chance
It's just another captain going down with his ship
Just another jerk, taking pride in his work

The mid-20th century was the peak of Americans feeling that they were participating in some kind of glorious collective project. In the 1960's, belief in this project started to unravel, and the crew started to jump ship. In the 70's they called it a "midlife crisis" when people noticed that their job no longer felt collectively meaningful, so they looked for a new job that felt individually meaningful.

Now, it's no problem for everyone to love what they do on their own time; but there's only room for a few people to make a living doing stuff that feels intrinsically meaningful. In practice, these jobs are snatched up by the elite, or the work conditions are terrible, because if you quit, there are hundreds of people lined up behind you who want to make films or work in a nonprofit.

It seems innocent to ask a kid "What do you want to be when you grow up?" or to ask an adult "What do you do?" Both questions hold a subtext that sets us up for a lifetime of stress and disappointment: What you do for money is what you are, so if you can't get paid for doing something enjoyable and admirable, you're a failure. This is also why I hate the word "hobby", because it marginalizes and trivializes something you love to do, just because you don't get paid for it. We need a word, and a culture, that puts what we love to do in the center, and what we do for money off on the side.

August 12. A week ago I went to see The Dark Knight Rises, in which a villain named Bane takes over New York City and justifies it with talk about bringing down the rich. Criminals rule the streets, people are sentenced to death in silly show trials, and there's a neutron time bomb that will kill everyone unless Batman stops it. Lefty analysts are attacking the movie as an elitist reaction to Occupy Wall Street, but I don't think they quite get it. It's not that TDKR is about OWS, but that TDKR and OWS are about the same thing: the perception of extreme inequality of wealth and power in America.

So TDKR is not falsely accusing OWS of being violent and dangerous, because it's not about OWS; and it's not falsely suggesting that uprisings against the rich can be brutal and clumsy, because this has happened many times in history. The reason the movie is elitist propaganda is that it views a popular uprising as incomprehensible chaos. It refuses to imagine that anyone involved could have an intelligent motivation. Is Bane selfish or altruistic? If he's altruistic, why doesn't he help people turn apartment buildings into autonomous communities, and turn streets into food forests? If he's selfish, why doesn't he set himself up in a palace full of slaves? In either case, why the bomb? And if he wants to kill everyone, why doesn't he do it the first chance he gets?

On one level, this is just bad writing: the villain is there to create interesting challenges for the hero, never mind his motivation. But if you take it seriously as a political statement, the message is that opposition to the dominant system can only come from a perspective of total insanity.

[Update: I've seen some attempts to defend the movie as having a coherent message, and I don't buy them. The story is contrived from the goal of dumb entertainment with the appearance of political relevance. Here's a fun reddit comment about many ways that TDKR just doesn't make sense.]

August 23-24. New Ribbonfarm post, Waste, Creativity and Godwin's Corollary for Technology. Venkat points out that there is such a thing as good waste:

This is the sort of waste people mean when they say to become a good artist, you have to waste paper... Here's the thing about good waste: it fosters creativity. If you have the luxury of being able to waste a resource, it means you don't have to think about it. It is not an active constraint... This simplifies your thinking, which allows you to redeploy those mental resources on more fertile fronts.

Could the idea of good waste apply to wasting time? Everyone is so busy, and how many things could we do better if we did not have to think about time as a constraint? And when a culture constrained by time observes a culture not constrained by time, and fails to appreciate it, it uses the word "lazy".

Chuck points out that waste is a matter of perspective: "A few years ago, a coworker told me that one lesbian coworker was a 'waste' of a good-looking woman." Or, if you get a guaranteed basic income, it seems like a waste of your labor from the perspective of rich people who want to buy your labor, but from your perspective, your labor has been preserved for activities that you find personally meaningful.

Chuck also comments that "waste" implies scarcity. So if there's an unlimited amount of something, it doesn't make sense to talk about wasting it; but as it gets more scarce, waste becomes more of an issue, and there is more controversy about who gets to use it. Consider the popular right wing position on energy scarcity: there is no energy scarcity, so we should all use as much as we want. Because these people are authoritarians, they cannot accept that energy is scarce, because that would mean we little people have no right to it. The radical move here is to admit that energy is scarce, and still insist that we all have the right to use it up, even in ways that other people think are wasteful.

September 12. Yesterday on the subreddit, polyparadigm posted a great comment on Slavoj Zizek and worldview tunneling, explaining why it's easier for us to imagine the apocalypse than smaller changes:

An interesting thing happens when two steep-sided potential wells approach one another very closely: it becomes easier for a particle to vanish from one potential well, and reappear inside the other, than to climb up the potential well... Similarly, there is some steep obstacle to imagining most sorts of incremental-but-substantive change in capitalism, but apparently that steep barrier isn't far enough away from zombies or singularity or rapture to prevent people from tunnelling through, in droves.

September 17. A few thoughts on the Muslim riots. First, if they said, "We are rioting because of the military occupation of our lands and the economic exploitation of our people," more than half the world would be on their side. But when they say, "We are rioting because someone made a movie somewhere that insults our religion," not even half of Muslims are on their side. This is a public relations catastrophe for Islam.

Now, some people are saying, in Islamic culture, politics and religion are one, and they actually are rioting for political reasons even though they say it's for religious reasons. Fair enough. But if they understood our culture, they would frame the riots in political terms, not religious. And because the secular west is in a position of power, for us to understand their culture is merely a matter of politeness; for them to understand our culture is a matter of survival.

I can't help but see this in terms of Darwinian competition. If an organism has a behavior that is no longer adapted to its environment, if this behavior is self-harmful and can be reliably incited by competitors, it will be incited by competitors, until the maladapted organism changes or dies. In this case, the behavior is responding to symbolic expression with physical violence, which is no longer tolerated in the modern world. For an illustration of the gap between radical Islam and other major religions, here's an offensive piece from the Onion, No One Murdered Because Of This Image.

I think there's an even deeper cause of the riots, and also the anti-Japan riots in China, and the coming riots in your city. According to this article, Freedom to Riot: On the Evolution of Collective Violence, primates always have the potential to come together in a violent mob against a common enemy -- but this happens much more easily when we're already under stress:

Hundreds of studies with captive primates have shown that impoverished environments result in heightened aggression and antisocial behavior. Such behavior has been shown to significantly increase under conditions of overcrowding, when there's a lack of novelty in food, entertainment, or social opportunities, when the population increases and the number of strangers in a colony grows, or, most crucially, when food is limited and/or fluctuates dramatically.
Another study found that increasing the amount of food in a captive colony of rhesus macaques by 25 percent decreased the amount of aggression by 50 percent. However, when a normal amount of food was restricted (by placing it in a single basket where it could be monopolized by a few high-ranking individuals) the level of overall aggression tripled and the number of violent attacks per hour was five times greater.

September 23. Reddit comment about UPS vs Fed Ex, and how the different economic models of the two companies lead to different cultures. UPS drivers are mellow and happy because they have job security and good benefits, while FedEx is a war zone where a few drivers make tons of money while most of them are stressed out and angry.

September 24-26. Difficult essay, Trade-offs between inequality, productivity, and employment. The core idea is that rich people can only spend so much money on goods and services before it becomes pointless. Like that line from Wall Street: "How many yachts can you water-ski behind?" But they can spend unlimited money, and never be satisfied, competing with other rich people, and trying to avoid losing money and power.

I don't think the author appreciates how irrational this is. He uses the metaphor of a sinking ship with a few lifeboats auctioned to the highest bidder. But in most economic collapses and famines, you're fine if you're just not poor. The top ten percent are rarely in physical danger -- unless it's a violent revolution, in which case they're in more danger.

The rich don't need insurance against starving and dying, but against the emotional pain of losing control. Because that's what we really spend money on after our basic needs are met: absolute control of a larger personal space, hiring more labor of other people, and an increasing share of control in the whole world.

It is the nature of control that the more you have, the less satisfied you are, because the circumference of your limit of control gets larger. "The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed." And yet the shrinking of that sphere is painful, because people and things that you were able to dominate, you now must meet as equals. As your control recedes, you have to extend your understanding.

For more about money as a symbol for domination based on hidden violence, see David Graeber's book Debt: The First 5000 Years. Here's a link to a summary.

Also related, a Ribbonfarm post, Money as Pain Relief. If it's true that we mostly use money for pain relief, does it follow that economic growth requires increasing pain? Or that a society without pain doesn't need money?

September 26-27. Continuing from the previous subject, a reader thinks rich people are afraid of losing status. What is status anyway? If you use status to get your way with people, it's different from paying them, different from physically threatening them, and different from being actually qualified to tell them what to do.

After more thought, I see that the word covers a wide spectrum. At one extreme, status is someone's accurate judgment, based on their own experience, that you are qualified to tell them what to do. At the other extreme, status is a symbolic shorcut that falsely makes someone appear qualified to tell you what to do. An example would be aristocratic titles that are based on heredity and not merit.

In between is a wide grey area including all kinds of titles, costumes, certifications, and awards. "What do you call someone who graduates last in class from medical school? Doctor." People talk about awards as if they magically go back in time and make their recipients better, when really they're just the opinions of people you don't know.

Now, in the context of rich people who are afraid of losing status when they lose their money, their fear is directly proportional to how much of their status is based on lies. If you have friendships, connections, social capital, based on honest observation of what's inside you, those people won't think any less of you, even if you have to sell your Lexus and take the bus. But all the suckers will no longer be fooled. The word "prestige" comes from French and Latin words for deceit and illusion, and if you live by illusion, you die by illusion.

October 4-5. Reddit comment about sex work vs food service:

I get so frustrated at how I'm treated at work. I find myself involuntarily crying once I get into my car to drive home. I hate how dehumanizing it is. People don't acknowledge me as a person. They think I'm less than them because of my job. Oh, by the way, I'm talking about the food service job.

When I'm doing sex work I can refuse a customer. I can be rude to them if they are being rude to me. I don't have to apologize for their mistakes. I don't have to be sweet when they are being inappropriate. I negotiate my limits, and I only do what I feel comfortable doing.

A reader sends a forum thread with a similar message, Ask me about being a sex worker in Australia.

At the same time, there are many sex workers living in full-on slavery. But it's hard to think of sex workers being halfway exploited like food service workers. I think a reader has the answer: it is the nature of sex work that it's easy for workers to be independent. This is why, if the workers are to be controlled, their whole lives must be controlled. In food service, health care, academia, and manufacturing, it's much harder for workers to quit and provide the same service on their own, so management can afford to treat them badly at work while leaving them somewhat free outside of work.

This raises an important issue for lefties who like government regulation: there's a trade-off between regulation that protects the consumer, and regulation (or lack of regulation) that protects the freedom of workers to be independent.

October 8. How Innovation is Like Genetic Mutation: "Innovation provides the raw material upon which selection (copying and use) acts, in the same way that genetic mutation provides the raw material upon which natural selection acts." An organism will harm itself or its ecosystem if it has too many mutations without selection, and our society is piling up dangerous innovations, which could be integrated into a balanced system through large-scale testing and copying with slight modifications, but that would violate our concept of "intellectual property."

October 12. The Marshmallow Study Revisited. In the original study, they gave kids a marshmallow and if they could hold off eating it they would get two marshmallows, and their ability to delay gratification was strongly correlated with their future success. The easy interpretation is that some people are inherently better at life. But there has been speculation that the kids who "failed" came from families where future conditions were unpredictable and the promises of adults were unreliable, so they were behaving rationally by grabbing the marshmallow while they could. This interpretation has now been confirmed by more experiments, in which kids were primed by reliable or unreliable environments immediately before the test, and the kids from reliable environments held out almost four times longer!

Obviously a reliable environment is preferable. But I'm also thinking, suppose there's some catastrophe in which life suddenly becomes unreliable. Then would people from bad families have an advantage?

October 16. Subreddit thread about what the universe is made of.

I want to say more about "consciousness". It's impossible for me to know whether this whole world is my dream, but you know it's not my dream, and I know it's not yours. What is it that knows that? This is not the same thing as human consciousness, which is defined by human biology. When we ask what it's like to be human, there is a deeper question: What is it like to be anything? Or what is it like to be?

Does it make sense to ask what it's like to be a dog? a tree? a rock? Most modern people will say yes, maybe, no. I would say yes, but... where do we draw the line between rock and mountain, tree and forest, wave and ocean? Our concept of "being" is defined by our human ego and language, and the farther away we look, the harder it is to even ask the right questions.

There's an exercise called the "not that" meditation, where you ask yourself "what am I?" and no matter what the answer, you say "not that" and keep looking. Sometimes I think this world is like an immersive role-playing game, where the character forgets being the player. Aldous Huxley said the brain is not the source of consciousness but a filter. Rudy Rucker has compared universal consciousness to light passing through a stained glass window. The human brain must be a spectacular piece of glass, but when it breaks, there is still the light.

October 19. This scientific article, Morality shifting in the context of intergroup violence, adds new insight to the subject of channels of morality, which I wrote about in this post four years ago. The way I see it, some liberal social scientists, attempting to understand "conservatives", have crossed the line into apologizing for them. I don't like the word "conservative" because it blurs together at least three things. One of them is resistance to change, which is healthy and often valuable. The others I think are completely pathological: authoritarianism and what I call monkey tribe war consciousness.

Anyway, the apology goes that there are four channels or foundations of morality, which themselves are supposed to be morally neutral: harm, fairness, loyalty, and authority. "Loyalty" can also mean different things but in this context it means loyalty to your "ingroup". I think this is an obsolete holdover from our monkey tribe ancestors, it might have still been useful in human tribes, and now that we live in big systems, ingroup/outgroup thinking does all harm and no good. The word "authority" adds more confusion by referring both to something earned among your peers, and something you get from holding a position in a domination system. (Sometimes I think every disagreement is semantic and if we only had clear language there would be universal harmony.)

So the article does not argue my position that loyalty and authority are dimensions of stupidity, not morality; but it does argue that people shift away from harm and fairness, and toward loyalty and authority, when they see their ingroup violating standards of harm and fairness.

October 22. New post on Mythodrome about the real estate market. Paula is looking for a house in Pittsburgh, and agents are strongly discouraging her from buying a foreclosure, saying "leave this type of purchase to investors." She points out, if only investors can benefit from the lower cost of buying a foreclosure, this "constitutes a two-phase transfer of wealth."

First, buying a house is linked to borrowing money. Imagine how much cheaper houses would be (and also education and health care) if everyone had to pay with cash up front. Lending, while appearing to increase opportunity, ultimately destroys opportunity, because prices just rise to match what people can now afford to pay by signing over their future labor to large concentrations of money/power. Next, prices are pumped up even higher by lending money to people who will never be able to repay. When they inevitably default, real estate prices crash. Then (and this is Paula's point) the benefit of these lower costs goes to investment companies and not to actual people who need a place to live. The investment companies buy low and sell high, the human buyers need loans, and the cycle repeats, like pistons in an engine.

Now, it's tempting to say that banks and investment companies are "evil". This is false, and the other side of the false coin is the idea that borrowers have a moral obligation to repay. Morality does not apply to machine-like financial institutions, any more than it applies to a fire. If your house is on fire, there is no morally right or wrong action, but the tactically right action is to put the fire out. With institutions that increase their wealth by lending at interest, the tactically right action is to not borrow money from them, or to borrow and not repay. If enough of us did this, the fire would go out: lending would exist only as a charity, and there would be one fewer mechanism for positive feedback in power-over. I think positive feedback in power-over is the problem in human society. If the ability to make people do what they would prefer not to do, is leveraged into maintaining or increasing the ability to make people do what they would prefer not to do, life gets worse for everyone, even the rich, who are spiritually crippled by their insulation.

On the practical side of Paula's post, I wonder if Pittsburgh is just an unfriendly place to buy cheap houses. When I was looking at foreclosures in Spokane, I was told that the seller is responsible for back taxes and old utility bills, and agents were happy to work with me. Maybe that's because a house that just needs cosmetic work goes for at least $70,000 here, so agents still get a decent commission. Also, when I was in Buffalo last winter, I stayed in a house that my hosts had bought from the city for essentially nothing, on the condition that they spend about $10,000 to bring it up to code. This is something more cities would do if we were all more active in local politics.

next archive