October 2014 - February 2015

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October 3. Curses, Fooled Again! The host of Candid Camera writes about how people have changed, or not changed, from when the show started decades ago. The most interesting idea is that people are easier to fool because technology is so powerful, and changing so fast, that it's hard to keep track of where the line is between possible and impossible, or normal and absurd.

October 13. The other day I got an email from a reader asking for advice, and while thinking about it, I came up with a theory of why young people are so unhappy. I mean obviously the main reason is economic: they have huge unpayable debts and it's really hard to make money. But on top of that, I think first world middle class Millennials carry a psychological burden that is not shared with other struggling people around the world: they have inherited the Baby Boomer culture of global responsibility, without inheriting the political power to do anything about it.

This fits with an idea from this podcast, In The Dust Of This Planet, which Anne wrote about in this post. The idea is, in the 80's we were all worried about global nuclear war, and we stopped it. Or really, the people who run the world made a show of reducing nuclear tensions while we all watched (because politics has become a non-participatory spectacle like sports but much more scripted) and the danger of nuclear war remains. But the point is, now we're all worried about climate change, and they can't even pretend to stop it. And yet they still ask us to care about it, and they still frame the issue as if power and responsibility are shared by all. What a head trip!

My favorite idea in the podcast is that there is strength on the other side of nihilism. A rapper in a video is wearing a jacket that says "in the dust of this planet" and the message is that he understands that everything falls to ruin and life has no greater meaning, and he doesn't care. My favorite book of the Bible, Ecclesiastes, has the same message: everything you do will come to nothing, but it's wonderful to be alive, so take pleasure in whatever you're doing right now.

I'm also wondering, when did "saving the world" become a popular myth? Did anyone think that way in the 13th century, or even the early 20th century? Did it become popular because of superhero comic books? Because of pictures of Earth from space? I wonder if "saving the world" is a fad, a beginner's way of thinking globally. In a hundred years, when we have a better sense of how "the world" (depending on your definition) is permanent, we'll have more complex ways of thinking globally.

Jed comments:

I'm not even sure young people are that unhappy, but to the extent they are, I think it is because of a mismatch between time scales. Young people have only been around a little while, they are immersed in a world where things happen quickly (online, media) and they feel like they can't affect things. They can, they do, but the way water wears away rock. Real social change is multi-generational. The changes that stick are the ones that people live and pass on to their children in a new form.

October 27-29. Google Is Not What It Seems. Julian Assange writes about being interviewed by some people from Google who appeared to be politically neutral, but they turned out to be representing the American foreign policy establishment, and he argues that Google has been allied with these people and their world view for a long time:

By all appearances, Google's bosses genuinely believe in the civilizing power of enlightened multinational corporations, and they see this mission as continuous with the shaping of the world according to the better judgment of the "benevolent superpower"... This is the impenetrable banality of "don't be evil." They believe that they are doing good.

If you think about this, it puts a twist on the popular idea that the elite simply rule the world. On a deeper level, the world is ruled by the stories the elite have to tell themselves to feel like they're the good guys. These stories include: that global-scale decisions must be made from the top (or center); that political stability is more valuable than political participation; that "economic development" (the definition is too big to get into here) is a good thing; and the story I find most interesting, that you raise the quality of life of ordinary humans by taking away their pain and giving them stuff, not by giving them interesting choices.

I've been thinking a lot about interesting choices, partly inspired by Sid Meier's famous description of a good game as a series of interesting choices, and partly by an email I got more than a year ago from Owen. Here's some of it:

In game design, they talk about choices that matter. If a choice is presented but people feel obligated to take only one of the branches, that's not really a choice. You must take this option, taking that other option is stupid. Or if taking a branch doesn't result in any perceived consequence. Then take any branch, the choice doesn't matter. They put those kinds of choices in front of you all the time. How do you like your steak cooked? Should I use the gelpacks or the powder for the dishwasher?

This is important so I'll say it again in my own words. If the choice doesn't effect your path, like Coke or Pepsi, then it's not interesting; and if one choice is obviously stupid, like keep your car on the road or run it off, then it's not interesting. But deprive people of interesting choices for too long, and they start making the obviously stupid choice just to feel alive. Another way to say it: we would rather do the wrong thing that we choose ourselves, than the right thing that is chosen for us. I think this explains a lot of behavior that otherwise doesn't make any sense, and it's why even the most benevolent central control can never make a good society, or a good family.

November 3. Scientists of Reddit: What's the craziest or weirdest thing in your field that you suspect is true but is not yet supported fully by data?

The comment featured in the subreddit post is this one arguing that big data will cause a catastrophe by looking at correlation without causation. My example of this would be Google search. If you remember the crappy search engines before Google, they tried to make the computer actually understand what you were looking for. Google worked much better by not trying to understand, but just looking for correlations between search terms and links. So the doom argument is that rare events can change systems in ways that you can understand if you're looking at causation, but not if you're looking at correlation; so a "black swan" event could lead to a chain reaction of computers doing stupid things. "Could even be on the level of seeing planes fall out the sky."

Other than that, here are my ten favorites in the thread: 1) There are contagious diseases that spread through ideas combined with the power of the mind over the body. A current example is gluten intolerance. 2) The Big Bang theory violates the principle that there should be no special time in the universe, but you could resolve this with an eternal universe in which regions are expanding or contracting. 3) Some voters do not try to figure out which candidate they like the best, but vote for the candidate who seems most likely to win so they can feel like winners. 4) The chemical key to depression treatment is not serotonin but a protein called "brain derived neurotropic factor", which makes the brain more flexible, but you still have to do the work of adjusting your thinking. 5) Epigenetics could explain how a population can evolve together instead of waiting for an individual to have a lucky mutation. 6) Lead in Washington DC drinking water severely affected hundreds of infants and children and it was all covered up. 7) "Cumulative or simultaneous nonhazardous odors (often called nuisance smells) have a multiplying hazardous effect." 8) Small birds can hear tornado storms hundreds of miles away. 9) People with autoimmune disorders rarely get sick from other things. 10) Nerves send signals through pressure waves.

November 17-19. Leigh Ann and I were watching Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and I started wondering: why does Voldemort act that way? I'm talking about the cartoon Hollywood villain personality. You've all seen it a hundred times, but where does it come from? It can't be based on an actual person, because nobody really behaves like Voldemort. Even Hitler, while tactically very much like Voldemort, didn't have anything like the same persona.

My guess is that the villain personality is a meaningless accident, like the shape of men's suits or the Nike logo. Maybe it developed out of a few 19th century authors and silent movie actors, but we could just as easily live in an alternate universe where fictional villains behave completely differently. What's important is 1) there must be a uniform standard so that uncreative writers and actors can communicate to unperceptive audiences that this character is evil; and 2) it must be nothing like the behavior of actual powerful and harmful people, because that would be too emotionally troubling and politically dangerous.

Anne comments:

How can you make the ministry of magic, which is more or less MI5/GCHQ for wizards, look sympathetic? You need an opponent who, unlike real criminals - who tend to be motivated by rage, addiction, poverty, and mental illness - acts on motives and methods so devious and dense that they make a regulatory apparatus look benign in comparison. Snape is a tragic antihero. Voldemort? Evil (tm). He has to be, otherwise the Death Eaters start to look pathetic, the way neo-Nazis or the National Front look in real life, the kind of broken losers whose childhood dreams of being awesome were damaged by bullying and irrelevance, stolen opportunities, bad decisions, and depression.

November 19. Awesome new speech by Steve Albini on technology and the music industry. Like a good song, his argument starts slow and keeps building. He explains the old system and how all but the most popular artists were screwed, and then the excitement of the independent music scene, and then the emerging system in which cheap recording technology and internet file-sharing have created a musical utopia for listeners and most artists. But the middlemen and owning interests are being cut out of the action, and Albini spends more than 1600 words dissecting their plea, "We need to figure out how to make this digital distribution work for everyone." His conclusion:

I believe the very concept of exclusive intellectual property with respect to recorded music has come to a natural end, or something like an end. Technology has brought to a head a need to embrace the meaning of the word "release", as in bird or fart. It is no longer possible to maintain control over digitised material and I don't believe the public good is served by trying to.

Related: Iggy Pop's incredible John Peel lecture, with good stuff about how art is made for reasons other than money, but if it's too successful, money kills it.

December 2. Saturday night I went out for dinner with some smart people, and one subject that came up was a company called Uber. Through a smartphone app, they "arrange rides between riders and drivers", but unlike Craigslist, Uber controls all the information and all the money. They also aggressively externalize costs: they profit from everything that goes right, while only passengers and drivers suffer from anything that goes wrong.

The promise of the internet is a rhizomatic world where anyone can connect with anyone. The reality is, if someone can route these connections through a central hub that they control, they can leverage this advantage into rapidly growing wealth and power. Google, Amazon, eBay, Paypal, and Facebook have all done this, and now Uber is taking it into the new frontier of local services. I expect them to expand from taxi rides into stuff like dog walking, yard work, haircuts, massage, tutoring, and so on, the same way Amazon expanded from books into every product.

A dystopian sci-fi story about the possible future of Uber: One Day, I Will Die on Mars.

December 4. The Sci-Fi Future of Personalized Advertising. I went a long time not watching much TV, and now I'm watching more and the commercials are just terrible. I mean if you listen to their tone of voice, and their whole framing of reality, the bullshit is laid on so thick that it's like they're not even selling products -- they're training the public to accept that level of bullshit as normal.

But now I'm thinking, what if instant viewer feedback enables commercials to learn, the way performers learn from a live audience, until every commercial is genuinely interesting? Will it lead to better mind control, or will commercials become authentic and subversive because that's what people need?

December 6. Three comments by my favorite reddit commenter, Erinaceous. First, an easy but not 100% reliable method for home-grown oyster mushrooms.

In the context of how to feed yourself in a hard crash, how grain agriculture goes hand in hand with empire, because grains are easier than other food to collect as tribute. It follows that horticultural societies need to be converted to agricultural societies for the empire to expand.

And how economic inequality drives collapse: normally if something becomes scarce, people consume it less. But if there are very rich people, they want to consume scarce stuff for social status, and poor people want to harvest scarce stuff to get high prices from the rich.

January 9-16. This week's big news was the mass murder at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo by people claiming to represent Islam. This short piece in the Telegraph suggests that the killers were not actually offended by the Muhammad cartoons, but were making a calculated strategic move to turn the world against moderate Muslims, who will then be driven to extremism.

Two of the big framing narratives are to view the killers as operatives of Islam, and to view them as criminals driven by mental illness. I'm interested in where these stories intersect: Islam is serving as a catalyst to inspire bad people to do bad things. Now, I think resisting the economic domination of the west would be a good thing. But the Charlie Hebdo massacre is an attempt to impose domination. It's a petulant, authoritarian act. If you know Game of Thrones, Islam wants to encourage people like Rob Stark and instead it's encouraging people like Joffrey. How embarrassing!

This long reddit comment by an Arab from a Muslim family explains how extremism comes from a synergy between Islamic religion and Arab culture, specifically their idea of "honor". That's an English word but it's probably an untranslatable concept that comes from really nasty patriarchal tribes.

The Arab world is still, largely, few centuries backwards in its way of thinking, yet this same Arab world clings to the leadership role of explaining and guiding Islam around the world. In the Arab world of today, Human life is still easy to waste for the silliest reasons, from a girl losing her virginity then murdered by her brothers all the way up to what just saw unfold in France, they stem from the same deadly formula; a skewed understanding of a tribal honor system and a religion which makes it easier to say "fuck it all."

On a tangential subject, I just realized that being offended is all about status. It's one thing if someone insults you and you feel bad, and another thing to stand up and say "I am offended." That's a card people play on a social-political level. Typically it's someone with medium to low status temporarily getting the drop on someone with higher status who has disrespected them in a way that society has declared inappropriate. You have to have some status to play the card, which is why homeless people are never offended, and you have to feel the need for higher status to want to play it, which is why billionaires are never offended. It's a middle class thing, and the people who get offended the most are the ones who feel most insecure about their status and have to keep proving it. Now that I understand this, I can see the hidden context of all these complaints about double standards for offensive cartoons.

January 26. Has travel become another exercise in narcissism?

He's been away for two months, spent most of it dancing on the beach addled on diet pills and Sangsom sets -- perhaps punctuated by a week of hungover volunteering building a retaining wall that is destined to collapse within a year. His destination's merits can all be surmised with the brain-dead epithet "amazing"; the natives were "so friendly". But this facsimile, off-the-peg experience has invested him with unprecedented insight into Thailand's society -- indeed, into the very essence of the human condition.

The key to this whole subject, which the author misses, is that these are people from rich countries traveling in poor countries. That's why the natives are friendly: they're kissing your ass because they want your money. And that's why the travelers fail to gain any wisdom, because their money blocks them from the valuable experience of engaging the natives as equals.

Personally I hate traveling in poorer countries. I prefer to be invisible to the natives, which is why I only really enjoy traveling inside the USA.

January 28. Fascinating technology article, I paid $25 for an Invisible Boyfriend, and I think I might be in love. For a monthly fee, a company will pay nameless freelance workers to send you texts pretending to be your boyfriend. Supposedly the purpose is to fool your friends and family, but the article points out how easy it is for people to use this service to feel loved.

This is oddly similar to the previous subject of travelers encountering friendly natives. Wealth inequality creates unreal relationships, in which poorer people do not present themselves according to their own perspectives and their own needs, but according to the expectations of richer people. In one sense the crowdsourced texters and impoverished natives are being exploited, but in another sense they're in the better position, because they're not being made stupid. If the performers and servants are all eventually replaced by AI's and robots, is that progress?

This reminds me of a key insight from the book Mediated by Thomas de Zengotita: that you can judge your environment by whether it is indifferent to your gaze, like nature, or designed around your gaze, like television or a theme park. With continuing advances in artificial intelligence, artificial environments will not just be designed around the gaze of the average person, but each person's particular gaze. We can each have our own Disneyland, and the shared human reality could splinter into billions of tiny echo chambers.

January 30. After a long break from video games, this week I've been playing Lords of the Realm II. It's an intimate medieval strategy game in which you can see down to the level of individual peasants and cattle. My dream game would be the framework of LOTR2, with Dwarf Fortress complexity in town management, and Mount & Blade complexity in characters and combat. Anyway, the game conveniently ignores the time it would take between peasant births and soldiers in armies, and when I noticed that, I suddenly understood why there are child armies in Africa.

February 4. Paul Graham piece, The Ronco Principle, about an investor named Ron Conway who became extremely successful by being completely benevolent. Obviously benevolence is not always correlated with success, and Graham tries to figure out why that's the case in recent Silicon Valley startup culture. His conclusion is simple and beautiful: it's easier to tell who the good guys are, if a culture or system is transparent and unpredictable:

If you're going to be two-faced, you have to know who you should be nice to and who you can get away with being nasty to. In the startup world, things change so rapidly that you can't tell. The random college kid you talk to today might in a couple years be the CEO of the hottest startup in the Valley. If you can't tell who to be nice to, you have to be nice to everyone. And probably the only people who can manage that are the people who are genuinely good.

This has big implications for utopian thinking. Some imaginary ideal societies are extremely predictable, and predictability is one of the things we mean when we talk about stability and security. But if you want your society to generate good human behavior, unpredictability has to be somehow built into the system.

February 9. I love this 2012 post about Chicken Sexers, Plane Spotters, and the Elegance of TAGteaching:

An untrained eye can't tell the difference between a male and female chick; their bodies are just too similar. Trained masters could sort the birds effectively, even though they could not describe what details they used for their decisions.

This isn't some kind of magical talent. It's a skill that anyone can develop just by repeatedly guessing and being told whether they're right. A similar technique was used in WWII to tell whether approaching airplanes were British or German, starting with people who "couldn't articulate how they did what they did. In fact, when they tried to explain, they had even less success."

The article puts this in terms of the conscious vs the unconscious mind, but I would say that chicken sexers are totally conscious of knowing the difference between males and females -- they just can't put that consciousness into words. So we're really talking about the part of the mind that is constrained by language, vs the part that is not constrained by language.

In western culture we have something I would call the Word Ego: the part of our mind that uses language wants to feel like it's totally in charge, so it builds a wall with a narrow gate where it stands like a sentinel, not letting anything pass from understanding into action unless it can take the form of words. (Or you could say the wall is to keep consciousness from passing out of the realm of words!)

As a writer, I'm like a lawyer who represents people before the Word Gate. Everyone tells me, "You put into words what I knew but couldn't put into words, and now I know I'm not crazy." But my job is only necessary because you have a Word Gate in the first place. It would better if we could all just develop our sub-language consciousness enough that we could trust it to directly drive our actions.

February 16. If you're afraid we're headed for techno-dystopia, here's some good news: Why low-tech living is back. It's about the resurgence of books, vinyl records, polaroid cameras, typewriters, and simple cell phones. So we're not talking stone axes, but the point is that we are not being permanently sucked into rising technological complexity; we are capable of pulling back to get subtle improvements in quality of life.

February 27. How Crazy Am I to Think I Know Where MH370 Is? It's by an expert on the vanished airliner, who gradually developed a really good conspiracy theory: that Russian agents hijacked the plane, spoofed the BFO data to make the satellites think it was going a different way, and flew it to a remote airbase in Kazakhstan.

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