November 2015 - January 2016

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November 2. Zeno effect verified: Atoms won't move while you watch. The article doesn't even touch the philosophical implications. We've learned to accept this kind of thing in the quantum world, but suppose it's happening in the human-scale world all the time. You could say there's no objective scientific evidence of that, but science and objective truth are methods for defining what happens when everyone is watching. And if macroscopic phenomena know who's watching, then they can reveal that they know who's watching when only a few people are watching, and increasingly hide the fact that they know who's watching as more people watch.

November 11. I've just sort of read the book A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit. It has a lot of filler, so I recommend reading the first section on the San Francisco earthquake and skimming the rest.

The idea is, in the 21st century we still have a 19th century view of how people behave in a disaster: that they panic, run around aimlessly, are more selfish, and are unhappy. The evidence shows exactly the opposite: people calmly come together and self-organize to help each other out, and the experience of building a social system out of free action, driven by necessity to do things with concrete value, makes them much more happy than in their normal lives doing meaningless chores in a bureaucracy. Some people, like Dorothy Day, have been inspired to spend their lives trying to make ordinary society more like a disaster utopia.

Meanwhile the ruling powers become more dangerous, because they're threatened by people taking care of each other and making them irrelevant, and also because the chaos gives them room to push their top-down utopian visions. Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine is all about this.

I wish, instead of the boring obligatory sections on 9/11 and Katrina, Solnit had gone deeper into the question of why it's so hard to make a good society last. What exactly is stopping us from making a Rainbow Gathering permanent? If we had sci-fi food fabricators, and no interference from the authorities, would it still fail because of mass psychology? And could we remove that limit by changing our culture?

November 16. From last month, Terrorism is not about Terror. I would title it more precisely as: "Non-government organizations that attack civilians for political goals are not really acting for political goals, even if they think they are, because as political strategy their behavior makes no sense." Their real motives are social: to belong to a group that tells a good story about itself and performs actions that feel powerful and meaningful.

But now I'm wondering: if they were acting for political goals, what would be their best strategy? I think it would be to attack the technological infrastructure. There's no way all that stuff can be guarded, and one person can do a lot of damage with little risk of being caught.

Why are they not attacking the infrastructure? Because attacking humans feels more meaningful and theatrical, because culturally we're still in the stone age. A speculation: if immersion in technology changes global culture, and we all start thinking about things instead of people when we think about big systems, then sabotage will become the normal action of marginalized groups, which will place a limit on technological complexity. If the control systems want to prevent this, they have to make technology invisible, so that no matter how complex it gets, we still see the world in terms of people. And if you look at Facebook, this has already happened.

November 20. Back on August 31 I wrote this:

Humans have been extremely successful at hacking the external world, and it's strange, given how well we have mastered nature, that we have failed to master ourselves. This implies that God, the Tao, the metaphysical frontier, is not out there in the universe, but inside us.

The other day I put that together with some ideas from David Abram's book Becoming Animal, and came up with this: According to modern western metaphysics 1) the Self is the stream of words and pictures and stories and desires inside your head; 2) the Mystery is the physical world on the outside; and 3) you explore it through your senses. But try thinking this way: 1) The Self is your stream of sense experience, which is already grounded in the physical world; 2) the Mystery is toward the inside; and 3) you explore it by pausing your internal narrative, like holding open a curtain or stilling the ripples on a pond.

You can find that last idea in any book about meditation, but putting it together with the other stuff, I'm meditating better. Framing the practice as fully outside-in works better than framing it as inside to more inside.

November 30. A couple weeks ago a reader sent a speech transcript by Kenan Malik, Radicalization is not so simple. Focusing on middle class western Muslims who go fight for the Islamic State, he argues that they're not really motivated by religion or American foreign policy; those are tacked-on justifications of a decision they've made for psychological reasons. Like other young radicals, they are searching "for identity, for meaning, for belongingness, for respect."

In this blog post from last month, On the Eating of Lotuses, Timothy Burke makes a similar argument, that Muslims going to fight for ISIS are like young people in the 1930's who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Both are seeking...

the chance to really matter in the world, to put their lives on the line to shape the future in a situation where it seemed to genuinely hang in the balance. They did so in a context where the everyday world around them offered nothing more than stasis and passivity.

Both Malik and Burke have other axes to grind that don't interest me. But last week Anne sent this interview transcript, Can We Construct A Counter-Narrative To ISIS's End Goal? The interviewee, Scott Atran, has surprising strategic advice:

So far, the counter-narratives proposed in our societies have been pathetic. First, they preach things like moderation. I tell them, don't any of you have teenage children? When did moderation do anything? ... We've got to provide young people the possibility for some other mode of life that's hopeful, adventurous, glorious and provides significance.

I don't think that's something "we provide" -- I think it's something young people create for themselves, and society's job is to not fight them, to be flexible enough to roll with that creation.

December 7. H.P. Lovecraft Invented a Horrific World to Escape a Nihilistic Universe. Like most intellectuals of his time (and ours) Lovecraft was a philosophical materialist, and because he had enough imagination to really understand that position, he had to invent a mythos of incomprehensible evil as a less bleak alternative.

My philosophy is similar but completely opposite. Here's Lovecraft describing Cthulhu: "There is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order." But you could use almost those same words to describe an entity of total benevolence and joy, but so concentrated that merely to glimpse its reflection would drive modern over-domesticated humans into madness. Basically that's my God, and my religion is anything that enables me to see it a little better while remaining sane.

December 9. This reddit comment has hidden depth: My kids are better about turning off lights and closing doors in Minecraft than in real life. Actually you want to leave lights on in Minecraft, but if we pretend it's the other way around, I can think of four explanations, and two are in the comments: 1) It's much easier to do work by clicking a mouse than moving your whole body. 2) A game can have clear penalties for leaving lights on and doors open. 3) Unlike parental pressure, video games do not allow negotiation, and there is no social dimension of obedience and disobedience. 4) Video games put human consciousness into a different mode than real life. In real life we have to remain broadly perceptive, but in games it is both possible and rewarding to narrowly focus on details. That's why we like them so much.

December 16. City of Darkness Revisited is a great long article about Hong Kong's Kowloon Walled City, which survived for several decades in a fascinating grey area between slum and anarchist utopia. It makes me think that any anarchist utopia would be a little bit slum-like, because if it gets too clean and orderly it becomes a socialist dystopia.

Another nice thing about the Kowloon Walled City is that it disproves John Calhoun's rodent overpopulation experiments as a model for human society. Calhoun gave rats and mice unlimited food in a limited space and they did all kinds of crazy shit. But the walled city did okay socially, and if you project its peak density over the earth's entire land area, I calculate 190 trillion people, which is orders of magnitude more than the earth can feed. So the global human population will always be limited by food before it's limited by how well we can get along in a tight space. And it's a crazy coincidence that Kowloon sounds so much like Calhoun.

I see overpopulation as a 20th century issue: it required a perfect conjunction of two factors that may never happen again. The first is a value system that develops in an agricultural peasant economy, where having more kids gives an economic advantage to both families and nations, which is why agricultural religions are against birth control. The second is rapid industrialization that increases food production so fast that people can get away with an obsolete cultural behavior, having lots of kids for no good reason, without them starving. I don't know how much the population will fall through food shortage before it has a chance to fall through birth control, but I think in a hundred years birth rates will be too low.

December 23. As always for Christmas, The Abominable O Holy Night. The singer is Steve Mauldin, an experienced music producer with good vocal control, who let loose one night and intentionally made every mistake he had ever heard bad singers make.

The best creative work has a primal magic that's strangely easier to unlock by trying to be bad than trying to be good. I think it's about letting go and being a channel for something you can't control or understand, and it comes down to the same thing as my comment last week that utopia has to be a little bit slum-like. Anyway, two other examples of terrible-beautiful music: Orebros Kommunala Musikskola - Also Sprach Zarathusthra, and Greensleeves on otamatone.

December 28. I think last week's SpaceX Landing is the biggest practical event in the history of space. The moon landing was a symbolic event, and we haven't gone back because there's nothing there and the only point was to show we could do it.

Now that we have rockets that can go into space, reach orbital velocity, and come back and land, it's going to get much cheaper to put stuff up there, which means heavier stuff that can do more. The next obstacle is the Kessler syndrome, which will force us to either somehow clean up low earth orbit, or make reusable rockets that can put stuff in higher orbits.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk is obsessed with colonizing Mars, and I think that's unlikely, but not for the usual reason: "How can we live on Mars if we can't even live responsibly on Earth?" If you consider human psychology, then living in an environment that's already perfectly fit for us, and following its rules, is boring. The point of going to Mars is make our own rules and be completely self-sufficient. It's the same reason teenagers want to move out. And by trying to build our own ecosystems, whether on Mars or in smaller orbital constructions, we'll understand better why the earth's rules are reasonable.

I still don't think humans will be living on Mars, because anyone who actually tried it would be bored out of their skull once the novelty wore off. Like a lot of stuff on earth, colonizing Mars is a fun job for the planners and a terrible job for the people who do the work. That, and the fragility of the human body, is why I expect everything in space to be done by robots.

The robots might even get cheap enough that you could have your own personal space probe or Mars terraformer, and the ruling systems could give us real power in space to make up for our lack of power on earth. But ruling systems are power sinks not rational actors, and they would never do that.

To not be a dead end, space travel has to do at least one of two things: be a new vector for human autonomy, or enable power to feed back into more power. Earth colonies did both, but I don't see space colonies doing either, and until they do, space will continue to be a playground for billionaires and poorly funded scientists.

Meanwhile, what excites us about space sci-fi -- the mystery, the weirdness, the open frontiers, the radically diverse worlds -- can all be done on earth with two developments that will be easier than Mars colonies. One is creative (or pseudo-creative) artificial intelligence that can generate virtual worlds that continue to challenge and surprise us. The other is cheap, legal psychedelic drugs. I think the popular myth of space travel is a metaphor for potential mind travel, which is why psych rock and space rock are basically the same thing.

December 30. Five minutes after I posted that Hawkwind song I found out that Lemmy died. In 1972, his amphetamine-fueled bass transformed Hawkwind's LSD-fueled psychedelia into space rock as we know it. If you have good speakers, check out the bass after the five minute mark in the Space Ritual live version of Lord of Light. And my favorite Lemmy song is the original Hawkwind version of Lost Johnny, on which he made every sound but the drums.

January 4, 2016. Leigh Ann and I have been watching college football bowl games, and I'm thinking about the difference between the games and the marching bands that come out at halftime: even though the bands are focused outward on the spectators, and the game is focused inward on its own logic, the game is much more interesting.

I see the game and the band as metaphors for living and dead culture. Living culture always has one foot in chaos -- its rules keep it balanced between knowing what's going to happen and not knowing. Dead culture is completely choreographed, so even surprise is scripted and predictable. When performers go off-script, living culture feeds and dead culture breaks. Living culture continually earns its audience while dead culture needs a captive audience.

January 6-8. Anne's new post, On the Theology of Monsters, Take Two, is partly responding to stuff I've been writing lately about collapse.

I see stories about the future as a series of levels, where each level has more imagination than the one below it. (I covered this in depth back in 2003 in my essay 21 Stories About Civilization.) Level Zero is that the way we're living now is just going to continue. Level One is optimist science fiction: the way we're living now is going to continue plus space colonies and flying cars and computers that are like really smart humans. Level Two goes to the other extreme, and you can see the one/two boundary in the belief among science intellectuals that humans have to get into space soon or we'll go extinct.

I distinguish the higher levels by how much imagination they require. Level Three requires none, because the future will be basically the same as a world we have already seen: tribal hunter-gatherers, or medieval feudalism, or 19th century small town America. Anne references an email where I call this the "Kunstler-Greer collapse".

Level Four requires all our imagination, because the future will be like nothing we've ever seen. That's where I like to predict a steampunky collage of preindustrial, contemporary, and sci-fi tools and cultures. But Anne is on Level Five, which requires more imagination than we have, because the changes will be completely outside our present way of thinking.

This follow-up post goes into more detail, and rather than summarize it I'm going to "cover" it: write an argument that's based on it, but with starker lines:

A well-functioning human society that understands a threat to its existence will be able to deal with it. It follows that the really big disasters are not understood in their own time. Medieval Europe could see the symptoms of the black death, but they couldn't see the causes because they lacked the microbe model of disease. Because the modern world understands microbes, we have managed to control new epidemics like SARS and AIDS.

A collapse process that we don't understand might be blamed on something we do understand. My example would be the fall of Rome, which might be blamed on the Visigoths, but was really a long and complex process, largely about something we still don't understand: the difficulty of keeping big systems healthy without growth.

Looking at our own near future, climate change and the decline of nonrenewable resources are threats that we understand, so we should be able to muddle through them. If we don't, if we get such a big collapse that phones stop working and you don't have to pay taxes, it might be blamed on climate change and peak oil, but it will really be caused by our whole society being weakened by factors we do not understand.

But who is "we"? Because of the internet, human understanding is in a shape that has never existed before. You could call it long tail understanding: where a university only has room for a few idea factions, now we have an idea space with room for a million crackpots. There was probably a peasant girl in the 1300's who guessed that plagues are caused by very tiny animals, and she told two people and they thought she was crazy. Now she could put it on a blog where someone receptive to the idea could find it. I think, whatever history shows as the deep cause of 21st century collapse, someone already has the basic idea.

My wild guess is that person is mathematician Steven Strogatz and the deep threat is too much coupling in complex systems. That link goes to a three year old question where he mentions an exact symptom that Anne mentioned yesterday: flash crashes.

January 13. So I could write a tribute to David Bowie, last night I vaped some strong weed and listened closely to his early stuff, and it's shocking how influential he was. From 1969, Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed sounds like edgy folk rock, then at two minutes it starts to sounds like Bob Dylan (and way better than what Dylan was doing in 1969), and then it sounds like Led Zeppelin! Of course they were both copying blues, but the jam in "Unwashed" sounds more like "When The Levee Breaks" than either sounds like anything else, so Led Zeppelin learned from Bowie how to do that. From the same album, Janine is basically Gordon Lightfoot, but the crazy thing is that it integrates electric guitar into folk music in a way that Lightfoot hadn't done yet.

His next album, The Man Who Sold The World, by the standards of 1970, was full-on heavy metal -- check out the guitar solo at the 2:10 mark in The Width of a Circle. Other parts of that song are glam prog rock, or proto-Queen. At 3:10 of All The Madmen you can hear Brian May's future guitar sound. And She Shook Me Cold is the bridge from Black Sabbath to grunge -- especially in the verses, you can tell that Seattle musicians had this album on their turntables in the late 1980's. Skipping ahead to Ziggy Stardust, Hang On To Yourself is where the Ramones got most of their sound -- even counting "one, two" at the beginning!

There are at least two kinds of great art, like branches and flowers. The above are examples of new ideas that other artists took and did better. But sometimes a song is too good to be influential, because nothing that tries to sound like it can touch it. Going back to Bowie's 1969 album, Cygnet Committee starts out lame, but around the five minute mark it launches into scalp-tingling epic vocals that rise and crash like nothing before or since, although Bowie himself would do it nearly as well in other songs like Five Years.

And I've been taking it for granted all these years, but David Bowie's masterpiece is Space Oddity. Not only is it perfect songwriting, but every sonic texture is raw and beautiful, the mix is airtight, and the high keyboard and electric guitar, at 2:30 and again at 4:00, are brighter than the sun. Notice the similarity between the end of Space Oddity and the end of his farewell song, Lazarus.

January 15. For the new year, tech startup funder Paul Graham wrote this embarrassing defense of economic inequality, in which he accidentally showed why economic inequality is bad, because it makes people like him so out of touch. The more money you make, the more you're tempted to believe that money is a measure of objective value, and the less you want to admit that money is not just the freedom to buy luxuries, but the power to make other people live by your personal values.

Here's a great critique, Paul Graham is Still Asking to be Eaten. Condensed excerpt:

What the market deems valuable is not necessarily aligned with what is ultimately good for us as a society or even what we want. Because under conditions of extreme inequality, the market is biased towards people who have lots of money, at the expense of virtually everyone else.

Ask a nurse who saved, like, three lives today what her salary is and then go ask the guy who made Candy Crush Saga what he got paid for it. Candy Crush Saga was valorized at over $7 billion. According to that same market, a human life is only valorized at $129,000. Meaning Candy Crush Saga is worth more to society than the combined value of 54,264 human lives.

Because that's where this stupid game gets you. You end up going to absurd lengths to rationalize mediocre ideas because they happen to make tons of money instead of questioning the legitimacy of a system that confers so much value onto stupid things.

January 20. From Hacker News, a comment with a fascinating comparison between ISIS and startup companies:

They saw initial success and had fast growth. They wanted to keep growing so they recruited heavily. To recruit a lot of soldiers they promised generous pay and benefits and even offered to support the families of soldiers so dads could go fight. Their burn rate was astronomical, but was okay because they were staying ahead of it through growth. But the growth ended up being unsustainable, because competition arrived and contained them. They kept it up for a long time because they had a lot of funding, but their burn rate finally caught up to them since they haven't been able to keep growing as before. Leadership did not/have not made the transition from wild startup CEOs that give pitch talks and sell to investors into the sensible, sustainable CEOs that manage a company in a saturated market with an eye toward creating a mature company. Remaining in the mode of a wild growth startup company is not an option for these guys. There is no viable strategy for a terrorist group that says "we'll grow like crazy and then sell out to Apple/Facebook/Google/Microsoft while we are popular and they'll handle the maturity stages." Terrorists have to make the maturity transition themselves because they can't be bought out.

This is related to the global collapse because any amount of exponential growth is unsustainable. But where Google had to transition from fast to slow growth, the world has to transition from slow growth to zero, something that has never been done smoothly.

January 25. Going back to wealth inequality, I don't think it's morally wrong, because I'm not a moral thinker. I don't think the rich deserve their money or the poor deserve to get it. What does "deserve" even mean? The way I think is more like this: What kind of society would we like to live in, and what customs and laws will create it? If a better society has laws that seem unfair, then our idea of fairness is obsolete.

It might seem fair that we should all be free to spend money to influence politics, but that leads to a feedback loop where money buys laws that enable further concentration of money. And it might seem fair that we have to work for food, but if the penalty for not working is starvation, then work environments will tend to get almost as painful as starvation.

I don't want everyone to have equal wealth. The world is more interesting if some people live in mansions while other people live in shacks -- as long as the people in mansions have no more real power, and the people in shacks don't have to obey the holders of money to be permitted to live.

If you're a gamer, you're familiar with subgames or minigames. You can go into the shooting gallery in Zelda, or the casino in Grand Theft Auto, and have some fun getting money to buy some perks in the larger game world; but you can't get any really important powers, because then the minigame would take over the main game. Our society is a bad game because the money-based minigames have taken it over. Financial investment is a minigame that has gone so far out of balance that the most skilled players think money is the game, and they're creating objective value.

My favorite utopian economy is Rick Webb's interpretation of Star Trek. Even though we don't have fabricators, we can get close to Webb's vision with two reforms that are physically and economically possible right now (but not yet politically). One is to take money out of politics, and the other is an unconditional basic income.

January 27. If you read enough about near-death experiences, occasionally you'll see an incredible report of someone living years in seconds. This guy lived another life for ten years. There are some comments from people who had similar experiences, and it was also explored by one of the best Star Trek episodes, "The Inner Light". If we ever understand this phenomenon well enough to duplicate it, and to choose the content of the experiences, imagine how the world would change.

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