"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."
- Terence McKenna
Apocalypsopolis, book one
Civilization Will Eat Itself, Superweed 1-4, best of
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September 1. Today, some content from readers. Anne has been sending out big emails about ebola, and I've decided not to go deeply into that subject, but I'll summarize her most interesting point: that the greatest danger of ebola is not that people will get sick and die, but that fear of the disease will enable extreme repression the name of quarantine.
A month ago a long-time reader made a good blog post, which only last week showed up on the subreddit when it escaped reddit's overzealous spam filters. It's called Mass Trolling In The Arena, The Way Great Civilizations End Up In The Ditch Of History, and it draws some connections between ancient gladiatorial games and contemporary internet-based cruelty.
And Gene, an accomplished guitar player, sent me a long email on the subject of motivation, with some ideas I've never seen before. Condensed excerpt:
To master any truly difficult skill it's not enough to just want it; you have to be obsessed. If you have to force yourself to pick it up you're screwed; if you have to force yourself to put it down you know you're on the right track.
You told me that the only thing you've ever had to force yourself to stop was video games. Ask yourself: why exactly are video games so addictive? Of course it's because of the constant reward system. Every thirty seconds you get a reward of some kind. The next question is: how can I duplicate this experience in other areas?
When I was learning to play, I always broke any challenge down into it's smallest possible chunks. A fast lick might seem impossible taken as a whole, but how difficult is it to play the first three notes? If I play those three notes over and over for ten minutes, always keeping it down to a tempo at which I can play it correctly at all times, will I be able to work them up to performance tempo in those ten minutes? Assuming you haven't chosen something way beyond your level, the answer is probably yes!
By doing it this way, you're creating a lot of very small, quick successes for yourself. If you set yourself a goal to bring those first three notes up to performance tempo and you succeed in just a few minutes, the flush of success releases endorphins in the brain. If you continue to duplicate that experience every few minutes you get addicted to practicing.
Talent is an intuitive grasp of rapid learning. Fortunately you don't really need that intuitive understanding... that's what a teacher is for! Unfortunately most teachers haven't analyzed their own formative years sufficiently to understand the ingredients of their own success as players. I have consistently found that students who listen to me and practice as I described above will progress ten times faster than anyone else.
It's also true that these are the students who become obsessed. I've believed for years that they listened to me and practiced in this way because they were obsessed, but since I've come to believe that I had cause and effect confused. They become obsessed because they practice this way!
August 29. Some light stuff for the weekend. If you can't choose wisely, pick at random. The article explains why filtering out bad reasons can be more valuable than listening for good reasons, and there are some stories about how tribal cultures get advantages from randomness, and some suggestions for our own society. I seriously believe they should decide elections by picking a ballot at random (one for each race or issue). Over time, this would reflect the will of the people, and there would zero incentive for tactical voting.
The non-diet diet: the case for eating whatever you want. Well, it's not that simple, or we would all eat ice cream and chips. It's an idea that's been around for a while called "intuitive eating", and it takes some practice to listen to your body in just the right way. I sort of do this already, and it seems like it would be easy to experiment on yourself, but hard to prove that it works for any other person.
The color of every photo on the internet blended together is orange, and the best thing is, nobody knows why!
Finally, I've done a lot of work lately on my favorite songs page, including numbering my top ten, making special sections for instrumentals and radio hits, and mostly bunching multiple songs by the same artist.
August 27. Monday was supposed to be finger-pointing day and I forgot all about it. Lots of links this month:
This reddit comment argues in detail that the Obama administration has made a complete 180 on Guantanamo Bay.
Scientists track gene activity when honey bees do and don't eat honey, and they found enough differences to think that feeding bees sucrose and high fructose corn syrup could be a big factor in their decline. One data point: I feed my bees only honey, and have not lost a hive yet.
A fun rant against American consumer culture, What can House Hunters teach us about ourselves?
And this very serious rant was probably last month's most popular reddit comment. A combat veteran admonishes a young recruit for wanting to get combat experience.
What I've learned from two years collecting data on police killings. Mainly that the entire government, from top to bottom, will stall, lie, and break the law to prevent the collection of data on police killings. The data itself is also unsurprising: most urban deaths are black men and most rural deaths are mentally ill men. And here's an article about police killings on fivethirtyeight.com, with links to other sites that are gathering data, and some analysis, including a death toll of around 1000 per year.
Why the Ice Bucket Challenge is bad for you: because ALS is relatively rare, already well-funded, and there are other charities where your dollar does a lot more good.
This reminds me of an idea in the book Mediated by Thomas de Zengotita: that every attempt to "raise awareness" only adds to the numbing information overload, and overall makes us less aware. Related: a study on information aversion finds that "people will actually pay to avoid learning unpleasant facts." I would go farther: it seems like, after basic survival, blocking awareness of unpleasant reality is the main thing that people pay for.
August 25. There's been some action on the subreddit, including some good points about last week's posts, but my favorite comment was over email: "that the man in the woods in Maine just proves there are homeless people everywhere." This is a fascinating subject: Why do we put Christopher Knight in the "inspiring hermit" category and not the "homeless guy" category? Because we romanticize nature? Because the urban homeless are so numerous that we can't see them as people with their own stories?
Check out the Hacker News comment thread, in which smart people who probably do not go around identifying with the urban homeless, identify strongly with Knight. I did a ctrl-f for "homeless" and found this amazing comment, in response to a comment about seeking isolation in the wilderness:
Ironically, you can also find isolation in the heart of cities. A lot of mentally ill people become homeless in order to find that isolation, that release from social requirements. Yes, you see people, so aren't literally physically isolated, but you're not seen yourself.
The story behind homelessness goes deeper than poverty. It's about human society veering so far from human nature that millions of people cannot or will not live in it. And the people who can easily live in it are tempted to feel morally superior to the people who can't, when really they're just luckier.
This comes around to my favorite utopian vision, the unconditional basic income. A German Guy Wants to Give You a Bunch of Money for Nothing. It's an interview with a tech startup founder who loved his own unconditional income so much that he has raised enough for two other people to do it for a year.
Also related, a post from a few months back on Raptitude.com: Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed.
Keeping free time scarce means people pay a lot more for convenience, gratification, and any other relief they can buy. It keeps them watching television, and its commercials. It keeps them unambitious outside of work.
August 22. Thanks Jane and Erik for sending these links yesterday, and saving you from me writing about music again. You probably heard about that guy who lived in the woods in Maine for 25 years. This new article, The Strange Tale of the North Pond Hermit, has new details and updates. It's fascinating stuff, but I don't think Christopher Knight is any kind of hero. He survived almost entirely by stealing from individuals, his diet was terrible, and he spent half of every year holed up at his campsite nearly freezing. Somehow in 25 years in the woods he never bothered to learn primitive skills, or grow a food forest which he could have fed with his poop. The only thing I find admirable is his ambition and success in gaining free time.
In the opposite direction, an excerpt from a new book, How the Web Became Our External Brain, and What It Means for Our Kids. Consumer information technology seems to be physically and permanently changing the brains of kids, so they're better at gobbling up shallow information, but are less able "to focus their attention, be patient and think deeply." The conclusion:
Our own capitalist drive pushes these technologies to evolve. We push the technology down an evolutionary path that results in the most addictive possible outcome. Yet even as we do this, it doesn't feel as though we have any control. It feels, instead, like a destined outcome -- a fate.
People like me who grew up before the internet (especially if we saw little or no television) might be, in some ways, the last intelligent humans. You've probably seen the studies about marijuana affecting brain development, which is why it will remain illegal for people under 21. Imagine if someone said, "These changes are just how the brain adapts to a better world. Responsible parents will give cannabis treats to their infants to prepare them for a future utopia where everyone is stoned all the time." That's exactly what people are saying about tiny computers, and the difference is that computers are much more powerful and dangerous.
Even more depressing, Most Americans Want to Criminalize Pre-Teens Playing Unsupervised. I'm wondering, are these trends temporary or permanent? Are we raising a lost generation, or are we plunging toward extinction?
August 20. Today, another post condensed from one of Anne's email essays. This one is about civil wars and why America is nowhere near having one, especially not between the red states and the blue states:
Civil wars are first and foremost about local score settling. The trigger isn't some guy going door to door saying "you know those Yazidis? We're starting a group to get rid of them, would you like to know why?" Everyone was already itching to kill the Yazidis. The trigger in most civil wars is the sense that the long-repressed vengeance on your nearest and dearest enemies has become possible. This means that much of the killing in civil wars follows the demographics of murder, rather than genocide.
Civil wars are almost never geographic at first. Syria was not divided into "rebel" and "government" territories until after several weeks of fighting. Why? Because the government troops and the people who hated them were evenly dispersed around the country. Once the shooting broke out, some local battles went one way, some went another, and each side eventually had to work out supply lines connecting places where they'd won. Your loyalties aren't determined by your residency, your residency is determined by which army you're running away from.
There is no home front in a civil war. Every action by every side degrades the lives of both sides. Think of the worst divorce you've ever seen your friends go through, and think of the worst moment in that divorce, and that's how everybody feels in a civil war all the time.
Civil wars aren't anybody's program. Usually the two sides each feel like they are legitimate, and can't figure out what the other guys are playing at. They think "shit, these guys are clowns, lets just get them out of the way." Everybody underestimates the consequences of their actions, the time it will take, and the dying that will happen as a result. Nobody in Syria in 2011 was saying "right, lets call a protest, and in three years we'll be holed up in a burning hotel shooting twelve-year-olds in the head as they pull their mothers' bodies from a drainage canal!"
No, we aren't headed for a civil war. For now, the local scores are too stupid to settle -- what would a red-state insurgent mob do if the veil were torn, burn coal? Shoot latinos? Give it a decade, maybe, but not now.
August 18. Two links related to the ongoing drama in Ferguson, Missouri, where police shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. This article is about another incident a few days before, where police shot and killed a black man for holding a toy gun in Walmart: I'm black, and I'm not afraid of the police -- because the police are merely channeling the increasing racism of American culture. The best part is where he points out that white people walk around stores with actual guns all the time and nothing happens.
And a long article, The Civil Rights Movement Is Going in Reverse in Alabama. It's about Hank Sanders, a state legislator who has spent decades working to help poor black people, and in the last few years it's all been undone. But notice: in the 1960's, many laws were passed that explicitly mentioned race. I'm sure the new laws don't mention race at all -- they're just cutting support for the poor. Now, the right wing position might be, "We just want the poor to pull their own weight -- it's not our fault if most of them happen to be black." And the liberal position might be, "Racists are attacking black people and disguising it as an an attack on poor people." I think it's mostly the other way around: These laws are being made by people who hate the poor, and they are marketing an attack on poor people as a defense against black people, to get poor white people to go along with it.
Why would anyone hate someone for having less money? The issue of poverty is haunted by the idea of laziness. Conservatives believe that the poor deserve to be poor because they're less willing to work and therefore morally inferior. They won't say this in public but they hint at it. Then liberals argue that the poor actually work harder than the rich. I don't like this move because it accepts and reinforces what I think is a framing error. A healthy culture would not even have the concept of "lazy". Humans prefer meaningful and autonomous activity to doing nothing, so a society in which work is meaningful and autonomous does not need to tell itself that work is morally virtuous. "Laziness" exists only in the context of a system that depends on work that nobody will do unless they're forced to do it through economic and social pressure.
Maybe the best response to an insane society is not to "work hard" and succeed on the terms it dictates, but to do as little as possible to survive, and use the rest of your energy to undermine the system, build better systems through the cracks, and have a good time.
August 15. Some personal stuff for the weekend. With all the buzz about Robin Williams and depression, I can say that I've never had serious depression, but I do struggle with motivation. Occasionally it's so bad that even going to the sink to get a glass of water feels like climbing a mountain. I think this only happens through a perfect conjunction of 1) not eating enough protein, 2) not getting enough exercise, and 3) short-circuiting my reward center with video games. It's only a matter of time before I get back into Starsector, and God help me if there's ever a hybrid of Dwarf Fortress and Mount & Blade, but for now I have my gaming down to maybe 20 minutes a day of Freecell. And after experimenting with smoking pot every two weeks, I'm going back to every three or four weeks, because two weeks is not enough of a tolerance break to get the experience I'm looking for.
I'm obsessed with another band! They're a married couple from Maine, Colleen Kinsella and Caleb Mulkerin, who play psychedelic folk under the name Big Blood. That link goes to all their music free online. They're highly experimental, so some of it is crap, but some of it is so good that I've lost all interest in Neutral Milk Hotel, for example The Rise of Quinnisa Rose, which I had to put on YouTube myself. That's mostly sung by Caleb, and he also does lead vocals on their catchiest song, The Birds and The Herds, and a good one on their new album, "Sick With Information". So he seems to be the better songwriter, but Colleen is my new favorite singer. She has an enormous range, and her voice has almost the same edge that Joanna Newsom had on The Milk-Eyed Mender, but wilder. Most of you will hate her, but if you're curious, start with her cover of She Sells Sanctuary, and then two of her best, "Oh Country" and the 14 minute "Water". Then you're ready for harder stuff like "Creepin Crazy Time" or "Destin Rain". And my favorite, which almost everyone else would want to kill with fire, is "Song For Baltimore".
August 13. So I've read a bunch of comments on Robin Williams' suicide, and my favorite is this one by David Wong of Cracked.com, Robin Williams and Why Funny People Kill Themselves. He explains the close connection between being funny and being unhappy, and advises us to be there for our funny friends when they stop being funny.
Unrelated, except that it's also about understanding the struggles of other people, this is a transcript of a TED talk from last year, Is the obesity crisis hiding a bigger problem? The speaker, Dr. Peter Attia, argues that obsesity is not the cause of insulin resistance, but a symptom that actually makes insulin resistance less harmful:
We know that 30 million obese Americans in the United States don't have insulin resistance. And by the way, they don't appear to be at any greater risk of disease than lean people. Conversely, we know that six million lean people in the United States are insulin-resistant, and by the way, they appear to be at even greater risk for those metabolic disease I mentioned a moment ago than their obese counterparts.
So what is the cause of insulin resistance? We don't know for sure yet, but the evidence seems to point to refined sugars and starches. As I mentioned the other day, these are massively subsidized, which is why poor Americans tend to be fat and unhealthy.
August 11. Depressing links for Monday. Kids today have a lot less freedom than their parents did. The article tries to show all sides of the issue, including a few ways that kids have more freedom, but overall this is an ominous trend. I can't think of any way to reverse it so that kids can take more physical risks than their parents. But if the trend continues, the human experience will become more lifeless, and either we'll be more motivated to create some catastrophe, or we'll fade away into extinction.
Is a hard life inherited? It's a short article about some of the ways that poverty makes it extra hard to get out of poverty. And another from the NY Times, Don't let your children grow up to be farmers, about how it's almost impossible to make money growing food, and some politically unrealistic ways to fix it.
I imagine in 50 years there will be giant automated food factories, and people growing stuff for personal consumption, and almost nothing in between. I don't even go to farmer's markets because they're not a way for me to eat on a $10,000 income -- they're a way for small farmers to stay barely afloat by charging much more than industrial agriculture to buyers who can afford to care about that.
Related: What I learned after taking a homeless mother grocery shopping. The main thing she learned is that people want to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, but they're really, really expensive compared to processed starches, and that's why poor people eat so badly. My take on this is not to complain about the subsidy system, which seems carved in stone, but to imagine that most of us are going to live this way in the future. As we pass through the bottleneck of resource exhaustion, you'll eat fresh blueberries either by having money coming out your ears, or growing them in your yard.
(By the way, my blueberries did badly in this hot summer, but my apple, apricot, and peach trees are making 30-50 fruits each in just their second year.)
August 8. Quirky stuff for the weekend. Thanks Anne for introducing me to this blog, Rune Soup. It's also titled "Chaos Magic" and the author, Gordon, is doing an AMA tomorrow on the occult subreddit, but he writes about all kinds of stuff. I wonder if he's actually Jeff Wells from Rigorous Intuition.
Should we return the nutrients in our pee back to the farm? We should also return our poop, or we're likely to run out of phosphorus.
And an awesome spoken word piece from 1968, John Rydgren - Hippie Version Of Creation.
The striking difference was that while many of the African and Indian subjects registered predominantly positive experiences with their voices, not one American did. Rather, the U.S. subjects were more likely to report experiences as violent and hateful -- and evidence of a sick condition.
Defining the cultural difference is tricky. It's not fair to Americans to say that we're hyperselfish while other cultures are all happy communities, because Americans are more friendly to strangers, and less likely to exploit bureaucratic positions for personal gain. I would say it this way: that in western culture, things are fundamental and relationships are defined by things, while in other cultures it's the other way around. So maybe the reason Americans can't deal with voices, is that we can't define what thing the voice is coming from.
In a loose end from Monday, there's a post on the subreddit with a good idea about the psychological effect of robot dogs: that they use the uncanny valley effect to be "more sinister than a wheeled vehicle".
And something I almost stuck in with Monday's post but decided to keep it separate, a reddit comment arguing that the unconditional basic income would bring a new Renaissance, as human talents and ambitions are freed from the crushing demands of poverty. I'm thinking, if we use the same strategy as cannabis legalization and gay rights, then we need to fill popular entertainment with highly sympathetic characters who have no obligations and lots of free time. Now I can see that Seinfeld had the worst possible message, because it showed people with lots of free time being totally selfish.
August 4. Some links about mass psychology and politics. First, from Aeon Magazine, Why we can't wage war on drugs. The author looks at the origins of our concept of "drugs", and shows how the perceived difference between legal and illegal mind-altering substances has nothing to do with their effects, but emerged from a cultural fear of outsiders. So whatever drugs people on the fringe of society happen to use, are made illegal to keep them down. Now it occurs to me that marijuana legalization uses the same strategy as gay rights: before you can pass the laws, you have to spend decades working in popular culture to change the image of a group of people, from scary outsiders to harmless ordinary folks.
From February, the War Nerd writes about Boston Dynamics and its Big Dog robots. He argues that wheels are functionally much better than animal-like legs, and therefore this is either a military boondoggle, or it's about the psychological value of machines that move like animals. Then he speculates that robots will eventually be used by occupying powers for counterinsurgency, because they'll be immune to the emotional breakdowns of human soldiers. So the people might eventually see the well-behaved robots as friends, and the fallible human guerrillas as enemies.
But isn't this already happening? That's why conservatives think it's okay for doctors to prescribe opiates, but wrong for you to grow opium in your backyard, and why liberals think police should have more gun rights than ordinary citizens: because the occupying system has convinced us that its own machine-like behavior is more benevolent than raw human action.
Going back to the point above about changing images: humanity itself, in the eyes of humanity, is now an out-group, and high-tech management is the in-group. To reverse this, we need to draw attention to the failures of controlling technologies, and we also need more independent actions that are fun and helpful, and better yet if they're illegal! We need to heal the trauma of 9/11 and make outlaws heroes again.
This is a start: Digital-age detective work can't crack Brooklyn Bridge caper. I'm sure in a few more days the pranksters will be caught, but the nice thing is that they've almost convinced the public that they're the good guys.
August 1. It's been too long since I've written about creative stuff. I mentioned a few months back that I'm watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer for the third time and not liking it nearly as much as the first time. There are some great episodes, but mostly, especially in the later seasons, I just want to slap every character (except Spike) for their unrealistic, cartoonish, irritating emotions. How did my taste change so much? I think, with 15 more years of emotional experience, I can better distinguish between art and kitsch. In the same way, it takes some experience looking at paintings before you can see that Monet is better than Thomas Kinkade.
Is there a Monet of television? Maybe not yet, but we've been watching a 2007 British show called Skins, and I love it! The situations are absurd and yet the characters have great depth and subtlety. It's on Netflix, and you might want to skip the first episode, which has an unsympathetic protagonist and a manic plot. It's all about a group of teenagers, and I like how the adult characters are pompous and childish. Also, after watching Orphan Black season two, I'm even more impressed. How can they push the plot so fast and keep coming up with new ideas?
And some music. Last weekend I listened to a bunch of the American psych rock band Bardo Pond. Probably their most accessible song (assuming you already know how to appreciate heavy fuzz guitar) is Tommy Gun Angel. Another good one is Dom's Lament. And my favorite is from an improvised album they did with guitarist Roy Montgomery, under the band name Hash Jar Tempo: untitled 1. This track is every bit as good as Electric Moon and 13 years sooner.
July 30. Christian Rudder's wonderful OkCupid blog is back after a three year absence in which he was writing a book. The new post, We Experiment On Human Beings!, is full of hard data about human shallowness. In the first experiment, OkCupid removed all photos for seven hours:
People responded to first messages 44% more often, conversations went deeper, contact details were exchanged more quickly, in short OkCupid worked better. When the photos were restored at 4PM, 2200 people were in the middle of conversations that had started blind. Those conversations melted away.
In the second experiment, OkCupid allowed users to rate each other separately on looks and personality, but in practice, everyone just judged each other on looks and assumed personality was the same. On the depressing graph, not a single data point is high in one and low in the other. Similarly, profiles with the text temporarily hidden were rated basically the same as with the text visible, meaning that "the text is less than 10% of what people think of you."
In the third experiment, they lied to people about how good a match other people were, and the power of suggestion turned out to be just as strong as actual compatibility in predicting how far people would go with messaging.
New subject: Adam Curtis has a big new post, The rise of the hidden systems that are stopping us changing the world. What's missing is actual evidence that these systems are slowing the pace of change, but it's a nice story, with creepy details about surveillance. And at the end is the incredible story of the daughter of the guy who invented Boolean logic, who wrote a novel that inspired the Russian revolution, and married the guy who the Voynich manuscript is named after.
Another new subject: two reddit comments trashing popular writers. A historian argues in detail how Chapter 3 of Guns, Germs, and Steel is bullshit. And someone who used to know the author of Fifty Shades of Grey argues that Erika Leonard is not a creator, she is a marketer, who copied all the best Twilight fanfic and cashed in through aggressive self-promotion.