"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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November 26. As usual, for Thanksgiving, here are my recipes for pumpkin pie, gravy, and stuffing. And here's our recipe for homemade eggnog: 6 eggs (separate, whip whites and add at end), ½ cup sugar, 3 cups whole milk, 2 cups heavy cream, 1½ cups spiced rum, and a bit of vanilla and nutmeg.
Also here's a surprisingly good food-related article, How did toast become the latest artisanal food craze? You might expect the author to make fun of hipsters paying $4 for a slice of toast, but he brushes right past that and seeks the origin of the trend, and most of the article is a fascinating character study of coffee shop owner Giulietta Carrelli.
November 24, late supplemental post: Right now there are full-scale riots after a grand jury did not indict police officer Darren Wilson on any charges for shooting and killing Michael Brown. To me this is only tangentially about race, and more deeply it's about troubling rules for the behavior of police. If I had been in the position of the cop, and I had shot the guy one time, I think I would be tried and acquitted. But if I had chased him and shot him five more times, I would be correctly convicted of second degree murder. In an acceptable society, police would be held to the same standards as ordinary citizens -- or stricter standards. If Wilson is cleared because he did what he was trained to do, then the American police are a legally murderous institution. Black people can see this because they are more likely to be victims of the police, but those guns are potentially pointed at all of us. Here's a great article from The Nation on this subject, Why it's impossible to indict a cop.
November 24. The last Monday of every month is Finger Pointing Day, when I post links about those bad people doing those bad things, so I can avoid that frame of mind for the rest of the month. If you want more of this stuff, check out TrueReddit and Food for thought. I'll be busy the rest of this week with travel and holidays and will not be posting much.
Why 12-foot traffic lanes are disastrous for safety and must be replaced now. Yeah, good luck with that. Every time someone says "We must do this now" or "It's time to do this," I know they have no power and they're making a futile attempt to "raise awareness" among people who also have no power and already too much depressing awareness of all the ways they're unable to make the world better. Anyway, the reason 12-foot lanes are worse than 10-foot lanes is that the extra width makes drivers go faster, and the interesting thing is how bad we are at anticipating that kind of reaction.
The real reason wheat is toxic, according to this article, is that farmers saturate the fields with Roundup and other glyphosate herbicides, which disrupt your gut bacteria and cause many modern diseases. I'm not endorsing this theory, but it's certainly plausible, and there's more discussion in the long comments section.
This article has lots of info on one of my first world problems, that a good toothpaste ingredient is unavailable in America. I researched this a few years ago and stocked up on Burt's Bees toothpaste, which has an ingredient called calcium sodium phosphosilicate (brand name NovaMin) that has been proven to remineralize teeth. Now Burt's Bees no longer makes toothpaste, tubes are going for $20 on eBay, and the toothpaste that has the ingredient in Canada and Europe does not have it here. I don't think this is a conspiracy, just corporate incompetence, but it's creepy when the author tries to get a straight answer from GlaxoSmithKline and just gets PR bullshit.
Teacher spends two days as a student and is shocked at what she learns. What, doesn't she remember being a student herself, and being exhausted from sitting still all day and passively absorbing boring information with no participation in the learning process? Anyway, the article does a good job describing that world, and offers some ideas for how teachers could do things differently, some of which would actually be permitted in a public school.
November 21. Some fun stuff for the weekend. Trepanation: Elective Surgery You Need Like A Hole in the Head. It's a comic about the long history of drilling a hole through your skull. We don't know why ancient people did it, but modern people report that it makes them feel more relaxed and motivated, and can cure chronic headaches. Because a controlled study is impractical, we might never know if it's working on a level other than the placebo effect.
Patricia sends this review of a great children's book, Wild by Emily Hughes, about a girl who is raised by wild animals, brought to civilization, and escapes. The best nonfiction I've seen about feral children is this 2002 Fortean Times article, Wild Things.
The funniest Onion article I've seen in a while, Astronomers Discover Planet Identical To Earth With Orbital Space Mirror.
And some music that is not at all fun. I've been listening to playlists on 8tracks.com trying to find someone else who sings like Colleen Kinsella of Big Blood, and I haven't yet, but yesterday I found another great singer-songwriter named Nicole Dollanganger. This has to be the saddest song I've ever heard: Please Just Stay Dead.
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.
And continuing on Monday's subject, Anne explains why Voldemort and other Hollywood villains are so ridiculous:
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.
To put it another way: when Obama said that Americans get bitter and cling to their guns and religion, the Right made him walk it back. He shouldn't have done that; he should have said "What, you don't have an uncle like that? a brother-in-law? a coworker?" Because basically everyone does. Would you go to see seven movies in a row about straight-A students from a top school with connections in government beating the snot out of your Drunken Uncle Howard? That would just be sad. Straight-A students with connections have been beating up on Drunken Uncle Howard his whole life, that's why he's such a dick.
November 17. Two weeks ago The View From Hell had a short post called Impro and the Cultural Destruction of Creativity. The whole thing is just an excerpt from the book Impro by Keith Johnstone, arguing that the modern western idea of art as self-expression is really weird. Other cultures view the artist as a conduit for something beyond them, not as an isolated sole creator. I would add that the word "genius" used to mean some kind of magical entity that gave the artist ideas, and it would have been ridiculous to say a person is a genius.
And here's the kicker: because we now think of creative work as self-expression, and because the self is bound up with social status, someone who cares what other people think cannot be really creative, because they're always thinking about how it will make them look to others, and they're afraid to get in touch with anything that might make them look crazy.
Loosely related: a few nights ago Leigh Ann and I watched Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I liked the first book and the third movie, and otherwise the entire Harry Potter franchise bores me. Goblet of Fire might be the most uninspired of all the movies, and by the time Voldemort appeared I had enough distance that I was able to wonder: why does he 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.
November 14. Against Productivity. The author writes about going to Puerto Rico with the plan of having lots of free time and being productive. Instead he did nothing useful, felt guilty and depressed -- and yet looking back he can see that the experience made him a better person with better habits of viewing the world.
Most of the article is a social critique of productivity that's less interesting than his personal story, because this has been written thousands of times over thousands of years, going all the way back to the Tao Te Ching, and it doesn't seem to have made any difference. Here's an article with a similar message, Top five regrets of the dying, and people are going to read it, agree completely, and then when they die they'll have the same regrets.
This makes me wonder how much of my own writing is a waste of time (except where the writing itself is fun). Clearly the forces that make us work too hard exist on a level deeper than language. Telling people to be less busy is like shouting at a football game on TV. So what are these deeper forces? For most people they appear to be economic: the only way to be less busy is to be homeless. But even this economic arrangement is rooted in culture and politics. In his important essay on the phenomenon of bullshit jobs, David Graeber explains how much of our work is economically wasteful, and blames the elite who fear that massive free time would bring social changes. I'd be surprised if that issue is even on their radar. It's more like some of the rich, and some of the poor, and most of the middle class, if they see people living comfortably on very little work, are full of rage covering their own grief at how much worse their lives are than they could have been.
Another way to look at it is that we feel the need for our lives to have meaning, and the customary source of meaning in the modern age is doing stuff for money. So if we get an unconditional basic income, and doing stuff is separated from money, then people will suddenly feel that their lives are meaningless, or they'll have to change their whole idea of what makes life meaningful, and that's really hard.
November 12. Feeling unmotivated, so here are some stray links on which I have no further comment.
This reddit comment from two months ago makes an overwhelming moral argument against selling organs. Edited conclusion:
You can not agree with organ sales unless you concede that 1) Slavery in nexum is ethical. 2) There is no fundamental natural right to life or liberty. 3) The members of a society have the right to organise it in such a way that the death of some of them are structurally ensured. 4) That they further have the right to make use of that certainty to exploit those condemned to death for the benefit of some of their preferred members.
Good news: Self-filling water bottle turns humidity into drinking water for cyclists.
And I don't really understand this programming article but I have an intuition that it's important, both technologically and philosophically: Pulling JPEGs out of thin air with several hundred million uses of something called a fuzzer.
November 10. Today, three long links on totally different subjects. I think I found them all on Hacker News.
Obamacare: what it is, what it's not, is a bunch of boring information and political arguments in readable comic form. The general message is that Obamacare is flawed but pretty good, most of the opposition to it is stupid, and it doesn't necessarily lock us into the massive bureaucratic costs of the present system, because states can use it as a bridge to single payer.
Secrets of the Magus is a 1993 article on magician Ricky Jay. He's a fascinating person and there's lots of good stuff about the history of stage magic.
Point and Shoot is about Lagrange points, gravity-neutral spots that are useful for space exploration. There's a nice paragraph near the end about how the human drive to explore space is based on earthly mythical thinking that doesn't really apply to space. We want to put our footprints on rocks, but landing humans on planets is much more difficult and not really that useful. My favorite book on this subject is Gaiome by Kevin Scott Polk, which imagines millions of self-sufficient space communities at Lagrange points everywhere. My personal prediction is that before that happens, we'll either go extinct or discover something that's more like parallel-universe sci-fi than space travel sci-fi.
November 7. For the weekend, I'm writing about drugs again. Check out this colorful image of how magic mushrooms rearrange your brain by temporarily creating many more connections between brain networks that normally don't talk to each other.
There's a new cannabis strain, Charlotte's Web, bred to have high CBD and low THC. Those are the two main active components of marijuana, and the simplified story is that THC generates head high while CBD generates couch-lock. By the way, the whole indica vs sativa thing is only loosely related to CBD vs THC. Anyway, the known medical value is in CBD, so high-CBD low-THC strains are probably the future of medical marijuana. It would be possible in theory to legalize only those strains, but it's more likely that right wing states will just legalize expensive all-CBD pharmaceuticals.
The Amazons of the dark net is a fascinating article about illegal e-commerce sites.
Also I want to mention our crazy weather. Spokane's first frost is usually in late September or early October, and this year we're finally going to get it on November 10. Today I went out in the back yard and picked about a pint of raspberries.
November 5. I want to go back to my favorite idea from Monday, this reddit comment about contagious diseases that spread through ideas. Here's a loooooong article about the gluten sensitivity movement, backing up my position that (with the exception of actual celiac disease) it seems to be all in our heads, or caused by stuff other than gluten.
A more common medical condition with a clear psychological component is aging, and here's another long article, What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set? It describes several experiments in which mental and emotional changes caused physical changes that seemed to reverse aging. Of course aging is not completely psychological. There are proven physical mechanisms, and even the most enlightened old people still look and act old. But a reader mentions knowing a 100-year-old woman who cheerfully navigates her physical impairments to plant flowers and go out with friends, compared to younger old people who like to talk about what is 'wrong' with them.
I suppose I should write about yesterday's election. The good news is that Oregon, Alaska, and DC all legalized recreational marijuana. Here's a good Oregon legalization Q&A, and unlike Washington state you can grow your own. Medical marijuana failed in Florida despite strong popular support, and this article argues that it's because the initiative got tangled up in partisan politics, so that Republicans who favored medical marijuana still voted no.
This is a special case of a general way that humans are stupid. I think it goes back to our monkey tribe ancestors who developed deep instincts to love the home tribe and hate the enemy tribe. This primal urge is now projected onto political parties. In America, Republican and Democrat are different tribes, different cultures, different ways of walking and talking and framing issues. Where they are not different, but pretend to be, is influencing deep political policy. For example, Obamacare is almost identical to an earlier Republican proposal. If a Republican president and congress had passed it, Republicans would love it and Democrats would hate it. It's like a battle over who gets to wave their flag from an unstoppable train.
November 3. Thanks ShadowBax for making this subreddit post about this awesome reddit thread, 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.
October 31. Some personal stuff for the weekend. Last month I mentioned the misunderstandings around my popular essay How to Drop Out, and earlier this week I wrote a new disclaimer at the top of that page. I think this is the best I've ever explained it. Also I made minor updates to my Frugal Early Retirement FAQ.
Last weekend I had a visit from a reader who was passing through Spokane on his way to Portland to start a new life. We took some legal cannabis hits on the vaporizer, and I never knew before how differently it affects different people. He was taking more hits on a longer tolerance break, yet I had a much deeper body high, I became less social while he became more social, and I was surprised that he could still read. When I try to read stoned, I can understand every word but can't read a sentence because I can't keep track of the context of each word. He asked why I only do it once a week and I explained that it takes me like two days to get 100% back to my sober mode of intelligence and get fully rehydrated. Maybe that's not normal, but it's totally worth it. Also I was getting much more into the music. Leigh Ann was there too (sober plus wine) and the only music we could find that all three of us liked was NASA Voyager Space Sounds (look for it on torrents) and Led Zeppelin. My latest musical obsession is vocal timbre, and until now I never fully appreciated Robert Plant's voice.
Last month we both took a motorcycle class and bought scooters. I got a Genuine Buddy 150 and Leigh Ann got a Vespa ET4, which needed new tires and mirrors, so it wasn't until today that we were able to take a long ride together. My truck takes about five minutes to go from zero to sixty, so it's fun to have a vehicle with good acceleration, and of course it burns a lot less gas. I'm probably going to sell the truck in March and we'll see if we can get away with going carless.
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.