"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 2. Some philosophical loose ends from Monday's big post. Just as light can behave like either a particle or a wave, I think that reality can behave either like it's made of matter or like it's made of mind, depending on how you look at it.
Science is what emerges when many perspectives over time observe the same stuff until they reach agreement. If this consensus-building is in its early stages, or if the nature of the experience makes it impossible in the first place, then observations are not consistent, materialist philosophy is awkward, objective truth is a distraction, and it works better to think of reality as a giant dream that's only partially shared.
But the shared part of the dream is where the power is. It's not strictly true that reality is mindless, physical, and objective, but that assumption has more practical value than assuming the opposite. You could spend 20 years meditating and not get the same insights (or the same dangers) as if you spent five years studying chemistry to learn to synthesize LSD. Even in parts of the world with a philosophical background that puts mind before matter, they don't have schools teaching telepathy or remote viewing or precognition or levitation or other mind-based skills that seem like magic, but using the internet to view a color-enhanced image of Pluto seems totally like magic.
What's going to happen when we use increasingly powerful technologies, achieved through an objective materialist view of reality, to explore the subjective idealist internal world?
One more loose end: a reader sends this NY Times article, Sam Harris's Vanishing Self, about how Harris tries to reconcile consciousness with science, including a shocking argument: not only is the self an illusion, but it's easier to see through it than to see through many optical illusions.
August 31. [permalink] I've been thinking more about a subject I wrote about four months ago in this post: "If this is a mindless universe of particles and waves in which consciousness appeared by accident, how unlucky are we that pleasant consciousness is so elusive?"
My latest angle is: with all the powers of technology, why have we still failed to "game the system" of human well-being? If I told you there was a pill that simply made you happier, with no other effects, you wouldn't believe it. We do have drugs that will enable someone with severe depression to barely function, or someone with AIDS to not die, but it seems impossible to find shortcuts from average to above average. Why can't I take a pill to be healthy without eating vegetables or exercising? Even vitamin supplements, which seemed like a shortcut to health, have turned out to be mostly useless or harmful.
This is easy to explain with metaphysics: God wants you to be a better person more than He wants you to have a good time. I lean toward Taoism: the physical world is like the surface of a deeper reality that we can never fully understand, but if we can partly understand it and go with the flow, life is better. And I think the Tao wants us to try to game the system. That's what everything alive does, and the history of life on earth is organisms finding temporary hacks.
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.
Can we explain this through pure materialism? The nice thing about a random and meaningless universe is that it should be completely hackable. In theory, if you imagine the greatest moment of your life, you could experience that over and over forever. You might object that any level of bliss will just become the new normal, but in theory that's just one more obstacle that we can overcome. (For some good sci-fi on this, read Permutation City by Greg Egan.)
These obstacles, in the materialist model, are on the level of human biology. Our bodies have evolved over tens of millions of years to put survival above everything, and feeling good is how our bodies reward us for doing things that tend to keep the species going. In the ancestral environment, anyone who found a way to game the system tended to die without offspring, so the capacity for taking shortcuts has been bred out of us.
Outside the ancestral environment, I can see why it's still hard to hack health: you can patch a broken machine to make it barely work, but the only way to improve a well-running machine is to invent a whole new machine that runs better. But it seems strange that we haven't made more progress at hacking feeling good.
I'm avoiding the word "happiness" because that implies a kind of bland good feeling that a lot of people are against, and maybe that's the root of the issue: we're thinking in terms of whole systems, and we're skeptical of feeling good outside the context of living a good life. To quote Gordon Lightfoot: "Sometimes I think it's a sin, when I feel like I'm winning when I'm losing again."
This also explains why drug addiction happens to people who have given up all hope of living a good life. I would contribute lots of money to crowd-funded research that promised to quickly reset marijuana tolerance so I could get to a  twice a week -- but only if I could get back to being myself in between. People who don't like being themselves want to be on drugs all the time.
Anyway, I expect hedonic technology to improve in the coming decades, and I'm curious to see where it works and doesn't work, and if we become more socially accepting of feeling good for no good reason.
August 28. As usual, light stuff for the weekend. My momentary favorite song is Gravenhurst - Black Holes in the Sand. It sounds a lot like Nick Drake or Elliott Smith but more spacy.
The reddit comment page of a spectacular photo, a four minute exposure above Snoqualmie Pass. You can see light from Seattle, a small town, cars on a highway, forest fires, and the Milky Way all at once.
Another striking photo I found on the Most Beautiful subreddit, Man feeding birds in Krakow.
Finally, a nine minute documentary about the genius Warner Brothers cartoon director, Chuck Jones - The Evolution of an Artist.
August 26. Today on Hacker News there's a smart comment thread about Bernie Sanders, including discussion of whether he can win, and why middle America hates socialism. I agree with this reddit comment arguing that Sanders has zero chance to be president, but I'll still support him in next year's Washington caucus if he hasn't dropped out, because the better he does, the sooner his positions will be taken seriously.
On a different political subject, a great reddit comment about South Korea's loudspeakers on the North Korea border. They're loud enough to be heard by all the border troops and even some people in a nearby city, and they establish credibility by reporting weather more accurately than the NK forecasts, and then by reporting trivial news sooner than NK news, and then they start reporting on internal North Korean stuff, and also playing music that's better than North Korea has.
Now I'm wondering how many of the military conquests of history could have been done this way. If you have a stronger military than your opponent, and a stronger culture, it should be possible to use your military in a purely defensive role to protect a physical infrastructure that fights with information and culture. If a nation uses its military for offense, then the people in charge either believe they're culturally weaker, or they're lazy and enjoy violence, or they're fighting for economic reasons.
August 24. Brand new blog post from Anne, Where We Are, explaining the latest stock market crash in terms of diminishing returns in market creation. That is, the more poor people you turn into middle class consumers so you can sell stuff to them, the harder it gets. The stock crash reflects a growing fear that the global economy is falling into a deflationary spiral, a feedback loop where businesses pay people less, those people have less money to spend on products and services that businesses make their money from, and so on.
I see a difficult three part solution. The easiest part is an unconditional basic income. Economically the time is already ripe, but there are big cultural obstacles, because nobody likes to see other people get money for doing nothing, especially if those people are richer or lazier.
The second part is a zero growth economy. This is impossible in the current economic paradigm, which has growth as its cornerstone. With perpetual growth, you can buy a diverse package of investments and over time it will inevitably get bigger. With zero growth, it will tend to stay the same size but then get smaller because of administration fees. So investment as we know it is finished, and even savings accounts will probably have negative interest. On top of that, growth has great emotional power. If we can't look around and see the numbers getting bigger all the time, a lot more people will feel that their lives have no meaning. The only way to avoid a zero growth economy is a perpetual cycle of booms and busts, and humanity may just prefer that.
The third part is a transition from nonrenewable to renewable resources. This is the most painful of all, and also the only one that is guaranteed to happen. Our goal should be to do it as smoothly as possible. The danger I see is not that we will fail and drop into permanent preindustrial poverty, but that we will succeed so well that we get addicted to growth again: more and more of the earth's surface will be used for solar energy, and by the time that gets into diminishing returns, the system will have an even bigger crash with nothing to fall back on.
August 21. From 12 days ago, a good reddit thread about how psychedelics are anti-addictive. They say a mushroom trip is the most awesome thing ever, but so intense that you don't feel like doing it again for a long time. That's exactly how I feel about listening to my favorite song.
Also on the subject of music and drugs, my new favorite jazz album on cannabis is Charles Mingus - The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. It's a lot like Bitches Brew by Miles Davis: loosely structured, mostly improvised, and heavily overdubbed, but Mingus did it seven years sooner, and better. There are bits that sound like proto-metal, and when I mentioned that to Leigh Ann she said, "Charles Mingus invented heavy metal; Bob Dylan invented rap."
August 19. Last week I had a visitor, Erik. Here's his latest blog post, The Iron Law of Story, inspired by some of the stuff we talked about. I told him I think our lives are shaped by creative forces, operating on a level we have not yet discovered, that want good stories.
New subject: last week there was a good reddit comment on political correctness in college. The idea is that students are not making unreasonable demands any more than they were in the 70's or 80's, but that administrators are responding more to these demands. This is the normal behavior of all power structures: to look for excuses to increase their power.
New subject: Why do we turn the music down when parking? Because we're bad at multitasking and music takes attention we need for difficult driving tasks. Personally I avoid listening to music for everything except highway driving. This also reminds me of a bit from Matthew Crawford's book The World Beyond Your Head: that talking on a cell phone, even without hands, makes you more likely to crash your car, but talking to someone in the seat next to you does not, because they can see when the driving gets hard and they shut up or even help you.
August 17. Last week I looked at a bunch of videos of the Tianjin port explosion, and that link goes to the best video by far. (Warning: lots of profanity!) Not only does it have excellent visuals, it also tells a story: the explosions get bigger, and you can hear the changing emotions of the people watching. There are some idiots morally judging them in the comments, but my reactions would be exactly like that, and theirs probably would be too. In actual extreme events people behave in ways that are surprising if you've only seen newscasters and Hollywood actors. Also, this silent dashcam video shows the power of the shock wave.
This event is a good test case for doom forecasters. Here's an overview from the Wall Street Journal, Firms Gauge Impact of Devastating Explosions at Tianjin Port. Shipping of raw materials, manufacturing, and shipping of finished products have all been set back weeks or months, and "even minor delays could ripple across supply chains because major ports like Tianjin serve as focal points for global shipping as well as transportation inland." By watching the ripples, we can get a sense of how fragile or robust the various big systems are.
Also on the subject of doom, here's a new comment from Anne, lightly edited:
I highly recommend Jack Weatherford's Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, for three reasons. One, it's very good history. Second, it makes a strong case that most of what we think of as European or Renaissance ideas were imported from Kublai Khan's imperial court. Third, it might get people off this "collapse of the Roman Empire" meme. The Mongols conquered the world, integrated it into a single trading unit, then lost control as an empire when the black death wiped out northern China and Persia, but all the infrastructure and intellectual legacy they left behind was swiftly incorporated into the Ming, Rus, Moghul and Persian empires that grew up from the ruins within a span of three decades.
August 14. Fun stuff for the weekend. The Cinder Cone is a video of some dudes building an awesome double treehouse on beautiful land overlooking the Columbia river. But watching this and thinking you can do the same thing is like watching a moon landing video and thinking you can go to the moon because you don't know how hard it is to build a rocket. The "rocket" is a group of people who all know each other and have abundant money, skills, time, motivation, and supporting friends with most of the above. Who are these guys? The bank robbers from Point Break? The children of the coolest rich people in Portland? I bet they didn't spend much time in public schools, and this kind of thing would be a lot more common if we had an educational system that just supported kids in following whatever excites them and finding friends with the same interests.
Here's something you could build yourself, but it would still be really hard: a slinky escalator.
From the Explain Like I'm Drunk subreddit, The Trans-Pacific Partnership. There should be a rule that you're not allowed to complain about anything unless you can be funny.
I just discovered the Imaginary Cityscapes subreddit. Notice that it's mostly dark blue and cyberpunk. It's strangely hard to find imaginative art that has obvious sci-fi elements and also wild nature -- even though that's really going to happen. Here's one I found on Imaginary Autumnscapes, Time Out by Kait Kybar.
August 12. Here's a comment I just made on Ask Men Over 30, asking who we want for president.
The media trains us to think about this as if the president is a dictator: I'll support whoever I agree with or like the most, and if elected that person will change everything in the way I want.
In practice, I don't think the president is that powerful. I think Obama really wanted to close Guantanamo Bay, and pass medical reform without an insurance mandate, and it turned out he couldn't do it.
Bernie Sanders is easily my favorite candidate on the issues, but I think if he got elected he would just butt his head against the whole rest of the system, appear to be a total failure, and get crushed in 2020. I'm still supporting him because I don't think it's possible for him to actually become president, and the better he does the more his positions will be accepted in the long term.
I think the country will do best with a non-ideological boring competent moderate, like Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush. But Hillary is like Bob Dole. She's so unlikable that she can't win unless Trump runs as an independent.
I also want to say that I don't think Bernie Sanders and socialism are being held down by rich people. There are plenty of rich people in Europe, and they know they'll keep their money and power no matter what. The enemy of American socialism, and the defender of poverty, is the lower middle class, because they don't want the lower classes to be pulled up to their level, and not have anyone to look down on.
August 10. Continuing Friday's subject of entropy and life, Andy sends this great article, A New Physics Theory of Life, about a physicist who thinks that the appearance and development of life is driven by something deeper than evolution. In a system with an external source of energy, like the sun, and a surrounding heat bath, like the ocean or the atmosphere, matter tends to arrange itself into self-replicating units that are good at dissipating heat, which is basically what life does. Also the same process can lead to structures like snowflakes and sand dunes, so "the distinction between living and nonliving matter is not sharp."
August 8. Quick note: I squeaked through in election 56, thanks to a last minute vote and the mods bumping me over someone who ignored the theme, so I'll be submitting music to the listen to us subreddit for the next month. This, along with another project and a visitor next week, will cut my blogging time.
August 7. Random links for the weekend. This two year old reddit comment has a great explanation of entropy using the metaphor of a box of flipped coins.
There are more combinations of coins that add up to "some of each" than either "all up" or "all down," so pure random chance dictates that we're far more likely to go from the all-up state to the some-of-each state than the other way around.
This reminds me of one of my favorite reader comments of all time, about a physics professor who speculated that the universe will never die from entropy, because no matter how spread out the energy gets, life will always stay one step ahead and find a way to work with it. You could say that there are ways of working with the coins where an apparently random distribution is just as valuable as all heads or all tails.
I Don't Work Here Lady is a trending subreddit for stories about customers mistaking other customers for workers, something that's more common than I would have guessed.
If you're in my area, the Inland Northwest Permaculture Convergence has been scheduled for September 10-13 at a place about a half hour northwest of Spokane. I'm not sure yet if I'll be able to make it this year, but I was at the event last year at the same location and it was great.
Finally, a fun soccer/football video, Lionel Messi vs 3 or More Players.
August 5. In a crazy coincidence, Ugo Bardi also did a post Monday about how people like simple stories with villains: Cecil the lion: understanding the secret of a supermeme. He wonders if we can hurry popular consensus on climate change by crafting memes, and concludes that we will win the war of ideas anyway when the evidence of climate change is overwhelming. That might be the easy part. Even if everyone in the world agrees that we need to stop burning fossil fuels, there's no clear mechanism to actually stop, especially if it will plunge oil-producing nations into poverty, or force whole cities dependent on coal plants to go without air conditioning. It will be easier if we have already suffered economic collapse and have less to lose.
New subject: on the subreddit a reader just linked to this interesting blog post, Could We Evolve into Ants? The big idea is, if technology does something for us for enough generations, we might physically evolve to be unable to do that stuff for ourselves. This is my favorite kind of extinction scenario: that we make ourselves worse by successfully making ourselves better in a stupid way. If machines that do physical work make us physically weaker, and machines that do mental work make us mentally weaker, what happens in Ray Kurzweil's "age of spiritual machines"? (And I'm not going to make this argument for the 50th time, but I don't agree with the author that we will be saved from this fate by energy decline forcing us back to a preindustrial lifestyle.)
August 3. Last week over email Anne had a great comment about how the popular collapse narrative has trouble thinking about disasters that have specific causes:
The permafrost is melting because of wildfires, which are happening because of El Niño. The Fukushima Daiichi reactor exploded because the diesel generators that ran the circulation pumps were flooded in the largest tsunami to hit Japan in several centuries. Specific causes are, definitionally, not a trend. Are the massive refugee camps in Asia minor part of "the collapse"? No, they're part of the Syrian civil war. Which may have been caused by food prices, by drought, and in turn by climate change, but it's a war. Once it ends something different will happen. The idea of a collapse as a consistent sequence of exponentially worsening events (or a single event with worldwide reach) doesn't square with the stochastic pops of unique and unpredictable microcollapses we've been seeing since Katrina. Without a single variable that can be plotted on a graph, how can all these random events possibly be linked? So do they even count?
This reminds me of something I hate about the internet the more I notice it: everything has an emotional or moral subtext. In the context of collapse, people are seeking hope or the purity of refusing to accept hope. Morally they want stories about victims and villains. And simple stories are always more popular than complex stories, partly because simple stories are the only thing beginners can wrap their heads around. "We're not headed for techno-utopia? Then it must be extinction!" Last week I had a visitor who quoted me saying something I don't remember saying, but I agree with it: the future will be more utopian, more hellish, and weirder, all at the same time.