"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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July 27. Something related to last Monday's subject, Technology Is Magic, Just Ask The Washington Post. From the first few paragraphs I thought it was going to be about hoverboards, but it's about how police and intelligence agencies want "back doors" and "golden keys" to the internet, while engineers understand that this would be an information security nightmare. More generally, this is an example of how the big danger of technology is not that it will go rogue, but that humans will tell it to do stupid things because they don't understand the consequences.
New subject. I assume you already know about pirate democracy, but that link goes to a reddit thread with lots of information and resources about the golden age of sea piracy.
New subject. Stop trying to be creative. It's about a computer program that allows you to breed random images into images that look like real things, and it turns out that it's really hard to get to a picture of a car by trying to get to a picture of a car, but you might get there accidentally by trying to get to a picture of a face. This is a metaphor for the whole creative process. When your favorite band recorded your favorite song, they did not start out with that exact song already in their head and figure out how to play it. More likely, they were aiming for something else but were able to "maintain an openness to discovering whatever arises."
July 23. I have nothing to write about this week, so here are some bits from my marijuana journal. I typically eat or vape one night every week or two, sit on the couch and listen to music, and write down evaluations of the music and ideas like these...
Everything you hate must eventually be sorted into what you love and what you ignore.
The Tao is that which heals emotionally infinitely fast.
There are two paths from angry music to happy music: through silence and through noise.
July 20. Thanks naringas for posting this awesome Mark Burgess essay to the subreddit, The Cyborg Compulsion: Why the robots aren't coming in the way you expect. The big idea is that technology changes human society not so much according to economics, but according to the human need for life to feel meaningful. This is why synthesizers did not replace orchestras, and instant coffee did not replace hand-made coffee.
And the big danger is not that humans will give up control to machines that will turn evil or incompetent, but that humans will insist on maintaining control over ever-more powerful machines, amplifying the effects of human evil and incompetence. "The evolution of modern information technology looks a lot more like a cyborg vanity project, in which we equip ourselves with power tools to emulate super-powers."
There's also some great stuff about why computers are not even on the right path to develop human-like intelligence. Condensed excerpt:
Our intelligence grows from childhood over many years of training, through our physical and mental interactions with the world. We learn methods alongside experiences. Concepts are built up through ostensive communication, which is impossible without extensive sensory apparatus. For an intelligence to emerge, in an artificial system, we would have to very purposely build it and train it interactively.
I believe that all of those human qualities that we pretend are weaknesses (and superfluous in robots) like emotion, dreaming, and imagination, are precisely the keys to understanding what we mean by intelligence. The brain is far too non-linear to be a Turing machine, and these contextual states are what makes flat information into actionable intelligence. We seem to be trying to compete with a waterfall by binding together hosepipes.
It seems to me that enhanced intelligence is more likely to come from brain science, than from current ideas of artificial logical reasoning. To imagine that silicon technology is the way to advance intelligence seems like the hubris of computer scientists.
July 17. Over on the subreddit there's a super-depressing future scenario, People want the McPherson extinction story because real collapse is boring and sucks. This whole subject keeps reminding me of Anne's comment that every model serves a purpose. When you build the worst scenario you can imagine, the purpose is to mentally prepare yourself so that whatever actually happens will not crush your spirit.
We do this with what we're afraid of. I do it with the medical system. Leigh Ann recently tore her ACL or MCL or both, we don't know because it's really hard to get an MRI on Medicaid, and when she waited four hours in the emergency room to get even less help than she got at the urgent care clinic, I wasn't disappointed because I expected an even longer wait, a feedback loop of treatments requiring more treatments, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills.
My attitude toward the future of humanity is not fear, but fascination, and that has never changed. When I was a hard-core doomer I was doing exactly the same thing I'm doing now: seeking whatever is most interesting. But through increasing knowledge, experience, and greater ability to imagine complexity, I'm looking in a different region of the range of imaginable futures.
I suppose that's the key to happiness, and it's what they mean by letting go of your ego: to view even your personal misfortunes in terms of noticing what's interesting instead of avoiding pain.
Some music for the weekend, and if you don't like what I usually post you won't like this either: Dreamgirl - Teenage Blue. And if you're curious, here's the song I mentioned a month ago, that went from sounding pretentious and boring to radical and brilliant after I heard it enough times: Big Blood - A Quiet Lousy Roar.
July 15. Random links. Does Earth have a shadow biosphere? The idea is, we used to not know about microbes because we didn't know how to look for them, so maybe there are more kinds of alien life on Earth that we still don't know about. This opens a subject that I followed for years before I got into the anti-civ thing, and I'm still into it years later: fringe science. The book Biological Transmutations by Louis Kervran describes experiments where chemical elements seem to appear out of nowhere in sealed environments. Kervran thinks it's being done by known biological entities through unknown processes, but it could be the work of unknown entities. Getting weirder, Trevor James Constable wrote a book called The Cosmic Pulse of Life, where he claims to have used special photography to see giant amoeba-like creatures in the atmosphere. Weirder still, if you read enough Charles Fort and John Keel, you get a sense of shadow life on Earth that is not even exactly physical.
Reddit comment thread, How is it that most older men don't give a fuck? I hate the top answer, "Older men have real problems," because having bigger problems as you get older is nothing to brag about. But farther down there are lots of great answers. In my experience, every time something bad happens and you recover from it, you no longer fear that thing.
How virtual reality porn could bring about world peace. The author tries several kinds of VR porn and they're all lame, but one is interesting:
If everyone sat down, popped some goggles on and saw what it was like for someone of a different gender or sexuality to have sex, our shared empathy would go through the roof. At the next G8 summit, Cameron and Obama and Putin should all experience first-hand how gruesome it is to be humped by a horny bloke.
He's mostly joking, but I still think he's too optimistic. Look at how the internet puts all the knowledge of history at our fingertips, and people use it mostly to confirm what they want to believe, not to challenge themselves. If we have a choice, we'll tend to use virtual reality the same way.
July 13. Related to last week's doom subject, a great reddit comment explaining why Greeks want to dump the Euro. It's really smart until near the end, where he says "I have to believe that eventually we'll find our way back to growth / progress." It's funny how optimists and doomers have the same blind spot: they cannot imagine a world without economic growth. So optimists ignore the math and think growth is permanent, while doomers think the end of growth means the end of the world. I'm not going to make an argument here, just a sensible prediction: somewhere in the 21st century, the global economy will be smaller than it was 20 years previously, and we will still have big cities, big governments, and high tech.
And a really scary local doom link, The Earthquake That Will Devastate Seattle.
July 9. Back to doom. Esquire has a new article about the emotions of climate scientists, and it mentions scenarios all the way from human extinction to "We can solve this problem in a way that doesn't disrupt our lifestyle."
I want to divide this topic into three levels: science, society, and psychology. Science can tell us about rising temperatures and melting glaciers and acidifying oceans. A good book on this subject is Under A Green Sky by Peter Ward. This is the worst scenario you can get to with good science, and still Ward admits that it won't be as extreme as the Permian-Triassic extinction, because too much carbon has been locked up in limestone. And even the P-T extinction only killed 70% of land vertebrate species. It's not a lottery -- the delicate specialist species go first, and humans are among the toughest and most adaptable.
So given severe climate change and human survival, how will we be living? This is an impossible question, because a few people at comfortable desks in 2015 cannot imagine the options and the creativity of millions of people with their backs to the wall in 2025. On the subreddit a reader mentioned the 1972 Limits To Growth model. It's been pretty accurate so far, and I think it has proven that we can't go on living exactly the way we've been living. But other ways of living are outside the scope of the model. I can't find the link, but someone took Limits To Growth and applied it to the year 1400, and it also predicted near-term collapse.
There are two ways of thinking about future social adaptations -- or two extremes on a spectrum. At one extreme, any society that we haven't seen cannot exist, and our options are limited to what we have already tried. So if late 20th century industrial civilization can't keep going, then we have to go back to the 19th century, or the 13th, or the negative 100th. At the other extreme, what we have already tried is nothing, and there are unlimited options that we have not even imagined. Of course we're still constrained by physics, which rules out sustained exponential growth.
In the Esquire article, one scientist thinks that "consumption and growth have become so central to our sense of personal identity, and the fear of economic loss creates such numbing anxiety, we literally cannot imagine making the necessary changes." He's talking about the politically impossible changes that would prevent eco-catastrophe, but this is also true of the involuntary changes that will allow human systems to keep going through eco-catastrophe.
Last September there was a fascinating article about the mysteriously high Russian death rate. It seems that older Russians were unable to adapt mentally to the fall of the Soviet system, and they have lost the will to live and are dying more easily from all kinds of things. But in the coming decades the whole world could see more severe social changes -- people losing their money, their status, their jobs, their home cities, their ancestral cultures, their belief in progress -- without getting anywhere near a Mad Max collapse. So I think the challenges of this century will be more psychological than physical, and growing your own food is less valuable than growing your own meaning.
July 6. Stray links. A Brain-Zapping Gadget Made Me Feel High. It has two settings, one that's supposed to make you feel calm and one that's supposed to make you feel energetic. But the last sentence in the article mentions the placebo effect, and I want to see some controlled studies. I already believe that the different effects of different marijuana strains are almost entirely caused by the power of suggestion.
Good news! Iceland's Pirate Party surges into first place in the polls. It seems like the main difference between European Pirate parties and traditional left wing parties is they have a fresher culture. Part of that difference is that the old left is trying to correct past injustice while the Pirate party is trying to minimize future injustice.
Fascinating article, The strange expertise of burglars. Like every other skill, skilled burglary is about taking behaviors that a beginner would have to think about, and making them automatic. There are also ways to mess with burglar autopilot, like having a strange house layout or playing a recording of footsteps.
From my local newspaper, Why I'm Done Wearing a Helmet. Bicycle helmets only protect against a very specific injury, they might make you overconfident, and they encourage drivers to buzz you closer.
And if anyone wondered where I got that saying last week, "I don't have a dead guy at this funeral," it was from this two year old reddit thread: A Polish expression translates as "Not my circus, not my monkeys." What other great expressions do you know in another language?
July 2. On the previous post, Anne comments: "Models have to be built for a purpose - usually as a guide for some action or response - otherwise they aren't even useful." And "you can generally judge prophets not by the accuracy of their models but by the uses for which they've been designed."
In the context of collapse, I see three kinds of modelers. First there are powerful institutions like oil companies or DARPA, who need information about the future to make strategic decisions. Then there are writers like me, who enjoy having an audience, and might also make money selling doom prep products. Writers who need an audience can be trapped in an echo chamber where the audience and the writer prevent each other from changing their thinking. Finally there are models made by powerless individuals, who have all kinds of motives.
My new theory on the Guy McPherson crowd: Why would anyone go out of their way to believe in something (near-term human extinction) that's both depressing and unsupported by the evidence? It's because these are people who are already depressed and despairing for a variety of reasons, and by telling a story about the whole world, they can all be depressed for the same reason, and feel a sense of community.
I was a doomer optimist. My position was: society sucks, there's nothing I can do about it, but this coming unstoppable event will destroy the big systems and make room for a better world. Now, whether it would really be a better world is an even harder question than how to define "collapse" in the first place. But the worse your present position, the more you're willing to gamble on change (which is why governments will try hard to keep everyone fed). And now that I'm in a better position, I don't have an incentive to cheer for a particular future. My biggest fears, being in debt and having to look for a job again, are unlikely in any scenario. There's a Spanish saying, "I don't have a dead guy at this funeral."
I'm still fascinated by the future of humanity, and my motive is curiosity. But this is still a kind of bias, because challenges caused by failure, like energy decline and climate change, are less interesting than challenges caused by success, like artificial worlds that are better than reality, or the lifelessness of too much comfort, or the unintended consequences of using biotech to make ourselves better.
June 30. Thanks Ian for letting me know that the full interviews for the film What A Way To Go have been put up on YouTube on this page. This includes a hundred minutes of me talking, almost ten years ago, and my ideas have changed a lot since then.
The reason I'm no longer a doomer is simply that I got tired of being wrong. And I started to feel contempt for other doomers who shamelessly made the same wrong predictions year after year. And you have to make precise predictions because otherwise what does "collapse" even mean? Do you think we're still going to have internet? Container ships? Large scale grain farming? Banks? Taxes? Electrical grids? Hospitals? Stock markets? Elections? These are all different subjects that require different specialized knowledge. Even something like "manufacturing" could have vastly different answers for different products. And for each thing that's going to go away, how long will it take, and by what chain of events?
Everyone wants to be right, but people who persist in being doomers want to be right in a different way than I do. I want to say what's going to happen, and then it actually happens. Some people want to feel like they understand the mechanism for how things happen. But the real world is much too complex for any one person to understand, so we make simplifications. In the context of collapse, the simplest idea is business as usual plus sci-fi extrapolation. The next simplest idea is total collapse: every one of the above things goes away, because they're all part of the same One Big Thing, and some of the conditions that made the One Big Thing possible are disappearing.
Everyone is stupid, but smart people know how they're stupid. I know that modern civilization is only One Big Thing inside my head, and out in the world it's billions of people I don't know, their knowledge and habits and intentions, plus trillions of physical objects and all the connections between everything. I know that you can't have perpetual economic growth on a finite planet, that renewable energy is not coming online fast enough for a smooth transition out of fossil fuels, and that presently fertile regions will become deserts; but it would be arrogant to think that large complex high-tech society cannot adapt to these conditions, just because I can't personally imagine how it can adapt.
June 25. I'm busy this weekend and will probably not post again until Tuesday. On a tangent from my previous post, a reader posted this one hour radio program to the subreddit, Musical Language. I've been thinking a lot lately about musical quality and musical taste. How can people in the same culture hear music so differently? Why is musical judgment more varied and subjective than, say, judgment of landscape photographs? What internal process makes us like the sounds we like?
The radio show tries to answer this with brain science, and it has two good stories about musical sense developing. The first is the observation that if you record someone speaking, and play the same section over and over, it starts to sound musical, and your brain becomes trained to permanently hear that bit as musical.
This makes me think that a big part of musical taste is deciding what we want to like (often subconsciously) and then listening until we like it. A hundred years ago people just liked the music of their culture. But now, with so much choice, the kind of music you like is part of your individual identity. You might feel drawn to dark and angry music, or refuse to like anything by someone in a cowboy hat. As a teenager I got into prog rock because it was musically complex, mildly noisy, and had smart lyrics.
But sometimes you catch yourself liking something you don't want to like, or didn't expect to like. This means there's something at work deeper than culture and choice.
The radio show's other good story is about Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. At its first performance in 1913, it was so dissonant that fights broke out in the audience and people threw things at the orchestra. Only a year later audiences loved it. And if you look closely enough at the brain, you can see physical events that correspond to our mental process of turning noise into beauty.
I'm not interested in the mechanism, only how wonderful it feels when I do it. (If you're into Enneagram, this is why I'm 5w4 not 5w6.) But now I have more questions. Why does some challenging music sound incredible after repeated listening, while most challenging music merely sounds not bad? If this varies between different people, and if it's independent of number of listens, does it point to the deeper component of musical taste?
Is this related to other practices of transforming pain into pleasure, like BDSM, or certain schools of meditation? Is the same thing happening with difficult fiction? Are we decoding something in the art, or is the art decoding something in us? And are we making progress? If we exchanged music with people from a thousand years ago, would it be an equal exchange? And if not, if their music would bore us and our music would shock them, what does that say about changes in human consciousness?
June 22. Saturday night I was listening to music and had a thought. One song, which I had originally classified as pretentious and boring, and later as interesting, this time sounded radical and brilliant. So how does that mental model change, or not change? What do I do inside my head so that tomorrow I think of this song as great and not average?
Earlier I was watching baseball and having a similar thought about how batters see pitches. As an amateur I would just see a ball coming at me, but a professional batter sees the pitch within a classification system of different kinds of pitches, and if they're familiar with the pitcher, they see it in the context of what they expect from that pitcher. This is more than a mental model -- it's burned into their instinctive body motions by practice, so they hardly have to think at the moment of the swing. Pitchers do the same thing to learn how to pitch to different batters. And they're both aware the other one is doing it, which is how the mental game develops: if you know the other player's mental landcape, you can take advantage of it, or even hack it. Greg Maddux once intentionally gave up a home run to a batter in a regular season game, so in the playoffs the batter would be looking for that same pitch and never get it.
So here's my theory. Our landscapes of mind and habit are mostly shaped by emotion. The more intense my feelings when I'm listening to that song, the easier it is to start thinking of it as a great song. This might be obvious to anyone who's not an intellectual, and if it's true it explains a lot. In conflicts between companies or empires or sports teams, why do young upstarts defeat established powers? They're living more on the edge, so in every little success or failure, their emotions are more acute, and lead more easily to valuable mental adjustments. Why do people get stupid when they get comfortable? Because they have insulated themselves from the extreme events and strong emotions that would help them stay on top of a changing world.
This also explains why job interviewers look for enthusiasm, and why it's so dangerous to fake it, because it gets you in situations where you're not as adaptable as you need to be.
June 19. Fun stuff for the weekend. Speculative Evolution is a subreddit "for images, discussion, and articles about life forms that could have existed in a different world. Speculative organisms may be from the future, an alternate timeline, or alien planets."
And I've discovered another great obscure band, Life Without Buildings. That's a 2014 article and interview about their only album, from 2001, Any Other City. All the songs are great but my initial favorites are Let's Get Out and Daylighting.
The singer, Sue Tompkins, has a style that sounds like a hybrid of two of my favorite singers. She doesn't have Colleen Kinsella's unearthly vocal timbre, but she matches and exceeds the raw, punchy aliveness of great Big Blood songs like Destin Rain. And she has the same half-talking half-singing stuttery repetition as Al Joshua of Orphans & Vandals in songs like Mysterious Skin. Except she predated both of them, and Al Joshua was clearly influenced by her. Two years ago I didn't know about any of the above music, so I wonder what else is out there...