"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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December 17. I seem to be taking a break from heavy thinking. Here's a new article, Policing is a dirty job, but nobody's gotta do it: 6 ideas for a cop-free world. And a 2001 article that goes into much more detail on the invention of modern police, Are cops constitutional?
New subject: Future cities lit by beautiful bioluminescent trees. I found this on Hacker News and here's the comment thread. It reminds me of one solution to Fermi's Paradox: we haven't noticed aliens because their technology is so advanced that it's indistinguishable from nature.
December 15. Stray links. The vagabond subreddit is "the internet home for hitchhikers, hobos, vagabonds, and backpackers".
Related: Wild things: More 9-5'ers undoing domestication.
Shimer College: the worst school in America? It's actually a really good school with a radical teaching method that challenges students and leads to a lower graduation rate than conventional colleges. I don't like the whole "great books" thing because I don't trust the cultural process that decided which books are "great", but everything else sounds fascinating and it's a smart article.
And something for the season, an excellent article about how Christmas lights are wired and how to troubleshoot them.
December 11. Some personal stuff for the weekend. Leigh Ann moved to Spokane about 14 months ago, and she didn't find any work until last spring, when she got hired as a subcontractor for dog walks and pet sits. A lot of these are in remote suburbs where the buses don't go, and even in the city the buses don't run that often, and their policy on transfers is not as nice as Seattle's. So I ended up driving her around a lot.
I hate driving. In normal life I'm always bumping into things and knocking things over, and maybe I'll break something that costs ten bucks, so it's no big deal. But clumsiness in a car can easily cost thousands of dollars, so I have to fight my nature and really focus my attention to drive without crashing. I can do this, but it takes a lot out of me -- the more I drive, the more I feel generally tired, the more sleep I need, and the harder it is to motivate myself to do anything else. I've only been able to keep up the blog this year by doing it in the morning before the driving. Also, the hectic stop-and-go motion of driving is a nightmare compared to the relaxed and elegant motion of almost everything else in the universe, for example this famous video of San Francisco traffic in 1906.
So I finally did what I should have done six months ago and threw money at the problem. Leigh Ann has a car now that she enjoys driving, her name is on the title so I don't get stressed by the rsponsibility, we're going to split the cost of insurance and registration, and I'm going to sell my truck in the spring. And she's eventually going to pay me back. We learned a lot of stuff buying the car:
1) Everyone knows that the sweet spot for a used car is around $3000. It's almost finished depreciating, there's probably nothing seriously wrong with it, and you have a great chance to drive it for a few years and sell it for good money if you take care of it. So cars in this range are rare, while they're plentiful under $1500 and over $6000.
2) Toyota and Honda, because of their reputation, are more expensive by a wider margin than they're more reliable. Just like when I bought my truck, we started off looking at Toyotas and ended up looking at Fords.
3) We really wanted a late 90's Geo Metro, but good ones are rarely sold. We almost bought one with a stalling problem that seemed like a cheap fix, until I found this forum thread explaining how the exact model we were looking at had a basically unfixable problem, because GM patched a different problem with a strange part and then stopped making it.
4) If you transfer a title in Washington state, and there is anything crossed out or whited out anywhere on the paperwork, even on something trivial, they make you go back to the seller, fill out a new bill of sale, an odometer disclosure statement, and a document explaining the alteration which has to be signed and notarized.
5) Spokane Teachers Credit Union doesn't really offer free notary services for members, unless it's the member's signature on a document related to their own financial services. They wouldn't even let us pay for it, and we had to go to the seller's bank, Mountain West Bank, which is more generous with their notary services. I wonder if credit unions are on their way to being worse than banks, precisely because everyone assumes they're better.
6) Emissions testing has little or nothing to do with smoke belching out the tailpipe. It's almost entirely about the "evap system" around the gas tank, and these days the test is usually done purely by reading the car computer. If the "check engine" light is on it's an automatic fail, and a clean-running car can fail just because the gas cap isn't tight enough. Even if you replace the gas cap, you don't know if you fixed the problem because the car computer requires an unknown combination of cold starts and driving before it notices that the problem is fixed. In our case it took about a day.
7) If a Washington State title says "not actual miles", and you sell it to Idaho, their title will not tell you this, but if it's sold back to Washington, they find it in their records and put it back on. Idaho might be the reasonable state here, because Washington's regulations are so draconian that a title can easily get tagged "not actual miles" for purely bureaucratic reasons. That's probably what happened with our car but it will still lower the price if we sell it.
Anyway, it's a red 4-door 2007 Ford Focus, like the one in this photo.
December 8. Today, some psychology links. When power goes to your head, it may shut out your heart. A study adds some brain science to something completely obvious: that when people feel powerful, they become less able to see the other person's perspective.
Going into more depth on the same subject, Extreme wealth is bad for everyone - especially the wealthy. This book review starts out talking about a tennis camp for rich kids where they were shamed into being less greedy, and it ends with more evidence that wealth changes people's brains so that they are "more likely to violate the rules of the road, to lie, to cheat, to take candy from kids, to shoplift, and to be tightfisted." In the middle it makes a surprising argument that extreme wealth doesn't even give people much influence. I would add that it is the structure of our political and economic system that holds all the influence, that wealthy individuals are more like its puppets than its masters, and that this structure is not evil, just a very big mistake.
How do we change a whole system that makes us do bad things? This article gives us some hints, with evidence that nice people are more likely to make harmful choices. More precisely, in a new variation of Stanley Milgram's famous electrocution experiments, people who refused to deliver the shocks had "more contrarian, less agreeable personalities", and they also tended to have left-wing politics, or a history of activism that gave them practice in not following orders.
I don't like the end of the article where he tries to apply this lesson with examples of consumer choices. I've been saying since this 2007 post that lifestyle puritanism is tactically much weaker than passing regulations -- and also green consumerism is so expensive (in time if not money) that more and more of us just can't afford it.
But here's an example of a courageous contrarian making an effective move: Hoping to change the industry, a factory farmer opens his barn doors. And then, Chicken farmer who spoke out about factory farm abuses immediately audited by Perdue, which wants to blame systemic flaws on the individual who reveals them. I expect this guy to lose his farm and write a book, and in a few decades we'll have better animal welfare laws.
Also some loose ends on Saturday's post. Here's a subreddit post with more thoughts on gender roles in cave men and modern humans. And Anne mentions two books by James C. Scott, Seeing Like A State and The Art of Not Being Governed, with a lot more stuff about commodity production that works with or against control systems.
December 6. I'm busy and running a day behind posting. Today I'm just going to purge some of my long backlog of unrelated links.
Only developed societies prefer highly masculine men and feminine women. This is another blow to the popular pseudoscience about modern gender roles having roots in caveman behavior. And I think this is related: Why everything you know about wolf packs is wrong, describing how the "alpha wolf" only exists in captivity.
Why I Am Teaching a Course Called "Wasting Time on the Internet". This must be exactly the kind of thing William Blake had in mind when he said "If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise."
Thanksgiving and gratitude: the science of happier holidays. This is one of many articles lately on the psychological value of practicing gratitude, and I think they're right but they're missing something important. Our culture has a lot of messages about what we're supposed to be grateful for, but to get the full value of gratitude, you have to take an unflinching and private look at what you're really grateful for, like "I'm so happy that Margaret Thatcher died" or "Thanks for all the porn."
Finally, three comments by my favorite reddit commenter, Erinaceous. First, an easy but not 100% reliable method for home-grown oyster mushrooms.
In the context of how to feed yourself in a hard crash, how grain agriculture goes hand in hand with empire, because grains are easier than other food to collect as tribute. It follows that horticultural societies need to be converted to agricultural societies for the empire to expand.
And how economic inequality drives collapse: normally if something becomes scarce, people consume it less. But if there are very rich people, they want to consume scarce stuff for social status, and poor people want to harvest scarce stuff to get high prices from the rich.
December 4. This Chris Rock interview might be the longest thing I've read on the internet without being even slightly bored. It helps to imagine it in his voice. You should read the whole thing, but here are a few samples:
I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they're way too conservative. Not in their political views, but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. You can't say "the black kid over there." No, it's "the guy with the red shoes." You can't even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.
When Obama first got elected, he should have let it all just drop. Just let the country flatline. Let the auto industry die. Don't bail anybody out. In sports, that's what any new GM does. They make sure that the catastrophe is on the old management and then they clean up. They don't try to save old management's mistakes.
When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it's all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they're not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.
He also talks about a surprising effect of technology on comedy: that comedians have to test and test their stuff in front of an audience to make it just offensive enough to be funny. To find out where that line is on every joke, they have to be too offensive and then back off. If they can't do that, their comedy is bland, but if they do it and people are recording with their phones, then it can get out and hurt their career.
I was thinking about that when I saw this article posted to the subreddit, The Sci-Fi Future of Personalized Advertising. I went a long time not watching much TV, and now I'm watching more and the commercials are just terrible. I mean if you listen to their tone of voice, and their whole framing of reality, the bullshit is laid on so thick that it's like they're not even selling products -- they're training the public to accept that level of bullshit as normal.
But now I'm thinking, what if instant viewer feedback enables commercials to learn, like comedians learn, until every commercial is genuinely interesting? Will it lead to better mind control, or will commercials become authentic and subversive because that's what people need?
December 2. Saturday night I went out for dinner with some smart people, and one subject that came up was a company called Uber. Through a smartphone app, they "arrange rides between riders and drivers", but unlike Craigslist, Uber controls all the information and all the money. They also aggressively externalize costs: they profit from everything that goes right, while only passengers and drivers suffer from anything that goes wrong.
The promise of the internet is a rhizomatic world where anyone can connect with anyone. The reality is, if someone can route these connections through a central hub that they control, they can leverage this advantage into rapidly growing wealth and power. Google, Amazon, eBay, Paypal, and Facebook have all done this, and now Uber is taking it into the new frontier of local services. I expect them to expand from taxi rides into stuff like dog walking, yard work, haircuts, massage, tutoring, and so on, the same way Amazon expanded from books into every product.
Thanks Adam for sending me this dystopian sci-fi story about the possible future of Uber, One Day, I Will Die on Mars.
November 28. For Black Friday, a smart article on a bizarre phenomenon in human psychology, A mother's journey through the unnerving universe of 'unboxing' videos. Apparently there are YouTube videos with tens of millions of views, of nothing but a pair of hands taking cheap items out of their packaging. I suppose this isn't much different from the appeal of simple video games, and the author mentions a Tumblr blog called "Things fitting perfectly into other things". I wonder how much of human behavior, even at high and supposedly rational levels, is based on similar deep subconscious urges.
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.