"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."
- Terence McKenna
Apocalypsopolis, book one
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March 7. Some music for the weekend. Last week I discovered the listentous subreddit. They have an interesting system to maintain quality: every month there's an election where people submit three songs, and for that month only the seven winners are allowed to post. Overall the music isn't that great, but it's almost all stuff I haven't heard before. This is my favorite song I've discovered there so far: Rocketship - I Love You The Way I Used To Do.
I'm still finding the most music through Leigh Ann. Here's a nice krautrock/space rock song, Wreaths - the designing women of asbury park.
Finally, I don't know if this is a true live recording or if they're synching to the studio song, but this is the most awesome live video I've ever seen: Esben and the Witch - No Dog.
March 6. Some links on Ukraine. This reddit comment by Nathan_Flomm describes the present situation, and the recent past and possible future. This longer reddit post by trznx describes the deep background, with many examples of worsening corruption. And this article, Why Russia No Longer Fears the West, argues that Putin has figured out that Europe will not stand up to him because they care more about money than human rights.
March 3. Yesterday on the subreddit there was a post wondering what I meant when I said "I see computers as humanity's suicide". So I wrote a comment explaining what I was thinking, and then I threw some doubt into my other prediction that biotech will be humanity's gift to the future. You might have to read the final sentence more than once -- I was having fun trying to write as densely as Ivan Illich:
A good test of any behavior, including any use of technology, is: what happens if I do it for a while and then stop? Or: does this application of technology make me weaker or stronger in its absence?
So GPS navigation makes us worse at navigating in the absense of GPS, escalators make us worse at going between floors in the absence of escalators, and so on. So far, most human use of technology has been in this category, so it's a good bet that we'll keep going in this direction, for example through virtual reality or body implants.
We could choose to go in the other direction, and use future technology in a way that makes us stronger in its absence. For example, we could use neurofeedback to learn mindfulness, or virtual reality to learn physical skills. I expect this kind of thing to be uncommon, so the overall trend will be for human powers (without technology) to be whittled down to nothing.
Meanwhile, it's easy to imagine how biotech could increase biodiversity in the long term (and a good use of computers would be to support this).
But biotech can also be used to make life weaker. Right now, almost all genetic modification is being done to make crops that are dependent on industrial agriculture with high energy inputs. The danger is that inevitable biotech catastrophes will serve as the excuse to give central control systems a strict monopoly over biotech, and they will use it to stamp out biodiversity and create life that is dependent on those control systems for its survival.
Loosely related, last night I watched some of the Academy Awards, and I'm just astonished at the level of bullshit. It's like those organisms they discovered living around volcanic vents at the bottom of the ocean where it was thought nothing could survive. How did our culture evolve the ability to be entertained by something so slick, cautious, predictable, and saccharine? Maybe the actual entertainment value is that if you watch closely with great skill, you might catch a glimpse of something real.
February 28. Some smart articles for the weekend. The man who destroyed America's ego is about the rise and fall of the self-esteem movement of the late 20th century. The evidence favors a picture so obvious that it's embarrassing we ever lost sight of it: 1) Low self-esteem does not cause violence -- it makes people meek and cautious. 2) High self-esteem is good when it follows from actually being good at stuff. 3) Artificially pumped up self-esteem is like a drug: it makes people feel good in the short term, but over the long term it has no benefits, and it causes pain and aggression when people's high opinions of themselves are challenged by reality.
The Obesity Era is an article from last year that compiles evidence against the popular idea that obesity is caused by moral weakness, and looks for other causes that we're only beginning to understand, including industrial chemicals, epigenetics, and economics. Personally I know weight is not about self-control because I've never had to use a shred of self-control to remain skinny my whole life.
The Mammoth Cometh covers many angles of the movement to bring back extinct species. One thing it doesn't mention is the evidence in Charles Mann's book 1491, that passenger pigeons had a relatively low population that only exploded after European diseases wiped out the Indians. Anyway, I'm looking forward to the age of synthetic biology. I see computers as humanity's suicide, and biotech as humanity's gift to the future.
Finally, something fun for the weekend: The 2014 Hater's Guide To The Oscars.
February 26. Some good news about local politics and food. In my own city, Rule changes could increase urban farming options. And in Austin they're planning a food forest. You should already know about the one in Seattle.
Another angle on local politics, a plan to nullify the NSA by working with states and cities to block the water they need to cool their supercomputers. How close are we to supercomputers that don't need cooling? And if that's a long way off, then how close are we to a conflict between the water needs of computing centers and the water needs of agriculture? [Update: Joel mentions that, for nearly incomprehensible reasons involving information and thermodynamics, supercomputers that don't need cooling are at least as difficult as perpetual motion machines. Also, agriculture can easily use the wastewater from computer cooling so there's no conflict.]
February 24. Today, some weird stuff, going from less weird to more. A linguistics professor claims to have made a breakthrough in the Voynich Manuscript, identifying some of the words as names of plants.
He also speculates that the reason this work is written in a language never seen before was that it was made by a small group of people who belonged to a culture that didn't have a written form. They created the text, borrowing some European, Middle Eastern and Caucasian elements, to help preserve their knowledge about nature. He adds that "given that the 15th century was a time of upheaval... it is plausible to consider this 'cultural extinction' to be a possibility, with the group in question developing a script and literacy, only for it to be extinguished."
Physics and the Demiurge is a brief blog post with this stunning idea:
Wave-particle duality makes most sense in the context of being a form of data compression. Essentially, the function only collapses if someone's looking, meaning that the simulation doesn't eat up infinite amounts of memory. That's an interesting point in itself, because it's a strong argument in favour of our reality being a simulation in the first place.
But there's an interesting corollary here. If you're religious, it's a strong signal that the creator is not omnipotent. If the universe had to be built in a way which was resource-constrained, then it implies that the entities doing so were not possessed of infinite resources.
Writing The Snowden Files: The paragraph began to self-delete. A reporter covering the NSA describes a bunch of strange experiences, from obvious encounters with spies to bizarre computer anomalies. This is going to sound crazy, but this is my number one area of specialization, and where can I write about it if not on my own blog? If you study the fringe, you see this again and again: through a combination of heightened awareness and isolation, it is possible to veer off into a reality that cannot be reconciled with consensus reality. You can say there was a crumb under the delete key, but this untestable conventional explanation serves to protect consensus reality from the phenomenon, making the experience possible. It didn't happen because the NSA was watching -- it happened because nobody was watching.
February 21. A few months ago I read an argument that the 1800's really started in 1814 (I forget why), the 1900's really started in 1914 (World War I), and something this year will draw a clear line between the century before and the century after. I was skeptical, but it might be happening. Over the last few days, protests in both Ukraine and Venezuela have been met with live bullets. These conflicts seem to be about repression vs democracy, or left vs right, but I think they're about food.
Check out the chart in this article, The Math That Predicted the Revolutions Sweeping the Globe Right Now. There is a strong correlation between high food prices and political unrest, and the crazy thing is, cheap food is usually not what the protesters are demanding. Instead, hunger is the catalyst that makes them finally take the streets for other grievances. More generally, hungry people take bigger risks, so there will be more crime, more fights, even more accidents.
How hard is it to feed everyone? Right now the obstacles are mostly political. Ukraine is a massive wheat producer but most of it is being exported as a commodity. This leads to my favorite definition of the difference between a free market and capitalism: in a free market, money is used to convert one commodity into another commodity; in capitalism, a commodity is used to convert money into more money. Protesters are being shot because in the logic of the global economy, turning money into more money is a more important use of food than feeding people. This system is locked in hard, and I don't expect it to change until the economy (as we know it) is in ruins and different economies grow through the cracks.
Even if we could magically convert the whole world to zero-growth socialism, it is still becoming physically more difficult to feed everyone as populations rise and climate disasters destroy crops. I don't know how much room there is to increase efficiency, for example by feeding grain straight to people instead of feeding it to cows to make a much smaller amount of meat. Realistically even these reforms are difficult, and we are facing decades of global hunger and violence, and maybe history will mark this year as the beginning.
February 19. Today, three links about work and money. From Peter Frase in Jacobin Magazine, Work It analyzes three meanings of "work", and eight possible permutations of those meanings. The whole thing is worth reading, not only for the ideas but for a refreshing example of someone thinking clearly. The conclusion:
What we need is not just less work -- though we do need that -- but a rethinking of the substantive content of work beyond the abstraction of wage labor. That will mean both surfacing invisible unpaid labor and devaluing certain kinds of destructive waged work. But merely saying that we should improve the quality of existing work and reduce its duration doesn't allow us to raise the question of whether the work needs to exist at all. To use Albert Hirschman's terms, giving workers voice within the institution of wage labor can never fundamentally call the premises of that institution into question. For that, you need the real right of Exit, not just from particular jobs but from the labor market as a whole.
The Economics of Star Trek does a beautiful close reading of the Star Trek canon, to argue that it's a valuable example of a proto post scarcity economy. Basically the Federation is like European socialism with such massive benefits that nobody has to think about money, but there are still private currencies that you can play with on the edges of that system.
I sort of love that Star Trek forces us to think about a society that has no money but still operates with individual freedom and without central planning. I love that democracy is still in place. I love that people can still buy and sell things. It's real. It's a more realistic vision of post-capitalism than I have seen anywhere else. Scarcity still exists to some extent, but society produces more than enough to satisfy everyone's basic needs. The frustrating thing is that we pretty much do that now, we just don't allocate properly.
Finally, this reddit comment explains how hunter-gatherers were more free than us, and why this freedom was linked to mobility, lack of storage, and a social taboo against hoarding.
February 17. I don't feel qualified to judge whether Woody Allen is a child molester. As far as I know, the worst thing he did to little girls was that creepy Chiquita banana scene in Everyone Says I Love You. Instead I want to write about his movies. Here's a Joan Didion piece from 1979, Letter from 'Manhattan', in which she has great fun bashing three movies that are often considered the peak of his career:
The characters in Manhattan and Annie Hall and Interiors are, with one exception, presented as adults, as sentient men and women in the most productive years of their lives, but their concerns and conversations are those of clever children, "class brains," acting out a yearbook fantasy of adult life... These faux adults of Woody Allen's have dinner at Elaine's, and argue art versus ethics. They share sodas, and wonder "what love is." They have "interesting" occupations, none of which intrudes in any serious way on their dating.
This is related to my own complaint about Woody Allen: he always writes about rich people. If I'm going to watch something as fantastical as hopping on a transatlantic flight without thinking about the cost, I'd rather see wizards or spaceships or time travel.
Actually, my favorite Woody Allen movies are about time travel, and maybe he has accidentally seen the future. I know we're facing serious crises in the 21st century, but suppose we muddle through them and continue with "progress"? Of course it's a good thing to eradicate polio and slavery, and next we might have self-driving cars that never crash, and an unconditional basic income. What happens when we have so far reduced the danger of anything bad happening, that nobody has had to face any physical risks or overcome any serious challenges? Will the whole human race turn into permanent adolescents indulging their obsessions with trivial emotional problems? Or maybe that's more a 20th century thing, and the 22nd century will be immature and solipsistic in ways that we cannot yet imagine.
February 14. As usual, personal stuff for the weekend. Yesterday I did my first landblog/houseblog post since August, with a photo of the bees coming out with snow still on the ground. Looks like they've made it through the winter.
And my girlfriend introduced me to an obscure Egyptian/French author named Albert Cossery. Last night I finished his wonderful novel A Splendid Conspiracy. Here's my review on Goodreads and a longer review with more info. I wish I'd discovered Cossery years ago. So many political radicals and cultural outsiders feel like they have to be puritanical, or angrily focus on victimization and injustice. Cossery's characters, while condemning the dominant society in the strongest terms, cheerfully let go of any hope of changing it, and remain committed to having a good time on its fringes.
February 12. Today, technology. This article, 10 Futuristic Materials, is utopian because it's childish. Aerogels could insulate a dome on the moon, carbon nanotubes could make towers that reach up to space, metamaterials could make invisibility cloaks, we could fly diamond fighter planes and live in metal foam floating cities and swing transparent swords. Sure, but once the Christmas morning novelty wears off, how exactly will this stuff improve our quality of life? There is a hint of intelligence in the final paragraph: "We'll develop clothing that can constantly project the video of our choosing (unless it turns out being so annoying that we ban it)." Yeah, remember when TV commercials were so annoying that we banned them, and now there are no more TV commercials?
In practice, technologies will be used by control systems to maintain their power and stability. This is especially true of weapons, but even information technology is in danger of being used this way. This reddit comment makes a thorough critique of ebooks, which can be locked down, controlled, and leveraged into economic domination in ways that paper books cannot. The author continues:
Let's say we invent the Star Trek replicator. Finally -- goods can be made out of thin air. Food can be made out of thin air. Replicators would be a scarcity destroying machine with the possibility of both destroying labor AND ending world hunger. It'd be a major shift for society. But insert the corporation and the capitalist who would wrap this machine's usage up in license fees, laws restricting usage, etc. They would use it to destroy labor, but they would prevent the device from destroying scarcity. It's too threatening to the power structures that control capital. You'll never technologically innovate yourself out of the exploitation of capitalism.
What about just using technology to make ourselves happy? Here's an article, illustrated with a great comic, about a Dutch biologist and his research into supernormal stimuli:
Tinbergen succeeded in isolating the traits that triggered certain instincts, and then made an interesting discovery. The instincts had no bounds. Instead of stopping at a 'sweet spot', the instinctive response would still be produced by unrealistic stimuli. Once the researchers isolated the instincts' trigger, they could create greatly exaggerated dummies which the animals would choose instead of a realistic alternative. Songbird parents would prefer to feed fake baby birds with mouths wider and redder than their real chicks, and the hatchlings themselves would ignore their own parents to beg fake beaks with more dramatic markings.
Of course the point is that humans play these tricks on ourselves when we eat junk food and watch TV and so on. The conclusion is that we have to learn the awareness to hold these urges in check. But as technology continues to make stimuli more powerful, can our awareness keep up? Here's a 2007 article on the subject, Superstimuli and the Collapse of Western Civilization.
February 10. So it's probably a permanent change that I'm writing more about culture and sports and less about politics. I want to explain this, but first I need to distinguish between different levels of politics. Local politics is where the action is. If you have great social instincts and high energy, you should get involved in local politics and maybe even run for city council. You could lead a movement to deregulate small-scale urban farming, or change the building codes to allow rocket mass heaters, or start a local currency, or build free municipal wi-fi with net neutrality. If you're really good, you might even make a difference at the state level. But as you go farther up the hierarchy, there is less freedom to do or say anything that doesn't reinforce the control system.
The only reason to follow national-level politics is for the stories. A good story can broaden your perspective and deepen your understanding and motivate you to live better. But the stories in high-level politics are almost completely scripted, and they're scripted badly. It's better to watch a good movie or read a good book where the stories are well-written and honestly fictional. And it's better to follow sports, where the rules are set up so that great stories emerge unscripted. Even the stories around sports are better than similar stories around politics, because sports reporters have not been conditioned to coat everything in bullshit. For example, the NFL is about to get its first openly gay player, Michael Sam. If you follow this, you will see more clearly and learn more than in any story about a gay politician.
This brings me to today's link, an exceptional epic blog post, The Big Book Of Black Quarterbacks:
It took a long time and some real work, but we were able to put together what we think is the most comprehensive list of black NFL quarterbacks ever compiled. More than a compilation of names, this was an opportunity to find and publish these men's stories. Some are brief; others are long. We penned longer pieces on the most notable players, like Fritz Pollard, Warren Moon, Steve McNair, Michael Vick, the immortal Akili Smith, and many more, but every player on this list is part of a broad narrative that traces the history of football and its relationship with the broader society.
February 7. Some personal stuff. I never got called back to jury duty after being dismissed the first day, which was lucky because over the next few days we got snow and then very low temperatures. The night before last it got down to -3F (-19C), and it's not going to get above freezing until Tuesday. So we've been holed up in the house, making pizza and watching Netflix. I didn't know this before but Netflix streaming has almost every good TV show and almost no good movies. We did watch a great indie film called Safety Not Guaranteed, and we just finished the final season of Fringe, which I highly recommend.
I'm worried about my bees. They're still alive, but they should be eating through their massive honey stores and instead they're staying at the front of the hive and their population is steadily dropping. I wonder if, when I took out a few frames in August to keep them from swarming, I accidentally took all their pollen. If they die, I'll still get lots of honey and can buy a new package of bees, but it's unlikely the next queen will be as good as this one.
Leigh Ann and I have been working out using the book 7 Weeks To Getting Ripped. It takes way longer than seven weeks because unless you're a super athlete you're going to be repeating weeks, but it does work well for a modest time investment. My weight is over 155 (70kg) for the first time ever, and last night I did seven pull-ups.
And some music for the weekend. Fuck Buttons are an English electronic duo. Their latest album, Slow Focus, is their best, and my favorite track is Hidden XS.
The Black Heart Rebellion are a Belgian band. Their first album, Monologue, was mediocre post-rock with death metal vocals (or maybe black metal, I'm not a metal specialist). Their second album, Har Nevo, has a good sound that's harder to classify and much better vocals. Maybe the best song is The Woods I Run From. I learned about them and Fuck Buttons from this reddit comment.
February 5. Two smart links about technology from last year. Thanks Kevin for this transcript of a speech by Bret Victor on the future of programming. He argues that just as programming languages made direct binary coding obsolete in the 1970's, in the future programming languages will themselves become obsolete. To understand what's going to replace them, you'll have to read the speech, but there's some stuff about computers figuring out what to do from operators declaring goals and drawing pictures. My favorite bit:
So the most dangerous thought that you can have as a creative person is to think that you know what you're doing. Because once you think you know what you're doing, you stop looking around for other ways of doing things. And you stop being able to see other ways of doing things.
In terms of what computers will actually do, that guy seems to be a naive techno-utopian. Here's something smarter from Norbert Wiener in 1949. The NY Times asked the famous mathematician to write an essay on the coming machine age, but mistakes by editors kept it from being published. In 2012 it was rediscovered. My condensed excerpt of their condensed excerpt:
These new machines have a great capacity for upsetting the present basis of industry, and of reducing the economic value of the routine factory employee to a point at which he is not worth hiring at any price. If we combine our machine-potentials of a factory with the valuation of human beings on which our present factory system is based, we are in for an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty.
Finally the machines will do what we ask them to do and not what we ought to ask them to do. In the discussion of the relation between man and powerful agencies controlled by man, the gnomic wisdom of the folk tales has a value far beyond the books of our sociologists. There is general agreement among the sages of the peoples of the past ages, that if we are granted power commensurate with our will, we are more likely to use it stupidly than to use it intelligently.
Moreover, if we move in the direction of making machines which learn and whose behavior is modified by experience, we must face the fact that every degree of independence we give the machine is a degree of possible defiance of our wishes. The genie in the bottle will not willingly go back in the bottle, nor have we any reason to expect them to be well disposed to us.
Completely unrelated, today I made this quick reddit comment about a dumb article arguing that globalization has reduced poverty:
Dollars per day sounds like a good definition of poverty, but it isn't. Globalization goes with monetization: goods and services that were formerly outside the money economy are brought into the money economy, so now you can't get them without money. Having more dollars per day is meaningless if the things you need for quality of life also cost more dollars per day.
It's true that global poverty is decreasing, but you measure it with stuff like infant mortality or access to clean water. An article that measures it purely in terms of money changing hands has no credibility.