"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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October 31. Some personal stuff for the weekend. Last month I mentioned the misunderstandings around my popular essay How to Drop Out, and earlier this week I wrote a new disclaimer at the top of that page. I think this is the best I've ever explained it. Also I made minor updates to my Frugal Early Retirement FAQ.
Last weekend I had a visit from a reader who was passing through Spokane on his way to Portland to start a new life. We took some legal cannabis hits on the vaporizer, and I never knew before how differently it affects different people. He was taking more hits on a longer tolerance break, yet I had a much deeper body high, I became less social while he became more social, and I was surprised that he could still read. When I try to read stoned, I can understand every word but can't read a sentence because I can't keep track of the context of each word. He asked why I only do it once a week and I explained that it takes me like two days to get 100% back to my sober mode of intelligence and get fully rehydrated. Maybe that's not normal, but it's totally worth it. Also I was getting much more into the music. Leigh Ann was there too (sober plus wine) and the only music we could find that all three of us liked was NASA Voyager Space Sounds (look for it on torrents) and Led Zeppelin. My latest musical obsession is vocal timbre, and until now I never fully appreciated Robert Plant's voice.
Last month we both took a motorcycle class and bought scooters. I got a Genuine Buddy 150 and Leigh Ann got a Vespa ET4, which needed new tires and mirrors, so it wasn't until today that we were able to take a long ride together. My truck takes about five minutes to go from zero to sixty, so it's fun to have a vehicle with good acceleration, and of course it burns a lot less gas. I'm probably going to sell the truck in March and we'll see if we can get away with going carless.
October 29. I finished Monday's post with the words "interesting choices". That's become a big part of my thinking, partly through Sid Meier's famous description of a good game as a series of interesting choices, and partly through one email I got more than a year ago from Owen, and never posted. Here's some of it:
In game design, they talk about choices that matter. If a choice is presented but people feel obligated to take only one of the branches, that's not really a choice. You must take this option, taking that other option is stupid. Or if taking a branch doesn't result in any perceived consequence. Then take any branch, the choice doesn't matter. They put those kinds of choices in front of you all the time. How do you like your steak cooked? Should I use the gelpacks or the powder for the dishwasher?
This is important so I'll say it again in my own words. If the choice doesn't effect your path, like Coke or Pepsi, then it's not interesting; and if one choice is obviously stupid, like keep your car on the road or run it off, then it's not interesting. But deprive people of interesting choices for too long, and they start making the obviously stupid choice just to feel alive. Another way to say it: we would rather do the wrong thing that we choose ourselves, than the right thing that is chosen for us. I think this explains a lot of behavior that otherwise doesn't make any sense, and it's why even the most benevolent central control can never make a good society, or even a good family.
October 27. The last Monday of every month is Finger Pointing Day, when I post links about those bad people doing those bad things. The big one today is by Julian Assange, Google Is Not What It Seems. Assange tells the story of being interviewed by some people from Google who appeared to be politically neutral, but they turned out to be representing the American foreign policy establishment, and he argues that Google has been allied with these people and their world view for a long time:
By all appearances, Google's bosses genuinely believe in the civilizing power of enlightened multinational corporations, and they see this mission as continuous with the shaping of the world according to the better judgment of the "benevolent superpower." They will tell you that open-mindedness is a virtue, but all perspectives that challenge the exceptionalist drive at the heart of American foreign policy will remain invisible to them. This is the impenetrable banality of "don't be evil." They believe that they are doing good.
Next, Why I stopped reading/hearing/watching the news. You probably don't have to read it because the arguments are exactly what you would expect. But this fits with my October 13 post about why the 21st century is so depressing. You are biologically adapted to be part of a tribe, and in a good tribe everyone has a voice: your awareness extends to the interests of the whole tribe, and your political influence extends to the behavior of the whole tribe. Now, through the liberal media, the tribe we care about is the entire world. At the same time, your global political influence is exactly zero.
The role of the government, working together with the big media, is to form a giant buffer, a big squishy membrane, between the masses and the forces that really run things. From our side the membrane looks like politicians listening to the people and solving problems -- or more often, failing to solve problems. Then dissenting voices say that the politicians are bad people, but these voices are also part of the show. When Obama does complete 180 on Guantanamo Bay, you hear that he betrayed voters, but you don't hear the more troubling interpretation: that there is an unseen authority above the President of the United States, and it has torture prisons.
The other side of the membrane also shows an illusion, and this brings us back to the Assange piece: the people at the top cannot function unless their view of reality is filtered to make them the good guys. So on one level the world is ruled by a few hundred very powerful people who all know each other, but on a deeper level the world is ruled by the stories they tell themselves, the way they have to frame reality to make their actions right:
The world is ruled by the story that global-scale decisions must be made from the top (or center), that decisions from the bottom (or edge) are dangerous; that political stability is more valuable than political participation; that "economic development" (the definition is too big to get into here) is a good thing; and the story I find most interesting, that you raise the quality of life of ordinary humans by taking away their pain and giving them stuff, not by giving them interesting choices.
October 24. Home internet is back! It's over phone now instead of cable, so we had to get a DSL modem, and I did some research and I bought a Zyxel Q1000Z off eBay for $29. Then I had to trace some phone lines in the house and do more research. This page, doing your own telephone wiring, was a big help. I ended up opening the box on the back of the house, noticing that a cable had been disconnected and plugging it back in, and tracing a Cat 5 cable from the box to a cut end under the back door. But the cable was long enough that I could drill a hole through the wall of the house and bring it into the utility room, where I wired it to a loose phone jack and plugged in the modem.
Our CenturyLink promo offer is $15/month for six months and then it goes up to $47 [update: now they're trying to charge us $47 from the start], which is not terrible, but if it goes up again we'll probably switch back to a fresh promo offer from Comcast. This is one of the ways that technology makes us poorer. I mean the internet is wonderful, but we all need the internet now. So there's a bunch of money we each have to pay, just to be included in normal society, that we didn't have to pay in the 1980's. When Americans talk about "economic freedom" they're mostly talking about the freedom of the rich to leverage their money into more money. Economic freedom for the poor means that everything necessary is free. And in a sane society, fewer things would be necessary.
I recognize that this kind of creepshow fanbase is an ongoing risk. So many of the topics that interest me - paganism, black metal, global health, informatics, ecology - are just shot through with Americans (mostly) who feel perfectly comfortable describing their insanely privileged lives as some kind of last-ditch bunker action against a howling paleo-Lovecraftian chaotic swarm of death.
Also, this subreddit thread has several responses to Monday's question about why the right thinks the left wants to overprotect children, including one I got over email and just posted there.
The Western child today is mostly kept inside his own home, associating with other children only in highly structured, adult-supervised settings such as school and sports teams. It was not always so. Throughout history, bands of children gathered and roamed city streets and countrysides, forming their own societies each with its own customs, legal rules and procedures, parodies, politics, beliefs, and art. With their rhymes, songs, and symbols, they created and elaborated the meaning of their local landscape and culture, practicing for the adult work of the same nature. We are left with only remnants and echoes of a once-magnificent network of children's cultures, capable of impressive feats of coordination.
I don't know what to make of the fact that on reddit, this link did best on a right wing subreddit called Dark Enlightenment. How did overprotection of children become associated with the left?
October 18. Quick note: we had to cancel Comcast because it went up to $67/month, and it will be a week or two before we have CenturyLink. On top of that, Spokane Community College no longer offers open wifi, so I have to ride three miles to the public library to get online. So posting and emails will be light for a while.
October 17. Read Iggy Pop's incredible John Peel lecture. This is the best thing I've read in a while on any subject. Some excerpts:
I always hated radio and the jerks who pushed that shit music into my tender mind, with rare exceptions. When I was a boy, I used to sit for hours suffering through the entire US radio top 40 waiting for that one song by The Beatles and the other one by The Kinks.
I worked half of my life for free. I didn't really think about that one way or the other, until the masters of the record industry kept complaining that I wasn't making them any money. To tell you the truth, when it comes to art, money is an unimportant detail. It just happens to be a huge one unimportant detail. But, a good LP is a being, it's not a product. It has a life-force, a personality, and a history, just like you and me. It can be your friend. Try explaining that to a weasel.
If who you are is who you are that is really hard to steal, and it can lead you in all sorts of useful directions when the road ahead of you is blocked and it will get blocked.
When I was starting out as a full time musician I was walking down the street one bright afternoon in the seedier part of my Midwestern college town. I passed a dive bar and from it emerged a portly balding pallid middle aged musician in a white tux with a drink in one hand and a guitar in the other. He was blinking in the daylight. I had a strong intuition that this was a fate to be avoided.
The most punk thing I ever saw in my life was Malcolm McLaren's cardboard box full of dirty old winklepinkers. It was the first thing I saw walking in the door of Let It Rock in 1972 which was his shop at Worlds End on the Kings Road. It was a huge ugly cardboard bin full of mismatched unpolished dried out winklepickers without laces at some crazy price like maybe five pounds each. Another 200 yards up the street was Granny Takes a Trip, where they sold proper Rockstar clothes like scarves, velvet jackets, and snake skin platform boy boots. Malcolm's obviously worthless box of shit was like a fire bomb against the status quo because it was saying that these violent shoes have the right idea and they are worth more than your fashion, which serves a false value.
If I wanna make music, at this point in my life I'd rather do what I want, and do it for free, which I do, or cheap, if I can afford to... Every free media platform I've ever known has been a front for advertising or propaganda or both. And it always colors the content... I can't help but note that it always seems to be the pursuit of the money that coincides with the great art, but not its arrival. It's just kind of a death agent. It kills everything that fails to reflect its own image, so your home turns into money, your friends turn into money, and your music turns into money.
I want to mention here that my latest favorite band, Big Blood, all have day jobs and don't even try to make money from their music. And if we ever get an unconditional basic income, we will get to listen to millions of people who don't have to compromise toward what Iggy Pop calls "the kind of music that people listen to when they're really not that into music."
October 15. I got several comments via email on Monday's post. Here's my condensed version of a comment from Jed:
I'm not even sure young people are that unhappy, but to the extent they are, I think it is because of a mismatch between time scales. Young people have only been around a little while, they are immersed in a world where things happen quickly (online, media) and they feel like they can't affect things. They can, they do, but the way water wears away rock. Real social change is multi-generational. The changes that stick are the ones that people live and pass on to their children in a new form.
Regarding "saving the world" - prior to the 20th century we didn't even have a good sense of the whole world, much less any sense that we were responsible for it. With nuclear proliferation, whale management, ivory trade, the ozone hole, etc. we have been pragmatically dealing with the fact that we're all in this together. I'd guess that the sense of responsibility will just get stronger (one of the things we pass on to our children). Young people, especially elite ones, are sloshing around the world, taking for granted that they can live anywhere and quite likely will. They will see it as one world, their children even more so and that perspective will be influential.
That doesn't mean that we'll get the management right. There will be a lot of bad decisions because of ignorance, fixed beliefs, special interests with excessive influence, truly conflicting large-scale interests, etc. We'll keep banging up against those problems and hurting ourselves as we learn. Some mistakes will do permanent damage. But we will learn - slowly, with a lot of regrets, which the next crop of young people won't really grasp unless they get interested in history. I don't think there's a faster or cheaper way.
New subject: Adam Curtis is a filmmaker and blogger who does long thoughtful posts that typically do a close reading of 20th century history to reveal some dark narrative. His latest is called The Vegetables of Truth. First he argues that the role of science changed when we realized that technology creates new dangers:
Because a new breed of scientists came forward and said that they knew how to analyse the dangers - and anticipate the risks. They wouldn't try and build dazzling new futures, instead they would keep the world safe by spotting the dangers before they arrived.
And this goal of avoiding bad things, instead of doing good things, now dominates our culture and has pushed out the older goal of political and economic equality. Curtis brings this together with a scientific study showing that people who eat more vegetables live longer - but the scientists failed to take a political stand for the most likely interpretation: people with more money live longer, and they eat more vegetables, so to increase public health and lifespan we should redistribute wealth.
October 13. The other day I got an email from a reader asking for advice, and while thinking about it, I came up with a theory of why young people are so unhappy. I mean obviously the main reason is economic: they have huge unpayable debts and it's really hard to make money. But on top of that, I think first world middle class Millennials carry a psychological burden that is not shared with other struggling people around the world: they have inherited the Baby Boomer culture of global responsibility, without inheriting the political power to do anything about it.
This fits with an idea from this podcast, In The Dust Of This Planet, which Anne wrote about in this post. The idea is, in the 80's we were all worried about global nuclear war, and we stopped it. Or really, the people who run the world made a show of reducing nuclear tensions while we all watched (because politics has become a non-participatory spectacle like sports but much more scripted) and the danger of nuclear war remains. But the point is, now we're all worried about climate change, and they can't even pretend to stop it. And yet they still ask us to care about it, and they still frame the issue as if power and responsibility are shared by all. What a head trip!
My favorite idea in the podcast is that there is strength on the other side of nihilism. A rapper in a video is wearing a jacket that says "in the dust of this planet" and the message is that he understands that everything falls to ruin and life has no greater meaning, and he doesn't care. My favorite book of the Bible, Ecclesiastes, has the same message: everything you do will come to nothing, but it's wonderful to be alive, so take pleasure in whatever you're doing right now.
I'm also wondering, when did "saving the world" become a popular myth? Did anyone think that way in the 13th century, or even the early 20th century? Did it become popular because of superhero comic books? Because of pictures of Earth from space? I wonder if "saving the world" is a fad, a beginner's way of thinking globally. In a hundred years, when we have a better sense of how "the world" (depending on your definition) is permanent, we'll have more complex ways of thinking globally.
October 10. Anne, a valuable email contributor to this blog who has had her own blogs in the past, has her own blog again: More Crows than Eagles. So far there are three posts: a link to a good article about climate change, a long and very good post about Ebola, and an analysis of the horror novel Harvest Home.
And some culture for the weekend. In the last month I've uploaded three videos of songs that were not yet on YouTube: Rain by The Punkles is a great Beatles cover. Secret Picnic Spot by Beat Happening is simple and spiritual. And this KEXP live recording of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots by The Flaming Lips is better than any other version. I've also continued to shuffle my favorite songs page, with a new number one that almost all of you will hate.
Leigh Ann and I have been watching a British TV comedy called Fresh Meat, about a group of college students living together, and I'm amazed at how much better it is than any American comedy. A lot of the humor is from conversations about awkward subjects done completely in subtext. We've also been continuing to watch Skins. What we call a "season" here, they call a "series", and each cast gets two series before they switch. One and two are great, three and four are lame, and five and six are great again. One thing they do on Skins that they would never do on American TV, is show teenagers taking drugs and simply having fun.
October 8. A few years ago I did this post about the book Gaiome and its vision of ecological space colonies. The other day I got an email from the author, Kev Polk, who is now working on ecological tiny houses. Here's his project page, Seed Home, and a kickstarter where he's trying to raise money to build a prototype.
On another subject, I just saw this sad article in my local newspaper, Swing sets becoming scarce on school playgrounds. This is my new theory of how successful nations and cultures decline and fall: their priorities shift from making good things happen, to preventing bad things from happening. They will sacrifice anything for safety, and will not sacrifice safety for anything. Then a competing culture fills the vacuum, and offers a better balance with less safety and a lot more freedom and fun. More and more ordinary citizens shift their loyalty from the old culture to the new one, until the old political system must either integrate the new culture, or be destroyed. Last week I wrote about depressed people who do political violence, and now I'd say they're on the leading edge of this movement.
October 6. Some psychology and philosophy links. The Case for Delayed Adulthood argues that the adolescent brain is more adaptable and better at learning, and that what we call "delayed adulthood" or "prolonged adolescence" might be making us smarter.
The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later is a good summary of Marshall McLuhan and his ideas about how communication technologies change culture in subtle and powerful ways.
And a great summary of Zen Buddhism and Alan Watts:
In this view, there is no 'stuff', no difference between matter and energy. Look at anything closely enough - even a rock or a table - and you will see that it is an event, not a thing. Every 'thing' is, in truth, happening. This too, accords with modern scientific knowledge. Furthermore, there is not a 'multiplicity of events'. There is just one event, with multiple aspects, unfolding. We are not just separate egos locked in bags of skin. We come out of the world, not into it.
October 3. Today, some technology links. Just discovered this great 2009 post from Low Tech Magazine, Truckloads of hard disks. The author does lots of math about how and when it's better to transfer information by physically moving storage media, than by sending it over the internet. Surprisingly, physical movement is winning:
The bandwidth of a carrier pigeon increases faster than the bandwidth of the internet. Ten years in the future, the information density of storage media will have multiplied by a thousand, while the speed of the internet will only have multiplied by 350. This means that a pigeon will be able to carry 2 terabytes (around 2,000 gigabytes) while our fibre connection will need 8.5 minutes for sending the same amount of data. The carrier pigeon is then faster than a fibre connection if the distance is less than 7 kilometres - compared to 2 kilometres today.Yes we can, but should we? The unintended consequences of the maker movement. The article points out that 3D printers consume 50-100 times more energy than injection molding, have more toxic emissions, and they're mostly being used to make silly stuff that we don't need.
October 1. I'm back in Spokane. Finally found out (thanks Lacy) that John Robb's Global Guerrillas blog is back. If you're into Enneagram, you'll understand when I say that Robb is a rare type 3 doomer. Where the usual type 6 doomer would be like "Oh noes, the world is going to hell," Robb is more like "Wow, look at all these new opportunities for ambitious people to have influence way beyond their apparent power." Anyway, for a while he was writing about resilient communities, and while I agree they're a good idea, I'm a type 5 and want to read the newest ideas about the craziest ways the world could change. Robb has been back to writing about that stuff for a couple years now. Among his many good ideas, my favorite is that the big threat from information technology is not one super-intelligent computer, but trillions of stupid ones.
Two more doom links. America is rapidly aging in a country built for the young. It's about housing, and how too many houses are isolated in the suburbs, require lots of yard work, have lots of stairs, and who's going to live in them when the Baby Boomers have to move out? I imagine that Millennials could buy whole neighborhoods of decayed McMansions and turn the houses into barns and the yards into food forests... except they don't have any money.
A new study finds a link between depression and terrorism. I don't like the framing of the article. "Terrorism" is a faddish propaganda word that asks us to reduce all political violence to a cartoon of a bomber in a turban. But if you step back from this moment in history, there may be a deeper truth here. Imagine that in 500 years, Islam and other sky father religions are dead, the whole world is secular and westernized, but depression is worse than ever because a high-tech security system gives us no participation in power. As people become more unhappy, they have a growing need for the world to change, until even huge risks and destructive changes seem preferable to continuing the nightmare of ordinary life. Any ideology that fills this need can overthrow a depressed society, the same way that a dry forest can be burned by any spark.
September 29. The last Monday of every month is Finger Pointing Day. This month's links have more depth than usual. Battered Worker Syndrome is a good rant about the new corporate culture of not caring about workers. Except it's mostly not about the syndrome, in which workers "fawningly suck up to the hierarchy." It's more about how workers correctly respond by slacking off and gaming the system.
Does responsible consumption benefit companies more than consumers? I first wrote about this issue seven years ago in this post about garbage laws and the organization Keep America Beautiful, which has completely succeeded in making us think of saving the planet as the responsibility of individuals, not politicians and businesses.
From 2005, Are the desert people winning? According to a study of more than 400 cultures around the world, desert cultures are bad, forest cultures are good, and the desert cultures have taken over the world. At the same time, I think we're slowly shifting toward forest culture, or there wouldn't be so many of us who agree that forest cultures are better. Or if you want to factor out forest and desert, you could say that nasty cultures beat nice cultures in a conflict, but that successful nasty cultures gradually become nice.
Finally, Wolves cooperate but dogs submit. It also mentions a study in which wolves and dog puppies were good problem solvers, but adult dogs were stupid because they have learned to obey humans instead of thinking for themselves. So even dogs can be harmed by culture. (By the way, I follow a fringe theory that dogs are not descended from wolves, but from now-extinct wild dogs. I wrote about it in this post in 2008.)