"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 21. The other day on the subreddit, in a thread called Talking down to Ran, a reader said that I don't always practice what I preach. This is an interesting subject, because I've never even tried to practice what I preach. Instead I try to preach what I practice: I figure out how to live through methods that are mostly intuitive and non-verbal, and then I use words to describe it, explain it, or -- a big mistake -- justify it. To justify yourself requires a surrender to dominant value systems: your unfamiliar and unfashionable behavior must be presented as familiar and fashionable, which means presenting it as myth.
One of my college professors used to say that you make more noise blowing into the narrow end of the trumpet, and this holds for both fiction and non-fiction: it's more effective to write about the honest experience of particular people, and allow that to resonate with many readers, than to start with universal ideas and work to particulars. I'm not sure if I ever actually said that society is bad so we should all live outside it, and I certainly never said that living inside the system is immoral, or that living well is about avoiding guilt, because those ideas are repellent to me. But those ideas are part of the popular myth of the counterculture. If you draw the lines a certain way, people will subconsciously fill in other lines that aren't there, unless you specifically prevent it. The popular myth that is closest to your actual lifestyle is your worst enemy, and my mistake was not actively contradicting lifestyle puritanism from the very beginning.
This issue reminds me of two different Ribbonfarm posts. Acting Dead, Trading Up and Leaving the Middle Class explains Bruce Sterling's dead great-grandfather test: that you're wasting your life trying to use fewer resources or do anything that your dead great-grandfather, in the grave, can do better than you. A better post, The Quality of Life, explains the concept of fuck-you money: the most important way that money buys happiness, is to free you from the demands of people who want to pay you to live their way.
For the record, here's what I practice and preach: 1) Make money the easiest way available to you, short of crime. 2) If you radically reduce your spending, you will not have to make as much money, and you might find that the sacrifices of low spending are more meaningful and empowering than the sacrifices of high earning. 3) The most valuable use of money, after basic survival, is to carve out a small space where you can pursue quality of life on your own terms.
July 18. A theoretical phyisicist explains why science is not about certainty. You probably knew that, but he also makes a subtler point: scientific revolutions do not come from changing theories, but "changing something in the conceptual structure we use to grasp reality." His first example is Anaximander discarding the idea that things fall from up to down, and replacing it with the idea that things fall toward the Earth. His second example, not as well explained, is Einstein changing how we think about time. This reinforces something I've believed for a while: when we talk about "paradigm shifts", we are not being nearly ambitious enough.
On a whole other subject, a good psychology article, How we end up marrying the wrong people. It's mostly about our lack of awareness of ourselves and others, and how marriage flipped from 100% practical to 100% passionate and we need to find balance. This is my favorite bit, condensed:
We recreate in adult relationships some of the feelings we knew in childhood. But the love we knew as children may have come entwined with other dynamics: being controlled, feeling humiliated, being abandoned, never communicating. As adults, we may then reject candidates, not because they are wrong, but because they are too well-balanced (too mature, too understanding, too reliable) and this rightness feels unfamiliar and alien. We head instead to candidates whom our unconscious is drawn to, not because they will please us, but because they will frustrate us in familiar ways.Related, a reddit comment about why people stay in abusive relationships. It's all worth reading, but this is the core of it:
From the victim's point of view they are with a person who loves them so, so much, and wants them to be happy, and wants to be good to them, but they (the victim) are such a bad, useless, stupid, worthless, annoying person that their loving partner can't help but get angry and abuse them.
Wow, that's depressing. I have to end with something happy for the weekend: Camper Van Beethoven - Good Guys and Bad Guys.
July 16. A couple weeks ago Gabriel sent this link to the Clover Food Lab blog. That's the first post six years ago, and if you're interested, it's followed by about a thousand more posts (no joke) about how this guy started a food truck business and built it up into a chain of healthy restaurants. To navigate them one by one, start at that page, find the grey link that says "Puddle of sunlight", then the link that says "Why the name Clover?" and so on.
My thoughts are on a different tangent: How does he have the time and energy to not only do all the blogging, but all the work that the blogging is about? And I know we're nowhere near being able to genetically engineer more people like him, but if it ever becomes possible, won't every parent want to do it for every child? And what will these billions of uber-achievers do with all their energy and drive? Not many of them will do something as benign as starting healthy restaurants. It reminds me of this quote from Masanobu Fukuoka: "The increasing desolation of nature, the exhaustion of resources, the uneasiness and disintegration of the human spirit, all have been brought about by humanity's trying to accomplish something."
July 14. Stray links. On reddit, a game designer comments on the dangers of virtual reality, basically that companies like Facebook will try to hold us in addictive virtual worlds where they drain our money. Farther down the comment thread, someone argues that the real action is not in virtual reality but augmented reality. And someone else points out that immersiveness is not the same as addictiveness. For example, I remember being addicted to the non-immersive Mattel football, and at the other extreme you could have a non-addictive world that seems completely real.
Related? Human props stay in luxury homes but live like ghosts. It took me a while to figure out why this is so interesting: it's like a metaphor for the entire upper middle class universe. People who romanticize the lifestyle of the wealthy, but can't afford it, can hollowly simulate it by hiding all evidence of their aliveness:
All surfaces must be regularly cleaned; weeds eradicated, car oil spots removed. Clothes in closets are to be organized by color, and contestable items - heavily religious books, personal photos - must be removed or neutralized. Every item has a rule, and everything must be exact: the rotation of pillows, the fold of towels, the positioning of toothbrushes. Even the stacks of novels casually left on the bookshelf are placed and angled with pinpoint detail.
One of my favorite themes is how a skilled person using low tech can outperform an unskilled person using high tech. How to Write 225 Words Per Minute With a Pen is about a 19th century writing system called Gregg shorthand.
A seemingly fair overview of the latest Israel-Palestinian conflict, posted by an Israeli on the Arabs subreddit.
This article, Why It's Worth Paying More for Legal Pot, describes the unprecedented detail in the labeling, including the strain name, the genetic background of the strain, where it was grown, how it was grown, when it was harvested, and the percentage of five different cannabinoids. Personally I'm not going to buy any until the outdoor harvest comes in and the price drops. But I can't think of any other product that gives this much information to consumers. One of my utopian visions is that every time you buy food, you can see a live video feed of the farm.
By the way, after a three week break, Saturday night I took nine vaporizer hits of Jack Herer and spent a few hours thinking about hypotrochoids as models for intersecting parallel worlds, something that did not seem nearly as profound the next day. My most valuable insight was that the Main Title Theme from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is damn near Bob Dylan's best song.
July 11. The other day I mentioned that people were writing about me like I was a teenager and they were my dad. It occurs to me that it's my fault, for an honest mistake I made ten years ago. Why does your dad, when you're a teenager, mistrust and second-guess your lifestyle decisions? It's because he has an emotional investment in you living a certain way. If I could go back in time and give myself one piece of writing advice, it would be: "Never write about your lifestyle in a way that makes anyone feel inspired." It's not just that people will get an emotional investment in the way you actually live -- it's even worse: they get invested in a mythologized version of the way you live. For example, Thoreau gets a lot of crap for accepting food and money from his family, but that doesn't contradict anything he wrote or actually stood for -- it just contradicts the unrealistic lifestyle puritanism that modern middle class people project on him.
Anyway, moving on, some culture for the weekend. I know that musical taste is largely subjective, but to the extent that it's objective, my girlfriend has the best musical taste in the world. She's been repeatedly playing this crazy experimental one man band song, which sounds better as you repeatedly play it, and the video is great too: ICHI - Go Gagambo. And my favorite recent discovery, White 4, is a brilliant Arabic-sounding psychedelic jam by a Polish band called Innercity Ensemble. The rest of their stuff is more jazzy but still pretty good.
We've also been watching Twin Peaks on Netflix. I remember when it came out in 1990 it seemed like the best thing ever. All previous continuing-story TV shows were trashy, and in comparison Twin Peaks was high art. Rewatching it now, the characters are more weird than deep, the narrative is clunky, and the sets and costumes are both ugly and too clean.
That's because fictional television has continued to get better and better. We've just watched season one of Orphan Black, and I can hardly believe how good it is. Even the best American TV shows, like Fringe and Grimm, have a lot of one-shot episodes that do little or nothing to advance the continuing story. In Orphan Black, made by the BBC in Canada, there are only ten episodes per season, and every one is top-notch and moves the story significantly forward. Tatiana Maslany gives an almost impossible performance as a bunch of clones who have such different and sharply-defined personalities that you forget they're all played by the same person.
July 9. My favorite blog, The View from Hell, typically has a burst of posts a few times a year. Sunday there was a new post, Why People Used to Have Children, and yesterday a follow-up, Children, Education, and Status. As always, the writing is impeccable, and both posts are full of great stuff about the changing role of children and why it has led to lower birth rates. Basically, education has turned children from slaves who produce resources, into people who consume resources. You should read it all, but here's the conclusion of the second post:
Education, specifically Western education promoting democratic values, interferes with children's work and their parents' expectations for their work. It makes them more dependent on their parents, and makes them less likely to be servile and submissive to parents. And education itself provides an alternate means of achieving adult status other than having children. In the presence of these conditions, the demand for children is apparently low.
Also, the end of the first post has a great bit about the transition from the study, the room in the house that used to be the patriarch's seat of power, to "the lowly and shameful man cave", where the man takes refuge from the woman's otherwise total control. If you're curious about my house, Leigh Ann and I have separate bedrooms where we each do what we want, and in the common areas I have the final say, but I usually defer to her superior aesthetic judgment.
Continuing Monday's subject, there's a thread on the subreddit, titled "Ran's next adventure", in which several readers are talking like I'm a teenager and they're my dad. [July 10 update: there's some good stuff there now.] And big thanks to moderator puck2 for styling the subreddit to match the blog.
July 7. I've been waiting for a slow week to announce this. Ten years ago (and twenty) my goal in life was to have meaningful responsibility: have some land, have a house, build stuff, grow food, learn practical skills. I was lucky that I've been able to do all that. Now, looking forward, my goal is to have zero responsibility.
My dream is to live like Paul Erdos, the mathematician who just traveled around staying with other mathematicians, and in exchange for helping them think about math, they took care of almost all his practical needs. A more realistic goal is to sell almost everything, get a modest apartment in a city with good public transportation, and mostly hang out there but be free to do lots of traveling.
I cannot yet afford that. Right now I'm living in a house that's paid for, and still slowly depleting my savings. And even if I had more income, I'd like to stay here long enough to get some big fruit tree harvests and finish fixing the house up, maybe five more years.
But there's no reason to hold onto my land. I'm not in a hurry to sell it, but I would sell it immediately if I had a good offer or found a good buyer. So I'm mentioning it here first in case one of you is interested. The perfect buyer would be a mature permaculturist or a conservation trust. More likely would be a group of enthusiastic 20-somethings who would learn that homesteading means tedious labor, social isolation, and lots of driving, and then sell it to developers. Except it's too remote to be worth anything to developers, and I wouldn't deny anyone that opportunity for learning. Anything "back to nature" is likely to be a good transitional goal: you're not going to do it your whole life, but by doing it, you get a better sense of what you really want.
Anyway, it's ten acres with a year-round spring, an hour drive from Spokane, 2700 feet elevation, and you can read all about it in the landblog archives from 2004-2011. If you're interested, you can find my email address on the about me page.
July 4. Loose ends and stray links. The other day when I picked on Bangladesh, it was because it's the place most vulnerable to climate change, and it's also poor and densely populated. But a reader who lives there reports that the culture and politics are relatively healthy, and it's becoming steadily more prosperous. If Bangladesh doesn't get a dieoff, maybe no one will.
Cool article on Low Tech Magazine, Well-Tended Fires Outperform Modern Cooking Stoves, including lots of data on different kinds of stoves.
On reddit, kinderdemon defends postmodernism:
Postmodern thought is dismissive of high-minded notions of true beauty and ultimate meaning and such, but it pretty much embraces the trickster, free play, the willingness to survive and outmaneuver the terrible monolithic forces hedging our lives, to be a gadfly and a libertine and a force of and for pleasure.
Modernist absolute truth often came with a demand for heroism or sacrifice, while the postmodern absence of absolute truth comes with an injunction to make your own contingent but consistent meanings. Both are related models for existential validation in an uncaring universe, but one seeks to correct the other by minimizing the coersive and authoritarian elements implicit in its modeling of "truth".
Finally, an email from Chanita who hosted me in NYC on my last tour:
There is this guy in Kentucky who is trying to establish a free permaculture teaching space, Earth Tribe Trust. He says it's like trying to run a hospital where all these patients are pouring in and he's supposed to be helping them, but he's just like this crazy janitor. I think he's being a bit humble and has a lot of hard work and some better than decent permie building skills and experience. But anyway, he's looking to have more people come down and teach whatever they feel like teaching, pretty much.
He's a rainbow -- it seems like the space is quite inclusive and chugging along. They have built themselves a very pretty outdoor kitchen, rocket stoves, earthship in progress, etc. Very open, tendency toward dictatorship negligible. Appreciation of anarchism and cooperation high. Accepting of trans persons without discussion or pause. Anyway, I know he needs some other folks to be there to teach, especially because he will be working on a project abroad for a while in the fall and I thought you might know folks into his model.
July 2. On the subreddit, two responses to Monday's theme of civilization as human zoo. First, HTG464 describes how modern humans are better off than zoo animals, and suggests that adaptation could make large complex society the new normal. I tend to agree, but I think human extinction through superstimuli is also a strong possibility. And I think we still have a long way to go to fully adapt, and to build a society worth adapting to. So the zoo metaphor is not perfect but useful.
In the newer post, itsyaboyaccountt1234 attempts to argue that we will return to forager-hunter tribes, but only provides evidence that civilization as we know it is causing many catastrophes. The rest of the argument is not explicitly stated, but it would have to include a premise like "There are only two possible ways for humans to live, as forager-hunter tribes or as industrial civilization." Which is unlikely and unimaginative. I think we have both the ability and the desire to adapt large complex societies to muddle through the ongoing economic and ecological collapses. There might be a 90% dieoff in Bangladesh, but you will still have to pay taxes.
If we do return to forager-hunter tribes, I think the most likely path is through something like the subject of this 1998 article, The Last American Man. It's about Eustace Conway, who has lived in the woods for most of his life, and is generally awesome. He says everyone can live like him, but he's wrong. He can live that way and you can't, because from the moment he could walk, his parents let him wander the woods unsupervised, and your parents didn't. But if that ever becomes fashionable, even in one region, it could spread globally as we see how well it works. And early wilderness immersion doesn't even force you to live primitively -- it just gives you the option.
June 30. The last Monday of every month is Finger Pointing Day. (If more people were into Enneagram, I would call it 6w5 day.) Good stuff this month. First, on reddit, AlexFromOmaha explains why American health care is so expensive. 1) The battle between hospitals and insurers creates a vast medical billing industry that adds nothing to the value of health care. 2) Executives are way overpaid. 3) There is rampant price gouging, especially in prescription drugs and high tech equipment. 4) Insurance insulates consumers from costs, so there is no incentive to compete on prices. And in the final paragraph, a great rant:
Outside the US, "preventative care" means a nice sit-down with a dietitian and a daily stroll. In the US, this $2500 test can make a disease cost $6000 to treat instead of $150,000! Great deal! So let's get fifteen million people to get this test every year to prevent two thousand cases for a net savings of negative thirty-seven billion dollars.America's booze laws: Worse than you thought. Basically, large distillers, large wholesalers, and entrenched retailers are shaping the laws so they can keep sucking up all the money instead of allowing newer and smaller businesses to give a better deal to consumers.
June 27. If you've been following the World Cup, here's a funny video by John Oliver on FIFA corruption. He correctly compares it to the corruption of large organized religions, and I would be more specific and look at Medieval Europe, where everyone knew the church was corrupt for hundreds of years, but they couldn't do anything about it because the church held a monopoly on religion. One difference is that modern nation states are much stronger than FIFA, so maybe they'll eventually step in.
Here's a long reddit comment on why there can never be a drug that makes you feel good with no bad effects: because feeling good artificially, rather than from doing valuable things in the real world, is a bad effect. Of course I don't agree with his conclusion that no drugs should be legal. I think we should be working toward full legalization, but we have to do it gradually because doing it too fast would be catastrophic. Our goal as a species should not be to protect ourselves from temptation, but to learn to face it.
Personally I don't want to try the harder drugs even once. I'm lucky that I don't get any euphoria from alcohol, and it's a challenge to limit my cannabis use to one night every two weeks. When I crave that mental state, I try to generate it internally. My biggest vice is video games, and my latest dark accomplishment is scoring under 200 in minesweeper.
June 25. Loose end from Monday: I didn't even notice that the decline of trust image page links to the source article, The Decline of Trust in the United States. The conclusion is that there's no easy way to reverse the decline, and my best guess is that the USA (and eventually most of the world) will fragment into different cultures, linked by social technology rather than geography, with trust within cultures but not so much between them.
On a new subject, Music Changes the Way You Think. Basically, one pitch gap between notes, the tritone, makes you see the forest, and another pitch gap, the perfect fifth, makes you see the trees.
And completely off the usual subjects, How to Name a Baby is a smart blog post with lots of fascinating stuff about baby names, including a discussion of fad names that define generations, this surprising list of current fad names and the traditional and older fad names that are now less popular, and a strange discovery that Utah is often ahead of other states on new names.
June 23. This blog post, Anti-Tesla sentiment and the death of optimism, laments the cynical reaction to Tesla releasing a bunch of patents, and uses game theory to argue that a society works much better if people trust each other.
When someone like Elon Musk comes along, someone who is clearly is working very hard toward Pareto optimal outcomes (watch or red about his personal history), we simply cannot fathom that his actions can't be explained outside a traditional Nash-equilibrium, dog-eat-dog model of capitalism.
Closely related: 17 images showing The Decline of Trust in the United States.
June 20. Some happy links for the weekend. Masters of Love is about research into how couples stay together. Failed couples exist in fight-or-flight mode, "prepared to attack and be attacked." Successful couples create "a climate of trust and intimacy." They do this by "scanning the social environment for things they can appreciate," while failed couples are scanning for things to criticize.
I have two more thoughts. First, people who consistently get in bad relationships might enjoy the stimulation of fight-or-flight mode, and seek out partners who make them feel on edge. Second, I think these principles also apply to your relationship with the world, and with yourself. If you're appreciating little things that go your way, or little things that you do right, you are living better than someone who gets worked up over things that go wrong. Of course it's still necessary, when things do go wrong, to see them clearly.
Next, this is not obviously happy, but according to this reddit comment on Nazi SS soldiers who refused to participate in mass-killings, they were usually not punished, and when they were punished, it was almost always a demotion, transfer, or other loss of status. So ask yourself: is there anything you're doing in your life that you hate, and if you refused to do it, the only penalty would be a loss of social status?
Finally, another reddit comment on how Colorado legalization has changed marijuana from a seller's market to a buyer's market. The black market now has to compete with the legal market on customer service, while the legal market has to compete with the black market on pricing. The most interesting thing is that the highly competent dealers are thriving, while the incompetent dealers have been driven out of cannabis and possibly into dealing harder drugs where the customers don't have as much leverage.
Here in Washington we'll have the first legal shops opening in early July, and the after-tax prices are going to be very high. According to this article consumers will pay $15 to $25 per gram, which would be $53 to $88 for an eighth ounce, which on the black market might cost $40. So I look forward to the Colorado prices eventually coming here. By the way, I haven't ever linked to it on the blog, but Spec Bebop by Yo La Tengo might be the best stoner track of all time.
June 18. Accepting Deviant Minds: Why 'Hallucinations' Are as Real as the Self. The author wisely concedes that spirit beings are metaphorical, because an argument that they really exist would require a book-length reframing of the idea of "real". Then he goes on to argue that hallucinated voices should be respected instead of marginalized. But the really brilliant stuff is in the middle of the article. Edited excerpt:
It's not hard to imagine a world in which adults have lost the ability to daydream. Children will grow up immersed in computer-mediated reality and be bombarded every waking moment with 'optimal' stimulation. In such a saturated world, a normal human brain may become incapable of pulling up anchor from reality and drifting off into aimless fantasies.
So what would this future society think of the few remaining people who are prone to daydreams? It will be easy and tempting to classify such people as mentally ill -- to diagnose them with Aimless Imagination Disorder, perhaps.
And what will this future society make of us, here in 2013? I suspect they would reject the idea that we were all daydreamers. Judged by our artifacts, we'll come across as perfectly 'normal' to future archaeologists. They'll find occasional puzzling references to daydreaming, but will be tempted to discount those in favor of their belief that we weren't, as an entire society, mentally ill.
This tendency -- to marginalize a conscious experience, label it as deviant, and then deny its historical prevalence -- isn't merely hypothetical. It's happening right now.