"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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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.
Music has entered the environment as an atmospheric element, like the wind, and in that capacity should not be subject to control and compensation. Well, not unless the rights holders are willing to let me turn the tables on it. If you think my listening is worth something, OK then, so do I. Play a Phil Collins song while I'm grocery shopping? Pay me $20.
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.
November 12. Feeling unmotivated, so here are some stray links on which I have no further comment.
This reddit comment from two months ago makes an overwhelming moral argument against selling organs. Edited conclusion:
You can not agree with organ sales unless you concede that 1) Slavery in nexum is ethical. 2) There is no fundamental natural right to life or liberty. 3) The members of a society have the right to organise it in such a way that the death of some of them are structurally ensured. 4) That they further have the right to make use of that certainty to exploit those condemned to death for the benefit of some of their preferred members.
Good news: Self-filling water bottle turns humidity into drinking water for cyclists.
And I don't really understand this programming article but I have an intuition that it's important, both technologically and philosophically: Pulling JPEGs out of thin air with several hundred million uses of something called a fuzzer.
November 10. Today, three long links on totally different subjects. I think I found them all on Hacker News.
Obamacare: what it is, what it's not, is a bunch of boring information and political arguments in readable comic form. The general message is that Obamacare is flawed but pretty good, most of the opposition to it is stupid, and it doesn't necessarily lock us into the massive bureaucratic costs of the present system, because states can use it as a bridge to single payer.
Secrets of the Magus is a 1993 article on magician Ricky Jay. He's a fascinating person and there's lots of good stuff about the history of stage magic.
Point and Shoot is about Lagrange points, gravity-neutral spots that are useful for space exploration. There's a nice paragraph near the end about how the human drive to explore space is based on earthly mythical thinking that doesn't really apply to space. We want to put our footprints on rocks, but landing humans on planets is much more difficult and not really that useful. My favorite book on this subject is Gaiome by Kevin Scott Polk, which imagines millions of self-sufficient space communities at Lagrange points everywhere. My personal prediction is that before that happens, we'll either go extinct or discover something that's more like parallel-universe sci-fi than space travel sci-fi.
November 7. For the weekend, I'm writing about drugs again. Check out this colorful image of how magic mushrooms rearrange your brain by temporarily creating many more connections between brain networks that normally don't talk to each other.
There's a new cannabis strain, Charlotte's Web, bred to have high CBD and low THC. Those are the two main active components of marijuana, and the simplified story is that THC generates head high while CBD generates couch-lock. By the way, the whole indica vs sativa thing is only loosely related to CBD vs THC. Anyway, the known medical value is in CBD, so high-CBD low-THC strains are probably the future of medical marijuana. It would be possible in theory to legalize only those strains, but it's more likely that right wing states will just legalize expensive all-CBD pharmaceuticals.
The Amazons of the dark net is a fascinating article about illegal e-commerce sites.
Also I want to mention our crazy weather. Spokane's first frost is usually in late September or early October, and this year we're finally going to get it on November 10. Today I went out in the back yard and picked about a pint of raspberries.
November 5. I want to go back to my favorite idea from Monday, this reddit comment about contagious diseases that spread through ideas. Here's a loooooong article about the gluten sensitivity movement, backing up my position that (with the exception of actual celiac disease) it seems to be all in our heads, or caused by stuff other than gluten.
A more common medical condition with a clear psychological component is aging, and here's another long article, What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set? It describes several experiments in which mental and emotional changes caused physical changes that seemed to reverse aging. Of course aging is not completely psychological. There are proven physical mechanisms, and even the most enlightened old people still look and act old. But a reader mentions knowing a 100-year-old woman who cheerfully navigates her physical impairments to plant flowers and go out with friends, compared to younger old people who like to talk about what is 'wrong' with them.
I suppose I should write about yesterday's election. The good news is that Oregon, Alaska, and DC all legalized recreational marijuana. Here's a good Oregon legalization Q&A, and unlike Washington state you can grow your own. Medical marijuana failed in Florida despite strong popular support, and this article argues that it's because the initiative got tangled up in partisan politics, so that Republicans who favored medical marijuana still voted no.
This is a special case of a general way that humans are stupid. I think it goes back to our monkey tribe ancestors who developed deep instincts to love the home tribe and hate the enemy tribe. This primal urge is now projected onto political parties. In America, Republican and Democrat are different tribes, different cultures, different ways of walking and talking and framing issues. Where they are not different, but pretend to be, is influencing deep political policy. For example, Obamacare is almost identical to an earlier Republican proposal. If a Republican president and congress had passed it, Republicans would love it and Democrats would hate it. It's like a battle over who gets to wave their flag from an unstoppable train.
November 3. Thanks ShadowBax for making this subreddit post about this awesome reddit thread, Scientists of Reddit: What's the craziest or weirdest thing in your field that you suspect is true but is not yet supported fully by data?
The comment featured in the subreddit post is this one arguing that big data will cause a catastrophe by looking at correlation without causation. My example of this would be Google search. If you remember the crappy search engines before Google, they tried to make the computer actually understand what you were looking for. Google worked much better by not trying to understand, but just looking for correlations between search terms and links. So the doom argument is that rare events can change systems in ways that you can understand if you're looking at causation, but not if you're looking at correlation; so a "black swan" event could lead to a chain reaction of computers doing stupid things. "Could even be on the level of seeing planes fall out the sky."
Other than that, here are my ten favorites in the thread: 1) There are contagious diseases that spread through ideas combined with the power of the mind over the body. A current example is gluten intolerance. 2) The Big Bang theory violates the principle that there should be no special time in the universe, but you could resolve this with an eternal universe in which regions are expanding or contracting. 3) Some voters do not try to figure out which candidate they like the best, but vote for the candidate who seems most likely to win so they can feel like winners. 4) The chemical key to depression treatment is not serotonin but a protein called "brain derived neurotropic factor", which makes the brain more flexible, but you still have to do the work of adjusting your thinking. 5) Epigenetics could explain how a population can evolve together instead of waiting for an individual to have a lucky mutation. 6) Lead in Washington DC drinking water severely affected hundreds of infants and children and it was all covered up. 7) "Cumulative or simultaneous nonhazardous odors (often called nuisance smells) have a multiplying hazardous effect." 8) Small birds can hear tornado storms hundreds of miles away. 9) People with autoimmune disorders rarely get sick from other things. 10) Nerves send signals through pressure waves.
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 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."