"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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April 24. Some happy links for the weekend. Meet the School That Hates Rules. There's no economic reason that all schools couldn't be like this. The only obstacle is cultural.
Scythe Demolishes Weed Whacker In Grass-Cutting Competition. Note that this is a scythe champion. Because a scythe is more difficult to use, an unskilled person with a scythe would lose to an unskilled person with a weed whacker. This is why weed whackers will remain more popular, but also why using a scythe is more rewarding.
And some awesome space jazz from 1974: Gong - Master Builder.
April 22. Two reader comments about future eco-feudalism. Anne thinks that Paul Wheaton's ant village challenge sounds like sharecropping. More generally:
The goal of permaculture often seems to be less producing food and other usable products and more about re-envisioning the landed gentry of the late middle ages. You know, the full-service estate model, where everything from charcoal to wagon wheels was produced on a single manor farm, and mostly consumed there as well. Obviously there are different forms of social organization that can make that happen, but it has not escaped notice that the set-up most popular among permaculture dreamers (and a few actual landowners) is for the landowner to serve as a benign autocrat, and unpaid laborers to partake in the bounty of the land.
Owen offers a nicer vision, where all humans will be like aristocrats in self-sufficient households, and robots will do most of the work. I like this, and I think it's realistic on the level of technology, but not politics. Even with robots doing all the work, political power has positive feedback: people who make decisions tend to make them in a way that preserves and increases their power to make decisions.
I also want to say, if you aspire to own land, consider my experience: I've tried growing a food forest on remote acreage, and on an urban residential lot, and because the urban lot has a longer growing season, better topsoil, closer access to soil amendments, and a water hose, my urban plants are growing ten times better than my rural plants with a tenth of the work. Just this week my neighbor's landscaper gave me a cubic yard of grass cuttings that I hauled to a compost pile without having to own a truck. Here's a picture of my back yard that I just took today.
Toby Hemenway wrote much more about this subject back in 2004 in Urban vs Rural Sustainability. Of course you don't have the money to get an urban lot just anywhere. But for the price of adequate rural acreage, you can get a good sized lot with a house in a rust belt city like Detroit, St Louis, or Buffalo.
April 20. Over the weekend I had a visitor, Nick, who was on his way to Missoula to check out Paul Wheaton's ant village challenge. We talked about all kinds of things, and I always forget how much better conversation is face to face than over the internet. I learned lots of stuff about the possible future of energy. For example, you can have a parabolic reflector focusing sunlight on a point through which you pass a fluid that can hold lots of heat, and then this fluid can transfer heat to water, driving a steam engine, so you've got solar power without a high-tech infrastructure making photovoltaics. Nick's utopian vision is a kind of home-scale mini-biosphere or super-greenhouse that would make such good use of sunlight and water that people living in it would be almost completely self-sufficient. This kind of thing will have to be developed if we ever want Mars colonies, but then it would turn out to be more useful to help us live better on Earth.
We also talked about psychedelics, a topic that has come up a lot for me lately. The other day there was a great discussion on the Psychonaut subreddit, inspired by an Alan Watts quote, about the value of psychedelics: is there a simple message that you only need to hear once, or an endless landscape of insights as you explore deeper, or something in between? I still have never used anything stronger than marijuana (happy 4/20!) for two reasons. One is a good reason: that I have never had access to the stuff. The other I've decided is a bad reason: that I can feel good about myself for having trippy insights without any help from drugs -- but of course I've had lots of help from reading the experiences and ideas of other people.
April 18. Bonus weekend post. Thanks Jason for donating two pounds of Anodyne Coffee to Leigh Ann. I don't make coffee myself, and could happily live without it, but if some is around I'll take a sip. (Actually I feel that way about a lot of things.)
Some humor from the New Yorker, Ayn Rand Reviews Children's Movies. (I knew Willy Wonka was evil.)
And a fun image gallery, After You Die. My favorite scenario would be a hybrid of purgatory, reincarnation, and simulation: given sufficiently powerful consciousness-managing technology, an obvious way to make a utopian society would be to put everyone through simulations until they become a good enough person to live in the real world.
April 17. Two links from readers. First, Matthew Crawford on distraction. It's about how technologies designed to capture our attention are getting more powerful and they're in more places. Crawford's solution is for people to engage physical reality, for example by playing sports or making a car, which is more satisfying than techno-distraction and tends to block it out. Another interesting point is that money can buy shelter from distraction, like special airport lounges, and this creates a feedback loop where powerful people have the silence to think their way to more power, while powerless people are too distracted to resist.
I don't think the article has enough faith in humanity. Today's young people would be immune to advertisements from the 1950's, which means we're getting smarter. I think human adaptability is bottomless, while the techno-distraction industry is now running to stand still, with ever more powerful brain candy reaching for the last crumbs of our numb and cynical attention. This might even be bad for rich people, if they're so insulated from distraction that they don't develop enough resistance to survive on their own.
The article also has a fascinating paragraph about music in gyms. There used to be one boom box with music decided by one person or by consensus. Now they play "awful generic gym crap" and everyone is just listening to their own music on earbuds. This is part of a larger trend of technology enabling cultural divergence. I think this process is still in its infancy, and I'm curious where it's going to take us.
Another example of cultural divergence, Unequal, Yet Happy. The observation is, while wealth inequality is enormous and growing, happiness inequality has been steadily shrinking. And the theory is, this is because status is becoming less vertical and more horizontal. Instead of everyone envying the rich, everyone thinks their own subculture and lifestyle is best.
The author thinks this is bad because it makes us stop caring about wealth inequality. I think this is a case of an intellectual getting fixated on an ideology and forgetting the original point, which always comes down to people feeling good. But don't worry: when climate change trashes global agriculture and only the rich have food, wealth inequality will be a popular issue again.
April 15. A few more thoughts on yesterday's subject. I've seen discussions of whether writers "walk their talk". I hope that nobody, writer or reader, would allow something as important as actions to be determined by something as sketchy as words. My goal has always been to talk my walk: to accurately use words to explore and explain my actions and motivations.
This is harder than it sounds. Being accurate and writing well are two different skills, and there's a constant temptation to slant the story toward words that sound good, or phrases that readers are familiar with. I know I've done this and I regret it. And even if you're scrupulously honest, you can still be misunderstood if you get too close to any popular myth, which can distort perception and make people think you have values that you never said you had.
I don't know where the myth of social asceticism even comes from. Medieval monks? Diogenes was not avoiding guilt but avoiding constraint. Did Thoreau ever write anything that contradicted his practice of going into town every weekend for a family dinner?
I feel like I was a novice wizard who accidentally summoned demons. If I write differently and people just stop reading, that's cool; but if someone lashes out at me, that means I was feeding something that should not have been fed.
April 14. Just a heads up that there's a new subreddit thread about the differences between my old writing and my new writing. I made a couple comments there, including that my old writing was about making people feel strong emotions, and my newer writing is about seeking understanding. Or you could say I've shifted from being a warrior to being a scout.
I also want to say, I was in a dark place for a few decades. As recently as ten years ago more of my energy went into what I was against than what I was for. At times I got so deep that I made the number one counterculture error: morally condemning people for participation in an imperfect system. Now I think that's a mistake on every level, but when someone condemns me, I don't mind -- it's karma.
April 13. Can civilisation reboot without fossil fuels? This is an important question, and I'd like to see more than just this one guy trying to answer it. His answer is that the most realistic source of energy would be charcoal and wood gas, but that wood power would be heavily constrained by competition with agriculture.
I think the most likely scenario is that solar power is able to adapt and survive through the coming resource bottleneck, and eventually it will grow to surpass the energy we're now getting from fossil fuels. Then, if the most powerful nations have stable zero growth economies, we've got utopia, but I don't expect humanity to learn that fast. Probably there will be solar empires, still addicted to growth and all fighting each other, and we'll eventually hit peak solar, in which it takes more and more effort to harvest the last few photons. Then we'll either finally figure out how to live without growth, or we'll get another crash.
Loosely related: a short video posted to the subreddit about Max Weber and the Protestant Ethic, arguing that religion used to be about staying out of the economic rat race, but that all changed when Calvinism tied salvation to material success.
April 10. Another slow week, or maybe my attention is just going to stuff that wouldn't be good to blog about. Here's something fun for the weekend: GeoGuessr is a browser game that shows you a random Google street view and you try to guess where it is on a map.
April 8. Unrelated stuff. The Failed Promise of Deep Links is a smart article about how the internet could be used for exciting new ways of communicating, but in practice it keeps sliding into behavior that is boring, annoying, and profitable. I knew the old definition of "deep links" but I didn't know there's a completely new definition and the old definition is being forgotten.
13 Reasons Rain Dove Is The Androgynous Model Of Your Dreams. This is a surprisingly good article about a female model who looks like a man. The last paragraph:
"I want to be boring. I would like people like me, in the future, to not be shocking. I want to be good at what I do, but I just want people to look and think, OK. When a man wears a dress it shouldn't be shocking; you shouldn't look twice unless you're thinking, Nice dress!"
Consistency and discipline over motivation. Most psychological skills get easier as I get older, but motivation remains as hard as ever. This guy argues that, instead of trying or waiting to feel motivated, it's better to just devote blocks of time where you force yourself to do stuff you don't feel like doing, and this is easier if you start each session with mental planning.
This is definitely the right way to do your taxes, but if we're talking about creative work, I think it should be considered in balance with the opposite position: that if your vision isn't lighting a fire under your ass, you need to reach deeper inside yourself until you find one that does.
April 6. Some technology links. Drone startup wants to plant one billion trees a year. The survival rate will probably be worse than hand-planting, but it should get better, and it's already cheaper than hand-planting on a large scale. Imagine if a trickster did this with drug-bearing plants, or a controversial opportunist plant like kudzu or autumn olive.
Another drone story from last fall: Flag-carrying drone sparks violence at soccer match. Whoever planned this, it must have been like scoring on an unguarded goal. The sequence of events is so predictable that it makes me amused at humanity.
Another link from 2014, Violent video games don't make you aggressive - difficult games do. And if a difficult game can make us aggressive, how much more aggressive do we get when life itself is too difficult?
The End of Farming is about lab-grown animal products. Lab-grown meat is still much worse than farmed meat in both taste and efficiency, but milk is getting close. I'm also thinking, even if lab-grown food can surpass farmed food, it still needs a tech infrastructure. Old-fashioned animal grazing is more robust and will survive in areas that are technologically unstable or off-grid.
April 4. Yesterday I couldn't write about music because my newest ideas are only half-baked, and I couldn't write about marijuana and fatigue because my self-experimentation is still inconclusive. But here's a small drugs link from the Psychonaut subreddit, Weed, is it useful after a point? By which they mean, is it much less useful after you've done other psychoactive drugs?
And a small music link. I've been looking for months for a band that sounds even slightly like my favorite band, Big Blood, and I finally found one. They're called Silver Summit. But other than the song Child, they don't do much for me. This is why most of us have trouble answering the question, "What kind of music do you like?" Because our ear for beauty goes deeper than our mind for language.
April 1. It's a slow week so I'm going to keep writing about music. There's a thoughtful thread on the subreddit, New Music Suckage. The OP, doubticksy, suggests that there is less Great music now than in the golden age of classic rock. I don't exactly agree with this, but it's the natural place to start a discussion of how music has changed over the last few decades, and I hope nobody downvoted the whole thread just because they didn't like where it started.
I wrote a long comment arguing that musical quality depends on context, and that the explosion of creativity in the 60's and 70's came from a unique convergence of social and technological factors. Of my three speculations at the end, I think #2 and #3 are only slightly true and #1 doesn't go far enough: overall there is more musical creativity now. Of course you can't hear it on the radio, and it doesn't seem to be driving cultural changes, but check out this new project, Every Noise at Once. It's a map of more than 1300 musical genres, loosely sorted on a grid of organic vs electric and atmospheric vs bouncy, and if you click beside any genre you go to another map of hundreds of artists. Then if you have a Spotify account you can click on "list" and get a playlist, or click on any artist and hear a sample song. I don't have Spotify so I just open a YouTube tab and copy names into the search box. Yesterday I spent more than an hour exploring a tiny corner of the New Weird America genre.
I changed my mind about what I said yesterday: it does not require a lot of free time to find your favorite music. Because whether you're in 1975 listening to the world's best DJ, or in 2015 listening to some internet playlist, it takes the same five minutes to hear a five minute song, and you can play it in the background while you're doing other stuff. The difference is, now you have to spend more time listening to music you don't like, so it's a matter of patience.
Sort of going back to the original subject, a reader pointed me to this BBC documentary about Hawkwind, and it really gives a sense of how exciting those times were.
March 30. The last Monday of every month is Finger Pointing Day. I'm getting more selective about negative links, so today I only have three and they're all either smart or funny. This long reddit thread is funny: Have you ever gotten to the 'romantic' subplot of a fantasy or science fiction book and realized that the author has probably never talked to a girl romantically?
Why hydrogen fuel cell cars don't work. The author knows a lot about the subject and goes into great detail about why, in practical terms, batteries beat fuel cells in every way.
Why Do All Records Sound the Same? Because audio processing technology is now powerful enough that producers and record companies can polish music to death. I would add: at the same time, home recording technology and internet distribution are making it easier than ever for artists to avoid the big money industry and make great music on their own terms. The problem with this system is that it's elitist: because the best music is obscure, you can only find it if you have lots of free time.
March 27. Bunch o' links. Two engineering students have figured out how to put fires out with low frequency sound.
Replace Soy with Mealworms as a Protein-Rich Animal Feed Supplement. I think humans are going to have to eat lots of insects to make it through this century without a global famine.
Brand new subreddit, Psych Ward Chronicles. It was started just yesterday, inspired by this AskReddit thread, You have to say one sentence to prove you are insane, which someone answered with a jaw-dropping sentence said by an actual crazy person: "Stare into the sun and tell me if eternity is still there."
Related: Psychonaut is a popular subreddit where people talk about psychedelic experiences and related philosophy.
I've been looking for a weather site that has good information and loads quickly, and I've started using the one at timeanddate.com. Here's the Spokane extended forecast and if you like it you can find your local forecast with the search box.
How to generate an encryption passphrase that even the NSA can't guess. Using a resource called the Diceware word list, you roll dice to come up with seven random words and memorize them.
And an inspiring article about the human potential, The Impossible Physiology of the Free Diver.
March 25. Edited reader comment on Monday's genetic engineering link:
CRISPR is indeed revolutionary in that it enables rapid and efficient genetic manipulation in a wide range of species. However, the notion that CRISPR will result in escape of GMOs from labs is a completely separate question.
Their example, the fruit fly, can itself provide evidence to the contrary. Because of how easy genetic manipulation is in the fruit fly, nearly every gene has already been deleted, and all known markers and tools inserted, in labs for decades all over the globe. Yet despite their small size and wings to fly out of labs, the world is not yet overrun by GM fruit flies.
The reason is simple: evolution gives wild fruit flies the greatest advantage, with an elegant and robust unmodified genome selected over millions of years to function in the world. Nearly all genetic manipulations confer disadvantages that are out-competed by wild flies.
New subject: this excellent reddit comment explains why whole milk is better than lowfat milk, including a calorie to lactose ratio that enables most lactose intolerant people to consume whole milk in moderation.
March 23. Some technology links. Let's talk about designer wild critters, not designer babies.
In a paper published yesterday, Valentino Gantz and Ethan Bier, both at the University of California, San Diego, demonstrated the first successful implementation of a CRISPR-Cas9-based gene drive in the germ line of fruit flies. The CRISPR gene drive is a powerful piece of technology that all but guarantees an engineered trait is passed on to every single offspring. Within months or years, it has the ability to alter an entire population of a sexually reproducing species.
Modified critters could easily escape, or carefully designed species released into the wild could have unintended consequences, sparking a cascade of ecological changes that may be all but impossible to reverse.
Next, Assembly line nuclear reactors are quietly building steam in the northwest. I actually think this is good. My big objection to nuclear power is political: where the energy flows from the center out, the political power flows from the center out, and the bigger the plant, the bigger the control system. But smaller reactors could be run by towns or neighborhoods in which you're more likely to have a voice, and they could stay autonomous and energy-rich as dysfunctional big systems break down.
Back to scary: What cockroaches with backpacks can do. Mostly it's about surveillance, and I wonder if cockroach cyborgs are a better fit with democratic, distributed surveillance, where anyone can watch anyone, or centralized surveillance where powerful institutions can lock their power in place.
And the other day on the subreddit, yiedyie made a post called The Point of No-Return, "the point at which all daredevils and tricksters instead of jumping over cliffs in squirrel flying suits, making cults, or make cyber-scams, etc, start instead messing with the system."
March 22. Personal update. Here's a six year old photo of me and my truck just after buying it. I paid $2600 and just sold it for $2500. Partly that's because Rangers hold their value, but I also put only 5000 miles per year on it, drove it gently, and sold it with nicer tires. Plus I just spent $300 on new shocks, front rotors, pads, and bearings, all of which were surprisingly easy to replace. I'm sad to see it go, but now that Leigh Ann has a car and I have a scooter, holding onto it wasn't worth the cost of insurance and registration. That means I'll almost never be visiting my land, and anyone who plans to do permaculture can have it for below market value.
March 20. I have nothing much to post for the weekend. Here's a minor good news link, LA City Council approves curbside planting of fruits and vegetables, and a good AskReddit thread, People who have grown up in poverty then managed to get out, what was the biggest culture shock for you?
In personal news, I'm trying to sell my truck, and I still haven't figured out what's causing my fatigue. If it's marijuana, then I'm probably the only person getting bad effects from a gram a month.
March 18. Today, two woo-woo links from readers. No one could see the color blue until modern times. That's not quite true - the article mentions that ancient Egyptians had a word for blue because they had blue dyes. But study of ancient texts suggests that our color vision is largely cultural, and that it has grown through history, with red appearing first and blue last. There's also a modern example of tribal forest people who can distinguish fine shades of green but not the difference between green and blue. I assume we're not finished, and there are potential colors that for now only crazy people can see.
This also reminds me of Augustine of Hippo, who astonished Romans with his magical ability to read without speaking the words out loud. And it reminds me of some speculations from Oliver Sacks books: that we are all born with the potential for synesthesia and musical perfect pitch, but most of us don't develop them because our education goes in another direction.
Oneirosophy is a small subreddit for subjective idealist thinking. It's mostly about occult culture and dream practices, because subjective idealist philosophy is really hard. My everyday default philosophy is objective materialism, that "there is" a single physical reality "out there", because it's a necessary and powerful shortcut. But people who get into paranormal phenomena (or fringe science or conspiracy theory) and go a little crazy, could stay sane if they could let go of the idea that the universe is one way, and imagine it instead as a collective dream that has to be forced into consistency.