"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."
- Terence McKenna
Apocalypsopolis, book one
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January 26. The last Monday of every month is Finger Pointing day, on which I usually post a bunch of negative links. This month I have only one: Has travel become another exercise in narcissism?
He's been away for two months, spent most of it dancing on the beach addled on diet pills and Sangsom sets -- perhaps punctuated by a week of hungover volunteering building a retaining wall that is destined to collapse within a year. His destination's merits can all be surmised with the brain-dead epithet "amazing"; the natives were "so friendly". But this facsimile, off-the-peg experience has invested him with unprecedented insight into Thailand's society -- indeed, into the very essence of the human condition. Suddenly, he is Marco Polo returning from the court of Kublai Khan. He must write a blog, post endless photos on social media. Everyone must benefit from his remarkable new wisdom!
The key to this whole subject, which the author misses, is that these are people from rich countries traveling in poor countries. That's why the natives are friendly: they're kissing your ass because they want your money. And that's why the travelers fail to gain any wisdom, because their money blocks them from the valuable experience of engaging the natives as equals. Even if you have no money, if you just look like the people with money, your interactions with others will not be real.
I didn't understand this myself until I had a long talk with a guy who spent a year in Asia, who admitted that he loved being treated like a rock star just because of his race. Personally I hate it. I'm not even good at reading people, and even traveling in Mexico, the friendliness is so obviously fake that it just makes me feel dirty. I don't want to be the center of attention -- I want to see a changing landscape while being invisible, which is why I only really enjoy traveling inside the USA.
January 23. For the weekend, some articles about drugs. What heroin addiction tells us about changing bad habits. A study found that "95 percent of the people who were addicted in Vietnam did not become re-addicted when they returned to the United States." At the time nobody believed this because they thought addiction was in the drug. Now it makes more sense because we are learning that addiction is in the environment. So an addictive behavior is hard to stop if it's integrated with other habitual behaviors (I've heard that a big part of smoking addiction is the hand movements) but if your environment totally changes, then the addiction doesn't fit in anywhere.
Another take on the same subject, The likely cause of addiction has been discovered, and it is not what you think. The author, Johann Hari, mentions the Rat Park experiment, in which rats with good lives preferred normal water to drugged water. But I think his conclusion is too nice and simple:
...we should stop talking about 'addiction' altogether, and instead call it 'bonding.' A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn't bond as fully with anything else. So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.
This doesn't fit my experience. What I find most addictive are computer strategy games, but I prefer single player to multiplayer, so I'm seeking something other than human connection. As an introvert, I don't feel like modern society cuts me off like a rat in a cage. I feel like I'm in a Kafka nightmare, overwhelmed with insane and meaningless obligations. The problem is not a lack of connections but an excess of bad connections. Hari claims that Portugal has cured addiction by giving addicts "subsidized jobs so they have a purpose in life." Jobs must be better in Portugal, because in every job I ever had, the only purpose was to make it to quitting time with enough energy to have an hour or two of fun before collapsing into bed. The appeal of computer games, compared to society, is that the tasks in front of me are part of a good story and my choices make a difference. We can't fix society just by adding human connection -- we need to take the power out of the center and distribute it to all of us, and that's going to take hundreds of years.
Meanwhile, sometimes drugs are great. This article is also by Johann Hari from his new book: Why animals eat psychoactive plants. There's good stuff about that subject, and also about the Eleusinian mysteries in ancient Greece. And the main point is that "the overwhelming majority of people who use prohibited drugs do it because they get something good out of it." And we should embrace our desire for altered mental states, instead of seeing it as something dirty.
Loosely related: How to disappear completely is a post on the Raptitude blog about sensory deprivation float tanks. I just want to say that I tried this and it was completely lame. I was hoping for any kind of trippy experience but it was no different, mentally, from spending the same amount of time lying on my bed with my eyes closed. But you should try it because your results might be better.
Finally, my local legal marijuana store brought in a new high-CBD strain, and I bought some and tried it. Cannabis has a bunch of active ingredients, but the two main ones are THC, which gives you the "head high", and CBD, which gives you the "body high". A normal strain might have 1% CBD and this one has 10%, so I was hoping for a body high ten times as strong! Well, it didn't feel any stronger, but it lasted much longer. I can still feel it a bit now, more than 60 hours later. I'm also looking into growing my own (as soon as Washington legalizes home growing like the other three legal states) using something like a Space Bucket, a small ventilated light-proof container. There's also a Space Buckets subreddit.
January 21. Purging my link queue. Today, six reddit comments.
Rugtoad comments on "What do insanely poor people buy, that ordinary people know nothing about?" Lots of examples of stuff that people on the edge of disaster have to spend money on that people with more time and money can avoid.
And a1988eli comments on "What do insanely wealthy people buy, that ordinary people know nothing about?" The comment goes through four levels of wealth from ten million to over a billion:
Like Blink182? There is a price where they would simply come play at your private party. Love art? Your people could arrange for the curator of the Louvre to show you around and even show you masterpieces that have not been exhibited in years. Love Nascar? How about racing the top driver on a closed track? You like pianos? How about owning one Mozart used to compose music on? This is the type of stuff you can do.
... but it is nearly impossible to have a normal emotional relationship at this level. It is hard to sacrifice for another person when you are never asked to sacrifice ANYTHING. Money can solve all problems for someone, so you offer it, because there is so much else to do. Your time is SOOOO valuable that you ration it. And that makes you lose connections with people.
A 46 year old banker regrets his life. The details are so perfect -- the unfinished novel, the cheating wife, missing his father's death -- that I wonder if it's made up, but certainly there are a lot of people in the same basic position. I'm also thinking: How would it be similar and different, if instead of working in a banking career, this guy had spent 26 years playing something like World of Warcraft? While still wasting his life in an addictive narrow focus on an artificial world, he would have had more fun, done less harm, made much less money, and been under less social pressure to continue.
The difference between nations and states. This is a good explanation of stuff that almost nobody knows. Nutshell: "A state is the institution which has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in a given territory. A nation is a group of people who feel bound to each other into a collective by something shared."
Hiddencamper comments on "What happens to a nuclear reactor if you just leave it when it's still working?" It's funny watching a nuclear engineer try to talk around the troubling fact that nuclear power is only safe as a subsystem of a stable complex society, and in every plant, if you walked away, "eventually you will have core damage and containment failure." To be fair, in the kind of collapse that would lead to widespread nuclear plant failure, a lot more people would die of starvation.
Finally, from six months ago, Nefandi comments on the philosophy of the occult. I didn't think it was possible to explain such a difficult concept in so few words:
Subjectivity is not nothing and it's not just a distortion of something objective. Subjectivity is actually a deeper, pre-objective reality out of which, through intersubjective agreements, a semblance of objective reality is cobbled together through shared experiences and dialog.
January 19. Sarah Perry is one of the smartest people on the internet. She blogs as Sister Y on The View From Hell, as birguslatro on Carcinisation, and she recently had a great piece on Ribbonfarm, Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture. It's about how culture shapes human consciousness, and argues that what modern people think of as normal consciousness "is novel, contagious, and perhaps detrimental to human flourishing compared with more evolutionarily tested forms of consciousness running on the same hardware."
The features of modern "scholastic-industrial consciousness" include literacy, precise universal time, fixed sense of identity, and seeking meaning of life through the self. The worst thing is that we have developed a "watcher at the gates of the mind" which censors our ability to be creative and have fun. This watcher seems to live in our prefrontal cortex, and there are various ways to get around it, including meditation, drugs, and rhythmic group rituals.
The comments section is also good, including a very optimistic speculation by Ribbonfarm lead blogger Venkat, that "we're at the beginning of a new Cambrian explosion of consciousness-variety."
On a related subject, the 2015 Edge.org question is out. Every year they ask one big question to a bunch of prominent brainy people, and this year's question is "What do you think about machines that think?" There's so much dumb stuff here that I can't bring myself to read every answer like I normally do, but I think the best answers are the ones that deny the framing of the question, like this short one by Arnold Trehub:
Machines (humanly constructed artifacts) cannot think because no machine has a point of view; that is, a unique perspective on the worldly referents of its internal symbolic logic. We, as conscious cognitive observers, look at the output of so-called "thinking machines" and provide our own referents to the symbolic structures spouted by the machine. Of course, despite this limitation, such non-thinking machines have provided an extremely important adjunct to human thought.
January 16. I really want to move on but I keep getting new insights on this subject. First, Kevin makes an important point about protests: in America and other elite nations, governments can ignore protests because they're not being backed up by anyone with power. This is not the case in the rest of the world, where protests are often backed up or sponsored by elite nations.
Next, this long reddit comment by an Arab from a Muslim family explains how extremism comes from a synergy between Islamic religion and Arab culture, specifically their idea of "honor". That's an English word but it's probably an untranslatable concept that comes from really nasty patriarchal tribes.
The problem with understanding international Islam today is to understand that the Arab world is still, largely, few centuries backwards in its way of thinking, yet this same Arab world clings to the leadership role of explaining and guiding Islam around the world. In the Arab world of today, Human life is still easy to waste for the silliest reasons, from a girl losing her virginity then murdered by her brothers all the way up to what just saw unfold in France, they stem from the same deadly formula; a skewed understanding of a tribal honor system and a religion which makes it easier to say "fuck it all."
On a tangential subject, after an email conversation with Dermot I suddenly realized something that might be obvious to most of you: being offended is all about status. It's one thing if someone insults you and you feel bad, and another thing to stand up and say "I am offended." That's a card people play on a social-political level. Typically it's someone with medium to low status temporarily getting the drop on someone with higher status who has disrespected them in a way that society has declared inappropriate. You have to have some status to play the card, which is why homeless people are never offended, and you have to feel the need for higher status to want to play it, which is why billionaires are never offended. It's a middle class thing, and the people who get offended the most are the ones who feel most insecure about their status and have to keep proving it. Now that I understand this, I can see the hidden context of all these arguments about double standards for offensive cartoons.
At last, some fun for the weekend. As I get older my interests are shifting from politics to sports, because if I'm going to follow a spectacle, then sports are less scripted than politics, more transparent, and honest about the fact that I have no power. Anyway, here's a fascinating post about Peyton Manning's injury, arguing that he changed his throwing mechanics after shoulder surgery to draw power from his thigh muscles, which are now totally shot from overuse, and his playing career is probably over.
And a Mind-Blowing Six Song Country Mashup, which manages to make fun of the extreme similarity of recent country hits, while still being good music through the skill of the mashup artist. And here's an example of what country music had and lost, Willie Nelson - Can I Sleep In Your Arms.
January 14. I have another thought on the whole Charlie Hebdo thing. Pundits have been arguing that it was or was not about free speech, and I've just realized that it's totally about free speech, but not in the way people are thinking. In the western liberal view, free speech is a moral issue, so a culture with free speech is morally superior and more democratic. I think a culture with free speech is strategically superior, and arguably less democratic.
Whenever there's a protest in a non-western nation, and the rulers violently crack down, I always wonder: why don't they just ignore the protest like they do in America? One possible answer is that there's a cultural difference: in primitive authoritarian cultures, the state is viewed like a strict-father family, where if the children talk back to the father, he has to beat them or he loses all respect. So in Syria, if Assad ignores a protest, it's a sign of weakness, which encourages more and more dissent until he's thrown out of power. But in advanced authoritarian cultures, if the rulers ignore a protest, it's sign of strength, that their power does not depend on your opinion, and the protesters eventually give up and go home.
My college history professor told an anecdote about Frederick II of Prussia. He came upon an ugly caricature of himself that someone had set up in the street, but someone else had knocked it down. Frederick set it back up and said, "I let them say what they want, and they let me do what I want." Whether or not this actually happened, the message is that tolerating symbolic dissent was a new idea, and an upgrade. If a nation or culture can build a tradition of being unshaken by symbolic expression, then it is stronger defensively against internal criticism, and stronger offensively (pun intended) against competing cultures that are still vulnerable to symbolic expression. So free speech is not a delicate flower that we must protect -- it is a rising ocean in which everything must eventually swim.
Footnote: if people don't have enough food, protesters will not go home and the government cannot ignore them, and this is going to happen a lot in the next few decades. Tragically, hungry protesters tend to believe they're angry about some silly idea and not about lack of food.
January 12. A few more thoughts on Friday's subject. Two of the big framing narratives are to view the killers as criminals driven by mental illness, and to view them as operatives of Islam. I'm interested in where these stories intersect: Islam is serving as a catalyst to inspire terrible people to do terrible things. Now, I think resisting the economic domination of the west would be a good thing. But the Charlie Hebdo massacre is an attempt to impose domination. It's a petulant, authoritarian act. If you know Game of Thrones, Islam wants to encourage people like Rob Stark and instead it's encouraging people like Joffrey. How embarrassing!
It's like cultures and ideologies have resonant frequencies that increase the vibration of certain personality types. If my own writing were music, I've changed it over time to be less like metal and more like jazz, because I don't want to wake up and find out that some sullen fuckup has killed a bunch of people while quoting one of my essays. But it's a lot harder to change a whole religion. And as the global economy collapses, there will be even more demand for stories that make clumsy violence feel heroic. So not only do I not expect Islam to change, I fear that it will be left in the dust by competing ideologies that are equally angry and humorless, and more in tune with the 21st century.
Also, here's a comment by Slavoj Zizek. After spending an hour trying to understand it, I think he's saying that the dominant left is stupid because it only stands for bland comfort, Muslim fundamentalists are stupid because they secretly envy the western lifestyle, and we need a radical left that stands for freedom and equality in a way that feels exciting.
Brief new subject: a few years ago I wrote that, in the public discussion of climate change, nobody is talking about leaving oil in the ground. Well, now they're talking about it! From the Guardian: Leave fossil fuels buried to prevent climate change, study urges. And from FiveThirtyEight, How much fuel we need to leave buried to beat climate change. The answer, of course, is way more fuel than politically possible. But maybe it's becoming possible to not burn all of it.
January 9. This week's big news was the mass murder at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo by people claiming to represent Islam. Here's a good commentary with some humor: Norway's Christians didn't have to apologise for Anders Breivik, and it's the same for Muslims now. Anders Breivik is probably the right comparison here: unhinged losers seeking glory, rather than an international conspiracy. But if you want to credit the killers with some savvy, this short piece in the Telegraph suggests that they were not actually offended by the Muhammad cartoons, but were making a calculated strategic move to turn the world against moderate Muslims, who will then be driven to extremism.
I don't use the word "terrorist". It's a propaganda word, value-loaded and poorly defined, which leads to sloppy thinking. I prefer to call these people fanatical ideologues. They have overreacted to the meaninglessness of modern life by finding meaning in a very simple story of absolute good versus absolute evil, which justifies exciting and extremely selfish actions. And if they can get other people to join them in the same story and similar actions, then their lives feel even more meaningful. Worst case, you get a popular war with millions of people on both sides who see the other side as cartoon villains, and a lot of really stupid murders.
I think there's an antidote to this, and it's not love. Fanatical ideologues feel strong love for whatever is at the center of their value system, and they might even tell you that love is their primary motivation. What these people are missing is the ability to have fun, to let go, to be playful. If you really know how to have fun, then the moments of your life feel meaningful without having to tell some grand story to make yourself important. And if, within a culture, there are too many people who don't know how to have fun, it's like a dry forest that only needs one spark to go up in flames.
This subject reminds me of the thing that turned me away from the critique of civilization: the novel The Day Philosophy Dies. It's the meanest thing I've ever read, about badly damaged angry people who bring down civilization like it's some kind of grim and stressful duty. I didn't want to keep feeding an idea that could feed that kind of emotional state. But if there's a way to crash the system by accident, while having fun, I might be on board with it.
January 7. Here's something you don't see every day, a critique of left-wing academic culture from the left. It's titled "Able-bodied until it kills us" but I would title it Disability as class power. The idea is, when dust makes poor people sneeze, they have to tough it out, but when dust makes rich people sneeze, they can get diagnosed with an allergy and make everyone take it seriously so they don't have to do any work. There are even students who can get ordinary bad writing diagnosed as dyslexia so they can still get good grades. On "ableism":
If ability is now cast as an unfair advantage, then what is the qualification for academic and professional employment beyond a background of wealth and privilege? When rewarding students on the basis of "ability" is reconceived as a form of oppression, then the only mechanism that prevents the academy from being purely an instrument of class reproduction is made taboo.
By the way, I avoid the word "privilege" because there's usually a hidden meaning that doesn't make any sense: "You should be grateful for this thing that has made you stupid." The deeper problem with the word is that it blurs together two things that are nearly opposite. One is something that is good for you, something that everyone should have but not everyone does, like world travel or a healthy diet or not being harassed by cops. The other is something that no one should have because it's bad for everyone, like being able to command others without their consent, or being protected from the consequences of your own selfishness.
Of course, in a society with entrenched social class, higher class people have no idea that they're being selfish and being protected from the consequences. The way to fix this is not to make them feel guilty for an advantage that's never clearly explained, but to change the system so that lower class people (including nonhumans) are permitted to push back.
January 5. Thanks Gannon for sending this strange essay on cryptoforestry. The style reminds me of Fredy Perlman and Crimethinc:
Cryptoforests are sideways glances at post-crash landscapes, diagrammatic enclaves through which future forest cities reveal their first shadows, laboratories for dada-do-nothingness, wild-type vegetable free states, enigma machines of uncivilized imagination, psychogeographical camera obscuras of primal fear and wanton desire, relay stations of lost ecological and psychological states. Cryptoforests are wild weed-systems, but wildness is equated not with chaos but with productiveness at a non-human level of organization.
Related: a reader and some friends have a new online magazine called the FC journal, with stuff about deep ecology and critiques of modernity.
Also related (thanks Alex): Is depression a kind of allergic reaction? Evidence suggests that depression is more physical than psychological, and that it could be caused by inflammation -- and inflammation can be caused by many things including some features of modern life: trans fats, sugar, stress, and social isolation.
January 2, 2015. Music for the weekend! Leigh Ann has made her best of 2014 playlist. It's around 70 minutes, and 17 songs: 1) Eagulls - Possessed, 2) Moon Hooch - Bari 3, 3) Your Friend - Tame One, 4) The Wytches - Carnival Law, 5) Fujiya and Miyagi - Artificial Sweeteners, 6) Swans - Screen Shot, 7) Kasabian - Bumblebeee, 8) Cult of Youth - Empty Faction, 9) Jungle - The Heat, 10) The Shaolin Afronauts - Lagos Chase, 11) Lisa Gerrard - Adrift, 12) To Rococo Rot - Classify, 13) Ought - Pleasant Heart, 14) Tobacco - Father Sister Berzerker, 15) Demob Happy - Succubus, 16) Girl Band - Lawman, 17) Timber Timbre - This Low Commotion. I've added YouTube links for my favorites.
Also there's some great stuff on this page: 20 essential psych albums of 2014. Leigh Ann wanted to put Lay Llamas and Wreaths on her playlist but it would have been too long.
Finally, thanks Mind Over Media for a $30 donation, and here's another video I made for my favorite band, a spooky trip-folk song from 2013: The Mirror Like Sea.
December 31. Three biology links. What if obesity is nobody's fault? This is one of my favorite subjects because I've always been skinny without even trying, while other people fight hard to lose weight and are still fat. It's like the popular idea is exactly backwards, and being fit is correlated with using less willpower. Anyway, in a new study, two groups of mice ate the same, exercised the same, and even pooped the same, but a genetic difference made one group fat. They still don't know how to reconcile this with the laws of thermodynamics. [Update: I've had several emails from readers who think they know more about biology than the researchers in this study and the answer is easy. Maybe they're right but I'm not qualified to judge this.]
The benefits of being cold. This doesn't explain the mice, but there is evidence that "obesity is only in small part due to lack of exercise, and mostly due to a combination of chronic overnutrition and chronic warmth."
Why broken sleep is a golden time for creativity. It's about how we used to go to bed early and have two sleeps separated by doing fun stuff in the middle of the night, and electric light has tricked us into staying up late and having one big sleep which is not as good for us.
New subject: The other day there was a subreddit post arguing that homelessness and unemployment make us unhappy because of a social stigma, which is there to prop up the economy. And there are several good comments.
December 29. The last Monday of every month is Finger Pointing Day, when I bunch all the negative links so I can stay out of that mindset the rest of the month.
The Unidentified Queen of Torture. Most of the article is behind a paywall but you can get around it in many browsers by right-clicking the link and opening it in a private window. The big media will not identify her, but this wikipedia article does: Alfreda Frances Bikowsky.
A study confirms something completely obvious: A bad job is harder on your mental health than unemployment.
Toys are more divided by gender now than they were 50 years ago. Related anecdote: Leigh Ann and I were in Seattle for Thanksgiving and she was looking for a coloring book to keep her occupied on the long drive home. Almost every book was either Disney princesses or male action characters. She finally found one with animals, but they were zoo animals. Welcome to the human zoo, kids!
Because of traffic congestion, London cars move no faster than chickens, or about the same speed as horse-drawn carriages. Thanks Jack for the link, and here's something related that I've posted many times: Ivan Illich's critique of cars.
Related: a redditor bashes the libertarian dream of private roads, using his experience in the logging industry to explain why private roads on private land are a logistical nightmare.
Finally, from Cracked.com, Five creepy ways your town is designed to control your mind, including the constant feeling of surveillance, benches that don't allow relaxation or fun, how the suburbs force you to have a car, how shopping environments confuse you into buying stuff you don't need, and how urban planning segregates us by race and class.