"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
search this site
May 17. Stray links. First, an important article from Michael Pollan, Some of My Best Friends Are Germs. Summary: we're mostly made of bacteria, antibiotics are dangerous, breast feeding is good, processed food is bad, fermented food is good, and it's good to be moderately dirty.
An inspiring article about sensory deprivation tanks:
"We had a Zen master who visited my lab once," says Suedfeld, "and he asked to go in the tank for an hour. Most of his life he had meditated every day for four or five hours or more. And he thought the depth of meditation he reached in the tank was on par with a level he reached maybe once a year in his normal meditation environment."Loosely related, a reddit comment on psychedelics. Having never used psychedelics myself, I can't confirm this, but it's a nice metaphor:
Your brain is like a hill, and as information enters from the outside world, it's like rain running down the hill. It gradually carves rivulets into the soil. Eventually those pathways just become permanent little streams, and the water always runs down the same paths. The pattern that emerges is you. It's your personality.
Taking a drug like mushrooms or LSD is like dumping a bucket of water down the hill. There's so much water that the usual streams are overloaded and water spills out, crossing between the different paths. New and interesting connections form, and you see the world in a different way. That's great, every now and then, but if you constantly and repeatedly dump buckets of water down a hill, well then the rivulets disappear. You erase the pattern without forming new ones.
Completely off the usual subjects, I've been thinking about unusual house colors. The rarest color is black, which is strange since so many cars are black, and a black house in a cold climate would be good for absorbing sunlight. The second rarest house color, at least in America, is orange. Here's an amazing page with 138 photos of orange houses.
May 14. Two smart links. An Original Thinker of Our Time is about Albert Hirschman, who had an interesting life and a great way of thinking:
Hirschman was delighted by paradoxes, unintended consequences (especially good ones), the telling detail, inventories of actual practices (rather than big theories), surprises, and improvisation. In his view, "history is nothing if not farfetched." He invented the term "possibilism," meant to draw attention to "the discovery of paths, however narrow, leading to an outcome that appears to be foreclosed on the basis of probabilistic reasoning alone."The Paradox of the Proof is about a brilliant mathematician who claims to have solved a famous and important problem, but his solution is so difficult that no other mathematician is willing to invest the time to understand it, so nobody knows if he's really solved it or if he's crazy.
May 13. A reader mentions a Time Magazine article from a few months ago, Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us. It's behind a paywall but I found it free here and here. Basically it's a bunch of depressing details about stuff we already know: the system is ridiculously expensive, almost everyone loses, and it's politically impossible to fix it. Also here's a good reddit comment about inconsistent and secret medical pricing. The conclusion:
This is just how the system works. It's not a conspiracy. It's a perfect example of how a a bad system forces a bunch of rational actors to do absolutely batshit crazy things... Any real fix stands to hurt so many players that it's pretty unlikely we'll see change from a political standpoint. I'm kind of hoping the whole thing just collapses under it's own weight and something better can arise from the ashes.
That's a popular hope, but I'm not sure it has ever happened. Instead, bad systems keep going until they are outcompeted. The best historical comparison I can think of is the medieval church. For hundreds of years everyone knew it was completely corrupt, but it held a monopoly on salvation, so it didn't change until protestantism also offered salvation. So we need competing systems that offer medical care much cheaper... or in some cases they could just release us from the belief that medical care is necessary.
May 11. Quick post on the landblog/houseblog, again about bees, this time figuring out how to listen to them with a stethoscope.
May 10. Some culture for the weekend. Tired of TV's Golden Age? This is a review of Upstream Color, the new movie by the guy who made Primer, and it sounds awesome. It's also about how TV is now better than movies at telling stories, but movies are still better at messing with your head.
And some music. It doesn't sound great on tinny computer speakers, but this is probably my favorite instrumental song: Mono - Yearning.
May 8. I still haven't finished Morris Berman's Wandering God, but I want to write about it. Berman's main idea is that a lot of the metaphysical baggage that we think goes deep into prehistory, was really invented only a few thousand years ago in the transition from nomadic foraging-hunting to permanent agricultural settlements. This stuff includes earth goddess worship, Jungian archetypes, the desire for oneness with the universe, and all vertical spirituality, including the belief in a higher spirit world.
Finally I understand "salvation". I was raised Catholic and I understand the idea of a sky father deity who will reward or punish us in the afterlife. So life is a test, no problem, but why on top of that do you need the idea of original sin, and why do we need Jesus to save us? Save us from what? And why do people feel that this is so important?
Basically you have two modes of consciousness, which happen to correspond to quasi-scientific ideas about right brain vs left brain. Nomadic people are broadly focused, surfing the flow and watching out for opportunties. Civilized people are narrowly focused and striving for particular goals. This reminds me of something American Indians said about the first white people: that they had wild staring eyes as if they were constantly looking for something and not finding it. It also reminds me of a line from Valerie Solanas (keeping in mind that she put everything through a filter of women-good-men-bad): "Incapable of enjoying the moment, the male needs something to look forward to, and money provides him with an eternal, never-ending goal: Just think of what you could do with 80 trillion dollars -- invest it! And in three years time you'd have 300 trillion dollars!!!"
So civilized religion is a substitute for our lost ability to shift into nomadic consciousness, to be at home in the here and now. This also reminds me of different ideas about meditation. The popular idea is that you meditate to achieve enlightenment, or transcendence, or oneness, to permanently ascend to a higher state. But experienced meditators say that's all a distraction, and meditation is about getting more skilled at noticing and appreciating whatever you are sensing right now.
Finally, there is a great chapter on this subject in a religious book you might have heard of. It's called the Bible, and the chapter is Ecclesiastes. The idea is that nothing we do in this world will amount to anything, but instead of being depressed, we should let go of the desire for achievement, and live every moment to the fullest. Two of my favorite lines from Ecclesiastes: "Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire" and "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might."
May 6. Just saw this 2011 essay on the food for thought subreddit: Seeing Like A State: Why Strategy Games Make Us Think and Behave Like Brutal Psychopaths. I don't think he's arguing that strategy gaming makes you evil outside the game, but that it temporarily lets you experience you the same values and motives as nation-states and the people who serve them. Lots of good ideas here.
And from Saturday, a reddit thread that is pessimistic in the same way I am: What is something we should enjoy while it's still legal?
May 4. I've just made a permalink of my post the other day on Fermi's Paradox, with a few revisions and some introductory material.
May 3. And another new post on the landblog/houseblog about bees, including a photo of the watering setup and a hive inspection where they're making lots of drones.
May 1. Okay, by popular demand, here's my solution to Fermi's Paradox.
First, it doesn't make sense to talk about reality without an observer. Mind is the foundation of matter, reality itself has the structure of a dream, and objective reality is an illusion created by an agreement among many dreamers to dream the same thing. Every time we look in a direction that has never been looked in before, we are creating what we find there, and at the beginning our observations will be wild or inconsistent before we settle into consensus. This is why there are so many exciting scientific results that disappear the more the experiments are repeated. This is why there are so many paranormal experiences and so little proof, because "proof" means forcing everyone to see it the same way. "Paranormal" is just a word we apply to the region at the edge of consensus reality where inconsistent experience challenges the illusion of objective truth. For more on this subject, see the book The Trickster and the Paranormal by George Hansen.
In terms of space exploration, this is why the first few people to look at Mars through telescopes saw canals, because they were dreaming more boldly than the eventual popular consensus. Charles Fort's second book, New Lands, is loaded with examples of the chaos of early astronomy. Maybe, if we'd been ready, we could have dreamed a radically different world outside Earth, like the one in Philip Reeve's Larklight trilogy.
Now, could there be an intelligent species on another planet also dreaming this universe, with whom we'll have to reach consensus? It doesn't work that way, because the whole framework of other planets didn't exist until we dreamed it. We will not find aliens because this whole universe exists just for us. For more thoughts on this, check out the anthropic principle. In terms of consciousness, Earth is the center after all. We might eventually find primitive life on other planets, but we will not find any intelligence also capable of dreaming a universe. If there are "aliens", they are separated from us through a dimension of mind, not space, and they are centers of their own universes. And if we unlock technologies to move through dimensions of mind, space exploration might become pointless.
April 30. More stray links. Via several sources, Falling Fruit is a new project to show fruit you can pick in your city on google maps. I've already added a local apricot tree.
Yesterday on Reddit, the best summary I've seen of the nations of Africa.
And an unusual solution to Fermi's Paradox, Why We'll Never Meet Aliens. Paul Tyma argues that space aliens would be so advanced that they would know all about us but have no reason to come here. In the course of his argument he makes some interesting points about how we fail to imagine where technology will go. Personally I don't agree that technology will make biology obsolete -- I think they will merge. And I prefer a different solution to Fermi's Paradox: that aliens are already contacting us, or even managing our world, but they're doing it in such an alien way that we don't recognize it. Jacques Vallee wrote a good article on this idea, Incommensurability, Orthodoxy and the Physics of High Strangeness (pdf link). There's another solution I like even better but it's too weird for this blog.
April 29. Two essays about daily activity and quality of life. By Bertrand Russell, from 1932, In Praise of Idleness. And by John Perry Barlow, The Pursuit of Emptiness, arguing that pursuing happiness makes you unhappy.
Alright then, if you can't pursue happiness, how can you make yourself a fertile place for happiness to grow of its own? Happiness being the most subjective of states, I can only speak for myself. I have found four qualities that I believe naturally enrich the ecology of joy. When I'm capable of sustaining them, they sustain me and continue to do so even in these strange days. They are: a sense of mission, the casual service of others, the solace of little delights, and finally, love for its own sake.
April 25. Returning to Monday's subject, a reader sends this Bruce Schneier post from 2008, The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Terrorists. First I should say that I never use the word "terrorist" because it's authoritarian propaganda. The original meaning of "terrorism" was government by intimidation, and now it means the opposite: politically motivated deadly force that breaks a monopoly on violence claimed by a nation-state. In theory I'm against any monopoly on violence. But in practice, at this time, most people who break the state monopoly on violence are not heroic outlaws but erratic fuckups. This is related to Schneier's point, citing Max Abrahms:
He theorizes that people join terrorist organizations worldwide in order to be part of a community, much like the reason inner-city youths join gangs in the United States.
The evidence supports this. Individual terrorists often have no prior involvement with a group's political agenda, and often join multiple terrorist groups with incompatible platforms. Individuals who join terrorist groups are frequently not oppressed in any way, and often can't describe the political goals of their organizations. People who join terrorist groups most often have friends or relatives who are members of the group, and the great majority of terrorists are socially isolated.
Another footnote on language: have you noticed that "inner city" has nothing to do with how close a neighborhood is to the center of a metropolitan area, and instead refers to wherever the black people live? Anyway, I want to expand on my final sentence from Monday.
Imagine a prosperous nation in which most people can have an adequate life inside the system. Then you've got people like me who don't like how the system structures our lives, but are able to generate our own structure. Then you've got people who are so damaged that they will fail under both external and internal regulation. They can't hold a job, they can't find friends, so they turn to crime or drugs, or suicide, or rarely a mass-killing. By the way, I think a lot of people get into illegal drugs as a way to make friends.
So in a successful society, the greatest risks are taken by the least competent people. But then suppose there's an economic collapse caused by an impossible attempt to have permanent exponential growth on a finite planet. Now you've got millions of highly competent people who can no longer have an adequate life inside the system, and they are driven to take bigger risks. What exactly? I don't know, because someone as creative as me and more motivated will come up with ideas I can't imagine. The point is, as a society fails, the people living on the margins become, on the average, smarter and more capable.
April 24. Another new post about bees on the landblog/houseblog.
April 23. Moving on, here's a pretty good essay from last month, Love and artificial intelligence. The big idea is, when we dream of the possibilities of artificial intelligence, we're not looking rationally at what our technology actually does, but looking at a myth that's thousands of years old, in which we can make something out of dead matter that is human but without all the flaws:
Consider Pygmalion, the Cypriot sculptor and favorite of Aphrodite. Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, describes him carving a perfect woman out of ivory. Her name is Galatea and she's so lifelike that Pygmalion immediately falls in love with her. He prays to Aphrodite to make the statue come to life. The love goddess already knows a thing or two about beautiful, non-biological maidens: her husband Hephaestus has constructed several good-looking fembots to lend a hand in his Olympian workshop. She grants Pygmalion's wish; Pygmalion kisses his perfect creation, and Galatea becomes a real woman. They live happily ever after.
April 22. Continuing from the last post, a reader sends this thoughtful reddit thread, FindBostonBombers: Process Analysis and Lessons Learned. The idea is, crowdsourcing isn't going to go away, so let's think about how to do it better.
Here's a different angle on the bombing. There was an interview with the uncle of the bombers, and when reporters asked him why they did it, he said it's because they were losers! They were frustrated because they were unable to adapt to life in America, and that's why they became violent extremists. I like this way of thinking: events that seem to be political, if you look deeper, turn out to be psychological. It reminds me of the link I posted earlier this month about the psychological basis of drug addiction. People don't destroy themselves, or destroy others, unless they already think there's no way they're going to live a good life.
So in the coming decades, with more poverty as the world adjusts to the end of economic growth, it will take less and less psychological imbalance to drive people to extreme actions. Or if you're an optimist: of all the dangerous actions being done, more of them will be done by emotionally healthy people who can come up with actions that are non-destructive and ultimately helpful.
April 20. Quick comment on the Boston bombing. A lot of people are shaming the social media, like Reddit and Twitter and 4chan, who tried to find the bombers and ended up pointing fingers at some innocent people. That's like shaming a baby for falling down the first few times it tries to walk.
April 18. Today, more personal stuff. You might remember that last fall I had two tires go bad on my truck. I would not advise anyone to buy used tires, because if you take my advice and one of them blows out and you crash, I'll feel bad. But personally, the only time I would buy new tires is when I'm replacing a whole set and keeping the rims. That's what I wanted to do last fall, but it turns out that you can hardly find anything on 14 inch rims. So I went on craigslist and found some highly rated snow tires on 15 inch rims that had only been used one winter. My plan was to replace them this spring with summer tires also on their own rims, because switching whole wheels is something I can do in the driveway, while switching tires on the same wheels would require me to go to a tire shop every spring and fall.
Originally I wanted to get true summer tires, which are bad in rain and snow but much better on dry pavement than all-season tires. But all-season tires are about a hundred times more common in my size range. So I started looking for used tires on rims on craigslist. I found the best way was to search for "wheels" under auto parts, look for prices between $200 and $500, and check the sizes against the stock size using this tire dimension calculator. My stock size is 225/70R14, and yesterday I bought a set of slightly smaller 215/65R15 for $375. The tires are cheapo Federal Super Steel, but they're barely used and they're on beautiful chrome wheels that will raise the value of my truck if I ever sell it.
In food news, I've cut way back on grains because they've gotten so expensive. Bulk organic flour is up 400% from ten years ago. So I've been buying half-price expired raw milk from the co-op, making soup with chicken-grade lentils from a local farmer (sprouted and seasoned with whole cumin and "Better Than Bouillon"), and I've finally solved hash browns. First I clean a bunch of cheap russet potatoes and steam them in the pressure cooker. Then I store them in the fridge, and to make hash browns I grate them into a hot pan with lard and olive oil, and add unrefined salt and Costco no-salt seasoning. My food luxuries are organic frozen blueberries and good cheese. I read that eating Stilton before bed gives you vivid dreams, and tried it last night but didn't notice any difference.
April 16. Big new post on the landblog/houseblog about installing the bees.
April 15. Unrelated links. A great reddit comment on why anarchists fail or succeed. The author's summary is "Anarchists should try to do one thing of value to the community and do it well. They should do so in a strategic way and be open to alliances. Subcultures, drugs, alcohol, and rage suck." My summary would be that successful movements contain many cultures and one goal, and failed movements contain one culture and many goals.
News is bad for you -- and giving up reading it will make you happier. I haven't read the comments, but clearly this has a lot to do with your attitude, and what you are looking for when you read news.
A good Raptitude post, Mindfulness lives in the sink:
"Life is composed of primarily mundane moments," she says. "If we don't learn to love these moments, we live a life of frustration and avoidance, always seeking ways to escape the mundane. Washing the dishes with patience and attention is a perfect opportunity to develop a love affair with simply existing. You might say it is the perfect mindfulness practice. To me, the dishwasher is the embodiment of our insatiable need, as a culture, to keep on running, running, running, trying to find something that was inside of us all along."
April 12. A Practical Utopian's Guide to the Coming Collapse is an excerpt from David Graeber's new book. His most interesting idea is that popular uprisings that seem to fail can ultimately succeed. So the revolutions of 1848 all failed to take power, but the reforms they wanted were mostly put into place out of fear of future revolutions. And the protests of the 1960's failed to end the Vietnam War any sooner, but every American war since has been conducted to mimimize protests, more than to actually win the war. From here, he argues that the main objective of the ruling system is to create a feeling of hopelessness:
It does often seem that, whenever there is a choice between one option that makes capitalism seem the only possible economic system, and another that would actually make capitalism a more viable economic system, neoliberalism means always choosing the former. The combined result is a relentless campaign against the human imagination. Or, to be more precise: imagination, desire, individual creativity, all those things that were to be liberated in the last great world revolution, were to be contained strictly in the domain of consumerism, or perhaps in the virtual realities of the Internet. In all other realms they were to be strictly banished. We are talking about the murdering of dreams, the imposition of an apparatus of hopelessness, designed to squelch any sense of an alternative future. Yet as a result of putting virtually all their efforts in one political basket, we are left in the bizarre situation of watching the capitalist system crumbling before our very eyes, at just the moment everyone had finally concluded no other system would be possible.
Graeber goes on to suggest some future reforms, for which the mechanisms have yet to be worked out: canceling debts, producing less stuff, and redefining labor in terms of helping other people instead of growing the economy.
And two more political links. In How Noam Chomsky is discussed, Glenn Greenwald argues that "the more one dissents from political orthodoxies, the more personalized, style-focused and substance-free the attacks become."
And from 2009, The other side of Rick Steves, in which the travel guru cautiously talks politics.
April 8-10. Margaret Thatcher has died. Here's the relevant Elvis Costello song: Tramp The Dirt Down, and two articles. The woman who wrecked Great Britain focuses more on politics and economics, while Russell Brand on Margaret Thatcher focuses more on psychology:
What is more troubling is my inability to ascertain where my own selfishness ends and her neo-liberal inculcation begins. All of us that grew up under Thatcher were taught that it is good to be selfish, that other people's pain is not your problem, that pain is in fact a weakness and suffering is deserved and shameful. Perhaps there is resentment because the clemency and respect that are being mawkishly displayed now by some and haughtily demanded of the rest of us at the impending, solemn ceremonial funeral, are values that her government and policies sought to annihilate.