"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."
- Terence McKenna
Apocalypsopolis, book one
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January 4, late. So I went ahead with my plan to skip the bay area. I spent a lot of time there three years ago, and this time the bus logistics were difficult. Instead I took the straight shot from Eugene to Los Angeles, and then the gold line to Altadena. The whole thing took nearly 24 hours, and I was very lucky that my seatmate got off in Fresno and I was the only person on the bus who could sort of lie down for a nap.
My plan at the moment is to stay here three nights, do some hiking in the hills, then take a 30 hour bus ride to San Antonio, recover, and go up to Austin. I'm ahead of schedule, so I'll have room to add or lengthen some stays in the east.
January 3. By popular demand, a recent article related to today's subject: How Doctors Die.
January 3. Susan comments on one aspect of the ongoing collapse:
I work in a busy emergency room. I had left ten years ago and just returned last May. At first I was amazed at how much sicker the patients were and how heavy the work had become. This weekend I realized that we do a lot more for the patients. It seems that almost everyone who comes in with anything more serious than a twisted ankle gets blood work and an EKG. It doesn't seem like a lot until you multiply it by hundreds of patients every day. When you have a very elderly person and/or a very sick patient, they amount of care they receive skyrockets unbelievably, even if that person isn't expected to live much longer. For example, I had a 90 year old woman with an extensive cancer history come in with difficulty breathing. Probably she had inhaled some food because she couldn't really feed herself any longer and developed pneumonia. Her family had made her a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate), so that if her heart stopped we wouldn't do CPR or stick a breathing tube in her mouth. But other than those caveats, she got numerous, costly tests and possibly will spend the remaining weeks of her life in a hospital, undergoing daily blood tests and CT scans and god knows what else.
Now, this isn't really news to me, as a nurse, that the US spends more on health care and has poorer outcomes than any other rich country. But it did occur to me that we might be at the peak of what we can provide. We take care of more and more baby boomers as they're getting older and they are not as healthy as the generation before them. Fifteen years ago I'd take care of a lot of 80 year olds who had never been really sick, had never taken any medication other than aspirin and had never been in a hospital. Now, I'm seeing 60 year olds with all kinds of health problems and we haven't even got to the baby boom bubble yet. I can't imagine that we're going to have enough staff, resources or even space to take care of these people in another ten years.
It's important to remember that the American medical system is predatory. Doctors and nurses may be trying to help people, but the system as a whole is just trying to suck as much money as possible into the giant black hole of private capital around which the whole economy orbits. This means that any procedure a hospital can bill insurance for, it will do, and it's very difficult for patients to refuse. Meanwhile insurance companies will raise rates, and governments will pretend to do good by throwing more money down the hole while cutting more valuable services.
My guess is that rich people will continue to get more medical care than is good for them, and middle class people will also get more care than is good for them while going deep in debt. This will drop most of them into the lower classes, who are already getting much less care than they need. It is not possible for medical providers to cut back services to what is actually helpful; it is only possible for them to cut back to what is profitable. Of all the issues facing us, health care is the only one where I can't see any non-catastrophic path to a better world. If you have comments, here's a subreddit link. I'll be spending today in the kitchen and tomorrow on the bus.
January 2. Today, some material from readers. Tim Boucher sends this link about a Walkupy Group, which he found after a series of dreams about a "new walking-occupation movement wherein masses of people had left the comforts of normal home and society to become pilgrims on the road." Note: "walkupy" rhymes with "occupy", as in "walkupy all street!"
Christine sends two good links: Hellarity burns is a long, thoughtful article about a squatter house in Oakland, which happens to be written by one of the famous Iraq hikers.
And a surprisingly sympathetic article, Dinner gets very local for squirrel-eating Seattleite.
January 1, 2012. For the record, this is my position on the Mayan calendar: 1) The 2012 winter solstice is not the end of the Mayan calendar, only the renewal of a 26,000 year cycle, based on the precession of the equinoxes. 2) We don't know what the Mayans thought was actually going to happen on this date. 3) Whatever they predicted, they were just guessing like everyone else. 4) Nevertheless, this world is full of meaningful coincidence, and if you look around, big changes are underway. Also, the popular myth of the end of the world in 2012 might make people bolder in trying to change the world.
I don't think we'll see a global hard crash, unless it's caused by something in the realm of astronomy or science fiction. Catastrophes will be local, and the global system will continue to barely function while slowly breaking down, like a poorly maintained road.
In the coming decades, I see two trends pulling in different directions. One is energy decline. There is nothing on the horizon that can match the abundance, density, and ease of storage of fossil fuels. There are enough alternatives to give us more energy than preindustrial people, but not enough to maintain the outrageous consumption of the late 20th century. Reduced consumption will cause economic collapse, since our economy is based on perpetual increase. Professional economists will be the last ones to see that economic growth is the wrong goal, and the right goal is to maximize quality of life with zero growth. But I think humans lack the self-discipline for an enduring steady-state economy, and instead we will continue to enjoy growth-based economies by repeatedly crashing them, like we did before the age of oil.
The other trend is information technology. The smartest computers will continue to get smarter, and where this will take us is anyone's guess. Will artificial intelligence be used more to strengthen human domination systems, or to undermine them? Will AI's develop their own motivations? At what point does it make sense to ask what it's like to be a computer? Is there any place for the whole drama to reach equilibrium? I can see equilibrium in only two scenarios: human extinction, or something we can't even imagine.
By the way, I'm in Eugene, staying at the Walnut Street Co-op. I'm leaning toward skipping the bay area, and going straight from here to Los Angeles, and then to Texas.
December 29. I'm in Portland, still planning to go down to Eugene on Saturday. After that I'm not sure. On Friday night there will be a potluck and gathering in the community room at the Kailash Ecovillage, from 6-10pm. Thanks Chris and Kati for setting it up!
Also, one more comment on rideshare costs. I feel that if passengers are paying a share of the maintenance costs of the vehicle, they should have all the rights of co-owners of the vehicle.
December 27. Three years ago when I used Craigslist rideshare to get down the west coast, I noticed that drivers in the northwest asked for an equal share of gas money, while drivers in California asked for a flat fee that was much greater than a share of gas. This behavior has now crept into the northwest. Everyone driving from Seattle to Portland seems to be running an unlicensed bus service, charging enough to buy gas and make a profit. This is troubling. As Fredy Perlman wrote, trade is something you do with your enemies. Nobody would give their friend a ride and charge enough to make a profit. But as the economy collapses and people get desperate, they are shrinking the sphere of people they think of as friends, and applying the cold logic of the market to everyone outside a tiny circle.
I don't like to be half-assed corporate. I'd rather pay money to an actual corporation that's already selfish by design, than pay to reward humans for choosing selfishness. So I'm planning to start my Greyhound pass now, and if I want to keep traveling after late February, I can figure something else out.
December 25. So I've already read two reality-shifting e-books. First was Sailor on the Seas of Fate, which I remembered as my favorite of Michael Moorcock's Elric series from 30 years ago. It was totally fun, although Moorcock uses the word "sardonic" way too much. Then I read Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven, which was clearly influenced by Philip K. Dick. It's about a meek but courageous man whose dreams can retroactively change reality, and a psychologist who exploits him to try to create utopia. I am tired of fiction with a message about society, but if you're not, I recommend it.
In other news, after two weeks on a near-Paleo diet, I was looking like Steve Jobs' ghost. Bits of quinoa were getting stuck in the hollows under my cheekbones. If you need to lose weight and stay healthy, there's nothing better than Paleo, but I need to gain weight, so I've just put apple pies back in my diet in a big way. I might be buying a lot of butter and flour and apples on my trip.
December 22. Just found out I'll have internet on the coast, so I might be posting a bit. Meanwhile, No Tech Magazine and Do The Math have had some great posts lately, and the other day John Robb made a fascinating argument that The Future of Drone Warfare will not be like flying a plane, but like playing Starcraft.
December 20. In Seattle with family. Thursday through Monday we'll be on the coast, and then I'll head south to Portland and Eugene. I'm up to 64 invitations, far more than I can accept, but I still expect to make some last minute changes for last minute invitations, if I like them enough.
Here's something to think about. Are we in a decades-long design rut? The author, Kurt Andersen, points out that popular style has changed less in the last 20 years than in any 20 year period going back to the 1800's. This reminds me of Steven Pinker's observation that violence has declined. We should not confuse our certainty that it's happening, with our certainty that we know why. Andersen thinks that technology has given us the ability to turn popular culture into a museum. Update: thanks silverionmox for making a subreddit link.
December 16. So on Monday I leave Spokane and leave my computer behind. For the following two or three months I'll be on borrowed computers, so I won't be online nearly as much. Maybe if I'm staying with someone who has to go to work, and they leave me with their computer all day, I'll be able to read some stuff and make some longer posts, but I expect most of my posts will be brief updates on where I am and where I'm going next.
Something I haven't written about yet is the American presidential race. It looks like Obama is in trouble, until you look at the Republicans who are in worse trouble, with no candidate who can unite the establishment and the base. Following presidential politics is like following sports: you have no influence on the outcome, and the outcome has no effect on the world. I've written before that I think Dennis Kucinich and Michele Bachmann would be more different in their performance as janitor than their performance as president, because the office is now utterly controlled by the giant blocks of money. But if you enjoy following the race, Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight, now at the NY times, is a great blog.
December 15. And another gift I got in the mail. Trumpeter Peter Evans has made a record based on my essay "Beyond Civilized and Primitive", and last week he sent me a copy. My turntable is in storage so I haven't listened to it yet. Peter might put a stream up on his More is More Records page, and you can buy it from Dancing Wayang Records. And here's a nice review: Peter Evans - Beyond Civilized And Primitive.
December 14. Still on the subject of books, thanks Jerah for buying and mailing me a physical copy of I'm With the Bears, a collection of ten stories about climate change. I liked some of it, and I've just posted this review on Amazon.
December 14. Loose ends from yesterday. Thanks Ian for starting a subreddit thread for SciFi Book Recommendations.
Before I get any more emails on this, I'm well aware that true yams are a tropical tuber that most Americans have never seen. But orange sweet potatoes are colloquially called "yams" and this definition appears in the dictionary. This is one of several words in English with more than one definition. Other botanical examples include "sweet cicely" which can refer to Myrrhis odorata or Osmorhiza spp, and "pawpaw" which can refer to Asimina triloba, Carica papaya, or Vasconcellea pubescens. If I had just said "sweet potatoes", some people would have thought I meant white ones.
Also, a reader reports that library.nu is not taking new registrations. If this is true, it's terrible news, and if they start taking members in the future, somebody let me know and I'll post it.
December 13, update. Thanks everyone for the book recommendations, and keep them coming. I'm not going to post them all here, but the ones that I end up reading and enjoying, I'll eventually review. I will say that Rudy Rucker is totally "like P.K. Dick but less paranoid and more fun", and I will be attempting his "ware" series. And maybe you all know that I've already read Philip Pullman's "his dark materials" trilogy, which has good universe jumping but a letdown ending.
December 13. Update on my winter tour. I've had several invitations from north of Seattle, but I think I'll go there on another trip when it's warmer. So in late December I'll head south. I'm planning for sure to stop in Portland, Eugene, Austin, Atlanta, Cape Cod, Vermont, Pittsburgh, and Ann Arbor. With two months to travel, I'll have time to stop some other places too, and I'm still taking invitations. I might even go longer than two months. I could do this by using Craigslist rideshare to get down the west coast, then start the 60 day Greyhound pass to go east, and then get some extra time at the end by finding another rideshare to go west.
I've been busy making concentrated food to take with me: 1) sweet potato chips, made by thinly slicing sweet potatoes (a.k.a. yams), coating them with olive oil, and baking them on trays in the oven at around 250°F; 2) coconut bars, where I made one giant batch with 8 cups of shredded coconut, 2 cups of toasted almonds and walnuts, enough barley malt sweetener to hold them together, and then rolled them out in pans and cut them into bars; 3) raw flax crackers, where one cup of flax, after soaking and adding some almond butter and flavoring, just fills one tray in an Excalibur dehydrator, rolled out on parchment paper; and 4) pemmican, which I make by soaking beef in some good soy sauce, a bit of sweetener, and kombucha vinegar, completely drying it, grinding it in a Krups coffee grinder (which works like a tiny Vitamix), and mixing it with tallow.
Also I bought a used Kindle and I've been loading it with ebooks from library.nu, formerly known as Gigapedia. You have to make an account to use it, but it has a massive selection of books. (Edi mentions that it now has The Trickster and the Paranormal.) Most of them are in pdf or epub format. The Kindle can read pdf, but I've found it's best to get them in epub and then use software like calibre to convert them to mobi format, and then I copy them onto the Kindle through the cable. I plan to mostly read sci-fi, including some of Iain Banks's Culture novels, and some classics I've missed. Can anyone recommend some really good fiction about shifting through parallel universes? I'm looking for something like Zelazny's Amber series, but newer, or like P.K. Dick but less paranoid and more fun. Gmail and the name is ranprieur.
December 12. I've been totally neglecting the landblog/houseblog because I've had so many other things going on. Today I finally got around to posting about a project I finished a couple months ago, converting an old stove cabinet to a compost bin.
December 12. Stray links. I remain fascinated by Saturday's virtual reality subject, and I've answered both comments on the subreddit page.
Last week I made a few updates to How To Eat Better, after a reader pointed out that most mammals and birds are legally protected from hunting. It varies by state, but I think the largest mammal and bird that are completely unprotected are the rat and the starling. Also I added a link to this great pesticide residue site, What's On My Food?
Do The Math covers wind vs solar. Wind is cheaper for large installations, but solar is better for home use, has much greater capacity, and works surprisingly well in marginal areas. And fossil fuels are still much better than both... until they get scarce.
Reddit thread about the "dark ages". Historians are moving away from the term, because it falsely implies that quality of life declined after the fall of Rome. That period was "dark" only in the sense that not many records survived. I've written before that we are in that kind of dark age right now, because so much of our records are stored in short-lived digital formats. How much will another civilization be able to read in a thousand years, when we can't even read our own floppy disks from 20 years ago?
Finally, a nice piece about the Top Five Regrets of the Dying.
December 10. (permalink) (subreddit link) And one more link from Thursday's Hacker news: Computers Will Entertain Us to Death. Two other links I recently posted on this subject: The Acceleration of Addictiveness and Superstimuli and the Collapse of Western Civilization. Will we fall into the holodeck and not get out?
It's important to remember that every sub-world must justify itself in terms of the world that contains it. Right now World of Warcraft benefits the larger world of industrial civilization, partly by creating jobs in the computer industry, but mostly by giving people a world that is more beautiful and meaningful than our dysfunctional human society. But the subworld has an optimal size, or an optimal proportion of our attention. If the working classes are not entertained enough, they'll walk off their jobs and bring down the system; if they're entertained too much, they won't have time to do their jobs.
But suppose that automation becomes so advanced that nobody has to work. Then it gets interesting. The first problem is population. Even in conventional reality, it's difficult to keep the birthrate up when there's no economic incentive to have kids. The "superstimuli" piece suggests that humans could be exterminated by "artificial children that are much cuter and sweeter and more fun to raise than real children." There are ways around this, including growing babies in vats and raising them with robots. But by the time we can do that, we might say "why bother?" Artificial people, in either physical or virtual space, might seem better in every way. For reasons I covered in The Age of Batshit Crazy Machines, I don't think we're going to "upload ourselves" into computers. But we might blur the line between biology and technology so much that the last fully biological humans would fade away in obscurity.
So here we are with a populated physical world, and many subworlds of pure information, with no physical constraints, that could be orders of magnitude more populated. The big question is: what is the physical world's incentive for keeping the sub-worlds around? Or, if you own the Matrix, what do you do with it? I can think of all kinds of ideas, which for now I'm keeping to myself...
December 9. Another link from yesterday's Hacker News: The Unintended Effects of Driverless Cars argues that without drivers, we will want to keep our cars on the road all the time, which will lead to more car sharing, less need for parking, and other changes. I always like it when someone thinks boldly about unintended consequences, but in this case he's making some false assumptions. One is that the initial investment in a car is higher than the operating expenses. This is true for jet planes but false for every car I've ever owned. And his big unspoken assumption is that energy will continue to be cheaper than human labor. This was true for the age of oil, but likely to be false in the future.
Related: the latest Archdruid post, What Peak Oil Looks Like, suggests that the industrial economy is a big arbitrage scheme, profiting by buying energy at a low cost from fossil fuels, and selling it at a high cost to replace human labor. As the cost of fossil fuels rises to match the cost of human labor, "we may begin to see the entire industrial project unravel, as the profits needed to make industrialism make sense dry up."
December 8. (permalink) (subreddit link) Via Hacker News, a fascinating article about What Really Happened Aboard Air France 447. This is related to my post a week ago about the power curve. Basically all three pilots made huge errors. First, faced with a massive cluster of thunderstorms, the most experienced pilot said "fuck the storm" and plunged right into it. He could have flown through it, and the autopilot could have flown through it, but right when the plane hit the worst part of the storm, he went to take a nap. When the airspeed sensors got iced over, the autopilot switched off, leaving the least experienced pilot holding the stick. He made a first-day-of-flight-school error, and pulled the nose all the way up and held it there. The other copilot didn't notice. The plane went into aerodynamic stall, and a loud stall alarm, "designed to be impossible to ignore", was ignored by all three pilots, all the way to the ocean. At any moment the plane could have been saved by lowering the nose, dropping altitude, and increasing airspeed, but by the time the lead pilot took over, the plane couldn't go any lower without crashing. The irony is, they thought they had lost control of the airplane, when really they were controlling it too much, in the wrong direction.
There's a lesson here about technology destroying our ability to survive in the absence of technology, but I want to take a different path, and make it a metaphor for the economy. Only an unskilled and panicking pilot will respond to a stall by pulling the nose up, but almost every "pilot" of the global economy thinks the best response to the "stall" is to spend more money to stimulate growth. I'm stretching the metaphor here, but I think they're treating money like altitude, and growth like speed. In that case, going into debt (dropping altitude) to buy growth (speed) would be the right move.
Really, altitude is analogous to the size of the economy. You grow an economy by increasing the frequency and quantity of activities for which money changes hands. Like a plane that's flying too high, an economy that's grown too big has to work harder and harder to maintain increase. Now the economy has stalled, and the solution is to voluntarily shrink it: to cancel a bunch of debts and de-monetize a bunch of activities. For example, unemployed people can take care of each other's kids instead of paying for day care, and grow their own food instead of buying it. In a full economic crash, kids are not taken care of and food is not grown. If these activities are merely de-monetized, it's called a "depression", but really only the change is depressing. Once people get used to it, work done for direct benefit is more meaningful than work done for money. So, the meaningfulness of life is analogous to airspeed.
December 7. A few more notes on my trip. If I'm staying with you, I'll need a way to get from the nearest Greyhound station to your place, and back. I can figure out public transit and carry my pack up to two miles. Beyond that I'll need a ride. The last time I did this, I pushed myself too hard and ended up being sick on people's couches for the last two thirds of the trip. This time I will decline all offers to tour your city by bicycle, although I would accept a car tour, or borrow a bike to get to the nearest natural food store. Mostly I'll want to hang out and rest and eat. Deep conversations and games would be fun.
December 6. The invitations are coming in fast, and I'm starting a Google map to keep track of them. The Greyhound pass is looking more like the best option. It would cost less than half as much as the gas alone if I were to drive the whole way. With 60 days, I could leave Seattle in late December, be in Portland for the new year, go down through California and the southwest, hit Texas around mid-January, swing through the south and hit the northeast around the end of January. Then I'd have most of February to split between the northeast, family in Michigan, the midwest, and possibly the plains. I will not be bringing a computer, so if I stay with you, I will have to borrow one to keep up with emails and plan the next stage of my trip. This time I will have a cell phone. My typical stay should be two or three nights. And I'll be relaxing my diet to include pretty much anything that's not heavily sweetened or partially hydrogenated.
December 5. So my winter plans have been up in the air for a while. I was either going to hang around Spokane and work on the house, or find a housesitter and travel. A few weeks ago a friend in Maine, who came out to help with my hut last fall, decided to move to the northwest and needed a place to stay. So it works out for both of us. She's all moved in, and I will be going on the road after Christmas, probably for about two months.
Has it really been three years since my last trip around the country? Life is like a bird flying through a house! Anyway, I expect I'll start by going down the west coast and then go east. I haven't decided yet how much of the trip to do in my truck and how much to do by bus and train. The truck only gets around 28mpg in the winter, so I'm tempted to do the whole thing on a 60 day Greyhound pass, and bring a bag loaded with homemade dried food. With an unlimited pass, I could do shorter stays in more far-flung areas, and maybe finally visit the deep south.
If you'd like to host me, drop me an email. The domain is gmail and the first part is ranprieur. If you've previously invited me to stay, I might need a reminder.