"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."
- Terence McKenna
Apocalypsopolis, book one
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March 27. On reddit, a comment thread about What happens when robots become so advanced that human employment is not necessary? I can only find one comment noticing that automation depends on fossil fuels which are running out. We've all seen the hand-wavy arguments that technology will somehow keep industrial civilization growing. But at the same time, doomers are making hand-wavy arguments that energy decline will somehow destroy all complex technology in the world. I think the collapse will be uneven. Some places will be like central Africa, with famines and warlords, while other places will continue making stronger artificial intelligence, cheaper drone aircraft, and more rewarding virtual reality. All three of those are already beginning to change the world.
On the subject of AI, a fascinating argument: Is Intelligence Self-Limiting? The idea is that intelligent creatures, or machines, or civilizations, measure their own success by looking at certain signals. But when they get smart enough, they figure out that it's easier to fake the signals than to increase performance. The author gives examples of individual humans, and civililzation as a whole, already doing this, and he offers it as a solution to Fermi's Paradox: that intelligent life on other planets destroys itself by signal-spoofing long before it can colonize the galaxy.
Scott Adams said it best: the holodeck will be our last invention. But there are some good counter-arguments in this Hacker News comment thread.
March 26. I haven't been to a theater movie in a while, so yesterday I caught a $6 morning matinee of The Hunger Games. There are two great scenes that are not in the book (they involve grain and a glass bowl) and one minor character is better. Otherwise the movie is slick and uninspired, and the book is smarter, deeper, and even has more exciting action. But during the previews, I was happy to learn that I live in a world that can make a movie called "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter."
March 25. More random links. Sarah sends this nice online book about Tactical Urbanism, basically lots of little things you can do to make your city more alive.
Tim sends this Guardian piece, The Naked Rambler, about a sane and intelligent guy who might be in prison for life just because he refuses to wear clothing. There may be freedoms we take for granted, but there are also ways we're not free that we take for granted.
And via Hacker News, a page about Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. It's pretty much what Charles Fort wrote several years earlier in The Book of the Damned: that any rational model of the world will have anomalies at the edges, and you can make a broader model that explains these anomalies, but this too will have anomalies at the edges... and so on.
March 23. Unrelated links. Nothing really new here, but a nice interview: Morris Berman on American collapse.
People with American prison experience answer the question: What are some aspects of incarceration that could not possibly be guessed at by someone who hasn't experienced it?
And via reddit, this is just a cool image of some adventurous young people on a bridge in Russia.
March 21. Dave sends a review of a book about uncontacted tribes in the Amazon. There are some mistakes in the bit near the end that evaluates primitive vs modern life, but I'm not interested in that subject. I like the part a little farther up, describing how a large and technologically complex society defeats primitive people, when it is no longer socially acceptable to conquer them with violence. Quoting two bits out of order:
Pacification was accomplished through the proffering of Western goods, including machetes, axes, metal pots, fishhooks, matches, mosquito netting, and clothing. The seductive appeal of such things was nearly irresistible, for each of these items can make a quantum improvement in a sylvan lifestyle. Acquisition of several or all of these goods is a transformative experience that makes contact essentially irreversible.
With the convenience of matches, one quickly loses the knack for starting a fire. Shotguns decisively outperform bows and arrows, but cartridges must be bought at a good price. Such newly acquired dependencies fundamentally altered the life of the Indians, who were compelled to work for wages instead of spending their days hunting, fishing, and tending their gardens.
This is the kind of thing Ivan Illich wrote about all the time, and it's still happening today, to you. With the convenience of frozen dinners and restaurant meals, one quickly loses the knack for preparing food. iTunes decisively outperforms radio, but music files must be bought at a good price. To navigate sprawl you need a car, to pay expenses on a car you need a job, to get a job you need a college degree, and to get a degree you have to go so deep in debt that giant blocks of money own your life.
But at the same time, many of us understand this web of dependency and are fighting to get free of it. As I've argued many times, the reason to trade your car for a bicycle is not to save the planet, but to minimize your dependence on giant centralized systems in which you have no participation in power, and to liberate thousands of hours of your time for meaningful autonomous work. We're not trying to live like our ancestors, but to do something totally new: to preserve the most helpful complex technologies, while shifting to a political and economic system where power is fully shared.
March 20. Anne has two new posts on antibiotic resistance. That's part one and here's part two. Basically she goes through the popular scapegoats and cures, and explains how they're anywhere from totally wrong to partly right. Resistant bacteria are not going to exterminate humans, but they are one more thing that will make it easier for poor and sick people to die in the ongoing collapse.
Also on the medical subject, What You Lose When You Sign That Donor Card. The author argues that the immense value of organs has led the medical system to blur the line between life and death. Once you're declared brain dead -- through a test that does not measure actual brain waves -- they start your heart and lungs again to keep your body fresh. But you might still have brain waves, and when your body is cut open, it responds as if it feels pain. Of course the experts deny that the donor can possibly feel pain, but this strikes me as another example of humans using our powers of rationality to avoid feeling emotions that might harm us economically.
Anyway, in a hundred years there won't be any organ transplants. Either we'll lose the technology, or we'll gain new technologies that enable us to make new organs without bodies. Probably both of these will be true in different places.
March 18. By popular demand, an article about a new local currency in Greece. The headline calls it a "cashless" currency, but that word misses the point. Here's another article about Sweden phasing out cash, but Sweden's system is evil: the economy is still ruled by banks and other centralized concentrations of wealth, there is still positive feedback in power-over through interest on debt, incomes are proportional to your level in the hierarchy, not the value of your work, and soon, without cash, all transactions will be monitored by the Lidless Eye. In the Greek system, there are caps on wealth and debt, no interest on debt, only enough monitoring to make the system work, and no attempt by the organization that manages the system to adjust the rules for its own benefit... yet.
One more link, related only in that I disagree with the headline. A study shows that if you're trying to stop yourself from doing something, "I don't" works better than "I can't". It's ironic, in an article about the subconscious effects of language, that people are not called "people" or "humans", but "consumers".
March 15. I have to abandon the "magic" subject before it turns into an attempt to model the entire universe. Here are some new stray links:
There's a lot of buzz about a Ugandan warlord named Joseph Kony and a group called Invisible Children that made a movie against him. Anne sends this article, Invisible Children Funded By Christian Right -- who are allied with another Ugandan faction that's worse than Kony.
Go to Trial: Crash the Justice System. Of course, there has not yet in human history been a justice system. This article is about the American prison system, how it's sustained by ridiculous penalties designed to force people to plead guilty in exchange for reasonable penalties, and how an organized movement to refuse plea bargaining could overwhelm the courts and bring the system down.
This is bizarre: Tide laundry soap has become a black market currency. And this system could be brought down by an organized movement to keep wearing dirty clothes!
March 14. By the way, I'm aware that people who are serious about "magic" like to hoard the word, and say that many things popularly called "magic" are not magic. This is a semantic argument, and unwinnable. As a word takes on more meanings, it's best to go with the flow, and instead of saying "you can't call that magic", say "here are some similarities and differences between some things that people call magic."
Anyway, a reader sends this 2007 Ribbonfarm post, Harry Potter and the Concept of Magic, and even though it slips into semantic hoarding, it has some great thoughts on old-fashioned woo-woo magic:
Magic is an imaginative conception of the lawfulness of a universe where matter has the attributes of consciousness, and can be engaged purely through intention. It is the product of our (primarily emotional and existential rather than intellectual) yearning to connect with the physical world beyond living organisms.
I think we get closest to our natural conception of magic if we understand it as a lawfulness that governs the connectedness/disconnectedness of a universal consciousness. When I am able to summon up that broomstick, I become one with the broomstick in some way.
March 14. Continuing on this week's subject, I've mentioned old-fashioned "magic" where you influence reality directly through consciousness, and "magic" based on physical technologies or skills that the audience doesn't understand. A reader mentions one more:
I would add the category of organizational or social control: getting people to do things without them feeling that you are forcing them, or even always realizing that you are leading them. So we're talking advertising, propaganda, management, compulsory education... a lot of these methods are ones that certain people can SEE happening around them, but that most people don't recognize even when they are the object of the control.
I suspect that just as with technologies, there are more and less "evil" or "good" methods here. My advice to any leader who wishes to be "good" is to employ any such "magic" only very sparingly! It's possible to trick people into doing the better thing for themselves and the All, but then you aren't teaching them anything, and they can't go forward without you, or in opposition to you if needed.
I think you can take apart any profession and you will see the actors fall somewhat clearly to one side of that line or the other. The buzz-word for the "good" guys is Empowerment. I can sell you X forever, or I can show you how to do/make/get X on your own.
March 13. A reader has started a subreddit thread on yesterday's subject, and makes a great comment: the reason you can't use the power of the mind to make a shortcut around the physical world and satisfy your desires, is that "desire and thought are physical processes, and can only have physical effects." Money, sex, food, toys, power over others -- if that's what you're after, you're already in the realm of the physical, and you have to act on that level.
Also Andy comments over email: "people talk about wanting 'magic' in their intimate partnerships, when success is more about hard work." That context never occurred to me, but it totally fits. If you want to be swept off your feet by a magical romance, then you're asking the other person to be the performer while you're the audience, and you're almost asking to be seduced by a sociopath. It's better to think of it as two people working together to design and build a beautiful house.
March 12. (permalink) A week ago, Doug in St Paul took me on an overnight trip to a successful homestead in northern Minnesota, and from their collection of books I reread a New Age classic, Richard Bach's Illusions. Now I understand better where the New Age movement went wrong. I agree that pure consciousness is the foundation of all reality, that you are a larger being who lives your life the way you would watch a movie, and that the physical world can be changed through the power of the mind. The mistake, the "fall", is the idea that changing the world through the power of the mind is easy, that anyone can perform miracles just by really, truly believing they're possible.
Suppose that you spend decades mastering woodworking, and you build a beautiful house with your own hands. Then some lazy idiot comes along and builds a better house in seconds just by believing it into existence. There's no evidence that reality works this way, and I think it can't work this way, because it would violate some kind of metaphysical law of conservation of energy: Doing any task with pure mind power must be at least as difficult as doing it with physical tools. Or, the easiest way to build a house with your mind is to mentally discipline yourself to build it with your hands. The deeper principle here is that the physical world is itself a tool for channeling consciousness, and not an obstacle to childish wish fulfillment.
If you accept that changing the world is damn hard no matter how you do it, Illusions has another idea, mentioned in passing, that's brilliant: If an action seems like magic, it's because you don't understand it; to perform the action, you have to understand it well enough that it seems like a mundane craft or skill. You can see this in stage magic, where the audience might see someone levitating but the performer knows the trick. I think it also applies to "paranormal" levitation, where the trick lies outside 20th century science, but still seems normal to the performer. In any case, if something seems like magic to you, then you are the audience, not the actor, and if you think you're the actor, that's part of the trick.
You can see this in almost every modern technology: searching the internet, playing a video game, buying groceries, riding a jet ski. You feel like you have the power, but the less you understand how the system works, and the less you are able to build it yourself, the more you are merely a member of the audience, passively consuming entertainment.
March 11. Today I stuck a new update on the top of How to Drop Out, with some factoids about counter-culture heroes who had uncommon support from family and friends, and a link to my new frugal retirement page.
March 11. A few loose ends on yesterday's war link. I don't agree with the author that most soldiers are "sociopaths". That's become a vague buzzword for "bad person", when really it's a particular kind of bad person who not only lacks empathy but is typically charming, impulsive, and irresponsible. Ted, who has been in the infantry, writes:
I think I would describe soldiers as having authoritarian personality more than anti-social personality. The authoritarian personality is aggressive when violence is sanctioned by authorities. These aren't simply thrill seekers that love violence. People like that are too hard to control.
Also, Sean sends a follow-up article on the same blog, Call of Apathy: Advanced Warfighter, arguing that the future of the military is not remorseless thugs, but remote button-pushers. But another reader sends this article, High Levels Of Burnout In U.S. Drone Pilots.
Of course, after unmanned killing machines, the next step is autonomous killing machines, where no human is even aware of the violence. In both cases, there's an interesting question. If you make an unprovoked attack on a machine, is it legal for the machine to respond with lethal force? The sane answer is no. The most the machine can do is take a picture of you and later you can be charged with vandalism. But this would make drones too tactically weak. The law will be changed, and you will still not be allowed to booby-trap your car, but machines in the service of the domination system will have the rights of self-defense formerly reserved to humans.
March 10. Unrelated stray links. Homeless by Choice: How to Live for Free in America is a sample of a new book, The Man Who Quit Money, about Daniel Suelo, the guy who lives in the Utah desert. I'm sure he gets more help from friends, and less food from wild foraging, than the article implies. There is room for thousands more people to live this way, but not millions, unless we build a whole different food system.
We're Underestimating the Risk of Human Extinction. I've written that humans are a bombproof species, but this interview makes an important point: the danger is not from threats we've faced before, like plagues and asteroid strikes, but threats that do not exist yet, because we're going to create them ourselves.
Call of Apathy: Violent Young Men and Our Place in War, written by an anonymous mercenary and former (British?) soldier:
People need to realise that their wars are not fought by the guy on the news that lost a leg and loves his flag -- he was the FNG [fucking new guy] that got blown up because he was incompetent, who left the fight before it turned him into one of us. The world needs to be made aware of my kind: the silent majority of fighters, those that do not care about politics, religion, ethics, or anything else other than war for war's sake.
My psychologist estimated that roughly 80% of infantrymen have an undiagnosed violent personality disorder. These aren't hard stats, but it's interesting when compared to the 20% that suffer from PTSD.
Finally, TSA Nude Body Scanners Made Worthless By Blog. Worthless? How can anyone still think the purpose of airport screening is to keep weapons off airplanes? It's an abuse ritual. And the worse it is at keeping weapons off airplanes, the better it is at training us to submit to an insane authority. Every revelation that the scanners don't protect us, makes them more effective for their real purpose.
March 9. Here it is, my Winter Tour FAQ, mostly about the tour I just finished but some of the stuff is from my trip three years ago. I'll probably add a few more things as I think of them.
March 9. Just letting everyone know I'm back in Spokane. I'll eventually post something about my tour, but for now I need to catch up on stuff and figure out how I'll be getting online. If I can't pick up a wifi network from my house, I'll be continuing to come to the library, which might be a good thing. Update: from the house I can get one open network that fades in and out.
March 7. A reader has just uploaded four videos, around 100 minutes total, of me being interviewed for What A Way To Go: Life at the End of Empire. Here are part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and a post on the subreddit.
I may eventually add some annotations. A few notes: 1) I say that a runaway greenhouse effect could make Earth like Venus, but later I found out that's impossible because too much carbon has been locked up in limestone -- unless they figure out how to burn limestone! 2) The book The Parable of the Tribes was written by Andrew Bard Schmookler, and I fear his idea will be mistakenly credited to me.
March 4. Just bought a train ticket leaving Wednesday night, arriving in Spokane very early Friday morning.
March 3. Paula has a new post about Personal Energy Distribution, and I really like her idea of applying EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) to personal energy. You can invest energy now, on things like eating better and not smoking, and in the long term you'll get back more energy than you spent. But if you're already living on the edge of survival, you don't have any extra energy to invest. It occurs to me that declining empires are just like poor people! They are in an energy trap, where they need to spend extra energy to invest in a better way of living, but they can't because they have to use all the energy they have just to avoid a catastrophe. These are both examples of being behind the power curve.
March 2. Seven experiments show that rich people are more likely to lie and cheat. The researcher speculates that poor people have to rely more on others, so they "are more likely to adhere to community standards." I would say the poor are more accountable to community standards. Money is power, and the more power you have, the more lying and cheating you can get away with.
This is just a specific case of a general law of human society: Control is self-increasing. There are exceptions: enlightened individuals with authority are able to keep their level of authority stable at what they have earned, and small communities are able to rein in people who abuse power. But large systems, run by ordinary people, inevitably use central control to strengthen central control. You can't stop it. The only way to bring society back into balance is to let the process run its course, until the control system is so dysfunctional and disrespected that it collapses. Then the game starts again. I think it's possible to build a large complex society with negative feedback in power-over, but it has not been done yet, and it may require a change in human nature.
I've arrived in the Minneapolis St Paul area. I'll be in Cottage Grove until Sunday, then I plan to stay in St Paul a few more days before I head home. I now have two ride offers, but I'm leaning toward taking Amtrak. At $159, the train costs about the same as total one-way gas, and twice my share of the gas. But if I consider gas costs for me and a driver combined, including the return trip, then the train is half the cost of gas, and that's not even counting motels. And if we avoid motels by sleeping in the car, that's less pleasant than sleeping on the train.
February 29. Here in Michigan I've had more internet time than anywhere else on the trip, which is good because I'll probably be getting on at the library when I get back to Spokane. So I've had time to do some other projects on this site. First, I've updated the Landblog FAQ to include some stuff about the house and explain better why I'm not homesteading.
And this is a work in progress, but far enough along to post a link: Frugal Early Retirement FAQ. The idea is that a lot of people come to this site because of "How To Drop Out", and they want to know how I'm actually living, but the way I'm living now is better described as frugal early retirement.
February 29. Happy Leap Day! It's a good day for weird stuff, so I've just added a new introduction to my 9/11 FAQ, changing the slant of my position, with a new summary of my metaphysical thinking. Thanks Paula for telling me about the Mitch Hedberg joke, about Bigfoot being intrinsically blurry. Here's another one that's probably more profound than he intended: "You know, I'm sick of following my dreams, man. I'm just going to ask where they're going and hook up with 'em later."
February 28. Via Hacker News, something completely obvious that is rarely put into words: Why Anti-Authoritarians are Diagnosed as Mentally Ill:
I have found that most psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals are not only extraordinarily compliant with authorities but also unaware of the magnitude of their obedience. And it also has become clear to me that the anti-authoritarianism of their patients creates enormous anxiety for these professionals, and their anxiety fuels diagnoses and treatments.
February 27. Continuing on the urban farm subject, Chris just sent a link about a planned seven acre food forest in Seattle. And Sharon Astyk recently mentioned that a study found 5000 acres of farmable land in New York City. Of course five thousand acres will not feed eight million people, but just the presence of growing food improves quality of life.
There are examples of this in the book I'm currently reading, Farm City by Novella Carpenter. In the Oakland ghetto she has grown fruits and vegetables and raised all kinds of animals. The nice thing about the book is that she's not a very good farmer, and honest about difficulties and failures. Too many writers have the opposite instinct, especially when they're writing about alternative lifestyles: to make everything sound easy and fun and totally fulfilling. This strategy will sell more books, but in the long term it undermines the movement by setting people up for disappointment. I think this is why the hippies failed.
Here's the latest on my trip. Sarah and I will drive to Chicago on Thursday, and I will not have time to meet anyone there other than my hosts. Friday we drive to Cottage Grove outside Minneapolis, and I've tentatively planned an Ethiopian dinner on Sunday before Christopher and I hit the road west. There's a possibility I'll stay in St Paul a few extra days. If anyone in North Dakota or Montana wants to host both of us, let me know. Gmail and the name is ranprieur.
February 23. On the recommendation of a bunch of people, I've just read the novel Daemon by Daniel Suarez, and its sequel FreedomTM. The first half of the first book is the best techno-thriller I've ever read, using technology that already exists to tell an exciting and plausible story in which a genius game designer sets up a powerful artificial intelligence to wreak havoc after his death. As time passes, and the Daemon continues to stay on top of events, instead of veering off through compounding errors of imperfect prediction, the book becomes less plausible, but it also becomes more epic, and briefly achieves moral ambiguity.
Then in the second book Suarez cashes in all his points to buy a utopian preach-fest. The characters become cartoon good and evil, and the story becomes a platform for a Message about Society. Still, the message is correct and timely. Both books are loaded with important ideas, and they are essential reading if you're interested in artificial intelligence, universal surveillance, drone warfare, video game overlays on the physical world, corporation-tribe hybrids, or the role of technology in the conflict between government, big money, and human autonomy.