April - June, 2011

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April 5. Wind and wave energies are not renewable after all. The details are all about wind. It's renewable on a small scale, but if we were to expand it to the point that it could replace oil, it would throw off the energy balance of the atmosphere. In a computer model, "the magnitude of the changes was comparable to the changes to the climate caused by doubling atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide." I wonder how far we could go with photovoltaic before the same kind of thing happened.

April 18-19. An important article in the NY Times, Is Sugar Toxic? Of course, the human digestive system can deal with some toxicity. But there is evidence that the quantity of sugar in the industrial diet has overwhelmed us, causing diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and possibly cancer. The article mentions that high fructose corn syrup was originally marketed as a healthy alternative to sugar, and now they're marketing sugar as a healthy alternative to HFCS! Anne comments:

There's a public health joke that goes like this: "Q: Table sugar is 50% glucose and 50% fructose bound into a disaccharide. HFCS is 45% glucose and 55% fructose as free monosaccharides. Which is worse and why?" "A: HFCS - because its cheaper."

I didn't watch Lustig's whole 90 minute video, but the idea is that glucose is harmless (other than being empty calories) and the damage comes when the liver has to break down excessive fructose into glucose, without being moderated by fiber. So fruit juice could be as toxic as white sugar! Brendan reports some numbers on concentrated natural sweeteners:

Agave nectar: 92% fructose / 8% glucose or 74% fructose / 26% glucose
Honey: 47% fructose / 38% glucose / 9% maltose / 2% sucrose
Maple: Almost entirely sucrose
Brown Rice: 94% maltose / 6% glucose
Cane Molasses: 74% sucrose / 12% fructose / 5% glucose

Again, sucrose is glucose-fructose, which is not as bad as pure fructose, so it looks like agave is worst of all. Maltose is double glucose, and nobody seems to know how much it harms your body to break it down. And if you're wondering about "dextrose", which often appears on ingredients lists, it's another word for glucose. Bottom line: be careful with sweeteners other than whole fruit.

April 21. Why does it seem like the most wonderful things are bad for us? Maple syrup, video games, even daydreaming! This is what makes me think life is not meaningless, but has a precise and strongly enforced meaning: if you live as if you're here to learn, everything falls into place, but if you live for pleasure, you get repeatedly hammered down. At least I do.

But Yiedyie suggests an amazing metaphor: "the Universe does not want us to have a monopleasure like a monocrop." Here's an image of a polycrop, the seven levels of a forest garden, from the tops of trees down to the roots. And each vertical level has horizontal variety, many plants with different functions.

Maybe we can live purely to have a good time, if we have a good time in a variety of ways, on every level from the shallowest to the deepest. Or maybe a true emotional polyculture must also include pain...

April 27. A perfect voting system. It's easy to understand, nobody is disenfranchised by living in the wrong place, the results are close to proportional representation, and there is no incentive for tactical voting. This is accomplished through a crazy idea that just might work: in each contest, instead of counting the votes, one ballot is picked at random!

April 29-30. I've posted before about converting a chest freezer into a super-efficient chest fridge. That link goes to a 2008 post I hadn't seen yet, with some other links and comments. I see no evidence for the "$16 part" that will do the job, but there is a link to this highly-rated $59 freezer temperature controller at Amazon, and a comment about how to do it for free by adjusting the set screw on the temperature control dial.

But Tel sends a link to this forum post, in which a refrigeration specialist says that running a freezer at refrigerator temperatures... going to result in not enough cooling on the compressor, over expansion of the refrigerant due to excessive superheat, overheating at the valves at temps likely well over the oxidation point of the oil... very fast destruction of the internal refrigeration system, and pin hole leaks due to the hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acids that are formed as the refrigerant and oil break down.

He also says it will cause "huge energy usage", which is totally wrong. Many people have tried this and reported very low energy usage, including this report of 0.1 kWh per day. Here's another page testing that claim. He modified an older chest freezer and got 0.35 kWh/day, and discovered that the guy who got 0.1 kWh/day was using a super-efficient freezer. Still, until the refrigerator industry gets serious, 0.35 kWh/day is excellent! The most efficient mid-size refrigerator sold in America, the Sun Frost R19, burns 0.56 kWh/day (source) and costs $3000! So even if the naysayer above is right, you will still spend less money and use less energy if you get an old chest freezer off Craigslist every few years.

May 2-3. A few months ago in this post, I quoted a post I made in this thread on, about community members who didn't help with food. After someone brought up the word "freeloader", I made another post:

There are primitive cultures that don't even have the concept of "freeloader" -- if someone does no productive activity, nobody cares. This is possible when a society is built on activities that are so enjoyable or meaningful that ordinary people would rather do them than not do them.

The concept of "freeloading" can only exist in the context of a society built on activities that are so unpleasant that nobody will do them without coercion. This coercion can be anything from whippings, to withholding of money without which you're not permitted to live, to social shaming.

In a permaculture system, every plant and animal does its role voluntarily. If the chickens don't scratch in the dirt, you put something in the dirt to make them want to scratch. Calling them "freeloaders" would be ridiculous... so why do we do this with humans?

Anne comments:

The flaw in the "experiment" is that the group of people in no way constituted a community. I think you could almost define "community" as "the set of people among whom reciprocity is not readily quantifiable."

Aaron comments:

Crappy work is not so bad if you don't spend the entire time thinking about what an awful job it is -- like children do. I'm just wondering, is it being forced to do work when we're children that makes us hate it so much that we still hate it as adults?

This is in the context of a comment Aaron made last week, about the low-income Jews in New York and how the media framed the issue in terms of whether it's fair for them to get government money. Aaron is raising two kids with The Continuum Concept plus books about attachment parenting and homeschooling, and he writes that "they're enthusiastic about learning and very imaginative and they don't see any limits to what they can explore like school children do." But at the same time...

The issue of not getting their fair share rules my kids' lives and easily gets distorted into thwarting each other from getting stuff. They don't mind missing out so long as their sister also misses out. It looks bad but it's just a less sophisticated version of what adults do.

Raising kids has turned out to be a very humbling experience for me. It's apparent that my kids have learned a central message of civilisation, that there is a shortage of stuff out there and you need to grab hold of as much of it as you possibly can. In the end I put it down to the same thing that old-school Christians do - we live in a fallen world.

Aaron did a post about this a year ago, The Love Shortage. But speaking of old-school Christians, here's a comment from a Franciscan nun, who spent years looking for a good community:

All the secular ones seemed to suffer from at least one of the same difficulties, mostly related to selfishness. Some or all community members would shirk work and vie with each other for power, fame, wealth, and/or sex. Cliques would form and some would be 'in' and others would be 'out'. Very little care or consideration would be given to each person's emotional or spiritual wellbeing, and most would be too busy pursuing their own agenda to care too much about the impact on anyone else.

What is it about religious communities that enable them to achieve stability over many decades (sometimes centuries)? And can this be replicated in the secular world? I think what you need are emotionally healthy people, who see the value of giving up some or all of their own selfishness for the gift of developing virtue, mutual support, kindness, and - ironically - self-determination.

I have one more comment. "Freeloading" is a healthy response to disempowerment. If you find yourself in a system that demands your labor but denies you participation in power, the right thing to do is to "game the system", to follow the letter of the law while taking more than you give until that system collapses in a heap and you can replace it with something alive. The problem is that gaming the system becomes a habit, and this habit carries over into situations where we do have participation in power. This is why people remain selfish in communities with consensus decision making, and it's why we become depressed when we live without a job. It takes years to learn to trust other people and find the life inside us.

The task before us is to help as many people as possible through this transition.

May 6-7. A month ago in this post I said that wind energy, if it gets big enough, would destabilize the climate. Rob points out that the same kind of thing would happen with geothermal:

Currently there are very few places where the Earth's mantle is close enough to the surface to make geothermal practical. But if we were to start mining down, to build enough subterranean power plants to power our society's current energy needs plus the growth needed to sustain our economy, it seems possible that we could cause the Earth's mantle to gradually cool.

More generally, if any new energy source miraculously enables the global economy to keep growing, then it will eventually grow to the point where that energy source either runs out or causes other problems. Even space colonies won't work, and Kevin Scott Polk works this out in detail in his book Gaiome. A space empire expanding in all directions would increase its territory at a rate proportional to the cube of its speed of expansion. This is a polynomial function. Although a polynomial increase adds more each year than the year before, it is not the same as an exponential increase. Here's a good math page on exponential vs polynomial functions. Basically, even the smallest exponential increase will eventually leave any polynomial increase in the dust. On page 32 of Gaiome, Polk estimates that a growth rate of only 0.1% per year would fill every habitable planet in the galaxy in only 47,000 years.

This raises another question: Why does economic growth have to be exponential? It doesn't. But right now the interest you pay on your debts is exponential, and when economists talk about "growth", they mean exponential growth. As long as our economies are based on percent-per-year, they will continue to hit physical limits and crash. Pretending for the moment that we have the technology for space colonies, it is still possible to use exponential economies to expand into the galaxy without a universal crash, if we have a bunch of local economies that take turns crashing. This is what we've done so far on Earth. The other way to do it would be with a different economic paradigm.

May 11. Ivan sends a link to this 2009 Russian blog post, Diasporas and Barbarians. The part about barbarians is similar to Ribbonfarm's Return of the Barbarian post, but I'm more interested in the "diaspora" part, which is related to lots of stuff I write about.

The blogger, Anatoly Karlin, begins by quoting a Russian nationalist, Konstantin Krylov, on the "diaspora mentality". Krylov chose the word diaspora to focus on Jews and why they are ethical outsiders. Then Karlin's post gets more interesting when he points out that many of us have no diaspora background and still fit Krylov's description. For example:

they have little concept of social shame and simply don't think about, or notice, many of the ingrained social customs and traditions constraining the actions of members of the host society.

That would perfectly describe me as a teenager. Now that I'm older, I pay closer attention to the rules of the dominant society, but only for tactical reasons. This might be what they call "being in the world but not of it."

Whether or not this is really a feature of ethnic groups wandering from their homeland, it is clearly a feature of adaptable people living in societies that have wandered from reality. For example, Ivan quotes Dmitry Orlov:

But very few of them have ever heard of the real operative "ism" that dominated Soviet life: Dofenism, which can be loosely translated as "not giving a rat's ass." A lot of people, more and more during the "stagnation" period of the 1980's, felt nothing but contempt for the system, did what little they had to do to get by (night watchman and furnace stoker were favorite jobs among the highly educated) and got all their pleasure from their friends, from their reading, or from nature.

In a sane society with healthy values and customs, people find them intrinsically rewarding, and become one with them. But as a society veers off into insanity, its values and customs become soulless or even harmful, and more and more people become detached and just go through the motions. Meanwhile, people who continue to believe in the rules need some other reward.

In a dysfunctional culture, the reward for obedience is enjoying the punishment of the disobedient. This explains most right wing politics, and some left wing politics. It explains child abuse, public executions, and why America is fighting so many wars, and has so many prisons.

And you can add this to the list of the diminishing returns of Empire. Soon America will no longer be able to afford to blow up so many bad guys and keep so many of its citizens locked up to satisfy the resentful bloodlust of a shrinking tribe of people who are failing to adapt.

Ideally, every person who mentally quits the dominant tribe will join a nice tribe that does not require enemies or punishment to make its members feel good. But in practice, new nasty tribes will arise, which still reward members by dealing out punishment, and do so more efficiently than the old system.

May 25. Super-smart monologue by Geoffrey West, Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations and People Always Die, and Life Gets Faster. West is a physicist who tried to find universal laws for biology, and he discovered that a bunch of things scale exponentially with size, and the exponent is less than one, which means as an organism gets bigger, certain things get smaller in ways that you can mathematically predict. A thousand pound horse will age more slowly, eat less, and do less work than ten hundred pound dogs. Then he started looking at human social systems, and he discovered that cities scale with an exponent greater than one, which means a city of a million people will have more production and innovation than ten cities of a hundred thousand. Also it will have more crime and disease, and people will walk faster! This reminds me of the Robinson Jeffers poem The Purse-Seine.

Then West looks at corporations, and finds that they operate like individual organisms, not like cities. So a billion dollar company will have lower profits and less innovation than ten hundred-million-dollar companies. And there's a great bit about how cities have more diversity as they get bigger, including niches for crazy people, while corporations have less diversity.

There's also some stuff about exponential growth and collapse. People are always saying that we can continue growth and avoid collapse through innovation, but West points out that "you have to innovate faster and faster", until eventually you need something as revolutionary as the internet every six months.

These thoughts raise many questions, some of which I can answer. Why do cities scale differently than corporations? Because they have an emergent or "bottom up" structure rather than central control. Can we design businesses, governments, economies that are less centrally controlled than the ones we have now? Yes, and we have barely started.

And the question I find most interesting: how will cities behave in a zero-growth economy? The age of perpetual growth is ending. For the entire future of the human species, we will be consuming mostly renewable resources, at roughly the same rate each millennium as the millennium before. Yet, at the same time, any settlement can become more efficient and productive by getting larger. I see two scenarios. In the stable scenario, every region will have a single permanent city. To keep the city from depleting its landbase, all you need is a good recycling program and universal humanure composting. That's the easy problem. The hard problem is to make the size of the city oscillate gently around a point of equilibrium, instead of rising until it crashes. I think the unstable scenario is more likely: every region will cycle through fall and rise, depleting topsoil, cutting down forests, and building megacities, which then collapse and give way to human cultures that regrow forests and topsoil, and so on.

May 26. Three important posts on Low-tech Magazine: The short history of early pedal powered machines, and then an argument that Bike powered electricity generators are not sustainable because they require 2-3 times more pedaling than driving machinery directly, and the pedaling may not even reclaim the energy used in battery manufacture. This leads to Pedal powered farms and factories: the forgotten future of the stationary bicycle. The conclusion:

Cranks and pedals are not a solution at all if we decide to cling to an energy-intensive lifestyle -- but then, neither is any other renewable energy source. The main problem with our approach to pedal powered machines is that we compare them to fossil fuel powered machines and not to the inefficient human powered tools and machines that went before them. This explains why pedal power is often laughed at in the western world but enthusiastically welcomed in the developing world... Ironically, communities in the poorest countries in the world are developing into sustainable societies independent of fossil fuels, enjoying basic but modern comforts, while we continue to be ever more dependent on increasingly dirty, dangerous and diminishing energy sources.

June 6-7. Important article on poverty and self-control. Everyone knows that poor people have less self-control than rich people, and the popular American belief is that some people have more Magical Virtue than other people, and those with more Magical Virtue become rich, while those with less become poor. I call it "magical" because we believe that it exists on a level deeper than genetics and environment, and I got this insight from a bit in this post by Anne:

Causative theories are separated into naturalistic -- infectious agents, falling branches, misbegotten genes -- and personalistic -- taboos, transgressive acts, conflict with a magical enemy, etc. Biomedicine tends to abjure personalistic causes in favor of naturalistic ones, but from an anthropologist's viewpoint, western medicine is simply overflowing with personalistic theories of disease. We are besotted by the idea of "will-power" -- a social, moral and ethical virtue to whose absence we ascribe all manner of illnesses, from diabetes to lung cancer.

If people smoke cigarettes because of their genes and environment, then we can't blame them -- they just got dealt a bad hand. So instead we imagine, with no evidence, that behind the hands we are dealt there are metaphysical players, and a Good player can overcome even the worst hand, while a Bad player will blow the best hand. Even atheists think this way, because it's easy. The alternative to blaming others is taking responsibility ourselves: every behavior that we don't like has a reason that we can find, and maybe do something about.

Getting around to the original link, studies have shown that self-control is a depletable resource. And the big idea is that poor people burn up their mental energy on hundreds of little decisions like which soap to buy, while richer people can blow off these decisions and save their mental energy to not have a cigarette. So if we want to lift ourselves or others out of poverty, we have to look beyond financial relief to willpower relief.

But the answer can't be that easy, because when poor people win the lottery, they don't suddenly gain self-control. Instead, they typically blow the money and end up bankrupt in a few years. Maybe there's some factor in childhood, like bad nutrition or authoritarian parenting, that makes poor people so deeply unable to self-regulate that it would take years of therapy to recover. But then how do we explain variance in self-control among siblings? The last straw we can grasp at is some kind of developmental butterfly effect, where tiny events cause feedback loops.

After that, we fall into the dangerous world of genetic "virtue". Biotech may have us wrestling with that issue soon enough. I touched on this two years ago in my Gattaca post. Most likely, the elite will genetically engineer their own kids to have supreme restraint, and they'll engineer the poor to be bad at restraining themselves, but extremely good at pushing themselves to work!

June 9/13. A few more thoughts about self-control. First, maybe it's okay that most people don't have it. Maybe there are different niches in the human ecosystem that can be filled by people with high or low ability to restrain themselves, and high or low ability to drive themselves. It does seem that people with low restraint are more creative. The problem is that we live in a dysfunctional culture, in which the niche filled by people with low self-control is to be exploited!

And a little more outside the box, Anne writes: "while there are reproducible measurements that psychologists might gloss as 'self-control,' there is nothing testable that corresponds to the general definition of the term." So now I'm thinking, suppose there's no such thing as self-control: nobody ever really forces themselves to do something they don't want to do; instead, some people are better at convincing themselves to want to do things.

Remember the famous marshmallow experiment: a bunch of kids were each given a marshmallow, and if they could delay eating it for fifteen minutes, they were given a second marshmallow. So the kids with more self-control got diabetes. Seriously, the kids who could delay gratification turned out years later to be more successful, and the way they avoided eating the marshmallow was by changing the focus of their attention. So we all have the potential to get the second marshmallow, to quit an addictive substance, to build up savings, through mental skills that can be learned. The big one is simply empathy with your future self. You could almost plug in that concept, in place of "self-control", in every context. Also you need imagination, the ability to take yourself out of the present moment.

But sometimes you need to be in the present moment, and sometimes emotion is more reliable than intellect. The meta-skill here is to be aware of your own mental state, and to choose the right one at the right time. The kids who failed the marshmallow test, and later failed in life, were probably stuck in the correct mental state for a messed up family: the future is chaos so all rewards must be grasped instantly. And the kids who passed the test might have been taught by their families to delay gratification, and later they became rich, but then they got stuck in the game of building up more and more wealth for no good reason.

June 16. Protecting medical implants from attack. Did pirates have to protect their wooden legs from cyber attack? Do slide rules get viruses? No! But medical implants are now on the same path as Microsoft Windows and the tech system as a whole: adding more complexity, and creating more openings for failure, which can be patched only with more complexity at greater expense.

I suggest a law: as a system rises in complexity, it must also rise in some combination of fragility, unpredictability, and expense. Or C=FUE. Centrally controlled systems, seeking to minimize fragility and unpredictability, must consume more and more resources. When they can no longer afford the expense, fragility and unpredictability rise and knock them down to a lower level of complexity. Meanwhile, systems that are willing to embrace chaos can be both cheap and robust.

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