October - November, 2011

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October 2. People are asking my thoughts on Occupy Wall Street. Here's an article about five ways OccupyWallStreet has succeeded. But notice the level on which it has succeeded: public opinion. In the middle ages, there was universal agreement that the church was corrupt for hundreds of years before the church began to reform. Even then it did not reform because of public opinion, but because it was losing to competing churches. Wall Street has no incentive to change, because it has a monopoly on our lives. We can't buy houses or go to college without bank loans; we can't drive without oil companies; we can't eat without agribusiness. Predictable assholes are saying we have no right to protest if we use products made by the systems we're protesting against. They're so wrong, they're almost right: the whole reason we're protesting is that we can't get what we need without going through corrupt systems; but until we have other ways of getting what we need, we have no leverage to do anything but shout into the wind.

I'm not hopeful about sudden positive change. At the global scale, fast changes tend to be destructive and traumatic, while good changes take decades. Maybe this is like one wave of the tide coming in. The next twenty waves will be smaller, but then one will go a little higher than this one, and eventually the giant blocks of money will be washed away, except for a few islands.

October 4. A reader sends his story of seven years in EverQuest:

EQ provided an arena for the expression of my personal human reality that was noticeably greater than any "real" world environment I had ever experienced. The joy I felt being a part of a team of wildly different players all using their strengths to come together and accomplish things that enhanced the guild is something I can still feel. It was deep fulfillment. I've been part of groups and part of companies and so on. They are the saddest, most 2-dimensional, fake weak experiences compared to this. The experience of being in flow with a group of 50 other players, each performing in their own unique flow and fusing into the organism-like function of the guild... it was a holy thing.

I quit because I had gone from a high status six figure consulting gig to being a convenience store cashier living in a trailer during those seven years. Was it caused by EverQuest? Not in any direct way. But I had ceased to direct my resources and energy and passion into real life. I don't regret quitting EQ, but I miss it every day. Fundamentally, it was more real in some important dimensions than the real world I now live in.

This raises important questions. Where do you draw the line between addiction and enlightenment, between drug and art? Why do Monet's wheatstack paintings give me stronger feelings than actual wheatstacks? How can a tiny corner of the world look bigger than the world itself? If playing a game is a waste, is it less of a waste to design a game? I'm just groping for answers here. I think you have to separate the addictive quality from the illuminating quality. You can have a sub-world that is not addictive or even fun, but still cracks open your mind. Some films and novels do this, and some psychoactive drugs. Video games that do this are inevitable. We live in a world of shadow, outside is a world of light, and the purpose of art is to use deeper shadow to show the way to light, without trapping us in shadow.

October 7. Fascinating article about the mouse utopia experiment. The idea was to give mice unlimited food, but in a fixed amount of space. Basically the population exploded, the mice became violent and dysfunctional, they lost the skills to raise their young, and all of them died. I wonder what would happen if the enclosure was ten times as big, or a tenth as big, or if it was a natural space where other species could come and go, or if it was cleaned daily instead of "every four to eight weeks". But the point is, humans love to apply this experiment to human problems.

We do become violent under bad conditions. Here's an article looking not at rodents but primates, Freedom to Riot: On the Evolution of Collective Violence. The centerpiece is a story about a massacre among captive baboons, and how it turned out the problem was not that they were baboons, but that they were captive. More precisely...

hundreds of studies with captive primates have shown that impoverished environments result in heightened aggression and antisocial behavior. Such behavior has been shown to significantly increase under conditions of overcrowding, when there's a lack of novelty in food, entertainment, or social opportunities, when the population increases and the number of strangers in a colony grows, or, most crucially, when food is limited and/or fluctuates dramatically.

The article goes on to show correlations between rioting and bad social conditions, especially high food prices. So, contrary to the mouse experiment, the best way to prevent human violence is to make sure everyone has enough food.

But wouldn't this explode the population? No. Thomas Malthus told a such a good story that nobody checked to see if it fit the evidence. Humans don't stupidly reproduce like bacteria, but adapt our reproductive strategy to our environment. So population explodes only when culture and economics favor high fertility: when kids increase male status and women can't say no; when kids are economically valuable as farm workers; when you need kids to support you in your old age, and you need extra ones to make up for high mortality. These conditions have existed for most of human history -- but not prehistory, and not now, except in the third world. In nations with a good safety net and rights for women, birthrates decline, and in some places, like Russia and Japan, this decline has become a crisis.

Now put this together with Steven Pinker's new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Here's a good interview, History and the Decline of Human Violence. Pinker argues that violence per capita has been declining for hundreds of years, especially in the last 20 years. His evidence is strong, but when it comes to "why", he's guessing just like everyone else.

When I heard of Pinker's book, I immediately thought of Lloyd De Mause. (Unfortunately it's pronounced moss not mouse.) In his major work, The History of Childhood, De Mause shows (or cherry-picks the evidence to show) that kids have been raised better and better throughout history. If this is true, then the decline in violence is caused by something deeper than politics, maybe something we don't understand yet.

Here's what I think: In any human society, brutality is self-reinforcing over the short term, while niceness is self-reinforcing over the long term. Game theory confirms this, and I wrote about it a few years ago in this post. So, before civilization, any particular tribe would tend toward niceness -- unless there was some catastrophe, and then the tribe would turn nasty, maybe enslave some nice tribes, and life would be ugly for a few generations. You can imagine a green map with little spots of red that flare up, maybe move around and multiply, but inevitably die down. Their size was limited because humans didn't know yet how to build large societies.

Then came civilization, and the entire world became red. But notice: even as the nice tribes of the Americas were being exterminated by Europeans, Europe itself was a nicer place than it was in the 1300's. Large societies, and civilization as a whole, were getting better. This trend has continued, and it seems possible for the whole world to become one giant nice tribe with no nasty tribe to conquer it.

My favorite vision of the future is Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou: a low population, lots of overgrown ruins, and life is relaxed and peaceful. This could actually happen! But the way to get there is not to force some sudden radical change, which would cause a lot of trauma and make people mean and short-sighted. The path to utopia is to minimize trauma and be patient. As Pinker says in the interview:

Intellectuals should avoid the thrills of utopian, group-exalting, and struggle-glorifying ideologies, and promote incremental and evidence-based improvements that put the flourishing of individuals first.

You could argue that the recent declines in birthrate and violence were bought with nonrenewable resources, and therefore we're doomed to an endless cycle of population booms and dieoffs in a world of permanent medieval brutality. I'm more optimistic about the human ability to adapt on a deep level. But I don't see utopia on the horizon yet, and I think there's a bigger threat to stability than energy decline and climate change, something the champions of modernity are missing. If the world really is getting better, why do we feel that it's worse? If strong central control reduces violence, why have the people always opposed it? Our culture tells us that lack of pain is the best measure of quality of life, but it's not, or we would all live in padded cells. The best measure of quality of life is meaningfulness of life, and most of us will risk a lot of pain to feel alive.

October 10-11. The other day there was a great piece in the Guardian, Amanda Knox: What's in a face? Basically we're really bad at reading people's states of mind from their expressions and behavior, but we think we're really good. Knox got in trouble because she was too real. If she had put on a mask of how she was supposed to behave, everyone would have believed her. But when she showed her full complexity, everyone thought she was acting weird. I can relate to this.

Years ago in one of my zines, I wrote that a "real" job means a job like other people have. It's the same with a real car, a real house, a real life: Real means imitation. And now "real" emotion has come to mean the emotional clichés that other people expect. Rob comments:

The ubiquity of film and television has probably made this worse in recent years, where actors have normalized our expectations as to how people would react in certain situations.

And Steve sends an exceptional blog post by Adam Curtis, Learning to Hug. Through many video clips, he shows that when people allow their emotion (or lack of emotion) to come out unfiltered, it is radical and unsettling. Meanwhile, we see the rise of a dumbed-down popular image of what it's like to let your real feelings show, and people imitate this to fit in.

So here's a rule: If an emotional display comes raw from inside you, you will most likely be punished for it; if there is an emotional display that you are rewarded for showing, most people who show it will be faking it.

At the end of his post, Curtis mentions a right-wing Facebook investor, Peter Thiel, who follows a philosopher, Rene Girard, who believes that humans derive most of their behavior from imitation. And this drive to imitate each other makes us "vulnerable to political manipulation." This reminds me of a great Harpers article from 1941, Who goes Nazi? The author examines the personalities of a bunch of people at a party, and concludes that people become Nazis when they don't have anything in them to tell them what they like.

October 13. Question for Occupy Wall Street...

Step 1: Take the streets and express your opinion. Step 3: Change the world. What is step 2?

I don't know either. But I think the protesters are right to not make demands. If they did, Wall Street would just ignore their demands, and then what would they do? Shout into the wind louder? A related question: in all the Arab protests, why don't the rulers just ignore the protesters like they do here? I'm guessing it's because the Arab protesters represent a strong majority opinion, and they're willing to break into buildings and shut down cities. America will eventually get there. By then the demand will be obvious: total cancellation of personal debts.

October 14. What happens after a person jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge but Survives? Typically, they undergo a permanent spiritual transformation! So now I'm thinking, is there any way to create this effect without such a high chance of dying? Several readers suggest psychedelic drugs.

October 15. Thanks Justin (not the same Justin who wrote it) for challenging me to directly confront this post: Forgive Student Loans? Worst Idea Ever. This is a perfect example of how to make an argument by framing. Everything this guy says is true -- inside the tiny world to which he draws our attention. The only way to see that he's wrong is to look at what he's excluding or taking for granted. I'll take it apart piece by piece.

First the title: "Forgive" implies that debtors have done something wrong, that the system they're opposing is morally legitimate. Notice that he uses "forgive" all the way through, never "relieve" or "wipe away" or even "cancel". Next...

1. If we are going to give money away, why on earth would we give it to college grads? This is the one group who we know typically have high incomes. The group who has been hurt over the past few decades is high school dropouts.

Again, "give money away" frames the issue so that the debts are legitimate. Of course the debts followed the rules, but only an authoritarian thinks the rules are always right. As I mentioned the other day with the financialization link, the cost of college is an outrageous anomaly, artificially inflated by the availability of loans. Lenders and colleges effectively conspired to add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of a degree, fictional dollars that mostly can never be repaid, but enable lenders to own the future labor of educated people. It's the banks that have had money given to them, by destructive economic rules that they designed, and now they have to give it back.

Second false framing: that economic relief for college grads, and for high-school dropouts, is either/or. Anyone from an abusive family will recognize this tactic as the parent turning the kids against each other. College grads and dropouts are on the same side. I would say even the elite are on the same side if they really think about it, because the present massive concentration of economic power in a few financial institutions is destabilizing the global economy. And canceling college debt will make it easier, not harder, to cancel the mortgage and credit card and health care debt of people who haven't been to college.

2. If you want stimulus, you get more bang-for-your-buck if you give extra dollars to folks who are most likely to spend each dollar. Imagine what would happen if you forgave $50,000 in debt. How much of that would get spent in the next month or year? But give $1000 to each of 50 poor people, and nearly all of it will get spent, yielding a larger stimulus.

First, he's setting up something politically impossible as an alternative to something just now becoming possible. This is a clever way to make people feel discouraged and suck energy from the movement. And again, notice the word "give" rather than "stop demanding what can't be paid", and again he's turning the classes against each other.

As for stimulus, to be fair, he's only repeating a framing mistake made by some advocates of debt relief. Instead of arguing that debt relief will stimulate the economy, we should argue that it will reboot the economy. Stimulus is only a patch for an economy that is fundamentally unsound as long as it is based on exponential growth. As the Do The Math blog pointed out, in Can Economic Growth Last?, "linear growth starves the economic beast, and would force us to abandon our current debt-based financial system of interest and loans." And if we're going to abandon it, at some point we have to clean up old debts.

Moreover, it's not likely that college grads are the ones who are liquidity-constrained. Most of 'em could spend more if they wanted to; after all, they are the folks who could get a credit card or a car loan fairly easily.

And here we see the fatal assumption that got us into this mess in the first place: that borrowed money added to the economy is the same as already-earned money. Not only is it different for the economy, it's completely different for the psychology of the spender.

3. Perhaps folks think that forgiving educational loans will lead more people to get an education. No, it won't. This is a proposal to forgive the debt of folks who already have an education. Want to increase access to education? Make loans more widely available, or subsidize those who are yet to choose whether to go to school.

Again, this assumes the present cost of college is fair and realistic, when really that cost is an aberration, highly inflated precisely by the wide availability of loans. By framing the issue so that loans are necessary for education, he is creating a world in which banks own the labor of educated people. Subsidies are just as bad, forcing taxpayers to pay banks for poor people to go to college when they should be able to work their way through. The reasonable way to increase access to education is to lower the costs, and one way to do that is to make loans not available at all, so anyone selling education will have to compete in a free market in which everyone pays out of pocket.

Canceling debts is a great step in that direction, because lenders will be thinking, "Next time we'd better not lend more money than people can easily repay, or it will just be canceled again." And with fewer loans to prop up prices, prices will drop.

4. This is a bunch of kids who don't want to pay their loans back. And worse: Do this once, and what will happen in the next recession? More lobbying for free money, rather than doing something socially constructive. Moreover, if these guys succeed, others will try, too.

Could he be any more obviously on the side of the economic dominators? Here's how I would frame it: This is a bunch of young people who are justifiably depressed and unmotivated because decades of their lives are now owned by lenders because of economic rules to which they did not consent, and now they understand that they can change these rules. And better: do this once, and what will happen next time? Instead of a lending industry setting up the economy to get free money, the industry can die out and the people who work in it can do something socially constructive. Moreover, if these guys succeed, other debtors could get free too. It'll be anarchy!

October 17. John Zerzan on Steve Jobs. Something he doesn't mention is that the earliest Apple products were about empowering the user. They came with full schematics and encouraged tinkering -- the opposite of present Apple products which are locked-down black boxes. This actually makes me optimistic! Every human invention begins as a key and ends as a cage, but we will always find another key.

October 22-24. Animated video, Iain McGilchrist on the divided brain. He starts by saying that the popular story of left brain and right brain is false: reason, emotion, language, visual imagery, and imagination are all done in both hemispheres. Then he explains the actual difference between the left and right brain... which is still close to the popular story, and I find it more useful.

He uses the example of a bird pecking tiny seeds (left) while remaining aware of its environment (right). The left hemisphere applies "narrow, focused attention to something it already knows is of importance" while the right hemisphere is "vigilant, broadly, for whatever might be." In humans, the left hemisphere "yields clarity and power to manipulate things that are known, fixed, static, isolated, decontextualized, explicit, general in nature, but ultimately lifeless." And the right hemisphere "yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate, living beings within the context of the lived world."

This reminds me of a study on lucky and unlucky people, which found that lucky people are open to unexpected opportunities, while "unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else."

At first I thought Iain McGilchrist was a scientist exploring left and right brain with no agenda. But he turns out to be something of an ideologue, using science to back up a historical narrative in which the left brain should serve the right but has become its master. Deb sends a link to a good review of his book, The Master and his Emissary. And Jim mentions another book that takes a more militant position, Left in the Dark. That link goes to a good review on Amazon. Ironically, reducing human history to a story where the right brain is good and the left brain is bad, is extremely left brain!

Another thought: McGilchrist describes one mental state that is narrowly focused and limited to what it already knows, and another that is broadly focused and receptive to the unexpected. What about broadly focused and limited to the known, or narrowly focused and receptive to the unexpected? You could make a diagram with four quadrants based on two variables. One is wide vs narrow, or how much of your experience your conscious mind is taking in. The other you might call accepting vs judging, or scout vs warrior, or surprise vs recognition. I'm going to call it receptive vs exclusive. Wide vs narrow is about attention and senses, and receptive vs exclusive is about mental models, and how readily you adjust or expand them based on new information. So, keeping in mind that this is a simplification, let's look at all four quadrants:

Narrow/exclusive is common among fictional villains, but there is social pressure against it, so in the real world you find it in people who are protected from social pressure, either through isolation or political power. Wide/receptive is the normal mental state of wild animals in nature, but it's uncommon in civilization, where the environment is so controlled that there's not much need to adapt to the unexpected. Wide/exclusive would be the worst kind of hippie, someone with fully open senses but still mentally dogmatic. I think most modern humans are in the middle between wide and narrow, because going really wide or narrow takes practice, and they're exclusive, because they also haven't practiced shifting their thinking. Finally, you have narrow/receptive. This is my own habitual mental state, and it's what science tries to be -- but in action, scientists have to sideline anything that contradicts whoever is funding their research.

October 25. John Robb post about US Military + Gangs. Among doomers there's a myth of "roving gangs", typically seen as urban riff-raff who are easily repelled by a homesteader with a shotgun. But if you look at history, when gangs of thugs ravage the countryside, they are hardened soldiers, the strongest military force in the land. In Europe in the late 1300's, the roving gangs and the military were the same people, and the only thing the king could do about them was to collect enormous taxes and pay them to go pillage another country.

October 31. Back on the 15th when I wrote about college debt, I forgot about this post by Anne, Thoughts On Returning. Anne is in medical school, and points out something that's already happening with lawyers and will probably happen with doctors: there are a lot of them who can't find jobs, and at the same, there are a lot of people who need them but can't afford them.

In a healthy society, people who need a job done, and people who can do the job, are matched up. This is being prevented by a sick economy in which doctors and lawyers have such huge debts from medical and law school that they have to work for rich people and big business. This is what comes from the unholy union of education and lending: giant blocks of money own the labor of educated people, and thereby prevent that labor from going where it's needed.

Something that seems different, but is exactly the same: in New York City, Two Taxi Medallions Sell for $1 Million Each. A taxi medallion is just a piece of metal that gives a vehicle the legal right to operate as a taxi. Obviously a million dollars is much more than the economic value of driving a taxi. The problem is that the price has been driven up by speculators. People are buying them not for the value of driving a taxi, but the "value" of reselling them later. One result is that only very rich people can afford to own medallions. A more insidious result is that the rich owners can pull political strings to keep taxis rare: "Many owners have objected to a city proposal that would allow livery cabs to pick up street hails outside busy parts of Manhattan, saying such a plan would lower the value of their medallions."

This is what's wrong with America. The get stuff done economy has been made subservient to the leverage money into more money economy. Meanwhile, the get stuff done economy sneaks through the cracks. Here's an article on Brooklyn's dollar van fleet, The Illegal Private Bus System That Works. I expect something similar to happen with medicine. While M.D.'s are stuck in debt prison hospitals, people with no debt can afford to sell health care for a reasonable price -- but because they have no debt, they have no certification, so they have to work in the underground economy. As more and more people are priced out of the official economy, the underground economy will grow and thrive.

November 7. A few things I learned at the Inland Northwest Permaculture Conference: 1) The best insulator for rocket mass heaters is perlite. Vermiculite loses its insulative value when you mix it with clay slip, and only the very lightest pumice is good. If you want something solid that can be shaped, kiln brick is nice. 2) The best book on tanning hides is Deerskins Into Buckskins, and is the best website. The easiest hides to tan are sheep and deer, elk is in the middle, and goat is the hardest, because it's so gluey. 3) You can make an easy worm bin by nesting two plastic storage bins. Drill holes in the bottom of the top one and line it with hardware cloth and junk paper. The juice that collects in the bottom one is great plant food. Also you can combine rabbits, worms, and chickens by putting a rabbit cage over a slightly smaller worm bin, which is surrounded by chickens. 4) The best wine grape for this region is Lucie Kuhlmann. The best grape variety for lazy people in marginal climates is Concord. My favorite in the grape tasting was Gewurztraminer, and Himrod was second. 5) My favorite in the apple tasting, by far, was Golden Russet. Second best was Hudson's Golden Gem, also a russet. 6) Saturday night we did contra dancing, which was more fun than permaculture.

November 8. I spent yesterday afternoon standing in a cold wheat field for a keyline workshop. One of the people in our group was a cheerful middle-aged American Indian, and he got permission from the farmer to light a straw bale on fire to keep us warm. First he cut the strings off, then he bent the square bale into a horseshoe shape and lit the center. This allowed the heat from the fire to reflect itself and stay out of the wind. Later, after it had burned down, he made it into a donut shape, which gets oxygen better than a mound.

When the fire was at its peak, he said something funny: "That's a white man fire!" And he told us an old saying: The white man makes a big fire and is cold; the Indian makes a small fire and is warm. It occurs to me that this is a great metaphor, and I'll make it explicit: In a society with high energy consumption, people are unhappy; in a society with low energy consumption, people are happy.

Of course this isn't exactly true. But the point is that growth-based civilization tries to make people warm by making the fire bigger, instead of by making the fire with more skill. Now the heat and light of our fire is passing its peak. The "white fire" is becoming a "red fire", and it's going to take skill to stay warm. But it's also the best time for marshmallows!

November 13. Tim Boucher asks a good question:

If permaculture is this system that can 'save the world', why is the course only being offered at around $1000 a pop? They should be giving it away on street-corners.

When I was in Greece earlier this year, I heard about a permaculture speaker in high demand, whose 'honorarium' for speaking at events was something like 5000 euro, plus he demanded that airfare, accomodations and food be provided for his family of five people. Total insanity!

These are two different issues. In the conference I just went to, the lead organizer lost money, I subsidized some of his losses, and I don't think any of the instructors made a profit. The money went to renting the classroom space and sleeping space, paying the food workers, and promotion. The problem here is that permaculture is stuck in the middle class. If we were rich, we would already own the buildings and workers; and if we were poor, we would all be willing to camp out and bring our own food. What we need are Permaculture Rainbow Gatherings, where 50 people meet in the forest for two weeks, pack everything in and out, and leave with certificates.

The other issue is that some permaculturists become famous, and fame is a mental illness in the followers of the famous person. Even if this story is true, the speaker is only following economics. If you want to do five talks a year, and you get five hundred offers, you're going to raise your fee until you only get five offers.

Some day permaculture might become so fashionable that it will be taken over by followers of fashion and the predators who feed on them. This has already happened with the word "natural" and we're halfway there with the word "organic". But this doesn't stop us from continuing to follow the better things that the words used to point to. If you're paying attention, people who are not paying attention are only a minor obstacle.

November 21. Over the last few years I've moved away from the critique of civilization, but I still see one place where large complex societies stumble and fall at the feet of primitive tribes, and that is in making life meaningful. If we see a hard crash in this century, it won't be caused by energy decline or climate change, but by some mass movement that catches hold of people whose lives are empty and meaningless, gives them a grand story and a mission, and channels their energy into destruction. Related: 6-Year-Old Stares Down Bottomless Abyss Of Formal Schooling.

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