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- Terence McKenna
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April 25. Back to the popular subject of American health care, a friend I stayed with on my tour writes:
Health insurance is the biggest point of conflict between me and my mother. This most recent time, I left her house so frustrated and hopeless that I actually considered going on food stamps so I could divert $300 or $400 per month to buy health insurance. We eat well, we're active. I found a physician who takes actual cash, and I saw her last summer when my body went into crisis mode. I understand that if I break a bone, I'll be screwed, but the only other solution that would satisfy my mother would be to go back to school, go $100,000 deeper into debt to get qualified for a job I won't be passionate about so maybe they'll give me health insurance. I think that's crazy, she thinks that's the American Dream.
In this context, I can see that the health care issue is tied up with more difficult issues of class and the meaning of life. I bet most people reading this do not have a single ancestor who had a job they were passionate about. Our remote ancestors had nothing we would call a "job", and our recent ancestors saw wage labor as a chore they had to do in exchange for the benefits of modernity. Only a few lucky people get to have jobs they love -- and that's okay. We haven't worked out yet how to build a complex society out of intrinsically meaningful activity, and it's better for some people to love their jobs than nobody.
But the present situation is much, much worse. The American managerial class is so powerful, so immature, and so secretly unhappy, that it's not enough for them to love their jobs personally -- they expect everyone under them to also love their jobs. You can't even get a job at McDonalds if you admit that you're just doing it because you need the money. I'm tempted to say this is worse than slavery, except it must happen with slavery too. If the managers can not only fire you, but can also have you beaten and killed, then they can really force you to pretend to enjoy your work so they can feel good about themselves.
It also happens with parents. The baby boomers, and to some extent the two generations before them, got to live the American dream -- but some of them are not satisfied, and want their kids to live it too. George Carlin said "it's called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it." Even at its best, it only gave people enough ribbons and toys to not notice they had no participation in power. Now even the ribbons and toys are becoming vaporous. A college degree is like a $100,000 lottery ticket, guaranteed to put you in debt and unlikely to get you a job. Young people can't afford cars or houses but they can still afford to play Grand Theft Auto and Minecraft. Even jobs that "give you" health insurance typically sell you very expensive health insurance by deducting the premiums from your salary.
So what's the answer? Economic collapse is already underway, and we have to surf it down. The first step is to let go of some of the things you're supposed to care about. Here's a related reddit thread, For anyone who stopped giving a fuck, what were the results?
As for health care, I have yet to see any solution that's politically realistic. My personal strategy is to live like I'm already in the Zombie Apocalypse: if I get seriously sick or injured, I die. Really I would just lose all my savings and be in the same boat as everyone else -- that is, out of my lifeboat and back on the Titanic. To expand the metaphor, we're all on a big ship that's sinking, we're getting on lifeboats, but only the ship has a hospital! So if you get sick you have to go back on the ship and maybe sink with it. The solution, then, is to build lifeboat clinics: sources of good health care, including emergency care, on the fringes of the money economy.
April 25. On yesterday's biphasic sleep topic, Daniel sends this great Robb Wolf post about sleep and artificial lighting. Our ancestors who practiced biphasic sleep could sleep four hours, be up for four hours, and sleep another four hours, all in darkness. Our eight hour sleep pattern is "an attempt to deal with a chronic stressor": artifical light is the worst of both worlds, not bright enough to make us happy and give us vitamin D, but not dark enough for good sleep.
April 24. Today, some personal health stuff. There's increasing evidence that sitting is really bad for you. According to a new study,
people who sat more than 11 hours a day had a 40% higher risk of dying in the next three years than people who sat less than four hours a day. This was after adjusting for factors such as age, weight, physical activity and general health status, all of which affect the death risk. It also found a clear dose-response effect: the more people sat, the higher their risk of death.
So I've converted my sitting computer desk to a stand-up desk, by stacking a table on top of it. Wait, here's a photo. This effectively limits my computer time because my feet get tired!
Also I've been stretching and exercising more, especially the doorway stretch (illustrated on this page). More than one massage therapist has told me that if everyone did this stretch, they'd be out of a job.
And I'm experimenting with biphasic sleep. Supposedly, before the industrial age, it was normal for humans to get up in the middle of the night and do stuff, instead of lying awake. It probably takes practice, because the last time I tried it, my second phase of sleep was so low quality that it took me two days to catch up. Maybe I could just get up at 4am and then take a giant nap in the middle of the day.
April 23. Today, some book reviews. By an unlikely coincidence, the last seven novels I've read have all been first person. First the Hunger Games trilogy, which are all great fun. I like them better than Harry Potter because the plot changes from one book to the next.
Then, on Andy's recommendation, I read the two volume Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson, who also wrote one of my favorite sci-fi novels, Feed. Octavian is a slave, living during the time of the American war of secession from England, who is raised with the finest classical education by creepy rationalists who are doing an experiment to test racial equality. The books are extremely well written and well researched, emotionally powerful, and show a valuable perspective on early America. You should read them because they're good for you, but you won't like it, and I couldn't finish the second. The first book is like being repeatedly punched in the gut, and the second book is like getting a tooth pulled for fifty hours. My point is, at least the first book isn't boring.
Then, on Anne's recommendation, I read Far North by Marcel Theroux. There's a stretch after page 100 where I almost lost interest, but I'm glad I stuck it out because it's a very good post-apocalypse story. It's set in Siberia, among ruined cities founded by American back-to-the-landers, which were then overrun by refugees from climate change. The narrator is the last resident of one of these cities, a skilled survivalist who goes on the road seeking civilization, and endures a lot of bad stuff in a way that makes the book sort of uplifting.
Finally, on Todd's recommendation, I just finished Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It's similar to Daemon in that a genius game designer dies and sets in motion an epic conflict. But in this case, the plot is a transparent excuse for an over-the-top Gen-X geek nostalgia fest. I agree with Cline's view of the future, in which virtual reality continues to improve while the physical world has an extreme gap between rich and poor. But the book's bleakest and most radical vision only appears when you read against the text: in the future, humanity will be so degraded that young people will have no culture of their own, but will obsessively replay the culture of the late 20th century.
April 22. I think yesterday's post is the most boring I've ever made. New subject tomorrow. Happy Earth Day!
April 21. I've pulled the line from yesterday's post about transferring wealth from the young to the old. I still think it's mostly true, but it's distracting people from the more precise fact that healthy people with less money are being asked to subsidize unhealthy people with more money. More generally, I think it's more useful to frame the issue in terms of ordinary people having to make sacrifices, than in terms of some great evil that can simply be destroyed. If the story is that the 1% are exploiting the 99%, then the most stable solution is for the government to aggressively tax the rich, and the best solution is to fundamentally change the economy so that wealth no longer has positive feedback. Unfortunately, both of those are less realistic than a violent revolution in which the poor rise up and kill the rich. And historically that has almost always made things worse.
And if the insurance companies are evil, then the solution is to replace them with a single-payer public system, but that's impossible at the federal level, and if it could somehow be done state by state, it would still eliminate millions of jobs in the medical billing industry. I think it's better to pay those people to sit home and do nothing than to do wasteful jobs, but that requires a deep change in culture, in which people who still have jobs do not resent people who are lounging in the safety net.
The most realistic solution I can see is, first kill the mandate, and then try to get some kind of reform without it, which will be difficult. Second, more and more people have to refuse to buy insurance until it becomes a good deal. That means if you need medical care you have to get it cheap outside the system, or pay tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket, or go deep into unpayable debt. The next step is to reform bankruptcy to make it ridiculously easy to erase your debts and start over. We've got a good shot at this, but it will require even more sacrifice by ordinary people, because most investments, even your savings account, depend on the reliable repayment of debt.
April 20. (permalink) The other day I figured out the health insurance mandate. The excuse is, without the mandate, people who are healthier than average have no incentive to buy insurance, because it's likely to be cheaper for us to pay out of pocket. So, unless healthy people are forced by law to buy insurance, unhealthy people will have to pay more than they can afford. Now, America could fix this like every other rich nation, and pay for health care the way we pay for roads and wars: direct government funding, with the money raised through progressive taxation, in which people with more money pay more. To avoid this, we get the mandate. That is, instead of the unhealthy being subsidized by the rich, the unhealthy are subsidized by the healthy. So the insurance mandate is a massive wealth transfer from the poor and healthy to the rich and unhealthy.
Related, a Dmitry Orlov post from a few weeks ago: A Modest Health Care Proposal.
April 18. Stuart Staniford at Early Warning usually makes highly technical posts like "Spatial Coherence of Illinois Corn Yields". But sometimes he dumbs it down enough that I can understand. Yesterday he did that twice. First, The Median Influencer quotes a post by Randy Waldman, using terms like "polity" and "incumbent creditors" to explain a big economic mistake. To grossly simplify: the future of the economy is being sacrificed so that Baby Boomers can keep their pensions.
Next, Global Robot Population makes some depressing forecasts about the future of automation. Basically, there will be more and more unemployed people, and ideally they would be allowed to be idle and still have their basic needs provided. But that violates American culture, so the unemployed will be put in prisons, and prevented from escaping or revolting through high-tech surveillance and robots.
My comment here is that Americans hate their jobs. If you like your job (or if you're unselfish) then you have no reason to care if someone is being supported for doing nothing while you work. Many primitive cultures have no word for "freeloading", and there are people who do no "work" and nobody cares. This must be because all their useful activity is intrinsically rewarding. "Freeloading" only arises when useful activity is separated from intrinsic reward. Then society must use things like money and shame to drive people from useless rewarding activity (play) toward useful unrewarding activity (work). The task before us is to reunite useful activity with intrinsic reward, in the context of a high-tech society. I don't think we're going to get it right on the first try.
April 17. Just found this great comment thread: Military personnel of Reddit, what misconceptions do civilians have about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
April 16. Stray links. Some thoughts on the passing of William Corliss, who compiled many books of scientific anomalies. Where Charles Fort was a daring stylist and philosopher, Corliss was more cautious and respectable.
On Mythodrome, Disentangling the Deities argues that Elohim, the creator in Genesis, is not a sky father but more like the Tao, and that the modern Christian concept of "God" was derived from Roman paganism.
The Most Dangerous Gamer is a profile of Jonathan Blow, who is doing more than anyone else to make games into high art, with Braid and a new one called The Witness.
And in case anyone missed it, There Is No Invisible Hand. Even Adam Smith only mentioned it one time, and focused more on situations where unregulated markets are harmful.
April 14. Long post on Do The Math, Exponential Economist Meets Finite Physicist. The economist has to admit that energy consumption and GDP cannot keep growing indefinitely, or even for much longer at present rates. But the physicist admits that it is possible for things to keep getting qualitatively better in a steady state economy.
And a loooong post on The Hipcrime Vocab, The Depopulation Bomb. Birthrates are falling almost everywhere, there will be fewer children and more old people, and this will not be a catastrophe, but a challenge, with the potential for a better world, if we can adapt to lower consumption. I'm interested in the psychological effects of a very high average age. Old people can be wiser, but they can also be more set in their ways.
April 13. Continuing on the subject of the survival of mechanization, Gabriel sends this article, The Dignity of Sloth, speculating about a future where most human labor has been replaced by machines and computers, and people with below average intelligence are kept busy with games. So even if the games cannot be turned to any useful purpose, they still serve to keep people out of trouble. Something like this is already happening: studies show that internet porn reduces rape and violent movies reduce violence. I wonder if games also protect us from people with high intelligence. Maybe if it weren't for strategy games, I would have to fill my need for detail-focused management by being someone's evil boss.
More generally, computer games are the best technology yet for bridging the gap between how we feel like living, and how we must live to keep society going. Even primitive societies have to deal with this problem. They don't just tell each other to do what they feel like, but have rules and customs, including customs that allow young men the excitement of warfare while minimizing injury and death. This is exactly what we've done with games like Call of Duty, where the only injuries are repetitive strain and vitamin D deficiency.
How we feel like living is grounded in our biological nature, most of which is not human but pre-human. I think this is why the fantasy genre is so popular, because it reflects the world of our deep ancestors: their consciousness was magical not rational, hunters went on violent quests and foragers searched for hidden treasures, and we lived among other species that matched us in intelligence. We don't just want to live this way in games -- if we can, we will live this way again in the physical world. Here's a related piece I wrote ten years ago: J.R.R. Tolkien: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow.
April 12. Joel sends a response to the Paul Krugman piece from two days ago, The Causes of Slavery or Serfdom: A Hypothesis. While acknowledging that slavery is related to population density, the author adds another factor, monoculture vs polyculture:
Staple production is easier for gang-bosses to monitor than more diversified farming. Staple production also has lower skill requirements for workers. When demand for staple products is very high -- to feed the proletariat of imperial Rome, to feed the growing cities of late-Medieval Flanders, or to supply the cheap luxuries demanded by early modern England -- slavery or serfdom can emerge even without an extraordinarily high land/labor ratio.
Joel adds that this could answer Krugman's puzzle of why serfdom did not reemerge after the catastrophes of the 1300's crashed the population of Europe. As Carol Deppe mentions in The Resilient Gardener, farmers adapted to the instability of the time by adding many different crops and animals, and this could have made the agriculture system too complex to be managed by slave bosses.
Of course, today plantation slaves have been replaced by industrial machinery. Going back to this link from a few days ago, I used to think this whole system was doomed, but now I think it has an enduring niche. For turning sunlight to physical work, solar panels plus electric motors are more efficient than photosynthesis plus mammalian digestion. Unless there's a universal tech crash, which I doubt, large-scale mechanized agriculture will remain economically sustainable, and reforms to preserve topsoil could make it ecologically sustainable. So the reason to grow food in your backyard is not to save the world, but because it improves your own life.
April 10. A few links on economics. Hipcrime Vocab has a new post on Money and the Power of Symbols, summarizing David Hawkes:
The idea of something called "An Economy" as distinct from the larger society was invented by political philosophers in the eighteenth century as a way of rationalizing certain self-interested, avaricious and greedy behaviors that take place in a market economy which were formerly sanctioned by ethical and moral systems. A totally arbitrary distinction is made between behaviors that are "economic" and hence outside all other spheres of human relationships - political, social, ethical, religious etc. where naked self-interest is expected and justifiable.
From 2003, Paul Krugman on serfdom and population. The idea is, when population density is high, it's cheaper to hire a worker than to feed a slave. When population density is low, the ruling powers have to hold their workers through violence to stop them from running off and being self-sufficient. This is something we'll have to struggle with as global population declines.
The Beer Game, or Why Apple Can't Build iPads in the US. The idea is, if a manufacturing and distribution system is too far-flung, then each part of the system tries to make up for delays by anticipating future orders. This leads to a feedback loop, instability, and failure. So China is good at manufacturing because the supply chains are so dense. I'm wondering how this will change as home-scale fabricators get cheaper and better. Maybe in 20 years a town will decide to specialize in building ultracapacitors or brain implants or airships, with all components made locally by different people in their garages.
April 8. New post on the landblog/houseblog, about what I planted this year around my house, and my first 2012 trip to the land.
April 7. A reader asks me to elaborate on my statement that the merging of human consciousness with a global information network will not be stopped by energy decline. The short answer is, I have not yet seen a good argument that it will be stopped. We imagine that energy decline and economic collapse will eradicate all high tech, and reduce the whole planet to a preindustrial lifestyle, because it's easy to imagine. It's harder to imagine a collapse that's unevenly distributed. Historically, economic collapses do not reduce everyone to poverty, but increase the gap between rich and poor. I think the same thing is going to happen with technology: while overall resource consumption decreases, the proportion spent at the leading edge of technology will increase. Less energy will be spent moving physical stuff, and more will be spent moving information. Not only will there be a wider gap between the places with the highest and lowest technology, there will also be a wider gap between the highest and lowest technology used by an average person. Already there are African villagers with cell phones. In 20 years you may be living with a group of friends in an abandoned suburb, burning scrap wood for heat, growing open-source genetically modified sweet potatoes, and selling brain time to the dataswarm to gain credits for surgery to install a neuro-optical interface so you can swap out custom eyeballs.
On a similar subject, on the subreddit there's a link to this post from Hipcrime Vocab, What If The Peak Oil Movement Isn't About Peak Oil? Following Stuart Staniford, the author argues that higher energy prices will lead to more mechanization, because the cost of human workers will increase at least as much as the cost of energy for the machines -- especially machines that process information. So the reason to grow your own food is not to adapt to energy decline, but for other good reasons, which are still valid even if there's abundant energy.
April 6. Today, some links about technology and human cognition. First, a smart NYT article about Stupid Games, which the author distinguishes from "Hollywood" games like Halo. He writes, "You could argue that these are pure games: perfectly designed minisystems engineered to take us directly to the core of gaming pleasure without the distraction of narrative." I don't like Angry Birds, and I've never tried Tetris, but I remember being addicted to Mattel electronic football in the late 1970's. I'm also quite good at Minesweeper, Freecell, and Bejeweled 2, a rare game in which the purpose is to keep playing and a skilled player can keep playing indefinitely. Anyway, I can relate to this quote at the end of the article from Frank Lantz: "It was like a tightrope walk between this transcendently beautiful and cerebral thing that gave you all kinds of opportunities to improve yourself -- through study and self-discipline, making your mind stronger like a muscle -- and at the same time it was pure self-destruction."
Nancy sends this article about How electrical brain stimulation can change the way we think. Specifically it's about our distracting internal narrative (meditators call it the chattering monkey) and how the right kind of brain-zapping can suppress it and temporarily allow inner peace and faster learning of how to shoot an assault rifle.
And there's a lot of buzz about Google Goggles, another step in the merging of human consciousness with a computer-moderated global information network. I think this process will not be stopped by energy decline, it will create more problems than it solves, and it will change what it means to be human. For a pessimistic view, read the novel Feed by M.T. Anderson, in which we all have the internet in our heads all the time and it makes us weak and stupid. For an optimistic view, read the novel Freedom by Daniel Suarez, in which a game-like overlay, run by a benevolent AI, enables knowledge and power to be shared by everyone.
I've just subscribed to the Transhuman subreddit. These people are way too optimistic, but they're the only ones giving this stuff enough attention.
April 5. Over on the subreddit, polyparadigm has a good comment on yesterday's post. He points out that what we call "work" is meaningful to society but not to the individual, while "play" is meaningful to the individual but not to society. I'm not sure about the second point. Does anyone think Angry Birds is meaningful? Yet maybe it feels meaningful because it gives us a sense of engagement and reward.
Also he argues that play is not an artifact of our culture because animals are playful. But when otters "play", does this have anything in common with humans watching TV? They're both nonproductive, but psychologically they're completely different. Or consider the difference between kids "playing" spontaneously, and kids "playing" a sport organized by adults. This whole subject comes down to the inadequacy of our language. The word "play", which originally meant something healthy, is now applied to regulated competition, or passive consumption of entertainment, or high-tech hacking of our brains' reward centers. The word "work" points to both useful activity, and puritanical self-driving, making us think we can't have one without the other. In a good human society (which has so far only existed in tribes, and not all of them) all activity rises from the life inside us, and enough of it is useful to meet our needs.
April 5. Note to one reader. Dan Lorenzen, if you're out there, your Yahoo account has been hijacked by spammers.
April 4. Anne has a brief new post, Hunter Gatherer: Putting To Rest The "free time" Question. Basically the modern concept of "free time" does not fit other cultures, and is not even well-defined in our own culture. This reminds me of a point made by (I think) Stanley Diamond, answering the observation that primitive people do not distinguish between work and play. It's as if we're saying "those silly people don't even know when they're working and when they're playing", when really "work" and "play" are artifacts of our own culture.
A badly designed complex society (as all of them have been so far) is supported by many tasks that feel so painful and meaningless that nobody would do them without external motivation. This is "work". In a really badly designed society, the external motivation is all punishment and no reward, and the workers tend to revolt or run away. It works much better, if we can afford it, to motivate the workers with "play": in exchange for doing meaningless activity that you hate, you earn the right to do meaningless activity that you love.
By this definition, the best tribes never do any work or any play. I'd like to see an analysis of the worst tribes in this context, but it seems like they're only used as strawmen to make civilization look good. Does anyone know of an anthropologist who hates modernity, and instead of looking at the best tribes for differences, looks at the worst tribes for similarities?
Also on the subject of primitive people, Chad sends this link, The Grammar of Happiness: An Interview with Daniel Everett, a guy who lived with the Piraha.
Chad has a prolific blog called the Hipcrime Vocab. I have a feeling he writes about the subjects that many of you wish I would write about more.
April 2. Two great links today on the subreddit, both related to math: boredatheist covers Kerr black holes, and polyparadigm posts this comic about making real life decisions with an upvote/downvote system, and points out that it could be a metaphor for money. It seems crazy to use an abstract system to make decisions for us so we can avoid responsibility, but this is what we do with money all the time!
We might as well consider civilization a game with bigger stakes than usual. It's no coincidence it was a success as a PC game too. Too bad both get a bit dull towards the end.
I think there's a deep truth here. Why is it that most games, and most societies, are more enjoyable at the beginning than at the end? I've quit Fallout 2. Now that I've got NPC's with shotguns, and gone back to the Den to kill the slavers and get the car, there's not much to look forward to: guns with different names and higher damage numbers, balanced by enemies with higher numbers, and a long series of quests that are starting to feel like busywork. The fun part was the beginning: designing my character, analyzing and optimizing skills and perks, squeaking by on primitive weapons and tools and finding my first good ones, and as a player, mastering the interface and unfolding a vision of a different world.
It's easier to see how this fits with civilization by looking at Civilization the game. You start out as a settler exploring the uncharted wilderness, you build up a city from nothing, you get new buildings and units with qualitatively different abilities; and then by the halfway point you can see the whole map, you have ships and airplanes, and "progress" becomes quantitative. In role-playing games this is called level grinding: the novelty and excitement are gone, and you're just doing the same stuff over and over to get higher numbers.
Compare this to the "American dream". You come from a poor family, work your way up into a series of higher paying and higher status jobs, get a house in the suburbs and two cars... and then what? There's nothing left but to make more money so you can get material possessions with higher price numbers. This is why rich people keep trying to make even more money, because if they say "I have enough", life becomes meaningless, game over. I think this is also why most lottery winners end up bankrupt. It's not just that they're irresponsible, but that they feel more alive when they're struggling.
Games don't model decline because it wouldn't be any fun, just trying to hold onto what you have as the numbers get smaller. But there would be one way... When your empire peaks, you stop playing the empire, and begin playing the new system that's going to replace it! Of course this is what the citizens do in real life. Many Americans are still obsessed with "security" (playing the decline), but more of us are giving up on the old system and turning our attention to various systems that might replace it.
Are human societies going to keep rising and falling forever? If we had a stable system, what would keep it interesting? Individual humans can keep their wealth stable and find meaning in things other than money, so how could a whole society do this? And why is this not a problem for other species? If life were satisfying in the right way, would we have no need for novelty? I'm thinking of an answer, but for now I'll leave these questions open...
April 1. One more comment on fringe science and so on. I hope I didn't give anyone the idea that I'm serious, that I'm wagging my finger at people who disagree with me as if they're guilty of a crime. I'm into this stuff for fun! Maybe the trick is to learn to let different stories get along in your head, instead of fighting each other. Anyway, new subject tomorrow, and you might enjoy reddit's April 1 project, timereddits.
March 31. If anyone wants to read more critiques of dominant science and especially medicine, you might enjoy Seth Roberts. He's even a climate denier. This leads to a deeper issue. Nothing is 100% certain, and where to give the benefit of the doubt is an issue beyond science, a decision made for emotional, cultural, or economic reasons. You can only be completely impartial on a subject in which you are completely uninterested. I'm not sure why Seth has chosen to disbelieve anthropogenic climate change. Maybe he fears it will be used to justify ecofascism, or maybe he just enjoys being on the fringe. I've chosen to accept anthropogenic climate change because it's a better world if we think our actions have consequences. I reject the Big Bang for two reasons: even if Arp turns out to be wrong, his exclusion from telescope time, merely for pursuing a certain path of inquiry, was a huge injustice, which can only be corrected if that path is pursued with the best telescopes, something that has not yet been done. Also, a universe infinite in time is just much more appealing.
More generally, on every issue, I see the dominant story as a prison wall blocking me from an amazing outside world, while some people see it as a fortress holding back chaos. This is a matter of personality, and it determines, if you see a crack in the wall, whether you try to open it wider or seal it up.
March 29. I suppose I should say more about cosmology, since few people even know the dominant theories, and hardly anyone knows the anomalies. The light from distant galaxies is shifted toward the red end of the spectrum. This is called a redshift, and it's similar to how a sound has a lower pitch if the source is moving away from you. So cosmic redshifts could be caused by objects moving away from us -- or they could be caused by something we haven't discovered yet. This is a whole different cultural factor than the one I mentioned yesterday. If one person says cosmic redshifts are caused by something we know, and another person says they're caused by something we don't know, who gets more social status? So the present orthodoxy in astronomy is that all cosmic redshift is caused by stuff we already understand, a bit by gravity and most of it by recession velocity.
This is false, and it would be thoroughly proven false if the research were permitted. The astronomer Halton Arp had his telescope time eliminated back in the 70's when he started investigating objects with "incorrect" redshifts, and he later wrote two books on the subject, Quasars, Redshifts and Controversies, and Seeing Red. Here's an article covering a few of the issues: On the Quantization of the Red-Shifted Light from Distant Galaxies.
Once we discover whatever other factor is causing redshifts, and correct for it, we might find that distant galaxies are equally redshifted and blueshifted, in which case the universe is not expanding, there was no Big Bang, and the cosmic background radiation has some other explanation. But it's possible that most galaxies are still moving away, and we have an expanding universe. Still, an expanding universe does not necessarily mean that everything started from one point.
This requires some hard thinking about infinity. To make it easier, I'll strip it from three dimensions down to one. Imagine a long line with dots on it. The dots are moving a little from side to side, but mostly they're all moving farther apart: the line appears to be stretching. Now, if the line has finite length, and you play it backwards, then at some point all the dots come together as one. But the line could be infinitely long in both space and time. As it stretches, more dots appear to fill in the gaps, and if you play it backwards, then dots disappear, and more are constantly coming in from the edges. No matter how long you watch it in either time direction, it looks the same, kind of like zooming in or out on a fractal. For a two dimensional view of something similar, check out this fractal planetfall animated gif. Just as you seem to be falling and never get there, the universe could be expanding without having started anywhere.
So, how do more galaxies appear to fill in the gaps? We don't know yet, but we might have already seen it. Halton Arp has gathered evidence that quasars are not extremely remote and bright, but are shot out of the cores of galaxies, and turn into new galaxies, like seeds.
March 28. On the dropping out subject, Christienne sends a nice link, Osho on workaholic society:
What work are trees doing, and what work are birds doing? And what work are the sun and the moon and the stars doing? Except man, nobody is so insane to think that you have a certain great work to complete. This is how they have created the achieving mind.
This is related, oddly, to cosmology. I don't believe in the Big Bang, and some astronomers agree with me, but they have been pushed to the margins for cultural reasons. Our culture of expansion and achievement has projected its own mythology onto the universe, giving it a spectacular beginning and a linear progression to some kind of end. If, instead, the universe has always existed, then anything that could possibly be done has already been done an infinite number of times. If it's possible for you to win a Nobel Prize, then if you go far enough back, there's a world exactly like this one where you already did it. So there's no point doing anything just to accomplish it, only to enjoy it.I feel like it's time for me to have some useless fun, so I've been playing Fallout 2, which you can download for $6 from GOG.com. If you decide to play Fallout 2, you will appreciate the Nearly Ultimate Fallout 2 Guide.
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. 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 21. Review of a book about uncontacted tribes in the Amazon. The best part is about how a large 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, and so on. But at the same time, many of us understand this web of dependency and are fighting to get free of it. 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.