May - June, 2009

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May 4-5. In last week's post on unseen influences, I wrote that those of us who are into woo-woo stuff make a tactical error when we talk about what we "believe" or what "there is". Following Charles Fort, we should only accept and not believe, and we should put all our statements in the form of experience and not objective truth. If we talk about experience, we can't lose, because nobody can take away what we see, but if we talk about "truth", we can't win, because we can't make other people see what we see.

Then I noticed something that I've missed all these years: the so-called "skeptics" are arguing against two completely different positions. One is belief without experience: "You say I should believe in God, but you can't show me God, and you haven't even seen God yourself." The other is experience without consensus: "You say you saw a ghost, but you can't produce a ghost that I can see." To blur these two issues into one requires an act of pure negative faith: "Any experience that is not available to me is not available to anyone."

Now, if your goal is to build a system of thought that deals only with experience that can be reproduced at will, then it's fair to exclude experience that can't: "If you can't show me a ghost, then I won't integrate your experience into my mental model, which demands universality and predictability." Where the exclusionists go wrong is in mistaking their model for the whole of reality: "If you can't show me a ghost, then your experience of a ghost does not count for anything, in any context."

Where paranormal "believers" go wrong is in thinking, "because I saw a ghost, ghosts should be accepted into consensus reality even though most people can't see them." Both sides are suffering from a culture that has no way of talking about experience other than the objective model. One side feels besieged by experience seeking full inclusion where it doesn't fit, and the other side feels insane because their experience is not accepted anywhere.

I think it's both possible and valuable to build other systems of thought that include experience that is not universally available and cannot be reproduced at will. The first thing we need are new words. I've been carefully avoiding the English words "real" and "illusion" because they presuppose the objective model. Maybe we could split "real" into multiple words, depending on the degree of consensus. I would guess that most human languages are already like that, and that modern western languages are the exception.

For a deeper look at this issue, check out my September 2007 post about the laws of experience. And in this long forum thread, Wolfbird posts a link to The Archives of Scientists' Transcendent Experiences, and Escondida offers this Rumi quote:

To a frog that's never left his pond, the ocean seems like a gamble. Look what he's giving up: security, mastery of his world, recognition! The ocean frog just shakes his head. "I can't really explain what it's like where I live, but someday I'll take you there."

May 12. Lots of stuff to think about in this long article on self-control. A scientist devised an experiment where kids could get one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later, and it turned out that their ability to delay gratification was a very strong predictor of future success, even stronger than intelligence. The latest research is about how that skill can be learned.

I must be in the top one percent. When I was a kid, it was nothing for me to save my Halloween candy so long that I ended up throwing it out. But I'm also thinking of something Chuck wrote in an email a while back: that the ability to not do what you feel like, which we might call self-restraint, is completely different from the ability to make yourself do what you don't feel like, which we might call self-driving. That's something I've always struggled with. When I was in high school I would actually slap myself in the face, hard, to build the self-driving skill to enable me to do my homework. It took me years to train myself to wash dishes instantly instead of letting them build up in the sink. And the reason I haven't built a cabin yet is that too many of the steps feel more difficult than driving a dull knife through my eyeball.

Now that I think about it, my whole life path follows from very high self-restraint and low self-driving: I've "dropped out" because it's easier for me to be extremely frugal than go to a job every day. I've been mostly single because it's easier for me to go without sex than do all the stuff you normally have to do to get it. And I sometimes get in conflicts with people because I want them to tell me exactly what they want me to do, because I need that communication to motivate me, and they want me to do stuff without being told.

You could argue that both self-restraint and self-driving are coping mechanisms for a society that's badly out of tune with human nature. If we were nomadic forager-hunters, it would make sense to eat everything in front of us and store the excess as fat, rather than carry it with us or count on greater abundance in an unpredictable future. Delayed gratification only becomes valuable in a world with permanent settlements and stable economies. And self-driving would be unnecessary in a society built out of tasks that we find intrinsically enjoyable.

May 13. In this month's Acres USA magazine there's a great Joel Salatin article, "Heritage Breeds vs Nativized Genetics", where he punctures the heritage breed trend and explains an alternative that is both shocking and obvious: farmers should just make new breeds that are adapted to their own particular conditions and farming models, which is where heritage breeds came from in the first place.

I think it's borderline abusive to take a Scottish Highlander and put it in Alabama. Yet such a displaced animal is touted as God's gift to humanity under the guise of preserving gene pools. Folks, we aren't running a zoo. Wouldn't it be better for each of us to begin systematically building nativized genetics in our herds and flocks? Why stop the adaptation clock? Why not continue the process here in our own bioregions? In the future, we could have a hundred new American breeds bio-regionally specific. Over time, this would actually add diversity to the gene pool rather than limiting it to what it was a century ago, or what it is today.

One thing he specifically suggests is for egg farmers to "isolate the hens that lay the darkest-yolk eggs since yolk color indicates aggressive scavenging", which means better nutrition and lower feed expenses; and for meat birds, he says you could do the same thing by looking at how dark the fat is.

May 15. Last night I rode my bike to the discount theater to see Watchmen. I loved it, and I especially liked the theme of superheroes getting old and sad. When you're 20 you might feel "sad" because life seems meaningless and nobody loves you; when you're 40 you start to notice a different kind of sadness, as more and more people and things that you loved are no longer here.

I've never seen this issue raised among techno-utopians who talk about immortality. Of course techno-utopians never talk about unintended consequences at all. But also, many of them have not yet experienced the sadness of longevity. Living forever is something that young people want to do. It might happen that medical science will cure aging, and most people still won't want to live past 100.

May 16. We've all been told that the addictiveness of a drug is in the drug, and that if, say, opium were legal then we'd all become addicts. A Canadian psychologist, Bruce Alexander, wanted to test his hypothesis that addiction is caused by a bad environment, so he set up the Rat Park experiment, in which rats were given very good living conditions, and a choice between plain water and morphine water. "Nothing that we tried produced anything that looked like addiction in rats that were housed in a reasonably normal environment." Not only that, but rats that were forcibly addicted and then moved to Rat Park still chose the plain water.

Still, as an anomalist, I can't help noticing: no matter how you define "high quality of life", you can find examples of humans who had it and still got addicted to cocaine or heroin. I'd like to see a historical study of alcoholism: to what extent did alcohol spread by destroying traditional cultures, and to what extent did it spread by moving in after they had already been destroyed? Or we could ask the same thing about wheat addiction.

May 25. When I'm up at the land I have lots of time to think, and this time I was thinking about the idea that humans are becoming gods. It's a great subject, because people are so certain of such widely different answers: that we're clearly becoming gods, or coming to the end of being gods, or plunging toward extinction.

First I would question the word we. It's possible that biotech, or technologies we haven't dreamed of yet, will lead to such radical changes that there won't be anything we would recognize as "humans" or "us". What if we put our high IQ genes into crows, and they go around exterminating ecosystems to build crow empires, while we leave our bodies behind and move our consciousness to another level of reality?

Also, I question the word "god". By the usual definition, there's a limit to how godlike we can become, because you have to be a god over something. We are at the end of our ability to be gods over the surface of the Earth, because we've already killed the easy species, grabbed the easy resources, and generally transformed it enough to undermine our own power to transform it. And I think even our ability to be gods over each other has been declining for decades, as the ruled learn resistance to the rulers faster than the rulers can come up with new tricks.

But maybe we can become more godlike under a different definition. You can see this in discussions about big-G God: does the word mean a dude in the sky who throws lightning bolts, or the universal consciousness that underlies everything? I've written many times about power-over and power-with. A god-over would be someone with enormous power-over, and a god-with would be someone with enormous power-with. What would that look like?

The answer was written down 2500 years ago, when we had barely started being gods, in the Tao Te Ching... which luckily was the book I brought up to the land to read when I got tired. I've posted before about Tao translations, and my new personal favorite is Addiss and Lombardo.

May 26. Why don't more whales have cancer? This article speculates that very large animals can survive having tumors so big that the tumors get tumors!

In essence, hypertumors are composed of "cheaters" that take advantage of the vascular infrastructure built by other tumor cells. This population of cheaters grows parasitically on the tumor, damaging it perhaps to the point of inviability.

Of course, that's exactly what happens with cancerous human systems like Enron or the American Empire: a culture that trains people to sacrifice the wide for the narrow, to take more from the larger world than they give, will create hyperselfish individuals and subsystems that destroy even the systems that made them.

So, even if industrial civilization finds some magical exemption from its ecological limits, empires will continue to fall as long as they're based on a culture of taking, because that culture will eat them from within. And if we ever develop a large system that gives more to its environment than it takes, then that same ethical system will guide it internally, and it will be extremely resistant to collapse.

May 27. This article explains how the "dominance" theory of dog behavior is mostly wrong and has done great harm:

"We can tell when a dog comes in to us which has been subjected to the 'dominance reduction technique' so beloved of TV dog trainers. They can be very fearful, which can lead to aggression towards people. Sadly, many techniques used to teach a dog that his owner is leader of the pack are counter-productive; you won't get a better behaved dog, but you will either end up with a dog so fearful it has suppressed all its natural behaviours and will just do nothing, or one so aggressive it's dangerous to be around."

Of course, you can almost replace the word "dogs" with "humans": coercive and dominance-based training has suppressed natural human behaviors and made many humans either lethargic or dangerous.

Which brings us to this piece, The Trouble With Prison, written by a smart guy who has served 29 years in a life without parole sentence. It seems to me that the whole idea of prison is a holdover from the most barbaric societies in history, and the existence of prisons in this supposedly modern and enlightened age should embarrass us.

We haven't even had a discussion about the purpose of prisons. They don't work as a deterrent to crime, because criminals don't expect to get caught, and anyway, if deterrence is the purpose, it would be a lot cheaper to just give convicts an electric shock and let them go. If the purpose is to keep dangerous criminals off the street, then convicts should be evaluated to see whether or not they're dangerous, and if so, they shouldn't be let out, and if they've done non-violent crimes then they shouldn't be in prison at all. If the purpose is "punishment", by which we mean revenge carried out by the authorities to make obedient citizens feel righteous, then we're being half-assed, and we should publicly torture convicts to death like they did in the good old days.

And if the purpose is rehabilitation, then why is the system seemingly designed to do the opposite? The article focuses on this question and concludes that there are powerful interests, not just economic but psychological and spiritual, that feed on crime and punishment and therefore seek to maximize them. If we turned 90% of prisoners and career criminals into good citizens, then 90% of cops and prison guards would lose their jobs, and more generally, the whole class of obedient losers and thugs would no longer have the disobedient losers and thugs to look down on.

Update: there's some great stuff in this forum thread, wolves in jail. Summary: the dominance theory of wolf behavior is based on observations of unrelated captive wolves. Wolf packs in the wild are literally families. Studying wolves by looking at captives is like studying humans by looking at prison inmates.

But our whole civilization is like a prison! So our theories of human behavior are equally skewed, unless we can look outside the prison and see free humans. And look -- there are some free and happy humans living in nomadic forager-hunter tribes. But here we make a mistake if we say they're free because they're primitive, because we can also find tribes like tiny North Koreas. It must be some other factor that makes the free tribes free, and we need to figure out what it is, and apply it to whatever kind of society we're living in. The reason large complex societies are so uniformly repressive is that we've only been living in them for a few thousand years, and we still don't know how to do them right.

May 28. This interview covers the latest findings about the intelligence of the very young:

...children are like the R&D department of the human species. They're the ones who are always learning about the world. But if you're always learning, imagining, and finding out, you need a kind of freedom that you don't have if you're actually making things happen in the world... The way that evolution seems to have solved this problem is by giving us this period of childhood where we don't have to do anything, where we are completely useless. We're free to explore the physical world, as well as possible worlds through imaginative play. And when we're adults, we can use that information to actually change the world.

Clearly, human evolution hasn't gone far enough, because look at all the terrible stuff we've done by "making things happen" and "changing the world". Traditionalists are always complaining that 30 year olds are still slacking off like kids instead of going out and doing something useful, like building suburbs or designing killer robots. I say, let's extend childhood until age 70, and then retire!

Seriously, let's just restrict the definition of "useful" to providing necessities like food and water and shelter and clothing, and devote all the rest of our energies to harmless imagination and learning. Or let's put less value on "accomplishing" stuff and more value on gaining understanding.

June 1. The Case for Working With Your Hands. Even western civilization has a long tradition of respecting people who work with their hands, because of our deep biological drive to respect people who do useful things. But in the 20th century that tradition was hijacked, and we were told that mechanics and plumbers and carpenters are losers, and the only people who deserve our respect are "professionals", a strange word that apparently means someone who has lots of academic credentials and sits behind a desk.

The author goes into great detail about how physical jobs are not only highly useful, but also permit much more autonomy, and demand and permit more use of intelligence, than most desk jobs. I would say this has happened partly because desk jobs have higher status. The more status people think they're getting, the more abuse they'll put up with.

June 3. Last night, in Earth 2100, ABC news covered the collapse of civilization! Of course, they aren't going to say anything that threatens their corporate masters, and they're going to push techno-fixes like electric cars. But there were all kinds of things I never thought I'd see on network television: Las Vegas reclaimed by the desert, cops firing into crowds, cross-country travelers having to avoid dangerous regions, and a failed attempt to stop global warming by spraying chemicals from planes. They showed the destruction of New York City, the human population clicking down under three billion, and they even showed Kunstler saying we'll have to give up the American way of life.

I don't think the show was made as part of some evil plan. It was made by people who actually care about the future of life on Earth, and they were propagandizing themselves as much as they were propagandizing us. The key to propaganda is what it leaves out, and I noticed two things, certain to be part of the ongoing collapse, that were carefully excluded.

First, that the poor could lead the rich, or the weak could lead the strong. The poorer parts of the world are going to be the first to face the coming changes, and they're intelligent humans like we are, so they will come up with solutions to problems that elite nations aren't even aware of yet. For example, Cuba has done a great job adapting to loss of their oil supply, as you can see in this video, The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil. Yet "Earth 2100" showed less-industrialized humans as stupid animals, desperately swarming across our borders to join our better life, or passively waiting for us to save them with our academic plans and techno-fixes.

Second, that in some ways, collapse will improve our quality of life. I've written plenty about this already, but here's another way to think about it: The culture of Empire fears anything it didn't plan. Consider how people react to disease, or "terrorism", or unruly kids, or weeds. If we can't keep the unplanned thing from happening in the first place, we try to forcefully destroy it, or build a wall against it. What we don't consider is that our plans might be mistakes, and that if we listen to the unplanned thing, it will guide us back into balance.

June 5. It looks like Obama flip-flopped on detainee abuse photos because Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki told him that "Baghdad will burn" if they're released. That's basically how I see Obama's role: not to turn a dying empire into a progressive utopia, which is impossible, but to stop shit from burning.

June 12. Stefan cites some books (Steve Taylor's The Fall and Jim DeMeo's Saharasia) arguing that human misbehavior didn't appear until 6000 years ago, and he wonders if I can back up my assertion that violence and repression have always been part of our story.

The more I look into this subject, the more depressed I get about my species, not because of the physical violence we do to each other, but the intellectual violence we do to ourselves. It's hard to find anything written about our remote ancestors that's actually curious about how they lived, instead of turning them into puppets acting out whatever drama will back up some contemporary ideology.

So, contrasting the abundant evidence picked out by primitivists to show prehistoric Heaven, is abundant evidence picked out by antiprimitivists to show prehistoric Hell, in books like War before Civilization by Lawrence Keeley, and The Origins of War by Guilaine and Zammit, and Constant Battles by Steven Le Blanc, and Sick Societies by Robert Edgerton. Conveniently, both sides feed off the extremism of their opponents, until we can barely imagine a non-extreme position. Among reviews of those books on Amazon, I found only a few signs of intelligence, like E.N. Anderson's review of Constant Battles.

It's easy to see why we like to idealize the primitive: If human nature is free and peaceful and Earth-friendly, and all the evil in the world is the result of a crazy fluke 6000 years ago, then all we have to do is blow up the Death Star and everyone will be happy forever. It's much harder to understand why anyone would want to believe that human nature is wretched and brutal. I think these people are all "good prisoners". They're like the Michael Palin character in Life of Brian, who has spent his life chained to a wall in a Roman prison, and does nothing but rant about how wonderful the Romans are and how all their authoritarian measures are justified. The more abuse you've suffered, the more you want to believe that the abuse was necessary -- because if it was unnecessary, if all that suffering was for nothing, the grief is unbearable.

So what's my answer? There are many records of human societies with hardly a trace of repression or violence, and it only takes one to prove that it's possible for all of us. But I don't think the key is to go primitive. The key is much more subtle, and if we can figure it out, we just might be able to apply it to societies large enough that they can't be conquered, and have an enduring Utopia. But I doubt it. I think we're going to have to keep wrestling with the worst parts of our potential forever.

June 16. High population density triggers cultural explosions. Way before grain agriculture, humans made a great leap in cultural complexity, and this article credits population density, which "leads to greater exchange of ideas and skills and prevents the loss of new innovations." My guess is that this caused a feedback loop of even greater density and more innovations, some of which turned out to be mistakes.

June 17. The Obama administration has just launched a new website about climate change,, with a scientific report that until now has been suppressed, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. We're going to see droughts, crop failures, bigger storms, rising oceans, new deserts, species extinctions, and so on. But this level of catastrophe does not threaten complex human systems or life on Earth. Adaptable individuals, societies, and species will mostly survive, and some will thrive.

The much more serious threat is an anoxic event, in which the oceans get depleted of oxygen, and almost everything in them dies. Then they fill up with anaerobic microbes, which break down the dead stuff and generate hydrogen sulfide, which bubbles up and poisons life on land, and also floats up and dissolves the ozone layer. This has happened several times in the remote past, and caused giant extinctions.

It seems to start like this: greenhouse gases warm the climate and melt the polar ice. The rising oceans pick up lots of nutrients and organic materials, which feed oxygen-gobbling bacteria. Also the bacteria work faster at higher temperatures. Also, with the oceans at a more uniform temperature, the currents shut down and they become stagnant.

Here's good overview, Impact from the Deep. The author, Peter Ward, also has a book, Under a Green Sky. Ward says that two other anoxic events began when atmospheric carbon dioxide hit 1000 parts per million.

But in those cases, the CO2 came from massive volcanic eruptions on a younger Earth. The current CO2 level is only 390ppm, and has risen only 110ppm in the entire industrial age, in which we burned half the oil and gas and cut down most of the forests. So are we safe?

On the one hand, I don't see anyone saying that we can't get to 1000ppm because there isn't enough carbon around. But also, I can't find any good story about where all that CO2 will come from. This Climate Progress article on global warming feedback says that around 450-650ppm, we'll hit a tipping point that sends us up to 1000, but it doesn't explain how, except for a brief mention of soils and forests. If warming could drive enough CO2 out of soils and forests to add 300ppm, then I'd like to see a detailed description of how that would happen, so we can look for ways to stop it.

There's also methane, a much stronger greenhouse gas than CO2, which will make a feedback loop as it's released from thawing permafrost and ocean sediments -- possibly a very fast feedback loop called a clathrate gun. If methane is so important, then scientists should be talking about total greenhouse gas numbers or temperature numbers, instead of CO2 numbers.

Also I'm wondering how peak oil figures in. Climate doomers can tell a much better story if they ignore energy doomers and assume that fossil fuel consumption will stay steady or grow. For example, the Climate Progress article cites a 2003 study using "a typical fossil fuel emissions scenario for this century", but in 2003 the typical scenario assumed decades of abundant oil. Instead, world oil production peaked in July 2008 and is now at 2004 levels. Will it drop fast enough to save us? It might depend on how much we exploit oil shale, oil sands, and coal.

June 18. Impressive new Dmitry Orlov piece, Definancialisation, Deglobalisation, Relocalisation. If he's right, you can forget yesterday's post, because involuntary energy decline will slash carbon emissions beyond Al Gore's wildest dreams.

Specifically, Orlov argues that when oil costs reach a certain percentage of gross domestic product, the industrial economy stalls. So it was the oil price spike that caused the collapse last fall. But here's the kicker: every time we get a little collapse, the GDP shrinks, which means the amount we can spend on oil, without causing another collapse, also shrinks. So we're going to see a series of recoveries and collapses at lower and lower levels, until the industrial economy is no longer big enough to maintain its own infrastructure.

It's a long talk and there's lots of other good stuff in it. I like the bit about how a dieoff can happen with nobody noticing except the workers who process the dead bodies. This must be because most of the deaths are people without friends or family to take care of them. Also I like the stuff in section 18, about how collapse happens one person at a time, and is always mistaken for personal failure. Even if you get out of the collapsing system and thrive, you will be seen as an eccentric loser by people who are still in it.

June 25. 1941 essay, Who goes Nazi? The author spent a lot of time in Europe watching nations and people turn Nazi, and here she goes through Americans (and one German) at a party, one by one, sketching their personalities. Her conclusion:

Those who haven't anything in them to tell them what they like and what they don't -- whether it is breeding, or happiness, or wisdom, or a code, however old-fashioned or however modern -- go Nazi.

This reminds me of how fire spreads: in a forest where everything is alive, a fire can't even get started. When the ratio of deadness to aliveness gets high enough, there's a tipping point at which a spark will turn into a spreading fire. And if the ratio of deadness to aliveness is even higher, then there's another tipping point at which the fire grows so hot that it consumes everything.

For more about internal vs external values, see Paula's comment in this post.

June 29. Fascinating Cryptogon post, Sine Wave Google Searches. Specifically, when you put "ringing ears" into Google trends, you get a sine wave with a one year period, high in January/February and low in July/August. If it were caused by the winter holidays, then instead of a sine wave, we would see spikes, like we do with a search for pie. And if it's related to seasonal temperatures, we should see the reverse trend in the southern hemisphere, and no trend in the tropics, but there's not enough data yet to test that. If it's not temperature, then we may be getting into fringe astronomy.

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