February 2021 - ?

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February 1. The Seductive Appeal of Urban Catastrophe. It's mostly about the iconic ruined city of Angkor. We used to think that when the city was sacked in 1431, everyone suddenly left. Newer archaeology suggests that it was mainly the royal family who left, while nonroyals "continued to live at Angkor, repaired its ailing water infrastructure, recycled stones from temples into new structures, and planted farms where high-density housing once was."

The actual decline had already started, and would continue for a long time. The cause was that "leaders bungled maintenance of the city's water system in response to climate threats." Applying this to our own time, I continue to think that collapse will be highly local. The places that do the best job maintaining and retrofitting their infrastructure will thrive, and the places that do the worst job will be abandoned.

February 4. Off the usual subjects, today I want to write about role models. With the Superbowl coming up, I really don't like Tom Brady. And when another person bothers you that much, it's usually because they're reflecting something inside you that you need to come to terms with. Brady always says that he couldn't have done it without his coaches and teammates. But the myth of Tom Brady is the legendary individual, not a cooperator but a competitor, whose will to win is so intense that he can carry any team of losers on his back to a championship.

My counterpoint to Tom Brady is a 90's NBA player named Derrick McKey. Supremely talented, on the court he appeared to be lazy, and he never put up big numbers. But his teammates loved him. They said he took care of the little things that made the whole team better. His lack of quantifiable production eventually led the Sonics to trade him to the Pacers. Immediately, the Pacers won twelve straight games, including a playoff sweep on the way to the eastern conference finals. Meanwhile the Sonics lost in the first round for two straight years.

So I can't defeat Tom Brady, but I can defeat my inner Tom Brady, by aiming for subtle helpful actions instead of obvious personal achievements.

Another example. I love the Great British Baking Show, and in one early season (spoilers follow) the three finalists were Brendan, James, and John. Brendan was like the Dalai Lama meets Hannibal Lecter: serene, precise, deliberate, and extremely competent. James was the opposite: wild and sunny, a master improviser who would always try crazy stuff and still bring in a good result.

The third finalist, John, was an average baker who could only motivate himself through mopey self-criticism. Week after week, he barely squeaked by, and even in the final, he was no better than Brendan. But the judges, like the writers of the disastrous Game of Thrones finale, admired his story and declared him the winner. (Years later, he would admit that he regretted winning because it derailed his life.)

Again, this bothers me because I still have an inner John, who I can eliminate by not doing what he would do, and instead doing what either Brendan or James would do.

Personality is made of actions, and small actions are more important than big actions, because there are more of them. If you want to be a different kind of person, just do what that person would do, in the smallest way, right now.

February 5. Matt sends a quote from Cory Doctorow's novel Walkaway:

You weren't supposed to need to be a special snowflake, because the objective reality was that, important as you were to yourself and the people immediately around you, it was unlikely that anything you did was irreplaceable. As soon as you classed yourself as a special snowflake, you headed for the self-delusional belief that you should have more than everyone else, because your snowflakiness demanded it.

I've always liked the snowflake metaphor. To me it means that every person, like every snowflake, is unique and special in their own way. Think of Mr. Rogers. He would say that each person is special, but he would never say that that means you should have more than other people. You could argue that if everyone is special then no one is, but I would say, because everyone is special, being special doesn't make anyone better.

I think that fallacious flip, from unique to better, comes from our quantitative culture. In a qualitative culture no one would even think of it. Matt comments: "There's a vertical idea of special and a horizontal idea of special, and they don't jive with each other."

It also occurs to me that being replaceable is something that happens in the workplaces of a machine-like economy, after we've passed through an education system designed to turn us into replaceable cogs. But if you're doing creative work, you don't have to go far in any direction before you're doing something that no one else has done.

February 22-23. Low Tech Magazine post, Vertical Farming Does Not Save Space, because the solar panels to power it take up more space than a regular farm.

In the Hacker News comment thread, techies are saying it does save space, because you can use nuclear power, or solar panels out in a desert. Then there are arguments against those arguments, and so on. The angle I want to take is probably not mentioned in the thread: technological complexity, and the challenges it raises for human motivation.

I continue to think that motivation is the number one factor in collapse. A society collapses when not enough people feel like doing the stuff that holds it together, and too many people feel like doing stuff that breaks it down.

Vertical farming presents itself as a cure for malaise. You're not excited about growing food in a stinky old field? How about growing food in a shiny new building? Okay, but who's excited about pouring the foundation for that building? Mining and processing the materials that make the cement for the foundation? Digging the hole? Or doing all the tedious work that leads to a machine that can dig the hole for you? And we haven't even started the building yet.

My point is, technological complexity tends to create tasks that no one feels like doing, and the people who get excited about tech are insulated from those tasks. This goes back to the subject of elite overproduction. Too many people see themselves as the designers and beneficiaries of amazing new technologies, and not enough people are willing to do the increasingly fiddly grunt work.

Low tech doesn't magically create utopia. But look at it from another angle. Your task is to design a society where nobody is ever forced to do anything. Are you going to go high tech, or low tech? There have been societies where nobody is ever forced to do anything, and all of them so far have been technologically simple.

For growing food, the most motivationally robust system is a semi-wild food forest, full of perennials, self-seeding annuals, and wild game, all powered by a fusion plant called the sun. There's a lot of room for highly motivated people to make this system work better, but there's also a lot of room for idleness.

Alex comments:

We are evolved to be hunter-gatherers, and fairly nomadic. Notice how many leisure activities are just hunter-gatherer "jobs" like fishing, hunting, mushroom gathering and so on.

When I was a teen I taught myself how to surf. Looking back it was tons of hard work. But it was fun. It's hard work tracking and hunting a deer, but it's considered fun. It's harder work gutting the thing and dividing it up, but those are joyous times among hunter-gatherers. I also used to get up at about 4AM and walk a couple miles up and down the beach, to find Japanese glass floats, then sneak back into bed. It was fun!

So hunter-gatherers tend to do things that might be annoying otherwise, in groups, they'll have special songs for that activity, and it makes it fun.

And to pull it off you've got to be very minimalist. Because there's tons more work that has to be done as a modern person and everyone's too busy doing all this work to sit around together and make the activity fun.

February 25. The internet as we know it is doomed. It's by Annalee Newitz, who wrote that new book about ancient cities. Her argument has two parts. First, that there were two waves of ancient cities, and the first wave failed because it didn't have the right institutions to manage population density, so people got unhappy and left.

Then she argues that the internet is the same way. It's getting bigger and clunkier, and the costs are beginning to outweigh the benefits, so that people are now trying to live without it. Maybe the internet will fade away, and eventually "return in a form we can only guess at."

Chris comments:

Every time we add extra complexity to our world, there is a decrease in the power of any single person to comprehend the society and technological foundations thereof. It feels psychically unsustainable. The state asks citizens to manage a baseline amount of technical overhead to have a modern life, but no one ever stopped to ask how much overhead it ought to take for our world to be mediated by the internet.

I think this is a big factor in the anxiety epidemic. I've said this before: the prophet of our age is not Orwell or Huxley, but Kafka. Password requirements have become so labyrinthine that I can't possibly remember them all, and I don't trust my computer to keep track of them, because I've seen both software and hardware unexpectedly fail. So I keep them all written down on a piece of paper, and I ever lose it, I might as well go live under a bridge.

In a high-complexity society, I live in the shadow of dread of all the things that could go wrong, that I would be responsible for fixing and have no idea how to fix. The thought of total technological collapse is comforting, because we would all be in the same boat, and our troubles would be comprehensible.

March 3. One more comment on the doomed internet. I'm starting to think that the world of screens is a fad.

I didn't even see a screen until I was three years old. It was a ten inch black and white, and my parents had to limit my hours to keep me from watching all the time, even though there were only four channels. Fifty years later, we have a 40 inch HDTV with Netflix, Hulu, Sling and Prime, and watching it is almost a chore. I mean, I'm glad I saw Queen's Gambit, but I watched it because it was good for me, not because I was excited about it.

I remember when digital watches seemed magical, and when the Atari 2600 was an eternal cure for boredom. Now video games have a million times the pixels and I don't even play them. Billions of dollars are being poured into virtual reality, but in terms of the quality of the experience, the leap from Red Dead Redemption 2 to a full-on Star Trek holodeck, is less than the leap from Mattel electronic football to RDR2, and that's already not enough.

Now my favorite thing to do is walk around looking at tree branches. I found out that tree branches are beautiful from LSD, which is why I think the next frontier of human experience is not VR or space travel, but brain hacking that will make LSD look medieval. Instead of going to strange new worlds, or creating them digitally, we'll discover the strangeness of where we already are.

March 8. The future history of white people:

In 1492, a trans-oceanic explorer wrote in his journal, after meeting the peaceful natives, "With fifty men we could subjugate them all." His people, the Whites, were named after the pale skins of their home region, western Asia. Though emotionally crippled by centuries of plague, famine, and war, they had the best weapons, and would go on to rule the world for 500 years.

Of their last days, little is known, because records at that time were on short-lived and unreadable media; but it is said that the White kings, Rump and Pootin, were defeated on the slopes of Covid, when their troops stood too close together.

Today, the Nords and Merkins trace their ancestry to the Whites, but they are most remembered in the names of sports teams, such as the Washington Palefaces and the Fighting Whities of Florida Island.

March 11. How Facebook got addicted to spreading misinformation. It's a long article, but the basic idea, in the context of AI machine learning, is that "models that maximize engagement also favor controversy, misinformation, and extremism."

But Facebook has to maximize engagement. It's a business in late-stage capitalism, so its number one priority has to be growth. Changing the algorithm to reduce engagement is not an option, so instead Facebook has to play whack-a-mole with whatever misinformation and extremism the algorithm calls forth.

On the same subject, a few months back I got an email from Nick about YouTube recommendations:

My YouTube habits skew decidedly left... But my recommendations are full of half-baked alt-right pseudo philosophy trying to justify white supremacist nonsense. If I watch one video about how to resole work boots, suddenly my recommendations are full of Trumpist blue collar propaganda (usually in the "bearded white guy ranting while driving a pickup" genre). I watch one video minidocumentary about a gay christian minister who preaches LGBTQ acceptance, and suddenly my recommendations are nothing but "gay sex causes God to send hurricanes."

Certainly, tech industry insiders do not have a right wing bias. So if the recommendations do, it's happening accidentally through AI. Something about the way right wingers think, or navigate the internet, is a better fit for how the recommendation bots operate.

By the way, I think "left" and "right" are ephemeral. The two sides of the body are a useful metaphor for political divisions, but political divisions change with culture, and eventually the words left and right will mean something completely different.

But at the moment, one of the things the right stands for is resistance to metacognition, to critical self-reflection. Their thinking is more automatic and predictable. The way they trace connections between one thing and another, is easier for bots to model.

Maybe the deeper issue is not AI modeling, but human modeling. The best way to understand the world is to observe it with no bias, figure out what it's doing, and then build our models from that. But our big brains give us the option to do it backwards: to start with a model that makes us feel a certain way, and then go looking for evidence to back it up.

For some reason, over the last few decades, the left has been much better than the right at policing itself against wishful modeling. How this happened, I can only guess, but I blame Ronald Reagan. Conservatives before Reagan were sober serious thinkers, like George Will and William F. Buckley. Reagan started down the road of turning politics into candy for children, and Republicans never looked back. So Democrats were like, "OK, we'll be the adults." I wonder if there's an alternate history, maybe one where the Kennedys survived, where now it's the other way around.