"I see more of what is going on around me because I am not concerned with finding a parking place."
-Risa Mickenberg, Taxi Driver Wisdom
August 16. I'm still not feeling smart enough to do an original post. Here are some stray links from Ask Reddit. Old timers of Reddit - what do you remember about life before the internet?
A thread full of evil stuff: People no longer bound by their NDA, what can you now disclose?
A thread full of nice stuff: What are examples of cats showing care for their humans?
A small thread about weird stuff: Has anyone heard of a medical condition where a person's electromagnetic field makes electrical devices defective? I've read about this being common in people who have had near-death experiences, and I don't think it's electromagnetic, but something we don't understand yet.
And a thread removed by mods for being too interesting: At what age did you realise that you're alive? This may sound like an odd question, but what age did you like suddenly gain consciousness and realise that "wait a minute, I'm a human"? My answer, near the bottom with no upvotes, is "I have no memory of not knowing that, so I guess it was before my earliest surviving memory." Or maybe this is a kind of consciousness that I still don't have. Or maybe it developed so slowly that I didn't notice, instead of all at once. It's weird to read about something so profound, that nobody talks about, and that I can't relate to. And it makes me wonder how many other differences there are between our experience of being human, that we haven't discovered.
August 13. Last night it was so smoky outside that we couldn't open the apartment to cool it off. I slept with no covers, and my feet cradling a freezer pack wrapped in a damp towel. The air quality index right now is 261, 21 times above the WHO exposure recommendation. Today's temp is going to be 95, and tomorrow 99 (37C). I'm seriously thinking about moving to the eastern USA, because in the near future this is only going to get worse. But here's a nice song about it: Living Hour - Summer Smog.
Also, yesterday I donated blood, and my brain is still clunky, so I'll just catch up on posting the best NWSL goals. My favorite kind of goal is one that comes from a defensive giveaway:
Mariana Larroquette spectacularly converts a steal.
Bethany Balcer pounces.
And Cheyna Matthews walks it in.
My second favorite kind of goal is one where someone takes it a long way against multiple defenders. Here's one from Sophia Smith, who is probably the striker of the future for the US national team.
Finally, a Jess Fishlock golazo.
August 11. Quick note on Andrew Cuomo's resignation. Some people think we've become too sensitive to sexual abuse. I think we're not yet sensitive enough to non-sexual abuse. Andrew Cuomo was a terrible boss who used power selfishly for his entire career, and he would have kept getting away with it, except that he became so blind to his own power that when it slipped into sexual territory, he didn't notice that he was doing anything wrong.
This reminds me of a friend who worked as a stripper, and she told me it was the only job she ever had, where she could say no to any request. As a society becomes less authoritarian, that becomes true of more and more jobs. We have a long way to go.
August 9. When I was a kid I had a dream that the world would end on August 9. Instead, here we are in the slow-motion apocalypse, and I'm trying to say something that's not obvious. Covid-19 has been holding center stage in the Spectacle, but I think at least three things are bigger threats.
Number three is economic decline. It's obvious that the Dow-Jones will continue to rise to record highs, while the number of homeless people also rises to record highs -- yet the big media will keep using the Dow as a symbolic measure of economic health.
The death toll of economic malaise can be hard to see, because the deaths don't fall under any clear category. A good article on this is The Dying Russians by Masha Gessen, who tries to pin down why so many Russians are dying, and ends up blaming lack of hope. I would say, as life gets worse, people take bigger risks, because fuck it.
If it gets to the point where we're going hungry, there will be a big rise in death rates before we're actually dying of starvation. From the 2014 archives, here's a nice bit about famine.
Threat number two is climate change. It's obvious that the world's economies will not make the sacrifices to stop it, even though they could. According to this reddit comment:
Bulk carbon sequestration directly from the air (the most expensive sequestration option) would cost about $100 a ton, even without future R&D to bring the cost down. Worldwide emissions of CO2 are about 36 billion tons a year. So $3.6 trillion a year to get to zero net emissions.
That's expensive, but way cheaper than what's actually going to happen: letting climate catastrophe run its course. Here's a recent John Michael Greer post about what to expect, The Future is a Landscape.
A couple of thousand years from now, in other words, archeologists from one or more of the future nations of eastern North America will travel on muleback through the slowly greening deserts to unearth the fabled ruins of Las Vegas and marvel at the insane bad taste of their ancestors.
Threat number one is internet-aided mass insanity. This subreddit post mentions how the printing press led to witch hunts, and here's a full article, Print and the Persecution of Witchcraft. In the 1930's, An Affordable Radio Brought Nazi Propaganda Home. Every time there's a new information technology, people use it to enhance what the human brain does best: distorting perception to feed the hunger to be part of a story. And all through history, the most popular story has been "kill the people not like us."
August 6. Yesterday I finished two projects I've been working on for a while. First, there's a great out-of-print philosophy book called The Psychic Grid by Beatrice Bruteau. Its conclusions are consistent with Donald Hoffman's The Case Against Reality, and Charles Fort's The Book of the Damned, but all three books take different angles. The basic idea is that the only true reality is the incomprehensible universal, and we filter that down to a tiny perspective that we can work with. Bruteau's focus is on what she calls "conviction communities," and this bit fits our present political situation:
But when a community has a set of experiences, well coordinated with expectation, language and behavior, shared by the whole community in a consistent and coherent way, which are not present in another community, then the two communities have lost their common ground for judgment and can only battle one another.
The heart of the book is chapter 7, What is Real? I've transcribed it and posted it on my readings page.
My other project is a new video for one of my favorite songs. I live in an aesthetic world a long way from public consensus, and most of you will think the song is screechy and the images are cringy: Wireheads - Holiday
August 4. I'm mentally sluggish this week, so more links. Continuing on the subject of internet disinformation, Deepfakes are one click away. It's an interview with my blogging friend from the old days, Tim Boucher. While I've been dipping my toes in the breakdown of reality, Tim has been swimming in it, working as a moderator for a large social media site, inventing a lost civilization called Quatria, and writing about hyperreality, "a condition in which what is real and what is fiction are seamlessly blended together so that there is no clear distinction between where one ends and the other begins."
New subject, sort of. Alex recommends this video series, Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. If you don't want to watch fifty hours of videos, there are transcripts.
Ugo Bardi has been one of the smartest doomers for a long time. I haven't kept up on his stuff, but he has at least two good blogs now, The Proud Holobionts and The Seneca Effect.
August 2. Some good news links. One Lost Methyl Group = Huge Amounts of Food Production. An enzyme called FTO was engineered into rice and potatoes, and crop yields went up 50%.
The plants' root systems were deeper and more extensive, and photosynthetic efficiency went up by a startling 36%. Transpiration from the leaves was up 78%, but at the same time, the plants of both species showed significantly higher drought tolerance.
My objection to GMO crops is political. If a modification doesn't breed true, and if farmers can't do it themselves, then we are dependent for our survival on big systems that have been designed to increase their power over us through profit.
The best case is, with better design of public institutions, biotech could be used to permanently upgrade the non-human world. If we can make the planet better than we found it, humans will have finally justified our existence.
Related: How organic and regenerative agriculture are revitalizing rural Montana economies.
Instant water cleaning method 'millions of times' better than commercial approach.
New 'mirror' fabric can cool wearers by nearly 5°C.
Flying Only with the Heat of the Sun, with black hot air balloons that use sunlight to heat the air inside them.
How to Unlearn a Disease. Some diseases are just bad patterns in our neural pathways, and "electroceuticals" might straighten them out.
And some DIY health, 5-minute breathing exercise lowers blood pressure better than working out, medication. Supposedly you need a special device, but it seems like you could just cover your mouth and suck really hard.
July 30. This is a comment I made yesterday in this r/weirdcollapse thread about psychological collapse and online communities going bad:
I was heavily into conspiracy theory in the 90's. There was a great paper magazine, Kenn Thomas's Steamshovel Press, that always had thoughtful and well-researched articles exploring anomalies in the dominant narrative.
Another magazine, Jim Martin's Flatland, was more dark and paranoid but still really smart. A more popular magazine, Paranoia, was stupid but fun.
At some point, conspiracy culture shifted to grand narratives about absolute evil. This happened at the same time that superhero movies (along with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings) took over Hollywood. The more epic and the more black-and-white the story, the more humans are drawn to it.
This is my half-baked theory: It used to be that ordinary people would accept whatever the TV said -- or before that, the church. Only a few weirdos developed the skill of looking at a broad swath of potential facts, and drawing their own pictures.
It's like seeing shapes in the clouds. It's not just something you do or don't do -- it's a skill you can develop, to see more shapes more easily. And now everyone is learning it.
Through the magic of the internet, everyone is discovering that they can make reality look like whatever they want. They feel like they're finding truth, when really they're veering off into madness.
Except that the real issue with the current conspiracy crisis is that people are just replacing the old TV and church sources with social media and YouTube. The masses of conspiracy culture aren't coming up with their own realities, they're just believing whatever shit they're told by conspiracy influencers.
Something that's rarely said about influencers, and propaganda in general, is that they can't change anyone's mind -- they have to work with what people already feel good about believing. This is a great essay from last year, on the mechanics of internet-aided mass delusion: A Game Designer's Analysis Of QAnon
July 29. Quick supplement to yesterday's post. Aaron sends this pdf article by Peter Gray, How Children Coped in the First Months of the Pandemic Lockdown.
In theory, there are several reasons for thinking that children's mental health might improve, at least temporarily, as a result of the pandemic lockdown. These include a reduction in the stress of school; increased time to play and in other ways pursue their own interests; and increased time with parents, who themselves may have more time and motivation to interact with and support their children emotionally than they had before.
July 28. Negative links! From 2017, EU withheld a study that shows piracy doesn't hurt sales. "Reda observes that the EU has been trying to force ISPs to install filters that spy on all user-uploaded content, and may have hoped the study would justify such heavy-handed enforcement."
Why do recipe writers lie about how long it takes to caramelize onions? It takes 45 minutes, but they always say it takes 10 minutes, because "Telling the truth about caramelized onions would turn a lot of dinner-in-half-an-hour recipes into dinner-in-a-little-over-an-hour recipes." Then, in this time-tight and money-tight society, recipe writers couldn't get published. This is another example of people lying, not because they're malicious, but because of a social context in which they'll get in trouble for being honest.
When Buddhism Goes Bad. I wrote about this back in March, in three posts beginning here. The word "meditation" points to a lot of things, and some of the most popular practices can be seriously harmful in excess. The line between benefit and danger seems to be around 30 minutes a day.
Schools opened, suicide attempts in girls skyrocketed. Heavily couched in disclaimers, this is the key sentence: "Could it be that the pressures around school itself are among the most important stressors related to suicidality among teens?"
Also not surprising: Get ready for many more record-shattering heatwaves.
Finally, this reddit comment by CurlSagan is the most cynical prediction I've ever seen:
Rather than build apartments, developers will build 15 story parking structures. Each parking spot will come with power so you can live in your shitty electric van or a conex box tiny house.
This will become the new, modern variation of trailer parks. The parking spots will still cost 2/3rds of your income. If your van doesn't have a toilet and shower, there's a public toilet and shower on level 1 that costs $10 per 15 minutes. Everyone who lives in these places will work 6 gig economy jobs and have a master's degree.
July 26. I just spent several days hanging out with extended family. It was about an even mix of red tribe and blue tribe, and I was surprised at how easy it was to avoid the subjects that would cause conflict. Of all the things we might have talked about, the stuff we couldn't talk about was maybe 1%.
And yet, both CNN and Fox News talk about those subjects at least half the time, and some media are pushing 100%. This is something everyone knows, but I can see it more clearly now: our sources of information, in order to get views and ad revenue, are going out of their way to stir up conflict.
New subject: an excellent scientific article on the obesity epidemic. The authors present the problem as a set of mysteries: why did obesity take off around 1980? Why does it not happen to hunter-gatherers, even when they eat diets really high in fat or sugar? Why is it related to altitude? Why are lab animals getting fatter? This bit is fascinating:
It used to be that if researchers needed obese rats for a study, they would just add fat to normal rodent chow. But it turns out that it takes a long time for rats to become obese on this diet. A breakthrough occurred one day when a graduate student happened to put a rat onto a bench where another student had left a half-finished bowl of Froot Loops. Rats are usually cautious around new foods, but in this case the rat wandered over and began scarfing down the brightly-colored cereal.
The graduate student was inspired to try putting the rats on a diet of "palatable supermarket food".... Sure enough, on this diet the rats gained weight at unprecedented speed.... When you give a rat a high-fat diet, it eats the right amount and then stops eating, and maintains a healthy weight. But when you give a rat the "cafeteria" diet, it just keeps eating, and quickly becomes overweight. Something is making them eat more.
The authors argue that some environmental contaminant is throwing off our lipostat, our inner sense of how much to eat to maintain a healthy weight. The reason highly processed foods cause obesity, is not because of their nutritional profile, but because the more processed a food is, the more chance there is for the contaminant to get in. That's also why obesity is correlated with low altitude: "Environmental contaminants build up as water flows downhill and are in much higher concentrations as you approach sea level."
Conclusion: the most likely contaminant is either a class of chemicals called PFAS, or lithium.
July 21. For the next five days I'll be busy with family stuff, so I'll leave you with three links that are challenging but not controversial. Thanks Gabriel for this long reddit comment about other cultures being less serious than anthropologists imagine.
I experienced several incidents of this kind which, I must now admit, I left out of my books on Yukaghir animism, as they posed a real danger to my theoretical agenda of taking indigenous animism seriously. One time, for example, an old hunting leader was making an offering to his helping-spirit, which is customary before an upcoming hunt. However, while throwing tobacco, tea, and vodka into the fire, he shouted, "Give me prey, you bitch!" Everyone present doubled up with laugher.
More anthropology: Rethinking cities, from the ground up. The article is hard to summarize, but the basic idea is that ancient hunter-gatherers were not that different from us, in terms of their social connections. There were extended families, who also belonged to diffuse large groups that shared a cultural identity.
It is not the case that small societies became large societies, which led to more conflict. Both scales were always there, and conflict was always possible. A lot of early cities were peaceful and egalitarian. This leaves us with a hard question: why are recent large systems so repressive? The good news is, it's not because they're large.
More urbanism: How to Build a Small Town in Texas. This is a careful and ambitious thought experiment about designing a town for 3000 people, on 82 acres (33 hectares), that is not dependent on the grid, has no cars within city limits, and is nice to live in.
July 19. Greg has an interesting comment on the last post: that after dismissing the connection between hard work and success, I posted links to three people who did exceptional things through a huge amount of activity.
The problem here is language. "Success" can mean many things, including status in a hierarchy, whether or not you've earned it, and being really good at something really difficult, whether or not anyone cares.
And "hard work" can mean many things, including forcing yourself do something you don't enjoy, so you can achieve some goal, and enjoying something so much that you can't help putting thousands of hours into it.
The former, I call the grind; the latter, I call obsession. When people do difficult things, and they credit "hard work," we assume they mean the grind, and they don't mind that assumption, because obsession is uncool. If you're obsessed with something that society considers useless, you're a weirdo; if you're obsessed with something that society considers valuable, you're a workaholic.
When people talk about "passion," they mean obsession without the negatives, which doesn't exist. I'm in favor of obsession, but we need to acknowledge the negatives. With the grind, the challenge is to get yourself to do this shit. With obsession, the challenge is to keep the thing you're doing in balance with the rest of your life.
July 16. Yesterday I had a highly upvoted reddit comment. Anwering the question, "What is the biggest lie you've been told by society?" I said, "That success comes from being smart or hard-working. It comes from some combination of luck, social intelligence, and tolerance for lying."
Of course, as one of the replies points out, "success" isn't even a good thing to aim for. As American culture defines that word, it means wealth and status in an economic domination system. As long as we all need money to live an adequate life, money is a tool of power-over, a way to make other people do things they would not do, if they didn't need the money.
One of those things is to validate the world-view of the people above you. As another reply points out, tolerance for lying includes "a willingness to lie for the benefit of people who hold power over you at the expense of yourself."
The popular myth of "lying" is, "I, who am evil, shall say something I know to be false, for my own advantage, ha ha." The reality is more like, "Oh shit, if I don't tell these people what they want to hear, I'll be in so much trouble." And then, "So I don't have to keep track of two things at once, I'll just tell myself the same thing I'm telling them."
Now, through the miracle of social media, the universe of tell-them-what-they-want-to-hear has expanded to include all of us -- as cringing slaves, crafting our profiles to preserve our delicate status, and also as corrupt dictators, who can always find a voice confirming our comfortable beliefs.
New subject: three cool DIY links. Dozens of shattered failures behind me, I have finally succeeded in forging a nearly indestructible knife.
Inventor harvests methane gas from ditches and ponds to power his moped.
And the Alexander piano, about a teenager who wanted to hear a piano with super-long strings, so he built one.