"He hauled in a half-parsec of immaterial relatedness and began ineptly to experiment."
-James Tiptree Jr.
March 28. I'm taking the week off from blogging, except maybe posting links. Today, two weird physics links. Physicists create extremely compressible "gas of light". And Digital data could be altering Earth's mass just a tiny bit, claims physicist.
March 25. Quick loose end from a week ago, a new Reddit thread about hell and the Bible.
And continuing from the other day, Myles mentions in-group heterogeneity bias. People tend to see their in-group as diverse, while seeing out-groups as monolithic. For me, this raises the question: where do you draw the line? How do you decide if this person is in-group but different, or out-group?
I don't think there's any logic to it. The line between in-group and out-group is drawn for reasons of history and convenience, and then within that framework, in-group differences are noticed and respected. I also think that in-group out-group thinking is optional. It's possible to see the entire universe as one diverse in-group.
Why is this so difficult? Maybe because hatred toward collective entities inspires meaning in life. Also relevant, an abstract of a study in which, "Although subjects discriminated significantly against a homogenous out-group, this discrimination disappeared when the out-group was heterogenous."
The broader subject here is intellectual hygeine, practicing healthy ways of modeling reality, when unhealthy ways are more tempting. Another example of this is the choice between either-or thinking and spectrum thinking. For example, in the current war, TV news draws a line between Russia (bad) and the West (good). Some people want to lump the West with Russia on the bad side. I see it like this: Russia is worse than China, China is worse than the USA, the USA is worse than New Zealand, and New Zealand is not even 10% of the way to the full human potential for how well we could live.
March 23. Jumping right back into the usual subjects, there's a valuable concept in the book The Dawn of Everything, called schismogenesis. The idea is, people like to choose their values and behaviors, not so much from practical needs, as from the desire to be different from other people. This is why identical twins raised together end up more different than if they're raised separately; and it's why two neighboring tribes, in basically the same ecosystem, might have different cultures and even different diets.
This makes sense for the survival of the species. If one year there are no fish, or no tree nuts, then one of the tribes will still eat. But for your personal survival, and mental well-being, sometimes you have to recognize the urge to stand apart and overrule it.
There's a recently coined word, edgelord, which I would define as someone with the habit of believing or saying things that are provocatively untrue, so that they can distinguish themselves from other people, typically on the internet. The internet has buffed the power, the speed, and the danger of the schismogenetic urge. Flat earthers are the perfect example of people showing off their own ability to ignore evidence in order to make their lives more meaningful, but at least they're not doing any harm.
March 22. There's a lot of personal news that I've been waiting to post all at once. In the last year, I sold both the house and the land. I bought the land in 2004 and the house in 2011, and you can still read about the various projects here.
For both sales, rather than fix up the properties and get as much money as possible on the open market, most likely from flippers, I was lucky to find local buyers who planned to hold onto them for a long time, and who made it easy for me. In return, I gave them heavy discounts.
I bought the land with the idea that by living there I could escape the money economy and hang out in the woods all day. It turns out, homesteading is for workaholics who love driving. In practice, you're going to have to go into town so much that you're basically a remote suburbanite, and many back-to-the-landers are just little developers, extending the human-made world into increasingly remote places.
It's not even a good way to survive economic collapse, as Toby Hemenway explained in two essays in Permaculture Activist magazine, which I've saved here.
At this stage in my life, survival is not a high priority. I mean, my intention is to live at least to age 80, and spend many more wonderful hours doing creative work, gaming, and walking around looking at trees. But I'm so sick of these interesting times. Life feels like a three minute yoga stretch, and after two minutes, I feel the urge to quit, but I know I can make it to three, and I'll be glad I did.
Right now, I'm getting rid of most of my stuff, and preparing to move to whatever city Leigh Ann gets a job in. When we're settled there, I'll post another update.
March 18. Bunch o' links, starting with this Hacker News thread about permanent daylight savings time. While I look forward to not changing clocks, what we need is permanent standard time. Setting clocks permanently an hour ahead is an act of aggression by morning people against night people.
A detailed Reddit comment about the origins of the Christian concept of Satan. There's also some stuff about hell, to which I would add: the modern Bible translates multiple words as "hell", and all of them originally meant places where your dead body goes, not places where your soul is punished.
Why some Canadians are moving to so-called medieval villages. It sounds great, except there's no mention of how far you have to go to get to the nearest town. I suspect it's a long car drive, when what we need is a short bike ride.
Scientific article, Lawn mowing frequency affects bee abundance and diversity in suburban yards. "Mowing less frequently is practical, economical, and a timesaving alternative to lawn replacement or even planting pollinator gardens."
A long thread on Ask Old People, What's a skill that's slowly dying? The answers range from complaining to nostalgia to actually scary.
Some good news, Potato farmers conquer a devastating worm with paper made from bananas. "The new technique has boosted yields fivefold in trials with small-scale farmers in Kenya, where the pest has recently invaded, and could dramatically reduce the need for pesticides."
Finally, Music theory for nerds is a nice overview of frequencies and pitch intervals, with a healthy skepticism about modern musical conventions. From the conclusion: "I get the feeling that treating the whole chord/key ecosystem as a set of rules is like studying Renaissance paintings and deciding that's how art is." And from one of the comments:
The 12-note octave is basically just a compromise that evolved as common ground between a whole bunch of different instruments. It's not very good... Sheet music is a lossy transmission format for providing note data between performers. Most of the musicians I know don't even know how to read it.
March 15. Smart article about car crashes during the pandemic. In the USA, "2020 saw the biggest single-year spike in traffic deaths in a century," while in Europe, "as driving went down, crashes went down."
The idea is, American roads are designed not for safety, but for speed and volume. The main thing keeping crashes down is congestion, which forces drivers to go slow. Remove the congestion, and the roads become deadly. And when the media reports on this, they generally ignore road design and focus on psychology. Instead of looking at the failure of roads to stop people from driving dangerously, they look at the failure of individuals to stop themselves from driving dangerously.
This is a theme I covered in this post last summer: societal failures framed as personal failures. Another example is obesity, which is caused by some new factor, maybe PFAS or lithium or linoleic acid, throwing off our intuitive sense of how much to eat, and forcing us to count calories to stay thin.
In a perfect society, no self-control is necessary, and right now we're about as far from that as we can get. We're all exhausted from constantly forcing ourselves to do the opposite of what we feel like doing, and meanwhile judging anyone who isn't as good at it as we are.
Back to car crashes, the Hacker News comment thread has some discussion about the word "crash" vs the word "accident", and a link to this page, Crash Not Accident:
Before the labor movement, factory owners would say "it was an accident" when American workers were injured in unsafe conditions.
Before the movement to combat drunk driving, intoxicated drivers would say "it was an accident" when they crashed their cars.
Planes don't have accidents. They crash. Cranes don't have accidents. They collapse. And as a society, we expect answers and solutions.
Traffic crashes are fixable problems, caused by dangerous streets and unsafe drivers. They are not accidents. Let's stop using the word "accident" today.
March 13. I like to write about the far future being better, because the near future is going to be a total shitshow. The other day I said that it's hard for a society to be two of these things at once: global, repressive, planned, and stable. But when I think about it more, two of those things are a natural fit: repressive and planned. The two that are hardest to combine are global and any of the others.
If we survive another million years, I don't think there will be a global government even once, because the things that government does are better done regionally. Also, something I learned from The Dawn Of Everything is how much humans love to differentiate themselves from other humans.
The best case would be what Leopold Kohr imagined in The Breakdown of Nations: thousands of diverse autonomous states, each made up of a city and the farmland around it. More realistically, we could have pretty much the nations we have now, with well-enforced global consensus about what a nation can and can't do. Like, no slavery, no killing protesters, and no invading each other.
If we can just get that one rule, no military invasions, then the door is open for all kinds of good stuff. Because right now, if a small nation does something that clearly works better, then a large nation, so as not to lose face, can just invade them to cover it up. But when good practices can't be crushed, they will eventually spread.
It may seem that sanctions on Russia are based on ethics, that we're making economic sacrifices for ideals. But a lot of ethical decisions are just non-short-sighted practical decisions. The reason so many countries are coming down hard on Russia, is that the world is poised to get more dangerous, with climate catastrophes and resource shortages looming. And in that global environment, the last thing we want is countries invading each other willy-nilly.
Maybe we'll fail, and by 2050 there will be wars all over. After WWI they tried to make a League of Nations to prevent another war, and of course that didn't work. But it had never been tried before, and I think we're getting better at it.
It's funny how certain combinations of words can take on meanings far beyond the meanings of the words themselves. If someone says "New World Order", what they're saying is: I fear a society coming soon, which will be 1) global, 2) repressive, 3) planned, and 4) stable.
I don't fear that, because you can't have all those things at once. It's hard to even have two of them. The trend, at this juncture of history, is almost the opposite: 1) balkanization, 2) more attention to human rights, 3) more need for improvisation, and 4) rapid change.
The old-school authoritarians are playing chess, and the rest of the world is playing Wordle. Chess is a steady marshalling of forces toward a clear objective, in which a single mistake can be fatal. Wordle is a series of wrong answers on the path to a right answer that you don't even know until you get there.
March 7. I'm thinking about the difference between Russian and American propaganda. What all propaganda has in common is, it's always what you expect. Putin is never going to say, "Oops, those Ukrainians are tougher than I thought, and my military has terrible morale, so now I have to piss off the world by bombing Kyiv to rubble." Everyone knows he's going to say, "It's all going according to plan."
In America, and I'm thinking specifically of 24 hour news, they really try to get the facts right. Then, given the rule to not say anything false, they craft exactly the narrative that you expect. First they correlate the little views to make a simple big view, and then they show only the little views that match it. How much footage are they filtering out, not to hide some sinister truth, but to hide the fine-grain complexity of reality itself?
In a better world, mass audiences would be trusted with surprising details, like a happy refugee or a pessimistic soldier. But America still has more sophisticated and more effective propaganda than Russia. And this is not exactly about authoritarian vs non-authoritarian systems. The USA is still more top-down than bottom-up. It's just that we have enough bottom-up mechanisms that the rulers can't be ham-fisted.
March 6. On a quick follow-up from Friday, I can think of two things that are correlated with both achievement and unhappiness. One (thanks Zero Null) is tunnel vision, or narrow focus -- and this is especially true if you're zooming in looking for things that are wrong. That's how you perfect your own technique, but if it becomes your default way of looking, you're going to be miserable.
The other is a get-things-done mindset. If life starts to feel like a video game where you've completed all the quests, then you need to re-imagine the meaning of life as something other than quest-based.
Update: a third thing is not wanting to show weakness.
March 4. Sad news from women's soccer. Stanford goalkeeper Katie Meyer, who made this all time great celebration after stopping a penalty kick in a championship game, has taken her own life.
Whenever a highly successful person dies by suicide, I always wonder if the thing that caused the success, and the thing that caused the suicide, are the same thing. For example, Anthony Bourdain once said this:
There's a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, and smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons and old movies. I could easily do that. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid, and outwit, that guy.
If Bourdain had been satisfied to be that guy, would he still be alive? Maybe not, if being a celebrity chef was a way of running from something that was going to catch him either way.
Personally, I fight and fight to have nothing to do all day, and I always fail, because the world wants stuff from me. That's reason enough to not kill myself. The biggest reason is I have to finish my novel. But I think the most universal reason to keep living is the beauty of small moments. If you look for them, you can find them all over, and think to yourself, I'm glad I'm still here to see this.
March 3. Two "five things" links. Five Things You Notice When You Quit the News. The first two: you feel better, and you were never actually accomplishing anything by watching the news.
And Five Wild Things I Learned Analyzing 23,000 Illegal Drugs. There's a place in Vancouver where you can get your drugs tested for free. It turns out, blotter LSD is one of the safest drugs, but as soon as you get into white powder, it's risky. Three of the more common things that are in drugs and not supposed to be: fentanyl, caffeine, and viagra.
March 1. Obviously we're not in Cuban Missile Crisis territory, but I've seen some discussion of whether the danger of nuclear war is greater right now than in the 1980's. One difference is, in the 80's the media agenda was to point out the risk of nuclear war, and push for disarmament. Now, their agenda is to keep us calm. I still think the risk is low, but I don't feel qualified to say anything about what Putin might or might not do, or who would obey him.
Also, I just read this in the book The Dawn of Everything. Among the Yurok, a tribe in northern California, there was a "requirement for victors in battle to pay compensation for each life taken, at the same rate one would pay if one were guilty of murder." There's no reason we can't have that rule in the modern world, except the continuing political influence of states that want war murders to be free.
February 27. Posted to Weird Collapse, Anti-Authoritarian Perspectives in Ukraine. It's a lengthy article about the last eight years of conflict in Ukraine from an anarchist perspective. The main thing I get from it is, when you zoom in, there are all kinds of factions and subfactions with their own motives.
But when you zoom out, the main thing you see is the madness of Vladimir Putin. He seems to be the only one who doesn't know that history will mark him as a villain. And yet, it's not the case that a villainous person took over Russia. These are just the usual things that an ordinary person will do with unchecked power: veer off from reality, become paranoid and vindictive, overreach, kill a whole lot of people, and come to an ugly end.
This is a reminder, in an age of resurgent authoritarianism, of why dictatorship is a bad idea. Concentration of power is the black hole that all governments and economies are circling, and keeping power distributed is really hard.
Another angle on this conflict, a Hacker News thread from two days ago, YouTube is banning accounts that support Ukraine. This comment sums it up: "YouTube saved some money on human moderation, and all it cost was selling their platform to the first group willing to abuse the system." This is almost the same issue as above. Corporations hate human labor, not just because of the cost, but because human workers are real, and they push back.
February 25. I wasn't planning to post again until Monday, but I've thought of some non-obvious stuff to say about Russia's invasion of Ukraine. First, why is Putin crushing domestic dissent? Why doesn't he just do what we do in America, and let the anti-war protesters shout into the wind?
I see two possibilities. First, because of conditions in Russia that I don't understand, symbolic dissent will grow and grow until it becomes a full-on revolution and he's thrown out of power. I doubt that.
The second possiblity is that ignoring the protesters is the right strategic choice, and he's making the wrong strategic choice for emotional reasons. He has an authoritarian personality, so domestic dissent really bothers him, and it makes him feel good to crush it.
I also think that's why he's invading Ukraine. Leigh Ann said yesterday, this is Putin's last chance. I said, "Last chance for what?" Surely not to serve the interests of humanity, or even Russia. It's his last chance to feel important by fucking shit up.
More generally, most of the aggressive actions throughout history make more sense as infantile personalities fucking shit up to feel important, than as anything thoughtful.
Of course, whatever we decide to do for emotional reasons, our thinking brain loves to rationalize it and take credit. And it occurs to me, conspiracy culture is part of this cover-up. If you read conspiracist explanations of what Putin is doing -- or what any very powerful person is doing -- it's all elaborate storytelling around the fundamental assumption that the elite are perfectly rational and highly competent.
I think powerful people are exactly as smart as ordinary idiots would be, if nobody ever told them they were wrong.
February 23. Going early into the weekend with music. Mark Lanegan has died. He had a long career that I didn't keep up with, but he's my favorite Seattle scene singer, and I love his early stuff.
Nirvana's famous live performance of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" is at least a fourth generation cover. First it was a traditional folk song called "In The Pines". In 1944, Lead Belly recorded this version, and in 1990 Lanegan covered that, with Kurt Cobain on guitar. Mark Lanegan's Where Did You Sleep Last Night is the Citizen Kane of grunge. A lot of what it did has since been done to death, but in 1990, this sound was mind-blowing.
That was on his solo debut, The Winding Sheet. The sound was mostly stripped down and acoustic, which was unusual at the time. According to Wikipedia, "Dave Grohl has called The Winding Sheet 'one of the best albums of all time' and has said that it was a huge influence on Nirvana's 1993 MTV Unplugged concert." It has no duds, and one song in particular has been stuck in my head all these years: Museum.
A month after that album was released, Lanegan was back with the Screaming Trees, and recorded one of the catchiest songs of the 90's, Bed of Roses.
He also turned out to be a good writer. From two months ago, this is an excerpt of his short book about almost dying of Covid. And from this 2020 interview, a quote: "If you want to do music, take any expectation out of it and do it for the pure love of it, you can't go wrong."
February 22. Quick loose end on litter. This article (thanks Kelby) explains that many parks have reduced litter by removing trash cans, which puts park visitors in a mental state of having to pack their trash out. This reminds me of how there are fewer traffic deaths on narrow roads, where drivers have to go slowly, than on wide roads where they can go fast.
February 21. Continuing on the subject of litter, Eric mentions plogging, a Swedish trend of jogging while picking up litter, which has since caught on in other places.
I'm wondering what makes a person a litter picker or a litter dropper. My first thought is that we're all born litter droppers, because in our ancestral environment, everything is biodegradeable. But that's no excuse, because humans are also born learners, and even ants can learn waste management.
So I'm trying to puzzle out the psychology of litter droppers. I understand how a person who is already mentally exhausted, would not want to devote a bit of their brain to tracking the location of something they no longer need. And yet, I find a lot of litter right next to trash cans.
It could also be about status. Dealing with trash might make someone feel lower, and the awareness that someone else is going to have to deal with their trash makes them feel important. Personally, even if Jeff Bezos himself dropped a wrapper, I would not feel bad about picking it up, because I'm not serving Bezos -- I'm serving a place.
So litter happens when people feel alienated from their own locality. This has something to do with private property, a custom under which there are two kinds of spaces: spaces you personally control, and spaces you don't care about. But more generally, litter is a symptom of individual disconnection and social malaise, and right now it's a problem almost everywhere.
February 18. And some happy links. Crows may soon be Sweden's newest litter pickers. They're training the birds to pick up cigarette butts and trade them to a machine for food. By the way, picking up litter is the one thing that I enjoy doing, that society considers worthwhile, so I do a lot of it. And I'm surprised there aren't more people who do it. Scanning and picking up items is totally game-like, and the reward is something that most people want and never get: concrete evidence that you're making the world better.
Myopia correcting 'smart glasses' from Japan to be sold across Asia. I doubt they work, but if they do, I'll be so excited.
A scientific article, Acute aerobic exercise to recover from mental exhaustion
And the Mystical Experiences of Arthur Koestler, a well-written report of how he achieved oceanic consciousness in solitary confinement.
February 16. Negative links, starting with three from Reddit. This comment explains in detail Why NFTs are bad. For me, the key insight about NFTs is that the technology serves famous artists and criminals, and does nothing for unknown poor artists.
A long comment thread on Ask Old People, Do you think America is in decline?
Also from Ask Old People, an insightful comment about common sense. I've been thinking there's no such thing as common sense. It's just a way for people to say that their own perspective should be obvious to everyone. But DerHoggenCatten argues that "life has become much more complex, diverse, and difficult," so there's less common ground of experience for people to see things the same way.
A good analysis, CGI did, in fact, ruin movies. The author argues that filmmakers have become lazy, using computers to brute-force the exact shots they want, instead of having to be creative to wrangle with the constraints of the real physical world. I would add, I don't see a problem with computers being used for pure animation. My favorite superhero movie is Lego Batman. And yet, the best animated movie of this century is Mary and Max, which used old-fashioned clay.
Another good analysis, The web starts on page four is about how money has ruined search engines.
Related: this Hacker News thread is about Douglas Adams's prediction, back in 1998, that the internet would make advertising more effective. Now it's becoming clear that advertising "is a fundamentally bad thing", so the better it gets, the worse it gets.