December 2006 - January 2007

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December 11. Return of the Tribes, a fascinating article about the coming breakdown of global uniformity, and the survival of the old religions:

Forests are the abodes of magic. Look to forested areas for resistance to innovation. Even European fairy tales insist on the forest's mystery. Islam, with its abhorrence of magic, had nothing to offer African forest tribes to replace the beliefs that enveloped them. In northern Europe, too, monotheism faced its greatest difficulty in penetrating forested expanses, and the persistence of essentially pagan folk beliefs in the forested mountains of eastern Europe can startle a visitor today.

December 18. Tess writes:

When I was 20, I went as a missionary to Albania just after the fall of communism. They had just started receiving television signals from Italy, and the family I stayed with loved to watch the glamorous commercials and dream that their country would soon have access to these luxuries. I looked at their town where everyone from the doctor to the caretaker earned the same each week, and I saw better than they did what they were giving up. In the few months since communism ended, there were already disparities in wealth appearing, and resentments, and the community was fracturing. I felt like a drug user, pleading with someone not yet addicted to stay away from the drug.

It seems that those who've never had wealth will never understand the curse until they've tasted it. I used to know a German woman who had grown up within a meditation community. She'd spent her life 'dropped out', and do you know what her deepest dream was? She wanted to prove to herself that she could 'make it' in an office environment. I wonder, is it humanity's doom that we must experience every nightmare before we can find peace?

January 5. Dan Bartlett summarizes Bruce Lipton and epigenetics. I've written often about Rupert Sheldrake and morphic fields, but this is a whole other way that biological life does important stuff that's wrongly credited to DNA. Actually two ways. First, you've got epigenetics, another layer of genetic tags which tell the cells how to read DNA, and which are affected by environment and passed on to later generations. And second, it turns out that genes are not even the brains of cells. They're more like a CD that you get prompted to stick into your computer. The intelligence of the cell is largely in the membrane, which has a complex system of semiconducting gates and channels like a microprocessor!

January 5-8. Big thanks to Ziggy for introducing me to Idle Theory. The idea is that the purpose of life is not to accomplish something, but to do as little as possible. There's a section on evolution, which reverses industrial-age mythology:

All living creatures have to work to stay alive. Some have to work harder than others. Those creatures that need do little work to stay alive are more likely to survive periods of difficulty than those that must work longer. The fittest are the most idle creatures, not the strongest or fastest or most rapidly reproducing.

And there's a great section on ethics:

The primary ethical task for humanity (and any living creature) is to become as far as possible idle and free... Every part of human society -- its division of labour, its tools, its trade, its codes of conduct, its laws, its political organisation, or any other custom or practice -- are all to be judged according to whether they increase or decrease idleness.

Near the top of that page is an important sentence: "Any creature that is continually busy stands at the threshold of death."

But Mat comments:

The Idle Theory page calls inorganic matter "inert". This is untrue on the microscopic, the regular, and the macroscopic. The Universe is dancing, the rocks have spirits and lives, waterfalls are one of the most beautiful forms of action, and at the quantum level everything is tumbling everywhere. Life is the conglomeration of these dancing particles getting together to play a bigger game. People die, get depressed, or go zombiefied if they sit around without action, without purpose. No one in primitive groups sits around in a hammock all day, every day. People gamble, dance, sing, lie around chatting, hunt, gather, garden, etc.

Mat has revealed a semantic knot, and it took me some thinking to unravel it: When we talk about activity vs inactivity, there are at least three different levels on which these concepts mean different things. First is nonbiological cyclical motion, like a waterfall. Here constant activity is good, or even necessary. We don't want rivers to dry up, or planets to stop orbiting stars.

Second is normal biological life, like a squirrel gathering nuts. Here you want a balance -- gathering nuts is the squirrel's ecological role, and what it loves to do. But it needs some slack time, because if it's active all the time, it has no room to increase activity, and the first emergency will kill it. On this level, most primitive humans are extremely successful. They spend only a few hours a day on productive activity, which they enjoy, and the rest of the time, even if they're active, they're idle in terms of idle theory, because there's nothing they have to be doing.

Third is you at your crappy job, busy doing stuff that's not free, fun, or productive. This is a level that squirrels would not even understand. The problem is that we're so deeply socialized to forced activity that without it we don't know how to act at all, and we get depressed and lethargic, which gives idleness a bad name. But I think the only way out is through, to face the emptiness and gradually learn how to fill it with spontaneous action and play. If you can grasp the deep and total wrongness of forced activity, you can see that the deepest freedom is the freedom to say no.

January 9. I've mentioned John Livingston's arguments, in his book Rogue Primate, that nature is not based on competition, and Dan Bartlett summarized Livingston in this unarchived dead link. But Chris Davis's Idle Theory site has a brilliant page on competition with arguments I've never seen before.

Basically, Empire-culture philosophers like Darwin see domesticated pigs fighting at feeding troughs, and extrapolate this vision to all of nature. And Jane Goodall provided a concentrated food souce for the chimps she studied, which might have caused the warlike behavior she observed. But in nature food is seldom concentrated in one place -- it's usually widely dispersed in space and time, like oxygen and sunlight. Nobody competes for oxygen. And even when food energy is concentrated, animals cannot afford to collectively spend more energy fighting than the food is worth, so competitive traits will actually tend to die off, while cooperative traits will survive.

Livingston has compared the "territories" of animals to cells in a body, and Davis uses the same metaphor:

The many millions of cells that make up a human body all have a shared requirement for a resource in limited supply -- the glucose, oxygen, and amino acids carried in the blood stream. Occasionally, blood sugar levels may fall low enough to affect the survival of cells. Are we then to suppose that the cells in a human body compete with each other, and that the life of these cells is a struggle for existence?

One kind of cell actually does work that way -- the cancer cell! And if a cancer colony had intellectuals, they would surely argue that the entire body functions according to the same ethics as the tumor, and therefore cancer ethics are justified.

January 13. Joel comments that Idle Theory...

...reminded me of a fun lecture by Freeman Dyson that I heard a few years ago, in which he refuted the notion of a "heat death" of the universe due to the spread of entropy. As the last stars cool down and space warms up, there will be less energy available, but in his calculations this would never slow down the pace of adaptation enough to cause a universal extinction, even as the whole system approaches equilibrium. In the long run, we can expect a lot of idleness.

I'm skeptical of the heat death theory, since I don't believe in the Big Bang. If there wasn't a Big Bang, the next theory in line is an eternal dynamic steady state universe. And if the universe has always been here, it must be finding a way around heat death.

But suppose we don't have a steady state universe either, and the second law of thermodynamics is accurate, and there's no escape from increasing entropy. Joel writes:

I really like the second law from an aesthetic point of view, because of my view of entropy. A good professor of mine said he was annoyed by people who thought of entropy as disorder; a better word for it is fluidity, or maybe unpredictability. To me, the second law says that a system will continue to become more amenable to change, have more variety, and be less easy to predict, if left to its own devices.

Here's a related post on weird math.

January 17. We hear all the time how people are getting stupider, but I think we're also getting smarter in ways that are harder to measure. Here's part of an article Carol found in an employment agency newsletter:

Human resource development experts believe that employers are finding it harder to relate to younger workers, especially when it comes to motivating them. Novations CEO Mike Hyter says, "The latest generation to enter the work force is singularly disengaged and getting them motivated is now one of management's most urgent challenges."

Hyter says that traditional motivators like money or authority don't seem to appeal to younger workers the way they did to previous generations. And many younger workers have no interest in establishing a lifetime career. He says the younger generation seems to drop a job and leave at the first sign of discomfort, and that they seem to be seeking happiness, and don't have much interest in self-sacrifice.

Hyter believers that these characteristics could be the result of watching their boomer generation parents get used up and thrown away by corporations, and this generation's not going to have any of it.

Dan (age 20) comments:

That is spot on. I've only been working since I was 18 and I'm already finding it extremely hard going back into an office to do more temp work. My friends are the same. It feels like endgame already. I hang around with my brother's friends (he's 16) and they are more aware of what work and careers entail than I was at that age. Everyone seems to have that base discontent. The problem is empowering them to take their discontent and do something about it. I think a lot of it is having a strong enough character to simply say "no" and do your own thing. But people don't know what their own thing is! They have been so trained into "what it is right to do", that they can't listen to themselves.

January 19. 2005 article about a German woman who lived with a jungle tribe from age 7-17 and then went back to civilization. She says:

The difference between my two worlds is this: life in the jungle is more challenging physically but psychologically much easier. Life in the Western world is physically easier but much more complicated for the soul.

I've never heard anyone put civilized vs primitive so concisely, and with so little judgment. If you think of it this way, it explains why civilized people do crazy things like climb mountains and starve themselves -- they want to trade psychological challenge for physical challenge. It explains why we love action movies -- because we can have the feeling of making that trade, with no risk. And it justifies people who understand the critique of civilization but make no move to go primitive: you don't have to, if you've mastered the complications of modernity.

January 20. Robert Anton Wilson died a couple weeks ago. Here's a great piece from 1988, in which he tells the story of his own intellectual development and mentions a bunch of thinkers who influenced him: Left and Right: A Non-Euclidean Perspective.

January 29. Hundred pound block of ice falls from sky! (2011 update: if you're wondering why this kind of article always becomes an unarchived dead link, check out George Hansen's book The Trickster and The Paranormal.) This kind of thing happened long before airplanes. Charles Fort covered it in The Book of the Damned, chapter 13 (scroll down about halfway).

January 31. Jeff Wells has a major new post about occult manifestations and the holographic universe and the end of the world and all that: Are You Being Served? Even though I'm into the same stuff, I look at it differently. I'm reminded of a reader who pointed out how similar Charles Fort is to H.P. Lovecraft. They were writing at the same time, about how humans are minor actors in a world of bottomless weirdness. The difference is, Lovecraft viewed the unknown with fear, and Fort viewed it with a sense of fun. And that reminds me of a famous bit in The Continuum Concept, where Liedloff observed natives and Europeans moving heavy canoes over rocks, and the Europeans saw it as a horrible ordeal while the natives saw it as a playful challenge.

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