February - March, 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.

March 17. I've been wondering: is meditation a placebo? That's a lot to unpack, so let me back up. A practice, like meditation or exercise, cannot be a placebo in the same way that taking a pill is. Also, according to this study, meditation is better than a placebo for at least one thing, reducing physical pain.

But according to this article, Where's the Proof That Mindfulness Meditation Works? "A 2014 review of 47 meditation trials, collectively including over 3500 participants, found essentially no evidence for benefits related to enhancing attention, curtailing substance abuse, aiding sleep or controlling weight."

I also think that what we call "meditation" is best framed as multiple things, with some overlap. One is the traditional Buddhist practice of focusing on your breath and trying to blank your mind. I've spent a lot of time doing this, and the only benefit I can report is that if I need to go to sleep, and my thoughts are spinning, I'm better at stilling them. And it's probably a good foundation for other metacognitive skills.

The practice I've found most helpful is creating a perspective inside my head that has no investment in how things are currently done. (I'm trying to work around the word "ego".) It's like an auditor, dispassionately noticing the machinery of thoughts and feelings, and suggesting adjustments.

I also want to bash the idea that meditation is a realistic substitute for drugs. This is taken for granted in various woo-woo communities, but I've seen no evidence for it except wild-eyed anecdotal reports. Personally, I can crank up my desktop vaporizer, and not even put any weed in, just use the heat to draw trace THC from the residue inside the wand, and get more of an altered state of consciousness than in all the meditation I've ever done.

My hypothesis is that people who sincerely experience strongly altered states of consciousness through meditation, are highly suggestible. And if the same people did meditation wrong, or if they took a sugar pill, or if they held a crystal upside their head, they could leverage a similar aura of belief into similar results.

March 18. Under the word-umbrella of meditation/mindfulness/metacognition, there must be as many things as there are people, and probably hundreds of things distinct enough to eventually get their own word. One of those things is putting attention on your breath while blanking your mind. And out of all the recreational and self-improvement practices I've tried, none of them have such a bad cost-benefit ratio. It's like video game grinding without leveling up or even scoring points.

Then why is it so popular? I see two answers. One is that other people actually are getting a good cost-benefit ratio, because they have a different kind of brain than I do. Maybe when the science gets better, you can go in for a brain scan and get a detailed program of rewarding incremental steps to fit your personal neural profile.

The other answer is that people have fallen under the spell of beautiful stories, and are doing something that doesn't make sense. Here's a good Harper's article, Lost in Thought: The psychological risks of meditation. There are a lot of them. In one study...

...forty-three out of sixty meditators representing Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan traditions -- had experienced moderate to severe impairment in their day-to-day functioning. Ten had required inpatient hospitalization.... For Britton, the takeaway was that adverse effects routinely occur even under optimal conditions, with healthy people meditating correctly under supervision.

And if you look at the history of the practice, it shouldn't be surprising: "According to the Pali suttas, the point of meditation was to cultivate disgust and disenchantment with the everyday world."

It seems to me, people who get in trouble with meditation, and people who do too many drugs, and people who work themselves too hard in the everyday world, have something in common. They're all head-heavy. Their head is seeking something so hard, that they ignore the protests of their body.

March 21. After some feedback on meditation, I want to be as clear as possible:

1) Giving conscious attention to places and processes in your mind and body is a good thing, and most people should do more of it.

2) Of all the practices that could be called meditation or mindfulness or metacognition, one of them is overhyped: sitting still, focusing on your breath, and trying to blank your mind.

3) Even this practice is probably good for a lot of people, if done in moderation. Preliminary science suggests that the line between moderation and excess is at around 30 minutes a day. Some people are doing way too much.

Here are five things that could be called meditation, that I continue to practice and find promising.

1) Conscious walking. Go for walks, continually turning attention to body mechanics, from how the feet land, to how the knees bend, all the way to the top of the head, with the goal of having good posture while staying loose.

2) Breathing like sleep. Focus on the breath, with the goal of having it be deep and completely unforced. Start while lying in bed, and work up to breathing this way during everyday life.

3) Quarantining feelings. Find the boundary between thoughts and emotions. Watch emotions arise, and practice completely feeling them and letting them dissipate, rather than turning them into thoughts. (I think a lot of bad human behavior comes from people turning emotions into thoughts without knowing they're doing it.)

4) Observing without judging. There's a moment between observing something and judging it, where you can stay balanced in letting it be as it is. I think this is easier in the outer world than the inner world. And it occurs to me that a good tool to practice observing without judging is television, because there's a constant stream of things asking to be judged, that don't really matter.

5) Expanding into pain. This is experimental, and might turn out to be a mistake. But I'm at my wits' end with anxiety, so what I'm trying is, when I feel bad, amp it up as soon as I can and as hard as I can, with the hope that pain is finite, and I'll come to the end of it.

March 23. Busy this week and not a lot of ideas, so I'll just comment on the latest mass shooting. There's no realistic way to stop them. Mass shootings are caused by gun ownership and mental illness, both of which have been rising for years with no end in sight.

One thing that might work, in fifty or a hundred years, is if public opinion shifts enough to get the Supreme Court to reinterpret the second amendment, so that you can't keep and bear arms unless you're a member of a well-regulated militia, and those regulations include careful mental health screening. It's probably more likely that an authoritarian revolution will abolish the Constitution completely.

Americans are willing to accept a certain number of shooting deaths as a cost of keeping their guns. Which is actually more reasonable than the traffic deaths, respiratory disease deaths, climate catastrophe deaths, and lowered quality of life from urban sprawl, that Americans will accept to keep their cars.

March 25. This excellent reddit comment explains why natural disasters are social phenomena. A natural event only becomes a human disaster through mistakes in social policy or infrastructure. I submitted it to Depth Hub and there are a few good examples in this thread.

March 29. One of the best interviews I've read, from 2014, Sam Fussell, author of Muscle. Fussell rhymes with muscle, and Sam is the son of Paul Fussell, who wrote Class, the definitive book on the cultural aspects of American social class. Like his father, Sam Fussell is at his best when he's writing about the toxicity of status seeking.

He started out in a corporate job, and got disillusioned when he was reprimanded for doing too much useful work instead of fitting in. So he got into bodybuilding, and "my world went from black-and-white to color as soon as I took one step through the gym door."

Iron and muscle are real, and he got totally obsessed. This quote is telling:

If you love yourself (your own glory, your own image, etc) more than you love the pursuit, then the pursuit can get entirely self-destructive.

On the other hand, if you love the pursuit for the sake of the pursuit, that can become self-destructive as well.

He moved to California and started using steroids. "And in the gym, all of a sudden, there are no more limits... The problem is when you are on steroids, your world gets very, very small because all of your friends are also on steroids." He saw that all the top bodybuilders used performance-enhancing drugs, and they lied about it to the public, while doing magazine ads for bullshit nutritional supplements.

Eventually he quit bodybuilding and wrote a book about it, and went on the talk show circuit. Then he saw that the media is also full of bullshit: simplifying, sensationalizing, and turning everything into good vs bad. Related: How U.S. media lost the trust of the public.

My favorite bit in the interview:

In America, you are not real unless you are fake.

In other words, if people see you on television or the movies, they see you as larger (and realer) than life.

The representation becomes the reality.

And, because it is merely representation, it is fraud.

March 31. Another long and thoughtful piece, Reiki Can't Possibly Work. So Why Does It? By "can't possibly work," they mean that our primitive science can't point to a mechanism for how it works, even though there are studies showing that it does. At the same time, lots of medical treatments are no more beneficial than Reiki, and more harmful, but still highly respected because the mechanism is known.

It may turn out that Reiki works in its own particular way that we haven't discovered, or it may turn out to be "just" a placebo. Nick comments:

The way we think about the placebo effect is completely ass-backwards. People hear about the placebo effect and think "this is fake bullshit, let ignore it" when instead they should be thinking "this is a mysterious phenomenon so powerful that it has measurable provable positive effects for literally every disease that's ever been studied; let's figure out how it works!"

About 20 years ago, I took a multi-day Reiki class and got a level 1 attunement. There were people who worked on me, and people who I worked on, who said they felt the energies, but I never did. I also had an injury at the time that didn't seem to heal any faster.

The interesting thing is, I believed that I would see positive results, and I still didn't. Also the instructor was clear that Reiki does not require belief. Put these together, and belief is neither necessary nor sufficient for Reiki to work.

I've seen studies where people knew they were getting a placebo, so they had no basis for belief, and the placebo still worked. Is it possible that what drives the placebo effect is something other than belief?

Also, the placebo effect is cultural. According to this article, placebo responses have been rising in the USA, but not in other places.

If it can change, than it can be trained. Someone who takes a placebo and gets no benefit, can learn to be someone who takes a placebo and gets a huge benefit. So what exactly would you be training in? My best guess is, we're talking about subconscious belief. Changing a fully conscious belief is hard enough, and it probably gets harder the deeper you go -- and more powerful.

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