November - December, 2005

previous archive

November 5-6. Power source that turns physics on its head? Almost the entire article is about the implications to quantum physics if this technology is for real. The scary thing is what it assumes without question: First, that a cheap source of tremendous energy would be a good thing, as if the present system would magically switch from nightmare to utopia if it only had even more power to work with. Second, that this new system really produces no waste. But...

In his "hydrino", the electron sits a little closer to the proton than normal, and the formation of the new atoms from traditional hydrogen releases huge amounts of energy.

So the power plants would consume regular hydrogen and make hydrino. And since you can't get something for nothing, you would have to put all the energy back to turn the hydrino back into hydrogen. This will not happen, and gradually the Earth's hydrogen will be replaced by this freaky new substance that we don't know anything about. Just like Kurt Vonnegut's Ice-Nine. And it gets worse! From the site of BlackLight Power, the inventor of the technology:

The lower-energy atomic hydrogen products of the process can be used to form novel hydrino hydride compounds ("HHCs") which are proprietary to the company, and form a vast class of new chemistry.

If the logic of the present system goes far enough, all molecules will be owned, and the owners will have unlimited energy to back up their claims.

November 10-13. Lately I've been thinking about finding your center. Chellis Glendinning has pointed out that in western culture we define our "self" in terms of boundaries, while nature-based people see themselves merging into everything (the way all infants do), and develop a completely different sense of self that is based on the center.

In this culture, we're too busy and distracted to find our centers, so we have to define and defend boundaries to feel like we even exist, which is why most content on political blogs is in the form of attacking opponents.

So what is this "center"? A practicing Buddhist friend, who has done a lot of meditating, says you discover that all the stuff you thought of as "you" -- your beliefs, your personality, your likes and dislikes -- isn't really you. Under that is what Buddhists describe as "the part of you that's in everything." I've also read about hypnotists who have discovered what they call the "human soul" -- if you get people deep enough, they all have a voice in them that is very wise and seems to be the same for everyone. Patricia comments:

While I think I know what it feels like when I am centered, I'm not sure I could describe my center... I'm not sure that what I think of as my center, is really mine at all, but maybe something shared, or like a place where I connect into something bigger than just this small, temporary creature I call Me.

I would describe my center as that-which-perceives, in the broadest sense of "perceive." One way to get there is with the "not that" meditation: Find a quiet, still place, close your eyes, and ask yourself, "Who am I?" And whatever you come up with, keep saying "not that" and looking deeper. Another way to get there is to try to imagine awareness without existence. (If you say that's impossible, you're dodging the exercise.) Or if you're a computer gamer, imagine a game where you can "zoom in" to play any creature, or any function of that creature, or zoom out to play groups or the whole map. Your "center" is that zoomable perspective, and it's not limited by your human identity. When you find it, you feel both grounded and free, both immortal and egoless.

November 11. A primate specialist says that cell phones are making Japanese youth behave like chimpanzees:

Masataka claims that mobile phones have deprived people of brainpower because memory functions now eliminate the need to try and remember phone numbers and GPS functions mean people have no need to learn about their surroundings. "Mobile phones are now performing tasks that minds once did, such as think and talk. If this continues, people will continue losing their ability to think."

Strong machines make humans physically weak. Smart machines make humans mentally weak. What's going to happen with "spiritual machines"?

Adam has another interpretation. It's tempting to think, "technology makes humans stupid," but chimps are not stupider than humans -- they just have a different kind of intelligence. So maybe technology is giving us the freedom to return to our deeper identity -- which will undermine our ability to keep making the technology! It would be ironic if the tools that are intended to turn us into robots, turn us into animals.

November 15. Vine Deloria just died. Here's a NY Times obituary, but no obituary mentions that for the last ten years Deloria has been a champion of fringe science, writing about anomalies and non-dominant hypotheses that fit the metaphysics and oral histories of indigenous people. In his book Red Earth, White Lies, he builds strong arguments that pleistocene megafauna were killed by a global catastrophe, and that Indians did not come across the Bering land bridge, but were here much sooner. He even suggests that they were here from the beginning, and that 20th century science is radically wrong about the whole history of the Earth.

November 22. Mad McMaxes, a guest post from Patricia about popular American survivalism:

What's wrong with these people? Not one of them is thinking about working on having a local community in place now, so that in the event of any trouble, the people in your neighborhood will work together and help and protect one another. Not one of them! AND, they are all quite worried about us nasty, brutish "city people" running out to attack them and I guess loot their McMansions of all their battery-run Xbox games and MRE's or something! They seem to be planning to stock up and "fortify" their homes, each family an island, hiding (hey wait -- that's already how they live!)

These suburban people are going to be a BIG problem if anything happens to the system too quickly! Not just because of mental shock or lack of survival skills, but mainly because they totally WANT to play Mad Max.

And they're wrong to expect some mass-exodus of urban people. Maybe from the BIG big cities, but in mid-sized cities like mine, I betcha a lot of us will stay put if we can. I think my particular urban neighborhood, and most of my city even, would be fairly well-behaved and mutually co-operative in any sudden collapse scenario. For one thing, we already interact with each other every day -- we all know one another by sight, if not by name, and we already have had friendly conversations with most of the people around us. So in an emergency it won't be a big deal to start collecting on corners and sharing info and making plans together. And I think we instinctively know, from the way we live now, that people have to be able get along and depend on each other to survive.

In any given city neighborhood you will have medics, carpenters, plumbers, chefs, tailors, mechanics, botanists, vets -- AND just generally educated people who can learn new skills quickly, AND we have the libraries and bookstores and colleges where that knowledge will still be available even if the net goes down. Even better, all those institutions -- like hospitals and colleges, are large ready-made communities of people who know each other and can work together. I doubt we'll even be less "safe" from random crime than we are right now!

Our only city-specific issue will be importing food (and water in some cities) but with so much people-power and co-operation, and so much equipment to work with, we could quickly organize groups to go out to the farmlands (by bus or bike or river barge or on foot) and trade for food. If we run out of things to trade, by then we could have groups of people who make or repair useful things. Not to mention, if we have all the medical people, we can trade their skills for food (how much meat do we get for delivering your wife's baby?)

A total breakdown does not scare me as a city-dweller. What scares me is some kind of surround-and-destroy operation by a still powerful but desperate national authority structure, as happened in New Orleans. THAT is what we are vulnerable to in the cities.

There's another valuable thing urban people will have to trade: their shit! No sustainable farmer will export biomass without also importing biomass.

November 23. The human face is shrinking. If you think we're ascending to "homo superior," you might want to read this Loren Eiseley chapter, Man of the Future. Also, Patricia comments:

I had a strange thought while reading this. Does brain size correspond to solipsism, while the face is our primary means of communication with others (not counting language which is really a brain thing)? If so, well then of course big brains and small faces mark the beginning of the end, as we draw ourselves more and more inward and away from the rest of reality...

November 27. It's been years since I've looked at this famous R. Crumb drawing of three possible futures, which are a sequel to Crumb's Short History of America.

The first is the "worst case scenario" with ruins and weeds, the second is "the fun future techno-fix" with flying cars, and the third is "the ecotopian solution" with a fruit stand and dome houses in a forest. I have a confession: I like #1 the best! It's the messiest and the most free. In #2, there's a sign saying "No ground vehicles in this sector," which means the streets can be legally occupied only by flying cars and you have to buy one to go anywhere. In #3 people can walk in the roads. But only in #1 can plants grow in the roads. To me #1 is the fun future because I could go anywhere and do anything. Want to gather car doors and old power lines and build a house? Climb that wall? Look through that building? No one will stop you!

I'm aiming for a world with all the wide-openness and chaos of #1, all the greenness and human community of #3, and only enough of #2 to increase possibility.

November 30. If you want to make a catapult or a ballista post-crash, invest now in a Seacatch, an exceptionally well-made mechanism to release a line under high tension.

December 4. In a comment on a peak oil essay, I just made a point that I'm sure has been made many times before: when "Energy Returned on Energy Invested" drops below 1, when you have to burn more than a barrel of oil to extract a barrel of oil, there will still be a powerful oil industry, because there will still be a lot of machines that run on oil. An airplane can be flown on jet fuel but cannot be pulled by horses -- even if horses are more efficient. So the oil producers will use other kinds of energy to get the oil out, and take a loss on energy to keep the machines going.

More important, oil will still be a means to concentrate energy. We may see "oil plantations" in which human slaves and oxen, fed on organically grown crops, use their muscle power to extract oil, which can be easily stored and transported, and traded for the tools to keep people enslaved. Of course, this will be inefficient and unsustainable -- probably more inefficient than just fermenting crops into alcohol -- but it could still be less inefficient than the system we have now, and there could still be oxen extracting oil in 200 years.

December 12-13. Buyers offered 'turkey cam' deal. A farm is letting turkey buyers watch the bird they're going to eat on their cell phones. If this takes off, it will ruin the factory farm industry, because it's next to impossible for a large-scale farm to raise animals humanely, so every animal that can be watched by the consumer is one more animal that will be raised by a relatively small and independent farm.

And the same thing is true for human workers, and for all kinds of industries. What if we could watch our food being processed, or our clothing and computers being made? Of course, it's not going to happen, even though the technology is cheap, because it would undermine the very systems that make cheap technology possible in the first place.

Betsy comments:

There's another reason it's not going to happen. I don't think consumers would want it. I hate to admit it, but I would rather imagine an animal having a nice life than have to see visual proof that it does not! It would be too painful to have to look at an animal in miserable conditions. Or even nice conditions! I think most Americans just don't want to think about where their meat comes from.

December 22. So Patricia and I have been watching Connections, James Burke's ten hour BBC series about the history of technology, and it's making me think differently about our own time. All this "end times" stuff is limiting our imagination. Suppose we're in the middle, and what's coming will be neither techno-utopia, nor Hollywood postapocalypse wasteland, nor will it be something so strange we can't even imagine it. It will be something we can imagine, but haven't.

next archive