November - December, 2007

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November 3-5. The most important thing to remember about Ron Paul is that he will never be president. It's been speculated that They want him to be president because he's right wing on certain issues, but the system is not right wing, left wing, Christian, libertarian, or even capitalist. It is a collection of interests and habits that has become so bulky and rigid that it cannot stand any deep change. Even its most harmful and wasteful elements, like the war on drugs, or the holy crusade in Asia, or junk food agricultural subsidies, or the medical insurance industry, now have so many careers and egos depending on them that anyone who threatens to end them will be neutralized by any means necessary. Elections are a show, and sometimes the pale hand of the real rulers reaches onto the stage and yanks someone off, and the audience just sees enough to feel sad and not know why. I don't think they'll have to kill Ron Paul -- my best guess is that they'll Howard Dean him: let him go for a few more months, get everyone to invest their money and hopes in him, and then wait for a minor gaffe and play it over and over on TV.

November 7-8. This is what the crash looks like -- not roving gangs storming your house to steal canned food, but gasoline and milk prices rising twenty cents, and another vacant house on your street, and your credit card sending you a few pages of fine print about some new ways they can charge you 29%. The crash looks like trains breaking down and roofs leaking and unemployed people moving in with family and employed people cynically going through the motions. Every day will look almost exactly like the day before, but in a few years you will find yourself eating dandelions and sorting out your pre-1982 pennies to sell the copper.

We fantasize about the Road Warrior crash scenario because it would make life simple and raw -- the winners would have a fun time and the losers would not have to suffer long. In the real crash, you'll still have to go to your job and pay bills and get stuck in traffic, but everything will be a little crummier, a little less predictable. You will see more depressed people and rambling crazies and potholes and buses that never come and long lines and important phone numbers where nobody answers. Your whole city will not be wiped out by a biowar super-plague, but here and there someone you know will die of cancer or MRSA. Even when oil is $200 a barrel, I predict that more people will die of car crashes than starvation.

Everybody is talking about preparations. Land and tools and stored food won't hurt, and social connections will help, but I really think if you're healthy and adaptable, you can make zero preparations and do better than the most prepared person who is not adaptable. Many doors will close, but if you know how to look, and how to change your ways, you will find the doors that are opening.

November 12. Edward Bernays was the father of corporate propaganda and one of the most harmful people who ever lived. Adam Curtis has made a four part documentary about Freud and Bernays, "The Century of the Self." The whole thing is online: The Century of the Self on YouTube.

November 16. Creepy news: Led by Robots, Roaches Abandon Instincts. From the abstract of the scientific paper:

Even when in the minority, robots can modulate the collective decision-making process and produce a global pattern not observed in their absence. These results demonstrate the possibility of using intelligent autonomous devices to study and control self-organized behavioral patterns in group-living animals.

I was about to say, in a few years they'll be doing it with humans... but they're already doing it with humans, and I don't mean television -- they're doing exactly the same thing with human children, integrating mechanical robots into groups to study and control their behavior. Patricia sends this article from a week ago, Could robots become your toddler's new best friend?

The scariest thing is that cockroaches, over tens of millions of years, have evolved an egalitarian cooperative society, and yet they can still be controlled by shadowy powers without their knowledge. Even if humans catch up to cockroaches and learn deep resistance to hierarchy, we still have to learn resistance to subtle manipulation of collective decision-making. But Patricia is optimistic:

As cool as cockroaches are, they are not very high on the individual consciousness scale. I think many humans are quite capable of out-evolving this type of control. If we were not, we'd all be sending large checks to anonymous Nigerian bankers, right? In short, cockroaches lack the ability to assume the worst, to withhold their trust or belief. They are innocents, pre-Fall, in the Edenic eternal now -- until they get squished.

November 20-21. One of the repeating themes of this website is that top-down control is self-defeating, and top-down control with positive feedback is aggressively self-defeating. The elephant in the parlor, the giant control/feedback mechanism that no one sees, is the concept of "owning" something that you don't use. When someone owns something that they don't use, their attention is focused not on how to use it better, but on how to own more. You do it with the stuff in your basement, and banks do it with your life. If you've ever taken out a loan, the bank owned the money that you were using, and you were required to use it in such a way that the bank's realm of ownership increased. You probably live in a place that a bank or landlord owns, and you have to pay mortgage or rent, through which the owner gets richer and is able to own more. Interest and mortgage and rent are simply social customs that say, "Those who have less must give to those who have more, so that power can be concentrated and control can increase" until the whole thing becomes unstable and collapses.

Even merging land occupation with land "ownership" does not guarantee that the land will be used respectfully, although it does make it more likely. And if I'm careful with language, we shouldn't "use" land any more than we should use people. Even the word "stewardship" is patronizing. To make my point carefully: In a healthy society, the right to occupy a place, or carry an item, is derived from the ability to relate to that place or item as a friend. And someone who is not occupying the place or carrying the item has no right to influence it at all.

November 25-27. In the same way that we can get sexually frustrated, I think industrial civilization is full of people who are technically frustrated. The other day I made a few offhand comments about hauling shipping containers and cutting up girders and finding uses for abandoned steel-framed towers, and I got a small flood of technical advice about biodiesel trucks and DIY oxy-acetylene and pulley systems to raise dirt up buildings. I have no doubt that readers of this site have the knowledge and inventiveness to turn the Sears Tower into a greenhouse with mobile ballistas to fight off invaders, constructed from rails left over from converting railroads into bike paths. And yet here we are sitting at computers we didn't make, on chairs and in buildings we didn't make, doing jobs nobody likes to buy food we didn't grow.

John comments:

My father was an engineer and I grew up taking radios and TV's apart and building Heathkits. My technical interest guided me all the way through college and into Silicon Valley. I could exercise my mind designing microprocessors and bigger computers. I worked there until I got thoroughly burned out. Since then, I have been having fun pushing the state of the art of vacuum tube audio and radio electronics. I love to strip down old TV sets and military radios for the parts for my projects. I also make a little money consulting for people who still make tube audio equipment.

I've found an outlet, but I find a lot of my engineering friends in the high-tech world quite frustrated. They find (like I did) that 90% of the job is BS and ass-kissing. These are smart, talented people who would love to design and make things, but are stuck in the rat race due to wife, kids, house payments, inertia, whatever. The high-tech industry is a meat grinder that chews up people and spits them out as suicides, alcoholics, mental cases, or hard-ball skeptics. The point is that there are a lot of talented people who would love to do something satisfying with their technical frustration, but since we are becoming de-industrialized, there are no longer opportunities for technical people, and the kids don't know how to make or fix anything, since that doesn't happen here anymore.

I've been traveling a lot in Asia, especially Thailand and Vietnam, and see a whole generation of kids there who are learning to do stuff with basic technology that I don't see kids here even dreaming of. Things like welding, fixing TV sets and computers, programming industrial controllers, and other things that are needed to make the stuff that we buy over here. There is a tremendous talent pool of people in Asia who know how to make and fix things, while here we have a nation of consumers and discarders. I'm building my house and family connections in Vietnam, and plan to be there if things get too ugly here.

November 27. Wonderful article about how, until very recently, Europeans slept all winter.

"Seven months of winter, five months of hell," they said in the Alps. When the "hell" of unremitting toil was over, the human beings settled in with their cows and pigs.
In Burgundy, after the wine harvest, the workers burned the vine stocks, repaired their tools and left the land to the wolves. A civil servant who investigated the region's economic activity in 1844 found that he was almost the only living presence in the landscape: "These vigorous men will now spend their days in bed, packing their bodies tightly together in order to stay warm and to eat less food."

December 3. I tried and failed to find a really good critique of microwave ovens. Here's one with only a little bit of bad science, Radiation Ovens: The Proven Dangers of Microwaves. It would be better if they just presented the results of the studies, that eating microwaved food damages your body, without trying to explain the mechanism. In our mechanistic culture, most people will not accept any idea, even one supported by evidence, if they can't tell a story or draw a picture of how it could work that way. It reminds me of Carl Sagan's rejection of astrology: "How could it work?" That kind of thinking is not science but religion, excluding avenues of investigation that don't fit existing mental models. The duty of the priest is to put people at ease that the world is completely understood. The duty of the scientist is to expand our understanding by seeking experience that we cannot yet explain.

December 10. Malcolm Gladwell on IQ and the Flynn effect. Basically, IQ scores have been steadily rising, and the implications of that fact demolish the social Darwinist position on intelligence. It turns out that IQ doesn't measure how intelligent we are, but how modern we are:

The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. "A wise man could only do such-and-such," they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, "How would a fool do it?" The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the "right" categories.

This raises the question: Is there any use for modern "intelligence"? Is it going somewhere, or is it a total dead end?

December 12. Human evolution is speeding up! The new research is focusing completely on physical changes, like blue eyes and malaria resistance and the ability to digest milk, but I wonder if we're also changing mentally, not just on a cultural level but on a biological level. And mentally, the great new threat to humans over the last 5000 years has been Empire, Leviathan, giant repressive centralized systems. I don't want to get my hopes up too much, but it is possible that deep human resistance to Empire has been growing, while innovations in repression and mind control have been masking this resistance by always staying one step ahead -- but repression is expensive and resistance is cheap, so if we run out of energy and resources, the world might get a lot better.

December 14. It's taken me more than a month, but I've finally finished Fredy Perlman's Against His-story, Against Leviathan. To my knowledge, the book is unique, a full history of western civilization from the ideological perspective of the resistance. The whole book is online here, and it's still in print from Black and Red Books, but I don't recommend it to everyone, because it's damned hard to read. For example, from page 84:

Darius the Persian must know that the Greeks are far ahead of his Canaanite subjects on the Levant who actually worship the abstraction of Leviathan, but who treat this abstaction as if it were a Sumerian god and make their actual Leviathan subservient to it. These Canaanites even persecute Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, Samaritans, Phoenicians and other Canaanites who do not worship the abstraction in their Temple.

But if you can make it through stuff like that, you are treated to a mind-blowing historical landscape, with insights that have not been integrated into anti-civ visions of the future, let alone the dominant vision.

First, resistance movements always succeed. Sure, they're repeatedly crushed -- but they can survive anything! They go underground, take a new form, and come back stronger, while the repressive systems they fight get more and more riddled with internal weaknesses. Inevitably, the revolution topples the Empire, sweeps away hierarchy, and we rebuild free communities living close to the Earth.

But these golden ages, or in the propaganda of Empire, "dark ages", last only a few decades, or at best a few centuries, before Leviathan emerges again. And normally it emerges out of the resistance movement itself. The ancient Persian empire started with Cyrus, a leader inspired by Zoroastrianism to sweep away the machinery of previous empires. The Roman empire started as a people's movement to eradicate the Etruscans. The modern nation-state began with the Moravians forming a defensive alliance against the Franks, who got stuck in warlike habits after centuries of resisting the Romans. And we all know the story of Christianity.

Strangely, even Perlman himself seems to miss this insight. It's embarrassing seeing him strain to argue that civilization was a fluke, that the present Empire will be the last, that we are on the verge of an enduring Utopia, even as he lists one resistance movement after another, all through history, that believed the same thing and was wrong, even as he writes in the last paragraph of the book, "The cycle has come round again."

December 15. Heritage and seedling apple varieties have more medicinal value than supermarket apples. The article emphasizes that we don't need scientific instruments to know what to eat. Healthful apples just taste better. Commercial apples could be selected and bred for flavor, but because our whole culture favors blandness and shallowness, commercial apples are selected and bred for beautiful skin, uniform size and shape, crispness, juiciness, and sugar content. Basically they're being bred toward cans of soda. Related: my big landblog apple post.

December 18. Difficult multi-part essay, The Programmer's Stone. William summarizes:

Alan Garter tried to find a reason why some programmers are 10-25 times more productive than others. He stumbled across the answer, and made a team of super-programmers. Then the rest of the organization turned on his team! His theory is that people are literally addicted to stress. Stress releases dopamine in the brain, which gives a the stressee a good buzz. When two people accustomed to different levels of stress meet, they often don't like each other because one is getting overly stressed and the other isn't getting their dopamine hit. Stress also shuts off what he calls juxtapositional thinking, a holistic, comparative mode of thinking.

Basically there are two kinds of thinking and you need both, but under stress you're limited to thinking that is narrowly focused, methodical, and not at all intuitive. And to have a productive/unstressed programming team, you first need an unstressed organization around them. Clearly this goes way beyond programming. This whole civilization is driven by stress, and has been for thousands of years. Also, I think the negative reaction against unstressed people is about much more than dopamine. Repressed cultures murder free cultures because if they don't, they have to admit that they could have been free too, that all their suffering was for nothing, and they don't want to face the grief.

But here's a puzzle: Clearly civilized life is more stressful than tribal life... so why has civilization been so much more innovative and productive than tribal societies? I see two answers. First, most of the "productivity" of civilization is nothing like computer programming -- stressed-out slaves are slower programmers, but much faster at building pyramids and cutting down forests, because unstressed free people have no reason to do those jobs at all. Also, all the innovations of civilization have come from either elites or outsiders, people who had some way to get off the treadmill.

This also explains the cycles of Empire. In a young free society, everyone is adaptable and smart and full of energy. But cut loose from the customs of a stable society, they use that energy to systematically extend their power beyond their wisdom, which leads to a repressive conquering society, which adds more and more control and stress, until almost everyone is either zombified or a resister. And then a young free society sweeps it away, and the cycle repeats...

December 19. Just finished Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. The narrator is a 31 year old woman who grew up in what appears to be an exclusive private school in the country, but turns out to be something much darker, and we look on as she uncovers the secrets. But we're left with one more puzzle: that most of the book is not about the dark secrets at all, but instead goes into great depth in the relations between the characters -- hundreds of pages only connected by a thread to what the book is supposedly about. Ishiguro is a meticulous writer who doesn't do anything without a lot of thought, so what is he doing with two books in one?

Here's what I think: On one level, there is an unspeakable horror. The book doesn't say it, but I wonder if this is supposed to be an alternate history where the Nazis won WWII. Then, within that horror is a sheltered place where people can talk about literature and play games and make art, and not really understand what they're part of. So you've got a lie wrapped up in a nightmare, and the bulk of the book illustrates that when human beings are raised in a lie wrapped up in a nightmare, they become incredibly fucked up! Liars, manipulators, and inventors of ridiculous belief systems are rewarded, while seekers and honest people are mercilessly crushed. So, really, he's writing about our own world.

December 21. Good news from James:

When I first decided to squat, I put an ad in Craigslist asking if anyone knew of abandoned houses I could live in and fix up. I was hoping for friendly neighbors, but I got an owner of a four unit building who will let me stay in one unit for fixing up the rest! It's not quite squatting, but for now it will be warmer, safer, and legal. Plus there is a huge abandoned factory nearby, and many houses.

There you go! As the American economy continues to slide, there will be more abandoned buildings and competent people with no place to live, and more need and opportunity to make that kind of connection. It could even become a "squatter's market," where you won't even have to fix anything up, just keep the place from looking any worse and scare away the copper scavengers.

December 27. The Global Cooling Project. No, it's not about spraying aluminum out of airplanes or dumping iron into the ocean or building a giant orbiting sun umbrella. Apparently all we have to do is plant trees and conserve rainwater in dry areas, and the moistened earth will make clouds that reflect sunlight. And here's a link that doesn't mention cooling but describes a successful bottom-up greening project in India.

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