March - April, 2008

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March 2. After a couple days trying to figure out why the Baby Boomers made so many mistakes, and discarding several explanations, including television (which was a bigger influence on Gen X), and the shock of the Kennedy/King assassinations (which were mild compared to what previous generations went through), my favorite theory comes from Anne:

What I think defined the boomers was the idea of a generation as the defining context of an individual's experiences. Given all the ways one can understand oneself -- as a member of a family, as an inhabitant of a regional culture, as an actor within a social movement -- the idea that one has the most commonality with all people born in a particular time frame seems to have originated in the fifties and sixties... They've given up their contextual relationship with their predecessors whose similar experiences would have tempered the generational narcissism the narrative recreates.

Maybe what led the Boomers astray is simply that there were so many of them! Their numbers formed a critical mass where they were connecting with each other too much, and not enough with older and younger people. Like a reactor with too much uranium and not enough boron, they melted down...

I will say one thing about my generation. I was born in the late 60's, and we grew up with the greatest success of the Boomers, their music, and also with one of their greatest blunders, their takeover of the schooling system. If you've ever seen the South Park episode "The Death Camp of Tolerance," that's exactly what school felt like to us! It was painful and confusing to have right wing tactics of captivity and control and punishment used to push left wing values of equality and peace and love, and it took us years to untangle our minds and come around to those values from another direction.

March 6. I've attacked "symbolic protest," where people replay the 1960's like Civil War reenactors, marching, waving signs, chanting "Hey ho, hey ho, bla bla bla has got to go," and making no difference. But it occurred to me, maybe the problem is not that these protests are symbolic, but that they're so tired and uncreative. Symbolism can be extremely powerful. Suppose there is such a thing as an effective symbolic protest -- what would it look like?

There was a good Matt Taibbi piece a few years ago, A March To Irrelevance, arguing that it would really freak out the ruling powers if street protests were highly organized. We wouldn't have to manufacture uniforms, but if we all wear carefully chosen similar clothing, and march at the same pace and project the same calm, determined attitude, it would send a message to the rulers and to each other that we are focused, disciplined, and capable of the same level of organization in tactical mass actions, if necessary.

March 17. In the face of collapse, I think buying gold is one of the worst things you can do. First, it has no use value, and second, it is aggressively zero-sum. Food is often shared, tools can be shared without losing their value, and skills actually grow with sharing. Even some metals, like iron and copper, can be shared by building stuff out of them to be used in common. Gold cannot be shared in any of those ways, and in practice it's not even given away without expecting something in return. Basically, gold is a pure embodiment of human selfishness. That is its use.

Imagine you have a store of gold coins, and you try to use one to buy a really good shovel. The shovel seller will be thinking some combination of these things: "Gold! Gold! I'm rich!" "Hey, if you have one gold coin, I bet you have a bunch more, and my brothers and I can follow you home and kill you and steal them." "I can dig holes with my shovel, but what can I use a gold coin for?" "If I accept this coin, how will I be able to spend it without the next person thinking the same things? But if I don't spend it, you know I have it, and who else knows?" This is the kind of thinking that gold carries with it. Ultimately, people with gold will either use it to set themselves up as the new elites, or they will be robbed and possibly killed by people who have the weapons and the ruthlessness to set themselves up as the new elites.

Guns differ from gold only in that they can be used for hunting. Americans fantasize about defending themselves from incompetent freelance thugs, because they've seen hundreds of movies and TV shows where the good guys have more firepower than the bad guys. But in reality, the bad guys have more firepower, because having power over others is what being bad is all about. The chance that you'll encounter a poorly equipped home invader is smaller than the chance that your gun will shoot someone you know by accident, and it's also smaller than the chance that the home invader will be a military or police force that claims a monopoly on violence.

Human-targeting weapons and gold follow the same rules: they are tools of domination, and in the end, there can be only one dominator -- and in practice, the dominator is never a person but a system. Anyone who tries to use tools of domination independently will either be assimilated or crushed.

March 21. Good Paul Graham essay, You Weren't Meant to Have a Boss. He starts out comparing independent programmers to lions in the wild, and big company programmers to lions in a zoo, and goes on to analyze why big systems destroy our humanity, and then to speculate about how we could make big systems that don't.

March 26. Thanks Phillip for tipping me off about this reddit comment page about how American science went wrong, which led me to some really impressive comments by reddit user klap (account deleted, but here's a 2007 archive and a 2008 archive). This comment about denial of inclusion is brilliant. He argues that there were a lot of subcultures seeking peaceful integration into the definition of "American," and when the Kennedys and King got shot, it all fell apart:

This is what "Whitey On The Moon" is about: if you want someone to cheer for the team -- and possibly take a hit for the team -- they have to feel like they're ON the team; after Kennedy got shot everyone started feeling like they were on their own, and consequently the willingness to buy into grand "national" goals took a big hit, and hasn't really recovered since.

Then he ties it into technologies of the 1950's -- telephones, interstate highways, and especially television, which forced America to have a single uniform culture. I've written about how a technologically-induced monoculture is bland and lifeless, but it never occurred to me that it also forces a permanent civil war about what that culture contains, and that it leads to a breakdown as the excluded cultures withdraw their support.

Also, here's a comment with some great insights about the closing of the map, how it used to be easy in America to walk away and start over, and now that's impossible, so no one takes risks anymore. And finally, a comment about the consequences of making it costly to lose:

The lion's share of the greatest nation on earth got inherited by a species of vindictive twat who cannot be happy without there not only being losers in the world but with those losers actually suffering for being losers, and who despite inheriting such cultural wealth lacked the uncoerced generosity to let a black guy get a sandwich; this world you detest is the world your hardness of heart and paucity of spirit has purchased you.

One example out of thousands: I have a friend who works in the business school at the University of Washington, which is in an old building designed so that everybody has a window. They're going to tear it down and replace it with a new building where only the elite have windows. There's no reason to do that except satanic spite, and if they persist, sooner or later the people without windows will burn the buildings down.

March 28-29. Endorsees of a plan to end the Iraq war. (Dead link, too far ahead of its time). None of these people are currently in congress, but they're all running for congress, and the idea is that a bunch of anti-war candidates can organize and sweep out a bunch of pro-war candidates. What they're really doing is reinventing the political party: a bunch of people who work together and promise to vote a certain way. Maybe parties are still like that in some countries, but in America, a long time ago, parties turned into brands, like Nike or Pepsi, and on another level, they turned into conglomerations of interest groups. Party platforms are purely decorative, and there's no obligation to vote a certain way. But within this very loose party structure, there's a lot of room for more of these pledge groups, or subparties. Instead of a categorization system, they're like a tagging system, where one candidate can be in a bunch of them, and they can overlap.

April 1-2. Good article on dumpster diving for food. In the comments, someone mentions how difficult it would be for food stores to not throw stuff away, and asks what they should do. Obviously, they should continue to throw stuff away and then make it as easy as possible for scavengers. A city could pass a law that explicitly legalizes dumpster diving, or even requires food waste above certain quantities to be made available to the public, and it could also absolve stores of liability, which is the lame excuse they always use.

Also, Some houses worth less than their copper pipes. What this has in common with dumpster diving is the solution: let people who need something have it for free -- not the pipes, but the living space. Neighbors or owners of vacant houses should find responsible squatters, who will be allowed to live there free in exchange for protecting the house from scavengers.

April 4. Tighten Your Belt, Strengthen Your Mind, about willpower as a muscle. Chuck comments:

It seems to me like there are actually two ideas that are being conflated into one: impulse control, and the ability to get yourself to do things. For me these are very different concepts. I can turn down that 8th beer, I haven't lost my temper since I was eight, and I can maintain a perfect deadpan in any but the funniest situations, plus, I've been within twenty-five feet of a detonating RPG and reined in my panic within seconds -- but my action-motivation is lackadaisical. It's pretty rare that I'll write the utility checks for the bills until my roommate bugs me about it.

My roommate is pretty much the opposite. He can make himself study six hours a night, every night, for weeks on end, he never has trouble getting out of bed in the morning, and he never has a laundry pile. But he loses his temper on a pretty regular basis, he has trouble turning down the beer, and when he sees something that looks even mildly fun in a store, he has to have it.

April 6. Ryan asks, "What would you say is the difference between self-discipline and the protestant work ethic?"

First, what they have in common is that they're both ways to get yourself to do stuff you don't feel like doing. In an ideal world, you don't need anything like that because there is perfect synchronization between what you feel like doing and what you need to do. I think that's the world that squirrels live in. But humans have given ourselves powers far beyond what our instincts have prepared us for, so we're constantly struggling with conflicts between our impulses and our needs.

Now, the main difference between self-discipline and the protestant work ethic is that self-discipline is a skill and the PWE is a value system. So they work on different levels. There are a lot of people who have the PWE but not self-discipline -- they believe that hard work is morally virtuous, that people who constantly push themselves are better than people who don't, but they're still not able to push themselves, so they feel inferior. But they don't work any less -- they just put off work until they're in emergency mode, and they end up doing lower quality work under high stress. People with neither the PWE nor self-discipline are the same, except they don't feel inferior.

People with both the PWE and self-discipline are conventionally successful, and they might be sort of happy, but they never get to rest. They just work themselves all the way to the grave because their value system commands it.

I have pretty good self-discipline but not the PWE -- my value system is exactly the opposite: to do as little work as possible. Every chore I force myself to do is justified by the goal of minimizing chores over the whole span of my life. It's easier to get a job first, build up savings, and go without a job later, than to build up debt first and work it off later. It's easier to do the dishes instantly than to let them pile up in the sink. It's easier to pay bills the moment they arrive than to still have to pay them later but meanwhile have the stress of them hanging over me. It's easier to restrain myself from expensive habits than to do the wage labor to pay for them.

April 8-11. Now even the NY Times is talking about the collapse of civilization: The New Survivalism.

Meanwhile, I've been backpedaling on my own collapse forecasts from four or five years ago, because I've seen so many predictions of catastrophe that turned out false. I mean, on one level, we were right: oil production did peak this decade, and climate change accelerated, and the housing bubble popped hard, and the dollar is collapsing, and oil producing countries are switching to the euro, and the stock market has already crashed if it's measured in real stuff, and the Iraq occupation has been a total failure, and we even got the near-destruction of America's biggest seaport city as a bonus.

Where we were wrong is that after all of that, you still have to squint to see any difference at all in American daily life. The supermarkets are still full of food, the electric grids are still up, and I haven't even noticed any reduction in traffic. Ooo, cars are a little smaller, and look, there's an abandoned house! Come on, where are the roving gangs and the urban hordes eating their dead? It's like a seismologist said that a magnitude 9 quake will level the city, and then we got a magnitude 9 quake and a few jars fell off shelves. Even if we can't explain yet why we were wrong, it's clear that we need to recalibrate our instruments.

You could say we just need to adjust the time scale, and expect the whole thing to happen slower. But we were wrong about the time scale because we were wrong about deeper things -- the system has less fragility than we thought, and more inertia. And a change in pace will translate into a change in magnitude, because it means we will have more time to adjust.

April 14. Matt writes:

My wife and I watched the Anthony Hopkins movie "The Edge" last night. The most compelling idea in the movie is that the majority of people who are lost in the woods end up dying from shame. That is, they spend so much energy kicking themselves that they fail to think -- and therefore fail to save their life.

I think this is a learned skill -- you learn to adapt gracefully to things going wrong if you have experience of similar kinds of things going wrong, and still finding a way through. Someone who has never broken a plate will be horrified by a broken plate, while someone who has had their house burn down three times will hardly be fazed if it happens a fourth time. That's why I'm hoping the economic collapse continues to come in slow waves. If it comes too fast, even though there are good technical solutions, people won't see them because they'll be too distressed to think clearly.

April 24. You Walk Wrong, explaining why shoes are bad and we should all go barefoot. Last year Anthropik had one on the same subject, Learning to Walk. And here's an online book, The Barefoot Hiker. Going barefoot in cities is easier than people think. Of course you have to build up some toughness first, but when you do, the only thing you really have to watch for is freshly broken glass.

April 26. Last night I finished Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It's not his best novel, but he's an incredible writer:

The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes. Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.

It's important to remember that he's not trying to be realistic. Just as some authors write about wizards and elves, and some authors write about faster-than-light spaceships, McCarthy writes about hard men walking bleak landscapes where strangers are likely to kill them. In The Road, he has pushed bleakness into the realm of fantasy by creating a world where nothing at all lives but his two protagonists and the dying or murderous humans they encounter.

In reality, if there are dead trees, there will be grubs and insects eating the wood, and if there are dead humans, or living humans leaving shit, there will be flies, and if there are insects, there will be birds eating them, and feral cats eating the birds, and coyotes eating the cats. If there is enough sunlight to scan distant cities with binoculars, there will be enough for plants adapted to living in dense forests. There will be mosses, lichens, beetles, earthworms, and crows. McCarthy has excluded all these creatures for purely literary reasons -- he wants to imagine the effect of their absence on the human soul. And in that sense it's an optimistic book because some people retain their goodness.

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