May - June, 2008

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May 3. Tom sends a link about how to make bike panniers from four gallon plastic buckets. Also, here's a photo of my own tupperware pitcher front bike rack. The metal bands are those thingies, I don't know what they're called but you see them around stuff on basement ceilings and you can get them at hardware stores. The bottom bands are held on merely by their own tension and the nubs on the front fork -- which not all front forks have. The upper bands are held on with thick glue, wrapped by tape, wrapped by wires. Those bolts on the bottom (covered with plastic tubing) are also necessary to support the weight. I chose tupperware pitchers because they're the perfect size to hold two-liter water bottles, and I wanted to put water up front to equalize the weight on long trips. But if you do that, you need some padding on the bottom or else tiny rocks will get in there and puncture your bottles. The photo is from below and behind the pitchers. It looks weird because it was taken with the bike upside down and then flipped.

May 6. Depressing article from Orion magazine about the invention of consumerism by evil elites in the 1920's. Our American habit of buying and buying and never being satisfied did not arise naturally, but was the calculated result of years of propaganda. Also, the reason we have a 40 hour work week and not a 30 hour work week is that people like Edward Bernays thought that leisure time would make us too hard to control.

May 7. Nightwalking. The author's thinking is sloppily credulous, and he thinks that vitamin A will improve your night vision, which is only true if you're deficient. But there are also some good ideas, and his main thesis is exciting: you can get into an altered state of consciousness by walking around continually focusing your attention on your peripheral vision, especially if you do it at night.

May 7. I've been meaning to track down my favorite Sesame Street cartoon, which I hadn't seen in 35 years. I remembered it started with a white cylindrical object being moved by an ant, and it zoomed out to bigger and bigger things, including a zoo, until finally at the largest scale it circled around and became the little thing again. Well, I found it! Its strict title is Infinity and it's better known as That's About The Size Of It. Those links go to two different copies on YouTube. It's even better than I remembered!

May 9. Youngstown Ohio embraces shrinkage!

Now, in a radical move, the city is bulldozing abandoned buildings, tearing up blighted streets and converting entire blocks into open green spaces.... Already, delegations from smaller, post-industrial cities like Flint MI, Wheeling WV, and Dayton OH, have come to Youngstown to study the plan.

May 9. This NY Times article about Steampunk fails from the start by being in the fashion section. The correct and more radical category is technology. If you look past the Victorian frippery, Steampunk is a technological ethic that trades the factory for the garage, standardization for uniqueness, and "progress" for a mix of tools from every age. And here's an exciting idea that could help, TechShop: for a monthly fee, anyone can get access to hundreds of light industrial tools, classes on how to use them, and a community of inventors and tinkerers.

May 14. Thoughtful piece on infanticide:

...from her viewpoint as an evolutionary biologist, Hrdy demonstrates that any sane, healthy, normal, intelligent mothers who weren't capable of coldly murdering their own infant children almost certainly had no surviving descendants at all to be our ancestors during some of the species-wide threats that have been demonstrated to have happened...

May 16. Last night I was poking around Daily Kos and stumbled on Dogemperor's Diaries. Here's a post from April, Hillary Clinton member of "cell church" run by The Family, and a Harper's piece on The Family, also called "The Fellowship". But it turns out this is something much more troubling than an elite networking group with a right wing agenda. Even conservative Christians like Pat Robertson have condemned the cell church structure, because it's basically a pyramid scheme of abusive relationships. It's used by many shady groups including Scientology, the Hare Krishnas, and Amway, and it's still growing.

Cell churches don't just tell members what to think. In this new post, Dogemperor describes how Cell churches can change your personality! He quotes extensively from chapter 2 of the book The Discipling Dilemma, which describes a study showing that one cell church, the Boston Church of Christ, radically changed its members' Myers-Briggs types, converging toward ESFJ:

The percentage of males who came out ESFJ went from 2.58 to 26.37 to to 54.23 while the percentages for females went from 5.10 to 34.31 to 53.48... Among those who started as extraverts, 97 percent remained unchanged, but 95 percent of those who started as introverts changed into extraverts... Among those who started with a preference for a judging orientation, 97 percent remained unchanged, but 95 percent of those who started with a preference for a perceiving orientation changed.

This might seem benign because Myers-Briggs declares all personality types equally valuable. But The Discipling Dilemma explains:

It is not healthy to pressure a person to deny his or her true type and become a copy of someone else. Trying to change a person from one psychological type to another is like spanking a child for using the left hand. One does not produce good right-handed people that way. One produces very poor right-handed people who are very frustrated.

Dogemperor speculates that since joining The Family in 1993, Hillary Clinton has moved from INTJ to ESTJ. This would explain a lot. A natural Introvert forced to be an Extrovert would seem phony and insincere, and she would lose her internal sense of who she is and what she stands for, and constantly shift her persona looking for external validation.

May 21. Yesterday I finished James Howard Kunstler's novel World Made By Hand, and I liked it. It's set a few years after a collapse, but not a collapse to the stone age or every man for himself on desolate plains, only to the way people lived before the industrial age. What I'm most impressed with is how well he balances two of the most popular post-crash visions, which you could call Happy Amish and Murderous Warlords. The protagonists are trying to keep a small town alive, squeezed between a neo-feudal estate, a settlement of lawless scavengers, and a newly arrived Jesus cult.

As I mentioned in my review of The Road, no speculative fiction writer is really trying to predict the future. It's easier, more fun, and more valuable to create a world than to try to guess exactly what's going to happen. Kunstler wants to create a rough but somewhat seductive world with extremely local politics and a mostly medieval level of technology. So he gets rid of the federal government with an atomic bomb in DC, and gets rid of more than half the population with disease epidemics. Either of those could happen, but I'd be surprised. And I don't think there's any way we'll lose bicycles or dogs -- even on ruined roads with improvised tires, bicycles are too energy efficient to go away, and people just like dogs too much.

May 26. Steve Talbott essay, Technology and Human Responsibility. It's very hard to read, but I'll summarize: 1) The industrial view of nature as a lifeless resource is wrong, but so is the common environmentalist view of nature as a sacred place that we should leave alone. And what these views have in common is that we're disconnected from other life. 2) The right way to connect to other life is to engage it in a respectful, unpredictable, back-and-forth relationship that we can call a conversation. 3) Shocking rule: You can do anything as long as you take responsibility for it. The hard part is using the right definition of "responsibility". This strikes me as a more ethical version of the rule, "Reality is what you can get away with." 4) The human ability to be detached and make moral judgments has done a lot of harm in the past, but we can embrace it and use it to serve other life in ways that no other species can.

It's interesting to apply Talbott's thinking to genetic engineering. He and his allies have already written plenty about it here. Maybe the best link from that page is Craig Holdrege's book about genetics and context, which explains how mechanistic reductionist thinking is leading biotech to make big mistakes. But what's missing from these writings is the optimism and openness that Talbott shows in his thinking about ecology: if we can integrate context into biotech, if we can perform it like a conversation and not manipulation, then we can use our unique human powers to serve the whole. In theory, human genetic technology could accelerate, by many orders of magnitude, the normal movement of living systems toward greater complexity and abundance. And given that we're causing a mass-extinction, I would say we have a moral obligation to accelerate the recovery. As Talbott writes:

We cannot heal a landscape without a positive vision for what the landscape might become -- which can only be something it has never been before.

June 1. The latest Archdruid post, Why Decline Matters, has an important idea I've never seen before: a slow decline can be more catastrophic than a fast hard crash, because when a fast crash is over, almost everyone remembers how things were before it. They have both the skills and the motivation to rebuild the old system. But with a slow decline, the crisis state becomes the new normal:

By the time the process is finished, the people who remember how an advanced civilization used to function are long in their graves, and anything perishable in the material culture they knew has long since perished.

June 5. This article, A freelance lifestyle in a corporate workplace, is about a radical new workplace environment where workers can do whatever they want as long as they get the job done, and of course they get the job done better than in the old model where they're degraded and micromanaged. This refutes the idea that corporations = profit = evil, because here's an evil environment that interferes with profit. So if corporations are simply profit machines, where does the evil come from? It comes from humans. Humans who have been abused and controlled themselves can't stand to see other humans be happy and free. And it was humans who designed corporations in the first place to take more than they give with indifference to external costs.

June 11. For the last few weeks, John Michael Greer has been writing about the need for "cultural conservers", like the monks in medieval Europe, to keep the best parts of our culture alive through a long decline. Morris Berman wrote a book about the same kind of thing, The Twilight of American Culture.

A few comments:

1. What did the monks really save that was worth saving? Another Greer post mentioned that after the fall of Rome all the pottery got broken and nobody was making more. So why didn't the monks save the pottery industry instead of, say, Aristotle, a boring categorizer who would be better off completely lost?

2. Maybe what the monks were really preserving was a cultural tradition in which being a thinker was worth something. But I remember Fredy Perlman pointing out that the monasteries later grew into the bureaucracy that enabled the church to be so powerful.

3. We also need to keep in mind that the "dark ages" were a great time for Europe's nonhuman populations, and that even many human populations welcomed the fall of Rome. And there was also plenty of underground transmission of pagan cultures, herbal lore, and a more ecological world view.

4. Of course, if any way of thinking has been truly lost, we wouldn't know about it, but the remarkable thing is how much we have, how easy it is for ideas to survive or be reinvented or appear out of nothing. Extreme primitivists want to destroy libraries and museums, but ancient peoples with no libraries or museums managed to exterminate species and cut down forests and invent complex hierarchical society all over the world. Many modern ideas and inventions were invented first by ancient people and lost, and reappeared anyway. And tens of thousands of nature-based cultures have been wiped out, yet the dominant culture has been getting more ecologically sensitive.

6. A week ago in this post, Greer pointed out that complex cultural artifacts often pass through "dark" ages in the form of religion. At the end he raises the fascinating possibility that what we call "science" could be the religion-like belief system that preserves complexity this time.

June 13. Just finished Alan Weisman's The World Without Us. I thought it would be like the History Channel's "Life After People" but with more details. But there's actually very little overlap. LAP has stuff about skyscrapers and hydro power and concrete and dogs and cats that TWWU doesn't have, while TWWU has stuff about plastics and toxic waste and oceans.

The best thing I learned from the book is that elephants eat trees. In Africa, the landscape cycles, with elephants eating trees and bushes, allowing grass to grow, and then cattle eating the grass, allowing trees and bushes to grow. North America used to have elephants (mammoths), and when they went extinct, it's likely that the forest increased because there were no tree-eating creatures left, until the Indians again thinned the forest for hunting and farming. We like to think "forests good, Indians good, mammoths good," but in reality they often work against each other, especially if we believe that humans exterminated mammoths. And the guy who came up with the pleistocene overkill hypothesis wants to bring elephants back to North America and set them loose to eat mesquite in the southwest.

June 27. The big news yesterday was the Supreme Court ruling that the Second Amendment gives individuals the right to own firearms. Here's what I wish they had said: Governments can make laws that you can't own any guns, not even a squirrel-hunting .22, unless you're a member of a well-regulated militia, with rigorous weekly training, not only shooting, but hard exercise and wilderness survival and all kinds of skills that would be useful in defending your local area from conquest. And when you've been through enough training, you can keep and bear fully automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades and surface-to-air missiles. That's the kind of thing that Jefferson and Madison had in mind. Imagine how much nicer the government would have to be, and how much less we'd be afraid of "terrorists", if American gun lovers were ordered in thousands of tight, highly disciplined cells, instead of being a bunch of disconnected individualists shooting at beer cans.

June 28-30. On my trip to Seattle, through careful driving, I managed to get 44 miles per gallon in a 1990 Honda Civic. And 18 years after that car was made, American car makers are talking like 35mpg is something to be proud of. I was driving 60mph, a generous compromise between 45, where I'd get really good fuel economy, and the speed limit of 70, and almost every other car was roaring around me at 75. Maybe they just don't know how much money they'd save by going slower, or maybe they're under so much stress that they can't spare the time. Andrew has a good theory:

I think the appeal of speed is that it's inherently dangerous. We don't get enough real danger in our daily lives, not the kind of immediate danger you can fight like a lion or another tribal warrior. Cars are the riskiest thing that most people allow into their lives.

I had the idea that there was a fuel economy peak around 45mph, but in this Oil Drum article, if you scroll down about 20%, there are three graphs showing that many vehicles peak around 30-35mph (48-56 Km/hr) and drop off steadily above 40.

Also, why does the word "performance" get attached to a Ferrari and not a Honda Civic wagon? By the same logic, Youporn is a high-performance website because you get strong shallow pleasure from it, while Wikipedia is low-performance because it does useful tasks with great efficiency and no flash. The fallacy behind the popular use of "performance" is that speed and acceleration have use value, when really they have only pleasure value, unless you happen to be fleeing a tornado.

Of course, pleasure is good! It's just that we get in trouble when we confuse it with usefulness. Ideally, we would move people and goods with bikes and trains and barges and dull low-power cars, and then we would have race courses where anyone could drive fast for fun.

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