July - August, 2008

previous archive

July 2. Andrew fills in another piece of the puzzle:

A year ago I started eating really healthy for a month. It felt great, I was full of energy. But I couldn't stay in my cubicle. I kept getting up to go somewhere, anywhere else, sneaking ourside for fresh air and sun. Work suffered.

When I'm unemployed I eat well, get daily exercise, adequate rest, and I'm generally healthy and feeling fine. When I work, I don't. It's not that I don't have the time or the energy at the end of the day, because I totally could keep up with the healthy stuff. It's that I need to feel like shit in order to work.

July 3. There was a bit on Kos last night about blogger Al Giordano getting fired by his sponsoring organization for writing about Obama and Saul Alinsky. Deb Kozikowski, who fired him, wrote, "Talk about creating the petri dish for beautiful loser syndrome."

I think the idea is, whatever makes Obama beautiful to his supporters, will make him ugly to everyone else, and he will lose, so instead he has to become bland and inoffensive to the mainstream, and uninspiring to his supporters.

When was the last time a bland inoffensive candidate who tried to please everyone beat an exciting and scary candidate in a presidential election? I don't think it's happened since McKinley beat William Jennings Bryan in 1900, and Bryan would have kicked McKinley's ass if they'd had TV or internet. Bush won the last two elections despite being an obvious fuckup because it was clear to voters that Bush had the courage of his convictions while Gore and Kerry were constantly backpedaling and watering themselves down so they could be president.

What's happening here is that American politics is like an abusive relationship. The people who want Obama to walk on eggshells grew up in abusive families, or at least abusive school systems, so they feel in their bones that anyone who is not completely inoffensive will be crushed. What really horrifies them is not that Obama will be radical and lose, but that he'll be radical and win, because that means they could have done the same thing, and they've wasted their lives.

July 16. The Art of Survival, Taoism and the Warring States. The basic point is something everybody knows: that making a fortified compound in the sticks is a bad way to survive, and making connections with your neighbors is a good way. But there are new details here. First is an explanation of how poor people who have lived in isolated areas for years will beat well-stocked newcomers in any conflict. And it also mentions something I didn't know about the history of Taoism. We might imagine that it's an abstract philosophy developed by monks who spent years living in temples and gazing at flowers, when really it's a practical philosophy developed and tested during a time of great turmoil and warfare.

July 23-25. Yesterday there was a good Kos post about how Republicans have driven a wedge between ordinary Americans and progressive politicians by undermining every attempt to use government to do good, until people think their problems can't be solved through government.

OK... but how do they gain from this, really? If they just want political power, then why don't they compete with liberals in using government to help people and win votes? If they want to destroy the government, why? Just to pay fewer taxes? Rich people and corporations are already able to dodge taxes, and middle class Republicans seem oblivious to their tax money going to expensive wasteful stuff like the "war on drugs" and toxic food subsidies and unwinnable ground wars in Asia.

If this is the work of elites trying to profit from the Iraq war, why not get much safer profits by starting alternative energy companies and using their inside connections to get fat government subsidies? And if they just want to replace the government with the private sector, then why do they also oppose private actions that help people, like Food Not Bombs or industrial hemp farming? Why do they hate bicycles and energy conservation and Rainbow Gatherings?

Let's stop pretending. These people block the government from doing good not because they hate government, but because they hate the doing of good.

Part of it is envy. One of my favorite bits in the Bible is the parable of the jealous workers: Some workers show up at a farm in the morning, and agree to work all day for a certain wage. Then some other workers show up in the afternoon, and they get the same amount of money for only working half a day. And the morning workers say, "No faaaair!" And Jesus says, "Morning workers, you consented to that deal and it's wrong for you to resent someone for getting a better deal."

To this day, religious scholars have trouble taking the parable at face value, but if you think it through it makes perfect sense. If the morning workers get their way, if it's not fair for people who came later to get a better deal, then the world can never get any better.

Paula comments, and I'm going to block out the word she used, to avoid semantic arguments about this dark spiritual force:

I was raised in a fundamentalist church and grew up holding rather extreme ( ) beliefs. So, I have some insight into where these people are coming from.

The key thing to understand about ( ) thinking is that all their lives they are taught that morality and values are things that come from outside themselves. Anything you want to try to understand about ( ) comes back to this. A person's feelings and experiences have nothing whatever to do with what is right and wrong. Thus it's really quite impossible for someone stuck in a ( ) mentality to discern evil and good on her own; this determination has to come from some authority, and no matter how painful or miserable, she'll stay the authority's course because she believes she does not have the capacity to make moral decisions for herself.

This is why ( ) pundits can become continually more obnoxious, disgusting, and stupid without losing audience; and why parroting the day's party line memo is so much more rampant among ( ) bloggers and political junkies -- people who have never, and because of their cognitive programming likely will never have an original political thought. It is also why appeals to ( ) sense of decency or humanity are futile: the authorities have already been determined, and you and I are not among them, no matter if we speak the genuine truth or lay out a perfectly sensible argument.

( ) oppose government doing good because government actions are determined by the will of the people, and the people have no capacity to make moral decisions on their own. Democratic and representative governments are intrinsically evil because they are subordinate to the people... This is why ( ) seek to use democratic processes to end democracy.

I also believe we are born with an internal moral compass. But in my experience, that compass is like any muscle... If you don't exercise it, it will atrophy and you'll end up dependent upon someone else. Perhaps the best metaphor I can think of is the old Chinese practice of boxing in little girls' feet so that when they grow up, they can't walk. The difference being that it IS possible to reconstitute one's internal moral compass.

July 27. A few weeks ago Holly sent me a beautiful handmade book of a novel she wrote, Crossing the Blue. The execution is rough at times, but the content is state of the art postapocalypse fiction, with an impressive range including crazed murderers, highway bandits, squatter camps, stifling communes, friendly locals, and ecotopia, plus some shamanic visions and debates about technologies.

July 30. So after my survival/Taoism post, I figured it's time to actually read the Tao Te Ching. Adam recommends Stephen Mitchell's version. That link goes to the Amazon page, with many reviews that find it helpful and others that attack it for being New Agey and based on other translations instead of the original Chinese. They make it sound like Mitchell is the only one who's ever done that, but it's quite common -- they're just picking on him for being popular. Here is an exceptionally fair review of Mitchell.

So I started looking at other translations. Here's a site that with 15 Tao translations, and a site with 24 Tao translations, and a site with 112 Tao translations, plus many translations into languages other than English. Also here's a good review of published Tao translations, including some that have not been posted online.

I eventually noticed that Tao translations are like Linux distros! Mitchell is Ubuntu, designed to be extremely accessible. The Tao equivalent of a stripped-down distro like Puppy would be Jeff Rasmussen. And the equivalent of Gentoo, where you get down to the source code, would be a scholarly literal translation with lots of commentary. The best seems to be Ellen Chen.

August 5. Cycling Back Around is the best article I've seen yet about the resurgence of bicycling, full of information and beautifully written.

August 11. I ordered that Ellen Chen book on the Tao Te Ching, and I've been reading it. The translation is clunky, because it's designed to not sacrifice any meaning for readability, and the commentary is incredible. Here's a Hobbes quote she uses to explain chapter 46:

I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death. And the cause of this is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight than he has already attained to, or that he cannot be content with a moderate power, but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more. And from hence it is that kings, whose power is greatest, turn their endeavours to the assuring it at home by laws, or abroad by wars.

I would put it like this:

There are two kinds of power: collaboration and domination, or power-with and power-over. Power-with is stable, and power-over is unstable. It's not that the elite want more pleasure, or need more money, but that the nature of power-over requires that once you have it, you have to to keep increasing it or lose it. (Or if you don't, you fear that you do.) In fact, a good diagnostic test for whether you're looking at power-with or power-over is whether it follows the rule, "What doesn't grow, dies."

August 18. Last week Dylan sent this great transcript of a talk by Jonathan Blow on video games. It reminds me of David Wong's Life After The Video Game Crash. Wong argues that games have never had enough substance to keep us playing them, and the only thing driving the industry is novelty:

We've now advanced from realistic 3D to slightly prettier 3D and... even slightlier prettier 3D with slightly better reflection effects and slightly better animated water ripples and -- oh, look! This game has the most realistic fog yet!

See the problem? What does an art form that relies on novelty do when it can no longer offer up anything novel?

Blow makes the same point, and seeks a solution:

As with exploiting the oil sands, there will be technological achievements that open up bursts of new innovation -- like the Nintendo Revolution controller, holographic display, a direct neural interface, or NPC's that can pathfind without getting stuck on corners or standing in your way. But each burst will exhaust itself in time. So before we run out of new shiny things, we need to build a better model of what a game should be. A sustainable model.

We need "important" games that "speak to the human condition" in the same way that good books do. And Blow's key insight is that games were already moving in that direction years ago, but went astray. So instead of looking for "innovations" in graphics and gameplay, we should be going back to classic games and expanding on what we love about them.

He mentions Ultima IV, in which you're not just building up levels and items but eight different moral attributes. The closest recent game is Black and White, in which a thousand-fold increase in computer power has led not to a more complex moral simulation but a much simpler one.

My own example would be Lords of the Realm II, a medieval strategy game where you grow wheat and cows, try to keep your peasants happy and healthy, and extract ore and wood and make weapons and armies. One great thing about it is its small scale -- sometimes you're dealing with single peasants. It also has seasons, with the map getting snowy in winter and then bright green fading to brown from spring to fall. You get better harvests if you leave fields fallow. And the most radical thing is that there is no "growth". Instead of making everything better and better forever, you are striving to find and maintain a plateau of harmony and abundance.

Of course, there is also conquest and military victory, but with a single tweak, an algorithm for the instability of large centrally controlled systems, you would have cycles of empire and collapse and the game could go on forever. With a few more tweaks to simulate exhaustion of resources, the game could teach ecology. We could add more crops, program a link between diet and health, and use our vast computing power to zoom down to individual fields and do permaculture. Of course, Lords of the Realm III went the opposite direction, prettied up the combat and cut almost everything else.

August 26. Debunking the "Tragedy of the Commons". In reality, land held in common tends to be managed well, and privately owned land tends to be exploited. But in 1968 a eugenicist named Garrett Hardin pulled a paper out of his ass that said exactly the opposite with no evidence, and all the people who stood to benefit from converting common land to private land thought it was brilliant, and proceeded to ruin the world.

August 28. Life in a Lazy Universe argues that the way this universe works is consistent with how it would work if it was simulated. It's mostly writing about programming and math, and doesn't say that a "lazy evaluation", where reality isn't filled in until somebody looks at it, is exactly how our own universe works according to quantum physics. In fact, the post itself doesn't even contain the word "quantum", but the comments immediately plunge into arguing about it, because objective physical reality is the core unproven assumption, the God, of industrial age science.

next archive