September - November, 2009

previous archive

September 2. Today, some philosophy. Chuck, who visited the land this past weekend, is what I would call a techno-animist. This whole subject is hard to explain in English, because of trap words like "soul" and "consciousness", but I'll start with the eeevil philosopher Rene Descartes. Descartes believed that if you torture a dog, its howls of pain are no different from a bell ringing on a machine. I hope we all agree that he was insane, but he was at least making an attempt to answer a hard question: where do we draw the line between people and not-people, subject and object, player character and non-player character?

The short answer is that there is no good place. It's just a vast grey area all the way down. Colonies of bacteria behave like brains. Crystals grow, heal, and duplicate themselves. Quantum physicists have now proven that if we have free will, then so do electrons. This brings us all the way to the other extreme: that the entire universe and everything in it is a person, a subject, a player character.

This is the essence of animism, our oldest and newest philosophy of mind. But many nature-loving animists don't follow it to its conclusion: if a rock is a person, then so is a brick, a bottle, a bicycle, a cell phone. When Patricia visited my land, she felt that it was angry from all the abuse it had suffered under humans. Chuck told me that he once had the same feeling -- at a landfill! And that he sensed a feeling of great joy in a new car showroom. Manufactured items want to be bought and kept and loved by us, and they feel great confusion and rage when we just throw them out.

This raises all kinds of questions. Can we be wrong about the feelings of discarded cell phones? What is the relation between the identity humans project on a thing, and the identity native to that thing? How does a rock feel about being carved into a statue? Does a cloud know, or care, when you see it as a face? If no human is observing a chair, does it really dissolve into quantum probability waves? In what sense is it still being observed by dust mites, or by itself?

The best way I can get a handle on these questions is to ask: what would the answer be in a dream? But this leads to an even harder question: who is the dreamer? My best guess is this: that you, your toenail, the grain of sand under your toenail, and the subatomic particles in that grain of sand, are all characters in a dream by a dreamer much too strange for us to imagine.

Aaron comments:

This is really a debate about how much we should limit our love. When I put it like that it quickly becomes clear that asking the question is the opposite of a loving act. It is an attempt to set intellectual rules that allow us to withdraw love.

In practice it's a bit different because I find myself limiting my love often. Surely though it's better to admit that we ran out of love today rather than rationalising our behaviour by creating out-groups.

And from another reader:

On one hand, I would consider myself a "reductionist" and that things are fundamentally mechanistic, objective, etc.... but I will be so happy to rescue an insect washed up along the water. I'll help a sea star that doesn't have a proper brain. I'll wish I could be more helpful to jellyfish that are hardly anything at all. And I hate to see a tree harmed for no reason, or a rock harmed for no reason, because everything deserves to be what it is and what it will become, even if it doesn't have anything to think or feel with.

September 10. Pigeon transfers data faster than the internet. This is supposed to show how slow the South African internet is, but I'm thinking it would be a good way to transfer data in a possible future where we still have computers but can't use the internet, either because the infrastructure has been destroyed, or because it's too tightly controlled.

September 11. Nobody has asked me for advice on how to write a successful blog, but I want to give it anyway. First, some general advice for writers: 1) Fewer words. 2) Practice empathy with your audience. Another way to say this is, you can only be a good singer by listening to the voice coming out of your mouth, not to the voice in your head. 3) From Bill Hicks: Be yourself, because nobody else can be you, so you have supply and demand covered.

There is a special rule for blogs or anything else where you're trying to hold an audience over time: it's like feeding a fire. The fire is the attention of your readers, and your writing is the wood. Of course you need clean dry wood and not soggy dirty wood. But also, if you go too long without throwing wood on, or if you throw too much on at once, the fire will go out. If you're going to post infrequently, do it on a strict schedule.

September 21. In this reddit comment, a visitor to North Korea discovers that all the farmers have mysterious huts on stilts... which turn out to be machine gun nests to stop people from stealing food!

Now, at first, this might seem like a Mad Max scenario, and you might imagine, in a few years, protecting your own homestead with a gun tower. But this is North Korea, one of the most tightly controlled societies in history. Every one of those gunners is completely subservient to the state, because if they weren't, they would be immediately taken out. And they are shooting at people who are trying to be independent.

When you think about it, the same thing would happen in a hard crash. The "zombie apocalypse" would be a brief transitional stage, if it happened at all. Soon you would be facing powerful gangs or paramilitary groups, and you would have to submit to them or be killed -- and after years of civil war, the winning gang would declare itself the government. Now, at any stage in this process, you could be relatively free by staying on the fringes of the system. But people on the fringes are not allowed to show weapons, even in self-defense -- which explains what happened to the Black Panthers and the Branch Davidians and MOVE.

Americans who talk about the right to bear arms haven't thought it through. Do they want the bearing of arms by crowds of Mexican immigrants, or poor black people, or anarchists? Do they want to see "the tree of liberty refreshed with the blood of tyrants" by weapons held by those groups? Probably not. They want the right to bear arms, and the right to overthrow the government, only for their own culture. They think they're oppressed, but the fact that you can bring a gun to an Obama speech, when you can't even wear a critical t-shirt to a Bush speech, proves that right wingers are near the center of power.

But what if that changes? Dmitry Orlov wrote about this a few days ago: Caution, White People. He went to one of the tea-bagger protests and noticed that not only was everyone white, almost everyone was middle-aged or older, out of shape, and out of touch. And now they're angry because American demographics are changing, and their once-dominant culture is becoming a fringe culture.

They're actually right that Obama is coming for their guns -- but it's nothing personal. It's just part of the logic of control that fringe cultures are not allowed to bear arms, because guns are tools of control. If you live by it, you die by it.

September 25. I've been asked how we can face terrible facts and still go through life feeling good. My answer is to make peace with the worst that can happen, and retain confidence in our ability, or the ability of other life, to navigate those events, to find a way through, even if we cannot see it yet. Now, I admit that I'm leaning on metaphysics. I think biological life on Earth is just a tiny part of a vast and possibly infinite universe packed with life beyond our understanding. But even if this world is all there is, and it's doomed, we can still appreciate it and enjoy every moment of our lives. There's a great line in the film The Wild Bunch, after one of the characters puts up a great fight and finally dies, and another guy says, admiringly, "He played his string out all the way to the end."

October 2. Ian sends this very good article on PTSD, and this 2005 essay on Ecological Collapse, Trauma Theory and Permaculture. I'm thinking that trauma theory fills a big gap in our understanding of why people and societies do harmful things. Wilhelm Reich called it the emotional plague, and some Reich followers have even blamed the whole age of Empire on the trauma from the climate disaster that created the Sahara. I wouldn't go that far, but the first article does have a fascinating section, "Secondary Victims", about how PTSD can be passed to new generations that did not experience the initial traumatic event.

I've also noticed that people who have suffered trauma, and not come to terms with it, are intensely envious and even hostile toward people who have suffered less trauma, and they seek to drag everyone else down in a psychological version of the crab mentality. This is why everyone hates hippies, and it's probably a big factor in genocides.

Trauma theory could also explain why violent revolutions always fail. Even if you replace a bad system with a better system, if you use violence, you are replacing a less traumatized with a more traumatized population.

October 9. The future is already here, just not widely distributed yet. Here's an article about rural India and their word Jugaad:

Many of our friends, when we asked them about it, said that the concept is best illustrated by a common rural sight that people actually refer to as "a jugaad": a homemade vehicle made by cobbling together a wooden cart with the kind of diesel water pump farmers use for irrigation.
The variety of solutions to seemingly intractable problems we saw supported this patriotic esteem: motorcycles chopped in half and welded to carts to create centaur goods haulers. The way families would fit mother, father, and three kids onto a single scooter. The clever repurposing of used water bottles as cooking oil containers. Rope spun from discarded foil packets.

October 12. Charles Eisenstein has a new essay on ritual. His basic idea is both obvious and shocking: when you are aware of a ritual as a ritual, when you say, "we are now going to do this ritual", your ritual is dead. A living ritual is not experienced as a ritual, but as a part of a way of life. My favorite bit is when he goes to a sweat lodge ceremony, and the only part that feels authentic is the signing of the legal waiver -- because that's the only part that's integrated into the world we actually live in.

October 14-16. According to this article about the athletic superiority of primitive humans, your typical aboriginal village had a guy who could run on wet mud almost as fast as Usain Bolt runs on a track. So how did we lose that? I think the change is almost all environmental, and most of us have massive untapped potential. If you want to go farther out, here's a post from Edge of Grace, The Extraordinary Physical Abilities of the Mongols, and a Fortean Times article on feral kids.

Another question is: what skills have we gained that our ancestors didn't have? Certainly we're better at navigating our particular environment: driving, living in dense cities, working long hours at stressful jobs, and staring at screens all day. According to this thoughtful history of silent reading, just 2000 years ago nobody could read without moving their lips. Also we're surrounded by so many harmful temptations that we've had to learn exceptional restraint. And contrary to popular myth, I think we're much better at mind-body healing: we're swimming in toxins and radiation, we eat terribly, and yet we're at least as healthy as primitive people of the same age.

The conventional explanation is sanitation and medical technology, but I've drunk from mountain streams, eaten from dumpsters, and haven't been to a doctor in years. I think Leonard Sagan figured it out in his book The Health of Nations, where he analyzes a bunch of societies and discovers that health and lifespan correlate with cultural environment, rather than physical environment. That leads into fringe psychology, like Lloyd deMause's argument that kids have been raised better and better throughout history, or Teilhard de Chardin's concept of the Noosphere.

I like to think we could reverse aging and regrow limbs if we lived in a culture where those abilities were considered normal. But backing off a bit, could we just be as athletic as our ancestors? David sends this article about a radical fitness system called MovNat:

Le Corre, in fact, could be one of the best living examples of what our bodies were originally designed to do. "Versatility was the key to survival, because early humans had to be ready for anything at any time," says E. Paul Zehr, a kinesiology professor at the University of Victoria and the author of Becoming Batman. "If your daily life is hunting and being hunted, at a moment's notice you might have to sprint, jog, throw a spear, scramble up a tree, hunker down, and dig. The specialization we enjoy today, be it as a marathoner or a tennis player -- even a triathlete -- is a luxury of modern society. It doesn't have great survival value for Homo sapiens in the wild."

There's also some good stuff about how physical training should feel like play, not work. It reminds me of an experiment where a professional basketball player got tired out trying to mimic the movements of a kid playing. This is not because kids have superhuman stamina -- it's because the kid was playing spontaneously and the athlete was constrained by imitation.

October 19. In this world I constantly find myself being dragged along with increasing complexity that I didn't ask for and don't like. The latest example is that Gmail has removed my ability to write all emails in plain text by default. I sent them a comment about it, but I know this is a losing battle. It will be thousands of years before humans learn the skill of decreasing the complexity of large systems while keeping them stable. What I'm really asking is not for Gmail to go back to plain text, but for Gmail to add yet another layer of complexity that enables some of us to opt out of increasing complexity. It's kind of like asking for a runaway train to add another car so I can sit farther back.

October 21. Today I saw this fascinating link about the possibility that The large hadron collider is sabotaging itself from the future. When I went to submit it to reddit, I saw that it had already been submitted multiple times. The strange thing was, the conspiracy subreddit loved it, even though it has nothing to do with conspiracy, while the science subreddit didn't like it much, even though the speculation came from serious physicists.

This is why I didn't make a career out of science: because I sensed that the culture of science is no longer about exploring and having fun, but about protecting your reputation and credibility. You know, there is nothing in the scientific method that says the burden of proof should be on anomalies, or that the dominant theory should get the benefit of the doubt. Those rules come from the conservatism that science has fallen into. I prefer to slant it the other way, give the fringe theory the benefit of the doubt, and assume that every anomaly, unless explained away with full evidence, offers a doorway to something we don't understand yet.

October 30. Wind powered factories: the history and future of industrial windmills:

In the 1930s and 1940s, decades after steam engines had made wind power obsolete, Dutch researchers obstinately kept improving the traditional windmill. The results were spectacular, and there is no doubt that today an army of ecogeeks could improve them even further. Would it make sense to revive the industrial windmill and again convert kinetic energy directly into mechanical energy?

The best advantage of all-mechanical windmills is that the energy can't be centralized. With electricity-generating windmills, it's possible for a central authority to suck up all the power and dispense it selectively to the obedient. Because that's not possible with mechanical windmills, they are allied to a more decentralized society.

November 17. Thoughtful essay on intellectual property, If you believe in IP, how do you teach others? My position is that property is theft, and intellectual property is theft on stilts. Now Harvard and the University of Texas are actually prohibiting students from sharing what they learn in class. If you take this to its logical conclusion, you can pay for an education, go on to use what you've learned in a job, and if you didn't get the professor's explicit permission to use it, you can go to prison.

The article doesn't stop there, but goes on to explore Ayn Rand's obsession with intellectual property. It never occurred to me that Rand had two distinct ideologies which totally contradict each other. One is basically Nietzsche, or Harrison Bergeron: the exceptional individual, wild and free, weighted down by the mediocrity of the average. The other is Ebenezer Scrooge. Rand's genius was to use the former as a front for the latter: because we are strong and independent and creative, we should never have to give anything to the lazy idiots. She was personally so miserly that she sent Nathaniel Branden to prevent her followers "from using the word Objectivist, to prevent them from using quotes from John Galt, to prevent them even from advertising lectures on the topic by students of her ideas." And "she ended up feeling robbed and looted by everyone who was influenced by her."

When you think about it, the most exceptional people should be the most generous. If you're truly confident in your ability to create things of value, you don't mind losing everything, because you can just make more.

November 19. Especially good Archdruid post, How Relocalization Worked. Greer explains how the Medieval guild system was necessary in a local economy: a skilled blacksmith would get most of his business from stuff that anyone could do, but if unskilled blacksmiths were allowed to compete with him, he would be driven out of business, and then there wouldn't be anyone to do skilled work. There was also an unintended benefit of price fixing: if craftsmen couldn't compete in price, they had to compete in quality and innovation. Ironically, this led to so much innovation that we now have a high-tech global economy where price competition has driven quality into the gutter.

Also, Greer links to this exceptional piece by Ugo Bardi on the fall of Rome. Bardi concludes that the best thing for the Romans to do, if they had understood their situation, would have been to go voluntarily into the Middle Ages, to decentralize, demilitarize, and regrow forests, through reform instead of collapse.

November 23. I'm struggling to put together some thoughts about what you could call epistemological collapse, the veering away of human perception from what we need to see to what we want to see. More and more, people are starting with what they want to believe, and then going out and finding the facts to support it. Of course we've been doing this for thousands of years, but the internet makes it much easier. It is now so easy to move information, that the majority of information-moving is being done by people who can only do things that are easy. More and more of the content of TV and the inernet is derived from simply feeding back what the audience wants. This is killing open-minded investigation, but the strange thing is that it's also killing propaganda. The idiots are no longer being told what to think -- now they are telling each other what to think, and they might think anything, or do anything. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.

next archive