February - March 2010

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February 2-5. The Dramatic Rise of Anxiety and Depression in Children and Adolescents: Is It Connected to the Decline in Play and Rise in Schooling? Another question is: why exactly are kids being more and more controlled? I think it has something to do with ratcheting: For some reason, we humans find it easier to gradually tighten than to gradually loosen. This terrible habit has led to almost every unbearable tightening and catastrophic loosening in history. I don't know what to do about it.

The article also mentions that kids are being trained to have extrinsic goals: money, status, material possessions, power over others. In almost any time and place in history, that value system would be foolish. But in the USA from 1950-1985, it actually made sense. Americans had so much power that you could reasonably expect to set and achieve extrinsic goals. Now that the Empire is declining, extrinsic goals are no longer realistic, and we need to shift back to an intrinsic value system, where we do what we find most meaningful and follow it where it leads. Here's the Amazon page for Alfie Kohn, who has spent his life researching how much better people perform when they have freedom to do what they love.

February 7. Today I watched the Super Bowl ads, because I believe they are a window into the American collective unconscious. Of course, the surface message, that the meaning of life is to purchase products, is pure top-down propaganda. But there can also be a bottom-up message, if the ads are resonating with popular feelings.

The big theme I noticed was people overcoming dangers and disasters, usually by doing nothing or being completely irresponsible. A guy gets away from a Road Warrior gang by throwing his wife out of the car. A guy sleepwalks past deadly wild animals. Montgomery Burns loses his entire fortune but becomes happy when someone gives him the advertised product. Astronomers discover that an asteroid is about to strike, and spend their final hours partying, and then the asteroid turns out to be tiny and harmless. In the most troubling ad, a plane crashes on an island, a woman finds a radio to call for rescue, and everyone ignores her to happily consume the advertised product. Again, I see this as a glimpse of how people are feeling: We find ourselves in the middle of a catastrophe, cut off from the rest of the world, but rather than try to reconnect with it, we want to indulge in shallow pleasures and not think about our long term needs.

February 8-10. Everyone is talking about the Audi Green Police Super Bowl ad. Here's the reddit/environment comment thread about it, which covers the popular reaction, "Yes, we're headed for a green police state," the green reaction, "Oh no, this is discrediting our whole movement," and many other perspectives. I don't think the people who made the ad had any sinister plans at all. They were simply noticing a popular sentiment, fear of an ecological police state, and going with it. So the deeper question is: why are Americans so horrified of a police state justified by saving the Earth, when they have happily accepted a police state justified by fear of the enemy tribe? I can think of three answers. First, the story of the war-on-terror tightens and solidifies the tribal identity, or you could call it the collective ego. It makes people more certain of their existing ideas about who they are. But the story of save-the-earth challenges the tribal identity. It asks people to dissolve and expand their sense of who they are, and most Americans find that painful.

February 12. Google is in trouble for Google Buzz, some kind of Facebook thingy in which they enrolled all gmail users without our consent. A reader comments:

How much privacy a person has, is often an indication of what position they hold in a hierarchy. Who gets the corner office? Who gets a desk in the middle of an open area? Who gets nothing like any of that? Who will spend most of their work hours on some kind of service counter, right out in the middle of everyone? What do they do with new army recruits? Boarding school students? Cult members? They even sleep together in big open dorms, right? All the way down to the homeless, forced to eat, sleep, and piss right out in public view, all the time.

Now, what does all of this constant twittering and face-booking and beeping and cell-phoning teach the generations who are growing up accepting that they must always be available, to 100 different people and organizations all at the same time? It has nearly nothing to do with efficiency or profit or anything except making sure that everyone knows their place.

February 19. Mind-blowing reddit comment on mythical oil:

In the future, even if there isn't a collapse, there will be no crude oil from the ground. Records will exist of it, but future people will have no material example of the substance our society runs on. Crude oil might be seen as a mythical, magical substance, something made up.

Corollary: what non-renewable resources might precursor civilizations have used up that we'll never know about? What "mythical" materials actually existed but don't anymore?

February 22-23. I've been thinking more about why exactly I don't save everything I post, and why even my favorite posts get edited down for archiving. It's not to save myself work, because it would be less work to just keep everything. And it's not because I don't care about preservation. It's because I care more about preservation, and I understand that preservation is not a function of storage space, but a function of human attention.

How much storage space do you have for physical stuff? A few closets? Maybe a big house? What if you had a magical extra-dimensional space, on the outside as small as a closet, and on the inside as big as a warehouse? And what if almost all physical items were dirt cheap or even free? Suppose you also had a genie who could instantly store and retrieve anything you put in there. Then how much stuff would you have? Maybe you would fill the warehouse and get another storage unit the size of a jet airplane hangar.

And then what would happen when you died? The genie can store and retrieve but it cannot judge quality or usefulness. Who's going to sort through it all? What if your heirs have their own magic warehouses, and they have the option to fold yours up and throw it in the trash? And then what happens when they die? Also, what if the lifespan of genies is only 10-20 years, and the new generation can't recognize the stuff stored by the old?

Obviously, I'm talking about the way we treat information. I know someone who works in the field of information archiving and retrieval, and she says we are now living in a lost age: when historians look back at our time, they will have no idea what happened. The ancient Maya carved their records in stone. Medieval scholars wrote on vellum, which can easily last 1000 years. How long does a CD last, or a flash drive? And who will be able to read it? After only 20 years, with no tech crash, it's already very difficult to recover data from 5¼ inch floppies. Even our books are almost always written on self-consuming acidic paper. And there is little or no effort to sort out what's most important. According to my source, book-archiving warehouses file them by size and date of arrival.

What if you took a handful of diamonds, scattered them in a massive pile of gravel, mixed it all up, and then took a few handfuls out? What are the odds you would get a diamond back? What if the diamonds were disguised as gravel and could only be identified by close examination? What if the whole pile gradually disappeared? This is what we're doing with our information.

We need to do three things: 1) practice sorting information and editing it down to the very best stuff; 2) put it in a form that will be readable in the remote future; 3) if possible, build a human tradition of keeping track of the archives.

This is a cool idea: the Rosetta Disk is 13,000 pages of text and images, micro-etched into a small piece of metal, and readable after 2000 years with just a few lenses. I'm also wondering if there's any way to store music for thousands of years. Turntable records made of titanium?

There are also different categories of information. One is instructions for how to do things, which I think is overrated. Anne points out that the best way to preserve how-to-do-it information, maybe the only way, is to make it part of a living culture. And since we're talking about thousands of years, and not ten years, there's really no point in telling people how to grow squash or tan hides.

Another category is history. On the broad scale, it will be obvious to everyone that we mined all the metal and built giant steel-framed buildings. But what about medium-scale history, the stuff historians write about? If we find it helpful to read Herodotus, people of the future will want to know the same kind of thing about us.

What I find most interesting is human-scale history. If you imagine going back in a time machine, what exactly is exciting about it? Most of us are not looking for the technical details of Damascus steel. We're wondering what it's like to live in a different time. And if you could go thousands of years in the future, what would you want to talk about? And what would they ask you about?

Diane points out that everyone will know how wasteful we were by digging up our landfills. But will they know how we felt about it? Will they see us wallowing in hedonistic pleasure, or will they know how many of us were depressed? Will they know that people went to jail for taking food out of the garbage? Will they guess that at the all-time peak of energy consumption and individualism, so many of us felt individually powerless?

February 28. Rain of fish in Australia. This kind of thing has happened many times, and Charles Fort covered it in 1919 in The Book of the Damned, chapter 7. He points out that if falling creatures or objects were sucked up in tornadoes, they would be sorted and distributed by weight, not by species; that small frogs have fallen but never large frogs or tadpoles; and that the tornado explanation is never backed up by any observation of a tornado. Notice how narrow-minded we are: a statement that closes doors -- "it must have been a tornado" -- requires no evidence at all, while a statement that opens doors -- "our present model of reality cannot explain this" -- requires such a massive amount of evidence that the same anomalies can be swept under the rug decade after decade.

If you want to read Fort, the key is the first chapter of his first book, where he scorns all our explanations and definitions and categories and laws, comparing them to drawing a circle in the sea. So when he offers his own explanations, like the planet Genesistrine or the Super-Sargasso Sea, he's mostly joking.

March 3. Last week when I wrote about saving knowledge, everyone agreed that how-to-do-it knowledge is easier to preserve alive than dead -- through a living community of people teaching each other, rather than through written instructions. This is because if a skill is at all difficult, it contains subtleties that are easy to understand and transmit through hands-on practice, but almost impossible to transmit through words and pictures.

Over the last few centuries, as western civilization has grown more complex, it has depended on a larger and larger number of living skills. We are now orders of magnitude above the number of living skills that a forager-hunter tribe depends on. How was this possible? Through increasing population, and through specialization. There are people who know how to design a computer chip, but have no ability to feed themselves without a massive industrial infrastructure -- which now depends on computer chips.

Now, what happens when the population stops rising? Can we rein in and stabilize complexity so it doesn't overshoot our ability to know how to do everything? I doubt it. And what happens when some crisis forces specialists to generalize? If fiber optic technicians have to grow potatoes to survive, key skills for maintaining fiber optic networks could be lost. There are probably tens of thousands of skills equally obscure and important.

And if a skill dies, even if there are still books about it, the human attention required to resurrect it from books is much greater than the human attention that would have been required to keep it alive in the first place. So if we want to bring back a dead skill, without an increase in population or specialization, we have to sacrifice some living skills.

What we're looking at is catabolic collapse -- a loss of complexity that feeds back and causes more loss of complexity, and so on until the system finds a new point of equilibrium.

March 4. The other day Jeff Vail made a great little post about surge capacity. His context is the law business, where lawyers are expected to work at maximum capacity all the time, so then when a case needs extra work, they can't do it without a big drop in quality. As a general rule: "When a system seeks to maximize output, it reduces its resiliency to perform and to adapt to stresses."

This reminds me of Chris Davis's Idle Theory. There's much more on the site, but here are a few tastes. Idle Theory on evolution:

Zero idleness, or complete 'busyness', is the threshold of death. The nearer any creature approaches this threshold, the more endangered its life becomes. In a time of difficulty, when all creatures must work harder, some varieties or types may be reduced to zero idleness, and driven to extinction. It is the busiest, most hard-working creatures which face extinction, and the idlest which survive. In Idle Theory, natural selection means the regular extinction of the least idle creatures, and the survival of the idlest.

On politics, from the 2009 preface:

...busy human societies are ones in which few people have the idle time in which to consider the overall direction of human society, and political decisions which affect everyone are taken by the minority who have sufficient idle time to frame such policies. And so busy societies tend to be authoritarian in nature... The transition of a society from a monarchy to a democracy is a consequence of increasing social idleness.

On economics:

The primary purpose of economic activity is the maintenance and increase of idle time. It is only when there is sufficient idle time made available by this primary economy that it becomes possible for a secondary economy to emerge, in which a variety of luxuries and amusements and pastimes are manufactured and traded. Before idle time can be disposed of in making and enjoying these luxuries, this idle time first has to primarily be produced.

And on ethics:

Ethics is not so much about what human free agents should and should not do, but rather what part-time free agents should and should not do in order to become as far as possible completely free agents.
In weighing up whether some behaviour is right or wrong, do not ask whether you like it or dislike it, whether it is normal or abnormal, whether it is legal or illegal: ask whether it gains or loses anyone their time.

March 11. The Savanna Principle explains how "the human brain has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment." My favorite example is that we have no ancestral experience of large businesses and governments, so we try to understand them by projecting something we're familiar with: the family. Now, a very small business or government might behave like a family. But a large one is a completely different thing. It behaves much more like something else in our ancestral environment: a fire! Would we be outraged if a fire burned down a community garden? Would we try to stop a fire by lying down in its path? Would we pass a law against a fire? Of course not! Likewise, all of these tactics, even laws, are ignored and overrun by the logic of large centralized systems, their drive to leverage power-over into more power-over until everything in their path is consumed.

When we see these systems as fires, our strategy becomes clear: stop moralizing, get out of their way, and starve them of fuel. And in the long term, we can prevent "fires" by designing our culture, our fundamental values, to prevent positive feedback in power-over. We already know how to do this on the human scale. Suppose you borrow a hammer from your neighbor and forget about it. Years later, your neighbor's lawyer informs you that you owe him ten hammers. That's ridiculous, and yet we think it's normal and fair for large systems to operate by those rules, and then we're surprised that they behave like psychopaths.

There's a simple rule that would greatly reduce economic domination: universal negative interest. If anything is borrowed, the borrower pays back less. Or to come at the same thing from a different direction: a non-user can never be an owner. The owner of anything is whoever is using it in a respectful way. To get rules like this, I hope we don't have to wait until big systems have been around so long that they're part of our ancestral environment.

March 25. I've often said that I don't think civilization will collapse all the way to the stone age, but now I'm not so sure. The only way to stop a slide to the stone age is to focus human attention on intermediate technologies. This principle is independent of peak oil or any other mechanism of collapse. If you don't believe that technological complexity will magically keep increasing forever, then you have to accept that it goes up and down. So the next time it goes down, if we want to save computers, cars, bicycles, shovels, anything, we have to learn to build and maintain them with simpler tools and fewer resources.

I call this The Garage Principle: during a fast drop in overall complexity, the best test of whether a given technology will survive is whether it can be kept alive by dedicated amateurs working at home.

Last night I hung out with Adam, and he mentioned a guy who made a computer at home using no silicon chips, just massive numbers of transistors (link), which could also be made in a garage. If the complex and fragile fiber optic system goes down, we could still have an internet with wires strung through trees, or wifi signal amplifiers powered by solar panels. And check out this Kevin Kelly post on Garage Biotech.

I can imagine a steampunk renaissance, where you have a horse with bioengineered gut bacteria that allows it to eat plastic, and you ride it to the next town to trade a load of ball bearings for a bolt of spider silk to make the wings of an ultralight airplane to carry 50 terabytes of data over the mountains. But will this happen? Right now, how many engineers are working on stripped-down garage tech, and how many are working on feature bloat? How fast can we adapt?

Joel comments:

I was a student instructor in an undergraduate-level microfabrication class. Two people in a garage could definitely make transistors. I can see no reason for them to dice them all apart and package them separately, rather than fabricating an integrated circuit.

Microchips designed for garage fabrication would be different from what we're familiar with. There are ways to design the circuit to tolerate faulty devices so that if a speck of dust destroys one transistor, its neighbor takes over and the whole circuit still works. There are also tremendous gains in efficiency and capabilities possible when human attention is focused on circuit design, as seen in the Parallax Propeller.

I'm also excited by some of the circuit designs that are re-thinking the ways that computers work. Some of these are not entirely deterministic. They're still fully digital, but they're designed to do noise-tolerant work like audio and video, and their function somewhat resembles an analog device. There are also interesting things being done with field-programmable gate arrays. Many of these designs would translate better to homebrew electronics than, say, an 8088 clone.

Finally, technologies like electron-beam lithography and dip-pen lithography are extremely labor-intensive, but have the potential to make one-of-a-kind circuits that are not just designed better, but built more capably than mass-produced microchips.

On a related note: I work with scientists and engineers, and there's a general tone of respect for intermediate technology among every group of practical people I've met from that field. Any contact with the real world of high technology illustrates how important its predecessors are, partly because it's often necessary to backtrack in order to build up the capacity to advance.

I guarantee you that the best half of the engineers who now work on feature bloat, are dreaming about more meaningful work. As the market for bloat deflates, they'll spend more time in garages.

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