June - October, 2010

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June 4-5. I just finished a famous book that I hadn't read before: The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel. The idea is, during the last ice age, an orphaned girl from our human subspecies gets adopted by Neanderthals. On one level, it's a wonderful vision of what it might be like to live in a forager-hunter tribe. But on another level, it's not about that at all. We know almost nothing about Neanderthal culture, and Auel chooses to make them patriarchal and authoritarian: women can't even speak to men without bowing down and asking permission first, and the clan has rigid rules which again and again come into conflict with their human instincts. This isn't eastern Europe in the ice age, but America in the 1960's, or any fundamentalist culture shifting to one that's more free and open. I wonder if the book is popular in Iran right now.

It also reminded me of Harry Potter: an extremely talented orphan joins an exotic community, learns amazing skills, endures terrible hardships, and repeatedly defeats a jealous villain. And last year when I read The Color of Distance, I didn't realize it was Clan of the Cave Bear on another planet.

June 17. Yesterday I saw this reddit comment thread on printers and how they never work right. I live in a house with two printers and I can't get either one to work on either of two operating systems. On my winter tour 18 months ago, everyone I stayed with had a computer, but almost nobody had a working printer. When I want a hardcopy of a google map, I trace it from the screen.

What's going on? I think this is something deeper than incompetence or profiteering, and NiceDay4ASulk is on the right track with the comment that printers are "the bridge between the digital world and the physical world." Maybe this has something to do with entropy: the physical world is like a higher energy state than the virtual world, so it's easy to take a picture of a physical object and put it in a computer, but to go the other way, and turn bits in a computer into a physical object, is extremely difficult.

Some techno-utopians think we're going to have home fabricators, where you can download information and "print" any physical object. But printing text on paper is harder now than it was 20 years ago. As information systems get more complex, and available energy gets lower, we are moving in the opposite direction, copying physical stuff into the digital world, and moving our consciousness there with it.

June 24. From Cory Doctorow's review of the book The Upside of Irrationality:

My favorite is the section on adaptation, the way in which both pain and delights fade down to a baseline normal. Ariely points out that if you take a break, the emotional sensation comes back with nearly full force. We have a tendency to indulge our pleasures without respite, and to take frequent breaks from things that make us miserable. This is exactly backwards. If you want to maximize your pleasure, you should trickle it into your life, with frequent breaks for your adaptive response to diminish. If you want to minimize your pain, you should continue straight through without a break, because every time you stop, your adaptive response resets and you experience the discomfort anew.

July 1. This Is Not A Weed is a smart article about urban weeds. The big idea is that "native" and "invasive" don't make any sense in the city, since it's a new kind of habitat where nothing is native.

July 8. I've been reading about the brain's default network. Basically it's what the brain is doing all the time when it's not doing anything else, the background "stream of consciousness". And now I'm wondering: do some default networks function well, while others function badly? Could this explain why some people use alcohol or other drugs to "stop thinking"? I'm even wondering about meditation, which attempts to still the default network. Maybe this is only really valuable if your default network is not working right, and you have to shut it down to repair it.

July 15. Important 1997 article, Places to Intervene in a System. It argues that the leverage point of industrial civilization, where the smallest action will produce the biggest change, is economic growth... but everyone is pushing in the wrong direction!

July 17. What drowning really looks like. Drowning people don't splash their arms and scream, even if it would attract attention that would save them. Instead, their nervous system forces them to use their arms and mouth to do nothing but take one more gulp of air. This reminds me of how complex systems fail to prevent collapse: when they get in a state of crisis, they focus all their energy on keeping the whole thing going just a bit longer, while sabotaging their long term survival.

July 17. The perils of rationalization: if you base your decisions on what you are able to explain to other people in words, you will make bad decisions, but if you don't care whether you can explain your decisions, you will make good ones. Oddly, the actual title of the article is "the perils of introspection", which should encompass much, much more than cooking up words to justify your actions. Imagine, if you can, what it would be like to spend hours and hours doing stuff inside your head, without ever using language.

July 29-31. The Economist covers freight trains vs passenger trains. American freight trains are the best in the world, and this is related to the fact that our passenger trains are expensive and slow: Amtrak has to pay to use railways that the freight companies own, and has to go slow to match the speed of freight. The Economist will never mention that corporations were given the rails in the first place in exchange for conditions that they never met. (See Railroads and Clearcuts.) But if we change the rail system to better serve human passengers, it will not work as well for freight.

Right now the fashionable way to make passenger trains "better" is to make them faster. Everybody wants to brag about their bullet train. But I've taken several cross-country Amtrak rides and was totally happy with the speed. Alexa comments:

People who bitch about American trains have either never been on them, or are entirely too hurried in their lives. Rolling across Ohio at five in the morning, standing in a vestibule with an open window, feeling the moist air moving by, watching the fog lift from the farmfields... I always bring things to do on the trip, and I never do them because I spend so much time staring out the window, being impressed and relieved to see how much of the country is still not inhabited.

My complaint is the cost. This article, How Green Is Your Ride, charts the "energetic performance" of different vehicles, and trains are much better than cars or planes. So why are they more expensive? But notice that freight trains are one to two orders of magnitude better than passenger trains. I'm guessing this is because freight can be packed more densely, but the result is that bicycles are still the most efficient way to move people.

My other complaint is that American trains don't go enough places... but they used to! From this page of PDF links to pre-Amtrak system maps, you can see the American passenger rail system shrink, in less than ten years, from almost 90,000 miles to under 20,000 miles, "in the face of massive, government-run aviation and highway programs." Why did the government do this? Because the nation was filthy rich, and citizens wanted the "freedom" of zipping around in their personal vehicles, and also because the corporations that owned the government could profit more from cars than trains.

But cars require massive subsidies in the form of highway construction and repair. As the industrial economy declines, more and more of the pavement will fall apart -- or in well-managed areas, be rolled back to gravel. Unless super-efficient airships are invented, air travel will shrink to serve only the elite. In this climate, the best move for governments is to shift their subsidies back to rails. Otherwise, the next level down is bicycles and horses, which don't really need a government.

August 6. Blog post about pemmican, the superfood of American Indians, which supposedly keeps for decades and provides complete nutrition. There are links to recipes at the bottom. Basically you completely dry a bunch of red meat at below 120F, grind it to a powder, and mix it one to one with rendered fat, ideally grass-fed. The purists say to just use those two ingredients, but I see benefit and no harm in adding unrefined salt, and maybe honey.

[Update: I actually made pemmican. It tasted terrible, so I stored it in the basement for emergencies, and mice got in and ate it all.]

August 12. Sharon Astyk writes about livestock breeding. (At first I thought the title, "What are you breeding for?" meant "Why are you having kids?") Her point is that livestock breeding, in this brief age, has been for massive production using massive inputs. For example, after WWI, German villages replaced "unproductive" weed-fed goats with highly productive grain-fed goats, and the result was that rich people had too much milk while poor people had no milk at all. The same kind of thing happened all over, many local breeds were lost... and now we get to make new local breeds! I would phrase it like this: we need to stop breeding for quantity, and start breeding for various qualities.

For example, I'm growing a Court Pendu Plat apple tree, an 1800 year old variety that still fruits when the weather is erratic. Genetic engineering is said to make crops "more productive", but it's actually being used to make crops better adapted to large-scale high-energy industrial farming. Outside of that context, most GMO crops will be less productive than the old varieties, because they'll die! Of course, biotech doesn't have to be used this way. Michael Pollan has spoken in favor of open-source genetic modification, and I agree. It's dangerous, but it can also be used to very rapidly adapt to industrial collapse and climate change, by churning out new plants and animals that fit the new conditions.

September 14/20. The world's largest cargo ships are now going slower than sailing clippers 130 years ago. Mark comments that the record for circumnavigating the world is roughly 60 days for a powerboat (held by Earthrace), and 50 days for a sailboat (held by Orange II). But...

Orange II would have been far more labour intensive than Earthrace to run. I think this is why we don't see a resurrection of Clipper ships -- the overall cost might be more taking into account skilled labour.

This fits with a point made by John Michael Greer, that high wages are an anomaly caused by cheap energy, and in the next age, labor will be cheaper. I wrote more about that here.

September 22/28. I've just returned from the Northwest Permaculture Convergence, where the keynote speaker was Mark Lakeman of City Repair Portland. He had lots of great stuff to say about the designs of human settlements. Until recently, almost all of us lived in villages, which had seemingly chaotic layouts that were actually highly functional and democratic. An important feature of villages is the village square, a place where streets meet and widen out into an open area where people can gather. It's important that the center of the square be empty. If instead the center contains a monument, that's a sign that you're in a hierarchy, where the monument represents the central power that you're all supposed to obey. Even worse is the grid system, where the streets meet in tight intersections and any gathering will get in the way. I would say that in this system, the grid itself is the monument.

For the history of civilization, the grid-makers have been violently conquering the village-dwellers and turning them into new populations of grid-makers. Lakeman's organization is trying to turn the grids in Portland back into villages, by organizing neighborhoods to occupy intersections, paint them, and then physically widen them. Also they're working within the housing grid to make it more village-like.

Some questions that Lakeman did not ask, because he could not have answered them in a 90 minute talk: Why do grid-makers violently conquer village-dwellers? Why is it never the other way around? And how did the grid-making get started? Michael writes:

A non-gridded city arises not by design, but by ad-hoc construction of roads as they are needed. This means that when any one road is built, it only takes into account the needs of the buildings already or soon to be in operation. Buildings added late in the city's life may be faced with inefficient inner roads that cannot be changed. And if land use changes in the city center, the roads may not serve it well either.

Commitment to a grid indicates that the city is prepared for infinite growth -- to abandon the pleasures of ad-hoc optimized routes so that the seed village can function efficiently once it becomes merely part of a megalopolis.

October 10. From 2008, David Graeber on gift economies. We all know that gift economies are great. I'm posting it because of this bit:

...the scholars at the conference invariably assumed that "gifts" do not really exist: Scratch deep enough behind any human action, and you'll always discover some selfish, calculating strategy. Even more oddly, they assumed that this selfish strategy was always, necessarily, the real truth of the matter; that it was more real somehow than any other motive in which it might be entangled. It was as if to be scientific, to be "objective" meant to be completely cynical. Why?

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