November - December, 2010

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November 26-29. From three years ago, Stuart Staniford argues that peak oil actually helps industrial agriculture. He frames this within a critique of "reversalism", a strawman position that the future will look basically like the past. But let's assume he's right: that peak oil will make industrial megafarms more profitable, that they will not spend more on labor, and that the average agribusiness will get bigger. Now, if they're making a higher profit, and they're also paying more for oil, then food will be more expensive. But if it's more expensive, then they will sell less of it, because fewer people will be able to afford it. But Michael comments: suppose industrial agribusiness is able to replace oil with biofuel. Or maybe they could directly synthesize food with energy gathered from vast solar plants. This brings us to a nightmare scenario, a society that is global, repressive, and sustainable. With industrial agriculture feeding the rich and expanding, the poor would be exterminated or assimilated, and "the rich" would become "everyone", walking behind our solar lawn mowers, doing dreary make-work office jobs, playing video games in which our actions have meaning, and buying food with no seeds that we can save.

At this point we have one card left: psychological sustainability. If we have no autonomy in our jobs, we do them badly; if our society makes life meaningless, we want to bring it down. I think this is the subconscious motive of the Tea Partiers. They have arrived through emotion where the Unabomber arrived through intellect: they hate this world and they want to blow it up.

November 30. Continuing on the future of food, I'm reading Carol Deppe's new book, The Resilient Gardener, and in the chapter on climate change she describes the Little Ice Age in Europe. Basically everyone was growing grain, which needs stable and warm weather, and the population was stretching the best-case carrying capacity of the land. Then in 1315, extreme rains ruined grain crops for three straight years. But the population didn't just starve down and bounce back -- the whole culture became nastier, there were more wars and murders and disease epidemics, and people lost faith in the ruling systems. The weather remained cold and erratic for centuries, and didn't warm and stabilize until the industrial age (probably because of greenhouse gases).

Meanwhile, farmers made all kinds of innovations: more vegetables, root crops, animals, legumes, and perennials, a broader range of useful skills, and wider trading. In episode 6 of Connections, "Thunder in the Skies" (video link), James Burke argues that many other technological events began with the Little Ice Age.

This is my new favorite model for our own collapse. Our agriculture is based on genetically-modified monocultures, which are not really more productive, only better adapted to a stable climate and massive industrial inputs. As these conditions change, there will be food shortages and all the bad things that follow them. There will be deep shocks and partial recoveries, life will get rougher and more chaotic, and yet many of the existing domination systems will survive and become more brutal. At the same time, there will be more cracks, more room to try different things, and many innovations. Over hundreds of years, these will lead to a new civilization that we can't imagine.

December 2-3. This blog post, WikiLeaks on the run, asks a good question: "When does the situation reach equilibrium?" But the answer is optimistic:

Politicians should be aware that these are the stakes. They either get used to operating in the open, where the people they're governing are in on everything they do, or they go totalitarian, around the globe, now.

That must be what they're discussing behind the scenes in government. And don't miss that this is equally threatening to media. They won't be able to engage in spin rooms and situation rooms, appearances and perception. When we can see the real communiques, that kind of mush won't do.

Oh really? While we're at it, let's set up congress so we see exactly how everyone voted, and also see where their donations came from. Surely that will dissolve the power of big money lobbyists in the golden light of human awareness. Let's invent a magical device that can capture moving pictures and sound in a format that can be spread electronically. Then when just one person sneaks in and films an industrial pig farm, within days everyone in the world will see the video and change their buying habits. Let's put all the great works of literature and millions of scientific articles at our fingertips, and we'll all become scholars and geniuses.

You see what I'm getting at. The information optimists are forgetting the last and most powerful censor: the mind of the information consumer. It is human nature (so far) to believe whatever makes us feel good, and then go looking for the evidence to support it. So the more information we have access to, and the more free we are to browse it, the less we understand. The spin rooms will be stronger than ever, because with all that data, we will want someone to sort it out for us.

Imagine a world of 100% transparency. There is a camera everywhere, all the time. If Putin wants an opponent murdered, what will he do? He'll get right on the phone and order the hit, because he understands that nobody can do anything about it.

Total transparency is the wrong move. If everything is in the open, then nothing is in the open. The better move is to make it so the functionaries of the targeted system never know when the eyes of the world will be focused on them -- a reverse panopticon! From Julian Assange's blog (archive here) on December 31, 2006:

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive "secrecy tax") and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption.

December 7. Scientists have found evidence that the universe may have existed for ever. How long is that? The dominant theory says the universe is around 14 billion years old. A billion years is a one with nine zeroes after it. You can fit nine zeroes in an inch. If you're waiting for something unlikely, and you need more time, you can stick another zero on and you've got ten times as long. Suppose you need to wait a really long time, so you keep adding zero after zero, each one multiplying your time by ten, until you've got a string of zeroes that goes all the way around the Earth. Now, how much of eternity is that? It's none of eternity.

How long will it take for a planet pretty much the same as this one to exist again? Enough years to put zeroes around the Earth? How about an entire universe exactly like this one? Enough zeroes to go all the way around the universe 100 times? No problem! You're still at zero percent of eternity. It follows that a universe exactly like this one has already existed, and will exist again, an infinite number of times. If you also accept physical determinism, it means that in between any two iterations of this universe, all the same things will happen, in a very long cycle.

Even if you don't accept determinism, it doesn't mean that anything you can imagine will happen given infinite time. Most of the things you can imagine are not possible. No matter how long you twist a Rubik's cube, you can't make all the sides red. There will never be a world exactly like Middle Earth, or the Legend of Zelda games, or Firefly. But there might be something reasonably close. And through virtual reality, which is getting better fast right now, you can at least have the lonely experience of anything you can imagine.

Suppose we are already in a sub-world. I think mind is the fundamental reality, and matter is like an exchange medium, or a set of rules, that comes into being when a bunch of perspectives try to share the same world. Matter is what the inertia of consensus of a shared mind-world looks like. So in that case, what is the eternal physical universe? Maybe it's like a database, a set of all possible worlds, into which any perspective, from outside time and space, can move.

December 9. From a reddit thread about how Julian Assange is like a James Bond villain:

Oh man this remind me of 'Leak hard 2' movie! The bad guy is a web terrorist that hold himself in nuclear bunker. He is brainwashing net people into anarchist and try to topple the capitalism! Not only that, he also hire pirate and b-tard to guard his base! I still remember the last scene where the terrorist hold a remote that will spread poisonus data file to internet. To bad i dont remember the ending....

December 13. Thoughtful article about how technology is making kids stupid. The author raises the possibility that humans are just shifting to a new kind of intelligence. But when she examines how exactly our brains are changing, it's scary. Basically, computerland is designed to be so easy and fun that we lose the ability to do anything difficult:

Teens, Nielsen Norman has found, are actually less equipped to make sense of the Internet world than their elders: They don't have the reading ability, patience or research skills to successfully complete what they set out to do online.

This reminds me of a bit in that PBS Rock and Roll documentary. The band New Order made some important electronic music, and later another band got their hands on the same mixing board that New Order had used. They thought the mixer would allow them to effortlessly make great music, but it turned out to be unusually difficult to use.

Related: SelfControl is a new computer program to take the place of the development of self control in people addicted to computers!

This makes me feel like humans are on the fast track to extinction, outsourcing more and more of our skills to our tools, while our inner strength fades. But when I think about it more carefully, it's only in the richest economies, and only in the last few decades. If the ongoing collapse goes fast enough, there may be only one or two lost generations, and their kids will rediscover how to skin a raccoon and fix an engine.

December 23. A couple weeks ago I wondered whether there is any newer computer game where a skilled player can keep going indefinitely. Michael mentioned Dwarf Fortress, and Crystal sent this post about emergent narrative, also using Dwarf Fortress as an example of a game where the story arises out of the player's decisions, as opposed to games that are scripted by designers. This is a fascinating subject. Eskil Steenberg, the smartest game designer in the world, touched on it in this post, pointing out how difficult it is to make a game where the player drives the story and the story is interesting.

My favorite video game is Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time, in which the overall story is scripted but there's also a large interactive world. But it's still easy to imagine how it could be better. What if you could make major changes in the story, like training Malon to fight and taking her with you through the dungeons? This could be done with a better artificial intelligence, and I think the next revolution in gaming will be AI's that can manage the core story as an attractor, rather than as a script.

After that, the next revolution will be AI-moderated games with no core story at all, and no end. The attractor is the enjoyment of the players! You might have had a taste of this if you've ever played D&D, or some other pencil and dice RPG, with a really good game master.

But we don't want games diverting our attention from reality, however you define it. This goes back to the famous Scott Adams line, that the holodeck will be our last invention, and my own law: every sub-world must serve the needs of the world that contains it.

So the attractor, in our hypothetical super-AI game, cannot be the enjoyment of the players, at least not for long. If the game is going to last, the prime attractor has to be the learning or transformation of the players, and they have to be learning or changing in a way that makes them more fit for living in the surrounding world when they go back to it.

Obvious punchline: suppose we are already in that game.

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