December 2011 - February 2012

previous archive

December 1. Last week John Robb posted this teaser about the "power curve". Here's a great explanation by Simon Funk, Behind the Power Curve. Basically, in the physics of flight, if you're above a certain speed, then the more power you apply, the faster you go. But if you drop below that speed, then you're burning more power as you go slower, just to maintain altitude. The only way to get off the "back" of the power curve, and back to the "front", is to lose altitude.

This is a good metaphor for all kinds of things. Funk mentions financial debt, where you spend more and more money on interest, and software companies that get behind schedule and try and fail to spend their way out of it, and personal goals where "the act of looking itself is a cost", and you need to give up and focus instead on personal improvement.

Clearly it also applies to the consumer-capitalist economy, which is spending more and more money trying to maintain an outrageous standard of living for fewer and fewer people. Losing altitude means canceling a bunch of debt and reducing the wealth and power of the upper classes, and if we don't do it voluntarily, we'll stall and crash.

But I noticed something else. Here's Funk explaining the physics of the power curve:

The apparent paradox comes down to efficiency -- in order to maintain altitude at the lower speeds, the plane needs to pitch up more and more, and pretty soon the drag (air friction) is eating up most of the power. So at that point instead of pushing you forward, your fuel is being used to just stir up a bunch of air.

That reminded me of this Tom Murphy post about solar-powered cars. After calculating that it's impossible to have cars as we know them with self-contained solar panels, and expensive to charge cars with home solar panels, he mentions one useful vehicle we have right now that is powered by panels on its roof: the solar golf cart! The catch is that the maximum speed is 25mph (40 km/h). We could have solar driving right now, at a speed that would have seemed miraculous 150 years ago, and instead we're wasting the last of our oil pushing air out of the way to maintain our ridiculous driving speeds, because we're in so much of a hurry to get nowhere.

December 8. Via Hacker News, a fascinating article about What Really Happened Aboard Air France 447. Basically all three pilots made huge errors. First, faced with a massive cluster of thunderstorms, the most experienced pilot said "fuck the storm" and plunged right into it. He could have flown through it, and the autopilot could have flown through it, but right when the plane hit the worst part of the storm, he went to take a nap. When the airspeed sensors got iced over, the autopilot switched off, leaving the least experienced pilot holding the stick. He made a first-day-of-flight-school error, and pulled the nose all the way up and held it there. The other copilot didn't notice. The plane went into aerodynamic stall, and a loud stall alarm, "designed to be impossible to ignore", was ignored by all three pilots, all the way to the ocean. At any moment the plane could have been saved by lowering the nose, dropping altitude, and increasing airspeed, but by the time the lead pilot took over, the plane couldn't go any lower without crashing. The irony is, they thought they had lost control of the airplane, when really they were controlling it too much, in the wrong direction.

There's a lesson here about technology destroying our ability to survive in the absence of technology, but I want to take a different path, and make it a metaphor for the economy. Only an unskilled and panicking pilot will respond to a stall by pulling the nose up, but almost every "pilot" of the global economy thinks the best response to the "stall" is to spend more money to stimulate growth. I'm stretching the metaphor here, but I think they're treating money like altitude, and growth like speed. In that case, going into debt (dropping altitude) to buy growth (speed) would be the right move.

Really, altitude is analogous to the size of the economy. You grow an economy by increasing the frequency and quantity of activities for which money changes hands. Like a plane that's flying too high, an economy that's grown too big has to work harder and harder to maintain increase. Now the economy has stalled, and the solution is voluntarily shrink it: to cancel a bunch of debts and de-monetize a bunch of activities. For example, unemployed people can take care of each other's kids instead of paying for day care, and grow their own food instead of buying it. In a full economic crash, kids are not taken care of and food is not grown. If these activities are merely de-monetized, it's called a "depression", but really only the change is depressing. Once people get used to it, work done for direct benefit is more meaningful than work done for money. So, the meaningfulness of life is analogous to airspeed.

December 10. Computers Will Entertain Us to Death, and two related links, The Acceleration of Addictiveness and Superstimuli and the Collapse of Western Civilization. Will we fall into the holodeck and not get out?

I always say: every sub-world must justify itself in terms of the world that contains it. Right now World of Warcraft benefits the larger world of industrial civilization, partly by creating jobs in the computer industry, but mostly by giving people a world that is more beautiful and meaningful than our dysfunctional human society. But the subworld has an optimal size, or an optimal proportion of our attention. If the working classes are not entertained enough, they'll walk off their jobs and bring down the system; if they're entertained too much, they won't have time to do their jobs.

But suppose that automation becomes so advanced that nobody has to work. Then it gets interesting. The first problem is population. Even in conventional reality, it's difficult to keep the birthrate up when there's no economic incentive to have kids. The "superstimuli" piece suggests that humans could be exterminated by "artificial children that are much cuter and sweeter and more fun to raise than real children." There are ways around this, including growing babies in vats and raising them with robots. But by the time we can do that, we might say "why bother?" Artificial people, in either physical or virtual space, might seem better in every way. I don't think we're going to "upload ourselves" into computers. But we might blur the line between biology and technology so much that the last fully biological humans would fade away in obscurity.

January 3. Susan comments on the scariest aspect of the ongoing collapse:

I work in a busy emergency room. I had left ten years ago and just returned last May. At first I was amazed at how much sicker the patients were and how heavy the work had become. This weekend I realized that we do a lot more for the patients. It seems that almost everyone who comes in with anything more serious than a twisted ankle gets blood work and an EKG. It doesn't seem like a lot until you multiply it by hundreds of patients every day. When you have a very elderly person and/or a very sick patient, they amount of care they receive skyrockets unbelievably, even if that person isn't expected to live much longer.

Related: How Doctors Die. The people who understand the medical system best, and have the most choice, choose not to throw money at themselves in the final weeks, but to focus on quality of life and a graceful exit.

Why doesn't everyone die this way? Because they're swept up in the flow of the medical system. Doctors and nurses may be trying to help people, but the system as a whole is predatory, trying to suck as much money as possible into the giant black hole of private capital around which the whole economy orbits. Any procedure a hospital can bill insurance for, it will do, and it's difficult for patients to refuse. Meanwhile insurance companies will raise rates, and governments will pretend to do good by throwing more money down the hole while cutting more valuable services. How long can this continue? Susan writes:

This isn't really news to me, as a nurse, that the US spends more on health care and has poorer outcomes than any other rich country. But it did occur to me that we might be at the peak of what we can provide. We take care of more and more baby boomers as they're getting older and they are not as healthy as the generation before them. Fifteen years ago I'd take care of a lot of 80 year olds who had never been really sick, had never taken any medication other than aspirin and had never been in a hospital. Now, I'm seeing 60 year olds with all kinds of health problems and we haven't even got to the baby boom bubble yet. I can't imagine that we're going to have enough staff, resources or even space to take care of these people in another ten years.

My guess is that rich people will continue to get more medical care than is good for them, and middle class people will also get more care than is good for them while going deep in debt. This will drop most of them into the lower classes, who are already getting much less care than they need. It is not possible for medical providers to cut back services to what is actually helpful; it is only possible for them to cut back to what is profitable. Of all the issues facing us, health care is the only one where I can't see any non-catastrophic path to a better world.

January 6. Today I went to the Huntington, and it got me thinking about museums and civilization. I once wrote that the logical extension of civilization is the death camp, but I was wrong. It's a mistake to attack civilization for causing pain and destruction, because nature causes much more pain and destruction, and the avoidance of pain and destruction is a civilized value. The correct way to critique civilization is to point out control and lifelessness, and the logical extension is the museum, where everything is dead and preserved. An even better metaphor is the botanical garden, where the plants are alive, but they're disconnected from nature, over-protected, and completely managed. A botanical garden appears to be better than wild nature if you just see a snapshot, but nature is much better if you understand the relationships.

January 9. How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body. Yoga was developed by people in great physical shape who had enough body awareness to avoid injuring themselves. "Now urbanites who sit in chairs all day walk into a studio a couple of times a week and strain to twist themselves into ever-more-difficult postures despite their lack of flexibility and other physical problems." And teachers push students and themselves too hard because of ego.

Of course it doesn't have to be this way. Christienne, who teaches yoga, points out that postures are only one part of yoga, overemphasized in the west. A good yoga program would integrate the postures with relaxation, body awareness, and a culture of going with the flow rather than striving. Ideally we wouldn't even need to follow poses, because we would all have the skill to improvise whatever exercises we needed at the moment. The farther we get from this understanding, the more we fall into rigid and uniform routines that are inevitably wrong for us. This reminds me of how religion starts with direct experience of the divine, but often hardens into meaningless rules and memorized prayers.

January 22-23. People don't like to hear this, but personal conservation does nothing to avert climate change. It might, if everyone had their own oil well. You could convert your house to solar, cap your well, and leave your oil in the ground. In practice, all the oil (gas, coal, etc) is sold to whoever wants it, and anything you conserve will just be burned by someone else. We imagine positive feedback, where our conservation is magically multiplied by everyone in the world, but the feedback is negative: as you organize more people to consume less, there is lower overall demand, lower prices, and more incentive for other people to consume.

Now, there will come a time when fossil fuels are so expensive to extract that renewable energy is cheaper, and then oil will be left in the ground for economic reasons. So the best way to reduce climate change is to spend money on renewable energy research, and burn oil to build alternatives to the present system. I'm reminded of the permaculturist who said that five gallon buckets are the best use of fossil fuels.

This issue is related to a test proposed by Bruce Sterling, and described in this Ribbonfarm post, Acting Dead, Trading Up and Leaving the Middle Class. The idea is that you're wasting your life doing anything that your dead great grandfather, in the grave, can do better than you. You're using fewer resources? Your great grandfather is using no resources, and if he could talk to you, he might say, "Stop doing stuff that a dead person can do. You're alive -- do something that an alive person can do."

Of course I'm totally in favor of shifting out of the industrial consumption economy, but for a different reason than ecopuritanism. If you learn to live on less energy and less money, then you become stronger. You have more unstructured time to learn internal motivation, more mental space to think independently, and more skills that everyone will need as the industrial economy continues its decline. You're not "saving the world", but becoming a seed of a better world to come.

January 24. That Ribbonfarm post recommends buying expensive tools, but I'm skeptical. Consider the movie "It Might Get Loud". The Edge uses the most advanced electronic effects, and when they're switched off, his playing is totally lame. Meanwhile Jack White intentionally uses a crappy guitar because it stretches his own skill to make it sound good. In the PBS Rock and Roll documentary, there's a bit where a band tracks down the very same mixing board that New Order used for their most ground-breaking album, and they expect it to be effortless to use, but they find instead that it's painfully difficult. Ernest Hemingway, using a manual typewriter, spaced twice between every word to slow himself down. Tom Waits has been known to put his musicians in a cold room to make them play better. Or consider the clunky tools George Lucas had for the original Star Wars, compared to the slick CGI he had for the prequels. My point is, there is evidence that we are more creative when we're working under difficult conditions, so there's a danger that "good" tools, if they make the work easier, will reduce creativity.

February 7-8. An argument that GPS navigators make us stupid. The idea is that without the devices, we have to build cognitive maps, which is great mental exercise. Personally I always go on google maps (or and sketch a map with pen and paper. When you're traveling, the most important thing is understanding where you are, and with GPS navigators I can feel the understanding of where I am being sucked out of my mind and locked away in a computer.

But it is possible to use GPS devices to preserve or even increase your understanding. Erik comments, "I never use turn by turn navigation, but I study the map and find my own way." I've tried this myself, and I think it's helpful to always keep north up, and zoom in and out to see where you are in context.

February 13. In Vermont I met a lot of people who are engaged in some kind of political cause, and I noticed that lefty political causes tend to be defensive. Even if the tactics are offensive, the greater story is: "these bad people are doing this bad thing, and we have to stop them."

In a football game, if one team is always on offense and the other is always on defense, who's going to win? There's a memorable scene in the novel Shantaram, where the narrator is being attacked by wild dogs and fending them off with a steel pipe. He's about to be eaten, until another guy shows up who knows how to fight wild dogs, by wildly swinging a pipe while jumping into the middle of the pack!

I can think of two high-profile political movements where "progressives" are actually walking forward, taking the fight into enemy territory: same-sex marriage and cannabis legalization. And they're winning.

The Occupy movement is defensive, trying and failing to stop the increasing concentration of wealth and power. Even if they pass a law canceling personal debts, that's only a temporary setback for the giant blocks of money, which will just start building the debts up again. The permanent solution is to build alternate economies which have negative feedback, not positive feedback, in the concentration of wealth. Charles Eisenstein has written a whole book about this, Sacred Economics, and I've written about it briefly in a few posts, including this one on fire and water economies.

To join these new economies, people first have to get out from under the control of the old economy. Basically that means we have to get food and shelter without money. This brings us to a third effective political movement, which is mostly fighting at the local level: occupying vacant properties, changing laws to legalize the occupation of vacant properties, and changing laws to expand urban farming rights.

My present hosts are at the leading edge of this movement in Buffalo, which has the same opportunities that more famously exist in Detroit. They bought this house from the city for a dollar, on the condition that they bring it up to code. Yesterday they showed me an acre of contiguous lots where they're planning to make a farm. They've ordered 23 chickens, and Buffalo has a new lengthy and restrictive chicken ordinance, but the city is on the defensive. I'm curious to see how far we can roll these laws back, if we keep pushing.

February 18. Game designer Eskil Steenberg is my favorite living thinker. Other people might have more great ideas closer to my own areas of interest, but Steenberg is the only one where I just love to watch him think. Last month he made an epic post, The Pivot model, laying out a detailed theory of what makes a game fun. It might be helpful to apply his model to life, or society. For example, Steenberg observes that a game is more fun with a moderate chance of acceptable failure, and yet look at all the ways that humans try to adjust society, or their own lives, to have zero chance of failure, or a chance of unacceptable failure.

February 23. On the recommendation of a bunch of people, I've just read the novel Daemon by Daniel Suarez, and its sequel FreedomTM. The first half of the first book is the best techno-thriller I've ever read, using technology that already exists to tell an exciting and plausible story in which a genius game designer sets up a powerful artificial intelligence to wreak havoc after his death. As time passes, and the Daemon continues to stay on top of events, instead of veering off through compounding errors of imperfect prediction, the book becomes less plausible, but it also becomes more epic, and briefly achieves moral ambiguity.

Then in the second book Suarez cashes in all his chips for a utopian preach-fest. The characters become cartoon good and evil, and the story becomes a platform for a Message about Society. Still, the message is correct and timely. Both books are loaded with important ideas, and they are essential reading if you're interested in artificial intelligence, universal surveillance, drone warfare, video game overlays on the physical world, corporation-tribe hybrids, or the role of technology in the conflict between government, big money, and human autonomy.

next archive