March - April, 2012

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March 12-13. A week ago, Doug in St Paul took me on an overnight trip to a successful homestead in northern Minnesota, and from their collection of books I reread a New Age classic, Richard Bach's Illusions. Now I understand better where the New Age movement went wrong. I agree that pure consciousness is the foundation of all reality, that you are a larger being who lives your life the way you would watch a movie, and that the physical world can be changed through the power of the mind. The mistake is the idea that changing the world through the power of the mind is easy, that anyone can perform miracles just by really, truly believing they're possible.

Suppose that you spend decades mastering woodworking, and you build a beautiful house with your own hands. Then some lazy idiot comes along and builds a better house in seconds just by believing it into existence. There's no evidence that reality works this way, and I think it can't work this way, because it would violate some kind of metaphysical law of conservation of energy: Doing any task with pure mind power must be at least as difficult as doing it with physical tools. Or, the easiest way to build a house with your mind is to mentally discipline yourself to build it with your hands. The deeper principle here is that the physical world is itself a tool for channeling consciousness, and not an obstacle to childish wish fulfillment.

This subreddit thread has a great comment: the reason you can't use the power of the mind to make a shortcut around the physical world and satisfy your desires, is that "desire and thought are physical processes, and can only have physical effects." Money, sex, food, toys, power over others -- if that's what you're after, you're already in the realm of the physical, and you have to act on that level.

If you accept that changing the world is hard no matter how you do it, Illusions has another idea, mentioned in passing, that's brilliant: If an action seems like magic, it's because you don't understand it; to perform the action, you have to understand it well enough that it seems like a mundane craft or skill. You can see this in stage magic, where the audience might see someone levitating but the performer knows the trick. I think it also applies to "paranormal" levitation, where the technique lies outside 20th century science, but still seems normal to the performer. In any case, if something seems like magic to you, then you are the audience, not the actor, and if you think you're the actor, that's part of the trick.

You can see this in many modern technologies, where you feel like you have the power, but if you don't know how it works and can't build it yourself, you're just passively consuming entertainment. Also Andy comments: "people talk about wanting 'magic' in their intimate partnerships, when success is more about hard work." So if you want to be swept off your feet by a magical romance, then you're asking the other person to be the performer while you're the audience, and probably the only person who will do this is someone who's trying to take advantage of you.

March 21. Review of a book about uncontacted tribes in the Amazon. The best part is about how a large complex society defeats primitive people, when it is no longer socially acceptable to conquer them with violence. Quoting two bits out of order:

Pacification was accomplished through the proffering of Western goods, including machetes, axes, metal pots, fishhooks, matches, mosquito netting, and clothing. The seductive appeal of such things was nearly irresistible, for each of these items can make a quantum improvement in a sylvan lifestyle. Acquisition of several or all of these goods is a transformative experience that makes contact essentially irreversible.
With the convenience of matches, one quickly loses the knack for starting a fire. Shotguns decisively outperform bows and arrows, but cartridges must be bought at a good price. Such newly acquired dependencies fundamentally altered the life of the Indians, who were compelled to work for wages instead of spending their days hunting, fishing, and tending their gardens.

This is the kind of thing Ivan Illich wrote about all the time, and it's still happening today, to you. With the convenience of frozen dinners and restaurant meals, one quickly loses the knack for preparing food. iTunes decisively outperforms radio, but music files must be bought at a good price. To navigate sprawl you need a car, to pay expenses on a car you need a job, and so on. But at the same time, many of us understand this web of dependency and are fighting to get free of it. We're not trying to live like our ancestors, but to do something totally new: to preserve the most helpful complex technologies, while shifting to a political and economic system where power is fully shared.

March 27. Is Intelligence Self-Limiting? The idea is that intelligent creatures, or machines, or civilizations, measure their own success by looking at certain signals. But when they get smart enough, they figure out that it's easier to fake the signals than to increase performance. The author gives examples of individual humans, and civilization as a whole, already doing this, and he offers it as a solution to Fermi's Paradox: that intelligent life on other planets destroys itself by signal-spoofing long before it can colonize the galaxy. Scott Adams said it best: the holodeck will be our last invention.

March 28-29. So I don't believe in the Big Bang. I can't be sure that the theory is wrong, but I see enough anomalies and uncertainty that I think anyone can be reasonably for or against it, depending on where they put the benefit of the doubt. And this choice lies outside science, in the realm of emotion, culture, and politics. Western culture loves the Big Bang because it reflects its own mythology: a linear timeline with a spectacular beginning, followed by expansion and increasing complexity, ending in either decay or renewal. I prefer to imagine that the universe has always existed, so anything that could possibly be done has already been done an infinite number of times. In that case, there's no point doing anything just to accomplish it, only to enjoy it.

Anyway, here's some of the science. The light from distant galaxies is shifted toward the red end of the spectrum. This is called a redshift, and it's similar to how a sound has a lower pitch if the source is moving away from you. So cosmic redshifts could be caused by objects moving away from us -- or they could be caused by something we haven't discovered yet. This is yet another cultural factor. If one person says cosmic redshifts are caused by something we know, and another person says they're caused by something we don't know, who gets more social status? So the present assumption in astronomy is that all cosmic redshift is caused by stuff we already understand, a bit by gravity and most of it by recession velocity.

This is false, and it would be thoroughly proven false if the research were permitted. The astronomer Halton Arp had his telescope time eliminated back in the 70's when he started investigating objects with "incorrect" redshifts, and he later wrote two books on the subject, Quasars, Redshifts and Controversies, and Seeing Red. Here's an article covering a few of the issues: On the Quantization of the Red-Shifted Light from Distant Galaxies.

Once we discover whatever other factor is causing redshifts, and correct for it, we might find that distant galaxies are equally redshifted and blueshifted, in which case the universe is not expanding, there was no Big Bang, and I'm sure science will find an even better explanation for the cosmic background radiation. But it's possible that most galaxies are still moving away, and we have an expanding universe. Still, an expanding universe does not necessarily mean that everything started from one point.

This requires some hard thinking about infinity. To make it easier, I'll strip it from three dimensions down to one. Imagine a long line with dots on it. The dots are moving a little from side to side, but mostly they're all moving farther apart: the line appears to be stretching. Now, if the line has finite length, and you play it backwards, then at some point all the dots come together as one. But the line could be infinitely long in both space and time. As it stretches, more dots appear to fill in the gaps, and if you play it backwards, then dots disappear, and more are constantly coming in from the edges. No matter how long you watch it in either time direction, it looks the same, kind of like zooming in or out on a fractal. For a two dimensional view of something similar, check out this fractal planetfall animated gif. Just as you seem to be falling and never get there, the universe could be expanding without changing its basic structure, and without having started anywhere.

So, how do more galaxies appear to fill in the gaps? We don't know yet, but we might have already seen it. Halton Arp has gathered evidence that quasars are not extremely remote and bright, but are shot out of the cores of galaxies, and turn into new galaxies, like seeds.

April 2. Why is it that most games are more enjoyable at the beginning than at the end? I've quit Fallout 2. Now that I've got NPC's with shotguns, and gone back to the Den to kill the slavers and get the car, there's not much to look forward to: guns with different names and higher damage numbers, balanced by enemies with higher numbers, and a long series of quests that are starting to feel like busywork. The fun part was the beginning: designing my character, analyzing and optimizing skills and perks, squeaking by on primitive weapons and tools and finding my first good ones, and as a player, mastering the interface and unfolding a vision of a different world.

It's easier to see how this fits with civilization by looking at Civilization the game. You start out as a settler exploring the uncharted wilderness, you build up a city from nothing, you get new buildings and units with qualitatively different abilities; and then by the halfway point you can see the whole map, you have ships and airplanes, and "progress" becomes quantitative. In role-playing games this is called level grinding: the novelty and excitement are gone, and you're just doing the same stuff over and over to get higher numbers.

Compare this to the "American dream". You come from a poor family, work your way up into a series of higher paying and higher status jobs, get a house in the suburbs and two cars... and then what? There's nothing left but to make more money so you can get material possessions with higher price numbers. This is why rich people keep trying to make even more money, because if they say "I have enough," life becomes meaningless, game over. I think this is also why most lottery winners end up bankrupt. It's not just that they're irresponsible, but that they feel more alive when they're struggling.

Games don't model decline because it wouldn't be any fun, just trying to hold onto what you have as the numbers get smaller. But there would be one way... When your empire peaks, you stop playing the empire, and begin playing the new system that's going to replace it! Of course this is what citizens can do in real life.

Are human societies going to keep rising and falling forever? If we had a stable system, what would keep it interesting? Individual humans can keep their wealth stable and find meaning in things other than money, so how could a whole society do this? And why is this not a problem for other species? If life were satisfying in the right way, would we have no need for novelty?

April 6-7. Google Goggles are another step in the merging of human consciousness with a computer-moderated global information network. I think this process will not be stopped by energy decline, it will create more problems than it solves, and it will change what it means to be human. For a pessimistic view, read the novel Feed by M.T. Anderson, in which we all have the internet in our heads all the time and it makes us weak and stupid. For an optimistic view, read the novel Freedom by Daniel Suarez, in which a game-like overlay, run by a benevolent AI, enables knowledge and power to be shared by everyone.

A reader asks why I think this process will not be stopped by energy decline. The short answer is, I have not yet seen a good argument that it will be stopped. We imagine that energy decline and economic collapse will eradicate all high tech, and reduce the whole planet to a preindustrial lifestyle, because it's easy to imagine. It's harder to imagine a collapse that's unevenly distributed. Historically, economic collapses do not reduce everyone to poverty, but increase the gap between rich and poor. I think the same thing is going to happen with technology: while overall resource consumption decreases, the proportion spent at the leading edge of technology will increase. Less energy will be spent moving physical stuff, and more will be spent moving information. Not only will there be a wider gap between the places with the highest and lowest technology, there will also be a wider gap between the highest and lowest technology used by an average person. Already there are African villagers with cell phones. In 20 years you may be living with a group of friends in an abandoned suburb, burning scrap wood for heat, growing open-source genetically modified sweet potatoes, and selling brain time to the dataswarm to gain credits for surgery to install a neuro-optical interface so you can swap out custom eyeballs.

April 13. Gabriel sends this article, The Dignity of Sloth, speculating about a future where most human labor has been replaced by machines and computers, and people with below average intelligence are kept busy with games. So even if the games cannot be turned to any useful purpose, they still serve to keep people out of trouble. Something like this is already happening: studies show that internet porn reduces rape and violent movies reduce violence.

More generally, computer games can help bridge the gap between how we feel like living, and how we must live to keep society going. Even primitive societies have to deal with this problem. They don't just tell each other to do what they feel like, but have rules and customs, including customs that allow young men the excitement of warfare while minimizing injury and death. This is exactly what we've done with games like Call of Duty, where the only injuries are repetitive strain and vitamin D deficiency.

How we feel like living is grounded in our biological nature, most of which is not human but pre-human. I think this is why the fantasy genre is so popular, because it reflects the world of our deep ancestors: their consciousness was magical not rational, hunters went on violent quests and foragers searched for hidden treasures, and we lived among other species that matched us in intelligence. We don't just want to live this way in games -- if we can, we will live this way again in the physical world. Here's a related piece I wrote ten years ago: J.R.R. Tolkien: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow.

April 26-27. Why exactly is modern health care so expensive? The answer we take for granted is that it's better, because of technology. Okay, but it is 100 times better than preindustrial health care? Then why does it cost 100 times as much? And why are other things that have improved with technology not more expensive? Wikipedia is faster, bigger, and cheaper than a paper encyclopedia. A gore tex jacket is better rain protection than an animal skin, and you can get one with fewer hours of labor. We travel more efficiently on airplanes than our ancestors did on foot. If transportation were like health care, we'd say, "It used to take a whole day to travel 20 miles. Now, with miraculous technologies, it only takes half a day, and that's why it costs ten thousand dollars."

The difference is, people feel differently about adding an hour to the end of their lives, than saving an hour of walking. Modern health care is expensive, not for technological reasons, but for cultural reasons. There's a lot of room to use high tech (or low tech) to make it cheaper, if we can stop mystifying it, and take the same risks and responsibilities that we take in other parts of our lives. Anne, who is in medical school, comments:

I think the secret behind the health care debate is that it doesn't work for anyone. It's not some conspiracy to get people into college, or debt, or shitty jobs, it's just a complete floor-to-ceiling trainwreck. The core belief is that money conquers mortality. It doesn't, but that won't stop people from spending everything they have to try. Even the people who talk about how they don't want health insurance only like to discuss the financial aspects -- "well, then I'd have to declare bankruptcy" -- more than the health consequences. The truth is, if you have a heart attack, there's a good chance you'll lie on your back for a few weeks and then die, no matter how much money anyone spends. If you break a hip, same thing. Pneumonia, same thing. You can push the margins a bit, with a firehose-full of cash, and that's why the system doesn't work.

Joel mentions another way health care is different: it requires one-to-one skilled labor. When you see a doctor, one hour of your time equals one hour of the doctor's time. With food, clothing, and transportation, one hour of an engineer's time can be multiplied hundreds of times by machinery. And when it isn't, when you buy a car or a coat made skillfully by hand, or food at a farmer's market, you pay a lot more for that human attention. Think of it from the doctor's perspective: would you rather sell an hour of your time to someone who can pay $1000, or someone who can only pay $50? Doctors often make up for this by treating the very poor for free, but that leaves the middle class hanging, and it doesn't solve the deeper problem: the American medical system has been designed for the rich. It is economically impossible to make it available to everyone, and yet, it is politically impossible to not make it available to everyone.

April 30. The Invention of Jaywalking is a depressing article about how cars colonized and destroyed the human mind so they could then destroy the city. People not in cars used to have the right of way in the middle of every street, all the time. Teaching kids to stop and wait for traffic was one of those things that seems to be good but is really evil, because it shifts responsibility from cars to people. If kids had been taught to run out in the street without looking, it would have preserved a different view of traffic, with slower more careful drivers and fewer deaths.

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