April - September 2014

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April 9. Blisk McQueen comments on The Accidental Universe. He describes his background in reductionist hard science, and how he got in serious trouble for writing a paper pointing out the similarity between DNA and programming languages. Blocked from continuing to study genetics, he switched to neurochemistry, where he still believed "that human consciousness is merely an emergent phenomenon mediated by electrochemical signals" -- until he tried psilocybin mushrooms. Now he thinks science is in "a blind corner" by studying only measurable things and ignoring consciousness.

On the same subject, Embrace the Unexplained: how fantastic stories unlock the nature of consciousness. The author cites examples of unexplained visions related to people dying, but they're hard to study because they cannot be replicated or measured. He speculates that strong psychic phenomena are rare because they require intense emotion, that psychic visions are best viewed as hallucinations that somehow correspond to real events, and that the brain is like a radio tuner for some kind of collective consciousness.

Can you give me a non-circular definition of the difference between "hallucination" and "real"? I've done a lot of thinking on this, and when people say it's easy for science to put consciousness first, they have no idea how deep the rabbit hole goes. This is a book-length subject, and the best book so far, The Trickster and the Paranormal by George Hansen, merely hints at it.

I think we can explore consciousness with science in the sense that we can make hypotheses and test them, but we won't get anywhere until we abandon the requirement that your perspective and my perspective must be consistent. Do I "believe in ghosts"? Where is the end of the rainbow?

May 7. Reddit comment by Erinaceous thinking about the public-private debate in terms of networks. Basically, if there's a physical network with lots of infrastructure, like railroads or the electric grid, then there's an inevitable monopoly because it's too hard to build a competing network, so the government should take it over and make sure it's run for the good of all. But at the lower levels of the network, where competition is easy and more information is required to make good decisions, it's better for stuff to be private.

May 9. I want to explain the barefoot shoe controversy, after the news that Vibram FiveFingers has settled a lawsuit. The journalism on this issue is terrible, compounding Vibram's original error, which was not shoe design but marketing. It's simple: when walking or especially running, it's good to come down on the balls of your feet so your ankle allows your calf muscle to absorb the impact, and it's bad to come down on your heels and knock the impact up through your joints. Sloppy marketing led people to believe that the shoe would do this for them, when really you have to do it yourself, by changing your habits, and the best thing a shoe can do is not get in the way. By the way, if you don't like the articulated toes on FiveFingers, I recommend Merrell barefoot shoes. [Update 2020. Now I like Camper Peu Cami.]

May 14. NY Times article on the corporate future of marijuana, The Bud Light-ification of Bud. The main point is that until now the stuff has been wildly inconsistent, and testing and industrial processing will make any given product as reliably similar as two cans of the same beer. The title implies that there will also be a reduction in quality, but the article itself never says that -- but there will be. I'm pretty confident in the following prediction:

1) Big Cannabis will stop using the traditional strain names, like Blue Dream and Sour Diesel, in favor of new names that it can trademark. 2) They will breed new varieties, not for the flavor or the quality of the experience, but for efficiency and compatibility with large scale industrial production. 3) They will figure out how to extract all the cannabinoids and then put them back in precise amounts, because that's what they do now with nicotine in tobacco. 4) The typical blend of cannabinoids and additives will make people docile and predictable. If they find a cheap way to make a product that's extremely psychoactive, they won't do it, or if someone does, it will be made illegal. 5) At the same time, independent enthusiasts and small businesses will continue to breed and sell high-quality minimally processed particular strains, but they will be more expensive, like single malt whisky is now.

June 4. Last week Anne sent me a bunch of stuff she learned about famine during a research project. Here are my favorite bits:

Famine is a demographic event. The definition of famine is significant excess mortality associated with a decline in the availability of food, regardless of cause of death. If you and your family starve to death, it's not famine because there aren't that many of you. If everyone in your town runs out of food, breaks into Costco, and are mowed down by machine-gun wielding rent-a-cops, that is actually famine.

Infectious disease (often related to diarrhea and respiratory illness) kills more people than actual starvation.

The indicators of famine are weird. Colonial India developed a set of famine codes that watched for, among other things, sudden increases in prices of food, or sudden increases in petty crime, or sudden decreases in the cost of commercial sex.

Stockpiles and famine foods aren't as helpful as you think. I always assumed that if you had a year's food in your basement, or knew which weeds and bugs were edible, you'd make it through a famine. Turns out, everybody figures this stuff out at about the same time, and the dying doesn't start until the stockpiles and rabbit warrens are exhausted.

The best survival technique is to leave the area. Usually the first to go are the middle class professionals whose assets are their credentials and experience. The poor may lack the means to relocate, and the wealthy tend to have significant investments in non-mobile assets (land, businesses, factories).

Famines in industrial market economies are political or conflict-related. In general, the world has a robust and finely-tuned famine relief industry. The notorious famines of the 20th century (Leningrad, Ethiopia, Sudan) have all been war famines. You are unlikely to ever experience a famine unless you are trapped behind armed fighters.

Opportunistic cannibalism (eating dead people) is common. Predatory cannibalism (killing people to eat them) is really, really rare.

June 6. You're worrying about GMOs for the wrong reasons. It's about the threats to ecology and biodiversity, but I would go farther and talk about the politics: as long as genetic modification is being done primarily by big agribusiness, plants will be altered to make them more compatible with central control of the food supply. Anne comments:

By the way, the two holy grails of GMO crop research - higher yield and drought resistance - are still unreached. Or, I should say, the results from GMO methods are still no better than the results from genetically-informed-but-conventional breeding and hybridization. We have some seriously high-yield and drought resistant food crops compared to eighty years ago, but GMO approaches haven't pushed the curve any.

June 9. Why are people so comfortable with small drones? Specifically, one study shows that people think small flying drones are cute rather than scary. The researcher speculates that it's because our evolutionary predators walked on the ground.

Related: Animal brains hard-wired to recognize predator's foot movements. "One impetus for starting this research several years ago was a question by his young daughter, who asked him why she could get so much closer to wild rabbits in their neighborhood while riding on her bicycle rather than on foot."

June 18. Accepting Deviant Minds: Why 'Hallucinations' Are as Real as the Self. The author wisely concedes that spirit beings are metaphorical, because an argument that they really exist would require a book-length reframing of the idea of "real". Then he goes on to argue that hallucinated voices should be respected instead of marginalized. But the really brilliant stuff is in the middle of the article. Edited excerpt:

It's not hard to imagine a world in which adults have lost the ability to daydream. Children will grow up immersed in computer-mediated reality and be bombarded every waking moment with 'optimal' stimulation. In such a saturated world, a normal human brain may become incapable of pulling up anchor from reality and drifting off into aimless fantasies.

So what would this future society think of the few remaining people who are prone to daydreams? It will be easy and tempting to classify such people as mentally ill -- to diagnose them with Aimless Imagination Disorder, perhaps.

And what will this future society make of us, here in 2013? I suspect they would reject the idea that we were all daydreamers. Judged by our artifacts, we'll come across as perfectly 'normal' to future archaeologists. They'll find occasional puzzling references to daydreaming, but will be tempted to discount those in favor of their belief that we weren't, as an entire society, mentally ill.

This tendency -- to marginalize a conscious experience, label it as deviant, and then deny its historical prevalence -- isn't merely hypothetical. It's happening right now.

June 20. Masters of Love is about research into how couples stay together. Failed couples exist in fight-or-flight mode, "prepared to attack and be attacked." Successful couples create "a climate of trust and intimacy." They do this by "scanning the social environment for things they can appreciate," while failed couples are scanning for things to criticize.

Of course this also applies to your relationship with the world.

June 30. Zoos Drive Animals Crazy. All through the article, I keep wondering how much of this also applies to humans: forced to live in an environment radically different from the one we're biologically adapted to, including being socially isolated, physically enclosed, constantly watched, with little opportunity to take exciting risks or make interesting choices. And to live like this without totally flipping out, we use "repetitive behavior that serves no obvious purpose", "distracting toys or puzzles", and pharmaceuticals.

July 14. Human props stay in luxury homes but live like ghosts. It took me a while to see why this is so interesting: it's like a metaphor for the entire middle class universe, or the American dream. People who romanticize the lifestyle of the wealthy, but can't afford it, can hollowly simulate it by hiding all evidence of their aliveness.

August 4. Why we can't wage war on drugs. The author looks at the origins of our concept of "drugs", and shows how the perceived difference between legal and illegal mind-altering substances has nothing to do with their effects, but emerged from a cultural fear of outsiders. So whatever drugs people on the fringe of society happen to use, are made illegal to keep them down. It occurs to me that marijuana legalization uses the same strategy as gay rights: before you can pass the laws, you have to spend decades working in popular culture to change the image of a group of people, from scary outsiders to harmless ordinary folks.

From February, the War Nerd writes about Boston Dynamics and its Big Dog robots. He speculates that robots will eventually be used by occupying powers for counterinsurgency, because they seem to carry more authority than machines that don't mimic biology, and they'll be immune to the emotional breakdowns of human soldiers. So the people might eventually see the well-behaved robots as friends, and the fallible human guerrillas as enemies.

But isn't this already happening? That's why conservatives think it's okay for doctors to prescribe opiates, but wrong for you to grow opium in your backyard, and why liberals think police should have more gun rights than ordinary citizens: because the occupying system has convinced us that its own machine-like behavior is more benevolent than raw human action.

August 20. Anne comments about civil wars and why America is nowhere near having one:

Civil wars are first and foremost about local score settling. The trigger isn't some guy going door to door saying "you know those Yazidis? We're starting a group to get rid of them, would you like to know why?" Everyone was already itching to kill the Yazidis. The trigger in most civil wars is the sense that the long-repressed vengeance on your nearest and dearest enemies has become possible.

Civil wars are almost never geographic at first. Syria was not divided into "rebel" and "government" territories until after several weeks of fighting. Why? Because the government troops and the people who hated them were evenly dispersed around the country. Once the shooting broke out, some local battles went one way, some went another, and each side eventually had to work out supply lines connecting places where they'd won. Your loyalties aren't determined by your residency, your residency is determined by which army you're running away from.

Civil wars aren't anybody's program. Usually the two sides each feel like they are legitimate, and can't figure out what the other guys are playing at. They think "shit, these guys are clowns, let's just get them out of the way." Everybody underestimates the consequences of their actions, the time it will take, and the dying that will happen as a result. Nobody in Syria in 2011 was saying "right, lets call a protest, and in three years we'll be holed up in a burning hotel shooting twelve-year-olds in the head as they pull their mothers' bodies from a drainage canal!"

No, we aren't headed for a civil war. For now, the local scores are too stupid to settle -- what would a red-state insurgent mob do if the veil were torn, burn coal? Shoot latinos? Give it a decade, maybe, but not now.

August 22. The Strange Tale of the North Pond Hermit has new details and updates about the guy who lived in the woods for 25 years. It's fascinating stuff, but I don't think Christopher Knight is any kind of hero. He survived almost entirely by stealing from individuals, his diet was terrible, he spent half of every year holed up at his campsite nearly freezing, and he never bothered to learn primitive skills, or grow a food forest which he could have fed with his poop. The only thing I find admirable is his ambition and success in gaining free time.

A reader has the correct surprising way to think about this: "the man in the woods in Maine just proves there are homeless people everywhere." Really, why do we put Christopher Knight in the "inspiring hermit" category and not the "homeless guy" category? Because we romanticize nature? Because the urban homeless are so numerous that we can't see them as people with their own stories?

Check out the Hacker News comment thread, in which smart people who probably do not go around identifying with the urban homeless, identify strongly with Knight. I did a ctrl-f for "homeless" and found this amazing comment, in response to a comment about seeking isolation in the wilderness:

Ironically, you can also find isolation in the heart of cities. A lot of mentally ill people become homeless in order to find that isolation, that release from social requirements. Yes, you see people, so aren't literally physically isolated, but you're not seen yourself.

September 1. Gene, an accomplished guitar player, sends a long email on the subject of motivation, with some ideas I've never seen before. Condensed excerpt:

To master any truly difficult skill it's not enough to just want it; you have to be obsessed. If you have to force yourself to pick it up you're screwed; if you have to force yourself to put it down you know you're on the right track.

You told me that the only thing you've ever had to force yourself to stop was video games. Ask yourself: why exactly are video games so addictive? Of course it's because of the constant reward system. Every thirty seconds you get a reward of some kind. The next question is: how can I duplicate this experience in other areas?

When I was learning to play, I always broke any challenge down into it's smallest possible chunks. A fast lick might seem impossible taken as a whole, but how difficult is it to play the first three notes? If I play those three notes over and over for ten minutes, always keeping it down to a tempo at which I can play it correctly at all times, will I be able to work them up to performance tempo in those ten minutes? Assuming you haven't chosen something way beyond your level, the answer is probably yes!

By doing it this way, you're creating a lot of very small, quick successes for yourself. If you set yourself a goal to bring those first three notes up to performance tempo and you succeed in just a few minutes, the flush of success releases endorphins in the brain. If you continue to duplicate that experience every few minutes you get addicted to practicing.

Talent is an intuitive grasp of rapid learning. Fortunately you don't really need that intuitive understanding... that's what a teacher is for! Unfortunately most teachers haven't analyzed their own formative years sufficiently to understand the ingredients of their own success as players. I have consistently found that students who listen to me and practice as I described above will progress ten times faster than anyone else.

It's also true that these are the students who become obsessed. I've believed for years that they listened to me and practiced in this way because they were obsessed, but since I've come to believe that I had cause and effect confused. They become obsessed because they practice this way!

September 3. From Countercomplex, the blog of a very smart Finnish guy who calls himself VIznut, a post about the resource leak bug of our civilization. He starts out talking about how vast increases in computing power are being mostly wasted, and argues that the waste "is nothing utilitarian but a reflection of a more general, inherent wastefulness, that stems from the internal issues of contemporary human civilization."

The bug: Our mainstream economic system is oriented towards maximal production and growth. This effectively means that participants are forced to maximize their portions of the cake in order to stay in the game. It is therefore necessary to insert useless and even harmful "tumor material" in one's own economical portion in order to avoid losing one's position. This produces an ever-growing global parasite fungus that manifests as things like black boxes, planned obsolescence and artificial creation of needs.

Ivan Illich lives! Then he goes into more detail about "black boxes". Ground-level processes that humans used to do on their own, are automated into modules, which are stuck together with other modules into bigger modules. In theory this makes life easier but really it makes life less meaningful:

People who have a paid job, for example, can be regarded as modules that try to fulfill a set of requirements in order to remain acceptable pieces of the system. When using the money, they can be regarded as modules that consume services produced by other modules. What happens beyond the interface is considered irrelevant, and this irrelevance is a major source of alienation. Compare someone who grows and chops their own wood for heating to someone who works in forest industry and buys burnwood with the paycheck. In the former case, it is easier to get genuinely interested by all the aspects of forests and wood because they directly affect one's life. In the latter case, fulfilling the unit requirements is enough.

September 15. Had a great time at the permaculture convergence. This was the third one I've been to, the most rural, and by far the most casual. I spent a lot of time napping and hanging out by the pond. If anyone I met there is checking out my blog, here's my top bar hive page, and a page about building a cobwood hut. Also, I didn't mention this at the convergence, but I will sell my land to a permaculturist for below market value.

A few things I learned: 1) Making cheese is easy, but making a particular kind of cheese is really hard. 2) Milk kefir has more probiotics than kombucha, which has more than water kefir or yogurt. 3) Agritrue is a new system for food producers to describe their practices in detail for consumers, which is better than the big agribusiness system of hiding the details of how they meet an increasingly meaningless organic certification. 4) If you're making cannabis edibles or salves, the OXO ricer is a good tool to squeeze the oil out of the buds, and here's a pdf article with detailed instructions. 5) The entire state of Montana is being gentrified as rich people move there from California and change the culture.

More generally, I love hanging out in the country with no responsibilities. While permaculturists have many of the answers for how to improve society, we are nowhere near making the convergence experience permanent. Like Burning Man or Rainbow gatherings, it's a glimpse of a utopia that is hundreds of years in the future if it's even possible. Personally, rural living only makes me feel better for a few days, but I have not yet come to the end of lots of free time making me feel better, which is why I live in the city now.

September 17. The Dying Russians by Masha Gessen examines the mysteriously high Russian death rate. In the absence of war and epidemic disease, nothing like this has ever happened, and it's hard to tell why, but it seems to be psychological. Older Russians are so unhappy and hopeless that they're losing the will to live, which leads them to die more in many ways. The Russian experience is unique, but I have a guess at the deeper pattern, which could happen anywhere: a generation is raised to see the meaning of life in a particular thing, and then that thing is taken away. Maybe this is why Americans continue to believe in upward social mobility.

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