March 7. Some music for the weekend. Last week I discovered the listentous subreddit. They have an interesting system to maintain quality: every month there's an election where people submit three songs, and for that month only the seven winners are allowed to post. Overall the music isn't that great, but it's almost all stuff I haven't heard before. This is my favorite song I've discovered there so far: Rocketship - I Love You The Way I Used To Do.
I'm still finding the most music through Leigh Ann. Here's a nice krautrock/space rock song, Wreaths - the designing women of asbury park.
Finally, I don't know if this is a true live recording or if they're synching to the studio song, but this is the most awesome live video I've ever seen: Esben and the Witch - No Dog.
March 6. Some links on Ukraine. This reddit comment by Nathan_Flomm describes the present situation, and the recent past and possible future. This longer reddit post by trznx describes the deep background, with many examples of worsening corruption. And this article, Why Russia No Longer Fears the West, argues that Putin has figured out that Europe will not stand up to him because they care more about money than human rights.
March 3. Yesterday on the subreddit there was a post wondering what I meant when I said "I see computers as humanity's suicide". So I wrote a comment explaining what I was thinking, and then I threw some doubt into my other prediction that biotech will be humanity's gift to the future. You might have to read the final sentence more than once -- I was having fun trying to write as densely as Ivan Illich:
A good test of any behavior, including any use of technology, is: what happens if I do it for a while and then stop? Or: does this application of technology make me weaker or stronger in its absence? So GPS navigation makes us worse at navigating in the absense of GPS, escalators make us worse at going between floors in the absence of escalators, and so on. So far, most human use of technology has been in this category, so it's a good bet that we'll keep going in this direction, for example through virtual reality or body implants. We could choose to go in the other direction, and use future technology in a way that makes us stronger in its absence. For example, we could use neurofeedback to learn mindfulness, or virtual reality to learn physical skills. I expect this kind of thing to be uncommon, so the overall trend will be for human powers (without technology) to be whittled down to nothing.
Meanwhile, it's easy to imagine how biotech could increase biodiversity in the long term (and a good use of computers would be to support this).
But biotech can also be used to make life weaker. Right now, almost all genetic modification is being done to make crops that are dependent on industrial agriculture with high energy inputs. The danger is that inevitable biotech catastrophes will serve as the excuse to give central control systems a strict monopoly over biotech, and they will use it to stamp out biodiversity and create life that is dependent on those control systems for its survival.
Loosely related, last night I watched some of the Academy Awards, and I'm just astonished at the level of bullshit. It's like those organisms they discovered living around volcanic vents at the bottom of the ocean where it was thought nothing could survive. How did our culture evolve the ability to be entertained by something so slick, cautious, predictable, and saccharine? Maybe the actual entertainment value is that if you watch closely with great skill, you might catch a glimpse of something real.
February 28. Some smart articles for the weekend. The man who destroyed America's ego is about the rise and fall of the self-esteem movement of the late 20th century. The evidence favors a picture so obvious that it's embarrassing we ever lost sight of it: 1) Low self-esteem does not cause violence -- it makes people meek and cautious. 2) High self-esteem is good when it follows from actually being good at stuff. 3) Artificially pumped up self-esteem is like a drug: it makes people feel good in the short term, but over the long term it has no benefits, and it causes pain and aggression when people's high opinions of themselves are challenged by reality.The Obesity Era is an article from last year that compiles evidence against the popular idea that obesity is caused by moral weakness, and looks for other causes that we're only beginning to understand, including industrial chemicals, epigenetics, and economics. Personally I know weight is not about self-control because I've never had to use a shred of self-control to remain skinny my whole life.The Mammoth Cometh covers many angles of the movement to bring back extinct species. One thing it doesn't mention is the evidence in Charles Mann's book 1491, that passenger pigeons had a relatively low population that only exploded after European diseases wiped out the Indians. Anyway, I'm looking forward to the age of synthetic biology. I see computers as humanity's suicide, and biotech as humanity's gift to the future. Finally, something fun for the weekend: The 2014 Hater's Guide To The Oscars
by working with states and cities to block the water they need to cool their supercomputers. How close are we to supercomputers that don't need cooling? And if that's a long way off, then how close are we to a conflict between the water needs of computing centers and the water needs of agriculture? [Update: Joel mentions that, for nearly incomprehensible reasons involving information and thermodynamics, supercomputers that don't need cooling are at least as difficult as perpetual motion machines. Also, agriculture can easily use the wastewater from computer cooling so there's no conflict.]
on YouTube. [Update: after further listening with the help of cannabis, Have A Nice Life are lame songwriters, with a terrible recording engineer, who happened to stumble on a great sound. And Fuck Buttons are absolutely brilliant.]
February 26. Some good news about local politics and food. In my own city, Rule changes could increase urban farming options. And in Austin they're planning a food forest. You should already know about the one in Seattle.
Another angle on local politics, a plan to nullify the NSA by working with states and cities to block the water they need to cool their supercomputers. How close are we to supercomputers that don't need cooling? And if that's a long way off, then how close are we to a conflict between the water needs of computing centers and the water needs of agriculture?
February 24. Today, some weird stuff, going from less weird to more. A linguistics professor claims to have made a breakthrough in the Voynich Manuscript, identifying some of the words as names of plants.
He also speculates that the reason this work is written in a language never seen before was that it was made by a small group of people who belonged to a culture that didn't have a written form. They created the text, borrowing some European, Middle Eastern and Caucasian elements, to help preserve their knowledge about nature. He adds that "given that the 15th century was a time of upheaval... it is plausible to consider this 'cultural extinction' to be a possibility, with the group in question developing a script and literacy, only for it to be extinguished."
Physics and the Demiurge is a brief blog post with this stunning idea:
Wave-particle duality makes most sense in the context of being a form of data compression. Essentially, the function only collapses if someone's looking, meaning that the simulation doesn't eat up infinite amounts of memory. That's an interesting point in itself, because it's a strong argument in favour of our reality being a simulation in the first place. But there's an interesting corollary here. If you're religious, it's a strong signal that the creator is not omnipotent. If the universe had to be built in a way which was resource-constrained, then it implies that the entities doing so were not possessed of infinite resources.
Writing The Snowden Files: The paragraph began to self-delete. A reporter covering the NSA describes a bunch of strange experiences, from obvious encounters with spies to bizarre computer anomalies. This is going to sound crazy, but this is my number one area of specialization, and where can I write about it if not on my own blog? If you study the fringe, you see this again and again: through a combination of heightened awareness and isolation, it is possible to veer off into a reality that cannot be reconciled with consensus reality. You can say there was a crumb under the delete key, but this untestable conventional explanation serves to protect consensus reality from the phenomenon, making the experience possible. It didn't happen because the NSA was watching -- it happened because nobody was watching.
February 21. A few months ago I read an argument that the 1800's really started in 1814 (I forget why), the 1900's really started in 1914 (World War I), and something this year will draw a clear line between the century before and the century after. I was skeptical, but it might be happening. Over the last few days, protests in both Ukraine and Venezuela have been met with live bullets. These conflicts seem to be about repression vs democracy, or left vs right, but I think they're about food.
Check out the chart in this article, The Math That Predicted the Revolutions Sweeping the Globe Right Now. There is a strong correlation between high food prices and political unrest, and the crazy thing is, cheap food is usually not what the protesters are demanding. Instead, hunger is the catalyst that makes them finally take the streets for other grievances. More generally, hungry people take bigger risks, so there will be more crime, more fights, even more accidents.
How hard is it to feed everyone? Right now the obstacles are mostly political. Ukraine is a massive wheat producer but most of it is being exported as a commodity. This leads to my favorite definition of the difference between a free market and capitalism: in a free market, money is used to convert one commodity into another commodity; in capitalism, a commodity is used to convert money into more money. Protesters are being shot because in the logic of the global economy, turning money into more money is a more important use of food than feeding people. This system is locked in hard, and I don't expect it to change until the economy (as we know it) is in ruins and different economies grow through the cracks.
Even if we could magically convert the whole world to zero-growth socialism, it is still becoming physically more difficult to feed everyone as populations rise and climate disasters destroy crops. I don't know how much room there is to increase efficiency, for example by feeding grain straight to people instead of feeding it to cows to make a much smaller amount of meat. Realistically even these reforms are difficult, and we are facing decades of global hunger and violence, and maybe history will mark this year as the beginning.
February 19. Today, three links about work and money. From Peter Frase in Jacobin Magazine, Work It analyzes three meanings of "work", and eight possible permutations of those meanings. The whole thing is worth reading, not only for the ideas but for a refreshing example of someone thinking clearly. The conclusion:
What we need is not just less work -- though we do need that -- but a rethinking of the substantive content of work beyond the abstraction of wage labor. That will mean both surfacing invisible unpaid labor and devaluing certain kinds of destructive waged work. But merely saying that we should improve the quality of existing work and reduce its duration doesn't allow us to raise the question of whether the work needs to exist at all. To use Albert Hirschman's terms, giving workers voice within the institution of wage labor can never fundamentally call the premises of that institution into question. For that, you need the real right of Exit, not just from particular jobs but from the labor market as a whole.
The Economics of Star Trek does a beautiful close reading of the Star Trek canon, to argue that it's a valuable example of a proto post scarcity economy. Basically the Federation is like European socialism with such massive benefits that nobody has to think about money, but there are still private currencies that you can play with on the edges of that system.
I sort of love that Star Trek forces us to think about a society that has no money but still operates with individual freedom and without central planning. I love that democracy is still in place. I love that people can still buy and sell things. It's real. It's a more realistic vision of post-capitalism than I have seen anywhere else. Scarcity still exists to some extent, but society produces more than enough to satisfy everyone's basic needs. The frustrating thing is that we pretty much do that now, we just don't allocate properly.
Finally, this reddit comment explains how hunter-gatherers were more free than us, and why this freedom was linked to mobility, lack of storage, and a social taboo against hoarding.
February 17. I don't feel qualified to judge whether Woody Allen is a child molester. As far as I know, the worst thing he did to little girls was that creepy Chiquita banana scene in Everyone Says I Love You. Instead I want to write about his movies. Here's a Joan Didion piece from 1979, Letter from 'Manhattan', in which she has great fun bashing three movies that are often considered the peak of his career:
The characters in Manhattan and Annie Hall and Interiors are, with one exception, presented as adults, as sentient men and women in the most productive years of their lives, but their concerns and conversations are those of clever children, "class brains," acting out a yearbook fantasy of adult life... These faux adults of Woody Allen's have dinner at Elaine's, and argue art versus ethics. They share sodas, and wonder "what love is." They have "interesting" occupations, none of which intrudes in any serious way on their dating.
This is related to my own complaint about Woody Allen: he always writes about rich people. If I'm going to watch something as fantastical as hopping on a transatlantic flight without thinking about the cost, I'd rather see wizards or spaceships or time travel. Actually, my favorite Woody Allen movies are about time travel, and maybe he has accidentally seen the future. I know we're facing serious crises in the 21st century, but suppose we muddle through them and continue with "progress"? Of course it's a good thing to eradicate polio and slavery, and next we might have self-driving cars that never crash, and an unconditional basic income. What happens when we have so far reduced the danger of anything bad happening, that nobody has had to face any physical risks or overcome any serious challenges? Will the whole human race turn into permanent adolescents indulging their obsessions with trivial emotional problems? Or maybe that's more a 20th century thing, and the 22nd century will be immature and solipsistic in ways that we cannot yet imagine.
I'm embarrassed that I ever predicted a technological crash, because the arguments are so hand-wavy. Instead, I expect artificial intelligence and biotech to spice up a decades-long economic depression as the global system muddles through climate change and the end of nonrenewable resources. Low quality manufactured items and industrial food will remain affordable, but good food, transportation, and services from actual humans will be more expensive. I think the best place to live is in a small house with a big yard in a city with a seaport or railroad hub. You want to be close to the supply lines, but have enough land to grow luxury foods like blueberries and good tomatoes. As you move farther into the country, the money you save by growing more of your own food will be less than the money you spend on transportation and shipping. Total self-sufficiency would be a good thing to write a novel about.
Technology will promise revolution, but in practice ninety percent of the new powers will be used to keep the remaining ten percent from doing anything dangerous. By the year 2200 there will be no poverty, no disease, and no opportunity for anyone to make a difference, except by more quickly closing off the opportunity for anyone to make a difference. Reasonable people will know that they're better off than we were, but still fantasize about living in our time. Suicide will be the leading cause of death, and by 2300, any death not from suicide will be global news. By 3000 we will either be extinct or moved to another level of reality through some technology of consciousness that would seem completely loony if you described it today. Related: a clever image of