August 1. It's been too long since I've written about creative stuff. I mentioned a few months back that I'm watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer for the third time and not liking it nearly as much as the first time. There are some great episodes, but mostly, especially in the later seasons, I just want to slap every character (except Spike) for their unrealistic, overblown, cartoonish, irritating emotions. How did my taste change so much? I think, with 15 more years of emotional experience, I can better distinguish between art and kitsch. In the same way, it takes some experience looking at paintings before you can see that Monet is better than Thomas Kinkade Is there a Monet of television? Maybe not yet, but we've been watching a 2007 British show called Skins, and I love it! The situations are absurd and yet the characters have great depth and subtlety. It's on Netflix, and you might want to skip the first episode, which has an unsympathetic protagonist and a manic plot. It's all about a group of teenagers, and I like how the adult characters are pompous and childish. Also, after watching Orphan Black season two, I'm even more impressed. How can they push the plot so fast and keep coming up with new ideas? And some music. Last weekend I listened to a bunch of the American psych rock band Bardo Pond. Probably their most accessible song is Tommy Gun Angel. Another good one is Dom's Lament. And my favorite is from an improvised album they did with guitarist Roy Montgomery, under the band name Hash Jar Tempo: untitled 1. This track is every bit as good as Electric Moon and 13 years sooner.
July 30. Christian Rudder's wonderful OkCupid blog is back after a three year absence in which he was writing a book. The new post, We Experiment On Human Beings!, is full of hard data about human shallowness. In the first experiment, OkCupid removed all photos for seven hours:
People responded to first messages 44% more often, conversations went deeper, contact details were exchanged more quickly, in short OkCupid worked better. When the photos were restored at 4PM, 2200 people were in the middle of conversations that had started blind. Those conversations melted away.
In the second experiment, OkCupid allowed users to rate each other separately on looks and personality, but in practice, everyone just judged each other on looks and assumed personality was the same. On the depressing graph, not a single data point is high in one and low in the other. Similarly, profiles with the text temporarily hidden were rated basically the same as with the text visible, meaning that "the text is less than 10% of what people think of you."
In the third experiment, they lied to people about how good a match other people were, and the power of suggestion turned out to be just as strong as actual compatibility in predicting how far people would go with messaging.
New subject: Adam Curtis has a big new post, The rise of the hidden systems that are stopping us changing the world. What's missing is actual evidence that these systems are slowing the pace of change, but it's a nice story, with creepy details about surveillance. And at the end is the incredible story of the daughter of the guy who invented Boolean logic, who wrote a novel that inspired the Russian revolution, and married the guy who the Voynich manuscript is named after.
Another new subject: two reddit comments trashing popular writers. A historian argues in detail how Chapter 3 of Guns, Germs, and Steel is bullshit. And someone who used to know the author of Fifty Shades of Grey argues that Erika Leonard is not a creator, she is a marketer, who copied all the best Twilight fanfic and cashed in through aggressive self-promotion.
July 28. The last Monday of every month is Finger Pointing Day. This month I'm just going to post part of a group email from a reader about finally paying off undergraduate college loans.
I'm sending this partly out of relief, but partly because its the best chance I'll get to rant and reinforce David Graeber's point that there is nothing moral about debt obligations. In a just world, anyone originating a loan would be accepting a risk that the debtor might default, or die, or the real value of the currency-denominated loan might collapse, and would attempt to cover that risk by securing collateral, charging interest, and seeking insurance.
In fact, however, student loans operate in a realm of moral hazard - although banks charge interest and, in some cases, secure collateral, they are backed by the US federal government, both through federal guarantees and interest subsidies, and indirectly through a set of draconian enforcement laws that include garnishing wages, tax returns, and entitlements, including Social Security, as well as rescinding licenses including in some states a driver's license. Under no circumstance are banks left holding the bag.
In fact, student loans aren't even held by the banks that originate them. Sallie Mae resells them on the secondary market as "student loan asset backed securities" - basically the right to collect the income stream from me or other graduates of my generation.
I would feel less bad about this were I to simply be paying highly trained professionals to educate me, but that is not what's been happening. The explosion in tuition (and debt) has coincided with a collapse in pay for educators. Individual professors have not been earning less, but increasingly they have been replaced with near-minimum-wage non-tenure-track adjunct faculty. Tenure-track hiring has dropped off so precipitously that a newly minted PhD has a 1:350 chance of finding a full-time position.
Instead the increase in tuition has gone towards facilities and administrator salaries. Administrator positions have grown at 10x the rate of faculty positions since I graduated high school, and every year the number of administrators making more than one million dollars per year doubles. To put that in perspective, adjuncts are making $5000 per semester per course, and their pay has remained essentially static.
There are people who think, and I am becoming one of them, that student loans are a way of liquifying a previously untapped resource, specifically the future lifetime incomes of people not born lucky enough to have parents who could pay cash for tuition. "The economy" loves an untapped resource, and has been maximizing the rate of return by upping tuition and decreasing eligibility requirements. To a lot of people, this looks like a bubble.
I wanted to end this rant by encouraging everyone to send $20-$100 to Rolling Jubilee or some other debt abolition group. They buy debts on the secondary (collections) market and, instead of collecting them, abolish them entirely. Unfortunately, for reasons I don't understand, RJ has stopped accepting donations.
I'm just curious how this is going to end. My guess is, eventually Americans with unpayable debt will be a political majority, but because they don't understand that the debt was amoral in the first place, they will not be ambitious enough to force a mass cancellation of personal debt, and instead they'll pass some tame laws to protect debtors from starving or going to prison, and to keep debts from being passed on to family members. The deeper problem is the popular American belief that all income is deserved. Can you give me a non-circular definition of "deserve"? In practice, high income is normally just a sleight of hand to turn power into more power.
July 25. Went up to the land today. A few days ago we had a huge windstorm, and two big trees have fallen across the access road, just a few hundred feet from the edge of the property. I'm thinking of leaving them there to keep people out. I'm also thinking, since the land only costs me $250 a year in taxes, I'll hold onto it, still sell my truck, and just only go up there when I have visitors. Some happy links for the weekend. A month ago there was a great reddit thread, What's a joke so clever I probably won't get it? My favorite: Kurt Gödel walks into a bar and says, because we're inside the joke we have no way of knowing how funny it is. Also on reddit, two days ago Jeff Bridges did an AMA, one of the nicest ones I've seen. Someone asked for some wisdom and he said this:
Open at your own speed, but open. Dig what's happening to you. By "dig" I mean get into it. There are lessons for you there. And when it gets uncomfortable, that's an important time to open and dig.
Here's a short, inspiring article about GoG.com, a company that makes old games work on new machines and is committed to never using digital rights management, and never forcing you to be online to play them. By the way, today a reader asked if I'm ever going to make a page about my favorite games. I don't know, but I can tell you that my favorites on GoG are Heroes of Might and Magic 2 and Lords of the Realm 2, and I have Ascendancy on my wishlist. And I haven't played it in a while, but I continue to be excited about the development of Starsector. Finally, check out these geometric beehive sculptures:
The artist first builds transparent polyhedrons and cubes with an inner framework of wooden dowels, at the center of which he places the queen. After introducing the rest of the hive, he then rotates the sculpture every seventh day based on the roll of a die.
On a similar subject, there's a new
Update: on the same sort of subject, there's a new subreddit post by a guy who was convinced by reading Quinn and Jensen to turn his life away from what he felt like doing, to what he thought he should do. I hope my writing has never had that effect. Probably, worst case, I convinced someone to do something they felt like doing that ended badly. But it occurs to me, if Quinn and Jensen were truly radical, they would never line up with should. Only when an ideology becomes dominant (if not in popular culture then in a subculture) will it have the moral force to stifle excitement.
July 23. Related to Monday's subject, I got this email:
We are Tim and Noah Hussin, documentary filmmakers who are presently developing a television show concept for a major network. The show focuses on 'backcountry philosophers,' and we are looking for potential subjects who live away from the urban and suburban expanse of the United States who offer provocative perspectives on life and whose perspectives are expressed through their daily motions.
I probably won't end up on the show since I live in the city, but they wonder if I know anyone who would be a good subject. If any of you are interested, or know anyone who seems like a good fit, you can email Noah Hussin at his name (first and last names as one word, including both h's) at gmail.
Also here's a trailer for their previous project, a movie coming out next spring called America Recycled, where they ride bikes across the country talking to people living on the fringes of society. The message seems pretty close to what I was thinking ten years ago. Now I think, however you choose to live, you should do it because it's enjoyable on its own terms, because it makes you feel alive, not because you think it's necessary for survival, or because you think you're on the vanguard of a revolution.
July 21. The other day on the subreddit, in a thread called Talking down to Ran, a reader said that I don't always practice what I preach. This is an interesting subject, because I've never even tried to practice what I preach. Instead I try to preach what I practice: I figure out how to live through methods that are mostly intuitive and non-verbal, and then I use words to describe it, explain it, or -- a big mistake -- justify it. To justify yourself requires a surrender to dominant value systems: your unfamiliar and unfashionable behavior must be presented as familiar and fashionable, which means presenting it as myth. One of my college professors used to say that you make more noise blowing into the narrow end of the trumpet, and this holds for both fiction and non-fiction: it's more effective to write about the honest experience of particular people, and allow that to resonate with many readers, than to start with universal ideas and work to particulars. I'm not sure if I ever actually said that society is bad so we should all live outside it, and I certainly never said that living inside the system is immoral, or that living well is about avoiding guilt, because those ideas are repellent to me. But those ideas are part of the popular myth of the counterculture. If you draw the lines a certain way, people will subconsciously fill in other lines that aren't there, unless you specifically prevent it. The popular myth that is closest to your actual lifestyle is your worst enemy, and my mistake was not actively contradicting lifestyle puritanism from the very beginning. This issue reminds me of two different Ribbonfarm posts. Acting Dead, Trading Up and Leaving the Middle Class explains Bruce Sterling's dead great-grandfather test: that you're wasting your life trying to use fewer resources or do anything that your dead great-grandfather, in the grave, can do better than you. A better post, The Quality of Life, explains the concept of fuck-you money: the most important way that money buys happiness, is to free you from the demands of people who want to pay you to live their way.
For the record, here's what I practice and preach: 1) Make money the easiest way available to you, short of crime. 2) If you radically reduce your spending, you will not have to make as much money, and you might find that the sacrifices of low spending are more meaningful and empowering than the sacrifices of high earning. 3) The most valuable use of money, after basic survival, is to carve out a small space where you can pursue quality of life on your own terms.
July 18. A theoretical phyisicist explains why science is not about certainty. You probably knew that, but he also makes a subtler point: scientific revolutions do not come from changing theories, but "changing something in the conceptual structure we use to grasp reality." His first example is Anaximander discarding the idea that things fall from up to down, and replacing it with the idea that things fall toward the Earth. His second example, not as well explained, is Einstein changing how we think about time. This reinforces something I've believed for a while: when we talk about "paradigm shifts", we are not being nearly ambitious enough. On a whole other subject, a good psychology article, How we end up marrying the wrong people. It's mostly about our lack of awareness of ourselves and others, and how marriage flipped from 100% practical to 100% passionate and we need to find balance. This is my favorite bit, condensed:
We recreate in adult relationships some of the feelings we knew in childhood. But the love we knew as children may have come entwined with other dynamics: being controlled, feeling humiliated, being abandoned, never communicating. As adults, we may then reject candidates, not because they are wrong, but because they are too well-balanced (too mature, too understanding, too reliable) and this rightness feels unfamiliar and alien. We head instead to candidates whom our unconscious is drawn to, not because they will please us, but because they will frustrate us in familiar ways.Related, a reddit comment about why people stay in abusive relationships. It's all worth reading, but this is the core of it:
From the victim's point of view they are with a person who loves them so, so much, and wants them to be happy, and wants to be good to them, but they (the victim) are such a bad, useless, stupid, worthless, annoying person that their loving partner can't help but get angry and abuse them.
Wow, that's depressing. I have to end with something happy for the weekend: Camper Van Beethoven - Good Guys and Bad Guys
July 16. A couple weeks ago Gabriel sent this link to the Clover Food Lab blog. That's the first post six years ago, and if you're interested, it's followed by about a thousand more posts (no joke) about how this guy started a food truck business and built it up into a chain of healthy restaurants. To navigate them one by one, start at that page, find the grey link that says "Puddle of sunlight", then the link that says "Why the name Clover?" and so on.
My thoughts are on a different tangent: How does he have the time and energy to not only do all the blogging, but all the work that the blogging is about? And I know we're nowhere near being able to genetically engineer more people like him, but if it ever becomes possible, won't every parent want to do it for every child? And what will these billions of uber-achievers do with all their energy and drive? Not many of them will do something as benign as starting healthy restaurants. It reminds me of this quote from Masanobu Fukuoka: "The increasing desolation of nature, the exhaustion of resources, the uneasiness and disintegration of the human spirit, all have been brought about by humanity's trying to accomplish something."