November 21. Some fun stuff for the weekend. Trepanation: Elective Surgery You Need Like A Hole in the Head. It's a comic about the long history of drilling a hole through your skull. We don't know why ancient people did it, but modern people report that it makes them feel more relaxed and motivated, and can cure chronic headaches. Because a controlled study is impractical, we might never know if it's working on a level other than the placebo effect.
Patricia sends this review of a great children's book, Wild by Emily Hughes, about a girl who is raised by wild animals, brought to civilization, and escapes. The best nonfiction I've seen about feral children is this 2002 Fortean Times article, Wild Things.
The funniest Onion article I've seen in a while, Astronomers Discover Planet Identical To Earth With Orbital Space Mirror.
And some music that is not at all fun. I've been listening to playlists on 8tracks.com trying to find someone else who sings like Colleen Kinsella of Big Blood, and I haven't yet, but yesterday I found another great singer-songwriter named Nicole Dollanganger. This has to be the saddest song I've ever heard: Please Just Stay Dead.
. Like a good song, his argument starts slow and keeps building. He explains the old system and how all but the most popular artists were screwed, and then the excitement of the independent music scene, and then the emerging system in which cheap recording technology and internet file-sharing have created a musical utopia for listeners and most artists. But the middlemen and owning interests are being cut out of the action, and Albini spends more than 1600 words dissecting their plea, "We need to figure out how to make this digital distribution work for everyone." His conclusion:
November 19. Awesome new speech by Steve Albini on technology and the music industry. Like a good song, his argument starts slow and keeps building. He explains the old system and how all but the most popular artists were screwed, and then the excitement of the independent music scene, and then the current system and how cheap recording technology and internet file-sharing have created a musical utopia for listeners and most artists. But the middlemen and owning interests are being cut out of the action, and Albini spends more than 1600 words dissecting their plea, "We need to figure out how to make this digital distribution work for everyone." His conclusion:
I believe the very concept of exclusive intellectual property with respect to recorded music has come to a natural end, or something like an end. Technology has brought to a head a need to embrace the meaning of the word "release", as in bird or fart. It is no longer possible to maintain control over digitised material and I don't believe the public good is served by trying to. ...
Music has entered the environment as an atmospheric element, like the wind, and in that capacity should not be subject to control and compensation. Well, not unless the rights holders are willing to let me turn the tables on it. If you think my listening is worth something, OK then, so do I. Play a Phil Collins song while I'm grocery shopping? Pay me $20.
And continuing on Monday's subject, Anne explains why Voldemort and other Hollywood villains are so ridiculous:
How can you make the ministry of magic, which is more or less MI5/GCHQ for wizards, look sympathetic? You need an opponent who, unlike real criminals - who tend to be motivated by rage, addiction, poverty, and mental illness - acts on motives and methods so devious and dense that they make a regulatory apparatus look benign in comparison. Snape is a tragic antihero. Voldemort? Evil (tm). He has to be, otherwise the Death Eaters start to look pathetic, the way neo-nazis or the National Front look in real life, the kind of broken losers whose childhood dreams of being awesome were damaged by bullying and irrelevance, stolen opportunities, bad decisions, and depression.
To put it another way: when Obama said that Americans get bitter and cling to their guns and religion, the Right made him walk it back. He shouldn't have done that; he should have said "What, you don't have an uncle like that? a brother-in-law? a coworker?" Because basically everyone does. Would you go to see seven movies in a row about straight-A students from a top school with connections in government beating the snot out of your Drunken Uncle Howard? That would just be sad. Straight-A students with connections have been beating up on Drunken Uncle Howard his whole life, that's why he's such a dick.
November 17. Two weeks ago The View From Hell had a short post called Impro and the Cultural Destruction of Creativity. The whole thing is just an excerpt from the book Impro by Keith Johnstone, arguing that the modern western idea of art as self-expression is really weird. Other cultures view the artist as a conduit for something beyond them, not as an isolated sole creator. I would add that the word "genius" used to mean some kind of magical entity that gave the artist ideas, and it would have been ridiculous to say a person is a genius. And here's the kicker: because we now think of creative work as self-expression, and because the self is bound up with social status, someone who cares what other people think cannot be really creative, because they're always thinking about how it will make them look to others, and they're afraid to get in touch with anything that might make them look crazy. Loosely related: a few nights ago Leigh Ann and I watched Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I liked the first book and the third movie, and otherwise the entire Harry Potter franchise bores me. Goblet of Fire might be the most uninspired of all the movies, and by the time Voldemort appeared I had enough distance that I was able to wonder: why does he act that way? I'm talking about the cartoon Hollywood villain personality. You've all seen it a hundred times, but where does it come from? It can't be based on an actual person, because nobody really behaves like Voldemort. Even Hitler, while tactically very much like Voldemort, didn't have anything like the same persona. My guess is that the villain personality is a meaningless accident, like the shape of men's suits or the Nike logo. Maybe it developed out of a few 19th century authors and silent movie actors, but we could just as easily live in an alternate universe where fictional villains behave completely differently. What's important is 1) there must be a uniform standard so that uncreative writers and actors can communicate to unperceptive audiences that this character is evil; and 2) it must be nothing like the behavior of actual powerful and harmful people, because that would be too emotionally troubling and politically dangerous.
November 14. Against Productivity. The author writes about going to Puerto Rico with the plan of having lots of free time and being productive. Instead he did nothing useful, felt guilty and depressed -- and yet looking back he can see that the experience made him a better person with better habits of viewing the world. Most of the article is a social critique of productivity that's less interesting than his personal story, because this has been written thousands of times over thousands of years, going all the way back to the Tao Te Ching, and it doesn't seem to have made any difference. Here's an article with a similar message, Top five regrets of the dying, and people are going to read it, agree completely, and then when they die they'll have the same regrets. This makes me wonder how much of my own writing is a waste of time (except where the writing itself is fun). Clearly the forces that make us work too hard exist on a level deeper than language. Telling people to be less busy is like shouting at a football game on TV. So what are these deeper forces? For most people they appear to be economic: the only way to be less busy is to be homeless. But even this economic arrangement is rooted in culture and politics. In his important essay on the phenomenon of bullshit jobs, David Graeber explains how much of our work is economically wasteful, and blames the elite who fear that massive free time would bring social changes. I'd be surprised if that issue is even on their radar. It's more like some of the rich, and some of the poor, and most of the middle class, if they see people living comfortably on very little work, are full of rage covering their own grief at how much worse their lives are than they could have been.
Another way to look at it is that we feel the need for our lives to have meaning, and the customary source of meaning in the modern age is doing stuff for money. So if we get an unconditional basic income, and doing stuff is separated from money, then people will suddenly feel that their lives are meaningless, or they'll have to change their whole idea of what makes life meaningful, and that's really hard.
November 12. Feeling unmotivated, so here are some stray links on which I have no further comment. This reddit comment from two months ago makes an overwhelming moral argument against selling organs. Edited conclusion:
You can not agree with organ sales unless you concede that 1) Slavery in nexum is ethical. 2) There is no fundamental natural right to life or liberty. 3) The members of a society have the right to organise it in such a way that the death of some of them are structurally ensured. 4) That they further have the right to make use of that certainty to exploit those condemned to death for the benefit of some of their preferred members.
Good news: Self-filling water bottle turns humidity into drinking water for cyclists. And I don't really understand this programming article but I have an intuition that it's important, both technologically and philosophically: Pulling JPEGs out of thin air with several hundred million uses of something called a fuzzer.April - September 2014October 2014 - ?
November 10. Today, three long links on totally different subjects. I think I found them all on Hacker News.Obamacare: what it is, what it's not, is a bunch of boring information and political arguments in readable comic form. The general message is that Obamacare is flawed but pretty good, most of the opposition to it is stupid, and it doesn't necessarily lock us into the massive bureaucratic costs of the present system, because states can use it as a bridge to single payer.
Secrets of the Magus is a 1993 article on magician Ricky Jay. He's a fascinating person and there's lots of good stuff about the history of stage magic.
Point and Shoot is about Lagrange points, gravity-neutral spots that are useful for space exploration. There's a nice paragraph near the end about how the human drive to explore space is based on earthly mythical thinking that doesn't really apply to space. We want to put our footprints on rocks, but landing humans on planets is much more difficult and not really that useful. My favorite book on this subject is Gaiome by Kevin Scott Polk, which imagines millions of self-sufficient space communities at Lagrange points everywhere. My personal prediction is that before that happens, we'll either go extinct or discover something that's more like parallel-universe sci-fi than space travel sci-fi.
Also I want to mention our crazy weather. Spokane's first frost is usually in late September or early October, and this year we're finally going to get it on November 10. Today I went out in the back yard and picked about a pint of raspberries.
November 7. For the weekend, I'm writing about drugs again. Check out this colorful image of how magic mushrooms rearrange your brain by temporarily creating many more connections between brain networks that normally don't talk to each other.
There's a new cannabis strain, Charlotte's Web, bred to have high CBD and low THC. Those are the two main active components of marijuana, and the simplified story is that THC generates head high while CBD generates couch-lock. By the way, the whole indica vs sativa thing is only loosely related to CBD vs THC. Anyway, the known medical value is in CBD, so high-CBD low-THC strains are probably the future of medical marijuana. It would be possible in theory to legalize only those strains, but it's more likely that right wing states will just legalize expensive all-CBD pharmaceuticals.
The Amazons of the dark net is a fascinating article about illegal e-commerce sites.
Also I want to mention our crazy weather. Spokane's first frost is usually in late September or early October, and this year we're finally going to get it on November 10. Today I went out in the back yard and picked about a pint of raspberries. So climate change is not all bad.