. In America passenger buses have been outcompeting trains for decades because the American rail system is optimized for freight. But now even in Europe where the rail system is optimized for passengers, people would rather go a little slower if they can save some money. I think all high-speed transportation is wasteful techno-fetishism. Instead of burning energy pushing air out of the way, why can't we just wait longer? Personally I enjoy riding Amtrak (and here's a link about the new
February 5. In 1949, He Imagined an Age of Robots. The NY Times asked mathematician Norbert Wiener to write an essay on the coming machine age, but mistakes by editors buried it until it was rediscovered in 2012. My condensed excerpt of their condensed excerpt:
March 10. Stray links. Why I Retired At 26 is by an NFL running back who could make millions of dollars if he keeps playing, "but I no longer wish to put my body at risk for the sake of entertainment." I doubt that anyone reading this will be able to retire at 26, but some of you might retire at 40 by making a similar choice, that living on a lower income is better than what you'd have to do to make a higher income. Anyway, there's also stuff about how entertainment has harmed American football, and how fantasy football has reduced understanding of the game by focusing on individual stats outside the context of whole systems. From No Tech Magazine, buses are outcompeting trains in Europe. In America passenger buses have been outcompeting trains for decades because the American rail system is optimized for freight. But now even in Europe where the rail system is optimized for passengers, people would rather go a little slower if they can save some money. I think all high-speed travel is wasteful techno-fetishism. Why can't we use fewer resources and wait longer? Personally I enjoy riding Amtrak (and here's a link about the new Amtrak Residency program where writers can get free rides) but even low-speed rail is politically harmful: because only one train can use the track at a time, trains go hand in hand with a central control system that decides who gets to use the track, and inevitably makes that choice to strengthen its own control. Meanwhile, roads can get people around with no central control except what's necessary to maintain the road surface, which can be done locally. More rugged vehicles enable more decentralized politics, and air travel is best of all. There's room to make air travel much more efficient if we slow down and develop hybrid airships.
For more thought about future technology, check out the latest Archdruid post, The Steampunk Future Revisited. I don't buy his argument that high tech is going away completely. I expect the most inefficient technologies to pull back to serve only the elite, while the rest of us use a blend of the best technologies from the past, present, and future.
On a whole other subject, a good reddit comment about why the terms "alpha" and "beta" are pseudoscience when applied to humans, and biologists have even moved away from using them for wolves.
Finally, a nice article about Alan Watts and his book The Wisdom of Insecurity. My favorite idea is in the first paragraph: instead of evaluating your use of time by how productive you are, evaluate it by how much time you spend being present in the moment.
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.