May 20. This might be a slow week. Here's a plug for my favorite reddit user, Erinaceous.
is an excerpt from David Graeber's new book. His most interesting idea is that popular uprisings that seem to fail can ultimately succeed. So the revolutions of 1848 all failed to take power, but they mostly got the reforms they wanted because the rulers were afraid of future revolutions. And the protests of the 1960's failed to end the Vietnam War any sooner, but every American war since has been conducted to mimimize protests, more than to actually win the war. From here, he argues that the main objective of the ruling system is to create a feeling of hopelessness:
It does often seem that, whenever there is a choice between one option that makes capitalism seem the only possible economic system, and another that would actually make capitalism a more viable economic system, neoliberalism means always choosing the former. The combined result is a relentless campaign against the human imagination. Or, to be more precise: imagination, desire, individual creativity, all those things that were to be liberated in the last great world revolution, were to be contained strictly in the domain of consumerism, or perhaps in the virtual realities of the Internet.
May 17. Stray links. First, an important article from Michael Pollan, Some of My Best Friends Are Germs. Summary: we're mostly made of bacteria, antibiotics are dangerous, breast feeding is good, processed food is bad, fermented food is good, and it's good to be moderately dirty. An inspiring article about sensory deprivation tanks:
"We had a Zen master who visited my lab once," says Suedfeld, "and he asked to go in the tank for an hour. Most of his life he had meditated every day for four or five hours or more. And he thought the depth of meditation he reached in the tank was on par with a level he reached maybe once a year in his normal meditation environment."Loosely related, a reddit comment on psychedelics. Having never used psychedelics myself, I can't confirm this, but it's a nice metaphor:
Your brain is like a hill, and as information enters from the outside world, it's like rain running down the hill. It gradually carves rivulets into the soil. Eventually those pathways just become permanent little streams, and the water always runs down the same paths. The pattern that emerges is you. It's your personality. Taking a drug like mushrooms or LSD is like dumping a bucket of water down the hill. There's so much water that the usual streams are overloaded and water spills out, crossing between the different paths. New and interesting connections form, and you see the world in a different way. That's great, every now and then, but if you constantly and repeatedly dump buckets of water down a hill, well then the rivulets disappear. You erase the pattern without forming new ones.
Completely off the usual subjects, I've been thinking about unusual house colors. The rarest color is black, which is strange since so many cars are black, and a black house in a cold climate would be good for absorbing sunlight. The second rarest house color, at least in America, is orange. Here's an amazing page with 138 photos of orange houses.
May 14. Two smart links. An Original Thinker of Our Time is about Albert Hirschman, who had an interesting life and a great way of thinking:
Hirschman was delighted by paradoxes, unintended consequences (especially good ones), the telling detail, inventories of actual practices (rather than big theories), surprises, and improvisation. In his view, "history is nothing if not farfetched." He invented the term "possibilism," meant to draw attention to "the discovery of paths, however narrow, leading to an outcome that appears to be foreclosed on the basis of probabilistic reasoning alone."The Paradox of the Proof is about a brilliant mathematician who claims to have solved a famous and important problem, but his solution is so difficult that no other mathematician is willing to invest the time to understand it, so nobody knows if he's really solved it or if he's crazy.
May 13. A reader mentions a Time Magazine article from a few months ago, Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us. It's behind a paywall but I found it free here and here. Basically it's a bunch of depressing details about stuff we already know: the system is ridiculously expensive, almost everyone loses, and it's politically impossible to fix it. Also here's a good reddit comment about inconsistent and secret medical pricing. The conclusion:
This is just how the system works. It's not a conspiracy. It's a perfect example of how a a bad system forces a bunch of rational actors to do absolutely batshit crazy things... Any real fix stands to hurt so many players that it's pretty unlikely we'll see change from a political standpoint. I'm kind of hoping the whole thing just collapses under it's own weight and something better can arise from the ashes.
That's a popular hope, but I'm not sure it has ever happened. Instead, bad systems keep going until they are outcompeted. The best historical comparison I can think of is the medieval church. For hundreds of years everyone knew it was completely corrupt, but it held a monopoly on salvation, so it didn't change until protestantism also offered salvation. So we need competing systems that offer medical care much cheaper... or in some cases they could just release us from the belief that medical care is necessary.
April 8-10. Margaret Thatcher has died. Here's the relevant Elvis Costello song: , and two articles.
May 10. Some culture for the weekend. Tired of TV's Golden Age? This is a review of Upstream Color, the new movie by the guy who made Primer, and it sounds awesome. It's also about how TV is now better than movies at telling stories, but movies are still better at messing with your head. And some music. It doesn't sound great on tinny computer speakers, but this is probably my favorite instrumental song: Mono - Yearning.
May 8. I still haven't finished Morris Berman's , but I want to write about it. Berman's main idea is that a lot of the metaphysical baggage that we think goes deep into prehistory, was really invented only a few thousand years ago in the transition from nomadic foraging-hunting to permanent agricultural settlements. This stuff includes earth goddess worship, Jungian archetypes, the desire for oneness with the universe, and all vertical spirituality, including the belief in a higher spirit world. Finally I understand "salvation". I was raised Catholic and I understand the idea of a sky father deity who will reward or punish us in the afterlife. So life is a test, no problem, but why on top of that do you need the idea of original sin, and why do we need Jesus to save us? Save us from what? And why do people feel that this is so important? Basically you have two modes of consciousness, which happen to correspond to quasi-scientific ideas about right brain vs left brain. Nomadic people are broadly focused, surfing the flow and watching out for opportunties. Civilized people are narrowly focused and striving for particular goals. This reminds me of something American Indians said about the first white people: that they had wild staring eyes as if they were constantly looking for something and not finding it. It also reminds me of a line from Valerie Solanas (keeping in mind that she put everything through a filter of women-good-men-bad): "Incapable of enjoying the moment, the male needs something to look forward to, and money provides him with an eternal, never-ending goal: Just think of what you could do with 80 trillion dollars -- invest it! And in three years time you'd have 300 trillion dollars!!!" So civilized religion is a substitute for our lost ability to shift into nomadic consciousness, to be at home in the here and now. This also reminds me of different ideas about meditation. The popular idea is that you meditate to achieve enlightenment, or transcendence, or oneness, to permanently ascend to a higher state. But experienced meditators say that's all a distraction, and meditation is about getting more skilled at noticing and appreciating whatever you are sensing right now. Finally, there is a great chapter on this subject in a religious book you might have heard of. It's called the Bible, and the chapter is Ecclesiastes. The idea is that nothing we do in this world will amount to anything, but instead of being depressed, we should let go of the desire for achievement, and live every moment to the fullest. Two of my favorite lines from Ecclesiastes: "Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire" and "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might."
May 6. Just saw this 2011 essay on the food for thought subreddit: Seeing Like A State: Why Strategy Games Make Us Think and Behave Like Brutal Psychopaths. I don't think he's arguing that strategy gaming makes you evil outside the game, but that it temporarily lets you experience you the same values and motives as nation-states and the people who serve them. Lots of good ideas here. And from Saturday, a reddit thread that is pessimistic in the same way I am: What is something we should enjoy while it's still legal?