August 20. Today, another post condensed from one of Anne's email essays. This one is about civil wars and why America is nowhere near having one, especially not between the red states and the blue states:
Civil wars are first and foremost about local score settling. The trigger isn't some guy going door to door saying "you know those Yazidis? We're starting a group to get rid of them, would you like to know why?" Everyone was already itching to kill the Yazidis. The trigger in most civil wars is the sense that the long-repressed vengeance on your nearest and dearest enemies has become possible. This means that much of the killing in civil wars follows the demographics of murder, rather than genocide. Civil wars are almost never geographic at first. Syria was not divided into "rebel" and "government" territories until after several weeks of fighting. Why? Because the government troops and the people who hated them were evenly dispersed around the country. Once the shooting broke out, some local battles went one way, some went another, and each side eventually had to work out supply lines connecting places where they'd won. Your loyalties aren't determined by your residency, your residency is determined by which army you're running away from. There is no home front in a civil war. Every action by every side degrades the lives of both sides. Think of the worst divorce you've ever seen your friends go through, and think of the worst moment in that divorce, and that's how everybody feels in a civil war all the time. Civil wars aren't anybody's program. Usually the two sides each feel like they are legitimate, and can't figure out what the other guys are playing at. They think "shit, these guys are clowns, lets just get them out of the way." Everybody underestimates the consequences of their actions, the time it will take, and the dying that will happen as a result. Nobody in Syria in 2011 was saying "right, lets call a protest, and in three years we'll be holed up in a burning hotel shooting twelve-year-olds in the head as they pull their mothers' bodies from a drainage canal!" No, we aren't headed for a civil war. For now, the local scores are too stupid to settle -- what would a red-state insurgent mob do if the veil were torn, burn coal? Shoot latinos? Give it a decade, maybe, but not now.
. That link goes to all their music free online. They're highly experimental, so some of it is crap, but some of it is so good that I've lost all interest in Neutral Milk Hotel, for example The Rise of Quinnisa Rose, which I had to put on YouTube myself. That's mostly sung by Caleb, and he also does lead vocals on their catchiest song, , and a good one on their new album, "Sick With Information". So he seems to be the better songwriter, but Colleen is my new favorite singer. She has an enormous range, and her voice has almost the same edge that Joanna Newsom had on The Milk-Eyed Mender, but wilder. Most of you will hate her, but if you're curious, start with her cover of , and then two of her best, "Oh Country" and the 14 minute "Water". Then you're ready for harder stuff like "Creepin Crazy Time" or "Destin Rain". And my favorite, which almost everyone else would want to kill with fire, is "Song For Baltimore".
July 14. . It took me a while to see why this is so interesting: it's like a metaphor for the entire middle class universe, or the American dream. People who romanticize the lifestyle of the wealthy, but can't afford it, can hollowly simulate it by hiding all evidence of their aliveness.
August 18. Two links related to the ongoing drama in Ferguson, Missouri, where police shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. This article is about another incident a few days before, where police shot and killed a black man for holding a toy gun in Walmart: I'm black, and I'm not afraid of the police -- because the police are merely channeling the increasing racism of American culture. The best part is where he points out that white people walk around stores with actual guns all the time and nothing happens.
And a long article, The Civil Rights Movement Is Going in Reverse in Alabama. It's about Hank Sanders, a state legislator who has spent decades working to help poor black people, and in the last few years it's all been undone. But notice: in the 1960's, many laws were passed that explicitly mentioned race. I'm sure the new laws don't mention race at all -- they're just cutting support for the poor. Now, the right wing position might be, "We just want the poor to pull their own weight -- it's not our fault if most of them happen to be black." And the liberal position might be, "Racists are attacking black people and disguising it as an an attack on poor people." I think it's mostly the other way around: These laws are being made by people who hate the poor, and they are marketing an attack on poor people as a defense against black people, to get poor white people to go along with it.
Why would anyone hate someone for having less money? The issue of poverty is haunted by the idea of laziness. Conservatives believe that the poor deserve to be poor because they're less willing to work and therefore morally inferior. They won't say this in public but they hint at it. Then liberals argue that the poor actually work harder than the rich. I don't like this move because it accepts and reinforces what I think is a framing error. A healthy culture would not even have the concept of "lazy". Humans prefer meaningful and autonomous activity to doing nothing, so a society in which work is meaningful and autonomous does not need to tell itself that work is morally virtuous. "Laziness" exists only in the context of a system that depends on work that nobody will do unless they're forced to do it through economic and social pressure.
Maybe the best response to an insane society is not to "work hard" and succeed on the terms it dictates, but to do as little as possible to survive, and use the rest of your energy to undermine the system, build better systems through the cracks, and have a good time.
. That link goes to all their music free online. They're highly experimental, so some of it is crap, but some of it is so good that I've lost all interest in Neutral Milk Hotel. I think my favorite, which is not even on YouTube, is "The Rise of Quinnisa Rose". [Update: I just put it on YouTube here.] That's mostly sung by Caleb, and he also does lead vocals on their catchiest song,
August 15. Some personal stuff for the weekend. With all the buzz about Robin Williams and depression, I can say that I've never had serious depression, but I do struggle with motivation. Occasionally it's so bad that even going to the sink to get a glass of water feels like climbing a mountain. I think this only happens through a perfect conjunction of 1) not eating enough protein, 2) not getting enough exercise, and 3) short-circuiting my reward center with video games. It's only a matter of time before I get back into Starsector, and God help me if there's ever a hybrid of Dwarf Fortress and Mount & Blade, but for now I have my gaming down to maybe 20 minutes a day of Freecell. And after experimenting with smoking pot every two weeks, I'm going back to every three or four weeks, because two weeks is not enough of a tolerance break to get the experience I'm looking for.
I'm obsessed with another band! They're a married couple from Maine, Colleen Kinsella and Caleb Mulkerin, who play psychedelic folk under the name Big Blood. That link goes to all their music free online. They're highly experimental, so some of it is crap, but some of it is so good that I've lost all interest in Neutral Milk Hotel. I think my favorite, which is not even on YouTube, is "The Rise of Quinnisa Rose". That's mostly sung by Caleb, and he also does lead vocals on their catchiest song, The Birds and The Herds, and a great one on their new album, "Sick With Information". So he seems to be the better songwriter, but Colleen is my new favorite singer. She has an enormous range, and her voice has almost the same edge that Joanna Newsom had on The Milk-Eyed Mender, but wilder. Most of you will hate her, but if you're curious, start with her cover of She Sells Sanctuary, and then you could sample the 14 minute "Water" and the rocking-out "Creepin Crazy Time." Then you're ready for the hard stuff: her cover of Can's "Vitamin C", the Tom-Waits-like "Sequins", which features a crying baby as background singer, and my favorite, which almost everyone else would want to kill with fire, "Song For Baltimore".
August 13. So I've read a bunch of comments on Robin Williams' suicide, and my favorite is this one by David Wong of Cracked.com, Robin Williams and Why Funny People Kill Themselves. He explains the close connection between being funny and being unhappy, and advises us to be there for our funny friends when they stop being funny.
Unrelated, except that it's also about understanding the struggles of other people, this is a transcript of a TED talk from last year, Is the obesity crisis hiding a bigger problem? The speaker, Dr. Peter Attia, argues that obsesity is not the cause of insulin resistance, but a symptom that actually makes insulin resistance less harmful:
We know that 30 million obese Americans in the United States don't have insulin resistance. And by the way, they don't appear to be at any greater risk of disease than lean people. Conversely, we know that six million lean people in the United States are insulin-resistant, and by the way, they appear to be at even greater risk for those metabolic disease I mentioned a moment ago than their obese counterparts.
So what is the cause of insulin resistance? We don't know for sure yet, but the evidence seems to point to refined sugars and starches. As I mentioned the other day, these are massively subsidized, which is why poor Americans tend to be fat and unhealthy.
August 11. Depressing links for Monday. Kids today have a lot less freedom than their parents did. The article tries to show all sides of the issue, including a few ways that kids have more freedom, but overall this is an ominous trend. I can't think of any way to reverse it so that kids can take more physical risks than their parents. But if the trend continues, the human experience will become more lifeless, and either we'll be more motivated to create some catastrophe, or we'll fade away into extinction.Is a hard life inherited? It's a short article about some of the ways that poverty makes it extra hard to get out of poverty. And another from the NY Times, Don't let your children grow up to be farmers, about how it's almost impossible to make money growing food, and some politically unrealistic ways to fix it. I imagine in 50 years there will be giant automated food factories, and people growing stuff for personal consumption, and almost nothing in between. I don't even go to farmer's markets because they're not a way for me to eat on a $10,000 income -- they're a way for small farmers to stay barely afloat by charging much more than industrial agriculture to buyers who can afford to care about that. Related: What I learned after taking a homeless mother grocery shopping. The main thing she learned is that people want to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, but they're really, really expensive compared to processed starches, and that's why poor people eat so badly. My take on this is not to complain about the subsidy system, which seems carved in stone, but to imagine that most of us are going to live this way in the future. As we pass through the bottleneck of resource exhaustion, you'll eat fresh blueberries either by having money coming out your ears, or growing them in your yard. (By the way, my blueberries did badly in this hot summer, but my apple, apricot, and peach trees are making 30-50 fruits each in just their second year.)
August 8. Quirky stuff for the weekend. Thanks Anne for introducing me to this blog, Rune Soup. It's also titled "Chaos Magic" and the author, Gordon, is doing an AMA tomorrow on the occult subreddit, but he writes about all kinds of stuff. I wonder if he's actually Jeff Wells from Rigorous Intuition.
Should we return the nutrients in our pee back to the farm? We should also return our poop, or we're likely to run out of phosphorus.
And an awesome spoken word piece from 1968, John Rydgren - Hippie Version Of Creation.
The striking difference was that while many of the African and Indian subjects registered predominantly positive experiences with their voices, not one American did. Rather, the U.S. subjects were more likely to report experiences as violent and hateful -- and evidence of a sick condition.
Defining the cultural difference is tricky. It's not fair to Americans to say that we're hyperselfish while other cultures are all happy communities, because Americans are more friendly to strangers, and less likely to exploit bureaucratic positions for personal gain. I would say it this way: that in western culture, things are fundamental and relationships are defined by things, while in other cultures it's the other way around. So maybe the reason Americans can't deal with voices, is that we can't define what thing the voice is coming from. In a loose end from Monday, there's a post on the with a good idea about the psychological effect of robot dogs: that they use the uncanny valley effect to be "more sinister than a wheeled vehicle". And something I almost stuck in with Monday's post but decided to keep it separate, a reddit comment arguing that the unconditional basic income would bring a new Renaissance, as human talents and ambitions are freed from the crushing demands of poverty. I'm thinking, if we use the same strategy as cannabis legalization and gay rights, then we need to fill popular entertainment with highly sympathetic characters who have no obligations and lots of free time. Now I can see that Seinfeld had the worst possible message, because it showed people with lots of free time being totally selfish.
August 4. Some links about mass psychology and politics. First, from Aeon Magazine, Why we can't wage war on drugs. The author looks at the origins of our concept of "drugs", and shows how the perceived difference between legal and illegal mind-altering substances has nothing to do with their effects, but emerged from a cultural fear of outsiders. So whatever drugs people on the fringe of society happen to use, are made illegal to keep them down. Now it occurs to me that marijuana legalization uses the same strategy as gay rights: before you can pass the laws, you have to spend decades working in popular culture to change the image of a group of people, from scary outsiders to harmless ordinary folks.
From February, the War Nerd writes about Boston Dynamics and its Big Dog robots. He argues that wheels are functionally much better than animal-like legs, and therefore this is either a military boondoggle, or it's about the psychological value of machines that move like animals. Then he speculates that robots will eventually be used by occupying powers for counterinsurgency, because they'll be immune to the emotional breakdowns of human soldiers. So the people might eventually see the well-behaved robots as friends, and the fallible human guerrillas as enemies.
But isn't this already happening? That's why conservatives think it's okay for doctors to prescribe opiates, but wrong for you to grow opium in your backyard, and why liberals think police should have more gun rights than ordinary citizens: because the occupying system has convinced us that its own machine-like behavior is more benevolent than raw human action.
Going back to the point above about changing images: humanity itself, in the eyes of humanity, is now an out-group, and high-tech management is the in-group. To reverse this, we need to draw attention to the failures of controlling technologies, and we also need more independent actions that are fun and helpful, and better yet if they're illegal! We need to heal the trauma of 9/11 and make outlaws heroes again.
This is a start: Digital-age detective work can't crack Brooklyn Bridge caper. I'm sure in a few more days the pranksters will be caught, but the nice thing is that they've almost convinced the public that they're the good guys.