May 27. Adam sends this interesting article, The Caveman's Home Was Not a Cave -- because they only lived in caves in winter, and the rest of the year they lived outdoors and moved around a lot.
Also on the subject of human habitat, here's a good critique of Colonizing Mars. I think robot space probes are cool, but the idea of putting humans on other planets is pure romanticism by people who think they're rational, which makes it funny. If you're going to base your vision of the future on genre fiction, it's more realistic to aim for bioengineered dragons and elves. At the same time, I think the dream of living on Mars, where there is no ecology, will lead to inventions that reduce our ecological footprint on Earth.
May 25. I'm still working through Matthew Crawford's book The World Beyond Your Head. Here's an excerpt, The Case for Dangerous Roads and Low-Tech Cars. The idea is that we drive more safely if roads and cars are engineered to fully engage our attention. Crawford's broader idea is that technology is being used to insulate us from the challenges of the physical world, and this not only makes us incompetent -- it makes us depressed, because part of being human is extending our consciousness into physical and social landscapes that set constraints and make demands. Another way to frame it: the trend in technology is to make practical things boring and idiot proof, so they don't attract our attention but in the absence of attention they still work. Consider the education system, or computer operating systems. Meanwhile, computer games and other forms of entertainment are being skillfully engineered to demand our attention. You can escape the trap by learning to ride a motorcycle, speak a new language, play an instrument, play a sport, make furniture, anything that puts your mind and body out in the world unmediated. What I don't like about Crawford's book is it has a town hall vibe, pointing out evil and recommending public policy. There's no way congress will pass a law limiting the addictiveness of slot machines or requiring cars to be less squishy. We're facing an unstoppable force like a fire or a plague, and the value of the book is in helping us understand it well enough to survive it. I see this as a psychological version of the popular myth of the apocalypse. Instead of physically dying, most people are going to fade away into technologically assisted adult infancy, while communities based on challenging skills and deep relationships survive and eventually fill in the dead spaces. Related: I found that car article among lots of other good stuff on No Tech Magazine.
May 22. Loose end from Wednesday: on the subreddit, in Drone Combat and the End of Satellites, polyparadigm argues that even satellites are slow enough to give a disadvantage to human controllers, and the future of drone combat is local control. I wonder if it will eventually be like video games are now: humans give general commands like destroy or engage or defend or pursue, and the AI takes care of the moment-to-moment details. But there's probably some big factor in drone warfare that nobody can even guess in 2015.
For the weekend, something inspiring, I secretly lived in my office for 500 days.
And from the books subreddit a week ago, a thread asking What's the most beautiful paragraph or sentence you've ever read?. The most beautiful paragraph I've ever read is this one from Little, Big by John Crowley:
While the moon smoothly shifted the shadows from one side of Edgewood to the other, Daily Alice dreamed that she stood in a flower-starred field where on a hill there grew an oak tree and a thorn in deep embrace, their branches intertwined like fingers. Far down the hall, Sophie dreamed that there was a tiny door in her elbow, open a crack, through which the wind blew, blowing on her heart. Dr. Drinkwater dreamed he sat before his typewriter and wrote this: 'There is an aged, aged insect who lives in a hole in the ground. One June he puts on his summer straw, and takes his pipe and his staff and his lamp in half his hands, and follows the worm and the root to the stair that leads up to the door into blue summer.' This seemed immensely significant to him, but when he awoke he wouldn't be able to remember a word of it, try as he might. Mother beside him dreamed her husband wasn't in his study at all, but with her in the kitchen, where she drew tin cookie-sheets endlessly out of the oven; the baked things on them were brown and round, and when he asked her what they were, she said 'Years'.
May 20. A reader sends a fascinating doom scenario. It starts with the idea that drones are the future of warfare. The plot thickens with the observation that military drones normally require satellites. And the speculation is that experimental high-altitude aircraft like waveriders, which are also being developed by China, are intended to shoot down satellites to neutralize the enemy's drones in a war. Enough blown up satellites and we've got Kessler syndrome, a feedback loop where high-velocity space debris hits satellites and makes more space debris, and "the resulting debris cascade could render low Earth orbit essentially impassable." This is the same kind of mutually assured destruction that has so far prevented global nuclear war. The difference is, if you push the button to start a nuclear war you're killing billions of people and destroying your own nation. A satellite war is merely a big inconvenience, and you might be preserving your own nation. If someone has the ability to blow up all the satellites, and it feels more like saving the world than ending the world, they're going to do it. The next strategic move is not hard to figure out. How do you win a war after the satellites are gone? Or how do you get in a position where the satellite war hurts your enemies more than you? By having the best drone force that does not depend on satellites. I'm talking beyond my knowledge here, but I'm thinking that drones use satellites for communication with operators and GPS navigation. You could navigate by triangulating from fixed beacons on the ground, and you could communicate globally through massive drone-to-drone networks, but not fast enough for remote operators to make combat decisions. So the likely goal is drones that are smart enough to make combat decisions on their own.
May 18. So I've started reading a book I mentioned a month ago, The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew Crawford. Here's a repost of the article. In the book, he starts with the obvious complaint that the world is increasingly saturated with advertisements and other demands on our attention, and then he puts this in an interesting philosophical context. According to Enlightenment metaphysics, your "self" is inside your head, and you make an abstract mental model of the world outside your head and make rational decisions about how to navigate it. Crawford argues that it's better to think of the self as extending beyond your body into your immediate physical environment. His first example is how short-order cooks lay out the ingredients of the meals they're making in a way that allows them to do the simple motions of cooking without having to think, which frees their limited brainpower to add skill to their work on other levels. So all these demands on our attention are not neutral opportunities for making choices -- they are more like assaults or invasions, and the more intelligence we have to use filtering our senses to sort out what's useful, the less intelligence we have for complex thought and creativity. Crawford notices that younger people are better than older people at navigating the information shitstorm, and he fears that they have gained this skill by numbing their extended self.
May 15, late. Just changed the default font on this page from Trebuchet to Verdana because I got a new computer. My old Dell Latitude D610 was having intermittent keyboard problems, and I know it was hardware because it also happened in Linux. Used computers have really come down in price -- I got a refurbished scratched Latitude E6400, roughly twice as powerful as the D610, on eBay for only $108. But when I loaded this page the small letter w's looked half invisible, maybe because Windows 7 renders fonts differently than XP. I still think Trebuchet is the prettiest sans serif font, but switching to Verdana fixed the w's.
May 15. Oops, got the dates wrong on the two posts below, just fixed them. I was running a day late this week because Tuesday's post was really hard. For the weekend I'm ready to unveil a personal project, moving my favorite band from my songs page to their own Big Blood page where I can go into much more detail. And a silly Twitter post: I will fight to support the Oxford comma until I draw my last breath.
May 14. Today, three links about psychology and society. First, another long smart essay by Sarah Perry,
May 12. I left off last Friday with this quote from Sarah Perry: "For many people, time is not a gift, but a burden, to be filled with alcohol and television and other palliative technologies." My disagreement is not with that sentence exactly, but with two ideas that might seem to follow.
. I would say that the violence and authoritarianism in EVE isn't absolute human nature, but part of the human potential that emerges under a certain set of rules. This is an argument against an idea I mentioned the other day, that we should make political decisions to make society more like a good game.
May 13. Today, three links about psychology and society. First, another long smart essay by Sarah Perry, Weaponized Sacredness. Basically it's about the hidden power of social rules about what you can and can't say, and how we fight over those rules. There's an observation at the beginning that revolutions happen when people with a forbidden belief reach a critical mass, and then suddenly they start openly believing it, and coordinating actions. I think we are now mostly immunized against this kind of surprise through internet anonymity, which allows people to violate sacredness without consequences. Just do a search on AskReddit for unpopular opinion. If the spy agencies are smart, they will encourage internet anonymity so they can keep track of what people really think.These Suburban Preppers Are Ready for Anything. Bashing these folks is too easy to be interesting, but I love this line: "preppers emphasize certain threats and ignore others to 'craft a scenario where their preparations can be seen as both necessary and sufficient.'" This is something that everyone does, from doomers to optimists: we believe in a future that makes whatever we're doing feel meaningful. And a subreddit post with a cynical view of EVE Online and human nature. I would say that the violence and authoritarianism in EVE isn't absolute human nature, but part of the human potential which emerges under a certain set of rules. This is an argument against an idea I mentioned the other day, that we should make political decisions to make society more like a good game.