Apr 302013

there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-go-iMy fiancée has taken to growing edible things (as mentioned in the previous post). When we killed most of our lettuce through overwatering, at first I was elated. Then I realized that my continued existence depends on these sorts of plants being grown to maturity, and that they are fragile little bastards. We’ve had more luck with some and less with others, but overall we really suck at making food.

It is extraordinarily easy to imagine being dependent on only what you can grow. And it’s terrifying to think that if these crops don’t come in, I will die. In large part because you have so little control over them growing! There is nothing I can do if nothing sprouts up after I’ve planted the seeds. There’s no way for me to prevent extreme weather conditions from drowning or freezing my crops. When a blight comes in and starts to rot the plants where they stand, I cannot take a sword or gun and hunt down the infection and kill it off. All I can do is watch as my life withers before me.

I’m used to a world where I have some modicum of control. I used to fear giving others ways to control me (a topic for another post), but I always assumed that if I needed to eat I could find a store and purchase some food. Life might suck, but I’d never be completely helpless in the face of starvation. How long had the human race lived with this sort of fear? I’m uneasy even thinking about it!

No wonder people developed superstitions, in the face of such helplessness. Being unable to do anything at all is insanity-inducing. Wave a cat at your fields under a full moon? Well shit, if someone says it works, I’ll damn well do it! Watch as day over day, the green shoots rise from the earth and fill out. How does this happen? Who makes it grow? I plant and I water, but only God can make it grow. Praise be unto him, and let’s make sure he stays happy with us.

It’s been observed that the safer and stabler a society is, the lower the incidence of religiosity among its population. I am immensely grateful to the humans who’ve come before me who have discovered how to make crops grow efficiently and consistently. To the point where no one fears starvation, and just 2-3% of the population grows enough food to feed the whole country. That is why I so often use pictures of industrial agriculture in this blog. Not only do they make life possible, and secure, they have saved me from the fate of the superstitious. I see the mind-numbingly devout and I think “There, but for the grace of men like Norman Borlaug, go I.”

Apr 292013

903316_10101339385033572_172541308_oThis is a picture of a pot of lettuces first sprouting a few days after my girlfriend fiancée planted them (that girlfriend/fiancée thing is going to take some getting used to). I had never kept living things in my home before. They bring dirt and harbor insects and require maintenance. But she enjoys growing things, so I’ve learned to cope. I was amazed by how quickly they took over their environment. In just a few days they had gone from seeds nearly too small to see to this invasive colony of growing organisms.

Honestly, I was borderline horrified. These were non-conscious replication machines that drew material from the world around them and broke it down into raw materials simply to make more copies of themselves. It was a mindless consuming horde, a green Grey Goo with no notion of what it was destroying. It was a virus. Extrapolating their rate of growth from what had already been observed, in no more than a few years the entire world would be taken over by ravenous greenery.

All this flashed through my mind in maybe a second before I realized that this isn’t just a viral phenomenon – this is what all life is. I’m getting my knickers in a twist over nothing. I can look outside to see that this green has already taken over the world, and it ain’t so bad. But it was still a very eerie feeling, and left me uncomfortable for several days. Then something happened…

My fiancée overwatered them, and more than 90% of them died. Huge relief! These bastards aren’t so tough, we can wipe them out just by accidentally giving them too much of what they need! BWA HAHAHAHA! Come at me, lettuce-bro! I am human, and I own this planet for a reason! You get out of control and we will put you down!

That joy lasted for only a day before I realized the even-more-terrifying implications…

(continued in the next post)


Editted: Original picture found and added!

Apr 262013

wild-seedWild Seed, by Octavia Butler

Synopsis: Two demi-gods clash. The immortal Doro wants to breed a race of god-men to be his equals. The unaging shapeshifter Anyanwu just wants her family to live in peace.

Brief Book Review: A masterful exploration of the consequences of slavery and how it erodes the humanity from both its victims and benefactors even when ideally executed. The characters are complex and believable, and the ease with which one can both admire and hate Doro is breathtaking. This book has a lot to say, but it is never preachy – it allows the character’s actions to speak for it. The prose is very smooth and efficient, Butler can say things in one sentence that would take other writers a paragraph to convey. I couldn’t find a single thing to dislike about this book, and lots to love. Some possible triggering for people who’ve been victimized, but nothing graphic. Strongly Recommended.

Book Club Review: Books with a lot to say written by very talented authors are exactly what book clubs were made for. This is an ideal book, and will have everyone talking for hours. In addition to the slavery and victimization aspects, it is rather clear that Doro is basically the Old Testament God, adding another topic. And much of the interaction between the two main characters can be viewed as gender conflicts writ large, throwing even more into the mix. The ways the two characters clash – the tactics they use to manipulate, dominate, and win-over the other – make for good discussion and disagreement. It’s particularly interesting that there was a male/female divide in our book club about whether the ending was believable or strained. Strongly Recommended.

Apr 242013

drmDRM is, of course, the stupidest thing ever. It only hurts the people who pay for a legitimate product, it never stops the actual pirates.

There are two books we’ll be reading next in my book club that are only partially available in e-formats. I resisted e-readers for a long time, and once I finally got one I realized that had been a very stupid stance, because these things are the best things ever! They’re small, light, and incredibly convenient. You can read places you could never read before. I do almost all my reading on my e-reader now. But there is a problem.

The e-format of these two books is exclusive to Kindle. I have no problems with Amazon, per se. I’m happy to give them my money, and I’d buy ebooks from them. But their ebooks are all encumbered with DRM to make them readable on a Kindle only, and my e-reader is not a Kindle. “Excuse me”, I say. “If I’m buying this media, you can get fucked if you think you’ll be telling me what brand of media-player I have to use to read/listen/watch it.” Fortunately it’s extremely easy to crack the files and import them into a non-Kindle e-reader, so I go about doing that. Then I realize this will take 20 minutes of my life from me, and there are DOZENS of “pirate” sites out there which have done the work for me already. In a few seconds I can “illegally” access the works I have legally purchased and save myself that time.

Furthermore, if I do that, I’ll be rewarding Amazon for putting DRM on their ebooks. Why they hell am I giving them money to continue this detestable practice? This is a textbook example of a perverse incentive.

I want to support the author I’m reading, I can’t in good conscience steal his work just because Amazon is vile. I used to think I should pay the author directly for their works, but Charles Stross has pointed out that a lot of work is done by the publishing company, and giving him money directly would be stealing from them (which is why he doesn’t have a Tip Jar on his site). His advice? Buy a paper copy!

So I do that. But now I have an e-copy I will actually read… and a paper copy which I don’t know what to do with. I don’t want to simply throw it away unopened, that seems wasteful. What did I kill that tree for? At first I figure I’ll donate it to a library, but then I realize that doing so will simply replace the copy of the book that the library would have bought! I might as well simply have not bought a book at all and just pirated one, it would’ve had the same net effect! How is it that a damnable online bookseller can make doing the right thing so damned hard?

Initially I had decided to give the book to someone who I knew wouldn’t have bought it, and thus not displaced any sales. However before posting this I figured getting expert advice on the situation couldn’t hurt, so I asked Paolo Bacigalupi what he thought. He’s of the opinion that if you’ve purchased a legal copy, then donating it to a public library is not only acceptable, but commendable. If no one needs the spare copy to read, I’ll be doing that instead. I’m happy with the final decision, but I gotta say, the whole situation is a bit ridiculous.

Apr 222013

agricultureAs long as I’m talking about things I’ve changed my mind about

I used to be of the opinion that there should be no tax breaks for having children. This seemed like an incentive for humans to have more children, which I was told was bad. Children are a drain on society, and they’ll grow up demanding more food, products, and energy – creating waste and pollution. If anything, people should be taxed for burdening us with more kids!

Naturally I eventually realized that this meant the best way to end waste, pollution, and all bad things was to eliminate the human race entirely. During my most depressive period I thought this was an ideal solution. I have since changed my mind, but there are others who still willingly bite that bullet.

Nowadays I’ve come to realize that all value come from beings that can value stuff, and that on net, every human produces more than they consume. This should have been obvious without anyone pointing it out to me, and yet somehow I missed it. Every group must produce at least as much as it consumes, or it will starve. For millennia we’ve been producing more than we need for survival, allowing some people to work at non-food-production tasks. World GDP (or just GP, I guess?) continues to go up at a rate faster than population growth, we keep getting more productive per-person. Each additional human makes all of us richer on net.

(yes, this is in aggregate; and yes, this assumes we have not reached the carrying capacity of the planet)

This turns the problem on its head. Raising a human is very expensive, $235k per child just up to the age of 17. Parents are shouldering these costs primarily on their own, in addition to the vast restriction on freedom and loss of free time they experience. They generally do not recoup these costs later. And the childless, like myself, reap the benefits of a growing society of people who produce far more than they consume without paying into it by raising children of my own. This is becoming enough of a problem that we may reach a peak population of ~10B this century, and start losing population after that!   Many developed countries are already experiencing below-replacement-level reproduction rates.

As someone who wants to make the world more like me, I have to ask if I can live with myself – literally. It appears that in this regard, I cannot. So I’ve come to the conclusion that not only should people receive benefits for having children, but that currently we are giving them far too few. I am obviously going to have to start voting for higher taxes on myself in order to subsidize the altruistic among us who are willing to make the sacrifices to raise the next generation.

Apr 192013

Sister_PrayingI used to hate the phrase “I’ll keep you in my prayers.” It’s a meaningless sentence muttered so that people can feel like they’re helping without actually doing a thing. As the saying goes, “Two hands working accomplishes more than a thousand clasped in prayer.” I’d much rather that someone offered to help in some way.

My thinking has started to change on this, however, due to the cynicism/realism of bloggers like Robin Hanson. As Robin would say – religion isn’t about God. I’ve started to simply disregard any explanation that a believer makes that involves God or the supernatural as a lie (even if they don’t realize that it is), and started to look for the real answer. When a believer says they’ll pray for you, they’ll tell you it’s because their recitations will invoke a magical entity to alter the laws of physics in your favor. But what’s really happening?

A lot of the time when someone is suffering (say, they’ve been in a car accident) and they are visited by a friend, there is nothing that the friend can do at that exact moment. The injured does not have a doctor’s bill in their lap. They don’t need anything fetched from the shelf they can’t reach, and they aren’t particularly hungry. Maybe they’re in a lot of pain, but there’s nothing the friend can do about that. The injured will need help later, when it’s less convenient and no one is around.

By “keeping someone in their prayers”, what the divine-petitioner is actually doing is reminding themselves every day that this friend of theirs is still in need of help. Not only does this keep the memory of the injured fresh in their mind, it also may convey a slight sense of obligation. By praying for the injured’s welfare, they are emotionally pre-committing to aid that has not yet even been asked for. In theory, this would make them more likely to check-up on the injured party, and quicker to respond to any requests for help, be it physical or financial.

Studies seem to be mixed. Sometimes there appear to be correlations between surgery recovery times and religiosity, and sometimes no such link is found. It used to be the case (in America) that mainly only the very independent would shirk religion – even nonbelievers would remain in a church community for the social aspects. As non-belief becomes more common and communities form around other things, I imagine that this correlation will continue to decrease. I’ve always been a bit of a loner, so regardless of how communities function in the future, I’ll be unlikely to ever fully participate in them and get these advantages. Which is ok with me.

But now – when people say “I’ll keep you in my prayers” – instead of tasting indignation, I remind myself that they are simply trying to say “I’ll try to remember to help you when you need it.” Which makes for much better social interaction. :)

Apr 172013

Runners continue to run towards the finish line as an explosion erupts at the finish line of the Boston Marathon


This was just a comment on Facebook in reply to someone’s flailing calls for action. I didn’t think it was very noteworthy, and I’ve said similar things before, but someone else asked for permission to repost it, so I guess it’s good enough to put up on a blog.

I think the psychological hurdle is that people want to do something right now! And there’s very little that can be done right now! If you want to help catch the guy, you need to have joined the FBI already, which means many years of schooling and related experience. If you want to help those who are injured directly, you need to already be working in the medical profession, which means many years of schooling and experience. And even then – the entire country can’t JUST be law enforcement and medical professionals. They need a whole infrastructure of builders, farmers, factory workers, inventors, store-keepers, truck-drivers, (and yes even accountants) to support them and keep society running. So in the long run, the best thing you can do is to be useful to society in some way.

But that doesn’t feel very fulfilling. The best that can be done immediately and directly by 99.9% of everyone is to give blood, and donate money to responder organizations.

Apr 152013

T-800.4A gun is a tool like any other. But its function is specifically to kill, which makes it a tool we’ve got good reason to be wary of and maybe place some restriction on (an obvious no-brainer is the magazine capacity limit). Some people find the registration of guns controversial. I don’t think it should be.

Of course one cannot blame a tool for how its used, one can only blame the user. For this reason we have restrictions on who can use guns – we don’t give them to children, or the insane, or people who are likely to use them for criminal purposes. And yet somehow these people still often get their hands on guns, guns which they do not legally own. This is because some gun owners do not treat the ownership of guns as a responsibility. If you have created or purchased a tool who’s purpose is to dispense death, you have some responsibility in ensuring it isn’t used for evil.

My support for registration comes from my opinion that the legal owner of a gun should be held at least partially liable whenever a gun is used illegally. Which means that a gun must have a legally registered owner from the point of manufacture, through transportation, resale, and final ownership. Any time a gun is reported stolen, lost, or missing, there would be a hefty fine on the owner, reflecting the cost to society for having a death-machine unaccounted for on the loose. I assume this may lead to gun insurance, with lower rates for more responsible owners.

Yes, people will complain when their guns are used by criminals against their consent to do things they would never endorse, so why should they be held partially responsible? My reply is that they should think about the consequences of owning a death-machine when they purchase one. It’s fucking pathetic that someone would need a law to make them feel responsible about what a gun they’ve made/sold/purchased was used for, but it looks like many people lack a sense of basic responsibility. Anyone who would complain about this doesn’t have the maturity to own a gun in the first place.

If you own a dog you may be held liable if it maims someone. Especially if it has a history of aggression, and doubly so if you are a negligent owner who allows it to roam the neighborhood without supervision. The standard should be at least as high for the ownership of firearms. The primary purpose of a gun is to kill. That is why they are made, that is what they are designed to do most efficiently. They are literally death-machines. Yes, sometimes we need death-machines, that’s why they were invented in the first place. I’m not saying they are inherently bad. I am saying that if you buy a device who’s purpose is to spit death, you need to treat that ownership like the responsibility it is. Which means accepting the consequences when your death machine is taken to hurt or kill someone.

Apr 122013

bitterseedsBitter Seeds, by Ian Tregillis

Synopsis: Nazi X-Men vs British Demon-Summoning Warlocks in an alternate-history WWII. It’s played straight, and very dark. The first book in a trilogy.

Brief Book Review: While a minority of people may find the premise difficult to take seriously, I had no trouble suspending my disbelief, and if you can do that it’s a great read. On a technical level, Ian Tregillis is a great writer, with a lot of evocative prose that really highlights the gothic nature of the story. It is perhaps a bit overly dramatic at points, but I enjoy that immensely. The plotting is very strong, the conflict is enthralling, and the story is entertaining. The villain is superb. It’s unfortunate that the characters tend to be rather stereotypical and play strongly to established tropes (with a notable exception), but it’s not a terrible flaw. A note of warning however – this definitely borders on horror sci-fi. Recommended.

Book Club Review: Also a winner for a book club. It’s a good alternate history that will intrigue the WWII buffs. It raises many moral questions as to what prices we are willing to pay for what ends, and how the costs of those prices are assigned. The villain’s manipulations are a great exploration of omniscience, and may spark discussion about the role of prophecy in fiction and how it interacts with determinism and free will. And interestingly, the villain’s actions all seem very evil, yet manage to prevent the worst parts of the real WWII. A fine book for discussion. Recommended.

Apr 092013

diamondsAs almost everyone who’s bought a diamond knows – along with most people who haven’t – diamonds are only valuable because de Beers wants them to be. Through strict monopoly practices and careful marketing they can sell cheap, abundant shiny rocks at a huge markup. Some people say this is bullshit, and that we should overturn the system. I think they’re doing us a favor.

Consider: what is the primary function of a diamond? It certainly isn’t to look pretty – plenty of things look just as pretty at much more reasonable prices. Cubic Zirconium and polished glass give you functionally identical beauty at a fraction of the cost. What is the first thing you think when you see a really big, sparkly diamond on someone’s finger? “Damn, that must’ve cost a ton.” The function of a diamond is simply to be expensive in a way that everyone recognizes.

Other substances aren’t as useful for this purpose. There are a wide variety of precious gems and very few people have a working knowledge of how much they cost, and how stable that price may be. Thanks to de Beers throttling of supply (to make the price high and stable) and extensive advertising (to ensure everyone knows how high the price is) everyone knows just how expensive that diamond is. Metals can be tricky (Can you easily tell silver from white gold from platinum?) and can be impractical – to give a woman a $10,000 gold ring you’d have to make it a 6 ounce ring. Diamonds are a much more compact package.

There are other gems which are also very valuable, but they suffer from the same recognizability problems – most people aren’t able to quickly tell they are expensive. A celebrity can get away with an exotic gem, as the tabloid media will inform everyone how much it costs. But the average guy needs something that is already well-known.

In additional, gem diamonds aren’t very useful for other applications. If people couldn’t use diamonds as their social wealth-barometer they may turn to substitutes that actually are rare. If those substitutes have alternative uses we may be bidding away material that is providing us with a real benefit simply for our signaling games. (And yes, industrial diamond would be a bit cheaper if it wasn’t for 20% of it going to gems, but it’s not in short supply).

So sure, de Beers is extracting huge profits. But as long as we’re going around comparing what we make by glancing at the hand of the other person’s spouse, someone will be making those profits. It might as well be the organization that’s putting in the effort of limiting the supply of a cheap product, and stabilizing and advertising its price, all while preventing us from using up useful minerals. Cheers to de Beers!