Tuesday, July 31, 2012

I hope artisan food is a sign of things to come

I don't know what to think after reading this bit about Mast Brothers Chocolate. It's artisan chocolate, hand-made, perfectly controlled and sourced and decorated etc. And they're doing well. As the article argues, this is how large portions of the economy will go: the stuff that can get mass-produced and automated will, while the stuff that people will pay for because it's handmade will be handmade. McDonald's will be in a vending machine, and artisan chocolate will stil cost $8 a bar, and both will survive.

It sounds great, really: once McDonald's automates all its workers away, there'll be more workers available. Maybe they can work on artisan chocolate. Or maybe artisan furniture, if they prefer, or paintings or whatever. Then all we need people to do is buy artisan _____. This is the sticky part of the argument: how can you expect people to buy artisan _____ when they don't now? I don't know, but personal experience in suburban Cleveland shows me that if you open a small business selling high-quality gelato, bread, or olive oil (to name only the businesses within a couple blocks), people who have some money will buy it.

But then, this is based on experiences in suburban Cleveland and doesn't really give a view across classes. I wonder what our many people working for minimum wage think.

Which candidate do you actually agree with most?

I Side With: hopefully the only thing I'll post about this year's presidential election. Huh, I'm with Jill Stein. Too bad we don't have a good voting system, or I'd vote for her.

The one thing that's reassuring to know is that I actually agree with Barack a lot and disagree with Mitt a lot. This is reassuring if I am to talk politics ever (which I hope I don't); it reassures me that I'm actually voting for what I believe in, and not just going along with everyone in my demographic. Anyway, this site is great and everyone should be forced to take a quiz like this before voting. (kidding, but only a little bit.)

My probably temporary descent into Diablo 3

I don't get into most big-budget AAA computer games. Last game I really loved was probably Super Crate Box. I got into Braid too. But the last big game I really really liked was Diablo 2.

In Diablo 2, you kill monsters and gain levels and find magical items. When you gain levels you get better at killing bigger monsters and finding fancier items (which in turn make you better at killing monsters). It might be hard to explain to non-gamers why this is so fun. I guess it's challenges with clear parameters and units of progression as well as unpredictable rewards. I can't think of a real world example.

from the super weird but wonderful ebbits

Diablo 3 is just like Diablo 2 except that the parts that used to be crummy are now great. Trading used to be one-to-one, currencyless, and inefficient; now there's an auction house. When you played with friends, you used to have to fight to grab the loot dropped by a monster; now everyone gets his own. You used to have to chug potions, now you can only depend on one every 30 seconds. You used to have to choose all your skills once, now you can change them constantly. I could go on.

This is wonderful; I am glad to see them take this pretty-good game and refine it until it's super-good. I am glad to see anyone take anything and improve it relentlessly, for a decade or more, until it's the most user-friendly frictionless thing it can be.

This is also potentially terrible, because it's like refining a drug. (interesting side note: meth sends your dopamine levels 3-4x higher than cocaine or orgasms. can't imagine what the heck that feels like. am curious. won't try it, don't worry.) So of course I'm kind of addicted. But I know I've got about two weeks of down time in Cleveland before I move to Pittsburgh and start life over again, and I'm prepared to quit cold turkey when I move because that'll be much more exciting.

(also prepared to keep D3 as a sometimes hobby, because it really fires me up to play it. might be nice to have something I can do for an hour here or there to keep me in that active mindset. we'll see.)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Drugs, getting old, and terrorists

What is the most harmful drug? Not cocaine or heroin, but alcohol. (when you take into account the damage to society as well as damage to the user.) This article was written based on a 1-day workshop held by a bunch of drug experts. In open discussions, they divided all drug harms into 16 types, weighted them, and rated each drug on each type of harm.
Interesting numbers (100 is the most harmful):
Alcohol: 72
Heroin: 55
Crack: 54
Crystal Meth: 33
Cocaine: 27
Tobacco: 26
Speed: 23
Cannabis: 20
Ecstasy: 9
LSD: 7
Mushrooms: 5

I'm surprised alcohol is as high as it is, of course. I wonder how much of that is because it's so widely used. That is, if it were as illegal and taboo as say cocaine, would its rating be in the 20's also? (I'm sure the authors addressed this, and I would love to know, but the article is paywalled.)
I'm surprised cocaine and speed are as low as they are. I thought speed was meth; shows what I know. I'm surprised cannabis is as high as it is; I thought it was virtually harmless. And check out where all the hallucinogens are! (Well, the Dutch could have told you that. Also, I wonder if they've taken into account the benefits of mushrooms.)

It should be noted for my dad's sake that the authors did not consider the conscription risks of mushrooms.

When do we stop being interested in new things? For new foods, 39. For new experiences, twenty-three. Aw hell. For new music, about 20. So 2004 might always be the best year in music. (I'm basing this solely off Blueberry Boat, the Moon and Antarctica, and Funeral. Correct me if I'm wrong.)

How many people do terrorists kill? In the UK, less than bathtub drownings, and as many as bee stings.  In the US, as many as are crushed to death by furniture. The moral of the story is, watch out for your furniture.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn

I finally read this thing. It's about a gorilla and a guy who discuss how the world/environment got to be this way, and how we can save it.

In short: At the time of the agricultural revolution, people became able to decide which animals live and which die. And we developed external morality, which let us say "we *should* live and they *should* die." We're stuck in this pattern of living, running the planet into the ground, but that's our story and so we're going to stick to it. You can't just say "we're not going to do this", you have to replace it with something you ARE going to do.

Interesting. A couple questions I'm left with:
- is non-agricultural life really as nice as he says? You're really at nature's mercy. But I guess if that's woven into your culture, you're more okay with it, as opposed to us who fight death and disease tooth and claw.
- are you sure there's no actual goal that our civilization can achieve? For example, if there was some ultimate external good that came from Pogs, then the whole agricultural thing would be totally justified and great because it would be the best way for us to make a ton of Pogs. Less comically, maybe we post-agricultural "civilized" humans will achieve the Singularity, upload ourselves, and live a really utopian life. I'm not sure if we could get there without going through a few thousand years of miserable agricultural life first.
- he argues that we've taken ourselves out of evolution, and that really a lot of species are evolving towards self-consciousness if we'd just let them live. I hate when people say that we've taken ourselves out of evolution! Evolution just works differently now.

I kind of gave up on improving the whole world a few years ago, figuring I ought to improve myself first. Sometimes that (and my questions above) feel sort of like cop-outs.

At any rate, read this book! I quite enjoyed it. Quick read, too.

A couple thoughts from watching Dexter

(I'll only talk vaguely. I don't think reading this will make you enjoy the show less, but some might consider this post to contain mild spoilers. Consider yourself warned. I just finished Season 2. No spoilers from you either.)

It really feels like TV shows and movies have a contract with the audience. Especially in a morally-charged show like Dexter. (quick recap: our hero is a serial killer named Dexter. He's got these uncontrollable urges to kill, but he channels them into killing only murderers. He's also a cop.) Before any episode, I know that Dexter will not get killed, and I know that he will not get caught, and I know that he will not do anything ethically questionable (if you're okay with the premise in the first place).

I guess this comes from three places:
1. I know there are future episodes that I haven't seen yet, so the show can't end.
2. They go over the top to explain the "code" that Dexter follows. It seems like a pretty okay code ("only kill murderers") and he adheres to it ardently, so we're more comfortable accepting him as the hero.
3. ...?

I don't know what source 3 is, but I feel like there is something preventing the creators of the show from ever turning him into a villain, or even an ethically-questionable mostly-hero, or getting him caught by the FBI, or whatever. And I'd feel cheated if they did. Weird. I wonder if it's cultural, as we in America love a happy ending. And I wonder if anyone's consciously pandering to me. But I do like it.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Zen retreat thoughts

Mostly for posterity, so I can remember what I'm thinking at this point in my life.

1. I need to work on concentration first. (As opposed to insight/wisdom.) I read this from Daniel Ingram, got the same idea from S.N. Goenka (days 1-3 of the 10-day course are just concentration training), and now Niko at the Zen Center in Amsterdam agreed with what I was thinking there too.

I'm not sure how well I need to work on concentration, but I'm guessing that I should at least be able to follow my breath for an entire sit with not a huge effort.

There are two reasons I want to develop concentration: first, because I have to get good at that in order to work on insight; second, because I hear it's really pleasant once you get good at it; and third, because a couple of mental fireworks would convince me I'm not wasting my time.

I'm not sure what is the best way to develop concentration. Just trying again and again is about all I've got.

2. There are relative and ultimate benefits to meditation. Relative ones are the day-to-day things, like feeling less stressed. Ultimate benefits are things like "seeing reality as it truly is" and "becoming one with everything" that you can't really explain in words. I'm interested in both types of benefits. Lots of people are only interested in the relative ones. This is also fine.

However, I wish I could easily scan potential retreat/sitting groups by asking "are you interested in getting enlightened, or are you only interested in community and stress reduction and all the other relative benefits?" And I wish I could do this non-judgmentally. Hell, I'm now approaching 3 years of meditating daily or near-daily, with few mental fireworks to show for it, so I'm in no place to claim to be right about anything. It's possible that most people are slacking, but it's also possible that I'm a tad overenthusiastic and just following a bunch of nonsense anyway.

3. That said, I don't think I am. I think I've derived good relative benefits, and maybe I'll make more progress when life calms down a bit. When I hit some quantifiable benefits or mental fireworks, dear blog, I'll make sure to write them down.

4. Also with that said, props to the Zen Center in Amsterdam for letting me join them and making me feel welcome even though I don't do zen regularly.

5. Soto Zen does seem less strict than Rinzai Zen (like the Seattle Zen temple I went to a few times). Still a bit too much ceremony for my taste. But hell, ringing a bell is too much ceremony for my taste.

6. Sitting for 25 minutes, walking for 5 minutes, and repeating is easier than sitting for say an hour. I wonder if there are downsides. I was hoping to increase my daily practice to an hour, and maybe adding some walking would be a good way.