Revolution For One

“You see the beauty of my proposal is / It needn’t wait on general revolution / I bid you to the one-man revolution— / The only revolution that is coming.”

—Frost, Robert. “Build Soil.”

Change is a constant. Paradoxically, remaining the same, over time, requires change. Our bodies, like the Ship of Theseus, change and mutate, cells replacing cells. Continuity evolves, and stasis is relative.

Pick some idyllic life moment. Imagine remaining in that moment indefinitely. Would not our perception of our emotions revert to the mean? Does not the perception of joy require occasional experience of its opposite?

Further, would you not be different by dint of not evolving along with everything else in your life, by remaining static when most everything else is changing? Doesn’t holding on to a moment constitute a change? Doesn’t the change of relation to the world imply that we were not as we once were — even if as an individual, we have not changed?

And, it is these relationships with family, friends, and neighbors that provide the deep, textured sense of ourselves, of our personal identity. These relationships serve as the basic building blocks of
social networks that form our world — extended family, work colleagues, churches, local organizations, and neighborhoods. These, in turn, lead to larger groups: tribes, cities, ethnicities,
nationalities, religions, etc. Like individuals, these social groups form, grow, change, diminish and die over time.

Evolution within a group slows or speeds up in proportion with the turnover rates of the group. Communities often get an influx of new members that change the social dynamics in significant ways. Original or older members often change in response to their lived experience. Others leave the community. A strong community culture can live beyond the lives of its progenitors, durable yet malleable, with a general tendency to change at slower average rates than individual constituent members.

As we move up in size, the informal networks between individuals form into larger groups and develop governance models, it is clear that the difficulty of unmaking these arrangements is proportional to the number of individuals, the size of the institutions involved, and the complexity of the informal social networks that underpin their formal structure. Except in a rare unravelling, by-laws and Constitutions are neither made nor unmade overnight.

On the level of nations, political revolutions typically require decades to create the right conditions for possible success and even during their acute phases, they can take decades to resolve. Sweeping social movements that effect society at large, such as the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, the propagation of a new major religion, the current Digital Revolution, and so forth happen over time spans measured in centuries.

There is nothing controversial in these ideas. But, if we accept them as true, then there are interesting implications regarding the kinds of change that are futile and those that are fertile for individuals to pursue.

Ideas about general revolution, revolutions lead by charismatic leaders, preferred social policy instituted by government by political parties, and issue advocacy are, largely, futile. Let’s look at each in turn.

General revolution is often discussed in terms that suggest that there might be a leader or vanguard group that sparks a general revolution or general strike that will bring down the current socio-political environment and lead to some utopian social order. While it may be true that the conditions of a general revolution may manifest in some form — such as the majority of humanity displaced by automation in a global economy or that some group will take over from the current elites in some place and institute a new social order — the historical conditions cannot be manufactured. Success of these efforts comes from opportunities of circumstance and are limited to a locality or region. The integration necessary for some kind of global movement is still centuries off.

The central problem is that it is impossible to know in advance whether the conditions are ripe and what the consequences of any particular action might be. A classic example is the assassins of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. They could not have guessed that the repercussions of their actions would be World War I and setting the stage for much of what happened in the Twentieth Century. While they may have achieved their objective of creating a Yugoslavia, they did not live to see it nor did Yugoslavia last.

But what about someone “important”? It is possible to create “revolution”, top-down, through various forms of authoritarian control. However, there seems to be a limit on the amount of control formalized systems can exert over society or even small social networks. A CEO can declare their business a “paperless office” and remove all the printers, but this is rarely enough to make that goal a reality. Employees just outsource that function to the local copy shop.

Same is true of many other rules imposed from above. You could look at the effectiveness of efforts of social control in the United States, such as the War on Drugs, War on Crime, War on Terror, and so forth to see that there are always limitations of enforcement in top down control in the service of a political agenda. It also appears that top down control always inspires significant resistance.

Further, efforts of top down control are elite projects primarily concerned about maintaining the status quo, creating enough change to maintain their power. If anything, they are counter-revolutionary. Almost always, the goal of top-down projects is to consolidate an individual’s power or the power of a political elite. It benefits only a small subset of society.

What of the everyday individual? Most people understand that their ability to change society is limited. This likely accounts for much of the disengagement that the citizenry has with democratic institutions at all levels of government around the world, with many developed
countries having participation levels of sixty percent or less in federal elections.

Another strategy is to focus on issues that are relevant to a particular community and are amenable to reform: immigration, justice, education, the environment, healthcare, etc. Most of these are within the Overton Window, because they facilitate the perpetuation of a slightly more enlightened status quo when successful. If you look at the pattern behind any kind of major reforms in these areas, change happens on the scale of decades, in the rare times that they happen at all.

“A man’s illusions about himself and others are not basically different from the illusions which groups, classes, and parties have about themselves. Indeed, they come from the same source: the dominate ideas, which are the ideas of the dominant class, even if they take an antagonistic form.”

–Raoul Vaneigem, “The Revolution of Everyday Life.”

So, what is to be done? What is a fertile form of revolution for individuals to engage in that live in some historical moment that is not conducive to their preferred alternative order? The individual has very limited influence beyond their own thinking and experience and those in their immediate social sphere. So, the first task is to focus on where you have the greatest influence, over your own mind and those close to you socially.

There’s nothing wrong with participating in electoral politics, engaging in public assemblies, listening and giving speeches, signing petitions, leafleting, picketing, attending vigils, boycotting, acts of civil disobedience, strikes, and so forth. These are valid ways of pushing back against the established order, or if you’d rather, engaging in political activity. But, if that is your main mode of action or involvement with the world, then you are taking the illusion as reality.

Fertile forms of revolution are redefining our identity and interacting with a group of fellow travellers in terms that do not use dominate narratives as the reference point. Practically, this often means a refusal to participate in the larger popular culture and an attempt to create an alternative culture based on different values. 

One extreme example of this behavior can be seen in religious groups like the Amish. But, the question is also one of degree. Professional organizations, intentional communities, ethnic minorities, and others create a degree of separateness in order to maintain their distinct character. Yet, at the same time and on some level, they are integrated into the wider society in which they are part. Even the Amish do not live in a hermetically sealed bubble.

Speaking of the Amish, it might be good to end on an apocryphal story:

There once was a bus load of tourists that were visiting Amish country. Upon reaching their destination, the tourists got out of their bus, and they saw an Amish man waiting beside the road. They ask him: what does it mean to be Amish? The Amish man thought for a moment and then asked them, “How many of you own television sets?” Everyone raised their hands. Then he said, “How many of you believe that television has a detrimental impact on your life?” Again, most everyone raised their hands. Finally, he asked: “How many of you are willing to give up television?” No hands went up. Then he said, “That’s what it means to be Amish.”

While we all cannot be Amish, we can all be as critical of our culture as the Amish are of technology. The revolution of single individuals and of small communities to reject mass culture, even in the form of mass political movements, and focus on renouncing those elements that we feel are detrimental and building smaller communities around alternative values is the only revolution that is always possible, and it is a better approach than trying to fix the problems of the larger society. Like television, the problems of society will not be solved by advocating for better programming.

Ask Your Doctor: Is Castration Right for You?

I came across a book on Amazon the other day, “Castration: The Advantages and the Disadvantages,” by Victor T. Cheney. I have to admit I initially found it hilarious. Between my social conditioning, the slightly humorous reviews, the fact that Amazon makes it very clear that the item is available for gift wrap, it made me laugh.

But, as I took a closer look, it seems to be offered in earnest; it is a topic of interest for the author because he had undergo castration as part of a treatment for his prostate cancer. Perhaps the most interesting thing is the book makes a scientific claim, i.e., castration tends to prolong life.

Up to this point, the only scientific claim I’ve ever seen for prolonging life is calorie restriction. “Calorie restriction (CR) extends life span and retards age-related chronic diseases in a variety of species, including rats, mice, fish, flies, worms, and yeast.” But, the trouble is this: “Whether prolonged CR increases life span (or improves biomarkers of aging) in humans is unknown. In experiments of nature, humans have been subjected to periods of nonvolitional partial starvation. However, the diets in almost all of these cases have been of poor quality. The absence of adequate information on the effects of good-quality, calorie-restricted diets in nonobese humans reflects the difficulties involved in conducting long-term studies in an environment so conducive to overfeeding.”[1]

There is a similar problem with castration. There is evidence that castrated dogs live longer:

“The initial dataset contained 80,958 records of dog death. When juvenile dogs and those with unknown sterilization status were removed there were 70,574 FC dogs, representing 185 breeds. The average number of diagnoses recorded per dog was 2.9 (range 1–32). Overall, 30,770 (43.6%) dogs were intact and 39,804 (56.4%) dogs were sterilized at the time of death. The mean age of death for intact dogs was 7.9 years versus 9.4 years for sterilized dogs.[2]”

One and a half years is a ~19% increase. If we assume a similar increase in humans over the current average life expectancy of ~75 years for U.S. men, this would be an additional 14 years of life.

There is evidence that supports this level of additional life expectancy:

“To examine the effects of castration on longevity, we analyzed the lifespan of historical Korean eunuchs. Korean eunuchs preserved their lineage by adopting castrated boys. We studied the genealogy records of Korean eunuchs and determined the lifespan of 81 eunuchs. The average lifespan of eunuchs was 70.0 ± 1.76 years, which was 14.4–19.1 years longer than the lifespan of non-castrated men of similar socio-economic status. Our study supports the idea that male sex hormones decrease the lifespan of men.”[3]

But, it’s not conclusive. One obvious problem with the Korean eunuch data is we would need to know whether castration provides a longevity benefit when average life expectancy has increased to current levels.

So, does castration lengthen the lifespan of human males? Is it a testable hypothesis? Presumably, it is possible to collect data on lifespans of people that have been castrated for one reason or another via a national health database and if the set was large enough, to statistically control for the effects of cancer, madness and other factors on lifespan. Still, it wouldn’t be conclusive.

Testing this hypothesis would require a sufficiently large study of male volunteers willing to undergo castration in order to further our knowledge of its impact on lifespan. But, this seems impossible. Who would do it? How would make sure that this was a freely elected decision? Could an experiment of this sort even make it through an Institutional Review Board, even in the unlikely scenario where you found an academic researcher willing to stake their career on a study such as this? Is even considering a study like this ethical?

In the end, it is extremely unlikely there will be a definitive study on castration, with an infinitesimally small chance of it happening in my lifetime. So, I’ll never know for certain whether castration would improve my chances of living longer. But, the evidence seems to suggest that it an option worth considering. If I were to go to my doctor and ask whether castration is right for me, what do you think the chances she’ll refer me to a good psychiatrist rather than a good surgeon?

Be Seeing You, Facebook

tl;dr: I have decided to delete my Facebook account. To use Facebook is to consent to being spied upon and manipulated. To quote from the television show, The Prisoner: “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own!” Join me, and quit Facebook today. (1175 words)

“In the Miami district of Little Haiti, for instance, Trump’s campaign provided inhabitants with news about the failure of the Clinton Foundation following the earthquake in Haiti, in order to keep them from voting for Hillary Clinton. This was one of the goals: to keep potential Clinton voters (which include wavering left-wingers, African-Americans, and young women) away from the ballot box, to ‘suppress’ their vote, as one senior campaign official told Bloomberg in the weeks before the election. These ‘dark posts’—sponsored news-feed-style ads in Facebook timelines that can only be seen by users with specific profiles—included videos aimed at African-Americans in which Hillary Clinton refers to black men as predators, for example.”
          —Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus, The Data That Turned the World Upside Down

I have decided to delete my Facebook account. This post is to explain why and to encourage others to do the same.

There is no shortage of criticisms of Facebook and excellent blog posts that discuss the many problems of Facebook in detail. It can be overwhelming. It is easy to get lost in the discussion of a particular issue, such as privacy, or combination of issues and the supporting documentation involved.

But, there is really just one essential point. Facebook is a surveillance platform designed to gather and sell as much information on its users as possible and provide a medium for the delivery of advertising and propaganda to them for its clients. To use Facebook is to consent to being spied upon and manipulated.

Of course, it has to offer something useful to the people that use it too. It helps its users stay in touch with other users they know, expand their social networks, form groups, share photos, buy and sell items, plan events, read curated content matched to individual interests, find jobs, etc. There is no arguing that it is a powerful and useful social platform.

But, it’s not free. Facebook’s market capitalization is ~$385 billion. According to Facebook’s Fourth Quarter and Full Year Results for 2016, it made $8.63 billion in advertising revenue, invested $4.49 billion in capital, and has a monthly user base of 1.86 billion. In other words, they made $4.63 in advertising revenue per monthly user, and they invested $2.41 of that in capital expenditures in 2016. Based on market capitalization, every monthly user is worth $206 to Facebook’s value.

Who is paying the costs of Facebook and our “free” use of the service? And what do they get in return? Marketers, data aggregators, governments and others get detailed information about users and the ability to deliver targeted advertising to those users that are most receptive to their messages or they can eliminate or mute other points of view. These profiles combined with the media delivery capability of the platform is Facebook’s product. You are Facebook’s product. You are being “pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, and numbered” making Facebook and its clients billions of dollars.

Facebook made $8.63 billion in 2016 selling data and delivering ads to its users. How much of that money was used to influence you? And how much did it cost you to pay for Facebook at the store, at your polling place and in the various ways Facebook influences how you perceive the world, e.g., “unfriending” someone? It is difficult to say what those costs are, but the only thing that is certain is that they are there and they are likely much higher than you expect.

There are many implications from how Facebook makes money. First, Facebook is incentivized to collect as much information as possible, and it uses its ability to progressively redefine its terms of service followed by public relations and marketing to convince its users to accept a continually lowering bar of privacy. The more information it has on its users, the better its product.

Selling user’s data, invariably, is going to support the expansion of the surveillance state. The company may even do so unknowingly, such as when its data was used by a third party to produce a survellience product for police monitoring of activists of color.

Or, since Facebook is an advertising platform, what is the difference between advertising and emotionally manipulative social research on users without independent ethical oversight? Is there a difference?

If Facebook works with data brokers to deliver a targeted ads, like those featuring Hillary Clinton talking about black men as “predators”, how is this different from “fake news”? What does “fake news” mean when Facebook also engages in censorship in cooperation with various governments? Is “fake” anything that doesn’t agree with a given state’s narrative? Even the truth can be fake, when it is cut up and delivered for the purposes of manipulating an audience into a pre-determined conclusion, which is Facebook’s business model. Facebook is the primary peddler of “fake news” on the Facebook platform. Going after “fake news” outlets is simply eliminating the competition.

The article quoted at the top of this essay made me realize that Facebook isn’t just a standard media and advertising platform, one that could be managed through ad and javascript blocking browser extensions to minimize its intrusiveness. Rather, one of the fundamental tasks of Facebook is to create psychological profiles of its users (which includes ~80% of U.S. internet users or 68% of all U.S. adults), testing messages on them, and then delivering those tested messages in real time to targeted groups. All of this is done with little or no transparency, where it is difficult to tell paid propaganda from the propaganda your social circle willingly transmits through the platform, giving it perfect camouflage.

Using Facebook and allowing myself to be manipulated in this way is something I can no longer do. In conjunction with deleting Facebook, I have also deleted my other social media accounts, such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, Flicker, etc., because they present many of the same problems, albeit to a lesser degree.

Then, there is Google. Like Facebook, Google is in the business of collecting data on it’s users and selling advertising. This shows there is something deeply flawed with business models that are built around selling user’s information, and to the degree it is possible, we should pay for the services we use. Freedom comes at a cost — in time, convenience and money. When you are getting something that makes things easy, convenient and is provided for at no cost, you’re paying in your freedom. Best to choose the harder or more expensive path when it’s possible, and to do without when it’s not.

Unwritten Rules

tl;dr: Ponyatiya is a code of conduct of the Russian criminal class. The way it has evolved in Russia suggests that there is a give and take between written and unwritten rules, and the balance between the two points reflects the level of confidence a people have in their civil institutions. If the U.S. has a crisis of faith in its institutions, perhaps brought on by the Trump Presidency, what kind of unwritten rules will predominate? (1,903 words)

“My friend Andrew Ryvkin, who wrote for the same blog, was also attacked — in broad daylight, by two well-known pro-Kremlin writers, for a Twitter slight; his attempt to report the case ended when the detective told him, ‘Come on. They’re famous guys. You must understand.’ That last sentence was telling. There is a Russian word, ponyatiya, which literally means ‘things that are understood’ — i.e., unwritten rules. Like many phenomena of modern Russian life, it comes from prison culture. And to live by the ponyatiya means not only to stay within the lines but also not to acknowledge the lines’ existence out loud…”
          —Michael Idov, Russia: Life After Trust

“Bunk: A man must have a code.
 Omar: Oh, no doubt.”
          —David Simon,The Wire

During the Russian Revolution, armed gangs emerged to control major parts of Russian society. As the state apparatus was re-instituted, these gangs were systemically repressed, and many gang members were sent to forced labor camps. In the camps, they developed a distinct culture, and the culture is centered on a criminal code of conduct. This code of conduct is called ponyatiya (понятия in Russian). It stems from the root word ponimat, which means “to understand”. In broad strokes, it means:

  • “Your own prison you shall not make.” Or, an ethic of non-cooperation with authorities, particularly observing a code of silence and not aiding prison officials, police or the military in any way.
  • “One is not a thief in a field.” Sever attachments to blood relations, personal possessions and other (non-thieving) employment.
  • “Live with wolves, howl like a wolf.” Participates in the life of the thief community: recruits new thieves, arbitrates conflicts, enforces punishments, perpetuates the culture of thieves, etc.
  • “Every person is the blacksmith of their own destiny.” Avoid being controlled by your emotions, intoxicants, and gambling. Make good on your promises, help other thieves, and keep secrets.

Ponyatiya points to two interesting dynamics. First, it shows that there is a continuum in group formation that moves from one extreme of individuals acting alone to decentralized, informal networks of personal relationships to centralized, formal bureaucracies based on command and control and written rules. The greater the centralization, the greater the power of the group, and there’s an ongoing process of building and eroding of power. Second, unwritten rules are foundational for formation of groups and when shared across society, they turn into the laws of civil society.

It is difficult to maintain power and centralized control. It is very easy for a society to revert back to a code of the street, such as this description of the environment facing black communities in the United States:

“The code of the streets is actually a cultural adaptation to a profound lack of faith in the police and the judicial system. The police are most often seen as representing the dominant white society and not caring to protect inner-city residents. When called, they may not respond, which is one reason many residents feel they must be prepared to take extraordinary measures to defend themselves and their loved ones against those who are inclined to aggression. Lack of police accountability has in fact been incorporated into the local status system: the person who is believed capable of ‘taking care of himself’ is accorded a certain deference, which translates into a sense of physical and psychological control. Thus the street code emerges where the influence of the police and the justice system ends and personal responsibility for one’s safety is felt to begin. When respect for the civil law erodes, ‘street justice’ fills the void, thus underscoring the need for street credibility to operate on the streets of the local community. Exacerbated by the proliferation of drugs and easy access to guns, this volatile situation promises those with unassailable street credibility, often the street-oriented minority, the opportunity to dominate the public spaces.”

Whether it is the breakdown of civil government for minorities, a foreign invader colonizing an entire population, a prohibition of particular activites (such as drugs or gambling), new commercial developments, or reactionary forces challenging regime change, these changes create room for the code of the streets. Enforcing ‘street justice’ is hard, and invariably, it leads to the development of informal groups to do it. These groups are often at odds with the state.

For examples, we can look to the history of other major criminal organizations in the world. The Triads, the organized crime syndicates of China, were originally formed as a secret society aimed at overthrowing the contemporaneous government and restoring the old. They were not any more in favor of the British and the Chinese communists and as those groups came to power in China and were resisted, the Triads were suppressed by both in turn.

The origins of the Sicilian Mafia can be described in this way:

“The Mafia, a network of organized-crime groups based in Italy and America, evolved over centuries in Sicily, an island ruled until the mid-19th century by a long line of foreign invaders. Sicilians banded together in groups to protect themselves and carry out their own justice. In Sicily, the term ‘mafioso,’ or Mafia member, initially had no criminal connotations and was used to refer to a person who was suspicious of central authority.”

The Japanese Yakuza have their origins in either: (1) providing gambling services at a time when gambling was outlawed, or (2) providing security to trading communities for their markets during religious festivals when the local police force was inadequete. Some argue that yakuza codes against street crime served as a deterrent, which partially explains why the were tolerated by the Japanese state.

While these are well-known international criminal organizations, each illustrates the need for groups to develop a code of conduct. The Triads, Mafia, Yakuza, the black gangsters of Baltimore depicted in the television series, The Wire, each has a code. Sometimes, it is written. More often, it isn’t, and it has many of the same features of the ponyatiya of the Russian Vor. The codes provide greater group cohesion and effectiveness, prevent preying on one another within the group, and help their organization keep a low profile.

The evolution of these groups also shows how social organizations, when they are repressed or prohibited by civil authorities, evolve into criminal organizations. For a recent example, consider the current environment of the United States, where several state legislatures are considering bills to criminalize “unauthorized” protests.

On one hand, government prohibitions tend scare off law-abiding citizens who do not want to be labeled as criminals by the state. But, it also tends to organize and radicalize opposition. If protesting is a felony — on the same level as arson, burglary, armed robbery, kidnapping, drug sales and so forth — with similar penalties to severe crimes, then the legal line between these activities has been erased. Then, the only rule is the unwritten code of the group and the opportunities presented by the environment. In other words, the incentives are for the group to evolve into true criminal organizations because they can do so with little additional cost.

Any group suppressed by the civil authorities faces similar challenges to survival, which do not change with time or place. The group needs to take precedence among the various allegiences of their members. They need to maintain individual competence and have procedures for managing conflict and corruption undermining the group. These groups have to be able to resist other groups. And ultimately, they have to have income to support their activities. Ideally, they should also provide social services — whether it be security, education, food, or something else — to win popular support. All of this leads to an unwritten code of conduct to achieve these objectives.

When looked at in this light, then the difference between a state, a criminal organization, international corporation, paramilitary, terrorist or other group amounts to scale and their level of success. Winning “hearts and minds” is just as important to groups of criminals, insurgents, outlaws, etc. as it is to the marketing campaigns of corporations or the counterinsurgency efforts of militaries of the state trying to impose state rule. The limits of government, in any form, are essentially the limits of enforcement, which is a function of the level of popular cooperation. Compliance is control.

The same pattern is there for minority communities such as Jews. They may rely on codes of silence like mesirah, which is a code for not reporting fellow Jews to an abusive authority and rely on religious leaders and institutions for arbitration, rather than civil institutions. Then, there’s the dynamics between different groups, such as the ethic of Stop Snitchin’ in black communities and the corresponding ethic of the police to observe a blue wall of silence, the unwritten code among police officers not to inform on fellow police officers. The latter places allegience with one’s group above civil society or ideas like the rule of law. It undermines centralized authority and moves all the groups of larger society down the continuum to less concentrated power and more reliance on unwritten laws of groups and reliance on informal personal networks.

Ponyatiya in Russia is no longer a counter-cultural criminal code, but the de facto social code for all of Russian society. It’s an ethic that impedes the functioning of the state. One unwritten rule that the quote above shows us is that famous people live by a different standard than everyone else, to the point that they can expect to attack someone on the street for a tweet and not be called into account for it. Another is that anyone can be called into account, at any time. If they attack the wrong person with better connections, then the script will be flipped. It is reminiscent of the old saying about the law, that it is “what is most boldly asserted and plausibly maintained” backed up by what is affectionly known in Chicago as “clout”, or political connections.

And lest we think this is some strange phenomena in Russia, there is a lot of lip service given in the United States to the Constitution, the rule of law, the strength of our government institutions, the goodness of U.S. military intervention in promoting democracy around the world and other notions of this sort. At recent mass protests, many people still believe that the police lining the streets are there to protect them. So, there is still a great deal of confidence in the centralized institutions by significant parts of the population. However, the election of Donald Trump has created a great deal of uncertainty — for immigrants, increasing the survellience state to the point that the Department of Homeland Security seriously floated the idea of visiters for their social media passwords, taking a much more aggressive stance towards Iran, etc. It does not take much imagination to think that four years of a Trump administration using the significant powers of the Presidency could undermine the faith that the American people have in their civil government.

When/if that happens, what groups and unwritten codes will U.S. civil society devolve into?

Ergot on Rye

tl;dr: Ergot is a forgotten plague that teaches a lesson about the cost of ignorance, and perhaps, offers another one on the price of sanity and the value of a little madness. (1,620 words)

“An old cautionary tale has it that there once was a kingdom in which all the grain crop one exceptional year somehow became poisoned, causing anyone who ate its products to go insane. That posed a terrible dilemma for the king and his advisors, for the stores of grain from previous years were very modest, not nearly enough to feed the entire population of the land, and there was no way to procure food from without. The kingdom would face either widespread famine and starvation, if the harvest was destroyed, or widespread madness and chaos. After much deliberation, the king reluctantly decided to have the people go ahead and eat the grain, hoping its effects would be temporary, that at the very least human lives would be preserved. ‘But,’ he added, ‘we must at the same time keep a few people apart and feed them an unpoisoned diet of the grain from previous years. That way there will at least be a few among us who will remember that the rest of us are insane.'”
          —Kirkpatrick Sale, Human Scale

This is a cautionary tale about ergot. Ergot is a fungi of the genus Claviceps that is a parasite of grains — primarily rye, but also triticale, wheat, barley, sorghum, pearl millet and rarely, oats. It has two major effects: (1) hallucinations, often with convulsions or epileptic symptoms, and (2) constriction of the blood vessels in the extremities that leads to gangrene and/or death. Generally, it is one or the other, which predominates likely depends on ergot genetics and the alkalinity of soil in which it grows. Other symptoms include strong uterine contractions (making it an effective abortifacient), nausea, seizures, high fever, vomiting, loss of muscle strength and unconsciousness. Its active ingredient is lysergic acid, a precursor to lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD. Historically, tens of thousands of people have died, been disfigured, or gone mad from ergot poisoning. Today, it is controlled and very rarely effects anyone.

Historians have speculated that lysergic acid in ergot may have been converted into ergine by boiling ergot-infected rye for an extended period of time. This process matches historical recipes for kykeon, which was the drink culminating a religious fast in the Eleusinian Mystery cults and perhaps used in other mystery cults as well. While there is some archeological evidence for the existence of rye after the Bronze Age, it did not become a widespread food staple until the Middle Ages.

Rye is a grain that grows on marginal lands. During the High Middle Ages (1000-1250 C.E.), there was a population boom and expansion that put pressure on the food supply, and as a result, rye was seeded in the winter to provide a bonus and/or nurse crop for more extensive agriculture. With the increased eating of rye by the population, the effects of ergot became more widespread and notable. For example, possibly the first example of a dancing plague in the historical record is a 1021 C.E. incident in the German town of Kölbigk:

“On Christmas Eve in 1021, 18 people gathered outside a church in the German town of Kölbigk and danced with wild abandon. The priest, unable to perform Mass because of the irreverent din from outside, ordered them to stop. Ignoring him, they held hands and danced a ‘ring dance of sin’, clapping, leaping, and chanting in unison. The enraged priest, recorded a local chronicler, cursed them to dance for an entire year as a punishment for their outrageous levity. It worked. Not until the following Christmas did the dancers regain control of their limbs. Exhausted and repentant, they fell into a deep sleep. Some of them never awoke.”
           —John Waller, A forgotten plague: making sense of dancing mania

Except for the apocryphal year punishment, these outbreaks of dancing mania closely match the descriptions of the Eleusinian Mystery rites after consumption of kykeon, which suggests a reaction to a hallucinogenic variety or ergot. Perhaps, the psychological effects lasted for a year because that’s how long it took the population to eat through their store of rye grain for that year? Whether this story is an accurate depiction of events or has apocryphal elements, it is clear that a widespread mania is preferable to gangrenous ergotism.

The first major documented case of gangrenous ergotism happened in the Rhine Valley, in 857 A.D., but it recieved it’s common name of “St. Anthony’s Fire” during the 1039 C.E. outbreak in Dauphiné, France. The cause of ergotism, at that time, was unknown. It’s not hard to imagine that those inflected with madness from ergot would be seen as being possessed by the Devil and the gangrenous form as punishment for sin. To speculate, perhaps ergot had a role to play in religious purity movements such as the strict vegetarian Carthars and the subsequent Catholic crusades and inquisitions that were in response to it.

It wasn’t until the physician Denis Dodart, in 1676 C.E., has the insight that “St Anthony’s Fire” did not behave like other infectious diseases with which he was familiar that a formal connection between ergot on rye and the disease was articulated. But, informally, this was already well known:

“Millers in the Middle Ages frequently kept clean rye flour for the affluent, selling flour made from ‘spurred rye’ — that infected with Ergot — to poorer customers.”
          —Richard Evans Schultes, Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing and Hallucinogenic Powers

Millers understood the difference in the flours and why some rye was ‘spurred’ long before Denis Dodart. People also understood the connection, because the ‘spurred rye’ was eaten last, when all the other stores of food were gone and the spring crops had not reached the point of harvest, a period once referred to as “the starving time”. It wasn’t until the famine in continential Europe in the 1770s that an alternative food source, i.e., the potato, was adopted that food security became important to nations and famine in Europe was brought under control. With an alternative, their was less need for the poor population to eat ‘spurred rye’. Even then, as late as the 1800s, there were some documented epidemics where up to 40% of a population dependent on ergot contaminated rye for food would die from the disease, which were presumably better odds than surviving a famine without eating it.

Knowing the context beyond “somehow became poisoned” changes the way we understand the king’s situation. On one level, it’s a cautionary tale on ignorance. Ergot is a completely preventable disease. Before milling, the rye grain needs to be soaked in a saline solution which seperates the ergot from the grain. Ergot spores live in the first inch of soil and only live for a year, which means that deep tilling and crop rotation can be effective in eliminating it. But, you cannot address a problem, if you don’t understand it. It is why that there were waves of ergot poisioning decimating urban populations every few years for centuries. This cautionary tale was a fact of life for community leaders in a previous time.

On another level, it invites us to revisit our notions of madness and the role of hallucinogenics in society and for individuals. If it is true that in a time when everyone is mad from ergot that it is important that a king “keep a few people apart and feed them an unpoisoned diet of the grain from previous years”, perhaps it is equally as important to keep a few mad people that will remember what it’s like to not be strapped to the yoke of sanity. Our literature is filled with stories of shamen, oracles and seers that can see beyond the social framework of the sane. There are spiritual traditions — mostly among aboriginal communities but also within civilized society, such as the Eleusinian Mystery cults — where a ritualized experience of madness is a valuable vehicle for personal and social transformation and bonding. Perhaps in a world where ergot poisioning has been eradicated, some hallucinogenic ergot should be kept aside for those that would choose it. Why would anyone choose it?

“The third possibility is the one that really intrigues me. A 2011 study found that a single dose of psilocybin could permanently increase the personality dimension of Openness To Experience. I’m emphasizing that because personality is otherwise pretty stable after adulthood; nothing should be able to do this. But magic mushrooms apparently have this effect, and not subtly either; participants who had a mystical experience on psilocybin had Openness increase up to half a standard deviation compared to placebo, and the change was stable sixteen months later. This is really scary. I mean, I like Openness To Experience, but something that can produce large, permanent personality changes is so far beyond anything else we have in psychiatry that it’s kind of terrifying…There seems to me at least a moderate chance that they will make you more interesting without your consent – whether that is a good or a bad thing depends on exactly how interesting you want to be.”
          —Scott Alexander, WHY WERE EARLY PSYCHEDELICISTS SO WEIRD?

The current trends of LSD microdosing suggest that trying to be a little more interesting might pay real dividends in our society. One is left to imagine the power of a communal approach to expanding openness, such as in a context like O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal, where hallucinogenics are taken as part of a religious experience.

The Bedouin Way of Life in Rub’ al Khali

tl;dr: The impact of oil on Bedouin is a useful entry into thinking about the systemic risk of urban settlements. The historical record over the last 10,000 years provides numerous examples of abrupt climate changes, pandemics, Empire collapse and other crises that suggest that our current global, interconnected civilization presents an unprecedented source of systemic risk. (1803 words)

“In the desert I had found a freedom unattainable in civilization; a life unhampered by possessions, since everything that was not necessary was an encumberance. I had found, too, a comradeship inherent in the circumstances, and the belief that tranquility was to be found there. I had learnt the satisfaction which comes from hardship and the pleasure which springs from abstinence: the contentment of a full belly; the richness of meat; the taste of clean water; the ecstasy of surrender when the craving for sleep becomes a torment; the warmth of a fire in the chill of dawn.”
          —Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands. New York: Penguin, 2007, 37.

“And the price we paid was the price men have always paid for achieving a paradise in this life—we went soft, we lost our edge.”
          —Frank Herbert, Dune.

Rub’ al Khali, also known as the ‘Empty Quarter’, is a vast desert in Saudi Arabia. It is hyper-arid, recieving an inch of rain or less a year. Without water, there is no agriculture, and the only pastoral land consists of spots of green marking the path of some passing rain cloud from weeks before. The tribes of nomadic Bedouin that lived around the edges of the Empty Quarter — i.e., the Saar, Rashid, Manahil, Awamir, Bani Yas, and Dawasir — were able to eke out a living by living off the dairy of their camels and goats, hunting, trading, taking tribute from caravans, charging to take goods across the desert, raiding other tribes, etc. Camels were their transportation, and they had to constantly be on the move looking for patches of green in the hardscrabble soil to survive. But, the Bedouin had survived this way for millennia.

A three year project plagued by cave-ins, broken drills, and other ills, changed all of that. On March 3, 1938, oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia. In 1948, Ghawar Field was found. It was producing oil by 1951, and it remains the largest conventional oil field in the world. Later on in the 1990s, Shaybah Field was also developed. Both of these oil fields are in the Empty Quarter.

How did the discovery of oil in the Empty Quarter impact the Bedouin living there? A National Geographic article states it plainly:

“‘Today the Bedu still conduct trade and business, but from the towns. They hire others—mostly Pakistanis and Bangladeshis—to do their herding.’ Because oil money is finally trickling down to the Bedu, Imad tells me, the government has created population centers in the desert. These are called markaz, often with free housing and schools and medical care. In the Rub al Khali many of the Bedu have moved to the markaz. ‘To meet Bedu these days,’ he laughs, ‘you may have to go to the towns.’…After two weeks and 3,000 miles (4828 kilometers), we finally find our Bedu herdsmen. And, as Imad Khalid thought we might, we find them in a town.”
          —Donovan Webster. The Empty Quarter. National Geographic: February 2005.

It seems the Bedouin way of life in Rub’ al Khali is undergoing extinction. But, if you look out a bit on the horizon of the sands of time, two questions loom: What happens when the oil runs out? And when will that be?

Saudi Arabia keeps very tight control over the information on their oil production. So, it is difficult to estimate when their fields will peak and decline and at what rate. But, for the purposes of this essay, the only thing necessary to know is that in order for Saudi Arabia to cover their state budget of $237 billion dollars, they need oil prices around $89 dollars a barrel. Oil prices have not been above $89 dollars since October 2014. Add in a war in Yemen and the inevitable increase in oil production costs from oil well depletion in the future, and there is a pressing need to implement cost containment measures and invest into income diversification long before the oil wells in Saudi Arabia run dry.

The trickle down of oil money to the Bedouin — and the free housing, schools and medical care that comes with it — will soon dry up. It won’t happen tomorrow, but the Saudi government’s Vision 2030 initiative points to one possible timeline, a mere 13 years away. And then what? Will the Bedouin return to their traditional way of life? Will they re-learn the skills necessary to live in the periphery of the Empty Quarter and to herd their own animals again? Will they incorporate new technologies, such as Warka Water structures, to form the basis of modern oases? Will they maintain the existing markaz settlements in the desert? Or, will they choose to move to the cities to be assimulated into larger Saudi Arabian society?

The Sumerian myth, Innana Prefers the Farmer, presents a similar choice. Innana has to choose either a shepherd or a farmer for her husband, and as one would expect from the goddess of the first urban civilization in Mesopotamia, she chooses the farmer. The text we have of this myth suggests that even though the shepard is wealthier, the levels of specialization settled life can support provide a foundation for greater wealth, because it frees a community up to create more finished products from raw materials, such as better clothing, wine and bread.

But, taking the long view, there are systemic risks to urban life. In the past twelve thousand years, there have been several instances of abrupt climate changes that caused significant areas of abandonment of sedentary agriculture and associated settlements, adoption of pastoral lifestyles, and mass migrations.

In Sumeria, for example, there was a major shift in their population to the north as their soil became increasingly acidic from 2,100 BC to 1,700 BCE that was partly brought on by climate change. It was the central cause of the decline of their civilization.

And the same pattern repeats itself with different causes. In 1,200 BCE, there was the Late Bronze Age collapse that ended with the destruction of almost every major city in the Eastern Mediterranean. Possible causes? Climate change, a volcanic eruption, drought, and general system collapse.

A good example of a localized general system collapse may be the Ancestral Puebloans. In the 12th and 13th centuries CE, they abandoned their settlements in Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde in the Southwestern United States. While the exact causes are still unclear, an article in the New York Times describes the most likely explanation this way:

“As [Ancestral Puebloan] society became more complex, it also became more fragile…Corn was domesticated then wild turkeys, an important protein source. With more to eat, populations grew and aggregated into villages…When crops began dying and violenced increased, the inhabitants clustered even closer. By the time the drought of 1275 hit, the [Ancestral Puebloans] had become far more dependent on agriculture than during earlier droughts and they had become more dependent on each other…’You can’t easily peel off a lineage here and a lineage there and have them go their own way,’ Dr. Kohler said. ‘These parts are no longer redundant. They are part of an integrated whole.'”
          —George Johnson. Vanished: A Pueblo Mystery. New York Times, April 8, 2008.

Settlements concentrate people. Groups can provide protective functions, just as a schools of fish can be protective against aquatic predators. But, they also introduce systemic risks, which only become apparent on the day the school of fish is found by a fisherman with a net, suffocate in an algal bloom, or some other crisis reveals it.

In human terms, whether it is climate change, collapse of Empires, famine, drought, major epidemics, war, flood or some other acute cause, the infrastructure necessary to support complex settlements, indeed entire civilizations, can be pushed beyond the breaking point by Black Swan events. After a major urban epidemic such as the Plague of Justinian (541-542 CE) or the Black Death (1346–1353 CE), which killed between a third and a half of the European population, a few survivors are going to deeply consider a pastoral or nomadic existence as a survival strategy.

More generally, nomadic strategies — whether hunter-gatherer, pastoral, or itinerant individuals or communities — forgo size in exchange for small groups with less complexity and greater resilience in a crisis. These societies are simplier and easier to sustain, but they are harder lives to live.

Perhaps the situation of the Bedouin in Rub’ al Khali is a situation we all face. In a world where populations continue to grow and coalesce into an interconnected network of global mega-cities depending on international markets and agricultural “bread baskets” to feed their populations, what would happen if a neo-Black Death emerged and was responsible for the deaths of a third or half of the world’s population? Or, if a supervolcano, such as the Yellowstone Caldera, erupted resulting in a decades long ash cloud and low crop yields, among other problems? Or, if modern farming techniques result in a depletion of soil that had an impact similar to the acidification of the soil of the Sumerian civilization that only become apparent over a few centuries? And, this is before we have even touched on the possible risks of the unprecedented anthropogenic climate change that is so frequently discussed.

Humans are not good at thinking about problems that are measured in decades, much less centuries or millennia. A global system of settlements provides economies of scale that are very good at weathering local and even some global catastrophic events. But, there are always limits, particularly of carrying capacity. There is a peak beyond which the fertility of soil, the reserves of the aquifiers, limits of resources such as phosphorus for fertilizer and so forth cannot be pushed, and when these limits are reached, often after a crisis, it can result in percipitous declines. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. Further, the one major difference between our present moment and the past 10,000 years is that global “climate change” could potentially bring desertification to the equatorial region of much of the world, possibily turning portions of it into another Empty Quarter. The difference between us and the Bedouin in Rub’ al Khali is we don’t know how to survive in that climate.

Five Easy Steps to Better Security

tl;dr: The five easy steps are: (1) start using a password manager, (2) set a password for your computer and devices, (3) install HTTPS Everywhere, (4) setup two-factor authentication for your important accounts, and (5) install Signal Private Messenger. If you do nothing else, start using a password manager, like LastPass. (2,127 words)

The What

Let’s start by doing the easy steps that can make your computer and phone more secure, right now.

  1. Download Lastpass. If you are not using a password manager, you should be (see below for why). LastPass works on mobile phones and tablets, such as iPhone/iPad and Android. It also works on personal computers, and there is a download page for Macs, PCs and for Linux. Passwords you add on your phone are also available on your computer, and vice versa. If you use all Apple products, the best manager is 1password for your Mac, iPhone, or iPad. However, it costs $2.99 a month for individuals and $4.99 for families to use.
  2. Set a password for your phone and computer. Instructions for setting a password rather than a pin on iPhone are available. In Android, it can vary, but you can search for “lock” (without quotes) in settings to find the Lock screen settings and select password. Most computers have lock screens on by default, but if you need to set it up, instructions on how to turn the lock screen on for a Mac and Windows are available.
  3. Install the HTTPS Everywhere browser extension. This extension is available for three major browsers: Chrome, Firefox or Opera. If you do not currently use one of these browsers, you will need to download one of them to your computer or device using one of these links: Chrome, Firefox, or Opera. Then, install the relevant extension from the links above. If you aren’t sure which browser to use, try Firefox.
  4. Set-up two-factor authentication for your important accounts. Your debit card for your bank account is two factor authentication. You have to have the card and the pin number in order to access your money. You want the same kind of protection for your online accounts. The easiest way to do it is to have a text message sent to your phone that has a six digit code that you use in addition to your password to access your accounts.
  5. Install Signal Private Messenger. Signal is easy to use software for encrypted messages on iPhone or Android. To the person using it, it looks and works no differently from Facebook Messenger, Hangouts, or whatever default messaging app that’s already on your phone.

The How & Why

Knowing what you should be doing to keep your information safe online can be hard. It’s work. It can be complicated. It means changing the way you do things. The goal of this essay is to talk about five easy changes that everyone should consider doing, explain why as simply as possible, and point you to the tools and techniques you will need to get off to a good start.

1. Download LastPass

The most important change you can make to improve your online security is to start using a password manager. People are bad at creating passwords. We are bad at remembering them. We also tend to reuse them. With a password manager, you only have to remember one password, i.e., the master password. The good news is that there is a technique for creating a secure master password called Diceware that takes less than 10 minutes. Here’s how:

Take a six-sided dice, and roll it five times. I rolled a five, five, five, one, and a one. You then take the number 55511, download a Diceware wordlist, open it and look up the number. (If the wordlist doesn’t display correctly, open it in Word or WordPad.) The word corresponding to 55511 in the linked wordlist is “splendor”. You then repeat the process six times to get six words. At the end, you’ll have a strong password like “splendor applicant gooey attentive composite cramp” (without the quotes). You’ll have to write down your password initially, but eventually, you’ll just remember it.

Once you have a good master password, then you can use it to create an account and log into LastPass. Then, you can start the time-consuming part, changing the passwords on all your online accounts using LastPass. LastPass uses an algorithm to create unique strong passwords for every site you use. It then stores them in an encrypted database, so it is only available to you. If you are logged into LastPass, then it will automatically paste your login information into the login page and enter the website. Start with your most important passwords. It can be hard to remember all the accounts you have made over the years, so you can look for saved passwords in your browser, reset emails in your email, and other ways to try to get them all. Expect the process to take a few weeks, if you do a few every day.

Note: Instead of giving correct answers to security questions like, “What was make of your first car?”, consider answering them incorrecly or input additional passwords and put the answers in the Notes field for that account in your password manager. This makes it more difficult for criminals to reset your password on your account using online account recovery or by calling customer service, if they know personal details about you.

2. Set a password for your phone and computer

If LastPass is open in your computer browser or phone app, it means anyone with access to the computer or phone can access every site you use with it. As a good general precaution, you’ll want to make sure that anything that uses LastPass requires a password so that if you misplace your phone or a burglar is in your home, they cannot use LastPass to access your banking account or other online services. You can always logoff and login again with your strong master password for LastPass, but it is often easier just to use the lower level protection of the lock screen that is already on these devices.

3. Install the HTTPS Everywhere browser extension

Some websites you use may still sending your passwords in the clear when you login. It doesn’t matter if you use strong passwords created by a password manager like LastPass, if you are going to show this password to everyone who cares to look when you are connected to a open wifi hotspot at the airport, coffee shop, hotel, hospital, conference, library and so forth when you login. HTTPS Everywhere turns these postcard passwords and puts them in sealed envelopes that only you and the website you are connecting to can read.

Note: If you spend a lot of time using unencrypted connections or want to take the concept of HTTPS Everywhere to the next level, consider using a VPN. ExpressVPN is a good example. It costs about $100/year. Discussing VPNs is beyond the scope of this essay, but a look at the link above can explain why you might want to use one.

4. Set-up two-factor authentication for your important accounts

Like setting the lock screen, two-factor (or multi-factor) authentication provides an additional layer of security. With two-factor authentication set-up, you login normally. Once the website receives a good username and password combination, it then asks for an additional (usually six digit) code. The two most common ways of getting the code is either through a text message to your phone or in an phone app like Google’s Authenticator. If someone were to get your password using an email phishing attack, say a website that looks like your bank but is a criminal’s website where you were fooled and put in your password, they would still need the second factor from your phone to access your account. Additionally, two-factor authentication can warn you that there is a problem. If you receive text messages from a service you are not trying to logon to but has two-factor authentication, it might be an indication that someone has access to your password information that shouldn’t.

Note: Reading the EFF’s tutorial, “How to Avoid Phishing Attacks” is a good point to start, if the idea of “phishing” is new to you.

5. Install Signal Private Messenger

Just as we use HTTPS Everywhere to preventing passwords from being shared “in the clear” over wifi networks, Signal does the same thing for text messages. Text messages over a phone network can be read by anyone. For example, if a criminal sets up a device that mimics the behavior of a cell phone tower, your phone might connect to it, and any data passed through that connection will be readable by that criminal. Chat services like Facebook’s Messenger and Google’s Hangout’s also read the contents of your messages in order to serve advertising to you. Using Signal Private Messenger ensures that the only people that can read a message are the sender and the recipient.

Going Further

If you have implemented the above changes, congratulations! You have significantly improved your online security. Since these steps were relatively easy, what else can you do?

The problem with security measures is that few things apply to everyone, and there are always trade-offs. Which trade-offs are worth making is a subjective judgment call. A few examples:

Browser extensions: There are many browser extensions that provide some measure of protection from malacious computer programs, advertising and third-party tracking online, such as NoScript, Privacy Badger, uBlock and others. While each extension is easy to install and use, it means sometimes a website will not work as you expect, and you may need to change some settings in your extensions in order to have a website display correctly. Do you need all three? Are you willing to figure out which extension is causing a page to not load the way you want? People’s tolerance for working through these kinds of issues differ.

Secure email: Are you comfortable with a service like Yahoo scanning your Yahoo email on behalf of the NSA? Is it worth it to start using Thunderbird with Enigmail with Yahoo? (Probably not.) Or what about paying $50/year for “secure” email services like Kolab, Countermail, or Protonmail? Even people that work in the software security industry have opinions for and against trying to secure email. Signal, which we installed above, is so easy to use. Why not just use it? Good question.

Encrypted files: Or, perhaps you have digital documents — such as an electronic college transcript, financial documents, medical information or a last will & testament. Do you need to protect that information from being stolen or being targeted by ransomware? What security measures do you want to take? Is a low tech solution like keeping these files on a separate USB drive enough? Do you want to use some type of encryption mechanism such as whole disk encryption available through Bitlocker on Windows, FileVault on Mac, or the device encryption options for iPhone and Android? The problem with full disk encryption is that maybe you’ll have a hard-drive failure and you won’t be able to recover the encrypted drive, which means you have to keep it in multiple locations and maybe use an encrypted storage service like SpiderOak, Seafile or use a standard cloud drive like Google Drive, Dropbox, Microsoft’s OneDrive, etc. in combination with something like LibreCrypt software in order to have encrypted data and the backups necessary to make sure you won’t lose your information. There’s no one right answer for everyone, but moving beyond putting files on a USB drive gets complicated, real quick.

For those concerned about survelliance, the EFF has a great guide called Surveillance Self Defense that discusses security concepts (e.g., threat profiles), software tools (such as PGP/GPG, VPNs, Tor, ChatSecure and so forth), and tutorials (like the one on Phishing mentioned above) that can help you better understand security concepts and trade-offs. Other sites like Prism Break can also offer software suggestions worth some consideration.

There are many options available, depending on your personal needs and concerns. While the many options can be overwhelming, taking small concrete steps, like we have done here, can make you much less likely to be a target for criminals online. The old saying is that security is a process. You cannot prevent everything, but it is prudent to do the small things that help prevent the most common problems.