Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Book Review: Grotta on Tolkien

I wrote a longer draft about the Tolkien biography I finished reading recently, Daniel Grotta's J. R. R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle-Earth (1978 ed.), but this excerpt is what I will share:

Here's a quote from Tolkien that surprised me (p. 105):

"If you really come down to any really large story that interests people and holds their attention for a considerable time, it is practically always a human story, and it is practically [always] about one thing all the time: death. The inevitability of death. Simone de Beauvoir once said that there is no such thing as a 'natural' death. Nothing that ever happens to man is ever natural. And his presence calls the whole world into question. All men must die, but for every man his death is an accident, and even if he knows it ... an unjustifiable violation. You may agree with these words or not, but those are the keyspring of The Lord of the Rings

I would have guessed that the Lord of the Rings had nothing to do with death. Some characters die -- but characters must always die. I wouldn't guess most of the youthful fans of Tolkien found LOTR to be so existential. If I had guessed, before reading the quote, as to what LOTR is about, it is about how a story can get into you and take you somewhere else -- as though everything is a story.

Another surprising quote from Tolkien (p. 123):

"I know that one interviewer explained it: It is written by a man who has never reached puberty and knows nothing about women but as a schoolboy, and all the good characters come home like happy boys, safe from the war. I thought it was very rude -- so far as I know, the man is childless -- writing about a man surrounded by children, wife, daughter, granddaughter. Still, that's equally untrue, isn't it, because it isn't a happy story. One friend of mine said he only read it at Lent because it was so hard and bitter."

This reminds me of criticisms of the Book of Job's framing story. "How cheap! He gets it all back in the end." But Job never gets his first set of children back. The Bible can be dry and sort of laconic, you can miss the details. Similarly, it seems, with The Lord of the Rings. Somehow Tolkien and at least one person he knew (maybe someone closer to his generation?) saw the death in a fairy story, and we are the ones who can't see it.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Trustworthiness is Potential Simplicity

Potential simplicity is the ability to store up the ability to simplify one's life (reduce consumption), in advance of needing to. Trustworthiness is proposed as a source of potential simplicity.

Trustworthiness is Potential Simplicity

Degrowth: intentionally shrinking the economy. Overall, everyone consumes less and works less.There are different reasons why we might want to make this happen. We can live simpler lives. We can have more time to think, walk, socialize, sleep, pray, listen to music, stare at the wall, meditate -- anything time-consuming but not resource-intensive. Also, we can impose less of a burden on Earth: less soil depletion, species extinction, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and so on -- all of which affect how much we and our descendants have to suffer, and how likely we can survive as a civilization -- maybe even as a species.

How can we consume less as a society? To an extent, we can blame the rich. They do consume more than poorer people. But both rich and poor have to consume less. And we all have to consume less of the things that make our personal lives function. Everyone needs to eat, most everyone needs some kind of shelter sometimes, most everyone needs to get around, and there are a few other basic needs. We have to shift our basic needs from expensive versions of them, to inexpensive ones. The poor in the United States, for instance, make less than $12,480 a year (the official poverty line). $12,480 is a huge amount of money compared to what the poorest in some other countries make (closer to $500 a year). Poverty is expensive in the US.

So everyone in the US, on average, has to consume less, pay out of their food, housing, transportation. Somehow this is possible -- people in other parts of the world already do it.

It's possible to crash the economy by the average person consuming too little, too suddenly. So rather than suggest that everyone simplify their lives (no more restaurants, suburban houses, or minivans; everyone switch to peanut butter and white bread, SROs, and bus-riding), I think it safer for now to encourage everyone (as many as possible), to increase their potential to simplify.

How would this work? One way is to explore simpler lifestyles so that they seem less psychologically daunting. Take it one element at a time, and go back to full consumption whenever you want to try a different element. If society is comfortable with simplification, we will have more political will available if there's ever a time we can simplify all together, at once, in an economically safe way.

(If you really like a simpler lifestyle, you can spend what you save from simplicity on charities, such as those that alleviate poverty in developing countries. I am not an economist, but I think in our global economy, if the charity spends the money, or gives away the money, in some part of the world, global spending will remain the same as if you spend at home, and the global economy will have as much cash flowing through it as it's already balanced to function with.)

Another approach is to amass any kind of non-economic wealth that can help out economically. One example is given here, which I will call "potential simplicity". An object in motion can run into things and cause a scene, and can have a lot of kinetic energy. An object at rest, doing nothing visible may, depending on its position, can have a lot of potential energy. The economy is a somewhat delicate system that can't handle too many wild or sudden energies. But potential economic energy, in the form of potential simplicity, for instance, shouldn't be a problem, and can be built up with gusto. Here's an example of potential simplicity related to housing:

When you pay $800 for a room in a house, what are you paying for? Some of that money goes to maintain the house itself. But a lot of it goes to some property owner, and they spend it on food, housing, cars, etc, and who knows what else. Well, what are they doing for you, the renter? You can maintain the house itself without paying them.

Who builds houses in the first place? People with money. So they would only do this act if they thought they could get their money back through rent. So built into the housing market is the cost of building new houses. If an area is easy to build in, housing prices are lower. If people want to live somewhere badly enough, developers will find some expensive way to accommodate that desire.

In my neighborhood, there are some apartment buildings, and some tract houses, built long ago when the area was the edge of town. Because rent in San Diego is going up (or perhaps partly for other reasons), gradually these tract houses are being converted to rental properties.

The rental properties (I would guess) use each of their available bedrooms, or close to that level of occupancy. But the tract houses can easily have fewer than one person per bedroom. San Diego has high rent due to lack of supply relative to demand, but could accommodate its current demand at a lower price, and build fewer new units (use less energy, fewer material resources) if tract house occupants used all of their rooms.

Why would anyone buy a house and not use all its bedrooms? Sometimes people use bedrooms for purposes other than living quarters. A home office or gym, for instance. Can these uses be converted to housing people? If the value of a room is $800 a month (about what it can be in my city), then it might be worth finding a way to make alternative uses of the space. Being a regular at a coffeeshop ($150 a month) (or just working in a different part of your own home) could replace a home office, and a gym membership could be less than $100 a month.

Another reason is that people bought a house when their children were young, and the children have "left the nest" and now they don't want to move. In this case, they do not rent for different reasons, some of them being that they haven't thought of it, and also, importantly, that people aren't always trustworthy and wouldn't make good tenants. It's not worth saving some money if you go crazy or get taken advantage of.

"Trustworthiness" can be reckoned different ways. (Consider the hierarchy of betrayal). If you have to live with someone day in and day out for years, you might not be able to bear issues that you could pass over for a week or two.

As people age, they tend to get isolated. So what if, as you are in your twenties, thirties, and forties, you invest in relationships with people with whom you could share your house when you are in your retirement years? This would be a way to store up potential simplicity.

So far I've only talked about the gains that could come from using all bedrooms as single bedrooms, rather than for other uses. But some people share bedrooms, usually cohabiting couples or spouses, or siblings, but in principle, any two sufficiently compatible people could share a room. The potential gains in space from this cultural innovation (or re-discovery) would enable San Diego to house something less than twice as many people without building any new units. Judging from my bedroom, two people like me (I don't have too much stuff) could share a ~11x13-foot space with a certain amount of inconvenience / adjustment. One adjustment would be to coordinate sleep schedules and times to have the room to oneself. This would be workable, if the other person were trustworthy.

There are two angles to this problem of finding trustworthy people: finding people who work for you, and making yourself someone who works for more other people. There are parallels with dating. Fortunately, the two pursuits overlap a lot, so that energy spent in one area has a return in the other. One would pursue friendships, learning what kind of people work and what kind don't, turning away from the aspects in you that do not respect other people, learning to forgive, accepting back people who can be trusted and moving on from people who can't, learning to not be addicted to people but instead being in some sense emotionally independent.

Some attention needs to be paid to the art of living with other people, and developing attitudes of the heart specifically optimal for living with other people, overcoming bad habits that don't come up when you have more space. Not as much as in a marriage, because these rooming or housing partnerships don't have to be as long-term or as personally involved, but comparable.

A group house of four or eight people has different dynamics than a studio apartment shared by two people. So it is good for some people to learn how to spend time together and manage common resources as a group.

In order to pursue friendships, one would seek groups of people from which to find friends. One might also develop the life path of being quiet and not needing as much human connection, to share a house or a room with someone like that. Trustworthiness varies -- as far as humans are concerned, only consists of not betraying some other person and society at large.

Trustworthiness is both a trueness of heart, inner strength, and a learned skill. People call some people "real, deep, legit" -- such is good material for trustworthiness.

Interpersonal trustworthiness, directed toward shared housing, can be an economic and environmental asset. Fortunately, it's a value shared both by the left and the right. Also, it's a value that pays dividends to individuals even if society as a whole does not commit to the norm of shared housing. It can be extended piecemeal. The poverty of the materially rich is isolation and broken relationships, and the poverty of the materially poor can include these as well -- a message that can be profitably heard by people from all different socioeconomic groupings. As it is a potential for economic change and not a direct economic change, it may be able to pass under the radar of the forces that try to constrain individual spiritual lives to patterns which preserve the economic or political status quo (which is both oppressive and fragile and could fall apart).

I have focused on housing so far, but how does this affect transportation? Probably the "cleanest" solution to transportation problems is to find ways to locate people closer to their jobs or anything else they travel to regularly. People who know and trust more people have more choices of where to live with other people, allowing them to move closer to work. It would probably make sense to create "company town" type scenarios (cluster complementary workplaces in neighborhoods where their workers and support personnel live). This involves a certain amount of uprooting and rerooting of people, which is easier if people have strong relational ties with those they live with, overall emotional bases, and a greater ability to get along with strangers, and improved by working on trustworthiness.

What about food? The spread of vegetarianism and veganism is a low-hanging fruit, but we may still need to eat less per person. How can we deal with constant hunger? To some extent, we can adjust to it, get to where we don't need as many calories. But to a certain extent, it will never comfortable. How can we get through mass discomfort? The skills of patience (endurance and waiting) are improved by trustworthiness toward others, as well as having a good relationship with yourself. When you relate well to yourself, you can tell yourself "no" and believe yourself when you promise yourself that things will be better in the future, when you will get what you desire. (Much of what we seek from other people in relationships, and what we get from the process of increasing trustworthiness overall, is really about our relationships with ourselves.)

There are other basic needs, which should be considered in more detail elsewhere. In general, it is easier to consume less of a resource if you have some compensating factor, a rich relationship, a lack of abusiveness in your life.

When a certain number of people are ready to simplify, a regulatory body (probably a government) can put out advertisements encouraging people to cut back on their consumption, for instance by moving into their friends' houses to free up housing. We will all know what's going on and be able to plan for the decrease in housing construction as a society, or whatever other consequence comes from simplification.

This article has been mostly written with those on the left in mind, more secular people, or religious believers with some degree of sympathy with secular culture, or at least those accustomed to it. But the basics of this article are valid and obligatory for those on the Christian right as well. (My sympathies lie with them as well as with those on the left.) How so?

Perhaps what follows will seem like something out of left field to secular readers, but it's important to remember that the world we all share is large and contains many different points of view.

Sin is that which God finds unacceptable. God does not like it when we do not respect him, or other people. Much of what is considered sin falls under that category of disrespect. God does not want us to sin. So if we are in tune with God, we will sin less. Are we ready to be in the Kingdom? Or are we holding on to sin? I like the motto of this site: "Overcome Sin, for the Kingdom of Jesus Christ is Coming Soon". Maybe the end will come through climate change, or maybe not. People have thought the world was ending before and been wrong. Maybe the world is ending in a year. There's a lot we don't know, but the Kingdom is coming soon, and so, overcome sin.

It's the Christian's task to build up the Church, which often means, building up a particular local congregation. "They will know that we are Christians by our love" -- "Let love be genuine" -- so relationships within churches need to be strong and not abusive, characterized by respect. This is a good in itself, but can also connect to surviving on Earth in difficult times. Even if climate change is a left-wing hoax, building up trustworthiness is a good idea.

Simplicity is a Christian value. You can't serve both God and Mammon (possessions). You can have possessions without serving them in your heart, but if have more than you need and are unwilling to give them up to honor God, then you are serving them. Forget about degrowth. That's a secular agenda. Be simple for Christian reasons.

So, many different kinds of people can see the use of simplicity and trustworthiness which feeds into it. Therefore, potential simplicity (and then simplicity itself) could actually be adopted as a mass value and put into practice. In 50 years, or 20, (or sooner?), policymakers could use this resource to lower rents and cut greenhouse gas emissions. And Christians could be closer to God. And for more pessimistic minds, trustworthiness and relational wealth, and the ability to live with less, are a good thing for everyone to develop, in the event of societal collapse.

Empathy of the Image of Suffering

I'm reading a biography of J. R. R. Tolkien. He fought in World War I. There's a description of trench warfare in the book: no sleep, cold, wet, people froze to death, had lice, got diseases, and when they tried to fight, mostly they just got killed, and there was chemical warfare. Tolkien lost all but two of his childhood and college friends to the war.

Tolkien was scarred by the war, but went on to be a father and husband, write books, have a career. Reading the description of World War I, I had a feeling of "how could a person live through that?" But I think I was getting caught up in the image of hardship and suffering, rather than the reality. I don't know what trench warfare is like from personal experience, so instead I imagine the way it is. To actually go through it is to have to live through it, you're living through it, you can live through it (although not everyone survived). Death is something you live through when it comes, you're living through it, in a sense you can live through it, it is something you can bear when it comes.

One of the failure modes of empathy is when it becomes about the image of someone else's suffering or hardship rather than the reality. The person who is living through it can get through it, or even die from it in an acceptable way, but the person on the side fears for them, feels pity for them, feels discouragement for them, based on the image. Cowardice or lack of self-confidence, self-pity, and a spirit of depression make it harder for a person to live through their real suffering and hardship, and can be communicated from the "empathy of the image" person to the person actually suffering.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Orthogonal to History

"King Emeric's gift has thus played an important role in enabling us to live the monastic life, and it is a fitting sign of gratitude that we have been offering the Holy Sacrifice for him annually for the past 815 years."


I saw this on Twitter and wanted to retweet it, as a strange orthogonality to the mindset of climate activism. Are the monks bad for not caring about climate change (assuming from this one tweet that they do not)? Can they be allowed to look at time so differently?

In a sense, the monks are much more connected with history, with past events. But there's another sense of "history", that of "the cumulative development of human civilization or decline, worked out in world affairs". The monks (from this one tweet) seem to be very disconnected from the latter kind of history. To clarify, we could say that the monks are connected to the past, but not to history.

I think about my own writing, which is often about what I know: interpersonal relationships and the inner life. I'm not quite as detached from history as the monks appear to be, but aren't there bigger things to worry about than trust and trustworthiness, sensitivity and being true-hearted? In the short run, probably, in a way. In times of war, you have to fight. But we lose wars because of the times of peace before them. And whole generations grow up and die in the midst of the end of the world. The end of the world has been on the table, in a way, from 1939 to the present. "All times are now": we live part of our lives in the long-term life, or even the post-scarcity life, and this informs how we are overall. Children grow up without being aware of the end of the world and how it's ending right now, and how they grow up affects how they participate in history later in life.

To an extent, the long-term view of life is a self-fulfilling prophecy, just as the short-term view of life is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

None of the above assumes that the monks are right about there being such a thing as eternal life. If you are connected to the eternal, you can be orthogonal to history. History is about how human desires provoke a reaction from other humans, based on their desires. Or how human fears react to situations, producing new situations. Maybe it's too late for orthogonality to save us from history, but perhaps we have only made it this far because of it.

Orthogonal, Acute, Oblique

Angry and Welcoming are opposites, point away from each other, like negative infinity and positive infinity on a number line. Hungry is orthogonal, is at right angles to that number line.

But Hunger is in some ways like Anger. So maybe it is "at angles" to Anger, like a line making an acute angle with the "number line" from Welcoming to Angry.

Then it is "oblique" to Welcoming.

But Hunger is a humbling feeling and can cause people to open themselves to other people in order to get food. In that case, Hungry could be at angles to or acute to Welcoming. So then, overall, Hungry is orthogonal to Angry and Welcoming. It favors both opposites in different circumstances and is also something distinct from both.

Hungry, then, is not purely orthogonal to Angry and Welcoming. Something purely orthogonal might be ... not easy to find. Maybe Symmetrical comes close (someone who is symmetrical (as much as humans are) doesn't find that symmetricalness affecting their Anger or Welcomingness).

Bridging the Abyss, Breaking the Gravity

One of my favorite passages from The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin is as follows (p. 322 in the Harper / Voyager edition, thanks to this site for making it easy to find online):

Takver woke at dawn. She leaned on her elbow and looked across Shevek at the gray square of the window, and then at him. He lay on his back, breathing so quietly that his chest scarcely moved, his face thrown back a little, remote and stern in the thin light. We came, Takver thought, from a great distance to each other. We have always done so. Over great distances, over years, over abysses of chance. It is because he comes from so far away that nothing can separate us. Nothing, no distances, no years, can be greater than the distance that's already between us, the difference of our sex, the difference of our being, our minds; that gap, that abyss which we bridge with a look, with a touch, with a word, the easiest thing in the world. Look how far away he is, asleep. Look how far away he is, he always is. But he comes back, he comes back, he comes back...

This passage can be used to talk about phenomena which are both impossible and easy.

As a counterpoint, consider a powerful gravity, an inevitability, which can be broken by simply turning the head to look the other way.

"All Times Are Now"

Someone I know observed that in Africa, every stage of development exists at once. There are traditional cultures in the Congo Basin, artisanal gold miners in Mali, all the way to technology start-ups in Rwanda and South Africa.

We don't have as much range in the developed world, but we do have, for instance, both scarcity-based and post-scarcity lifestyles. Many people have to work to live -- scarcity. Some people are NEETs: Not in Employment, Education, or Training, and effectively, they're living in the post-scarcity world. When a scarcity person gets off work, they no longer live in the world of scarcity as much, may be able to disconnect themselves from concerns like climate change or global poverty -- not as much living in the world of scarcity.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Betrayal Machines

A betrayal machine: people are put together as betrayal machines. There's some component which causes you to trust them. And then there's a payload of betrayal that gets you when your defenses are down.

Your defenses can be lowered by good aspects of other people as well as their defense-lowering tactics. People can prove trustworthy on lower levels of the hierarchy of betrayal only to betray on higher ones.

The payload of betrayal might be a hatred only known to the betrayer, or perhaps some tendency unknown to them. To take a not-so-emotional example, if your arm spasms and jerks out, you could strike someone by mistake. This ongoing spasm goes with you wherever you go, as though you were possessed by a demon. Often enough, the spasming-arm is an emotion. If you are a person with a "spasming arm", on some level you're always aware of it during or immediately after the motion, but on another level, you might not be, for having become so used to its random or irregular re-occurrence.

[See also Inherent Danger of Trustworthiness.]

The Hierarchy of Betrayal

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is familiar. It can be depicted using a pyramid. On the bottom of the pyramid are needs like food, sleep, sex, and temperature regulation. Next up there are social needs and emotional needs. When we have satisfied the lower needs, we can then worry about and try to satisfy the needs the next level up.

Perhaps the need to be loved can sometimes be at the very bottom of the pyramid, and sex can be a level up -- "no one died from not having sex", some say, while babies that are emotionally neglected fail to thrive. I think Maslow may have meant not that we really need sex but that if we don't satisfy that need, it's all we think about until we do, thus it is a subjective need, if not really an objective need. Maslow put "self-actualization" as the top need of the pyramid, to be sought when all others have been satisfied, but perhaps there is even something higher.

The "Hierarchy of Betrayal" works like this: when someone is trustworthy with the more basic things, they can then betray you on deeper, higher-on-the-pyramid ways. The glowering person in the street might stab you, but won't break your heart, and only a real sweetheart can gradually lead you away from your deepest values.