Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Retrotopia: You See It Is Not So

This is the nineteenth installment* of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator apologizes for an almost-quarrel, spends an evening on the town, and gets a sudden insight into the nature of the Lakeland Republic’s achievement from a seemingly unlikely source...

*(The actual nineteenth; the last one was misnumbered.)
I felt a little worse for wear the next morning, but not too bad, and so when the alarm on the wind-up clock next to the bed went off at eight-thirty I mumbled something unprintable and got up. It was Sunday, of course, and I planned to go to the Atheist Assembly again, so I got to work making myself presentable. My electric razor did its usual halfhearted job on my stubble, and I shook my head and wondered what men used in the Lakeland Republic to keep their chins smooth when they didn’t let the barber take care of it. Probably some antique technology that works better than ours, I thought sourly.

To say I was in a rotten mood was a bit of an understatement, but it was my own doing. I’d decided on the cab ride back from the Harbor Club that I needed to call Melanie Berger sometime the next day and apologize. That’s not something I enjoy at all, and I also knew perfectly well that it might be wasted effort, but there it was. Partly, the professional in me wasn’t willing to lose a useful contact in the Lakeland government just because the two of us had both been too tired to be tactful; partly I felt  embarrassed that I’d handled the whole thing so clumsily, and partly there was the chemistry I’d sensed between the two of us. There may have been more than that, too, but that was enough.

So I’d decided to call her early in the afternoon, after I got back from Assembly and had lunch. I was brooding over that while I shaved and showered and got dressed, and I was still brooding over it at nine-fifteen as I got my tie settled. Just then the phone rang, and wouldn’t you know it, it was none other than Melanie Berger.

“Peter? I hope I’m not calling too early.”

“Not a bit,” I said. “I was just getting ready to go to Assembly. What’s up?”

She paused for a moment, in exactly the way I would have, and said, “I wanted to apologize for the way things went Friday night.”

“I was going to call you later today and say the same thing,” I told her.  A moment of silence passed, and then we both started talking at the same time; we both stopped, and then she laughed, and so did I.

“Okay,” I said, still laughing. “I’ll gladly accept your apology if you’ll accept mine. Deal?”

“Deal,” said Melanie. “The thing is, I’d like to make it up to you. Are you free this evening?”

“Sure.” That sounded promising.  “What do you have in mind?”

“You mentioned that you’d wanted to see the Toledo Opera production of Parsifal. Jaya and Ramaraj Patel have season tickets, and I heard from them last night—they both came down with the same flu you got, and they’re not going anywhere tonight—so I thought I’d find out if I could interest you in a night at the opera.”

“I’d be delighted,” I said, “on one condition.”


“That you let me take you out to dinner first.”

“You’re on,” she said. We got the details sorted out and said goodbye, and I got out of the room and down to the street just in time to catch the streetcar to the Capitol Atheist Assembly.

The meeting was pleasant but not particularly memorable, though Sam Capoferro was up to his usual standard on the piano, playing Handel and Bach with understated elegance, and everyone I met greeted me as though I was already an old friend. The reading was a rousing bit of Bertrand Russell, and the talk was about telling the difference between reason and the habits of thought that people confuse with reason, which was edgier than anything I’d heard in the Philadelphia Assembly for a good long time. Afterwards we sat around in the social hall over coffee and cookies, and talked.

The tensions between Texas and the Confederacy got a good share of the talk, and I listened closely when Senator Chenkin sketched out the situation to a couple of friends who hadn’t been following it closely. “Both countries would go broke without the income from their petroleum industries,” she said, “and they’ve both had production declines for the last half dozen years, so neither side is in any position to back down. This could get really bad.”

“How bad?” one of her friends asked her. She didn’t answer, just shook her head, but I could see the answer in her eyes, and it wasn’t anything I wanted to think about.

So I filed that away and caught the streetcar back to the hotel not long thereafter. Once I was there I talked to the concierge about what you wear to an opera in the Lakeland Republic—I’d wondered whether they’d gone back to opera capes and top hats, and was relieved to find out that ordinary evening wear would do—and then went out to see if the barber I’d visited my first day in Toledo had Sunday hours. Fortunately he did, and he was just finishing up a shave and trim on another customer when I got there. When it was my turn, he greeted me effusively and said, “You got a special evening planned, I bet,” and laughed when I asked him how he’d guessed. “Of course you do.  Any guy comes in here midway through a weekend day for a shave and trim, dollars’ll get you doughnuts that’s what’s on the schedule. Don’t you worry, I’ll get your face smoother than a baby’s butt.”

He did, too. I left there looking ready for an evening out. A pleasant lunch in the hotel café, a talk with the concierge about restaurants, and a couple of leisurely hours reading the Sunday paper and getting caught up on the news: that filled the rest of the time before I caught a cab over to Melanie Berger’s, picked her up, and headed for a top-end restaurant not quite two blocks from the Toledo opera house.

We had a great time. The food was really good and the wine was better, and both of us had the common sense to keep the conversation well away from progress or anything related to it. Of course we talked about politics—get two people who work in any line of business together, even for a social evening, and they’re going to talk shop—but that wasn’t the only subject of conversation by a long shot. One of the others was the performance we were about to take in. The Toledo Opera had a homegrown bass, a young guy named Michael Bickerstaff, who would be singing the part of Gurnemanz.  He’d done a stellar job the year before in his first major role as Sarastro in The Magic Flute, but of course Wagner’s much harder on singers than Mozart ever dreamed of being.

“They say he’s really good,” Melanie said. “Good enough that a couple of European opera companies are interested in him, and some people here are talking about what kind of a Wotan he’d make.”

That impressed me. “Are they planning on doing the Ring cycle here?”

“Jaya tells me there’s been some tentative discussions with the Minneapolis Opera about a joint production,” she said. “They’ve got some really solid singers—tonight’s Kundry is one of theirs.”

Dinner wound down pleasantly, and in due time we headed for the opera house.  Like most of Toledo, it was new construction but old-fashioned design, with a spacious lobby and comfortable seats. Ours were about halfway toward the left wall on the first balcony. We got settled, and of course then had to stand up a couple of times while latecomers made their apologies and edged past to their own seats. Our conversation wound up, the lights went down, the conductor got up on his podium and the first bars of the Prelude sounded in the dim light.

When the curtains slid open, I admit I braced myself. In Wagner’s operas, there’s really only room for one monumental ego, and it’s his, but you get directors who don’t get that and try to make a production original by pulling some visual stunt or other. I’ve seen Wagnerian operas where all the singers were in Old West outfits, or superhero costumes, or bulbous yellow things that made them look like a flock of rubber duckies—I never did find out what those were supposed to be about. Apparently the Toledo Opera had managed to escape that bad habit. The set was abstract to the point of starkness, with fabric veils and shafts of light providing most of the decor; you could tell the designer had taken a close and thoughtful look at Bayreuth productions from the middle of the last century. The costumes looked more or less the way you’d expect a bunch of Grail Knights to look, which was a pleasant surprise.

Then Gurnemanz got up from under the abstract tree where he’d supposedly been sleeping, and broke into his first lines—He, ho, Waldhüter ihr!—and I knew right away that we were in for a treat.

Most of the singers were, in the strict sense of the word, second-rate: one notch below first-rate, which is still good enough to enjoy.  The soprano who sang Kundry, Maria Vargas Ruz, was better than that; she didn’t have the absolute purity of tone you need for the most demanding soprano roles, but the role she was singing actually goes better with a little roughness in the voice.

Then there was Michael Bickerstaff. He wasn’t just first-rate, he was world-class, a big barrel-chested young man with one of the best bass voices I’d heard in years. The role of Gurnemanz, the old Grail Knight, is the backbone of Parsifal; a good Gurnemanz can make a mediocre production enjoyable, while an unimpressive one drags like a lead weight on a performance that might otherwise be worth hearing. Bickerstaff was stunningly good; he more or less picked up the show and carried it on his shoulders, and I enjoyed the result tremendously.

The first act flowed past, and the second; Parsifal vanquished the self-castrated sorcerer Klingsor and recovered the Holy Spear; the third act got well under way, and Parsifal, Gurnemanz, and Kundry were on stage, surrounded by a tolerably good suggestion of a field of flowers. The passage that’s called der Karfreitagszauber, the Good Friday Enchantment, started up, Bickerstaff sang Du siehst, das ist nicht so— “You see it is not so”—and that’s when it hit me.

You know how sometimes you can brood over some problem for hours and get nowhere with it, and then when you go do something else for a while and you’re not thinking about it at all, the answer basically downloads itself into your brain? That’s what happened. I’d spent most of the day thinking of just about anything but the paradox Melanie Berger had dropped on me two nights before, and right then I realized that it wasn’t a paradox at all. I managed to drag my attention back to the performance before Bickerstaff was more than a few words further on, and kept the realization I’d just had at arm’s length for the rest of the evening, but it wasn’t going anywhere and I knew it.

Here’s what I figured out. As you might expect, it begins with opera.

These days, nobody listens to twentieth-century opera. That’s not accidental, either—it’s either painfully derivative or it’s impossible to sit through. Once I went to see a revival of one of Benjamin Britten’s pieces, I forget which one, and what I mostly remember was the audience gamely trying to pretend that they were appreciating something that was about as enjoyable as listening to a chorus of dental drills. The standard joke in opera circles these days is that opera companies put on twentieth century works when they’re tired of the inconvenience of performing in front of an audience.

One of my Philadelphia friends, who’s a much more serious opera buff than I’ll ever be, explains it like this. Any art form has a certain amount of notional space to it, and each work done in that space fills up part of it. Before you’ve filled up the space, innovation works more often than not, but after the space is full, innovation just generates noise. That’s why the history of every art gets sorted out into a period of exploration, when you succeed by trying new things, and a period of performance, when you succeed by doing old things very, very well. If you keep on trying to innovate when the notional space is full, the results are either going to be derivative or unbearable, and either way they’re not going to be any good, because the good options have already been taken.

You know that an art is getting close to the edges of its notional space when innovation involves a lot of risk. Wagner was right up against the edges of opera’s notional space, which is why his late operas are so exhilarating—you can watch him tiptoeing right up to the edge of noise and balancing there—but they don’t have the easy grace of operas written a couple of generations before his time. You see the same thing in jazz, starting in the second half of the twentieth century: people like Thelonious Monk and Dave Brubeck were self-consciously testing the boundaries, figuring out just how far they could go without falling over the edge into noise. Another generation or two, and you get the kind of jazz that nobody bothers to play any more, because by and large it’s just pretentious doodling.

The thing is, it’s not just true of art. Nobody’s pushing brand new alphabets any more, because that notional space got filled in a long time ago. Nobody’s inventing new can openers or bathtubs, and nearly all of what passes for innovation these days in cars, say, is just gimmickry aimed at getting the clueless to shell out money. I knew all that, but it never occurred to me that technological progress followed the same trajectory:  it had its period of exploration and then crossed over into its period of performance, but nobody noticed, and so everyone just kept on buying into the latest innovations, even though most of those had fewer benefits and worse downsides than the things they replaced.

I’d missed that completely.  I’d been wandering around the Lakeland Republic, noticing that the way they did things had better outcomes, lower costs, and fewer downsides than the way people do things everywhere else, and I still didn’t get it. It was as though I’d been listening to an opera by Mozart or Verdi and thinking that the poor people in the audience must be feeling horribly deprived because they weren’t getting Benjamin Britten. Du siehst, sang Gurnemanz, das ist nicht so.

Writing it all out like that, it sounds all clear and straightforward. It wasn’t. There was the first sudden realization while Bickerstaff was singing, and then other details—many more than I’ve written out—came dropping into my mind over the next couple of hours. All the while I was mostly paying attention to other things, such as a really solid performance of an opera I love, and the attractive woman I was seeing it with, and certain other things I’ll mention in a moment, and the things I’ve written were tumbling around in the back of my head. It wasn’t until I was in the cab headed back to my hotel the next morning that I finally sat back and let the whole thing come together into a coherent argument. Long before that happened, though, I’d stumbled straight through the door into a different world.

But again, there was an opera to take in. After the final minutes of the music, when it always feels to me as though the opera house has shaken off gravity and gone soaring into the sky; after the applause—we were all on our feet, and when Michael Bickerstaff bowed I’m surprised the roar didn’t cause structural damage to the building; after the house lights came up at last, and people started filing out, Melanie said, “Season tickets get us into the reception, and there’s someone there I’d like you to meet.”

So we filed out and went down a side corridor; Melanie showed our passes to an usher out in front of an unmarked double door, and in we went. The room on the other side was big and airy, with a mural of scenes from famous operas on one wall, and a bank of tables along the other with champagne and finger food. It wasn’t too crowded yet, and I gathered that the person Melanie wanted me to meet hadn’t arrvied, so we got a couple of glasses and sipped bubbly for a few minutes while more people filed in. Finally, when the room was getting good and packed, Melanie led me through the crowd.

“Janice,” she said, “this is Peter Carr, from Philadelphia—one of Ellen Montrose’s people.” With an impish smile: “And a limited partner of yours. Peter, Janice Mikkelson.”

Mikkelson was maybe sixty, with short straight hair the color of steel wool and a pantsuit that looked plain at first glance but probably cost as much as any of the fancy dresses in the room. She gave me an assessing look as we shook hands, and I said, “To the extent of one share of Mikkelson LLC.”

She laughed. “Not exactly a vote of confidence, but I’m pleased to meet you anyway.” I got introduced to her wife Sharon, a gorgeous Asian woman maybe fifteen years her junior, and we stood chatting for a while about the performance. Mikkelson turned to me, then, and said, “Any chance you have time in your schedule to talk? I’m interested in the possibility of doing business in the Atlantic Republic.”

“I can do that,” I said. “Also, if you don’t mind, I’d be interested in getting your perspective on things here in Lakeland.” She nodded, we both checked our notebooks, and scheduled something for Tuesday afternoon. “Come up to my place,” Mikkelson said. “Some drinks, some conversation, some business—I think it’ll be productive.”

We chatted a little more, and then moved on in the usual way. Not much later Melanie and I were on our way down the long ramp to the lobby and then out to the street, where cabs lined up waiting for easy fares. We took one to her place, a brick row house a dozen blocks from the Capitol, and I walked her to her door. I had a pretty good idea by then of how the evening was going to end, and so it wasn’t any kind of surprise when she gave me the kind of raised-eyebrow smile that means exactly one thing. I went to pay the cab fare, came back to her, took her hand and followed her inside.

In other fiction-related news, the anthology of deindustrial-SF stories set in the future outlined in my novel Star’s Reach is finally, after an unconscionable delay, coming together. I’d like to ask everyone who submitted a story to that project to visit the Meriga Project website—I’ve got a new post up and need some data from contributors. Many thanks!


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William said...

I love it! This is great! (the whole series, but what a way to bring it together)!

Dan said...

As I was reading about the Texas-Confederacy stand-off, I started wondering what happened to the US nuclear arsenal.

Thomas Daulton said...

Not a comment on Retrotopia, but JMG discussed awhile back about how middle-class liberalism is on an eternal quest to rid the world of evil, but the source of evil can never be identified as a consequence of middle-class liberalism. I pointed out one trivial exception to prove JMG's rule, and now I'm happy to point out a second one, by a more famous author this time, Thomas Frank (of "What's the Matter with Kansas?" fame). When Thomas Frank discusses the Trump phenomenon, it almost looks like he has been reading JMG!

Tom Schmidt said...

Wow! It's nice to know that the transformative power of Wilhelm Richard Wagner survives even the collapse of industrial society.

A story: I love and model much of my professional life on Wagner's Die Meistersinger Von Nürnberg, the opera that is the first one played when the Germans open a new opera house these days. It was written as an overtly nationalistic paen to the Germany that Bismarck was then uniting. The interesting thing is how well my students, from five continents, reacted to it when I held my last class at the Metropolitan Opera. The struggle of young against old rules; the bureaucrat; the good daughter who will do her father's will though it might break her heart, and his; the battle of elites and common folk; and overseeing it all, the world-wise cobbler poet who knows each persons heart and desires, and somehow makes it all work in the end, but only after money and arms have yielded to the true master of the world, Art.

Wagner creates living canvases, that both reflected the people of the time of composition, and also show us today who we are. His music and words and plot touched men, women, Africans, Asians, Europeans, North and South americans. As the creator of music drama, he created the film industry. Continual reinvention and renewal is possible with this art form, as Carr so astutely divines. Carr must have had a good teacher, as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger has Wagner who channels Schopenhauer.

Neo Tuxedo said...

technological progress followed the same trajectory: it had its period of exploration and then crossed over into its period of performance, but nobody noticed

I foolishly didn't bookmark it, but an article crossed my Tumblr dashboard a week or two ago that made much the same point. Although they didn't use the terms you use here, the article's writer considers that computing power is apparently still in its period of exploration and doesn't see it ending any time soon.* They acknowledge, however, that computing power is about the only field of commercially sold technology where there's still a significant area of notional space to be explored; for all that Moore's Law still apparently applies to processing power, they admit that it doesn't apply to horsepower.

(* I don't remember that they took into account the limited supply of rare earths and other key materials of computer chips, which is likely to put paid to the period of exploration before it can give way to a period of performance. Assuming it hasn't already done so, which, given the way Microsoft keep trying to get me to upgrade to Windoze 10, is open to debate.)

JimK said...

Clayton Christensen's book Innovator's Dilemma describes a similar process where products evolve into near uselessness.

gwizard43 said...

Ha! Spengler to the rescue! Carr realizes that the diminishing returns Spengler cited in regard to creative endeavors also applies to tech. Well played, JMG, well played...

John Michael Greer said...

William, thank you.

Dan, most of it got turned into fuel for Chinese nuclear power plants, and some of the North American republics kept a dozen or so warheads until the Treaty of Richmond, in which all the signatories agreed to scrap them. (Maintaining them had become a huge economic burden for all concerned -- nuclear warheads aren't cheap to keep in working order.) Thus any potential conflict between the Confederacy and Texas will be fought with conventional weapons.

Thomas, wow. To hear Frank actually pointing out that the Democrats sold out the working class and that liberals have some responsibility for the the immortal words of Ghan-buri-Ghan, "Wind is changing."

Tom, delighted to hear it! Meistersinger's great fun, and of course a great work of music -- and it's nice that Wagner wrote one opera in which the female lead is still alive when the third act curtain comes down. ;-) My fave, as you probably guessed, is Parsifal, with the Ring tetralogy a close second. One of these days, if I ever decide to risk something that will leave most of my readers scratching their heads in boredom and perplexity, I may do a series about the Ring and Parsifal -- which to my mind form a single five-opera sequence, with the symbols and philosophical issues of the Ring finally transformed and resolved in Parsifal -- as a way of thinking about the whole trajectory of Western civilization from the last set of Dark Ages to the next one.

Neo, good! Peak Microsoft, to my mind, happened sometime around Windows 98, and since then the downsides have mounted as the benefits have declined. The fact that they can't even give Windows 10 away for free, because it has so many problems, is a really good marker of the arrival of the point of negative returns...

JimK, thanks for the tip -- I'll put it on the get-to list.

Gwizard43, thank you!

Sylvia Rissell said...

Mr. Greer, thank you for another enjoyable Retrotopia chapter.

You have missed your opportunity to discuss how the Lakeland Republic handles contraception, which is usually considered a prerequisite for casual sex, although I suppose, in theory, your characters may not be doing anything that will actually swap DNA, and Mr. Carr may have some sort of new Atlantic Republic male contraceptive implant that hasn't been invented yet.

Herbal medicine seems to have a number of 'morning after' formulations, although I have never seen any studies of effectiveness. Maybe Lakeland herbalists have done more research. A metal IUD would require technology similar to jewelry, and person with the tools and skills to insert it, also plausible.

However, I would consider "I have some organically-raised, locally-sourced, artisanal condoms" to be logically equivalent to "I want to be a parent in 9 months."

sgage said...

"I went to pay the cab fare, came back to her, took her hand and followed her inside"

JMG, you rascal! :-)

Another great episode. I definitely agree with the idea of a 'notional space' within an artform, and other domains. Especially in music - it goes from a new form, to 'adaptive radiation' to fill the space, to clearly derivative, to painfully derivative, to noise...

Justin said...

JMG, do you have a recommended version of the Ring and Parsifal? I guess, live performances aside the best way to experience it would be somewhere on the Internet?

Re China, how do you expect they're doing in 2065? I expect that they will still have competent technocratic leaders, but on the other hand their population and environmental problems are surely awful 50 years down the road.

Off topic, although if I were to put money on it, I would have put the odds of Clinton getting off the hook at 1000:1 or more, but nonetheless, now that it has actually happened it feels significant nonetheless. Of course, I suspect that one good reason why she got away with it is that nearly anyone who's anyone in DC or Wall Street is implicated in that mess.

Also, I have to respectfully disagree and say that Win 7 was peak Microsoft. Ironically, Windows 7 is largely just a re-branding of Vista, which two years after it's awkward birth had been patched to the point where it actually worked really well. Of course, it depends on what you use your computer for. I'm considering getting rid of the desktop and replacing it with a single board computer that was surplus to requirements at work... the whole setup can be velcroed to the back of my monitor, which is appealing.

Atilio Baroni Filho said...

Hello JMG!

Funny, that realization was precisely the one I had when reading Ana Karenina for the home assignment, that we are much more similar than not to that late 19th century society. Many things today have more a difference of scale and quantity of energy used than profound differences in how we relate, what we expect and where we are going as a civilization, our worldview so to speak. It was shocking and revealing as it was for Peter, specially because you go right against the myth of progress. I felt frustration at that insight, but why? Because we should have "evolved or progressed" away from all that already? Hm.


nr-cole said...

Neo Tuxedo, how compelling do you find those arguments about computers still being in an age of innovation, points about the availability of rare earth minerals aside? If we're going to try to analogize what's described in this chapter to computers, I'd say we're well into the age of pointless innovation at this point, with people dreaming up new and ridiculous ways to use the things that aren't all that useful. Most "innovations" on the internet these days just seem to make it harder to get the information across or use the tool you're looking for, and most of the physical innovations (internet of things, apple watch) might get used briefly by a handful of people still excited about them but tossed aside. Meanwhile, I've noticed hints of people starting to lock down the core, useful functions of what computers and the internet can provide and figuring out how to do so in the most simple and refined fashion. Recently over on Naked Capitalism there was a discussion of how you might use radio waves to transmit the simplest of webpages for purely communicative purposes. Sounds like performance to me.

W. B. Jorgenson said...

I'd say around the same time as peak Microsoft was also peak computer in general, no? But yes, I like this line of argument, comparing technology to literally everything else is quite good. I can't think of anything that makes it different from everything else, popular claims aside.

Peter VE said...

Another fine chapter. Using opera, or any classical music, as a metaphor for the false roads of the 20th century really rang true. My local institution of higher learning, Brown University, is in the process of installing the sculpture Untitled (Lamp/Bear). A more succinct comment on the decline of the West could hardly be imagined. Once Brown put up a statues of Marcus Aurelius and Julius Caesar, to remind the students that they were at Brown to learn to run the American Empire. What a giant blue teddy bear cloven by a desk lamp means is beyond my understanding, except that the sculptor has a subversive approach to art. So did the Salon des Refuse′s, but that was over 150 years ago.

But ... I recently had the pleasure of seeing Hamilton on Broadway. My immediate response was that Miranda has recreated opera for the new century. The entire work is sung, it's not a series of set piece songs like most musicals. It begins with an overture introducing the main characters. Each main character gets a solo, some rapping, some more traditional R&B. The hero dies at the end, and it finishes with the female lead lamenting his death, and promising to keep him alive by telling his story. If opera can be reborn in the city of dead art, there's hope for the rest of our civilization.

Angus Wallace said...


Great post, and powerful way of presenting the idea.

While I'm sympathetic to the idea of diminishing returns, I think it's more nuanced than that. I think what this post misses are completely new fields.

For example, 20th century opera might have been avant-garde to the point of unlistenability, but most of 20th century jazz was very listenable and only became less-so later. Rock music was around by then, which became less listenable later, and other artistic modalities were on the rise by then.

Similarly, the 20th century also saw the rise of fundamentally new artistic modalities (photography and film), and the 21st century has seen computer games (as art) and potentially will produce other form of art we can't yet imagine.

In other words, the idea of diminishing returns might apply to a particular artistic modality, but I'm unconvinced that it applies to art as a whole.

I feel similarly about science/technology. In the late 19th century it was widely thought that physics was a solved problem and that everything had been worked out. But then came relativity and quantum physics -- completely new scientific modalities that gave huge opportunities for advancement. Now, it is relativity and quantum physics that are reaching diminishing returns, but that does not (necessarily) mean that no new modalities can arise in the future.

Cheers, Angus

patriciaormsby said...

It is so refreshing to immerse myself in Retrotopia, like clear cold water washing off all the sweat and grime of the news world in the previous week. I anticipate the discussion here turning toward that anyway in due course, but do not want to be the one to break the spell and get grimy again. I love your description of the music and discussion of innovation. As an afficianado of the pipe organ, I find most of the recent works to have simply gone too far to be fun listening. Interesting too that one of the innovators of the late 19th to early 20th century (Charles Marie Widor), whose later pieces I like most because he took his earlier innovation and really made the best of it with a lot of meaningful thought and rumination that comes through, is best known for a rousing piece he wrote in his youth and then stuck as a sort of afterthought at the end of his 5th symphony.

Gotta run out and get some sun on these shoulders! But I'll be over soon to see how the Meriga Project turned out.

GawainGregor said...

Outstanding. Thank you

Tye said...

Thank you for an entertaining story. But I would suggest that your description of operatic art as having a "notational space"--or finite limit--corresponds to your own disdain for limits in technological progress. IMO human limits of retrievable energy is a fact, absent some possible but improbable innovation. On the other hand, every age finds their own form of artistic expansion, their Zeitgeist, and when that form is displayed, it's usually perceived as "noise". But that "noise" is often absorbed in time into the culture. So "progress" in art (may I suggest) isn't equivalent to the illusion of progress in your industrial meme.

John Michael Greer said...

Sylvia, effective condoms made of animal gut -- the same substance as the higher-priced condoms today -- were available in the 19th century. Latex condoms are an early 20th century invention. Both of them are well within the industrial capacity of a society that can build locomotives. You're right, of course, about IUDs, and vasectomies were introduced in the early 20th century -- William Butler Yeats went to Switzerland to get one after he and his wife had their two children. So there are plenty of options.

Sgage, heh heh heh. Yes, I had music very much in mind, though there are plenty of other examples.

Justin, I'm very fond of the versions of both conducted by Knappertsbusch, Solti, and Karajan, which are available on CD as well as the internet. Live performance is always a gamble, and Carr's comments about really stupid costuming are inspired by my own highly mixed experience with the Seattle Opera. I haven't given a lot of thought to China -- it doesn't come into the story.

Atilio, hmm indeed!

W.B., I don't have much contact with computer technology in general, fortunately, so I'm probably not the person to ask -- but it wouldn't surprise me at all if we're already well past peak computer, and getting deep into noise.

Peter, I don't know what it is about universities and art -- when I first went to college in 1980, at a mostly forgettable state university in Washington State, the campus was overrun with pretentious slabs of rusting metal that were supposed to be art. There were no teddy bears, though there was a statue that appeared to show a boy having carnal relations with a cougar. The teddy bear would have fit right in. As for Hamilton, one of the ways you can push the boundaries of an art form is by fusing it with another. Rock opera did that, but it turned out to be a very narrow niche; I expect rap opera will yield some brilliant works, but whether it opens up on a larger space is an interesting question.

Angus, have you noticed that each new field that's been discovered within the overarching field of Western science and technology has cost much, much more to explore than the ones before it? Huge advances in physics were made in the 19th century with lab equipment that would be considered inadequate for a middle school today. By comparison, the latest advances in particle physics depend on multibillion-dollar particle accelerators. That's a reflection of the process I was discussing. Your "new fields" are ultimately nothing more than new applications of the same overall approach (that of Western science), and so they run up against the same law of diminishing returns.

Patricia, exactly! The pipe organ has a pretty broad notional space, as instruments go, but composers have been industriously filling it up for centuries, and there isn't much you can do with it that either (a) has been done before or (b) is noise.

GawainGregor, you're most welcome.

Tye, yes, that's the conventional wisdom these days. Obviously I disagree. As for the noise being absorbed into the culture, not generally, no -- far more often, it's abandoned and left to rot, or survives only among little echo-chamber circles of cognoscenti. How many of the loudly proclaimed musical and artistic movements of the first half of the twentieth century, for example, are even remembered today?

James M. Jensen II said...

Any art form has a certain amount of notional space to it, and each work done in that space fills up part of it. Before you’ve filled up the space, innovation works more often than not, but after the space is full, innovation just generates noise. That’s why the history of every art gets sorted out into a period of exploration, when you succeed by trying new things, and a period of performance, when you succeed by doing old things very, very well.

This reminds of a theory I once cooked up about how genres (of music, literature, etc.) develop. There's an initial break with a different genre - like how rock and roll developed out of blues - which is usually the result of a series of small experimental changes reaching a kind of critical mass. I notice now that most the works with those experimental changes are often as not forgotten - they belong equally to the "noise" section of the old genre and the innovation section of the new. The main exceptions are when the old genre is itself still new: many of Led Zeppelin's songs can be appreciated as innovators in the late era of rock and as part of the process that lead to heavy metal defining itself as a distinct genre.

The critical mass brings with it a new set of criteria for what counts as "good": people stop judging the new genre by the old genre's standards. At first, the criteria are vague, allowing for a lot of experimentation, but it starts to clear up as the experiments succeed or fail. However, clarity brings limits: many works that might have been succeeded had they been offered in the earlier days of the genre no longer have a chance once there is a firm sense of what the genre is and isn't about. The performance phase, in your terminology, slowly sets in until there is another break and a new genre is formed.

One area where you can see this in action is in fantasy literature: pretty much all fantasy after Tolkien is different because of the tremendous success that Tolkien brought to the field. For the next several decades, fantasy set in either a non-pseudo-medieval culture or a world without elves and dwarves and wizards and dragons was pretty much unthinkable. There are some notable exceptions, such as Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, which don't have elves or dwarves, but those usually have only humans with maybe one other, minor, race - and they're always pseudo-medieval. It really wasn't until modern fantasy grew out of, I think, a fusion fantasy and modern horror (the latter of which has left a huge stamp on the genre) that there has really been an exploration of anything else.

Yellow Submarine said...

Great stuff. I loved the indirect reference to one of the central points in Oswald Spengler's theory of history. I have been re-reading The Decline of the West in parallel with Toynbee's A Study of History.

I am currently around half-way through Volume IV of A Study of History. While there are points where I sharply disagree with Toynbee's worldview and political agenda and while I am still much more sympathetic towards Spengler's worldview, I must say that Toynbee has a great many first-rate insights that have helped me make sense out of the things I see going on in the world today.

Angus Wallace said...


I think it depends on what time-scale you are talking.

For example, early breakthroughs in relativity were made using thought-experiments -- very low budgetary requirements! While I agree that particle physics has become expensive and baroque, I don't think that is a reflection of all-science. I think there are other forces at play (our fetishism of technology is one -- and it plays out in the way science is funded). I guess this discussion is about the deeper truth of whether there is an inherent diminishing return to the scientific project. I'm saying that we can't tell based-on the last 50 years -- we need to go back before the last big breakthrough, because science goes in cycles: breakthrough, consolidation, dimishing-returns, breakthrough, consolidation, dimishing-returns, etc. I think we're about due for the next breakthrough -- though it could easily be a century away, or perhaps never happen at all! (in which case, yes, you are right ;-)

Hi Tye,

Regarding artistic noise, I think a big part is the selection that occurs over time. Most art is forgotten over the long term, because most art is crap. But for recent art, the crap hasn't been filtered out yet -- probably in part because of the charisma of the artists. When we look back at art from centuries ago, only the excellent stuff remains. (That's my thinking, anyway ;-)

Cheers, Angus

Ray Wharton said...

Reminds me of Rilke before Apollo.

I have thought about the filling up of 'classical space' before, that a new work to become an interesting part of the canon has to be in some sense original, and yet at the same time stay connected to its roots. One thing I have considered is what if Beethoven never composed. Of course the exact works he composed would not have been written, but I also suspect that classical would have still filled up. In such a case would the Moonlight Sonada, if developed by Clint, in accounting, on his off hours, be any less beautiful? That question is loaded to the point of being a bad question to answer; but I don't think Clint's work would mean the same thing. Classical would have developed on some divergent tract. Part of the meaning and beauty of a work, I realize at this moment, is dependent on the tradition it is a part of. Much like the meaning of a book is dependent on the language it was composed in. Yet the tradition, I think not of an open space that can be filled, instead I think of a building mass that becomes overweight. In our era with the vast productivity of music made possible by our huge population and ample free time, music traditions have been able to stay fresh by fragmenting. Bluegrass started to get over burdened, but then it fractured into other lines, clearly descended from bluegrass, but fresh with room for experimentation because only a small fragment of the bluegrass tradition from before was carried into them.

Applying this backward to the case concerning technology I think we can find the same thing. I doubt the Atlantic republic exists in a world where there is a shortage of logical space for technical (in the broad sense) variation or innovation. Instead I think that the tradition has become over weight. It has been unwilling to shed parts of its technological suite which by existing over determine the meaning and utility of other technologies. Their hypoponic farms obstruct the space for more development of the uses for old bailing twine; which I mention as the most promising area for innovation in my region.

Retrotopia was selectivly retro, they sheaded most of the tradition back to a solid foundation, holding tight on some obviously good techniques, and forbidding a few especially disasterious ones.

Taking a fragment of a dying tradition to seed a new tradition.

Interestingly this is also nature's solution to senescence that Peter and Melanie are enjoying the fruits of. Respawning mycelium, planting potatoes, grafting trees... if you know what I mean :P

Wendy Crim said...

This will be a book at some point, yes? I will want to buy and read it.

Also, completely off topic, did you see this? You've mentioned growing up in Washington. Is this as absurd to everybody else as it is to me?

Thanks again for your blog!

Wendy Crim said...

Thanks for sharing that. I enjoyed reading it.

steve pearson said...

@jmg, I had an interesting example this afternoon of a technology that had passed its exploration phase and was into change for the sake of progress. I was at a local ice cream shop (good destination on a hot day), when a woman went to pay with a credit card that wouldn't work without great amounts of fiddling by the server. He said that the new credit and debit cards with the chip in them work much worse than the old ones and are far easier to hack, and that the companies had forced them on the public simply because they were " progress"

jbucks said...

Dear JMG,

Thanks for this post! I know you didn't intend it, but your post felt like it was aimed directly at me, as I'm a hobbyist composer and pianist but also because I asked previously about the role of art in the Lakeland Republic.

I both agree and (slightly) disagree with the idea of notional space in art. On one hand there is so much music being created nowadays, and recording technology has meant that much of it is being preserved - in response musicians are purposefully making 'noise' music, and mining more and more obscure traditional musics from around the world to try to fill the hunger for something new.

As a musician myself, I can't see how I could possibly add anything new, it does often feel like there's just nowhere to go, especially if you try to make something new without the aid of electronic sound-making technology. So the notional space idea, which is something I've seen discussed elsewhere with great unease on the part of musicians, is relevant to me in a practical way.

And from the perspective of the audience, there is so much music available that I wonder if it devalues the medium as a whole, people are so used to vast music libraries available on demand, that people perhaps care less about it, and are less willing to give newer music a patient and open listen.

On the other hand, musicians have found ways to proceed that aren't derivative, nor ugly. Debussy and Satie both rejected what they saw as Wagner's pompousness, and turned back to medieval harmony and polyphony (which was out of style at the time) as a source for their music - and the result was neither derivative nor shallow. Both composers have created music which non-specialist audiences do enjoy, and both didn't have to rely on new technology to do so.

Although maybe it's telling that since that time, composers who have successfully made such paradigm shifts are rare.

Although music/song as a form that cultures use to remember things (such as in ancient Greek practice) is less relevant today because of printing technology, I sometimes wonder if there's something to be explored musically there in light of the long decline, but I have no concrete thoughts yet on how to pursue this.

steve pearson said...

@Cherokee Chris, Off topic, but I met and worked for a couple of weeks with your friend, Alfio at a permaculture and natural building center in California, where I spend time. Good bloke. Small world.
cheers, Steve

James M. Jensen II said...

Also, I'd definitely say we've hit peak computer. There have been a number of trends breaking from the fixation on "the latest and greatest." In video games, for example, retro-style games - games made deliberately to be like the sort you'd have played in the 90's or earlier - are pretty hot right now, and the big name games are getting increasingly derivative: when the latest round of video game consoles launched a couple of years ago, one of the laments from the community was that nearly all the major games for them were sequels. We're also well into the era of hypercriticism, where game reviews are filled with negativity grasping at every possible straw to avoid noticing that the era of innovation is just flat over.

A similar thing is happening in movies. Sequels, remakes, and reboots are all over the place, with everybody bemoaning the trend. Hollywood being what it is, these are mostly awful - and I've so far refused to see several of them - but I'm reminded of the passage in C.S. Lewis's The Discarded Image about how strange our obsession with innovation would have looked to medieval poets.

Now, one recent Hollywood sequel I love is Tron: Legacy, but I'm in a minority there, and the reason provides a good example of what I'm saying. Like its predecessor, the new Tron movie is not at its heart some gee-whiz superscience story about how awesome technology is. It's an allegory that employees gee-whize superscience to set the scene. The first is a Cold War allegory (with tyrranical thugs who deny the existnece of Users standing in for the godless commies; they're even colored red!), while the sequel is essentially the Gnostic myth of Sophia played out in digital space. Most people clearly didn't catch that, so the film bombed.

Stephen Heyer said...

Nice post John.

Strangely, it touched on a couple of areas I’ve been thinking of and one elephant in my living room. I’ll beak this up into separate posts, one per subject, so you can just drop any you consider inappropriate or potentially disruptive.

First, opera, or in my case opera and ballet.

Out here in Rockhampton Queensland Australia at the very edge of the edge of the world, with a small coastal town upbringing, though by intelligent parents with a liberal, scientific, atheist, cultural outlook, I kind of missed getting exposure to the High Arts. When I was finally dragged along by a cousin I discovered not only that I liked some, but that what I liked tended to be the stuff the up market critics later reckoned was good, though I had no idea why I considered those performances good.

Anyway, perhaps you could extend your work as a opera and ballet critic so that us willing-to-learn small town rednecks have some idea of where to begin, some pointers on how to tell a good from a lousy one and how to express this to others.

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,

Really, really interesting discussion on the limited amount of notional space for art forms, or, actually, any human endeavor. Sort of extends the “finite earth” idea to the “Finite Multiverse”.

Recently, some of the cosmologists have been thinking about exactly this, a version of which which crops up in their beloved Multiverse. In really simple terms it seems that they feel that mere immortality (the real deal, not just being hard to kill) and godhead powers is not enough if eventually (trillions of years sort of eventually) you have nothing new to do.

Me, not so much. I suspect I’d mark it on my AI calendar to check that I was still enjoying myself every billion years or so, and do something about it if I wasn’t, but apart from that - enjoy.

Stephen Heyer

LewisLucanBooks said...

Dear JMG - Being clueless, I had to look up "notional space." I just couldn't quit grasp what it was. So, for the equally clueless it's "Existing as an idea rather than something real" or, "Existing in the mind only." OK. Got it.

LOL. As soon as I got to the line " Carr was taking a cab back to his hotel the next morning..", well, I knew where this was going. Handled with tact and delicacy. I was just having a conversation, today, with a couple of my cohort (old) generally whinging about why everything as to be so darned graphic, these days. One person mentioned that in an old movie, if you see curtains blowing in the wind, you know exactly what's going on. My example was waves crashing on a beach. :-) Lew

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,

Something has been bothering me.

I first started to notice that something was happening about 2004. Every time I turned on the ABC (the serious channel here in Oz) some researcher was showing off his/her new cancer drug or some such derived from some obscure local bush. What got me but was that they would mention the next painful step to bringing it to market, then remark that, of course, way back late “Last Century” that step took four years, but now less than a year is required.

And this seemed to apply everywhere. For example, if you wanted to check tens of thousands of samples for some desired effects or properties, what would once have taken a lifetime can now be done in a sunny Sunday afternoon using microarray or some other new technology.

It looked like something very, very big was happening, not yet at the level of consumer products, but at the level of a vast increase of the processing power and decrease in cost of the tools science uses.

Now about the same thing happened around a century ago, just on a much smaller scale. I write of course of the vast change in the West between the worlds of about 1880 and 1916. By about 1916 the foundation of the Twentieth Century was firmly in place, even the wars that would fill that century were obvious to those alert enough to see.

People who ponder (future) civilizations have a name for this – Event Horizon. Strangely, though, most have their eyes so firmly focused forward that they missed the beautiful example that occurred around the beginning of the Twentieth Century and have likewise missed the current one, probably the biggest and most complex one that humans will experience.

(Warning: Grossly simplified explanation.)

An Event Horizon, by the way, is not a Singularity or a Transcendence (whatever they are). Rather, it probably can best be imagined as two, usually fairly close dates in history, generally with some fairly big and important changes happening between them, such that a person at the first date would be quite unable to rationally predict anything much about the world of the second date.

There are so many new technologies, tools and their products coming out this time I’m not going to waste time and space trying to assemble lists with two exceptions

1. CRISPR (third generation gene editing) or rather the even better techniques that will follow show every sign of making possible, even easy, the old science fiction fantasies of house trees, battery and solar cell trees, civilizations based more on extreme genetically engineered organisms than machines and much else. Even my old daydreams of living star ships crewed by biological beings distantly derived from humans who thrive in high vacuum and hard radiation (hi-vacs) look possible within a few centuries.

2. The astonishing burst of fairly simple, mostly big phama free, treatments that show promise of reducing ageing and also, surprisingly, heart disease, cancer and just about everything else ageing related. The present holy grail is of course NAD (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide) related chemicals which, at least in the lab, behave more like a medieval alchemist’s dream of the elixir of life than anything we ever expected to encounter in real life.

Actually, it’s going to be sort of funny if it turns out that just when we realize that we, in principle, actually know how to do the Singularity/Transcendence thing, become immortal, roam the stars, all that sort of stuff, we also discover that we’ve burned off so much of the Earth’s resources that we no longer have the energy and other resources to make that final big leap to godhead. Yep! So we all have to go back to being monkeys, oh, with some technology, but monkeys all the same.

If that is what our children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s (add lots more “children’s”) are left to think about, it’s pretty awesome and not in a good way.

Stephen Heyer

Ruben said...

I would very much like to hear more about "the difference between reason and the habits of thought that people confuse with reason".



Benjamin Elliott said...

I second Patricia Ormsby. The waves of fatuous nonsense about how this or that political movement or technological gizmo will bring a new utopia are exhausting, and following Carr's realizations certainly helps me sit through a few more meetings about using apps to solve the problems of poverty. (As if social problems that have persisted for millennia are one tech startup away from disappearing forever, an obviously absurd idea.)

On a more specific note, I greatly enjoy the installments of this blog that really stretch my knowledge. A discussion of operatic fads and history certainly fits the bill! Kudos to you, JMG.

Ruben said...

And also, performance vs. innovation is spectacular.

Synthase said...

I recently had the misfortune of being used by a Windows computer for more than a few seconds after 5 years of using Linux. The horror. I was connected to the internet for only 6 hours before my adblocker was deactivated by malware. Then it was highjacked by Windows 10 update.

How anyone tolerates this situation I have no idea. It's comically ridiculous.

Richard Stallman was right all along - Any code run without your knowledge or permission is malware. Either you control your computer or your computer controls you.

JMG: I'm sure a big component of your antipathy to computers comes from not being in control of much of what it does. It is worth the effort to make the switch, and were I anywhere nearby I'd be happy to help.

NJGuy73 said...

"Nobody’s pushing brand new alphabets any more,"

Except Dmitri Orlov and Unspell.

Mean Mr Mustard said...


I recently tried a new tech, and abandoned it in three days. I opened a facebook account, (with minimum personal info divulged), and the tightest privacy settings it would allow. Acquired a dozen friends in two days, declining other 'friend' offers all the while. The 'newsfeed' instantly became a torrent of noise to no signal. Aaaarrgghh! I really don't want to see what a friend of a friend had for breakfast... Binned it. Account deleted.

Old fashioned email - well, that's worth keeping, while we can. That's casual chat - sometimes discussion in depth - with a select few actual friends on topics of mutual interest, rather than broadcasting inanities into a bottomless pit of noise to 'friends' who are usually just contacts. Call that progress? Less is more.



kristofv said...

I have wondered from time to time if you had read Russell and if he was an inspiration for certain ideas. He clearly lived inside the era of progress and had an optimism about the future. But in his book 'a history of western philosophy' he reluctantly admits that every philosophical school taken to its logical extreme leads to something absurd and impossible to accept or use as a basis to guide your life. At least that is my interpretation. An idea that mentioned on this blog as well in regards to scepticism.

John Michael Greer said...

James, that's a workable model for the process. Your example of fantasy fiction is very apropos, and also close to my heart; an identical trajectory can be traced for science fiction, which didn't become obsessive about space travel until well into the history of the genre, but has been circling endlessly around that overworked trope like a defunct satellite ever since.

Submarine, that's basically my experience as well. Read Spengler for the grand overview, read Toynbee for the fantastically documented details...

Angus, theories are generally inexpensive to construct, and relativity was no exception. It's testing them, and then applying them, that costs. It cost much more to test and then apply relativity than it did to test and then apply Maxwell's electromagnetic theory, or any other theory of that era, and this and other examples bear out my suggestion that technological progress as a whole is approaching its point of negative returns, if it hasn't already passed that unwelcome marker. If there's another breakthrough, and it's as much more expensive to test and put to work as relativity was in comparison to electromagnetism, it's quite possible that the applications will be economically out of reach forever.

Ray, yes, but it's also that technological innovations no longer provide enough additional value to make up for their additional cost. The Atlantic Republic is still trying to bring in innovative new technology, and as Carr says, those innovations provide less benefit, cost more, and have worse downsides than the things they replace. That's how technology crosses the limits of its notional space -- it's not that there aren't options, it's that the new options don't provide enough benefit to be worth doing.

Wendy, there will indeed be a book -- I've already got a publisher lined up for Retrotopia. As for the Seattle property market, yep: on a scale of insanity, it's up there with gibbering ax murderers who are convinced they're being persecuted by their own toes.

Steve, that's a great example!

Jbucks, good. Debussy and Satie, though, are among the exceptions; how many other 20th century art-music composers can you name that anybody but professional musicologists can sit through without pain? There were some, agreed; most of them borrowed Debussy's trick of taking older musical traditions and using them in modern compositions -- I'm thinking here especially of Vaughan Williams, who wrote some impressively ugly stuff before he shook himself out of it and settled down to very listenable pieces such as "Norfolk Rhapsody" and "Tallis Fantasia." But that's a good example of people filling in the gaps in the notional space of Western art music.

James, I don't do computer games, but I'd noticed just how many movies these days are rehashes of rehashes of rehashes of things that were already old in the 1960s, but with new special effects! I'm waiting for things to get really retro -- say, feeding all Humphrey Bogart's film appearances into a computer, coming up with a comprehensive database of the guy's movements and speech patterns, and using it to CGI an endless number of new Bogie films -- starting, perhaps, with a 1944 Warner Bros. version of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings...

Stephen, I'm actually not the person to ask about opera and ballet. My tastes in opera are very narrow -- specifically, I love German opera and am not too fond of most of the rest -- and I'm the equivalent of tone-deaf when it comes to any kind of dance; probably as a side effect of Asperger's syndrome, ballet et al. are, to me, pointless jumping and spinning. (I'm not happy about that, but there it is.) I can certainly suggest some good deindustrial SF to read, though... ;-)

Urban Harvester said...

"self-consciously testing the boundaries, figuring out just how far they could go without falling over the edge into noise" Thanks for that, what a useful bit of perspective. It helps me to understand my own reticence at producing art when the field is so saturated with fuzz. The exploration, performance, and innovation stages of art also helps explain why I've had my head buried in alchemical texts and old Google books scans for so long, exploring avenues which modernity has at large abandoned. I also love that it was Wagner (and hence German idealism) that catalyzed Peter's eureka moment!

John Michael Greer said...

Stephen, I'd consider immortality in the sense of unending sequential existence to be a really ghastly fate. The older I get, the more clearly I see that any one human personality is good for maybe three quarters of a century before it gets unbearably dull to see the universe in just that one way and no other; the Druid concept of reincarnation, in which individuality endures but a new personality coalesces around it with each life, seems much preferable -- and if that doesn't work out, why, I'm not frantic enough about my own continuity to bother being afraid of death.

Lewis, thank you. Most writers don't spend pages going on about the biological processes of swallowing food or defecating, and it's always seemed to me that, barring some good reason to go into more detail, sex might as well get the same treatment.

Stephen, and yet plenty of people in the 19th century predicted many of the details of life in the 20th century, and got them right. Automobiles driving down roads with yellow dashed lines down the center? The benefits of regular air travel, along with the horrors of aerial bombardment? The coming of an age of terrible wars driven by ideology, in which every scrap of consideration for humanity would be chucked aside? (Nietzsche was one of many who got that last one down cold.) Even the pharmaceutical technologies you've mentioned are things that science fiction writers among others have speculated about for much of a century, so there's no event horizon involved, just a certain amount of speculative laziness. Myself, I'd agree with your final proposal -- that we've burnt through the resources that might, in theory, have allowed a handful of humans to go outside the solar system and maybe survive, and so we're going to have to settle down and be human beings (not "monkeys") rather than shoddy imitations of gods -- and thank heavens for that. What insufferably pompous blowhards we would have become if the fantasies of the Singularitarians had come true!

Ruben, I'll see if Peter Carr can arrange to take some notes! ;-)

Benjamin, thank you, and again thank you!

Ruben, I'm probably going to develop that distinction in a future post here.

Synthase, nah, when I get a used computer (I never buy new ones) I go in and systematically turn off everything that tries to do my thinking for me, and since I always use old Windows, it just sits there and does what it's told. I simply don't like to spend my days looking at little jerky colored pictures on a glass screen. I've considered Linux on occasion, but I'm only interested in it if it's absolutely boring plug-&-play, no fiddling needed, it supports the five or six programs I use without difficulty and that's it.

NJGuy73, Tolkien invented a couple of alphabets, too. In both cases it's a harmless hobby, nothing more.

Mustard, less is definitely more. I shun most social media as one need not mere plague.

Kristofv, I've read some Russell, and doubtless his ideas are in the crawlspace somewhere, but he's not a major influence. I included him mostly because he's a famous atheist of a much earlier generation, thus fitting the retro theme of the story.

John Michael Greer said...

Harvester, exactly -- what's more old-fashioned, out of date, and positively dowdy these days than a performance of a German opera based on, heaven help us, the philosophy of a forgotten old geezer like Schopenhauer? And yet I had this moment in mind when I started the story...

Unknown said...

JMG, Superb writing, and subtlety done to perfection!

I absolutely get the idea of the notional space being filled up, I introduced my very young son to early rock music with the observation that most of what would be produced as he grew up would be derivative of "this" and that most of it would not be better.

At 15 he reckons I was mostly correct. There is a lot of noise in the music space, from the 80's onwards., And as for ballet, I am not sure it is the Aspergers that's responsible for your response ;-). I admire the athletic aspect of it, but as a means of telling a story it leaves me baffled.

As for your comment about Seattle real estate, I just had a conversation with a friend whose daughter is an engineer with EBAY, and who lives there. Such a Horror story around rents. My friend and her other daughter are well clued in to the decline concept, but seattle daughter has been drinking to much of the company coolaid, and we discussed this. I suggested my friend look at some of your books as christmas presents to help the thinking process.

Thanks for the story, its a ripper.

eagle eye

YCS said...

Fantastic post. I realised that the same sort of process happened and was handled in Indian Classical Music years ago. The only small boundary extension has been adopting non-subcontinental instruments and some fusion with Jazz - although that's made a whole new genre with exciting opportunities.

Most antiquated civilisations learn to create some framework to handle cultural stagnation. Nobody creates new ragas anymore, but they still try and mark out their own distinct style in playing them. The Egyptians viewed cultural continuity as the primary method of mainting order in the cosmos.

Very few civilisations are obsessed with creating noise in the name of innovation, and ours is one of them.


gregorach said...

Well, I'd agree that we're probably past peak personal computer - performance improvements at the high end of the desktop have been pretty marginal for some time, the major direction the hardware is moving is in reducing size and cost rather than increasing absolute capability, and every new version of established software packages seems to be, in some way, worse than the last. However, there is actually a lot of interesting and innovative stuff going on in large-scale "cloud" computing right now - if you're interested in how to deal with databases measured in petabytes, or streams of data measured in megabytes per second, then there's whole new vistas of notional space just opening up.

Jo said...

I am trying this theory of diminishing returns out in my own life. Along with many other fellow human beings I am experimenting with how much modern technology I can throw out of my life whilst retaining a satisfactory quality of life. So far almost everything I have tried is better without the modern gadget.

Toasted sandwiches are better in a frying pan, dishes get cleaner washed by hand, food heats up in a saucepan as quick as in a microwave - however, electric beaters are so much better for creaming butter and sugar than a wooden spoon - although I now have a stock of cake recipes that don't require creaming, so I can 'collapse' gracefully there too..

I recently tried writing with an ink pen, with the wooden handle and detachable nib dipped in the ink bottle - I actually tried it out in the classroom with a bunch of six year olds for sketching, and they loved it, picked up the technique really quickly. I believe it is a much more practical technology than I had imagined it would be. As is the case with so much technology we have discarded..

And Synthase, I do agree with you about Linux - I was gifted a second-hand, ex-school laptop with Linux installed. It is fantastic - no problems over the course of a year, don't need anti-virus software, has a bunch of basic programs. Brilliant.

Esn said...

Thank you JMG, this was a lovely read!

@Angus Wallace: Have to admit, those are my thoughts as well. Music getting a little stale? Just invent some new ensembles! New instruments! New tunings! New PLACES for music to sound (buildings, activities, social groups)! I don't think we've gotten even close to exhausting the possibilities!

And besides, as we're moving onto new territory, a lot of the old territory gradually gets forgotten, as do all discoveries, scientific or artistic. Human minds do not have infinite storage, after all! Human knowledge is being lost all the time, even though we've succeeded at slowing the process through our invention of writing and our exponentially expanding human population (more minds to hold knowledge).

Has anyone perchance read Graham Jackson's "The Spiritual Basis of Musical Harmony"? Kind of from an anthroposophist perspective, but very well-researched. It is rather astonishing how so many revolutions and discoveries in musical thought (and many of them were genuine discoveries; music may be thought of as the science of number in time, as geometry is the science of number in space) were accompanied by a forgetting of previous truths which were once widely known. I found it both amusing and exasperating to read about misunderstandings by the likes of Aristoxenus and Rameau which influenced and confused hundreds of years of European musical history (in many cases, to this day)...

I suspect that as an art or science becomes more and more complex and difficult to learn, sometimes the fundamental truths that made the whole structure work in the first place simply get pushed out of the mind for lack of space - they get forgotten. Sometimes, the old principles are replaced with good new ones. Other times...

In 20th century avant garde music, composers like Schoenberg and his disciples seemed to think that musical taste was all a matter of habit, that there were no physical laws behind any of it, and that they could teach their listeners to enjoy anything at all (this view was still widespread among professors of composition and ethnomusicology when I studied in university recently). But had any of them ever thought to check if their cacophonic harmonies and pitches LOOKED good when viewed as visual geometry on an eidophone, harmonograph or chladni plate?

I doubt it... because the European musical world had widely adopted 12-note equal temperament to move freely through all the keys - and had largely forgotten that this system was actually an imperfect compromise based on actual physical laws. (music theory books had stopped teaching about harmonic, arithmetic and geometric means, divorcing music theory from physical reality).

Perhaps because of this, I notice that older musical buildings often sound more impressive than newer concert halls. Nowadays, we know much more about electronic amplification, but have forgotten much about acoustic geometry. So many interesting discoveries are being made from thousands of years ago...

Esn said...

@JMG: "how many other 20th century art-music composers can you name that anybody but professional musicologists can sit through without pain?"

Plenty! Khachaturian (Sabre Dance), Sviridov (e.g. "Time, Forward!", quite representative of Soviet scientific optimism), Prokofiev, Shostakovich (his lighter works like "Balda" especially), Gustav Holst (The Planets), Philip Sparke, Peter Graham (Gaelforce), Alfred Reed (El Camino Real), Simon Proctor (Nocturne in Silver and Blue). Many recent composers have actually left the old cacophonic school of "avant garde" music well and truly behind.

For really recent, how about this Cherubic Hymn (2011) by Irina Denisova from Belarus? Part of the post-1990s religious wave sweeping the former Soviet Union - it is a harmonization of a traditional hymn, but the particular way she did it had never been done in earlier decades/centuries.

@JMG: "I don't know what it is about universities and art -- when I first went to college in 1980, at a mostly forgettable state university in Washington State, the campus was overrun with pretentious slabs of rusting metal that were supposed to be art."

It may have had something to do with the CIA secretly funding "avant garde" art as a weapon against the Soviet Union to show how "free" Americans were (despite the majority of American audiences despising it)

David Gorriz said...

I do not usually comment but today I couldn´t resist the urge to promote the work of M. Lopez Corredoira, a fellow Spaniard, a researcher in astrophysics and science philosopher, that has written a book about the "Twilight of the scientific age".
You can find a condensed paper on the subject here:
(the English version starts in page 14)
as a teaser, I will leave you with the opening paragraphs that includes a quote of the great Unamuno (with Ortega y Gasset they were the two titans of Spanish philosophy at the beginning of the 20th century).

"Yes, yes, I see it; a huge social activity, a powerful civilization, a lot of science, a lot of art, a lot of industry, a lot of morality, and then, when we have filled the world with industrial wonders, with large factories, with paths, with museums, with libraries, we will fall down exhausted near all this, and it will be, for whom? Was man made for science or science made for man?

Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples

This quotation reflects quite accurately the main theme of the present pages. Read it carefully, twice or thrice, think about it for some minutes, and then begin to read the following pages as a musical piece whose leitmotiv is Unamuno’s assertion. Just a few minutes, or even seconds, may be enough for the reader to realize the most important message that I want to develop, and its connection with the book of title The Twilight of the Scientific Age (López Corredoira 2013). The idea is simple: our era of science is declining because our society is becoming saturated with knowledge which does not offer people any sense of their lives. Nevertheless, in spite of the simplicity of this idea, its meaning can be articulated in a much richer way than through one sentence, as in the case of a music which develops variations on a folk melody."

Cherokee Organics said...


Oh, is that concept also known by the marketing term: The product life cycle? I tend to believe that it is also an expression of diminishing returns and also of entropy. It is pretty nasty really as we are all on that cycle whether we admit it or not, and incidentally it looks an awful lot like the Hubbert curve too. Spooky stuff! I read about the concept years ago, but I see it in practice all of the time. You of course were careful enough to avoid it recently, but many people don't tend to understand that they themselves can be caught up in that web of inevitability.

Sorry, I have no head for Opera, but I can respect art when I see it.

Hey, have you had a chance to see the crazy goings on down here with last weekends Federal election? Fun times and it is great to see democracy in action. We still don't have a government with a majority of seats in the house of representatives even today! The interesting thing is that I reckon the pundits are so far in the pockets of the powers that be that pay their stipends that they fail to even see what is happening on the ground. It is very strange that they could be so publicly wrong, and the calls for another vote just to get some sort of desired outcome is very wrong too. I suspect the population is in no mood for that sort of monkey business.

Did you have a nice fourth of July celebration?



donalfagan said...

My favorite operatic experience was seeing Porgy and Bess, performed by a traveling company from South Carolina. I acted in Carmina Burana once (In Taberna), but that isn't quite an opera.

I used to manage a WAN, and wish I had stayed with Unix and Novell servers. Among MS operating systems, NT 3.51 was a pretty solid server, and XP was a solid graphical workstation platform. 98 and later versions of 95 were OK for secretarial use. We always installed from scratch, eliminating the adware.

Ubuntu is solid, though they seem to be spoiling it with an over reliance on Unity. I now run Linux Mint, but my wife insists on enduring Windows.

I had a Facebook spat with a former coblogger, a German fellow, over Brexit, and wrote this:

onething said...


The first condoms were made from sheep's intestines. You can still buy them.

Revere T. said...

I'm glad to hear that the Toledo Opera has the budget, audience, and talent to mount a Parsifal! I have to say I'm surprised, though, that there's a thriving scene in Philadelphia, given the state of the Atlantic economy. Would you be willing to comment about the different ways these two countries fund the arts? I'm an opera singer, and these days it's hard to feel optimistic about the future of the art fom.
I've had many conversations with my fellow singers about this idea of notional space, although I've never heard that exact language used. I wonder if opera buffs and performers might have an intuitive understanding the ideas in this blog, since it's so obvious to us that quality is not a function of linear progress. That said, I don't think you're being totally fair to Britten. 'Billy Budd' is an absolutely brilliant work, and not significantly more dissonant than late Wagner.
I love the idea of a series of Wagner posts. Who cares if people are bored? They'll learn something! Speaking of things most people find boring, are you at all familiar with early-18th century Metastasian Opera Seria? It has a lot to do with the idea that narrative art can and should function as moral instruction. Given what you've said about the usefulness of 'noblesse oblige', I think you might appreciate that underrated part of opera history. Also the music just rocks. Good
Examples include Pergolesi's 'L'Olompiade' and Johann Adolf Hasse's 'Arteserse', but there were thousands of operas set to Pietro Metastasio's texts. Mozart's Clemenza di Tito is a late and rather impure example of the genre.

Your most loyal baritone,


Ezra Buonopane said...


I attempted to publish a comment last time, but it never showed up and you didn't give it an offlist mention. Just wondering what happened.

On the subject of nobody inventing new alphabets anymore: I find the shortcomings of using the latin alphabet to write english absolutely insufferable. There are only 26 letters, yet around 40 sounds. Future language evolution might increase the number of sounds enough to warrant a few new letters (this has happened before, that's why we have J and W). So even if nobody invents new alphabets from scratch anymore they'll probably still evolve slowly. Just curious: How long do you think the latin alphabet will last?

onething said...


"My local institution of higher learning, Brown University, is in the process of installing the sculpture Untitled (Lamp/Bear). A more succinct comment on the decline of the West could hardly be imagined."

Indeed, my own imagination began to revolve at the above, and yet when I opened the image it was so much worse than I had managed to imagine. And someone was paid plenty of money to desecrate the public space with it.
Thomas Daulton,

And yet Frank still misses the point a bit, or is pandering to his audience when he states that racism is only #3 on the concern list of the working class. It doesn't seem to occur to him that maybe half the reason is that "undocumented" immigrants take jobs. But as to the racism question, even there I wonder at the assumption that people ought not to care if they are erased or blended away. Using my own self as an example, I happen to like and admire Mexican culture very much. But does that mean I shouldn't care if my own disappears? I've thought about all this and made my peace with it. In the long view it is no doubt how the human race evolves over time; nonetheless it is probably healthy in the short view for individuals and cultures to actually care about their own continued existence.

So, it is the pretentiousness of the bubble class on this question that irritates me.

Revere T. said...

I should have, of course, italicized all of those opera titles, but I'm typing on a phone and don't have a whole lot of options where typography is concerned. Apologies to all of my music history teachers!

John Roth said...

re: Physics

The interesting thing about Big Physics is that it’s gone insane, in a strictly Einsteinian definition of insanity: keeping doing the same thing and expecting different results. Ask any physicist about the Higgs bosun. They found it exactly where they expected, and it told them absolutely nothing that they didn’t know. The breakthrough, if there is one, is going to come from some place that’s been rigorously excluded from current discussion.

The place that’s exciting today is biology. That’s where physics was in the early 20th century after the discovery of radioactivity.

@Steve Pearson

I’d say that’s a problem with the stores system. Chip and Pin has been used in Europe for a decade or more, and is far more difficult to hack. Not impossible, just harder. The rollout here in the US has had a lot of problems, mostly due to greed-fueled incompetence on the part of the credit industry.

@Stephen Heyer

I agree that CRISPR is a game-changer in some ways, but it’s more on the order of taking a large book, noticing that somehow several words have been misspelled, and having a far easier way of fixing them. It has nothing about how to revise that book in any meaningful way, such as adding a subplot, so the revisions make sense.

In the 80-year historical cycle, there are two periods of ten to fifteen years where a lot of things change in ways that most people would not have predicted. The last such change period was what we usually call “the 60s.” The next one is upon us. It’s a two-phase cycle, where the first phase challenges the then-current orthodoxy and opens up a lot of variations, while the second phase builds a new orthodoxy, and woe to anyone who challenges it.

If the cycle works out the way it has in the past, gender lines will be more firmly drawn than they are now. Think “the 50s.” They just aren’t going to be drawn in the same place. If you aren’t blinded by liberal orthodoxy, you can see the storm clouds gathering for the idea that gender is entirely a “social construct.”


I absolutely agree with your comment about reincarnation. As far as I can tell, The Tao is an experience junkie. The absolutely last thing it wants is to repeat the same old experiences ad infinitum.


It would be interesting.


Yeah, I had a chuckle about that one as well. The point is that new alphabets aren’t going to get much traction these days. If you want an alphabet for a previously unwritten language, you’ll take a modified version of one of the locally prestige languages. The last “new alphabet” (actually a syllabary) that’s in active use here in the US is Cherokee, and that’s a couple of hundred years old. When Sequoia invented it, he’d seen English, Greek and some others, but couldn’t read them, so he just made up the signs. Everything else that’s in common use, like Cyrillic, is way older.

Aron Blue said...

Thanks for opening up a conversation about music. I appreciate it.

I think that it's possible to be creative within the old forms. In the folk tradition, the same melodies and chord structures are passed on, with each generation adding a verse here, a set of new lyrics there, maybe an entire song that sounds an awful lot like the others. That's the space where I want to contribute, and where I feel there is still room to do so.

Mark said...

I'm an amateur classical pianist, and the idea of notional space in music makes a lot of sense. There are a few moderns that I adore: Debussy, Ravel, and Shostakovich come to mind. But these composers often took old forms and reworked them with the spice of modern harmonies. Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin" and Shostakovich's "24 Preludes and Fugues" are good examples. That old/new combo manages to stretch one's ears without undue pain. Admittedly, some listeners have not been too fond of the Ravel "Forlane" that I play, but I love those "beautiful dissonances" (Ravel's own term, I believe).

trippticket said...

Loved it, and can't wait to hand out many copies of this story for Christmas/Solstice. Really I just want to copy and send the explanation about notional space to everyone I know, BUT, that's why I tend to read your work and not mine. It doesn't have the same impact outside of its context. Thank you for demonstrating the patience I never seem to have.

It struck me after reading this, the second time to my wife this morning, that at least some aspects of permaculture (which I've notionally been practicing for 8 years now) fit this model. In fact one of the most embarrassing bits of my 6 years of blogging - which I've just closed out - was my shameless and clueless promotion of one avant gardening technology.

My most popular post of all time was about growing potatoes in straw in a wire tomato cage, adding straw as the potatoes grow upward, and then just dumping out the cage at the end of the growing season to collect a huge pile of spuds. In my real-life experience it doesn't work all that well, and why would it? Potatoes need soil more than anything else.

The consistent love for this article year after year irritated me. Why was this my most popular post?? By my estimation I had several that were MUCH better, and way more interesting. And maybe the answer is, because we're talking about staple food production here, and because what I was talking about was easier than doing a soil test, cheaper than buying amendments, and a lot less work than cultivating the soil to a depth sufficient for potato production.

But it's really just noise, outside the notional space of potato production. We've known how to grow potatoes, organically and productively, for a long time, but that's boring, and old-fashioned. Surely the superior technologies of today have rendered such dowdy (and dirty) processes obsolete?

And my answer, after a decade of organic gardening, is no, they haven't. By following my advice you've just wasted another potato season. Dig the soil, include the appropriate amendments, hill them up, keep them watered, and don't let them sit in wet soil at the end of the growing season. That's how you grow potatoes.

So off I go to dig up a few more rows, now that the rain has stopped. Gonna get pretty dirty I'm afraid...

Anthony DuClare said...

I arrived at a similar conclusion regarding the notional space of technology while reading Green Wizardry last year. The danger with embracing Down Home Funk as a lifestyle is that of toxic nostalgia: if you embrace 19th century technology as a solution to technological problems, you might be tempted to shoehorn 19th century politics into solving modern political problems, same with religion, social norms, etc. (maybe this is only a problem for me, as I can be a bit of a nostalgic type). For me, Down Home Funk is less of a lifestyle and more a "thought-style" which recognizes that certain technologies were already sufficiently mature in previous eras, that is, their notional space was already full. The notional space of "non-stick pan" is fully occupied by a well-seasoned and lightly greased cast iron pan, Teflon need not apply. The notional space of "tolerable daily shave" is fully occupied by the double-edge safety razor, cake of soap, and badger brush, so I don't 5-blade cartridges and cans of high-pressure blue goop.

Regarding peak computing, I would agree that we're already there, as far as mass-market computing is concerned. My ten-year-old MacBook Pro can do streaming HD video, Facebook, and email just fine. My seventeen-year-old PowerMac G3 can do it all with a great deal of tweaking and some concessions on video quality. My twenty-year-old PowerMac 5400/120 could only do email. Only gamers need high-end hardware these days, and most computer games are either sedentary versions of real life activities which would be healthier (paintball, airsoft, martial arts, sports, etc.) or grandiose wish-fulfillment fantasies that are fundamentally unhealthy.

Nastarana said...

Dear Stephen Heyer, My upbringing, in rural Oregon, was very similar to what you described, so I will take a stab at answering your question.

Much of the art and literature of our civilization is no longer read, listened to or viewed, but still does linger on. That means it can be explored for enjoyment rather than duty. I would say it is advisable to begin with the Famous Names, which usually are famous for good reason, and from among those pick what you yourself find enjoyable. Me, I can't abide Wagner, whose music to me sounds like bad movie muzac--John Williams on steroids--. For large scale works I much prefer Berloiz, especially Les Troyens, which had to wait for the mid-20thC for performance. (The great Jessye Norman, at the height of her vocal powers, made her Met debut as Cassandra in Les Troyens, with the sublime Tatiana Troyanos as Dido, one of my all time favorite recordings.) The point being that there is no longer a "canon" which one MUST have read or seen and you can choose what you like. While you are exploring among The Greats, you will come across lesser figures whose work might appeal to you, if not to others. For example, after reading, and rereading, Jane Austin, I began to look into other lady novelists of the period. I decided I liked Anne Bronte, but not the other two Brontes, and Elizabeth Gaskell. I do think that contemporary criticism is best avoided--my opinion and I am sticking to it. Among the sins of mid 20thC criticism I count the lionizing of a 5th rate novelist/soft core pornographer, Hemmingway, who could neither create memorable characters nor tell a good story, and the unfair acclaim accorded to a mediocre and pretentious composer, Aaron Copeland. Unfair, because there was at least one almost forgotten composer of greatness active at the same time, William Grant Still.

Mark Rice said...

I remember when Rock music filled out it's notional space. This left us with the un-danceable pretentious plod rock of the 70's. This begat Disco. Back in the day, I thought Disco was the end of civilization. Now I am much older and much more tolerant.

It does seem as if computers have filled their notional space. Now we are coming up with near useless uses for computers. There is the "Internet of things". I have a thermostat in my house that I can read and set with my cell phone. Yawn.

New cars have "Infotainment" computers. I fail to see the benefit of all this complication. Now the push is on to include cars in the "Internet of things". Then a criminal in Russia can hack my car while driving it. This is an improvement?

over the hill and down the other side said...

About reincarnation-immortality-technology...

There is a story about the Dalai Lama (which I paraphrase). He was giving a talk on the Buddhist views on reincarnation. At the end, he answered questions from the audience.

Someone asked if it were possible for a human consciousness to be (re)incarnated in a computer.

He thought for a moment and replied (again I paraphrase)..."Yes, it would be possible. But what would be the karma that would impel a consciousness to do that?"

Food for thought!

FiftyNiner said...

I know I am enjoying a piece of fine writing when I save some of it like a piece of good chocolate to be indulged in later. That is what I did last evening when I saw that this week's post was another installment in the Retrotopia series. I decided to save if for the quiet of the morning rather than the remains of what had been a stressful day. I was not disappointed! Well done. Our Mr. Carr seems to be 'getting with the program' of his own transformation!

Donald Hargraves said...

Darn. I was hoping that Mr. Carr was the gay person you were talking about (although the romantic interest was obvious two chapters ago...).

But seriously – is there any new operas being made? Anything else new being written or sung? Has a "traditional" group of art forms (by that I mean a set of songs/stories/motifs everyone knows and calls up in their own works) developed?

sgage said...

@ JMG:

"I'm the equivalent of tone-deaf when it comes to any kind of dance; probably as a side effect of Asperger's syndrome, ballet et al. are, to me, pointless jumping and spinning. (I'm not happy about that, but there it is.)"

I hear you. For me, though, it extends to opera - I just don't get it. Funny story: My grandfather managed many famous opera stars in his long career (Enrico Caruso, Lily Pons, Grace Moore, Robert Merrill, many more). One day I innocently said to him that I didn't really 'get' opera, that to me, it sounded like so many bellows and shrieks. He thought that was the funniest thing he'd ever heard, and being my grandfather, had business cards made up for the firm of "Bellows and Shrieks", opera artists management, with my name on them...

JB said...

On the present-topia front, since the Brexit referendum I've seen a spate of articles about the perils of systems with too much direct democracy. Setting aside any merits in the arguments, the timing seems naive at best considering that we have significant blocks of voters across countries expressing some rather anti-"elite" sentiment.

A clear violation of the Law of Holes, perhaps?

-- JB

Unknown said...

Appreciate the article and the Retrotopia series!

Regarding Peak Windows, I would actually argue that it's XP, not 98 or 7. XP is still on the vast majority of computers worldwide, has the stability of its Windows NT heritage with the software to run just about any hardware one could think of to hook up.

I use 7 personally but the incessant nagware to "upgrade" to 10 really soured the experience and totally destroyed any trust I might've had for MSFT (Yes, I use the aftermarket utilities to disable them, but I shouldn't have had to do so in the first place). I'm also dipping my toes into Ubuntu and like what I see for the most part, except for the desktop search that "phones home" but thankfully that can be turned off easily, and now defaults to off in the new version. Oh yeah, and it also comes with free open source versions of all the standard office products.

@JMG, "What insufferably pompous blowhards we would have become if the fantasies of the Singularitarians had come true!"

Well, we put a man on the moon! (in response to the typical "Why doesn't ___ work?")


Peter VE said...

Hello Angus,

I'm not so sure that good art gets filtered from bad over time, and we are seeing the best of the past due to that filtering process. There are accounts of famous works of art in the classical world which were held as the acme of beauty, and which disappeared following the collapse of the western Roman Empire, and only a few of which were dug up in the Renaissance. I will agree that the vast majority of work produced at any time is crap, however.

I think the reason art survives is more that people love it and care for it, and then retrospectively it is decided that the art is good. Look at the swings in fashion of Victorian houses, or the paintings of van Gogh. I suppose I am making a more deconstructivist argument, the meaning of art is in the relationship between the art, the artist, and the viewer.

RPC said...

"In Wagner’s operas, there’s really only room for one monumental ego, and it’s his." Priceless!

"These days, nobody listens to twentieth-century opera." Here I'd have to disagree. About half of Puccini is 20th century, and those are standards. I can think of a half-dozen or so others that audiences will attend in the usual numbers. Granted, a lot of pretentious twaddle has also been written, but that's always been true. (I remember after the success of the film Amadeus some opera company decided to mount one of Salieri's works. Some things should stay buried.)

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Coordinated Universal Time (= UTC = EST+5 = EDT+4): 20160707T155853Z

Dear JMG,

You write, in reply to Angus, Angus, theories are generally inexpensive to construct, and relativity was no exception. It's testing them, and then applying them, that costs. It cost much more to test and then apply relativity than it did to test and then apply Maxwell's electromagnetic theory /.../, and this and other examples bear out my suggestion that technological progress as a whole is approaching its point of negative returns, if it hasn't already passed that unwelcome marker.

While by no means dissenting wholesale from your position, I do have to put on record some degree of qualified dissent. I partly dissent from you on your "test", while having no objections to your "apply" or to your critique of "technological" progress-claims.

(1.1) Perihelion-of-Mercury aside, the standard early test of General Relativity was the perturbation of light in a strong gravitational field. The test was low-budget, being first performed by a team involving Eddington right after World War I: you photograph the star fields around the Sun at total eclipse, noting particularly the stars close on your photographic plate to the solar-lunar disk; you then measure the positions of those stars, looking for a displacement in their positions (a deformation in their overall pattern) relative to their positions when the Sun is far from them on the celestial sphere. (It is like looking for a constellation pattern, as printed on paper, deformed through an expanding or shrinking of the paper in the star-atlas page.) You face a budget of only some thousands of dollars for camera, photographic plates, plate-measuring equipment (microscope, etc??), and travel to the eclipse site.

(1.2) I gather from a hasty glance at Wikipedia on Pound-Rebka that in 1959 something called the "Pound-Rebka Experiment" ushered in the era of precision testing of General Relativity. But what did this involve? We read of a pair of radioactive iron sources in a campus building already possessing a convenient multi-story tower, a Mylar bag, loudspeakers, monitoring of phase differences in oscillations (so electronics). Surely this, too, could be done for a few thousand dollars, or at worst for a few tens of thousands.

(2) A similar situation arises with a key tenet in quantics (which you do not discuss, but should be looked at alongside General Relativity), wave-particle duality. One of the key experiments is to reproduce Young's Double Slit setup, but with a weak light source, illuminating a photographic plate over a period of weeks or months - the source being so weak that only one photon passes through the slits at any one time. (Upon being developed, the plate shows wave-diffraction fringes, which cannot be explained if photons have a purely particle nature.) This got done at Cambridge Uni around 1910 or 1920, and can surely be done not for at most mere thousands of dollars (more likely, mere hundreds, or mere tens).

(3) Maxwell I discuss at length in the earlier parts of my multipart "Is Science Doomed?" essay at To summarize my discussion here: the theory does not very easily fit the schema of "Erect theory, deduce consequence, make tests." With one key exception, the theory summed up things already known by Maxwell's time, and so was not tested in Maxwell's day in any sense deeper than the (already known) advance in perihelion of Mercury "tested" General Relativity when Einstein published his theory in 1916. The key exception - that the line integral, around closed loop, of magnetic field is sensitive to time rate of change in electric flux through capping surface - indeed requires testing, but is hard to test, and did not get tested until the 1920s or thereabouts. Had the test not been made, Maxwell would on mathematical grounds have all the same commanded acceptance.


Eric S. said...

This one merits a two-page comment, so apologies in advance:

It seems to me, then, that a part of the next question to ask then, is where to find further opportunities for exploration once an art form or a technology, or a system of understanding passes that threshold, to push innovation in a different direction. Further up in the comments there was some discussion of rock opera, and the recent award winning Hamilton. Another composer who seems particularly relevant to Carr’s interests is Gershwin, who found a way to revitalize Classical music, which had long since passed into the “performance” phase, by drawing on the emerging Jazz styles. And Gershwin wound up having a wide influence on most of the more lasting musical innovations of the first half of the 20th century.

So, how then, can the process of creativity be kept alive when the culture itself is beginning to fossilize? Ralph Waldo Emmerson once expressed his own observations on the transition from exploration to performance, when he said “our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.” And I do think that he was right on the nose by expressing that humans have a need for stories that relate to the lives they are presently living…

It seems that one of the things that happens as civilizations begin to ossify in their latter worlds is that art forms, stories, and technologies cease to become adaptable and pliant, while the people rush off in search of something that still has life in it. So the need for creativity and innovation is, in part a need for a living culture, and yet, as you pointed out, once the notional space of an art form is filled up, further work along those lines becomes derivative and unbearable. How, then, does one find a path forward in the latter end of a civilization’s cycle into realms of culture that still haven’t been used up, and how can innovation take place without tipping over into noise?

A few possible thoughts on where those open spaces may be: one is that the notional space of an art form, religion, technology, language, etcetera does seem to refill over time, once it can be revisited by a different culture with a different mind… you see people taking older, long-neglected art forms, reviving them, and then twisting them off in a different direction that the cultures that originally developed them might not have thought of. The current revolutions in polytheist religion are in part doing that, by taking ancient myths and religious forms, and breathing new life into them with the toolkit of modern occult philosophy. The Pre-Raphaelites of the 19th century also did something similar, by going back to a place where art took one turn and then taking an older art form into a completely new direction, producing some of that era’s great art. The concept of Steampunk, if it could be transitioned from an art form into a technological movement is a similar approach. And of course, that’s in large part what Retrotopia is all about.

Eric S. said...

Another place is other cultures, which you’ve talked about extensively, and which Spengler addressed.

And a third is the soul of the people themselves, folklore and folkways never do seem to dry up, and most “high” art forms, technologies, and religions started out as aspects of folk culture. It’s the folk themselves who feed into the growth of new civilizations when a civilization dies, and it’s the folk who provide the most vital places of growth even when the civilization has fossilized. And it’s the tension between the high culture and the folk culture that feeds into many of the civilization toppling social crises we’ve been discussing lately.

The last question, then is how one can navigate both the culture that has used up its notional space and fossilized, and the spaces where there may be room to maintain a living and growing culture.

I think the answer to that question may come from occult philosophy, as expressed in this quote from Dion fortune:

"No student will ever make any progress in spiritual development who flits from system to system […]. Each of these systems has its value, but that value can only be realised if the system is carried out in its entirety. […] After this has been achieved we may, not without advantage, experiment with the methods that have been developed upon other Paths, and build up an eclectic technique and philosophy therefrom; but the student who sets out to be an eclectic before he has made himself an expert will never be anything more than a dabbler"

In other words… part of the reason that we’re tipping over into noise and derivation at this point, is that we’re pursuing innovation for innovation’s sake, rather than mastering established art forms and building slowly on it from there. And so, by mastering the basic underlying theories and techniques of 20th century physics and engineering, and building on them, the people of the Lakeland Republic are able to produce the Maser, whereas by flitting shallowly over the latest incarnations of the latest technology, the people of the Atlantic are able to produce a new V-pad that works slightly less effectively than the last one. I believe I remember (I can’t find it now, so it may have shown up in the comments, rather than in the text of the story itself), that Lakeland had a well known composer who had written either an opera or a musical about a battle in the second Civil War, so they’ve still got composition happening, but it avoids becoming derivative because it is based on a mastery of the musical traditions that it’s drawing on and isn’t just trying to put a lazy spin on something that’s only half-mastered… like the people of the Atlantic Republic who know how to make a variety of eclectic Martini spinoffs, but never bothered to master the technique of a basic martini first before adding innovation to the design.

And so, it seems that the key difference is where the roots are… a living, vital culture, has its roots firmly in living and vital forms and their mastery. That means, either mastering spaces that are still growing and then expanding on them, or mastering older forms and then taking them in different directions. Whereas a culture that is finding itself firmly in the realm of diminishing returns and found that every wave of innovation makes things worse rather than better has its roots completely in the present and destroys them with every new wave… Their roots go back no further than the last wave of change. Which means the further you get from the basics, the less mastery of the basics you have. Which whether it’s technology, music, martinis, or magic is like attempting to write a completely new song without ever having learned how to practice scales and chord progressions, it imposes tighter limits than would otherwise be necessary.

Ien in the Kootenays said...

OMG! That concept of notional space, a term new to me, explains so much. I have never been able to relate to most modern art. With the luxury of middle (and now old) age I stopped trying. I like what Iike and that is that. It does not matter much anymore, but it is still fun to see my disgust for characters like the unreadable Robbe Grillet vindicated. Fun series.

Owen said...

>I've considered Linux on occasion, but I'm only interested in it if it's absolutely boring plug-&-play, no fiddling needed

It may get to that point - in another 30 years. Trouble with linux is that it's built by engineers who aren't getting paid, so nobody can tell them to build something that ordinary people want. Because money is a means of social control. So they build something they want to build. Which is usually something they want to use or that would interest or impress their peers.

It's like the mechanic who likes to go racing at the track - he's not going to build a car that has cupholders and climate control and a suspension that has a comfortable ride with predictable oversteer that sacrifices handling for safety. Or even an engine that will have reliability at the cost of performance. If it breaks, he'll just hoist it out and rebuild it, no sweat. Everyone does that right?

Maybe you can take his blueprints and pay some engineers to modify them and build a nice boring commuter car (also see: Shuttleworth and Ubuntu) but even there you'll see the um, "racing and enthusiast" heritage in the basic design. The A/C might not work all the time or it might need some repair work to get it running. The suspension might have quirks in it in certain untested cases. Etc.

I'll end with this though - you may not have a choice, or the choices you'll have will be to jump in the Frankencar and make friends with a local mechanic - or have Microsoft monitoring you 24/7, all the while spamming ads and distractions at you. Windows 10 already has lunatic features in it, like the new improved Action Center where they remind you that you need to crush 10 candies in Candy Crusher today. Needless to say when Windows 7 gets end of life'd, I'm not upgrading to Windows whatever, I'll head on over to Ubuntu, pop the hood and start wrenching. Don't really like doing that anymore, but at least I can.

It's your choice though. If you stop using computers at all, I wouldn't blame you.

Owen said...


I remember Doug Henwood saying something like "There's a business section of the newspaper but you never see a labor section anywhere"

ed boyle said...

Nice to see how real relationships can develop and that the story is not just a pedagogical vehicle for an ideology. IOW sensitivity to real artistic values is taken into account, meaning universal timeless storyline. Dickens works regardless of time or place due to its human element, which is detailed and realistic. Some authors come over as political tracts and don't survive the test of time. I don't know when victorian romance turned into soft porn. Lady chatterly's lover perhaps. The whole technological idea surrounding history is inevitable in such a story due to the speed of change. Vague references in Dickens to how much London had changed from an old man in his lifetime were sufficient in 1850.

In Hard Times or Great Expectations, love or greed and power with accurate character sketches sufficiently motivate plot. For me culture and technology, historical surroundings are incidental to inner life which never changes. Most people want to see a good story and if the ideology does not get in the way then fine.

Opera singing sounds wonderful but I only saw one once on Arte here recently. It was very convincing melodrama, very moving. I guess Mozart. Turkish place, german girl kidnapped by sultan, her boyfriend tries to get her back. If well played, acting is good. I just saw gere in officer and a gentleman and my wife googled his story, ten years of theater before cinema. The results are good. Comic acting can also be good as in timing oo two and a half men, the nanny, etc. In a history of rome pre caesar in 7 volumes , 19th century historian goes into some detail on theater, comedies, dramas. Very interesting.

Eternal linear life as a single personality is impossible. Eternal life is only conceivable in a life form with endlessly available energy to recycle, repair from within body system. This would entail freeing up of fixed personality boundaries, which is just energetic form of expression. Multiple personality disorder shows that one can be left handed, chage eye color or sexual orientation, whatever almost randomly. The mind is a powerful thing.

John D. Wheeler said...

JMG, I'm actually a fan of 20th century music, but I did find your comments amusing. When I heard a live concert of Music for Pieces of Wood by Steve Reich, I sat there wondering if the ringing in my ears was meant to be part of the music. But for sheer pain, nothing holds a candle to the recording by Max Neuhaus of John Cage's Fontana Mix that used the feedback between a speaker and microphone.

For the masochistic: Reich Cage

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Coordinated Universal Time (= UTC = EST+5 = EDT+4): 20160707T161419Z

Dear JMG,

I should make clear (following up on my posting of UTC=20160707T155853Z, above, that I do agree with you on the diminishing returns from technology - at any rate (this is what you had in mind) the commerce-driven sort of technology we currently have: the private motorcar (we agree that a dense network of 1920s-style trams is preferred), commercial aviation (we agree that most intercity travel should be by rail, and that people below the rank of e.g. assistant-to-Deputy-Minister should not venture into transoceanic travel unless they have some serious reason for wanting to be cooped up in a New York/Southampton cabin-with-berth for ten days), and the home computer.

My dissent from your position is confined to science, as opposed to technology.

Angus ("7/6/16, 7:24 PM", "7/6/16, 9:16 PM") helpfully suggests that current attitudes to science are infected with a fetishization of technology. Under this infection, some may be liable to think that physics is a matter of discovering more and more elementary particles (since this is what the mass media glamourize), or that small observatories are obsolete (the University of Toronto helped propagate this one in an ill-conceived press release from 2007 - its ill-conceived closure of the David Dunlap Observatory I chronicled in my postings this past spring at

Let us imagine for a moment what Angus's rightly deplored "fetishization of technology" would mean if applied to that branch of science which is mathematics: Oh the horror. Mathematics is dying. Mathematics research requires supercomputers, as we see from the glamourization in the media of mathematical Chaos Theory, and these are bound to become rarer less and less available to our hard-pressed researchers as our culture declines...

It may be true that some branches of physics - particle physics? - are reaching, or will soon reach, a point of diminishing returns, as I suppose also mathematical Chaos Theory some day must. It does not follow from this that physics as a whole will reach a point of diminishing returns, and a fortiori it does not follow from this that science as a whole will reach a point of diminishing returns. That may be so, and it may be not so: I am here making only a point in logic, namely that it does not, from the admitted foreseeable bottlenecks in big-budget science such as particle physics or supercomputing, logically follow.


(in Richmond Hill, just north of Toronto in Canada)


Raymond Duckling said...

@WBJ, JMG, Justin

On Peak Windows, I'd say that Windows 98 indeed was the peak for the lineage of the personal computer (PC). It was followed by the very forgetable Windows Millenium and then taken out of its misery by its masters in favor of a sibling lineage that still had some innovation potential: 32-bit servers.

In the 1990s, Microsoft's server OS was Windows NT. In the wake of the 21st Century, this lineage was split in two: Windows 2000 and Windows XP. The former and its heirs - Win2K3, Win2K8, Win2K12, ... - continued to be marketed as "server OSes". On the other hand, the venerable Windows XP is, IMHO, The_Classic_OS(TM) for low end x86 server technology. What happened is that low end servers got so cheap that it was possible to sell those to regular customers.

If WinXP marks the classic era, I tend to see Windows 7 as the beginning of the Barroque. It was Microsoft's first 64bit OS, and indeed it can handle both x86 and x64 arquitectures. The thing is, while 32 bit computers had a native, elegant way to handle everything, 64 bit computers are too big. I have never worked for Microsoft, but if my Linux knowledge carries more or less Ok (and I think it does), the internal structures of many modern OS features have gotten too big to be handled.

Take Virtual Memory, by example. VM is (one of) the feature(s) that allows each program in your computer think it's got the whole machine for itself. It translates the addresses of where the program thinks each peace of data is stored, to the actual location within the real memory (or, in many cases, at secondary storage). 32-bit machines have a table to match a program's memory pages to real actual pages. For 64-bit machines, such table would be huge (making it both unstorable and unsearchable within reasonable amounts of space and time respectively). So, 64-bit machine's implementation of VM has to resort to an arrangement of tables of tables to figure out where the actual table that has the actual page might be found.

That itself is still workable, and the same trick could be extended to handle 128-bit computers if all the other limits that are pilling on top of modern architectures would be handled (though I do not expect that to happen within the next 10-15 years - meaning never at all). But this is only one feature, and there are dozens, if not hundreds, of similar examples. All this make me think that Windows 7 is already trying to squeeze itself in the remaining space in "computer architecture noosphere".

Finally, Win7's successors are clearly not trying to innovate anymore. They just do what Win7 already does perfectly OK, but every new feature does corral user's options and prevent them to do what they want to do, instead forcing them to do stuff that mostly benefits the new master's of that technology. As Synthase commented before, Richard Stallman was right all allong.

Vesta said...

The idea of art, technology, or other applications expanding to fill a finite notional space is very helpful. I'm not sure it fits perfectly with endeavors to understand the physical world, except in the sense that we use (limited, imperfect) theoretical descriptions, or because we have to use ever more complex technology to explore the limits of those theories.

GMG, as you noted, theories are indeed cheap. But testing them, at least initially, need not be. Take for example the revolution that followed Darwin's revelations about speciation. The evidence is all around us, plain to see, it just required putting it in the correct theoretical context to pull the meaning from it.

A similar (maybe even more profound!) revolution may be under way as we speak, in understanding the transition from inanimate material to living organisms, pioneered by Jeremy England Once again, this is at it's root paper and pencil work, plus simple observation and reevaluation of existing data, (notwithstanding England's choice to begin with computer modeling!)

The difference here may be between a fixed (arbitrary?) notional space occupied by the creations of our limited human imagination, and the infinite landscape of the real world. This might also relate to how each question we seem to answer about the world of nature generates several more mysteries.

Thanks as always for your deep insights and wonderful writing.

Ed-M said...

Excellent post. I love it! And no obligatory sex scene, either.

Just one quibble:

When you had Peter Carr mention that "Nobody’s pushing brand new alphabets any more," you could could have included a mention of Dmitry Orlov's Unspell. Maybe as the last workable alphabet invented? ;^)

Raymond Duckling said...


I wanted to answer directly to your comment. I do share the feeling towards Win10. At home we keep an old-ish Win7 laptop (bought new in 2007), and my wife & myself have pledged this will be the last Windows system we will ever own. I expect to run this until the hardware breaks appart, but if we ever get a forced upgrade, I will wipe the damned hard drive thrice and installed a Linux version from 2013, which I keep around explicitly for that purpose.

On the other hand, I do not share your enthusiasm for Linux. It is an ok OS and everything, but it is too chaotic and too idiosyncratic to be mantained by any non-expert. The community has also dranked deeply from the Kool-aid fountain of Progress, so it is extremely hard to install modern versions on old hardware (even those distros that promote themselves as being "light-weight" or "vintage friendly"). I did run the experiment a couple of years back, and I found Linux'es claims to fall short on my expectations. I documented the results in my now defunct blog "El Alma del Hacker Verde" (in Spanish).

Now a days, I feel some really good vibes from the BSD community, specially Open-BSD (for the privacy conscious). However, this is even more of a time investment, though the whole development and integration process is centralized, so you do not have to deal with so much of the Linux chaos. I will probably begin experimenting with this next year, if I can spare the time.

Owen said...


I'd say 90% of what you'd want in a desktop O/S was provided in Windows 2000. The other 10% (at considerable cost to both builder and operator) was added over the course of XP -> Windows 7.

With Windows 8 onward, the internal entropy that has been building inside Microsoft is now visible for all to see. Nobody wanted Windows 8. And now, they can't even give away Windows 10 (whatever happened to Windows 9 in the dungeons of Redmond, unspeakable horrors, stories that remain buried)

People have talked about this, when the stock price plateaued, they wouldn't be able to use stock options anymore and then they would attract a more um, how's the most delicate way of putting this? A more domesticated version of the usual cubicle rabbit?

At one time Microsoft was the young upstart that thumbed their nose at IBM. Now they are IBM.

Lynnet said...

More 20th century composers to listen to without pain: Ravel, Enesco, Faure, Gaubert, Nielsen, Delius, Grainger, Copland, Rodrigo, Milhaud, Poulenc, Saint-Saens, de Falla, Elgar, Holst, Mahler, Granados, Farkas, Albeniz, among others.

Danil Osipchuk said...

Following recent news on Hillary on zerohedge/market-ticker/snafu-solomon where many people are upset I was wondering where are the decent people of goverment agencies of the similar attitude.
It is impossible that everyone employed there is a crook and a parasite, somebody has to do real work and that requires some decency.
In the comments session of ZH I stumbled upon two fascinating threads at 4chan:
An anonymous presenting himself as FBI employee answered questions and encouraged people to push for investigation of the Clinton foundation business.
The idea is to topple her during elections, because the current consensus is that if she wins all bets are of - she is charged to start a war.
He was answering quickly, consistently and his views on matters I'm personally familiar with are sound.
There are a lot of things many of which are outright scary - you may find it in both senses interesting

daelach said...

Ah, so Mr. Carr probably discovered that the old-school alternative to the expensive Atlantean fembots offered more fun - despite the fembots having 120 different personality profiles ready for download via Metanet. (;

As for "modern music", it's by and large either just a copy of something else ("cover version"), or it is just boring and requires an at least half-naked actress pretending to make music while being dubbed by playback. I havn't been listening to the radio for ages, plus the annoying ads.

I'd make an exception e.g. for heavy metal, which historically grew out of Jazz (via Rock'n'Roll), but which today is often very close to classic music. In fact, Vivaldi is particularly well suited to be played as metal. On Youtube, there is a spot with the two guitar guys from Children of Bodom doing Vivaldi's "Summer" from the Four Seasons on their electric guitars, which sounds really impressive. Just enter "children of bodom vivaldi". They should record the full album.. ^^

But even in that scene, the innovation cycle came more or less to an end. Metal wasn't actually shocking anymore. That's when "Black Metal" came in, desperately trying to be more provoking. When even that wore out, Nazi Black Metal was the next try. Not really that creative, actually.

Yellow Submarine said...

John Michael,

I know this if off topic, but have you seen the news about the latest extrajudicial execution of an African-American by the police? In this case, as with so many, there seems to have been no legitimate reason for this particular shooting. This looks like an act of murder, pure and simple. I am a working class white and a paleoconservative and words cannot begin to express how disgusted I am with these repeated instances of police brutality and excessive use of force against the black community.

Solomon, who is an African American conservative and a military veteran who served in Iraq, is livid over this one, as well as the FBI's blatant placing of partisan politics over justice in the Hillary Clinton case. Or as Solomon puts in the Hillary email case

The FBI did an outstanding job in laying out the case against Hillary and then s**t their pants when it came time to do the hard man up and charge the female.

There are a growing number of Americans, black and white, right wing and left wing, who are fed up with the system. The level of anger, frustration and desperation just keeps growing. Meanwhile the system seems to be hell-bent on delegitimizing itself and I think its only a matter of time before something breaks and we see a major crackup like we saw in France in 1789, America in 1861 and Russia in 1917.

Solomon concludes one of his recent blog posts by writing

In 2016, we're no longer surprised. The system has been broken a long time. Past time to tear it all down.

There are an awful lot of Americans, of all races and political persuasions, who feel that way. The growing lawlessness of the establishment, whether we are talking about the routine extrajudicial executions of African Americans by the police or politicians and celebrities like the Clintons (who I have been referring to recently as the "Clinton Crime Family") who get away with criminal acts that the rest of us would go to prison for, is one of the things that is discrediting the system and driving us towards Caesarism, just like Spengler predicted.

MawKernewek said...

The only 'new' alphabet I can think of is Berber neo-Tifinagh though it is not entirely new from scratch but rather derives in part from ancient Berber.

John Roth said...


Darwin does make an interesting case, because at least half of what he said was simply wrong. He didn't anticipate the gene, which was such a gaping problem that a lot of people rejected it throughout the entire 19th century until Gregor Mendel's work with peas got rediscovered and published where it would be noticed. Then it took some heavy-duty mathematical work in the 20s and 30s to establish population genetics.

We honor the pioneers because they were first, not because they were right.

Unknown said...

@ESN: "I doubt it... because the European musical world had widely adopted 12-note equal temperament to move freely through all the keys - and had largely forgotten that this system was actually an imperfect compromise based on actual physical laws. (music theory books had stopped teaching about harmonic, arithmetic and geometric means, divorcing music theory from physical reality)."

As a former musical performer who both played trombone and sang in a harmonic "barbershop" style group, I can attest to the fact that the agreed upon Hz values of each distinct note, or "keyboard/piano pitch," is a sub-optimal compromise that is well known among better performers, and better tuning for the harmonics of the chords in play can be acheived when playing an instrument without those arbitrary limits (including the voice). The thing I remember loving most about barbershop is that when we are in perfect tune, the chord will have a "magical" ring to it (the higher harmonics). This is best witnessed in a live performance, of course, which is why most folks who've only heard recordings don't "get it."

I did study music theory in college as well, and I don't recall if it was covered.


dltrammel said...

Neo Tuxedo said:

I foolishly didn't bookmark it, but an article crossed my Tumblr dashboard a week or two ago that made much the same point. Although they didn't use the terms you use here, the article's writer considers that computing power is apparently still in its period of exploration and doesn't see it ending any time soon.

Wow, and I just ran across an article (sorry didn't bookmark it either) that discussed that Moore's Law, the doubling of computer power is fundamentally over. Core processors now are getting so compact, that transistors are nearing the few hundred atoms width. At that level, even tiny errors are causing serious problems, AND the cost of building factories to build the processors is getting more and more expensive.

The article went on to discuss how software companies, like Microsoft, are going to have to focus more on getting elegant and more efficiently run software now on, rather than just using brute force processor power.

My take away was hardware has hit its cliff.

Greg Burton said...

Nice piece, even though we have somewhat different aesthetics. There is a genre of modern club music called Power Noise, and I find it quite enjoyable for dancing. It's derived somewhat from Industrial, which in turn is somewhat derived from Ambient approaches, and that takes us back to early Electronica. All of them depend on technology, and can provide an interesting long term meditation on what we mean by "natural" when most Americans live almost entirely within a human-mediated reality. :)

Don't think I've asked before, but are you familiar with the historian/historiographer Carroll Quigley? Brilliant and neglected, imo, and quite relevant to a Toynbee/Spengler discussion.

Denis Landry said...

Good evening Mr Greer
You have astonished me...
Where do you pick up your insight, really
As a sideline, i work in the computer field
doing maintenance. Now with your 'Peak Microsoft, to my mind, happened sometime around Windows 98, and since then the downsides have mounted as the benefits have declined' is in synch with my experience.
The end users machine is whatever they want it to be(7 win7 machines, 2 vistas)
The production server is win Xp64, the accounting computer is ... wait for it...
Windows 98...
On accounting reliability is premium, the prinoiple, is :'It aint broke dont fix It'
Now, my personnal machines are running microsoft Win 7, Xp32 and Linux
I woudlnt touch Windows 10 with a ten foot pole...
Too many security vulnerabilities.

On the same track, this article on zero hedges goes up the same wheelhouse:
Very good about the economic difficulty of Japanese society, now what i dont like is the tone of the article about being technology retard if corporation are re-using salvaged computers...
There are very good reasons, cost is only one factor. The domain of use is where reliability is paramount, major railway operators, auto-parts giants, drugmakers, retailers. the giggles came up when they it was shown they where re-using Pc-98

Tomoharu Iguchi is truly a present day Ruinman...
Now its not the first i have seen you do this, you have superior insight then to insiders of a given line of business.
How do you do that ? Geomancy?

rube cretin said...


Interesting comment you made to Stephen above. Several weeks ago there occurred among your players comments about Cormac McCarthy as being an author worthy of reading. Your response to Stephen is exactly that of one of the characters in Cormac's play Sunset Limited. The players, Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson ,a couple of outstanding actors, debate belief and atheism...afterlife and nihilism...salvation and suicide. If you have not read or seen this play, I do believe upon watching you will agree the door you opened with your comment has been explored in depth. Also, “You get old and you realize there are no answers, just stories.” garrison keillor


Eric S. said...

Re Alphabets: It seems like alphabets are much like languages, and vegetable and animal breeds. They don't get invented so much as they grow out of the cultivation and needs of a culture. They fall under a similar category to folk art, folkways, and the more organic elements of religion in that they emerge collectively rather than from the innovations of an individual, and the notional space for innovation by individuals is very small. (Thus, for instance, many of our modern "old world" vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts, and kale, emerged after the fall of Rome and are descendants of common Roman garden mustard. The analogy for our civilization would be a civilization using an array of exotic looking vegetables bred from the dandelions, clover, and thistles of today). Overbreeding on an individual level on a shorter time scale leads to things like the more extreme examples of over-breeding today... (dog breeds like the pug and the English bulldog... crops that can only propagate through constant hybridization... etc.) Languages and alphabets evolve at a much slower pace, and to fill a societal need... both Ogham and the Runes seem to have emerged in the 2nd century among barbarians outside of Rome, seeing the use for a form of written communication, and flourished through the middle ages. The Russian alphabet emerged in the 9th century or so. The Arabic alphabet emerged in the 4th and 5th century as classical civilization tipped over into the Dark ages... and while some, like the Ogham were new innovations, others sprung out of older alphabets (such as the fusion of Latin and Greek letters in the Cyrillic alphabet)... And so, I fully expect that a thousand years from now in some parts of the world, new alphabets will most certainly be emerging among future literate cultures. And I'm sure that there will be some 3rd or 4th millenium versions of Chaucer or Dante who comes about to canonize the vernaculars of their time. But the common factor of all of those languages, crops, alphabets, and religions... is that they emerged collectively out of some sort of vernacular (which is why even languages invented by master linguists such as Tolkien are filled with the sorts of holes that are inevitable without existing native speakers). One of the things that leads to a cultural form entering into a finite notional space seems to be the act of separating it from the vernacular, those art forms and technologies that are completely alienated from the vernacular run through their resources very quickly, while those things rooted in the vernacular will be much more resilient and adaptable. This is also part of the reason empires attempting to destroy a culture attempt to suppress the vernacular language itself (as the English did to the Irish and Welsh, colonial Americans did to indiginous languages, or modern Americans to southern dialects, inner city slang, and Spanish). Because without the vernacular, there's no pool from which the roots of culture can drink.

Unknown said...

Ah, I remember the big name circulating when I was in college studying music (ca. 2000): Philip Glass. I remember listening to some of his "music" and thinking that I was supposed to enjoy or appreciate it, but could just not tolerate the overuse of dissonance. Even with my ability of Absolute Pitch, I can tolerate and even appreciate some "discomfort" but his compositions left me feeling...

Extremely tense.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Yes, of course, because opera singers don't need microphones. :) FYI, Lyric Chicago does pretty well with Wagner. They're starting a Ring this fall with Eric Owens as Wotan.

I wonder if Carr doesn't realize that the fabulously corrupt city state of Chicago still has well-funded opera; they are able to bring in European stars owing to certain relationships. Too bad Melanie B. didn't mention it. Perhaps young Bickerstaff will go to Europe, get famous and then be invited to Chicago. Playing in Minneapolis would be a step in that direction, I suppose. Perhaps he would get noticed by a visiting German with a Beyreuth connection.

I, myself, have an appreciation for Britten, but completely agree with the whole notional space thing. Poor Peter Grimes, so misunderstood. Re jazz, there is still some interesting stuff being done--much by artists with a Chicago connection of some sort. But it's for a particular audience that is willing to search it out.

I think that, besides the notional space idea, there is also the whole other issue of corporatized art fed as mass entertainment to audiences who perhaps didn't have much in the way of music instruction in school.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Re homework to read something that offends one:

Dark Money, by Jane Mayer, is what I'm reading. Meticulously researched and offensive in all kinds of ways. I highly recommend it to anyone who would like to know more or thinks they already know something about how money and ideology have been working in American culture and politics since the mid-twentieth century. I'm finding myself reassessing much that I thought I knew or that seems to be common knowledge. Perfect reading for this offensive election season.

W. B. Jorgenson said...


I have to interact with computers far more than I'd like, and I've noticed my entire life every time that something switches to computer based it's less convenient, more annoying, and in general worse. Since I was born shortly before Peak Microsoft, I figure they are probably close to the same date.


I've thought of that too, but I see it a little differently: our obsession with innovation must look weird to nearly every other human culture, not just the medieval poets. That concerns me: I'm inclined to think if nearly all other cultures lack a feature we have, or have one we lack, there's a reason. In this case it's obvious (to me, anyway): change for the sake of change tends to make things worse. There are many more ways to ruin things than improve them, and it can be hard to tell before hand which way any given change is headed.

Mr Mean Mustard,

I second your opinion about Facebook. I hate the site and would abandon it if only that were possible for me at this point in my life. However, currently many people I know plan exclusively with it. In essence, I don't have a choice: there are times when in order to know what is being planned I have to check the site.

At this point, without it, I would have much less of a social life. I'm increasingly feeling that's a price worth paying to get it out of my life, but currently the price is too much for me. There are many times I feel like I should have been born a few decades earlier....


I currently study this sort of thing, and will give the best answer possible: it really depends. Give it a few thousand years and most alphabets evolve to the point where they warrant being called something else. However, having any form of printing technology seems to slow this process, so I think it depends on whether the printing press survives. Additionally, writing systems are sometimes revived, or reformed to look older (upper case Latin letters are an example of that very process).

It will also depend on which language you're talking about. It's likely that letter forms will evolve differently in different areas, and at different rates, giving rise to a wide range of descendants, possibly many still called a “Latin alphabet” or whatever that works out to in the local language, some looking similar to today, others looking very different, maybe even unrecognizably so.

All this is assuming that writing survives the coming dark ages, which is not a guarantee. I think they usually do, but I'm aware of at least one case where it failed to survive: Linear B in Ancient Greece.

Hereward said...

What a truly magnificent description of an initiation you have managed to pen there!

After about nine years of regular ingestion of ADR, my beliefs and prejudices have repeatedly been challenged and broken in a long stream of initiations. It is obviously some masochistic tendency of mine as that is exactly why I keep coming back! The one thing, though, with such events is that once initiated, it is utterly impossible to go back to thinking in the old way. The problem I now frequently face is that my friends, colleagues and family members have not followed the same path and so I am regularly frustrated by their thinking. As you pointed out some weeks ago in reference to peak oil, either you get it or you do not. So, for instance, just daring to utter something simple like "We're not yet running out of oil, but we are running out of affordable oil," is pretty much guaranteed to elicit reactions ranging from blank stares to outright anger.

So I think I shall pass on trying to convince anyone that we are reaching the limits of the notional space for technology even though in specific areas, at least, like my own area of radar or Moore's Law, it seems perfectly obvious.

Clark said...

Peak computing... I would put it around 2000 or the early aughts.

In the 90s a colleague here at Prestigious University (PU) advised me that I'd never rise above bare subsistence if I didn't change job categories. She gave me a copy of the dBase programming language.

So I wrote a program that replaced 20 hours a week of typing (on a typewriter) with maybe an hour of computing. I gave the program to other (bigger) units. This got me promoted to Programmer.

In the aughts PU decided we should scrap that program, and spend a million dollars to get the same commercial software that our sister universities were all buying.

Long story short: it was inferior. Two colleagues went on disability rather than switch back to tons of repetitive typing (albeit now on a computer).

To be fair-- management was by then becoming scared of coders, because when one got hired away, they could be left with code that nobody else could maintain. This fear swept over all industries and burocracies, as near as I can tell.

(But there must have been a better solution-- training and cross training more programmers, and paying them well, for instance.)

Anyway, I could tell story after story of good homegrown programs that did exactly what we wanted being replaced with expensive bloated monstrosities marketed as miracles that they assured us would do exactly what we wanted, but never actually did, while making some suits rich.

Our IT department is filled mostly with people called Programmers who can install software and maintain machines, but who can't write a bit of code.

JIRA, Peoplesoft, Kronos: "Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated."

(Apologies if I'm posting this twice: I clicked on "Publish", signed in, and my comment is still in the box, so I'm clicking "Publish" again...

Cherokee Organics said...


Oh, I forgot to mention a very troubling thing that I spotted in the street yesterday whilst in the big smoke, and gave a very wide berth too. I'm pretty certain - or almost certain - that I spotted a young lady exhibiting signs of measles infection. I saw her from a distance and thought to myself, that's unfortunate, she has some very unpleasant looking skin on her face, and then I recalled where I was in the big smoke and the penny dropped...

Why we give our infrastructure away is well beyond me. I just don't get it.

Cheers (although that is probably an inappropriate sentiment?)


SLClaire said...

As a person with training in chemistry, I'd say that the field passed the limit of its notional space long ago, with the first few thermoplastic and thermoset polymers. And even then I don't think they are better than natural materials for most things. Sure, glass mustard jars break if you drop them, but it's a whole lot easier to get the last dab of mustard out of them than it is the weirdly-shaped abominations of chemical-element stew that pass for a mustard container in the condiment aisle (and that's if you're not making your own mustard out of whole mustard seeds and vinegar and spooning it into reused jars). And will anyone argue seriously that polyester or rayon or nylon is better than wool, cotton, silk, or linen?

As for another (non-chemical) example, the paper map is an elegant technology that beats the stuffing out of GPS. Even a somewhat out-of-date paper map will get you where you want to go if you apply some logical thinking to it, but an up-to-date GPS can still get you off track. In 2012 my husband and I used a paper map to get us to a church where a wedding was being held. Along the way, the state highway we were using went under construction, sending us on a detour. The detour was advertised in road signs, not as well as it could have been but good enough to get us onto it and keep us on it as long as necessary. Because we were using the paper map, I (the navigator) was paying careful attention to road signs for up-to-date info. We got to the church just when we wanted, early enough to find good parking, wind down from the stress of driving, and talk with friends before the ceremony. A close friend of mine, on the other hand, slipped in just as the ceremony started. She was using GPS to find the location, which hadn't advertised her of the construction and kept directing her to go on the highway that no longer existed for her. Without a paper map, she was at its mercy, and eventually it directed her in some bizarre fashion that led to her being late.

@ trippticket: Oddly enough, my latest blog post touches on what you're talking about in permaculture. You'll see I've been learning a lot from our host as well as my work in the garden.

Mean Mr Mustard said...


Regarding Heavy Metal...

This genre was possibly invented by J.S. Bach, some three hundred years ago. Well known contemporary exponents incorporating obvious classical influences include Mr R Blackmore, late of Deep Purple and Rainbow. But the ultimate virtuoso performance of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is surely the unknown, yet astonishing, Dave Celentano...




nuku said...

As desktop (iMac) Mac user, I’d have to say that diminishing returns also apply to the world of Apple. From 0SX 10.6 on, the operating systems have gotten progressively dumbed down to fit the demographic of the “connected but shallow“ generation.

Re the Arts: it seems that in the Arts generally the concept of seeking Harmony and Beauty is strong in the beginning of a style. Ugliness or discordance can be used as an element of contrast, but is not a goal in itself. However when the style becomes decadent beauty/proportion/harmony is often a casualty.

Re Rap “music”: in general I can’t stand the incredibly boring rhythm and the snarling content. However, there is a wonderful movie “Bulworth” staring Warren Betty which uses Rap in a very funny ironic way, so its not completely awful from my perspective.

Kfish said...

This piece talks about the latest Tesla crash, pointing out that automated systems reliably cause the atrophy of human skills, with tragic results when the crutches - er, computers - fail:

nuku said...

Re “Equal Temperment tuning”:
As a former harpsichord maker and lover of Baroque music, I can add that stringed instruments like the harpsichord were generally not tuned in equal temperament, but were tuned in a temperament that gave the best harmonious sound for the “home” key of the piece. As one modulated into keys further away from the home key, the sound became more discordant. This discordance was thus part of the inner tension and drama of the piece when it was played. With equal temperament tuning, this is lost, all keys are equally out of tune.
In those days, any good performer would know how to tune his instrument in many different temperaments to suite the key of the music. Also, because the all-wood harpsichord goes out of tune easily with changes in humidity and temperature, most people who owned one needed to know how to tune it.
Pianos, with their metal frame, are much more stable AND are way more difficult to tune; so equal temperament tuning, which for Bach was only one of many possible tunings, became the norm when the piano eclipsed the harpsichord in the 1780’s.
Maybe this is another case of “simpler ain’t necessarily better“?

Vesta said...

@John Roth

Indeed. Yet fair or not, the explosion of evolutionary understanding is usually called the Darwinian revolution.

Independent of the man, the notional space 'evolution' seems not to fill up at all. To me it appears only to grow larger as we come to understand it better. This is reflected in the absence of evidence of diminishing returns in the endeavor. (The link I provided was meant to illustrate this.)

Further, non-fillingness might be generally true of those notional spaces that work well to understand the real world. Hmm. Maybe this could be used as a test of whether or not we are on the right track? As in, if it costs a billion to test it, it probably doesn't really matter much.

onething said...

Heavens, what is the difficulty in creaming sugar and butter with a spoon? The butter does need to come to room temperature...

I watched a vid of Jeremy England a year or so ago when he made his splash. I didn't see anything new or particularly interesting.
England’s popularity says more about the state of pop science writing than about the state of physics or biology.

To say things like the sun has enough energy and "You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant" simply shows ignorance of what the actual questions in biology and origin of life really are.
Life is almost infinitely complex. It requires and it built upon nonrepetitive, linguistic information.

"Sunlight maintains life on earth only because many organisms contain molecular machines which act as miniature solar cells, collecting sunlight and converting it into chemical energy. These organisms contain information encoded in their DNA -- software which is translated by additional cellular machinery to build functional proteins, some of which are then choreographed to assemble into light-harvesting molecular machines.

Other organisms can then feed on photosynthetic organisms and convert them into their own chemical fuel. Every part of life's complex web requires enormous suites molecular machines that, again, are encoded in the language-based genomes at the heart of every living cell.

The fundamental problem with England's theories, and Rosenberg's polemics, is that sunlight and other forms of energy do not generate new genetic information, nor do they produce new types of biological machines.

It's one thing to observe that energy keeps a machine running; it's quite another to claim energy produced the machine in the first place."

Cortes said...

Significant projects like Unspell take time to build momentum. I wouldn't discount the possibility of its attaining such momentum just yet even though personally it is sore on the eyes. I bought three copies and gifted two; both were enthused over.

John Michael Greer said...

Before I start responding to comments, I'd like to remind readers that profanity is not permitted on this blog. I have once again had to delete several good comments because the authors didn't pay attention to that part of the text above the comments box. Come on, folks, you know the rules; feel free to use the words "frack" and "shale" for their alliterative equivalents if you wish, or come up with more interesting replacements for that handful of dreary and overused expletives, but if you put profanity in your comment it will be deleted, period. Thank you.

alex carter said...

Mean Mr. Mustard - From reading guitar magazines printed at the time of its flourishing, and conversations heard at the time by those very enthusiastic about it, my impression is that heavy metal became an effort to get back to "European roots" in music. There had long been the complaint about rock that it was just white boys capitalizing on blacks' soul, blues, etc. The band Led Zeppelin was very up-front about borrowing from Delta blues all they could, and actually, I think, did a lot toward bringing back what might have been lost musical history. But after a while it gets pretty old, being told you're just borrowing from another culture, so the heavy metal guys got involved in learning about their "roots", the classical music of Europe. I remember endless discussions about the various "modes" (for instance, a major scale is the Ionian mode) and the guitar magazines were full of terms like Dorian and Mixolydian etc.

Indeed, a devoted listener to heavy metal would find Bach delightful. And anything that gets music knowledge and history out to the people is great in my book.

Nastarana said...

Dear onething, there is no difficulty in creaming butter and sugar with a spoon. I used to do it a lot when making cookies. That was back when it was still allowed to take home baked treats to your child's school. The problems arise when you have to separate eggs and beat the whites. Not everyone has or can afford a copper bowl. I do consider the mixer, mid 20thC, you can still find them 2nd hand, a very useful implement for fancy cakes and making whipped cream and meringue pies. I would not dream of getting out the mixer for something simple like cookies or brownies.

Justin said...

Re contraceptives, it's amazing that the copper IUD - basically a 'T' shaped piece of copper wire - took until the 1960's to be developed. Given the knowledge and desire to do so, it should be possible to manufacture and insert these devices under pretty austere conditions - it's not surgery, and copper wire is abundant these days.

Owen said...

>But there must have been a better solution-- training and cross training more programmers, and paying them well, for instance

You're not thinking like a typical mid-level manager. For your training and education, here's an example of how a typical mid-level manager thinks, reasons and ultimately acts:

Don't judge. Just put yourself in that mindset. Create a ManagerEmulator in that head of yours, and you'll save yourself some grief later on.

faoladh said...

MawKernewek: I can think of a number of new methods of writing, some of which do not strongly rely on previous ones. The most obvious are Blissymbolics and Sutton's method of writing out sign languages, SignWriting, as well as the amazingly successful Cherokee, Inuktitut, and Cree, but there are a surprising number that have been proposed with various levels of seriousness over the last couple hundred years or so. I understand that Deseret still sees some minor use.

That said, I do agree with JMG that the number of serious proposals is perhaps down from the heyday of writing systems in the first millennium or so, where it sometimes seems like every monastery (Eastern or Western) had its own system of writing, or at least added its own spin to the received writing system.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@James M. Jensen II--I don't think the possibilities of computer games as an art form are anywhere near being exhausted. The business of computer gaming has problems that remind me of rock and roll in the early 1960s after the golden age of early electric guitar music and doo wop and before the Beatles and others began experimenting with subject matter and arrangements. As I see it, the main problems in this period were that AM radio playing Top Forty hits (skewed by payola) in three minute 45 RPM singles was all the audience got a chance to hear. Most of what you could do with that in Fifties styles had been done. Several things happened in the mid-Sixties to end the stagnation: college age audiences started listening to free form FM stations that allowed DJs to play whatever they liked; the LP format allowed more flexibility in song length; bands that wrote their own music instead of having songs chosen by A&R men started getting record contracts because they showed they could get an audience. Between 1965 and 1968 good, original music was coming out every week and brilliant, innovative albums almost monthly. In part that was because the barriers between creative people and their potential audiences were low.

Right now three kinds of arty computer games are being cranked out. Graphics-intensive first person shooters created by young men for other young men. Multiplayer games that require a large investment in time, equipment and fast Internet connections. Single player casual adventure games that are marketed mostly to women and which are extremely formulaic. I don't know anything about the multiplayer games, but the other two kinds are reworking the same tropes over and over.

I think at least part of the problem is the difficulty the potential audiences have in finding anything different and being able to check it out. There's little or no game criticism that isn't either marketing or aimed at people who are already fanatical gamers. If something as innovative as Myst is being made today (and I'm sure there is), how are people going to find out about it? Computer gaming as an art form has been held back by the lack of a distribution channel equivalent to college FM radio in the 1960s.

I found out about the original desktop version of A Dark Room by accident. It's as simple as can be but I found it exceedingly immersive because the player can make choices based on incomplete information, just like in real life, and the choices affect the game play, though not the final outcome. I looked for other games in which how I interacted with other characters and what risks I was willing to take would have affected events, and my hand wasn't continually held by an intrusive hint system. I couldn't find them. I couldn't find a forum where I could express what I liked about the game and what I would like to see developed in future games of that type. Same is true with an entirely different game, The Tiny Bang Story, which is of the hidden object/puzzle genre but has virtues lacking in most other games of that genre.

faoladh said...

Oh, my. I realize that I could happily go down the road of discussing writing systems, for instance noting that writing seems to have been invented independently a total of three or four times (Central America, China's Yellow River valley, the Fertile Crescent, and possibly Egypt along the Nile; there are some other possibilities, but it is controversial as to whether they even constitute writing at all, such as the mesolithic European symbols, or what their heritage is, such as the Rongorongo glyphs of Oceania), but that some writing systems have been invented that are unrelated to the systems that inspired them to write at all (I mentioned Blissymbolics and Cherokee, for instance, among a few others and there are still more). I strongly recommend that anyone with an interest in writing systems take a look at the Omniglot site.

pygmycory said...

In terms of good late 19th/early 20th century composers for orchestra, I really like Elgar. The Enigma variations strike me as some of the loveliest music ever. Some of Holst's music is magnificent, too. A lot of the later stuff, not so much.

Owen said...


I don't know which is more disturbing. That the FBI is funposting to 4chan, that the FBI likes funposting to 4chan, or that the AnonFBI was saying that now is a good time to go get a gun if you don't have one already...

The 20th century is OVER. We're in a new era now. And you can really see that anything attached to the old era is really starting to look and act and sound quaint.

Don't hold on to the past too tightly - when it goes it could rip your arm off.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@SLCLaire--I differ with you on the virtues of rayon clothing. I have rayon shirts more than twenty years old. The fabric hasn't frayed, the colors are fast, and with proper laundering, they don't wrinkle. Unlike the immortal Twinkie, holding up well over time is a good feature in clothing. My rayon clothing is comfortable to wear in moderate temperatures. Rayon drapes well. It resists stains. Nothing beats wool for warmth but rayon has most of the virtues of cotton, linen and silk, and is sturdier and cheaper than any of them.

The raw material of rayon, wood pulp, is readily available. I don't really know how it's processed, so can't comment on source intensity or pollution, but since the stuff wears like iron that would be a partial offset. Cotton is a thirsty crop and requires prime agricultural land. There's a recent historical study called the Empire of Cotton about the dark side of the cotton economy, and slavery in the United States is only one part of it.

Kevin Warner said...

In thinking over your essay, I thought of how one person described human evolution. He said that our history should be not thought of as a lineal progression but that we are in fact the surviving twig on a very luxuriant bush i.e. those hundreds of other twigs either died out or went out on a path to nowhere. The same can be said with our technology.
Your essay reminded me that the technology we use nowadays is actually only one particular path that we chose to make that may have only been done so for commercial, political or all too human factors. The QWERTY keyboard that we use today is an excellent example of something that was decided on in the 19th century but proved to hard to change into a much more useful outlay. We know it is inefficient but most people have to use it anyway. Do they use Dvorak keyboards in the Lakeland republic at all? Though not a Mac user, may I point out the article called "How Apple Is Giving Design A Bad Name" at as being very instructive on how we are getting where we are?
Even JMG made this point when he mentioned how in at least one case, bypassed research was being experimented with in taking out drones which Carr saw at the drone shoot. Maser research if I recall correctly. You begin to wonder on just what we missed out on and where we could have ended up right across the board in modern society if we had selected other options. Does anybody else here for example think that modern streetscapes are ugly and alienating as well as modern computers, music, art, etc? Just what have we missed out on? I think here of the words by T.S. Elliot

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened

Michael Kalk said...

I may be opening a can of worms but arguably works by Philip Glass, Aaron Copland, Ennio Morricone, and Samuel Barber can all be listened to without too much pain. And they are all 20th century! In other news I saw an Eurasian Collared Dove in the back yard last night (I live in Oregon). How does the Lakeland Republic deal with invasive species/actively maintain the integrity of its ecosystems? Looking forward to the next chapter :)

Francis Cooke said...

Firstly, Thank you. I am deeply indebted to your work and insights. In my Kunstlerian "post suburbia moment", your writings were a candle in a deep cave.

This this post you connected some interesting dots regarding the life cycle of any system be it organic, artistic or cultural. The examples you cite, music and tangentially architecture resonate particularly with me; not the least because I am a practicing architect. As such we are trained with the subliminal motivations towards progress. I have often doubted the validity of the desperate, continual and vapid search for the new. As such I have developed a keen interest in Classical Architecture and have learned much. All of your comments about limits being the source of beauty are quite well made.

Still, my guess is that a strict reversion to past forms of Architecture will not occur. Designing a building in Meriga will differ from designing a building in Renaissance Italy for a number of reasons. One that immediately strikes me is the difference in the resources available for construction. The fundamental techtonics implicit in an industrial salvage world are fundamentally different from the remnants that Francesco Borromini had to contend with. My guess is that Merigan builders will be quite inventively trying to capture the "grandeur" of our age within the limits of their age. Fear not, this will likely not produce another Seattle Public Library but rather something more in the vein of Frank Lloyd Wright or Alvar Aalto. This wedding of humanism with industrial bricolage will be to Modernism what Romanesque Architecture was to Pantheon, the point on the cycle where stability and sophistication begin to reemerge. This will be new. This will be unique. This will emerge as an authentic response to an age and not as a tedious, narrow "interpretation" of a dead cultural form.

Curious to know if this triggers any insights for you.

Thank you again, the candle grows brighter with each posting and book!

Vesta said...

Dear onething (and others interested in life's origins),

re Jeremy England.

With respect, you're missing the point if you believe that a problem with England is that sunlight does not produce new genetic information.

The key point is that England has hypothesized a mechanism by which NON-biological (but still natural) selection may produce, reproduce and concentrate complicated structures with various key features we associate with life. Such pre-existing structures might be assembled into something we would recognize as living, in a process analogous to the way in which simple life forms are now believed to have been incorporated as organelles in complicated 'modern' organisms.

This is extraordinary because it may offer a solution to the origin of life problem without invoking luck, panspermia or divine intervention. The origin problem is the greatest challenge in the study of life processes, and understanding it would be among the greatest human intellectual achievements.

England is not "just staying". He is developing a rigorous theoretical framework that allows testable predictions, based on simple experiments, or even just revealuation of existing data. Although England doesn't like to use the word entropy, the fact is that his theoretical work is a development of the second law of thermodynamics (which is as close to a universal natural law as it gets), so it's underpinnings are as robust as anything in science.

The coming together of the fields of thermodynamics and evolution is profound.

England also has an interesting take on language that fits well with much discussed in this blog. His personal religious history is interesting as well.

I'm with you on creaming sugar and butter….

John Michael Greer said...

Unknown Eagle Eye, maybe so, but some people seem to find watching dance a powerful esthetic experience. I figured it was just tone-deafness or the equivalent on my part.

YCS, classical Indian music is a great example of an art form that's made a successful transition to the period of performance. Nobody writes new ragas, but there's plenty of room for brilliant creativity in how well they're played!

Jo, excellent! That's exactly it -- a lot of older technologies do at least as good a job with fewer costs and downsides, and so going retro results in improved outcomes across the board.

Esn, it's the arrangements of traditional hymns in new forms, and similar variations on existing themes, that are the wave of the future. Folk music shows the process in its mature form -- there's a coherent body of traditional tunes, to which occasionally things get added, and musicians strive to play them as well as possible with a personal interpretation just a bit different from anyone else's.

David, thanks for the pointer -- clearly I need to find the time to read López Corredoira, not least because Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset are very much to my taste.

Cherokee, I was glad to see the Australian election end in such chaos -- anything that shakes the certainties of the neoliberal consensus is a good thing. I wonder, if nobody ever comes up with enough of a majority to install a government, do you get to do without one until the next election? That might be popular. ;-) As for the Fourth of July, it was rained out here -- we had a downpour. I'll take that as an omen for this year's election.

Donalfagan, once you start talking about WANs and Ubuntus, you might as well be conversing in Tocharian B, you know. ;-)

Revere, opera in the Atlantic Republic is a rich person's affectation, supported by constant fundraising campaigns. I wouldn't say that it's thriving, but they put on three operas a year. In the Lakeland Republic, it's somewhat more successful, not least because the nose-in-the-air attitude was discarded out of necessity, and the Toledo Opera got its start (and its initial popularity) doing light opera -- these days there's a separate organization, Light Opera Lakeland (the acronym is deliberate), that puts on touring productions ranging from The Magic Flute to Gilbert and Sullivan. Most of the post-US republics have one opera company -- the Missouri Republic is a little unusual in having two, one in Minneapolis and one in Omaha -- so they can draw on fairly widespread geographical regions.

As for Metastasian opera seria -- no, my background in opera generally is fairly spotty, and I hadn't heard of that until you mentioned it. (My exposure to Wagner comes entirely from growing up in Seattle as a Tolkien-crazed fantasy buff, and attending my first Ring cycle at the age of fifteen.) I'll check it out as circumstances permit.

Ezra, as far as I know I didn't get it. Blogger eats comments sometimes. The issue with changing the alphabet is that the cost of redoing all written communication, all keyboards, all published books, all road signs, etc., etc., etc., far outweighs the benefits of having a slightly more intuitive alphabet.

John, well, I certainly don't claim to speak for the Tao! That's simply my personal preference.

Aron, of course it is. The arrival of the period of performance isn't the end of creativity -- it just involves a different kind of creativity.

Mark, I won't argue that there are some twentieth century art music composers that are listenable -- though I notice that no two of my readers seem to agree on who they are! I'm tolerably fond of early Satie, myself.

Trippticket, peak permaculture is an interesting concept -- I wonder how well a discussion of that would go over in permaculture circles... ;-)

John Michael Greer said...

Anthony, that's why I've gone out of my way in Retrotopia to make it clear that retro technology emphatically does not by definition mean retro social customs: the casual acceptance of same sex marriage and the comfortable ethnic mix Carr encounters in Toledo are meant to head that one off, while some of the other details I've woven in are meant to point out that there's plenty of room for a diversity of lifestyles in the Lakeland Republic. No doubt people will do their level best to ignore that and insist anyway that I'm trying to drag them back to a caricature of the Evil Past, but I've done what I can.

Mark, I remember the death of rock, too, though I somehow managed to miss the term "plod rock"! Funny. The future of rock and roll is already with us, though: tribute bands. There's one that plays here in Cumberland fairly often that does classic Doobie Brothers as well as, and occasionally better than, the originals -- and you can bet people are out there dancing to it.

Over the Hill, a remarkably cogent answer!

FiftyNiner, thank you. Yes, Carr's finally getting it.

Donald, nah, it's Janice Mikkelson, whom we'll be seeing in rather more detail in a bit. Are there new operas being made? Now, or in 2065?

Sgage, that's too funny. I hope you still have at least one of the cards.

JB, I won't argue. They're digging away...

Unknown Joel, I won't argue, but then I tend to steer clear of theological arguments over the various versions of Windows! ;-)

RPC, remember that Carr is speaking as of 2065, not as of 2015. Yes, I know some 20th century opera is still being performed; I'm hypothesizing that there will have been a reaction against it by 2065, and that the better pieces will be rediscovered and revived sometime in the early 22nd century.

Toomas, fair enough. I'll concede, in part, on testing, if you'll grant that doing much of anything technological with General Relativity is much more expensive than doing anything technological with Maxwell's electromagnetic theories!

Eric, it seems to me that you may be stuck in the modern belief that the period of innovation is good and the period of performance is bad. I'd like to suggest a more nuanced approach. Instead of frantically hunting around for some new place to innovate, why not instead take the time to absorb and appreciate the territory that's already been marked out, by performing for a while? Constantly innovating is like constantly eating: if you never take the time to digest, you're not going to get much benefit from the activity. Performance demands just as much talent, genius, and creativity as innovation, even though it's applied in different ways.

Ien, I could have written at least as much about 20th century art, much of which could be replaced with dried hamster vomit on canvas without anyone noticing the difference. That is to say, I agree wholeheartedly. What's more, my wife Sara has a degree in art history, and feels the same way...

Owen, I wonder if some Linux mechanic could take pity on us poor drudges who have to suffer through the excretions of Microsoft et al., and get excited about the prospect of coming up with a simple, sturdy, reliable, needs-no-tinkering Linux release that runs OpenOffice, a good freeware internet browser, and a few other commonly used programs, and that's all. Probably 75% of all computer users just need that, and a lot of them would leap to ot in a heartbeat if only it were available!

Ed, that was The Abduction from the Seraglio, and yes, like anything by Mozart, it's a romp.

John Michael Greer said...

John, I've always thought of Cage as one of the most brilliant con men of his generation, carrying out a series of absolutely deadpan put-ons that pretended to be music, and getting the highbrow establishment of his time to play along. The guy was The Emperor's New Clothes rewritten: "Here is a wonderful musical score," he said, handing out a blank sheet of paper, "which only those of superior taste and discernment can enjoy..."

Toomas, but it's equally invalid to assume, from that argument, that science can't run up against the law of diminishing returns. There is, after all, no prima facie reason why there must be a limitless number of things that can be understood using the particular set of human activities we call science. Logically speaking, both possibilities have to be held in abeyance pending the arrival of new data. When it comes to technology, though, I think a very strong case can be made that the point of negative returns arrived some time ago -- but if I understand you correctly, you're not disputing that.

Raymond, fascinating. None of this surprises me in the least.

Vesta, I know it contradicts the conventional wisdom of our time to suggest that science also functions in a limited notional space. Darwin was one of the great pioneers of one part of that space -- he was the Newton of biology, and like Newton, took a protoscience that was mere description and categorization and turned it into something capable of making valid predictions. (For example, he predicted that the Earth was much older than physical theory in his time allowed, and he turned out to be dead right.) England is filling in one of the big blanks; while I find his work fascinating, it builds on a foundation established by Ilya Prigogine, and ultimately back to Carnot and the basic concepts of thermodynamics. If he's right, and I think he is, he's solved one of the few really large outstanding problems in evolutionary theory, how life evolves out of nonliving matter.

How many more big problems -- as big as that one, or the ones that Darwin tackled -- are left for evolutionary biologists to take on? Not that many; there are plenty of midsized problems, and a vast number of little ones -- what's the connection between the therapsids and the earliest reptiles, etc.-- but those are little blanks to be filled up in the notional space into which Darwin first ventured. What's more, there aren't an infinite number of questions as big as the one Darwin tackled -- "where do species come from?" -- and many of those already have answers. Off in the distance, we can see the point at which only little questions remain. What then?

Ed-M, Dmitry's hobby has been shared by plenty of other people over the last few centuries -- as I noted, J.R.R Tolkien was one of them. They fall in the "derivative" category mentioned earlier.

Lynnet, that's very much a matter of personal taste. A few of those I'd consider listenable; others -- ugh. You'll notice, though, that only a very few of them get any degree of enthusiasm from outside the narrow circle of the cognoscenti...

Danil, when we're getting into anonymous informants making unprovable claims on dubious websites, I roll my eyes -- and remember, I'm no fan of Clinton.

Daelach, fascinating. The thought of Vivaldi played as metal is intriguing enough that I may just give it a listen.

Submarine, and now we have snipers gunning down police officers from a rooftop in Dallas. I wonder if anybody is going to argue with me the next time I point out that the United States is very, very close to civil war...

John Michael Greer said...

MawKernewek, that's a great example of filling in the edges of the notional space. Berber isn't really that well suited either to the Latin or the Arabic alphabet, so an old alphabet was picked up, lightly reworked, and put to use. Other new alphabets that have actually found a place in common use came out of the same sort of process.

Greg, yes, I think you could say there's a certain aesthetic space between opera and Power Noise! I'm glad you enjoy the latter. As for Quigley, I need to get to him one of these days, but haven't managed it yet.

Denis, nah, I save geomancy for other uses. What I use instead is history. If you file off the serial numbers, the process by which every technology gets introduced, loaded with complexity to the breaking point, and then gradually either gets abandoned or stumbles back to a level of complexity that makes sense, is the same. Watch the way that naval vessels in the age of sail went for topheavy complexity to the point of oops-we-sank-the-Vasa, and then backed off from it, eventually settling on a range of standard designs that would still be in use today if steam engines and the manufacture of plate steel in huge quantities hadn't rendered them obsolete, and you're in the same story. Know your narratives and you'll rarely be surprised...

Rube, fascinating. It seems like a very obvious idea to me!

Eric, of course, but that's equivalent to the folk process -- the way, for example, that familiar folk songs mutate to fit changing conceptions of music: the shift from Mixolydian to Ionian (major scale) modes in American folk music, for example. No doubt once the steam engine has existed for millennia, steam engines will have adaepted into forms that would seem very odd to James Watt, while still using the same principles.

Unknown, wasn't it Glass' opera Akhenaten in which one entire scene consisted of someone reading all Akhenaten's formal titles as pharaoh of Egypt out loud against a background of boring electronic sounds? The emperor's new score...

Adrian, delighted to hear that Chicago's doing the Ring! I'm not sure if that survived the Second Civil War, but we'll hope so.

W.B., so your entire life has been lived on the downslope of the computer age. There's an essay in there somewhere...

Hereward, excellent. I was wondering if any of my readers caught that.

Clark, doesn't surprise me at all. I only got one copy of your comment, btw, so you apparently did it right. ;-)

Cherokee, we'll hope that it's measles. Most of the alternatives are worse.

SLClaire, a paper map's a very, very useful technology. I used an old auto atlas to plan out Trey sunna Gwen's journey across Meriga in Star's Reach, and I'm currently using the same one to send Owen Merrill on a road trip to an isolated town in western New York for the third book in the Weird of Hali series, and in every case it's quicker to use and gets me more information faster than a map program would.

Nuku, true enough. Game theory has it that you can only maximize one variable at a time, so if you insist on maximizing originality, sooner or later you have to let go of beauty.

Kfish, many thanks for the link!

Justin, it would have been perfectly possible for a medieval European or Chinese alchemist to build a radio transmitter and receiver -- they simply didn't happen to have the necessary knowledge. I figure the IUD is similar.

Synthase said...

JMG: This version (Zorin OS 9 LTS) seems to meet your description of "a simple, sturdy, reliable, needs-no-tinkering Linux release that runs OpenOffice, a good freeware internet browser, and a few other commonly used programs, and that's all.":

Raymond Duckling: I've been sitting on Debian Stable on a desktop computer from 2007, which I find quite comfortable. It probably says something about me that I feel it was developed with me in mind. I have also considered OpenBSD / FreeBSD, but haven't felt the need to switch.

John Michael Greer said...

Pygmycory, there were a number of composers trained in the 19th century who kept on making very listenable music into the 20th. Still, I think my point stands -- and can be confirmed by watching how many people show up to a concert of 20th century music compared to how many show up to a concert of 18th or 19th century music...

Kevin, excellent! Yes, exactly -- "progress" is simply a label for the technologies that happened to win out, for whatever reason. One of the other aspects of the technology bush is that some of those "lower" branches are still quite vital and can put out leaves and blossoms with the best of the "upper" ones.

Michael, by 2065 there are no pristine ecosystems -- or more precisely, it's been recognized that there never were any. "Invasive species" have existed since the beginning of life on the planet. By 2065 global warming has upended the old climate belts, migration patterns and ranges for many living things have changed drastically, and the world is reorganizing ecologically, just as it has done every other time the climate has changed sharply (which it last did around 9600 BCE and has done at irregular intervals all through time). That Eurasian collared dove may be the ancestor of a whole family of future bird species in North America, because that's the way life on earth works.

Francis, of course -- just as the architecture of ancient Rome inspired American political architecture without the latter being a copy of the former. I kind of hope that Wright isn't the model that Lakeland architecture takes, because he was exactly the kind of impractical architect who's too busy chasing a vision to make roofs that don't leak. Thus I think you'd find, if you could stroll around Toledo in Carr's footsteps, that a lot of the buildings that went up after the Second Civil War were inspired by 19th century American brick vernacular architecture, but very few of them copied it exactly; and the Capitol, while it looks from the outside very much like a standard 19th century US state capitol building, has various carefully thought out changes to the structure, layout, and infrastructure, since it was designed to work with early- to mid-20th century technology.

Thanks for the reassurance regarding the Seattle Public Library, btw. If the firm that built that had set out to make it as ugly, inappropriate, and user-unfriendly as they possibly could, I don't think they could have done better. In a downtown full of ugly, soulless buildings, it carries off the prize; if someone were to lob howitzer shells at it from the top of Queen Anne hill and blow it apart, they'd deserve a prize for urban improvement. Gah.

Danil Osipchuk said...

JMG, I understand.
But in the age of corruption and propaganda provable and clear sources is a luxury not available to general public.
We have mostly noisy buzz of social fabric, distorted description of events in the news, conflicting inputs of competing manipulators plus occasional real leaks like the list of foreign donors of the foundation. Eventually people acquire skills to read between lines, with varying degrees of accuracy of course. By the way I learned about 4chan from here, I wouldn't follow the link otherwise.
I'd like to think that this is just someone's way to have fun. We'll probably see soon enough how much substance is there

Vesta said...

Dear JMG:

Please delete if you feel this is needless hammering, but I sense something important unresolved.

Conventional wisdom does err, and science may have finite notional space. But I don't see the notional space 'evolution' filling. Rooting evolution firmly in thermodynamics expands the territory greatly, and opens gaping new holes where the landscape seemed boring. If non-biological evolutionary mechanisms pan out, a great many other things might be understood well in evolutionary terms. Perhaps the physical environment itself. And what might it mean, and what new space would be opened if the same processes engendered both the living and inanimate world?

In some cases, the boundaries of the notional space may be the limitations of our imagination more than features of the real landscape. And if so, couldn't the landscape grow as we come to better understand it?


team10tim said...

RE: Peter and JMG RE: rap opera

I've never been big on rap, but I always thought that WU Tang Clan's Shimmy Shimmy Ya would lend itself well to opera.


PS I have no ideas what the costumes or set should look like. Also, I always felt that it was a left field sort of idea, but that was before I heard the term 'rock opera.' Honestly, if that was ever a thing then rap opera has a much better chance than I thought.

trippticket said...

@ Michael Kalk:
" In other news I saw an Eurasian Collared Dove in the back yard last night (I live in Oregon). How does the Lakeland Republic deal with invasive species/actively maintain the integrity of its ecosystems?"

"Invasive species" are largely a product of human disturbance on an industrial scale. For example, down here in the Deep South, kudzu runs rampant over forests edged by compromised soil/disturbance. We see it as a problem to be solved, but Nature just sees nitrogen-fixer, soil stabilizer, biomass builder, in short, all of the things needed to FIX the damage caused by humans in that area.

Where you are, purple loosestrife might make a more familiar example, choking out waterways with its never-ending expansion. But field trials indicate that if you remove the excess nitrogen and phosphorous - nutrient overflow from industrial agriculture - from those same waterways, the loosestrife will actually disappear fairly quickly. It's just cleaning up after us.

I treat dandelions in the garden the same way: if you let them do their job they will improve themselves right out of the system. What are tough, deep, recalcitrant roots this season will be shriveled and anemic a couple years later. They are only a problem if you pull them before they've finished their job.

Obviously the species in question don't need to be exotic to be considered invasive. When we moved to the farm we're at now we brought a relatively large influx of poultry with us, and therefore an energy spike to the system from all the feed and manure. We were overrun with flies for a few weeks as a result. But then a group of bald-faced hornets moved in, who are fly-eating specialists. The farm owner wanted to nuke them, no reason they should live he said, but I patiently explained WHY they were there and how they were helping, and the evidence since then has been convincing enough that a fairly large paper hornet nest is still functioning happily not too far away from the living space. And guess what? Nobody has gotten stung. Not once. He and I have actually followed individual hornets around and watched them work. It's pretty impressive!

First thing they do when they catch a fly is chew its wings off, making it a "walk" instead. Walks are a lot easier to handle than flies! Hornets are beautiful.

Not humans, but fossil fuel-powered humans are probably the only genuinely invasive species on the whole planet. Steady state native/exotic recombinant ecologies will probably be fairly common in the deindustrial future, I'm pretty sure, just as they've been part of our world, to one degree or another, since we started impacting the ecosystems around us. The lack of abundant energy to throw at so-called invasives in the Lakeland Republic will probably midwife this steady state into existence a lot sooner than our tinkering ever will.

Purple loosestrife isn't a problem; it's a solution. Or in a more permaculturey tone, in this case, as in so many others, the problem is the solution...

Tag Murphy said...

I love your blog and have recommended it to all and sundry. I practically howled with delight when I started reading this evening and realized you were going to talk about Parsifal which IMHO comes as close to the climax work of the Western musical tradition as anything out there -- and you even juxtaposed it with the Magic Flute (which Ingmar Bergman does in his film of the Magic Flute).

But then I ran into the first genuinely stupid remarks I have read on your blog -- the jibes at Britten -- to pick Britten of all composers as representative of 20th century music; a composer who was effectively spat on by the academic musical establishment. (Luigi Nono, I think, actually refused to shake his hand).

Peter Grimes is arguably the only opera written since 1945 to have achieved real box-office Mozart/Verdi type success. I simply can't believe you have ever heard it, otherwise you wouldn't write such silly things. The evocation of the sea in the orchestral interludes is equalled only by Wagner in the Flying Dutchman and Debussy in La Mer. The dramatic tightness of the first act -- it is one ever-intensifying arc and it bears comparison with similarly tight dramatic arcs as act 1 of Walkure or Act 3 of Otello. And it works in the opera house -- I have sat admit spellbound crowds at Covent Garden.

Ditto Turn of the Screw -- yes, a chamber opera -- but dramatically and musically so powerful. (Attended a nearly sold out performance at ENO some years ago.) Admittedly, Britten didn't always reach these heights -- Midsummer Night's Dream is always going to appeal to fairly small groups as will the the three church operas inspired by the Noh.

But turn from the operas to some of Britten's other achievements -- the two orchestral song cycles (Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and the Nocturne for Tenor and Seven Obligato Instruments) are masterpieces on a par with similar works by Berlioz and Mahler. Prince of Pagodas can take its place next to the great Stravinsky Ballades. The War Requiem is one of the greatest and most moving meditations on the folly of war ever done -- and Britten demonstrated at the opening of the Tuba Mirum that he could outdo Verdi at this own game. The Ceremony of Carols is done worldwide by hundreds of choruses at Christmas time -- only the Messiah is a more reliably popular seasonal piece of classical music. Not to mention Variations and and Fugue on a Theme by Purcell -- incredibly popular orchestral show piece (used most recently by Wes Anderson in his film Moonrise Kingdom as a unifying piece of music); Noye's Fludde -- demonstrating that modern composers can write pieces that kids will love to perform and are still great pieces of music if only they'll make the effort and not be snoots...


Tag Murphy

trippticket said...

Thanks for your link! Some good points, too. You've, um, been doing this a while.

I'm not necessarily suggesting the concept of peak permaculture so much in regards to its philosophy as I am some of its stock practices. Philosophically, I think permaculture has a lot to offer the modern industrialist: stack functions, value the marginal, enhance whole system connections, and so forth. Good stuff.

But there is definitely a doctrine of fringe practices associated with permaculture that seem dubious to me after several years of experimentation. Heavy mulches are great. Sometimes. And in some climates or situations. Where in live in lower Appalachia mulch is a mobile element in my gardens/orchards. When it's dry I lay it down. When it's wet I pull it back. In spring I prefer to have dark soil absorbing solar heat and in summer I prefer to have light-colored mulches reflecting as much of the sun's intensity as possible.

Of course the permaculture literature is quick to point out that it is in fact site-, climate-, and culturally-specific, and that there are no effective blanket solutions. How that very wise view got parlayed into "always build water and energy capturing swales, mulch heavily, and companion plant" is really the issue. I like companion planting, and have derived real benefits from it, but sometimes it just gets in the way. My newest garden plot (about 1800 s.f.) is an amalgamation of best practices arrived at over years of experimentation in this climate, and it is definitely friendlier to its human element than it is to, say, plant polycultures.

Which is all to say yes, experiment, refine, and embrace ecological wisdom, but don't be afraid to do things in proven ways. Even if they seem dowdy and out of date...

MigrantWorker said...


I think there is another force behind the push for technological innovation: it allows the profits to be concentrated. An obvious example would be genetically modified crops: if you want to plant them, you have to buy them - there is no other conceivable (and legal) way in which a farmer could acquire them. The seed producer effectively has a monopoly on seeds, and can then extract monopoly rent from his privileged position.

Contrast that with standard crops, whose seeds can be stored from one season to the next as long as you can keep water and pests away - easily achievable to any farmer with a barn, some jute sacks and a cat. All of these can be produced by the farmer himself, except the cat (but cats are abundant). There is nothing to monopolise, and nothing to extract monopoly rents from.

And in a society run for profit, a potential to get more profit is always a strong argument.


Donald Hargraves said...

I'm wonderful if new operas are being written in 2065. I'm sure Mr. Glass has his version of The Ring ready if some opera house thinks Mr. Wagner's version isn't progressive enough for them, but is there enough interest or creative power to write new opera on, say, the Verdi model in fifty years.

And, for that matter, is there any movies being made (something I doubt survived the embargo of Lakeland)? I believe that movies are but operas (and plays by extension) put onto a reproducible medium; ergo I would think that the loss of mass reproducible movies would lead to a revival of the operatic form as those who could afford the full experience would want that full experience – and again, along the lines of Verdi (or Gilbert and Sullivan), not Glass.

Eric S. said...

“It seems to me that you may be stuck in the modern belief that the period of innovation is good and the period of performance is bad. I'd like to suggest a more nuanced approach. Instead of frantically hunting around for some new place to innovate, why not instead take the time to absorb and appreciate the territory that's already been marked out, by performing for a while? Constantly innovating is like constantly eating: if you never take the time to digest, you're not going to get much benefit from the activity. Performance demands just as much talent, genius, and creativity as innovation, even though it's applied in different ways.”

It may be that I’m getting stuck on a different interpretation of what performance is versus exploration… It seems like there’s a situation here where there are some art forms that are easier to “perform” in, than others. If you’re an actor, singer, or engineer, performing within the territory that’s already been marked out is an easy thing to do. But what if you’re a writer, poet, or painter? The act of copying out a piece written by someone else isn’t quite the same art form as writing something of your own. Though there’s definitely an art and skill to calligraphy, bookbinding, etcetera, putting together an illuminated manuscript of the Lord of the Rings isn’t quite the same art form as sitting down and composing a fantasy novel. Memorizing poetry by rote and performing it isn’t exactly the same thing as being a poet, it’s being an orator. And most painters I know don’t sit there copying out famous paintings line by line and stroke by stroke, they’re usually making their living by creating portraits of clients, painting landscapes that they encounter, and painting scenes out of their own imagination, (given my circle of friends, usually images of deities or scenes from mythology). Straight through its decline and fall, Rome still produced Latin poets and writers all the way up to the 7th century (and that’s just among those that have survived, which mostly consists of hagiographies and hymns, with a very few pagan writers such as Rutilius… but since Rome was still Rome when it Christianized, late Roman texts like the City of God can still count among its literary achievements). And there were still poets writing in Greek and Latin by the time the first poetic pieces of the emerging seed cultures that grew out of its collapse were being composed in Old English, Irish, Norse and Arabic. Even civilizations like Ancient Egypt that went through long periods of stability have plenty of hymns, love poems, discourses, dialogues, laments, and narratives all through their history. I can’t find a single point in world history where literature just stops being composed and gives way to rote performance of things that have already been written (and when there isn’t a corpus of surviving literature from a culture or time period, all that means is that it was an oral culture that didn’t write anything down but still composed, or that they wrote on perishable materials in wet landscapes that aren’t good at preserving things).

Is the mistake I’m making assuming that all new literature or all composition counts as exploration and innovation, and performance is exclusively copying? Does composing a new piece within the rules of an established form count as a form of performance, so that a painter painting a landscape in a classical style, or a poet following very particular rules of composition is actually a performer rather than an innovator? Is it that some art forms are harder to exhaust than others? Or is there a point at which the literary potential of a culture runs out, and the best answer is to trade in writers and poets for publishers and printers? If it’s the later, and you’re a writer, or a poet, or a painter or composer isn’t it only natural to try to seek out the niches where writing, painting, and composing are still acceptable things to do?

Violet Cabra said...

I'm fascinated by this conversation about culture and notational space, it was something I bemoaned as a child, that "everything had already been done" but now as an adult I find it comforting in an odd sort of way. The herbalist that has informed me the most is Matthew Wood. In his two volumes of Earthwise Herbal he looks at almost all of the major and much of the minor Western materia medica quoting from Galen, Moses Maimonides, Culpepper etc, all the way down to contemporaries. Of course the contemporary master herbalist contribute many specific indications, but they are ultra specific, and sometimes become so etheric that they dance with noise. Earthwise Herbal is a great compilation as much as an original work. I really dig Matthew Woods homeopathic approach, but it is the compilation aspect that has kept me coming back for more.

So while I use herbs with myself and others in ways that are at times a little bit creative, I almost always find myself quoting others and saying "this tends to work well in my practice," than "I discovered this on my own." There are a few exceptions, but I have no doubt that these indications were discovered before, I just hadn't read of them. Even with the dozen uses I've discovered independantly for various herbs they all fit into the logic of the plant and are very minor discoveries (i.e thyme for emotional hiccouping, which simply is a practical application of Matthew Wood's assertions that it is a parasympathetic relaxant). With herbs this is nice since Hippocrates in his little piece on "the craft so long to learn" mentions that "experimentation is dangerous."

the shift from creativity to presarverance is also nice: instead of coming up with new things the focus shifts then to reproducing the "best of" compilation with as much fidelity and resolution as possible, perhaps occaisonally stumbling upon something a little bit of something new. you mentioned before in a comment to me maybe a year and a half ago that there are many benefits to being in a culture past its creative part and this seems like one. Working with the "greatest hits" of a culture means that most of the "filler" has been forgotten. Sure people don't have the same sort of creativity in terms of laying claim to some area of culture, but I don't mind personally. I give simples and make herbal mixes and they are way more effective than if I hadn't spent many hours memorizing the words of the Masters, and using them in the real world not to mention growing and extracting them is deeply satisfying to my creative impulse.

Bruno B. L. said...

JMG, may I suggest buying an used MacBook Pro? It has everything you need in a very streamlined system.

onething said...


I agree completely with the time to use and not use an electric mixer. I have mine from 1978 that still works. But - a copper bowl? You mean my egg whites would mix up better in copper?

nrgmiserncaz said...

JMG - Happy to see you've included the straight razor in Retrotopia. I'm not sure why they seem to intimidate so many men. It was really the only way to get the job done prior to the late 1800's so it must have been an easily acquired skill. That was part of my rationale for learning to use it versus the safety razor.

@SLClaire We just returned from a tent camping trip and ran into bad traffic and detours. We have no GPS, and my wife is dubious of them anyway, so she broke out one of the 20+ maps in the car and routed us around the traffic on the PA Turnpike. Interesting to me was that we could see the turnpike but no one was using their GPS to reroute themselves. I began to wonder if they were actually afraid to leave the main road.

beneaththesurface said...

Your comment on the Seattle Public Library reminded me of my recent experience visiting the Queens Central Library (renovated a few years ago) for the first time in May. While I'm not sure the outside is as bad as Seattle Central Library, the inside of the library was the worst library I've ever seen. I walked in, and there's a television with news blaring continuously right in the center of the library, along with chairs to sit and watch it, near the adult book section. You can't browse for adult books without hearing the television! I thought however bad libraries have gotten, none have yet become like airports with television, but I guess I was wrong. Then there is a media section almost as large at the book section, with some animated movie blaring continuously. Plus the library is noisily alive. In the back of the library is a small, overcrowded quiet reading room for those persons who actually want to concentrate on reading a book. Much of the Teen Space is like a Video Game Arcade. And the Children's Room is atrocious. With a partnership with a National Science Foundation it has become half library, half museum, with lots of touch screen "interactive" places amidst the books. You can even use digital microscopes and attend a digital story time. The director there told me they wanted to focus on STEM and promote active learning and instead of passive text-based learning, hence all the "innovation." Ugh. The experience made me so depressed, that despite intending to wait there to meet a friend, I had to leave and walk around outside.

Myriad said...

And through the door goes Carr. But somehow this is not the climax yet; we're still meeting important new characters. Which could mean something's about to go boom back home in the AR. Yeah, I know, "heh heh heh." :)

One complaint: no one else seems to have minded, but from a pure drama point of view, I thought Carr's and Berger's quick reconciliation was a little disappointing. Of course, it would have been more disappointing if they never spoke to one another again or never got back to pursuing a relationship. And I'm not a big fan of pointless romantic complications where the characters keep missing each other's phone calls or whatever. But in this case the emotional aspect of their disagreement was an interesting facet of the central premise, and it felt like it kind of got cut short or put aside for convenience, at a point where Carr hadn't really figured anything out yet.

Regarding art and notional spaces: what happens to novelists during a period of performance? Are they out of luck, or are there types of writing (formulaic genre fiction, perhaps) that are better categorized as performance than as innovation in the first place? If the latter, it seems we've been in a period of performance for novels-in-general for quite a while.

One could ask the same question regarding, for instance, composers and playwrights, but in those cases there's an ongoing artistic role for a large contingent of performers even in the absence of new works. Even the copying of paintings has been considered a worthy artistic pursuit in some eras. But it would take a very dark age indeed for copying novels to be considered so.* There's live storytelling, of course, but that's its own art form, and not really related to fiction writing the way opera singing, staging, directing, etc. is related to opera composing. At least, I don't think it is, although individual exceptions such as "Freddy and Sam" in Star's Reach could certainly occur.

*"DECTOBER 4, 3212: Scandal erupted in the antiquities market yesterday when the Obsidian Museum's latest acquisition, for which the museum paid a record 1.7 million shrooms at auction, was proven to be a forgery. The piece, an elaborately illuminated manuscript of the great Yengish epic Grey, Whose Shades Number Fifty, had been claimed to be over a thousand years old…"

jbucks said...

"The standard joke in opera circles these days is that opera companies put on twentieth century works when they’re tired of the inconvenience of performing in front of an audience."

I think some of the proponents of twentieth century music might take your putdown as a compliment - here's the title of (and link to) a recent keynote speech given by a composer to other composers at a contemporary music conference: 'If you need an audience, then we don't need you'.


In all fairness, though, he does make more nuanced arguments, some of which I agree with and others I do not, but I just thought that you and your readers might be interested in the arguments that proponents of twentieth century art and music have used to justify their work.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Dear JMG - I just thought of something else that bumps up against "normative space." Cooking. I like to cook, it's kind of OT (Occupational Therapy) for me. Seems like there's always some new craze coming down the pike. Another flash in the pan (pun intended). The hot new things seem to be cooking or baking stuff in mugs and some spiral cutting tool for veg. Many articles in the food magazines and, even whole books. I suppose on the cooking shows, too. But since I don't have TV, I don't know for sure. It just seems so nuts, when there's hundreds of recipes from my old cookbooks that I haven't even tried, yet.

I couldn't resist looking at Brown Universities "Lamp / Bear." Generally, I like figurative art, but I think he's a bit silly. Looks like he's wearing a helmet. And, what is going on in his nether regions? I don't think I want to know. What's truly frightening is that the picture I looked at also said "yellow version." There are more of them, out there? Now, to push it even further, let's put a microphone inside to say random things to passersby. :-) Lew

John Roth said...

re: Windoze 10

Being in the business (now retired) I hear a lot about Windows. What’s going on is a confluence of two factors, only one of which is arguably about customer satisfaction. The first is Microsoft’w attempt to unify five (!) distinct operating system code bases, including the X-Box 1 game console and the almost invisible Windows Phone. Windows 8 was the first attempt, Windows 8.1 (which was actually Windows 9 suffering from embarrassment) was an attempt to fix most of the problems caused by Windows 8. Windows 10 is an attempt to make sure people actually install upgrades, including security fixes. From my position as a Mac user who keeps a beady eye on the security community, the security fix thing is laudable. The forced upgrade thing isn’t.

One might ask why the Firefox and Chrome browsers, which update every six weeks or so, have their new versions installed by just about everyone, while Windows updates are disliked by a significant fraction of their users. The reason is fairly simple: they include security fixes and behind-the-scenes improvements to comply with new standards, and nothing else that will cause the average user to wonder if they really ought to upgrade.


You may be talking about two different things. First, it’s quite true that the use of silicon for microchips has reached the silly end of the law-of-diminishing-returns curve. It doesn’t mean there aren’t alternatives, although it’s still to be seen whether any of them can be commercialized successfully. In the “article I’ve seen recently” camp is one talking about Raytheon (I think that’s the company) who makes chips for the military. Those chips use a different technology and have a 30-year guaranteed lifetime. You won’t see those in consumer products.

The “increasing computing power” thing is mostly in the super-computer realm. It’s also in specialty chips. Those voice-operated gadgets use a specialty voice-recognition chip. They’ve improved out of all recognition in the last few years. Now whether I want
my equipment listening to me all the time is another question. As far as I’m concerned, that went out with butlers and maids.


Your point about printing slowing down the adoption of new alphabets is right on. Now that Unicode is taking over the world, the number of printers who can handle mixed-language texts that aren’t in that massive compilation is shrinking rapidly.

Re: Software

I’s quite possible to get software that works and satisfies customer needs. What seems to be difficult is getting anyone to actually follow instructions until the methodology sinks in to where they can actually see it working, and better yet, understand why it works. The number of cases where someone claims to have followed a methodology and actually hasn’t because “they know better,” and gets the predictable results, is legion.


Have you tried (gasp!) text adventures. There is a lot of hugely innovative stuff going on in that space, as long as you don’t mind using an actual keyboard and reading text. Better - the commercial end of that collapsed a long time ago, so it’s all free. Not only that, the most popular program for writing it is not only free, but uses a dialect of a vastly underappreciated language: English.

re: Linux

There are distros out there that advertise being simple to install and run. I can’t give you a name right now, but they are reputed to exist.


About Darwin - he didn’t predict that the Earth was older than current physical theories allowed. That was common science in the geology of his time. It simply contradicted the other common theory that the Sun could only last a few thousand years. It wasn’t until a good century after Darwin that the problem with the Sun was resolved.


With posting. For some reason known only to the electronic gods it takes one click on “publish” to get the sign-in screen and sign in, and then a second one to actually publish. When the text vanishes, you’ve done it.

KKalbert said...

Hi, JMG and all:
By mistake I posted this on Well of Galabes, so maybe you don't want to post it there.
This week’s post and commentary gives a satisfying answer, with lots of great data points, to a question that has haunted me for the half century of my adult life. Why has art and music of my time been so unsatisfactory? But I’m not sure this very valid point fully accounts for the abomination that the avant-garde academies have given us.

My observation is that while the CIA was funding avant-garde music and art, its punishing qualities were an intentional part of the package. It was intimidation and belligerance as art: Art as war by other means. (Ford Foundation and other front-organizations were giving grant money to the grad students and university professors of arts and music that proposed the ugliest and most offensive work—I know because I was applying for grant money and observing who got funded.) There really was nothing in the theoretical rationales for most avant-garde styles that required it to be ugly and unbearable. But ugly and unbearable were getting funded.
My point is that the artists of the western world post-WWII did not run out of good ideas or notional space, but a lot of them who declined to punish their audiences got no money, and could not make anything.

In fact, there is a record label that has done very good business for the past 45 years, recording avant-garde jazz that definitely builds on the music theory that was forced on composers in the mid-twentieth century. But it is very good listening, if you have enough familiarity with tradition that your ear is thirsty for new sounds. It is not brutal, punishing or continuously dissonant. It is by now a huge body of music that is absolutely characteristic of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. It has the ambition of classical music, while drawing on elements of popular music and non-European traditions.

But this music, like classical music, does not function well as advertising, and my theory is that this incompatibility with ads is the reason most folks don’t hear it.

william fairchild said...


Opera. How cool. My mother, was a speech patholagist, vocalist, and opera fan. Both my brothers are musicians. One is a composer, the other a music teacher. So I got good and steeped in this whether I liked it, or not. As it turns out, I liked it.

The Preacher wrote, "there is nothing new under the sun." Picasso is reported to have said, after visiting Lasceaux, "We have invented nothing".

So maybe, just maybe, all art is derivative. In our vain effort to "invent" we leave creativity behind and fall into nonsense.

But, perhaps, as Tia Dalma put it: "Same story, different versions, and all are true."

So far, Mr. Carr has run with the middle classes and the high and mighty. I am curious as to how the mudsills, the unwashed get along in Lakeland, and what he thinks about them. Has he run into them other than brief interactions on the train? Hows about the poor feller tasked with cleaning up road apples from carriages or chimney sweeps?

Retrotopia, may be a book, no?

Ed-M said...

Orlov's Unspell alphabet derivative? IDK, JMG, but I've seen it and it looks quite original to me; for I did not recognise any of the Latin letters corresponding to their English sounds in it.

Spanish fly said...

Ultra-modern or pos-modern opera often is a good source of invluntary comedy...

Please, look at these walkyryes...

EntropicDoom said...

I recall an event concerning jazz music, notional space, and politics in the mid sixties. A jazz group volunteered to do a Memorial Day concert honoring those who died in Vietnam. This was before attitudes changed and there were protests against the war. At first it was planned as respectful in a traditional way, but it evolved into a modern art spectacle.

I had a set of long, metal strings screwed to a plank that could be manipulated to form ghostly sounds from eerie and back to unworldly via electronic gimmickry. I joined up. Someone added taped recordings of radio messages calling for artillery, air support and medical evacuation. Battle sound effects were added for authenticity and to heightened the reality of the war in which those that we were to honor had died.

This was to be a one-off performance and included a chorus of voices behind the group of experienced jazz musicians at center stage. It morphed into an artistic free-for-all. Someone wrote music. Another compiled soldier's letters home and poems to reflect in spoken words, what was going on over there. None of the county officials giving us access to the facilities were hip to this turn.

At that time jazz was in its peak and it was possible for ordinary people to grasp the visceral impact of community performance art. Participants practiced separately and the chorus learned their lines. I made up a series of sounds that could satisfy the request for “eerie electronic music, not prerecorded.”

What happened was strange and shocking to those ordinary mourners who came to hear an official County ceremony honoring the recently fallen. No Sousa marching bands were booked, billed or announced. There was no honor guard or flag to salute. There were no uniforms. After setting up and filling the stage with a motley crew of University hangers oners, there was an official welcoming and some concerned stares. It started with introductory comments, nothing approaching future protests and I think a short prayer. We began with several standard sounding jazz tunes and short pauses breaking each into separate glimpses of the old reality. It was a memory of an old time radio broadcast that suddenly started to break up with static. I supplied the static.

Then the fun began. We plunged out of the music of familiar old jazz into the sudden sound effects of gunfire and helicopters, assaulting the senses, all taped in actual battles. In all this cacophony, the chorus entered in an angelic harmony, but revealed out of tune demons in their midst. The jazz band broke in with more modern jazz sounds; disharmony and blasts of atonal chaos filled the space. The elements; jazz band, chorus, spoken word, battle sound effects and my wire device's moaning wails, warred with each other and acted as waves of energy crashing down on the shocked audience. It was not rehearsed and never repeated.

None of these aural experiences were in the everyday lives of the mourning parents and loved ones of the deceased. It crashed into them with an unworldly fury invoking the chaos of jungle warfare, where their loved ones had recently died.

Poignant words were spoken and poems read, barely audible above the clashing sounds. The taped radio messages grew dire. Med-Evac was requested from somewhere in the past, but it seemed immediate. A veteran nurse stepped up to speak of compassion for dying soldiers in her poem. The noise and music died down. Drums beat in muffled paces. Their sacrifice was acknowledged in verse by survivors. The trumpeter blew Taps. It transitioned into a stirring jazz tune offering musical redemption. The whole thing lasted less than an hour.

The newspaper report was short and terse. There were the traditional parades and picnics in stiff competition. The present day custom ignoring of Memorial Day by barbecuing was not in full practice then. It grew quiet in the hall. We all wept.

The immediate and spontaneous fits the time and cannot be recreated.

onething said...

Dear Vesta,

".. you're missing the point if you believe that a problem with England is that sunlight does not produce new genetic information."

I'm rewatching the vid. So who was that guy in the 50's who generated some biological precursor molecules in a lab? I think that this is similarly not going to contribute much of significance. His ideas about the dissipation of energy and how it might contribute to some complexity as well as his noticing that things go forward and are locked in and don't slip back, and even his discussion of the way that things do not always have to go toward increased entropy - all well and good.

When I read about what is actually going on in biological systems, things like this are so vague and inadequate that it just doesn't hold out the kind of hope they like to grab at, it seems to me, a bit desperately.

"The key point is that England has hypothesized a mechanism by which NON-biological (but still natural) selection may produce, reproduce and concentrate complicated structures with various key features we associate with life. Such pre-existing structures might be assembled into something we would recognize as living, in a process analogous to the way in which simple life forms are now believed to have been incorporated as organelles in complicated 'modern' organisms."

I note the words "may" and "might." I don't see how this very nebulous process compares to the possibility that already living cells may have incorporated other living cells. He is (as usual - this type of point gets made over and over) showing how nonliving things can sometimes organize into very elegant, interesting and sort of complex arrangements. But note that above I used the word non-repetitive. Life and its processes are no more repetitive than the thoughts and ideas and writings of JMG.

"This is extraordinary because it may offer a solution to the origin of life problem without invoking luck, panspermia or divine intervention. The origin problem is the greatest challenge in the study of life processes, and understanding it would be among the greatest human intellectual achievements."

Well, after having spent quite some time reading quite a few books that discuss the way life works, it is my opinion that he isn't even at the starting gate. Perhaps he has noted a natural physical law that does by no means generate code, but that is part of the process. But what I find interesting in your reply above is that you have made the a priori assumption that we don't want divine intervention.

For a convinced atheist, that is of course the only way to think. But I find myself in the odd position of being more than adequately convinced that Darwinian mechanisms cannot adequately account for the arisal of even radically new life forms from prior bacterial life, and at the same time having a very different idea of what divine intervention in life might entail. Since I do believe that logical evidence shows consciousness and not matter is the true substrate of the universe, it does not actually compute to think that life can arise on its own, because there is no such thing, all things being connected, and consciousness, which is life, pre-existing. And, if there is a divine mind, divine source of existence, that divinity cannot have somehow had nothing to do with the arisal of life. That is so even if one posits a god without personal awareness.

part 1

onething said...

part 2

In the end, also, efforts such as this desire either to make life nothing different from nonlife, or perhaps, to make everything equally alive.

"The coming together of the fields of thermodynamics and evolution is profound."

Not new at all. The question of thermodynamics is central to life everything. Although I have posited an opposite force, which I call the organizational force. Slightly tongue in cheek. I'll have to think on that one. Because the organizational force is probably something like will, which is life, and is opposite to nonlife in that it has NO desire. Living things disrupt entropy and instead build. So entropy is how matter behaves and organization is how consciousness behaves.

Gottfried Wilhelm Melvin Hicks-Leibniz said...

Regarding your response to Francis, I am curious whether or not "hempcrete" is taken seriously as a building material during the lead up to the Second Civil War or in its aftermath during the reconstruction period.

Justin said...


Something that might work well for you would be Ubuntu MATE, which is a version of Ubuntu (Ubuntu is a flavor of Linux intended for general-purpose use) that is nowhere near as bloated as the standard release - in fact one of its stated purposes is to give old computers that are no longer fast enough to run Windows a second life. The desktop metaphor is also closer to that of Windows than normal Ubuntu.

Installation is comparable in difficulty to installing Windows, and it will give you pretty much everything you need, including OpenOffice.

However I have to say, any flavor of Windows before 10 is still better than Linux for general web browsing and text editing, because, as someone else pointed out, Linux was built by and for power users and the more casual versions are a bit like driving a Bobcat with cup holders, leather seats and airconditioning.

pygmycory said...

Speaking of playing things on unusual instruments as a source of innovation, I've heard some rather beautiful celtic and/or electroharp covers of metal, including metallica.

also video games:

And a version of LinkedInPark's Numb that is totally different in emotional tone from the original.

Youtube is actually a great source for things like this.

Lynnet said...

The Eurasian collared dove showed up here in Colorado about 5 years ago. It has crossed the US in about 10 years. It is about the size of the passenger pigeon, and makes a similar living, though not congregating in such huge flocks. The passenger pigeon has been gone these hundred years or more. There was an empty niche. Finally an appropriate bird has arrived to fill it.

Paul said...

I know it's off topic, and I do appreciate that you may not wish to publish my response here, but today's events have been interesting and worthy of comment I think.

Over the last few years, a whole lot of black people have been shot by the police with minimum provocation. This has been universally condemned, particularly by the Liberal end of the political spectrum. Black people themselves have responded by and large peacefully.

Link arms. Sing "We shall overcome"...

Yet the shootings continue, despite the earnest consternation of activists.

Then, a handful of black people shoot some policemen.

Liberal condemnation is instant and widespread. It's counterproductive. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Two wrongs don't make a right. Etc.

(Because their earnest consternation and condemnation was productive?)

This isn't really about Race. It's about Class. As long as the Liberal Class aren't threatened by the Underclass, they'll support them all the way.

Cherokee Organics said...


Yes, that would be rather amusing. We've had a minority government before here although you may not be aware of that, and by all accounts it worked quite well, although the Prime Minister at the time was a female and known for her high level of intelligence and ability to co-operate and communicate. The funny side of that story is that the opposition of the time who now hold the highest number of seats but not quite enough to govern in their own right, set about establishing a meme that the minority government of that time was an abhorrent and unworkable beast when in fact they passed a great deal of legislation. And they stuck to that meme like glue ever since. And now, as often occurs, they now have to face up to meme and get a dose of their own medicine. There really have been calls for another election so as to achieve a more desirable result, without actually discussing who sets the bar for what is a desirable result. They must think the population are rather stupid. I was at the coal face and I saw some serious anger in the population and no way would I pursue that strategy of a re-election as my gut feeling is that they will get thumped. The other funny story that I was trying to get my head around were the many artistic displays by the public of phallic symbolism - there were certainly more than a few examples of that as well as some amusing commentary which kept us entertained!

Anyway, rather than blaming their own policies for the recent election failure, they are fixated on the oppositions campaign. It is mildly surreal to see adults not coming to grips with the simple fact that they themselves are responsible for their own situation and that perhaps the ground has shifted beneath them. I did actually expect to find adults and an adult response to their election outcome.

No doubt that you are correct in that assertion. My gut feeling is that this is a slow turning point of increasing medical dramas. There really are hard upper limits on the size of the human population whether we acknowledge them or not. I used to wonder about that, but once I understood that nature will step in when necessary then it really became rather obvious that we can wish all we want, but the reality will be somewhat different.

Oh, by the way, I'm really not enjoying the Grimm brothers collected fairy tales from the final 1857 edition. The constant hammering on of Christian symbolism, adherence and submission to the patriarchy and the state, the skewed gender role models presented. I mean the whole thing just annoys me no end. They even introduced a pre Christian concept of the Tree of Life and then subverted that (as others have too) to a Christian concept. Well done them. Their sheer dogged determination to pursue an agenda where they saw themselves as the intellectual superiors who would be better off running the show is just gobsmacking. I realise people love these fairy tales and they hold onto them dearly, but really to my mind the Grimm brothers really subverted them to their own ends and my gut feeling is that this sort of thing has been going on for a very long time.

Incidentally, as a fascinating thought experiment, many years ago I read an interesting statistic - and I cannot for the life of me remember where - that at that time 90% of articles in the newspaper were supplied to the newspapers by companies, governments and other entities as fill for dissemination into the public sphere, how much worse can it be nowadays since the incredible reduction of paid journalists employed by those same newspapers? No doubt this has a bearing on the recent pundits - they are paid after all.



sgage said...

@ onething said:

"Living things disrupt entropy and instead build. So entropy is how matter behaves and organization is how consciousness behaves."

I wouldn't say living things disrupt entropy. You might say interrupt, or harness, or dissipate, or 'surf', or some such. But in the end, it's getting the good of chemically oxidizing glucose to CO2 and H2O. A very entropically acceptable situation. Of course, plants can run this backwards, using solar energy. They build up chemical complexity, and it is entropically utilized by animals (and of course, plants themselves).

You mention how matter behaves, and how consciousness behaves, but living things (of whatever degree of consciousness you want to attribute to them) are embodied in matter. Yes, the flesh. We kill and eat in order to live. We get old and we die. We temporarily surfed entropy along the way, but we surely didn't disrupt it.

Pantagruel7 said...

Regarding notional space and its exhaustion, the late novelist Wm. Gaddis put into several of his novels a gigantic metal sculpture called "Cyclone 7." It was erected at a newly built outdoor shopping mall on Long Island and always seemed to involve a small pet dog getting trapped inside it, giving rise to endless lawsuits between the pet owner who wanted the thing dismantled to get the little dog out, and the artist who forbade it on the grounds of artistic integrity.

SLClaire said...

Unknown Deborah,

I must be about your age since I have 30 year old skirts, three of them. One is made of rayon and is yellowing slightly (the background color is off white). One is cotton, and the other is silk. All three are still in good shape and I still wear them for special occasions. So in my experience at least, silk and cotton clothes last as long and look as good after the same length of time as rayon.

Re your point about processing of rayon versus cotton, I did a quick Internet check to confirm that the process for producing rayon from wood fibers is pretty similar to that for producing paper from wood fibers. If you have ever been unfortunate enough to have been near a paper mill - I have driven past them - you will have noticed a sulfurous stink emanating from them. There's a reason for that. Here's a link to a diagram of the process for the production of rayon:

The top process uses CS2, carbon disulfide. Nasty poisonous stuff, takes a lot of energy to make it, and is why the process stinks of sulfur. Lots of toxic byproducts to get into the environment and wreak havoc, not to mention the energy used. The other two diagrammed processes don't use CS2, but they still use plenty of energy and lead to byproducts. The bottom one uses cotton rather than wood fiber as the starting point, so not only do you have the problems with growing cotton that you noted, but more problems and more energy use and more waste from converting it to rayon.

Industrial tree growing (the monoculture tree plantations that I drive through on the way to visit my mother in FL), the source of the wood fiber for rayon and for paper, is not much better on the land than cotton agriculture. After one has grown a few cycles of trees on the land, the soil is depleted. It takes a lot longer than cotton ag to deplete the soil, but deplete it it does.

As you noted, industrial cotton agriculture depletes soil rapidly. But cotton doesn't have to be grown that way. Some (expensive, of course) organic cotton cloth and clothing can be found. Also while processing cotton into cloth requires energy and produces some waste, it's primarily a mechanical rather than a chemical process, so it is less hard on the environment than is the processing of wood fiber or cotton into rayon.

Given the nastiness of the process of converting wood pulp to rayon, or the redundancy and resultant waste of converting usable cotton to rayon, plus the industrial-ag tree plantations from which the wood fiber comes, even conventional cotton is no more damaging to the environment to produce than is rayon, and probably less. Organic cotton is less damaging. But then we both know that the least damaging option is to continue to wear the skirts we already have rather than buy new ones. So our best option is to keep ourselves in good enough shape that we can wear our skirts for 20, 30, 40, or more years and to care properly for the skirts during that time.

rabtter said...


A couple of comments, I think JMG's comment that England's notion filled in a rather rather large blank in notional space is spot on.

As for your other discussions, your reader would need a really solid handle on the 2nd LoT, gradients, dissipation, and entropy (Gibbs) to be able to glean the take home message from England's work. Statistical thermo is pretty difficult to get a handle on, folks that have that rare good handle are kind of an analogue to a mage in their own circle. So, in my opinion, there really isn't enough space in the comments section of a blog to explain it.

patriciaormsby said...

@TrippTicket, a lovely discussion of invasives! Kudzu, lovely kudzu, got introduced to the South because in Japan it is prolific plant that provides both food and medicine, plus it has the most lovely flowers! Under traditional Japanese agriculture (and search "Satoyama" for more on that), it wasn't an issue. It was a healthy component of the semi-wild areas near cultivated fields. But now, with elderly farmers abandoning their fields, it is a green Godzilla. If it starts invading from the borders, it is a real pain to try to get out. My husband truly fears it. Wild boars to the rescue! They root around and dig up all those tough but tasty roots, and you are lucky they are also invading the South. Good healthy meat, too, unless you've had a nuclear meltdown.

Japanese hops are another story. I take time to expunge them wherever they rear their heads because they are massive, wiry and allergenic. They were regarded as a nasty weed 1000 years ago, long before ugly public works needed to be covered up. But they do excel at the latter. I read that they were imported to America as an "ornamental." What on Earth were they thinking? They do provide an anti-fungal, but I have not found it to be very effective.

Dandelions are just plain wonderful. I don't begrudge them any space they decide is theirs. I pull the leaves and use them in green drinks. Once in a while, I go dig up all the roots for coffee/liver tonic.

But the Asian giant hornets (see: )--there is a good chance they will prove to be my undoing some day, but we all have to die. A particularly aggressive variety has started invading Kyushu from the mainland. Their favorite food is honeybees, and their second seems to be blueberries, which they devastate even before they can ripen. They do redeem themselves somewhat by pollinating the raspberries in place of the missing honeybees. Asian giant hornets, like eagles, do not stoop to flies.

Maverick said...

Good ending to the story, slightly off topic but relevant to what's going on in US right now.

From the article...
"I’ve often been struck by the extent to which collapse-phobia is a predominantly white, middle-class phenomenon.

It seems that whites, many of whom have very comfortable lifestyles and significant dynastic wealth, are the ones most terrified of collapse, however defined – stock market crash, empty shelves in the stores, civil order breakdown, panics, natural disasters, resource depletion, etc. They are the ones in panic mode–buying gold, stockpiling guns, buying rural land, hoarding supplies, learning how to forage, installing solar panels, stocking up on rice and beans, etc. Many of the people I have met who are concerned about economic collapse and environmental unsustainability have advanced degrees (not cheap), and live comfortable lives that I could only dream about in terms of expensive houses, families, and job security. By contrast, most lower-income people I have dealt are totally were unaware of the issues surrounding collapse–economic fragility, environmental destruction and climate change, our dependence on fossil fuels for everything, the creeping police state–and probably wouldn’t care too much if they did know about them.

Always wanted to point this out but don't have the gift of words. I think it nicely fits with your "collapse first and avoid the rush" meme.

Jo said...

Re the creaming of butter and sugar - I agree it is possible with a spoon, but I can't get it to the light and fluffy stage that I can get with a mixer. Then again, you probably only need that for cupcakes, and our grannies didn't make many cupcakes, their cakes were more solid, or else sponge cakes - which only need the eggs and sugar whipped.

Have you tried a manual rotary egg beater to whip eggs or cream? They work brilliantly, and children love to use them. I found mine at a junk shop, but you can still buy them new (but why would you??). They are everywhere in old junk shops in Australia, are they common in the US?

Vesta said...

Dear Onething,

England can come off as flip, and the whole endeavor is currently tentative, and words like 'may' do sound weasely. But it's early days, and at this point vague and uncertain is to be expected. Some is due also to England's desire to avoid specific origin of life questions, because he thinks they distract from the non-biological selection processes he's studying. That seems to make sense. I was once a research scientist in a directly related field, which gave me much of the relevant context, so I'm comfortable with the blank spaces

Regarding divine intervention in the origin of life, I wouldn't presume to know your wants. Speaking for myself, it may surprise you that I want a role for divinity in the origin of life, and in creation generally. And it doesn't seem that would be foreclosed by a successful theory of non-biological evolution. On the contrary, it would imply a role deeper and probably more important than simply turning out the first living cell on one obscure planet.

Atheist is a term that's been freighted with lots of baggage I don't claim, so it might not help you understand where I'm coming from.

If I understand your last paragraph in part 1, you're saying that seeking to understand the origin of life based on material processes is doomed to failure, because consciousness, which you believe is synonymous with life, is/was in fact the pre-existing substrate of the universe and so it's origin needs no explanation. The idea of consciousness being the primary substrate of the universe is interesting. I'm not familiar with that. What is the evidence you speak of that tells you this?

Thank you for the conversation.

Gottfried Wilhelm Melvin Hicks-Leibniz said...

Unknown Deborah and SLClaire,
do you have any experience with the wear and/or longevity of hemp clothing?

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,

You write that “I'd consider immortality in the sense of unending sequential existence to be a really ghastly fate. The older I get, the more clearly I see that any one human personality is good for maybe three quarters of a century before it gets unbearably dull to see the universe in just that one way and no other; the Druid concept of reincarnation, in which individuality endures but a new personality coalesces around it with each life, seems much preferable -- and if that doesn't work out, why, I'm not frantic enough about my own continuity to bother being afraid of death.

Finally, something we can disagree over, well, not actually as it’s more a matter of personal taste and experience rather than Truth and Logic. Besides, we don’t actually know what the Truth is yet, so definitely not something to be dogmatic over.

Ok, from where I stand getting very close to that “three quarters of a century” I have to tell you that I have never been happier or more interested in all the marvelous things that are happening. Though I have to admit that my life is non-typical: I started off very unhappy for reasons you can probably understand, then, as the decades passed, grew steadily happier.

At the moment I’m planning on dying of pure bliss at 114.

Besides, I agree heartily about the need to occasionally trade in a now boring personality, but you don’t have to die to do that. I’ve done that twice in my near 70 years.

Seriously, I guess I am more optimistic about continuing to enjoy a good, even useful very long life for a very long time, provided of cause that such a good and useful life is available. In fact, I suspect that the worst threat will be, as the ancient Greeks supposed, ennui.

Speaking of which, I’ve often thought that if the world we experience is a matrix, artificial, run on a computer, then the main purpose of our brief but intense lives and deaths on a strange hard material world where will has hardly any effect, magic barely works, everything is bound by laws of physics and gods are pale shades, is to remind our immortal selves how much better existence is that non-existence.

Maybe occasionally dying is the key to immortality.

Stephen Heyer

Stephen Heyer said...

Thank you Nastarana,

I’ve loaded your kind answer to my carefully backed up electronic diary. It gives me a good place to start.

We actually have some quite good shows visit the Rockhampton art centre. I’ll just have to watch for something that looks like it could be good, then make the effort to actually go and enjoy the art centre we are so lucky to have.

Once again, thanks.

Incidentally, I feel the same way about Hemmingway’s work, but his life and that of his friends was entertaining to read about (from a safe distance).

Stephen Heyer

latheChuck said...

If you Google for "songs with just four chords", or go directly to


you'll see that a certain subspace of the pop music subspace of the musical notional space has been worked and reworked far beyond the point of diminishing returns. Or, maybe not. After all, the 12-bar blues has been a foundation for uncountably many performances.

Owen said...

Sigh. Instead of viewing the current chaos as um, black and white, perhaps you might want to entertain the notion - that there's no hero in this story at all? None?

The cops? Not heroes anymore, just another gang with their own interests and rackets. The black people? Not heroes either. Many of these blacks that were shot have long criminal records. Nobody and I mean nobody in this whole drama is a saint. If Soros and Obama started a fist fight, would you be cheering for either one? Or for both to knock each other out?

What seems to be missing from the story is a third actor - the media. Why are they trying full stop, to whip the populace into a frenzy? These shooting of blacks - happens ALL the time. Only now is the media telling you "Pay attention to this". Why are they trying to get a race war started or at least put in your mind the perception of one?

Why did this happen so soon after Hillary skated on her gross incompetence at running a private email server? Oh look you serfs! Race war!

And another connection nobody is willing to make - all that playing fast and loose by the elites with the law has finally trickled down (there's trickling down working at last) to the general public. Following the law is only for the little people? Not anymore! It's for NOBODY.

From my perspective, it seems that something happened in 2012 or 2013, and every summer since has gotten progressively worse. Something about being able to get outdoors I guess gets everyone all riled up. You never see people behaving badly in January for some strange reason.

Makes me wish I was shoveling snow right now. And I hate shoveling snow.

onething said...


I readily concede that my use of the word "disrupt" was not the best choice. I was needing to leave the house at the time. And yes, holding entropy at bay is always temporary. I like your phrase, entropy surfing, very much.

Thank God for entropy. Without it, we could not move. Everything would be frozen.
SLClaire and Deborah,

So then, obviously we should be making more clothes out of hemp fibers.

Owen said...

re: alphabets

What I'm seeing is that people are starting to communicate in pictures along with text. Pictures and text are starting to blur together.

I could see by the year 3000 that people write to each other using stylized pictograms instead of an alphabet. There is a precedence for this - the Chinese ideographs.

Nick "Hildiwulf" Ritter said...

Eric S., as someone who writes new poetry in an old style (Germanic Alliterative Verse), primarily in old languages (Anglo-Saxon, Old Saxon, Old Frisian), and who also performs ancient poetry of that style (Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon), I think that there are two different levels to the innovation-performance spectrum: the level of style and the level of content. I do think very much that the “notional space” of, say, styles of poetry in the English language has been effectively filled, to the point that most modern poetry is noise (probably most things after Ezra Pound, who was exploring the edges of that notional space from a standpoint of deep familiarity with the poetic canon). There really are limits to how one can use the sounds and rhythms of a given language to produce beautiful utterances; as has been mentioned elsewhere among the comments, eventually , in the pursuit of innovation, beauty is sacrificed. And then what is the point?

That said, I do think (obviously, considering what I do) that there is value in revisiting old forms to see what might be done with them. Professor Tolkien thought the same way concerning poetry, and his were the first examples I saw of Modern English put into Germanic Alliterative Verse.

Content is another matter. Anyone can write a new sonnet, filling an old form with new meaning. In his book on Indo-European comparative poetics (“How to Kill a Dragon”), Calvert Watkins wrote about the poets who composed the hymns of the Rg Veda about three-and-a-half millenia ago, that they were continually striving to innovate – but in terms of content rather than of form. That is to say that the forms of Vedic verse were set, but that the field was open in terms of finding new ways to express truth (which from their viewpoint was ineffable, and therefore an inexhaustible subject matter). That is the point of view I hold, as well.

roseredloon said...

Dear Mr Greer

I've been a loyal reader for years, but rarely comment. I can always count on you to make sense of things in the most objective manner of any writer I've found.

As far as computer technology running out of notional space, that seems true for consumer electronics, but there's lots more to computing than smartphones and connected appliances. There's lots of innovation going on in Data Analytics (my specialty), it's quite frightening, actually, but that's another story.

I've been working in software development for 25 years. There is so much bloat and what we call "technical debt" that is weighing down our systems it makes me want to cry. Technical debt is when you are forced to deliver systems with poor solutions due to schedule and other resource constraints. You know you are making a bad decision you will have to pay for later. Engineers hate it and don't do it by choice. One of the main attractions of this field is the possibility of creating elegant, efficient software. The reality is actually very depressing. I am constantly pressured to rush through incomplete, hacked solutions to meet deadline pressures that I have no control over. Things get slower, more expensive, and more complicated with every passing day.

We have a solution to this that we call "refactoring". As you master a particular system, it is very obvious where the bloat is, and what should be rewritten to be clean, elegant, efficient, reusable, etc… That can work very well, when its "allowed" by engineering management. Unfortunately, it usually takes a system meltdown or the departure of key frustrated engineers to get the green light for this effort.

I hate the way we build modern software. I have often penned angry rants about our processes and management that I would like to publish, but I don't for fear of burning my bridges. A girl has got to eat. The day I finally cut my ties from this industry I will publish my essays with a bridge-burning inferno of an introduction, and hope it goes viral.

As for music - I have a degree in classical piano performance, so I have a pretty deep technical knowledge of western music history. I love all kinds of music, and I strongly dislike musical snobbery. There's lots of music I don't get, but I never assume its not worthwhile. Having said that, I saw Ornette Coleman live once (free jazz), and it was distinctly unpleasant - so anxiety-provoking that I had a panic attack!

Roy Smith said...

JMG, this installment of Retropia does a fabulous job of clarifying points that you have made in other ways over the years, so thank you again for a superb piece of writing.

For your readers in western Washington, one last reminder that the inaugural meeting of the Cascadia Guild will be held this coming Tuesday at 7 PM in Edmonds, WA. Click here for all the details.

And finally, apropos of nothing particular here, I read an article titled Social Violence Networking which made me realize even more before that I need to swear off as much of the online world as possible (and Facebook in particular), if for no other reason than to protect my own mental health, so the faster you can get that print version of The Archdruid Report up and running, the happier I'll be!

Bill Pulliam said...

Lynnet-- The Collared-Dove is not any kind of ecological equivalent to the Passenger Pigeon. They are non-migratory and stick to areas near humans. They serve essentially no function for long-distance dispersal of large tree seeds, one of the most important "services" provided by Passenger Pigeons. Feedlots and suburbs are their favorite habitats. What they are is yet another eurasian alien that is displacing native species in human-altered habitats, yet another Norway Rat with wings and feathers.

David, by the lake said...


OT, but I caught myself observing today's event through the framework of TADR just the other day when the President was discussing his decision to leave troops in Afghanistan. He commented that the American people have invested too much into the project to risk losing those gains to the Taliban and I found myself thinking, "Aha! The psychology of the previous investment!"

I suppose that we will be hearing similar rhetoric with greater frequency as things continue...

latheChuck said...

Just coincidence, I'm sure, but there was a major story presented on the NPR News this morning about Brian Wilson and his new band re-PERFORMING the music that was revolutionary when he first composed and recorded it with The Beach Boys 50 years ago. The notional subspace of male vocal harmonies, cheerful and/or meditative melodies, was filled then (with help from the Beatles), and left little room for further innovation. But new performance still sounds fine to my aging ears. How does it sound to members of younger generations?

I have a multi-CD anthology of jazz produced by the Smithsonian Institution, and I still can't shake the suspicion that "free jazz" was a live action role-play of The Emperor's New Clothes (or, "Let's Put One Over on the Hipsters"). I prefer to think that it was a whimsically noble tweak of jazz over-interpretation, rather than a mean-spirited fraud that led naive young musicians into a dead end. That is, to upset expectations is the soul of humor, but no one can live on satire and irony without a solid foundation of knowing what is to be expected.

I've heard that "Sid Vicious", a bassist for The Sex Pistols, was dismissed by the managers of the band when he had performed enough to actually develop some competence with the instrument. He didn't grasp that the point of that punk band was to exemplify attitude without competence. There's a time and a place for that sort of thing, but it's relatively short and small.

Stuart said...

Eric-- I'll second Nick Ritter's comment. Lyric in particular offers great performative scope without demanding more than trifling formal innovation. I also think there may be some room left for formal novelty where what we think of as "fiction" and "non-fiction" meet-- e.g. Tolkien, Jung, and Graves stick out as pioneers, but are different enough in how they accomplished it to suggest that more methods might be found.

In theatre, I've seen a couple of successful productions following a 1997 innovation by Martin Crimp (Attempts On Her Life) in which lines are written but no characters prescribed. Interestingly, this is performative in its drift, because in effect it shifts a burden of authorship onto the director, who must decide what sense and shape to give the scenes. While there is of course a risk of using this form for empty postmodern ends, I see it as maybe offering a way of adapting oral epic forms for audiences who are not necessarily "a people." The playwright can conjure iconic scenarios on a theme without really binding how they are presented or weighted. So perhaps there are some formal innovations left to achieve whose purpose will be to shift literary creativity into performance!

onething said...


I've been thinking similarly. What's up with encouraging a race war? We had made so much progress.

Stephen Heyer,

I'd like to know a little bit more about your two personality changes!


I've had similar thoughts about getting a bit tired of myself!


I'm seeking a really good rotary beater. I have one that is usable but mediocre. I don't often see them in thrift shops. It's true kids like them. I had a three-year-old at my house last New Year's and I had to let him spend quite a lot of time trying to whip up the cream, which I was doing because the noise of the mixer would be disruptive to the party atmosphere. He loves my nut grinder, too. But, I find it tedious and that's what I use my mixer for. A spoon seems to get things fluffy enough for me...I don't make cupcakes but I do make cakes.

Unknown said...

Owen @6:04am

Absolutely. Even Blind Freddy could see all that coming.

The media? They are just as owned as the FBI and the Justice Dept.

That much is obvious, even from here in Tasmania at the other end of the globe!

Best of luck.

eagle eye

Candace said...

@ Biil P
And yet it is my understanding that the spread of the Norway rat is one of the factors that reduced the numbers of outbreaks of plague...

onething said...

Hello Vesta,

I did not find England flip, and I don't actually object to the use of may and might. It's just that it tells me it isn't really that close to wrapping anything up. But it's honest. Also, it is true I am not a person with the background to deeply understand the 2nd law in the chemical sense and he did say a couple of things around the 20 minute mark that were over my head. So if he's got anything good, I'd need to have someone break it down a bit.

I'm wondering about these nonbiological selection processes – how real are they. I should think we'd have already seen a lot of it.

My wants are to know the truth. Because I find both Darwinism and basic western religious creationism both too simplistic, and yet it seems that living creatures and even their smallest parts are so unbelievably complex and also have a few other types of issues, the information that brings them about is functionally dissimilar to anything nonbiological processes do. It is hard to imagine a way they can have come about without a deliberate act of will on the part of a mind. But there is a kind of materialist fetish that has overtaken the research in this area.

So I try to imagine how it might be done. Some people posit a kind of endogenous intelligence, and Jeremy Narby wonders if the DNA molecule might be a kind of immortal, god-like being that is evolving itself by trial and error but with a lot of knowledge and smarts.

What I was taking issue with in my first comment is an attitude that believers can be tolerated so long as their conclusions are no different than that of a scientific materialist, and the endeavor to have a universe in which, if there happens to be a god, looks no different than one in which there isn't. Which doesn't compute.

It might be, if England really is onto something, that he has figured out a bit of the tools that are used. The way in which the physical world is a perfect substrate for the development of life is an area of interest for me. Good book about that is Nature's Destiny.

Consciousness as the substrate is an idea that I have worked into my worldview slowly as it requires a reordering of one's thinking. Bernardo Kastrup is the best to explain it. He's got a book, badly titled, Why Materialism Is Baloney and he also has a website called Metaphysical Speculations. He is not religious, is sciency, and is open to the idea of individual consciousness surviving death but is not sure how it would work, yet he is spiritual. He uses irrefutable logic to make his case. Consciousness is his area of interest.

Steven said...

@ Eric S. and the whole Period of Performance vs. Period of Exploration conversation-another way to think of it might start by looking at the career of Han van Meegeren. I find him a fairly fascinating character, and his wikipedia article is here:

But basically, van Meegeren was an interwar Dutch painter who greatly admired the paintings of the old Dutch Masters and taught himself to paint in the same style. The Dutch art scene of the time, however, panned his work as derivative and he never got anywhere-until he took to labeling his paintings as the work of actual Dutch Masters like Vermeer and selling them as such, at which point he made millions and became one of the 20th century's most prolific art forgers. He was only caught because he sold his forgeries to the Nazis-and then had to prove, after the war, that he'd in fact forged them in order to escape a potential death penalty for collaboration.

Thing is, however, when you look at van Meegeren's work (an example of it is in the wiki article I linked above), and then look at, say, Jackson Pollack (or anything else the mainstream 20thC art world insisted on creating)-which one comes off as more beautiful? Which is more pleasing to look at? Which one would you rather have hanging in your living room? To me, there isn't even a contest.

The reason I find Meegeren so fascinating is that he represents a different-and to me, much better-road the 20th century art world could have taken-namely, encouraging people to study older forms of art, learn the techniques by which they were created, and use them to add genuine beauty to the world. As an example of what I'm talking about, take Eastern Orthodox iconography. Iconography is pretty much the antithesis of modern art-it uses a bunch of set visual motifs and patterns, tries to make its meaning as obvious as possible, and is done using a very strict set of techniques designed to make all Icons look stylistically the same across geography, artist, and time. And, when its put into practice today, you get this:
Put both those links into your browser everybody-its probably the most beautiful thing you'll see today. And that was painted in 2012. (At a church in South Carolina I used to go to.)
My point-if the art world had focused on simply studying what's beautiful and making more of it, rather than relentlessly trying to find the next new thing, 20th century art would have been much more beautiful than it actually is.

Steven said...

Also (meant to put this in my previous comment) there's this little gem:

Read it, and never take Modern Art seriously again.

Also, just wanted to thank JMG for creating this blog. While I don't necessarily agree with everything in it (my Conservatism is a bit more similar to Rod Dreher's), I find a lot of JMG's ideas very interesting and thought provoking, and this blog has certainly helped crystalize a lot of my feelings about where this country and the world in general are headed.

John Michael Greer said...

Danil, oh, granted. I'd simply point out that there's as much disinformation these days opposing the existing order of things as there is supporting it.

Vesta, au contraire, once you've settled that the same process shapes inanimate as well as animate matter, you've filled in a vast amount of notional space, and you can then fill in much more by taking what's known about each side of the animate/inanimate boundary and applying it to the other. Consider the vast amount of notional space that went away forever when Newton demonstrated that the same force that makes apples fall from trees keeps the Moon in its orbit! Of course any such discovery raises new questions, but if it's a synthesis of any significance, it will settle many more questions than it raises.

We already know a lot about thermodynamics; we also know a lot about biological evolution; if we fuse the two into a single overarching theory, and that theory works, we take a huge jump closer to the point at which the only meaningful questions that can be asked within the overall paradigm of modern science are questions of detail. Now of course that paradigm will eventually be set aside -- but remember that the last change in grand paradigms was the transition between the logical method pioneered by the Greeks and the scientific method, and the next one will thus in all probability go to something that isn't science in any sense of the word we would recognize at all.

Team10tim, I'll take your word for it. I've never listened to anything by Wu Tang Clan -- not my style.

Tag, yes, I figured I'd hear from the Britten fans. I'd like to point out, though, that if you want to convince people to value your aesthetic opinions, the kind of saliva-spattered tirade you've exhibited here really isn't helpful. In fact, it's made me even less interested in giving Britten a second try.

Tripp, oh, granted. Permaculture is at least two different things -- a set of abstract principles on the one hand, and a specific modern subculture with its own practices and customs on the other. The latter is what I expect, in due time, to reach its peak and begin its normal decline.

Migrantworker, that's a very good point.

Donald, I doubt new operas are being written in 2065; there's been a steady decline in the number written per year for the last century or so. As for movies, my guess is that India is the center of the world movie industry in 2065, though there are brash new studios in Johannesburg that are beginning to give Mumbai a run for its money.

John Michael Greer said...

Eric, yes, you're defining "performance" too narrowly. Writing a sonnet isn't innovation, it's performance; the content may be different from other sonnets, but it'll be expressed in the same form, using the same toolkit of poetic devices, just as each performance of Parsifal uses the same score and libretto but weaves into those the director's vision and the singers' interpretations of the characters and music. I'd suggest similarly that genre fiction, for example, is performative rather than innovative. If you're writing, say, a Western, or a "cozy" mystery, or an epic-fantasy novel, you're working within a fairly well established form, and the art consists of how you assemble and deploy the familiar motifs.

You can also take an existing genre and deliberately invert some of its formal rules; that's what I'm dong in The Weird of Hali novel, but that's just as much a response to those rules as obeying them. In each of the stories just noted, for example, I'm taking certain conventions of the genre of Lovecraftian horror and deliberately inverting them, but to do that I have to understand them and know how they work, and my inversion of them has to be exact -- thus, for example, shoggoths have to find us uncanny, in exactly the same way that Lovecraft's characters find shoggoths uncanny. So what I'm doing is also a performance, though it's an eccentric one -- rather like the famous production of Othello that had an all-black cast except for Othello, who was played by a white actor.

Violet, exactly! Herbalism is very much a performative activity, and no less a creative one for that. The existing body of knowledge concerning herbalism gives you the framework within which you improvise in response to the patient's needs -- very much like a jazz musician improvising within an existing set of musical forms.

Bruno, even used, they're too pricey for me.

Nrgmiserncaz, it seemed like an obvious thing to put in! Barbers started out as professional shavers -- the word "barber," after all, derives from the Latin barba, "beard" -- and only later got into hairstyling...

Beneath, oh bright gods. And I didn't think libraries could get any worse...I'm going to have to move my post on the need to reestablish private lending libraries well up the stack.

Myriad, oh, granted -- if this was a romance novel, or if the romance was more than just an incident in a utopian narrative, I would have had them on the outs for a while, making tentative approaches to reconciliation and then backing away again, or something like that, to build the romantic and sexual tension to the screaming point before finally letting them go through that door. This story's mostly about the ideas, though, and I used the argument and reconciliation as the hinge around which Carr's realization could pivot. Different genres call for different plots! With regard to literature, as I noted in my comment to Eric above, genre fiction is certainly performative rather than innovative, and at this point, so is the novel as a form -- its possibilities have been explored, and now it's a question of how to use the familiar form and toolkit in an interesting and personal way.

Jbucks, yes, I heard the same sort of thing in college from art students. That's one way to avoid having to come to terms with the fact that what you're doing has stopped being of interest to anyone else, and for good reason.

Lewis, cooking ought to be performative. If someone's doing innovative cooking, I excuse myself as quickly as possible and go someplace where I can get a decent burger and a beer.

John Michael Greer said...

John, good point. I should have said "life on earth."

KKalbert, maybe so, but I'd point out that the arts in the Communist bloc didn't manage any great leap forward either...

William, it'll certainly be a book.

Ed-M, I didn't say it's derivative from the Latin alphabet. It's derivative from the existing alphabetic tradition -- that is to say, it's an alphabet rather than an abjad, a syllabary, a system of ideographs, or some entirely new way to represent language on paper -- and amounts to just one more way to try to do the same thing people have been doing since Phoenician times.

Spanish Fly, oh man. That may just be the last word in self-parody...

Doom, fascinating. I wish I'd been there to see it.

Gottfried, good question. I know the Lakeland Republic grows a lot of industrial hemp -- all its paper, as well as cordage, fabric, and other fiber products, come from that versatile source -- but I'll have to look into hempcrete. Since the theme of the book is retro technology, though, probably not, unless you can show me that hempcrete was used extensively in the past...

Justin, so noted. Thank you.

Pygmycory, thanks for the links.

Paul, exactly. Class is the tyrannosaur in the room, the thing nobody's willing to talk about that we desperately need to talk about.

Cherokee, fascinating. It's good to know that we in the US aren't the only ones whose political system is packed with overgrown toddlers pretending to be adults!

Pantagruel7, that works on more than one level. Yes, it's a good metaphor, but why should the author recycle it over and over again?

Maverick, thank you for this! Exactly -- a lot of collapsitarianism consists of middle class white folks who are terrified that their cozy lifestyles will drop out from under them. Not all, not by any means, but a lot.

John Michael Greer said...

Stephen, by all means keep that death by bliss on your schedule! The thing is, I've also tended to see my life improve with age; I had a wretched childhood, a difficult adolescence, a bearable early adulthood, and since then things have by and large gotten better and better. I really rather like being alive, all things considered, but one of the things middle age has brought me is a fairly clear sense of just how limited and limiting any human personality is. Thus my interest in trading this one in on a different model via reincarnation, in due time.

Owen, I tend to look at it from a different perspective. I've been saying for some years now that the most likely outcome of the widening gap between the political class and the bulk of the population in today's America was domestic insurgency. We've just taken one more large step in that direction, along a very familiar trajectory. I agree it's not useful to look for saints, but it's equally unhelpful to go chasing scapegoats; see it through the eyes of history, as the working out of one of the standard ways that societies destroy themselves, and it's easier to make sense of it all and figure out how to respond. Oh, and Chinese ideographs are far from the only precedent -- ideographic writing is the oldest kind of writing, and evolved independently in at least four different parts of the world (Egypt, Sumeria, China, and Mexico).

Roseredloon, of course there's plenty of notional space still to fill in in areas such as data analytics -- correct me if I'm wrong, but hasn't it only been recently that computer speed and power has gotten to the point of being able to do some of the things you do as a data analyst? That's going to involve plenty of unused notional space, for a while. With regard to your broader point, though, it's a valid one -- outside factors such as economics and politics can keep some aspects of notional space from being filled in.

Roy, you're welcome and thank you!

David, exactly. Unfortunately he's throwing lives down the rathole now...

LatheChuck, I've heard a certain amount of jazz that I'm quite convinced was deliberate self-parody, of the "let's see just how absurd we can be with straight faces and still get paying gigs" sort.

Steven, if you did agree with everything in this blog, I'd be worried. What I'm trying to do here is open up a space for certain conversations that haven't been happening for too many decades, and a conversation gets boring if everyone thinks the same way! The Disumbrationist movement is a gem, btw -- are you familiar with the Eren Malley poetry hoax along the same lines? Equally funny.

John Michael Greer said...

Stephen, by all means keep that death by bliss on your schedule! The thing is, I've also tended to see my life improve with age; I had a wretched childhood, a difficult adolescence, a bearable early adulthood, and since then things have by and large gotten better and better. I really rather like being alive, all things considered, but one of the things middle age has brought me is a fairly clear sense of just how limited and limiting any human personality is. Thus my interest in trading this one in on a different model via reincarnation, in due time.

Owen, I tend to look at it from a different perspective. I've been saying for some years now that the most likely outcome of the widening gap between the political class and the bulk of the population in today's America was domestic insurgency. We've just taken one more large step in that direction, along a very familiar trajectory. I agree it's not useful to look for saints, but it's equally unhelpful to go chasing scapegoats; see it through the eyes of history, as the working out of one of the standard ways that societies destroy themselves, and it's easier to make sense of it all and figure out how to respond. Oh, and Chinese ideographs are far from the only precedent -- ideographic writing is the oldest kind of writing, and evolved independently in at least four different parts of the world (Egypt, Sumeria, China, and Mexico).

Roseredloon, of course there's plenty of notional space still to fill in in areas such as data analytics -- correct me if I'm wrong, but hasn't it only been recently that computer speed and power has gotten to the point of being able to do some of the things you do as a data analyst? That's going to involve plenty of unused notional space, for a while. With regard to your broader point, though, it's a valid one -- outside factors such as economics and politics can keep some aspects of notional space from being filled in.

Roy, you're welcome and thank you!

David, exactly. Unfortunately he's throwing lives down the rathole now...

LatheChuck, I've heard a certain amount of jazz that I'm quite convinced was deliberate self-parody, of the "let's see just how absurd we can be with straight faces and still get paying gigs" sort.

Steven, if you did agree with everything in this blog, I'd be worried. What I'm trying to do here is open up a space for certain conversations that haven't been happening for too many decades, and a conversation gets boring if everyone thinks the same way! The Disumbrationist movement is a gem, btw -- are you familiar with the Ern Malley poetry hoax along the same lines? Equally funny.

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