Chaos surfing is difficult, but it’s the only sport there is

Happy Labor Day to those of my readers who live in the United States.  If any other countries celebrate a similar holiday on the same day, well, happy holiday to you as well.  And to everyone, Happy Monday.

At my office, we’re celebrating workers’ rights by working a half day today, and based on the fact that quite a few other people are at the train station already—though it’s operating today on a weekend schedule—we’re not the only ones.

It’s just another case of competition leading to inadequate equilibria of over-exertion, to the relative detriment of everyone in the system, like trees in a forest having to compete against each other for light, so they all have to keep getting taller, even though it would be saner if they could somehow agree to stay shorter and collect the light of the sun without wasting so many resources on competing with each other.  But they can’t and even if some of them could, they would be vulnerable to any mutant tree that grew taller than the others, and then that one would outcompete and out-reproduce, until all the trees got taller again, until they reached the point where the costs of getting taller were greater than the benefits, on average, and they would level off there, in a state of mutual strain.

Evolution is a bitch goddess, that’s for sure.  But trees are very pretty and majestic, so there are at least minor compensations.

As with trees, human businesses compete with each other, and the ones that stayed open on holidays had advantages over ones that did not, until a great many businesses—ones not constrained by laws forbidding it, otherwise, or union rules and agreements—stayed open on holidays, and ultimately, there are essentially no holidays on which everything is pretty much closed, when everyone stays home with their families.

That’s assuming, of course, that people have families with whom to stay home.  As for me, the only people I really interact with personally anymore are the people at work, so going in to work is my only serious socialization.  When I had my family around, I would have been happy to stay home; my family was probably an equivalent to one of my “special interests”, as they describe it for people with the Syndrome Formerly Known as Asperger’s and related disorders.  Now, though, I mainly just loll about on days when I don’t work.  If I didn’t have my chronic back pain problem, I might feel like doing other things—maybe going to bookstores or something similar.  But as it is, I just try to rest and not pay attention to how utterly empty and pointless my life is.

Hopefully, most of you who are celebrating this holiday are going to spend time with your families and/or friends, maybe having a cookout or something.  That’s the way it was when I was a kid.  Most of the people in my family worked for General Motors and related businesses, so they had the day off, thanks largely to union efforts and the like, such as—I believe—are celebrated by Labor Day.

However, businesses obviously lost money by having their factories idle when they could otherwise be productive, and so once they could transfer at least some of their manufacturing to other countries, they did, and got more work with less cost, and then so did all the other companies, and the equilibrium led to anyone who wanted to stay competitive keeping their businesses open as often as they could for as long as the costs of staying open were lower than the costs of being closed.  And the wheel turned, grinding ordinary lives into powder underneath it.

Okay, that’s a bit melodramatic, but it still does in fact suck.  In the past, there were those who predicted that rising technology would lead to people having more and more leisure time, and yet still being able to produce more than ever in the past.  These people had never studied evolution and natural selection carefully enough, it seems.  Success is always relative to other success in the environment; there’s always an arms race.  Now we work longer hours than ever before, and the most successful people are often the people with the least leisure time as opposed to the other way around.

That’s a bit ironic, I guess.  Success breeds more work rather than less, and the society it creates is so mind-numbing and stressful that hundreds of thousands of people every year die prematurely simply from drug overdoses, because drugs are the only reliable source of any solace or escape many people are able to find.  This is, of course, one of the reasons drugs are illegal; they harm productivity.  Why else would a society be against people doing something to their own bodies, as long as they don’t directly harm others by doing so?  The most popular drug in the world by far—caffeine—increases people’s productivity, at least temporarily, and there is no serious thought of restricting it.

Many of the costs of people’s drug problems are entirely due to the fact that some drugs are illegal.  In many cases, having been convicted of a felony related to drugs makes a person less able to get gainful future employment such as they might otherwise be able to do.  It likewise affects what kind of housing they can get.  And so, far from having “paid their debt to society”, these people never stop paying, for the rest of their foreshortened lives.  Why would one not be willing to risk death by taking unregulated drugs, when life is an empty competition without any good reward even for the most successful?

Then again, life has never really promised any good and lasting reward.  Any creature that found truly lasting satisfaction in a meal, for instance, would live a happy but short and less-reproductive life.  Lions and gazelles don’t have job security, and they don’t get to take vacations from each other.  Every day is a struggle to survive and if possible reproduce, no matter what or who you are.

Economies no more have souls than ecosystems do, because they are both spontaneously self-assembled systems in which whatever survives is just, well, whatever survives and becomes self-sustaining.  They’re conspiracies without conspirators.  There is no master plan behind it all.  Most conspiracies—even ones that would be recognized by all as such—were not nefariously planned by any cabal behind the scenes.  They just happen, and the ones that persist do so because they become self-sustaining, like bureaucracies and governments and businesses and whatnot.

It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that we aren’t able (so far) to throw off such self-created situations.  Each person and thing can only act in response to the vector sum of all the forces acting on it locally.  Even the laws of physics only act locally.  Gravity doesn’t actually reach across the universe; each change in a local bit of the gravitational manifold affects the bit next to it, which affects the bits next to it, and so on, spreading out at the speed of light as it changes.  This is why there are gravitational waves, and why black holes continue to gravitate even though nothing can actually pass through the event horizon outwards.

Likewise, each bit of the electromagnetic field influences the next bit, which influences the next bit, and spreads along, again, at the speed of light.  That speed of propagation can fool people, whose reactions happen at most at a few meters a second, into thinking that things are truly and directly interconnected instantaneously, but they are not.  Every point in spacetime is influenced directly—as far as we know—only by the points immediately around it at any given time.  The universe itself is, in a sense, just a spontaneously self-assembled system, an unplanned conspiracy.

Humans have the advantage of being able to think about such things and their implications more deeply, and a few of them even do so.  But it’s hard for one bit of water in the middle of an ocean to deliberately change the specific configuration of the world’s seas by the effects of what it can do locally.  A butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon Rainforest™ may indeed affect whether a tornado happens somewhere thousands of miles away months later…but the butterfly doesn’t know this, nor does it know how to flap its wings in just the right way at just the right time to cause or prevent any weather formation.  It just flutters around looking for nectar and looking to mate and lay eggs and so on.

Humans are more sophisticated than butterflies, but the equations that govern the interactions of the world are generally higher-order, emergent equations that cannot be solved even in simplified forms, not within the lifetime of the universe.  Only the universe itself has the processing power to compute them, and even it can do so only by enacting them.

And while the Schrodinger equation is, apparently, a linear equation, and remains so in perpetuity, it’s still not readily solvable for anything beyond the simplest of systems.  And anyway, people are not completely sure what it really represents, they just know that it works really well.

Oh, well.  What are you gonna do?  Have a hamburger or a hot dog or some potato salad today with your family if you can.  Give a hug to someone you love and who loves you.  The chaos may be inescapable, but there are still benefits that can be squeezed out of it, if you can learn to surf it for a while.  You might even be able to have fun doing it.

Monday mornin’ couldn’t guarantee that Monday evenin’ you would still be here with me

It’s Monday, July 11th of 2022, and this is the first Monday blog post among the ones that I’ve begun writing every weekday morning, which only started last Tuesday (and that is why this is the first Monday post…as you probably guessed, or could have guessed, even if you didn’t already know).

The fact that the date is 7-11 (in the American system of writing dates, anyway) is rather pleasing, and not just because it consists of two consecutive prime numbers.  It calls to mind an interesting thought—to me, anyway—about cultural evolution*.  The store chain, 7-11, took its name originally, as I understand it, from the hours it stayed open.  That was from seven in the morning until eleven at night, not from seven until eleven am or pm.  That would have entailed a business open for only 4 hours a day (or eight, if it had been done in two shifts, which I guess could have been interesting to make into a store name).

At the time, or so I’m led to understand, having a store open from seven in the morning until eleven at night was exceptional enough that it was worth making into the name of your convenience store**.  But of course, free market economies having at least a little bit in common with biological evolution, it wasn’t long before competitors started showing up, since the resource laden niche of the long-hours convenience store had been shown to exist.  Eventually 7-11 extended itself to be a store worthy of the name 7-7…or 8-8, or 9-9, or any other string of times that loops around the clock and comes back to start again ad infinitum.  They could have just renamed it “24-7” if that had been a cultural meme at the time, but of course, by that time, “7-11” was already an evocative meme, and a highly recognized and popular brand, so there was no need to change.

But as is often the case with cultural evolution due to economic competition, once the store hours had been extended to 24 hours a day, every day, there was no credible way to scale back merely to 7-11, except perhaps in a few rarefied and “underserved” markets.  In most places, the chain would have lost market share to shops that had already sprung up in competition with it…even those that weren’t 24-hour stores, because their advantages were usually in the form of lower prices than 7-11 was able to charge.

Thus, 7-11’s 24-hour schedule, etc. became a sort of peacock’s tail or Irish elk’s antler of the retail economy.  Nothing short of a true and rather complete collapse of world retail seems likely to reset the norm of store hours…or of working hours, or of “at-will employment”, or of other similar configurations.  Because, though change can be brought about by politics, via laws and regulations, politicians—and their promises—are as subject to inadequate equilibria and peacock’s tails (and bird-of-paradise courtship displays) as anyone and anything else.

If the public at large were bright enough, and self-aware enough, to adapt rationally what they voted for, or how they made their purchases, or the hours they were willing to tolerate working, or the conditions under which they were willing to work, they probably wouldn’t ever have landed themselves in the first place in situations where the only ways to reset things are via catastrophic occurrences, deliberate or accidental.  And, unfortunately, since there is rarely any well-thought-out, scientifically planned or tested cultural adjustment done, revolutions and other catastrophes tend to be bloody and destructive and horrible, and to make things worse for everyone, until evolution has time to find another equilibrium that is at least a bit more efficient and tolerable.

But maybe I’m wrong about all that.

All this does bring me around to something that always irritates me:  the way politicians, or activists, or similar people, talk about wanting or seeking to make “change”.  That’s just simply too vague and useless a word to use, in my judgment.  Seeking and working to make “change” is not good enough, because though all improvement is necessarily change, not all change is improvement.  In fact, given the extremely high-dimensional vector space of all possible directions of cultural change, or societal change, or political change, or economic change, and given the comparatively narrow region of that vector space that most people would consider better than the space in which they already reside***, there are far more ways to make life more or less universally and objectively “worse” than there are places in the space of possibility which could be thought to be better.

Even in a one-dimensional space (so to speak), with a random change you’d have a 50-50 shot of either getting better or worse, and that’s as good as it can get even in principle with respect to random movement.  The higher the number of dimensions, the more ways things can potentially get worse (or get no better).  And reality is a very high-dimension vector space of possibilities indeed****.

So, don’t make change just for the sake of “change” without thinking very carefully about what you’re doing, because you’re more likely to make things worse than you are to make them better, by any reasonable definition of “better” you might care to choose.  And if you gain an advantage by keeping your store open longer than others, other people will eventually extend their hours to compete with you until finally, all relative advantage is squeezed down to being so tiny as not usually to be worth the effort.  And everyone will be stuck in a new, more exhausting equilibrium, like tall trees in a rain forest, competing for the otherwise ample sunlight and water, when they could have survived much more easily and efficiently if they could all just have agreed to stay short.  But they couldn’t do that, being trees.

Humans are not trees, of course.  But they don’t seem to be that much smarter.

Have a good week.


*Not to be confused with Cultural Revolution, which tends to be a very bad thing even when done deliberately and “planned” in advance.

**Though I’m not sure if even the term “convenience store” existed before 7-11 conjured it.

***The portion of the vector space in which we now exist clearly has going for it the fact that we can exist here, at least in the short term.  To take an analogy, imagine being on Earth and being given the opportunity to teleport instantly to some other random spot in the universe—or to some other, random planet in the galaxy, even.  What odds would you give yourself that you would survive more than an instant once you reached your destination?  The reason we’re alive here on Earth right now is because we can be.

****This has nothing to do with higher numbers of spatial dimensions, as in String Theory or M Theory or related proposed systems of physics.  Those entail literal, spatial dimensions, of the sort through which we regularly move, though with certain special characteristics, whereas I’m talking about dimensions of vector spaces, or “phase spaces”, the dimensions of which you can think of as being analogous to any of the axes on a set of graphs that map data relative to other data.