Acid Dreams - Book Review

Wednesday 04 January 2017

I just finished reading the book "Acid Dreams" by Martin A Lee and Bruce Shlain. The book is a history of LSD in two parts. The first part was mostly about the CIA's use of and investigation into LSD for various purposes; the second is about the influence of LSD on the 60's counterculture. I found the first part to be more interesting.

Starting in the 1960's, the CIA investigated LSD for various potential uses - ranging from giving it to enemy spies to try to break them down under interrogation, to giving it to foreign politicians to try to get them to act out and discredit themselves, to considering using it to dose foreign populations so the US Army could come in while everyone was tripping and take over the country. The CIA also tested LSD on it's own employees, sometimes with their knowledge and consent and sometimes without, and most controversially on unsuspecting US citizens, mental patients, and prisoners in projects Artichoke and MK-ULTRA.

At one point a CIA scientist by the name of Frank Olson was unknowingly dosed with LSD at a CIA retreat and soon after decided to quit the CIA. A few days later he died in an apparent suicide. His family did not know he had been given LSD until 1975, when the government paid them a $750,000 settlement and apologized for giving him the drug. In the late 1990's Olson's body was exhumed and evidence was found that he was possibly not killed by the fall, but had been previously murdered and then his body thrown out the window. No charges were ever filed because of the original settlement in 1976, but people suggest he may have been murdered to keep him from quitting the CIA with top-secret information which he could have made public.

The ambiguity in this story is typical of the CIA's research into mind control and drugs. All we know for sure is that the CIA did a lot of research into LSD, however the reasons aren't completely clear. They claimed that they needed to prepare their agents for potential use by the Soviet Union, that they were trying to brainwash captured spies or test out mind control techniques - but how much of this is true and how much is not we do not know. It may be that the CIA prefers to be viewed as hapless buffoons testing out mind control techniques to conceal the fact that they were essentially torturing unknowing and unwilling innocent citizens. I have also read about a psychiatrist in Canada who was on the CIA payroll who was testing either mind control of torture techniques on unsuspecting Canadian mental patients. It may be that the CIA thinks that it would be better to be perceived as testing bizarre brain washing techniques rather than torture, as many of the techniques he tested to allegedly cure his patients of their depression are identical to "enhanced interrogation" techniques currently used on prisoners.

The book suggests that the CIA may even have been involved in pushing LSD as an illicit drug in the US to try to subvert the radical anti-war politics in the 1960s. There is evidence that the CIA was involved in importing and distributing heroin into the US during the Vietnam War, and they were also involved in the cocaine trade in the 1980s to support right-wing dictatorships. So we may never know the full truth of what the CIA has done in violation of US laws in the name of opposing communism and national security.

Even after LSD was put onto Schedule I in the US the government continued to test it on American citizens, while at the same time stopping all legitimate research into the drug and preventing any future research. I have recently read about studies that show that psilocybin, the hallucinogenic chemical in mushrooms, has been show to be an effective treatment for depression, especially in people with terminal illnesses. In the 50s LSD was considered to be a possibly revolutionary breakthrough for addictions - alcoholics who did an LSD therapy session recovered at an astounding rate of over 50%. By placing these drugs on Schedule I, which means that the drug has no medical value whatsoever, all research into them is basically prohibited, unless the research is into their negative effects. 

Recently it has come out that Nixon's "War on Drugs" was really a war on the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. Those two groups were on top of Nixon's enemies list, and the consitution prevented him from banning free speech, so instead he criminalized the drugs that those two groups preferred and imposed heavy penalties on them. In fact, in the 1960's, LSD played an important part in the anti-war movement, which is the focus of the second half of the book.

Many people at the time thought that LSD could revolutionize the world and that if everyone would take it war would end and a utopia would emerge. This seems clearly deluded, as an example many CIA employees took the drug in the 50s and 60s and as far as we know most of them did not turn into pacifist hippies. The author's seem to think that taking LSD simply reinforces what is already in your mind rather than giving you brand new insights about cosmic one-ness and so on, as people like Timothy Leary believed it did. So the hippies, who already believed in peace and love, just believed that even more; while the CIA agents who saw Soviet plots everywhere believed that even more. This theory also explains why the CIA considered LSD's main effect to be causing anxiety - they were expecting anxiety, so when they took it that's what they got. 

The CIA eventually realized that LSD was too unpredictable to be used for mind control, as they had hoped to do, and moved on to other, more powerful drugs, such as BZ, which was used in Vietnam to incapacitate enemy soldiers. And the radicals of the 60s eventually realized that LSD was not going to change the world when the revolution they predicted it would inspire failed to materialize. And eventually the government moved on from pumping out anti-LSD propaganda and trying to convince people that the drug will drive you insane and make you jump off of a roof (which was what the CIA had hoped it would do). But we are still left with the dwindling influence of the LSD-inspired radical politics of the 60s, and we are still left with draconian drug laws which completely ban drugs which have great medical potential from even being researched.

Labels: books, politics
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Another Viewpoint on Globalization

Saturday 24 December 2016

I just read this article about globalization which argues that income inequality isn't caused by globalization, but by societies not choosing to distribute the benefits of globalization equally. As an example, it mentions the idea of a Universal Basic Income, which just came up for a referendum in Switzerland last spring and was defeated. A Universal Basic Income (UBI) is when the government guarantees every citizen a basic income - enough to just barely live on - instead of social support like unemployment or food stamps or public housing. I personally think UBI is a great idea, but I don't really think it has any chance of being enacted anywhere in the near future. 

Here in Switzerland, in the months before the referendum, there were billboards all over showing a fat man in a dirty t-shirt with pizza and empty beer bottles on the table. I don't remember the slogan on the ad, but it was something to the effect of "why would you want to support this loser who doesn't want to work or do anything productive with his life?" The measure was defeated pretty soundly, and most people I spoke to were against it for vague, not well thought through reasons. 

To get back to the point, the article doesn't really give any good options or ideas for more equally distributing wealth, and I don't think it's very well thought through. It does raise a good point though, which is that the technological advances which have given the multi-nationals so much money and power at the expense of the middle and lower classes could easily be used to benefit everyone. Why aren't they benefitting everyone? Because the multi-national corporations exist only to make money, so why would they share their money with others when they can have it all for themselves? 

Regardless, this article does provide a different opinion to the one in "No Logo" and to my own opinion, so I thought it was worth sharing.

Labels: personal, economics
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No Logo

Friday 23 December 2016

I just finished reading "No Logo" by Naomi Klein, which is a book about the globalization of corporate marketing. The book was published in 2000 and parts of it hold up very well while other parts do not hold up so well. 

The first two parts of the book hold up the best, and they are about how corporations have ceased to make any actual products and instead focus on their brand, which is to say that they spend most of their efforts on trying to create a brand identity through advertising and marketing. An example of this is Nike, which in the 1970's made a decision to not focus on shoes, but instead focus on being about "transcendance through sports." Nike today is a huge company which sells sneakers for hundreds of dollars that cost pennies to make in third-world sweatshops, and has such a well-known brand that I didn't even think twice when reading about people tattooing the Nike swoosh on themselves. Nike was one of the first companies to realize that what people think about your brand is more important than your actual products, and that realization turned Nike into a global behemoth.

After Nike's success with this model, other companies followed suit, and led to the creation of the "consumer-based economy" we have today, which basically means that companies don't really do much of value - they instead spend ridiculous amounts of money trying to create demand for their products with marketing. Look at pretty much any expensive designer clothing - do people buy it because they think it's better quality, or do they buy it because they like what they think the brand represents? If people think something is better they will pay more for it, regardless of the actual quality or any other actual physical attributes. Take a pair of jeans from Walmart - people are going to think they are cheap and low quality, when in reality you can take the exact same jeans made in the exact same sweatshop and put a Calvin Klein label on them and people will pay a lot more for them and say they are stylish and high quality.

Here's another example - Tylenol versus generic acetominophen. The brand-name Tylenol is more expensive, because it is more expensive people assume the quality is better. In reality a chemical is a chemical, there is no difference between one acetominophen molecule and another acetominophen molecule - when you pay more for Tylenol you are essentially just paying to watch advertisements on TV - because that is the only difference between brand-name and generic. Of course the corporations have invested billions of dollars to convince you that the logo on the bottle is worth the extra money, and most people are never going to question something which has been drilled into their head repeatedly over their entire lives through advertising.

Before reading this book, I never really got the arguments against globalization. My thought was always that globalization makes cheaper goods available, and if I have the extra money and want to support local businesses I have the option to do that. This book explains how corporations made insane amounts of money by having their goods produced by overseas contractors in third-world sweatshops for pennies, and then selling those goods in first-world countries for insane profit margins, and that the only real value add of the corporation is the marketing they do. There was a popular book a while back called the "Four Hour Work-Week" the thesis of which was basically applying the corporate globalization model on a personal level - you hire people in China or India or another place where people will work for pennies, and have them do your work for you. So you spend a few hours a week overseeing them, and charge first-world rates for the work you have done for third-world rates. 

Globalization is a very complex topic with a lot of angles and nuances, and I'm not totally sure that it is totally a bad thing, but it is clear to me that it has contributed greatly to the income inequality which is growing steadily in the US, and it is clear to me that corporate greed is out of control. Whether there is a solution I don't know. Capitalism is based two concepts - that money is the most important thing there is, and that if everyone is greedy and makes rational decisions based solely on their self-interest everything should work out in the end. If the entire world economy is based on these ideas how can you expect corporations to act any other way than the way they do? After WWII corporations tended to be a bit more socially responsible and care for things like their employees more than their bottom line, but companies that sacrifice profits by the greater good will lag behind those that don't care about anything other than their profits.

The second half of the book talks about a lot of anti-corporate movements, most of which don't exist anymore, so doesn't hold up as well as the first half. In the afterword Ms. Klein talks about how 9/11 killed the anti-globalization movements by scaring people into giving up their civil rights and by fostering an atmosphere where being anti-corporate was portrayed as being anti-American. People were encouraged to go out and buy as much as possible to keep the economy going and told that not doing so was unpatriotic. We did see some vestiges of the anti-corporate movements in the Occupy Wall Street protests a few years ago, and we saw some more in Bernie Sander's recent presidential campaign. But with the upcoming President Trump saying he basically wants to give corporations free reign and no taxes, who knows what will happen over the next four years.

There is a bit of an unintentional poignancy to this book in it's descriptions of the early days of the Internet. Back when the book was written the Internet was revolutionizing communication by allowing people to share and find information and to communicate with other people, bypassing the coporate controlled mainstream media. This was before online advertising really took off, when websites existed to share information rather than to attract as many eyeballs as possible to see as many ads as possible. Once people started to be able to make serious money by showing advertisements on web sites, the Internet radically changed as people started launching websites with the goal of getting as many visitors as possible, and the profit motive corrupted what had promised to be a revolutionary concept. In the book, Ms. Klein talks about how corporations coopt anti-corporate sentiment to try to find new ways to sell themselves, and this is basically what happened to the internet when it turned from a giant public library into a giant version of Times Square.

In summary, "No Logo" is a very interesting book which really clarified for me the problems with free trade and globalization in the hands of people of corporations who only care about making money at everyone else's expense. It also explains why advertising is such a huge industry and why it is now more important than the making actual products or things that have value or uses. Global advertising spend is projected to be about $543 billion for 2016, which is significantly higher than the GNP of Switzerland, where I live. As a comparison, the UN estimates that global hunger could be eliminated for a mere $30 billion a year, and global poverty could be eliminated for about $175 billion a year. But what's more important, people starving to death or convincing people that they need to pay hundreds of dollars for products that cost pennies to make? Think about that next time you see a commercial on TV for, well, anything.

Labels: books, politics, economics
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I just finished reading The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. I had read about this book many times over the years, but never got around to actually reading it myself until recently. I had high expectations for this book and I was not disappointed. Richard Dawkins said that "It is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between!" I personally disagree with this statement. While I don't believe that the book really proves its hypothesis, I still think it is a work of genius. 

The central hypothesis of the book is that what we call "consciousness" is a relatively new phenomenon, and that not too many thousands of years ago humans had a very different type of consciousness. Specifically they did not reflect on their thoughts and actions and decisions as we do now, but acted more as animals - reacting to stimulus and their environment. In times of stress, where decisions required more deliberation, rather than thinking through their options and the consequences of their actions, they hallucinated voices which told them what to do. These voices were thought to have come from supernatural sources. While Jaynes makes a very compelling circumstantial case for this, I don't really feel he gives any direct evidence of this, and such evidence may not in fact be possible given the fact that the thousands of years have elapsed.

There are a couple other interesting hypotheses in the book. One that I had reached on my own is that consciousness is a manifestation of language. I believe that what we call consciousness, which is really having a voice in our head that we know is our own, is a side effect of language and specifically abstract language. I don't think consciousness is necessary for language or communication, but I think it is necessary for abstract language and thought, and I think it evolved with the capability for abstract thought, such as evaluating past decisions and planning for the future. I have no evidence for this, that is just my own opinion.

Most people think that the voice in our head is in control of our decisions and rules our minds like an all-powerful dictator. They think that without this voice making decisions we would not be able to function at all. The thing with this argument is that it is the voice making it. What most people think of as "I" IS the voice in their head. Jaynes uses an analogy of a flashlight: if you ask a flashlight to look around the room and see where there is no light it will tell you that there is light everywhere, because everywhere it looks it shines light. In reality the room is dark everywhere that the flashlight is not looking.

Because we identify the voice in our head as being "us" it is unable to recognize anything that is not that voice. In reality we can mostly function without this voice, without consciously thinking through every decision that needs to be made. As an example consider driving - it is mostly automatic, you see something in the road, you swerve to avoid it. If every decision had to be consciously thought through and consciously made we would all be very, very bad drivers.

Experiments show that your brain can recognize and use information well before we become conscious of it. An example is given by Jonah Lehrer in his book "Proust was a Neuroscientist." He describes an experiment where a subject has two decks of cards to choose from - each card either awards an amount of money or costs an amount of money. But the two decks are not equal - one will yield better results over the long run than the other. The subject will unconsciously begin to pick from the latter deck, the better strategy, well before they become conscious of the disparity between the two decks. Another example of your brain using information which you are not conscious of is blindsight, where people are not aware of seeing anything, but their brain responds to visual stimuli nonetheless. For example a person can't describe the room they are in at all, as far as they know they can't see it, but if you put a chair in front of them they will walk around it.

The point of all this is that our brains can function largely independently of our conscious thoughts, but people still cling to the idea that the voice in their heads make all the decisions and are in control. In my opinion the decisions would largely be the same without the voice (although of course not always), and that the voice mostly just rationalizes decisions your brain would have made anyway. Disagreements between the voice and the decisions often manifest as cognitive dissonance, and the usual result is that the voice updates it's evaluations to match what you were going to do anyway. I think the realization that we are far more than just the voice in our heads is a big part of what Buddhist teaching has to offer. 

The reason I go into depth about all of this, which is tangential to the book, is because Jaynes is completely unafraid to challenge preconceptions which are so deeply ingrained in people that they cannot even conceive of alternatives, and often become angry when alternatives are suggested. That is the genius of this book. Jaynes takes ideas which are commonly accepted as a priori facts by most people, and examines them and finds them lacking, suggests alternatives, and backs those alternatives up with evidence from literary works and archaelogical findings. While he makes a very good circumstantial case supporting his theory, I don't believe he offers any real direct evidence for it. 

While I don't buy his theory about hallucinated voices being the precursor to what we now call "consciousness," he did convince me that what we call consciousness is a relatively new phenomenon, and that in the not-too-distant past (evolutionarily speaking) our brains functioned in a very different way than they do now. However, I still greatly enjoyed this book, if only for his audacity in taking concepts that most people regard as fundamentally and inherently true, and suggesting that maybe they are not quite as set in stone as they are thought to be.

If more people were unafraid to throw out preconceptions that don't really have any evidence supporting them, and felt free to think of alternative theories, the world would be a much different place. Even if theories turn out to be wrong, it is still important to consider and test them. For thousands of years people thought the universe revolved around the Earth because that's what religion said. Then Copernicus suggested that the universe revolved around the Sun. That turned out to be wrong, but it was still an improvement over the old model. This book has played a similiar role in making people reconsider what consciousness really is.

Labels: personal, books
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Amazon EC2

Friday 09 December 2016

I made this site mostly just to mess around with Amazon EC2. I've had a couple S3 buckets for ten years or so, but I never really thought about trying out EC2 until recently. I have sites hosted with Linode and I'm happy with them. I think I may also have been scared off by trying to figure out Amazon's monstrously complex AWS dashboards.

The other day I realized that Amazon has a free tier for a year, which allows you to run one EC2 instance for free. So I decided to try it out. The set-up was not quite as easy as Linode was, and I was frightened and confused by the various complexities in the process such as security groups and VPCs.

I followed this tutorial to get the instance launched, which was not too complicated. Once I got the instance running then I ran into a few difficulties. First off, I couldn't figure out how to connect to the instance from a browser. You need to open up the ports in a security group, which I did, but it still didn't work. I was trying to figure it out and thought maybe I needed to set up a VPC or something, but there was already one created. After spending a few hours trying to figure this out I went back and looked at the security group I had set up before and the inbound port rules that I had set up before were not there. I still have no idea where they went, but I put them back and from there everything was easy.

I still have a few little glitches with EC2, but those have to do with my Apache config, not with anything having to do with Amazon. I needed something to put on this server so I copied the code from my other personal web site and adjusted it a bit and here we are.

Labels: personal, technical
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