Two sweeping moral visions of guns

Monday, February 19th, 2018

Ross Douthat notes that mass shootings aren’t leading to legislative action, because we have a chasm between two sweeping moral visions of guns that is too wide to be bridged by incrementalism:

The anti-gun moral vision regards America’s relationship to gun ownership as a kind of collective moral madness, a love affair with violence, a sickness unto death. Liberals increasingly write about gun ownership the way social conservatives write about abortion and euthanasia — it’s a culture of death, a Moloch devouring our children, a blood sacrifice to selfish individualism.

The pro-gun moral vision, meanwhile, links arms and the citizen, treating self-defense as an essential civic good, a means of maintaining Americans as free people rather than wards (or prisoners) of the state.

The pro-gun vision is linked, of course, to practical concerns — support for gun ownership is higher in rural areas where the police are far away. But it’s essentially a moral-political picture in which the fullness of citizenship includes the capacity to protect and defend, to step in when the state fails and resist when it imposes illegitimately.

If you asked me to defend only one of these moral pictures I would defend the pro-gun vision. I am not a gun owner but I can imagine many situations and political dispensations in which a morally responsible citizen should own a weapon; I have encountered many communities where “gun culture” seems healthy and responsible rather than a bloodthirsty cult. And the claim, often urged on anti-abortion writers like myself, that guns and abortion should both be opposed on “life” grounds seems like a category error, since every abortion kills but guns sit harmless in millions of households and many deter violence or turn back evil men.

Naturally the New York Times includes a photo of “high-capacity clips” to adorn the article. (They are regular-capacity AR magazines.)

Douthat is not a gun guy, but he takes a stab at gun regulations that would not apply to every gun owner, but instead would be imposed on the young and removed with age:

Let 18-year-olds own hunting rifles. Make revolvers available at 21. Semiautomatic pistols, at 25. And semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 could be sold to 30-year-olds but no one younger.

Again, he’s not a gun guy, and he doesn’t seem aware that standard practice already works a bit like this, with long guns (rifles and shotguns) available at 18 and handguns at 21. The legal right to carry a handgun (concealed) generally requires a more thorough background check and a modicum of “training” — you have to sit through a class and not scare the instructor too badly when you go to shoot your gun at the range. Simply requiring paperwork seems to weed out most irresponsible people.

Of course, a system designed to keep guns away from criminals and ordinary hotheads might do very little to keep guns away from quiet loners with a nihilistic obsession.

Taleb’s style can be imitated but never fully mastered

Friday, February 16th, 2018

Branko Milanovic thinks that Nassim Nicholas Taleb is one of the most important thinkers today:

Taleb went from (a) technical observations about non-Gaussian distributions of some phenomena to (b) generalization of what this means for our perception of reality and the way we comprehend things (epistemology) to (c) methodology of knowledge and the role of inductive thinking to finally (d) a statement on ethics. To convey this he created a new type of writing. I will leave this last part undiscussed, but whoever has read Taleb knows that his writing style is absolutely original and like Borges’ can be imitated but never fully mastered.

[...]

This has also led him to conservative political philosophy, similar to Edmund Burke’s (whom he does not mention): institutions should not be changed based on deductive reasoning; they should be left as they are not because they are rational and efficient in an ideal sense but because the very fact that they have survived a long time shows that they are resilient. Taleb’s approach there has a lot in common not only with Burke but also with Tocqueville, Chateaubriand and Popper (whom he quotes quite a lot). One may notice how a technical/statistical point made by Taleb such as “my field is error avoidance” leads to agreeing with Hayek’s critique of the “conceit of reason”.

Premised on a sense of Authority and Seriousness

Thursday, February 15th, 2018

In the conflict between the “Blue Church” (of the televised Mainstream Media) and the digital Insurgency, there are deep forces shifting:

Attention is attention. By means of direct digital communications, the Insurgency has largely controlled the attention of legacy media (and by proxy the attention of its entire audience). Consider the infamous “covfefe” post of May. Within hours of the post, nearly the entirety of the English-speaking broadcast media was giving its attention to the Insurgency. And while the Blue Church’s conscious evaluation of the event might have been to deride the President as an incompetent, it is the unconscious meaning that matters: they gave him their attention en masse and almost for free. Over and over again in 2017, we saw this dynamic play out. If we think of attention as the primary resource of narrative creation, what we are witnessing is the increasing capacity of the decentralized, digital, interactive media to control the legacy broadcast media’s access and use this resource. Rather than standing as a competitive peer to Digital, Television is slowly becoming an organ and resource of Digital.

It is Kayfabe all the way down. The power of the Blue Church is premised on a sense of Authority and Seriousness. By pushing the entire conversation into the realm of the absurd (“really Fake News”), the Insurgency robs the Church of its simulacrum of legitimacy. If it is all just a game designed to manipulate your emotions and grab and hold your attention (say for advertising bucks or for political points), then pretenses of Authority and Seriousness are just that: pretenses. 4chan in particular has been playing with this game effectively in the past year — successfully causing the Blue Church to attend with Seriousness the notions that milk, the OK hand sign and a cartoon frog are deep symbols of a Serious alt-right conspiracy. Note — if what I just said here feels shocking, alarming or wrong, this would be a very good point to slow down and consider the frame that I am trying to examine. I am not, for example, saying that there isn’t an alt-right, nor that Pepe the Frog isn’t associated with the alt-right. What I am saying is that if you think Pepe the Frog is the symbol of the alt-right and that the alt-right exists as an ideology in the same way that symbols and ideologies worked under the 20th Century models of Broadcast media (e.g., like Uncle Sam and America or the Swastika and Nazism), then you are missing something unspeakably important. For the Insurgency, what matters is not the symbol or the ideology; what matters is who produces symbols and ideologies and how they hold them. To assume and rely on some Authority to produce them and to take them Seriously is always already to be playing the Blue Church game. Within the Insurgency, the shibboleth is style, not content; disposition, not ideology.

Velocity, velocity, velocity. The Blue Church is like a Battleship. Very slow moving and able to focus its efforts on only a very narrow set of targets. If you stand around long enough to get punched, it can still land some heavy blows. But if the conditions of the ground are changing faster than the Blue Church can Observe, Orient, Decide and Act, it is constantly caught flat footed and swinging at the wrong targets.The Insurgency, by contrast, is more like a swarm of Slaughterbots (go ahead and watch that video, it is a very good use of seven minutes): a whole lot of small pieces that can coordinate into a big punch when necessary but more often flow around the landscape taking opportunities when they arise. In this context, velocity is key. If you have been feeling disoriented by the pace and seeming complete disjunction of events in 2017, you are not alone. This is the point: the entire Blue Church approach to collective sensemaking and action requires a particular velocity of change. By moving the entire landscape into a much higher pace, the Insurgency is making it impossible for the Blue Church collective intelligence to maintain effective coherence.

A charismatic situation

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

The period after World War I in Europe was a charismatic situation, Xavier Marquez explains, when a number of people made charismatic claims more or less successfully:

The most famous of these people was Hitler, in Ian Kershaw’s classic interpretation. If we conceptualize charisma merely as a sort of talent, Hitler was an unlikely candidate for leadership. Not to put too fine a point on it, he was a loser. To be sure, he did have some qualities, including “massive overconfidence”, that would help him later in his rise to power, and he was well-served by the fascist genius for ritual spectacle; but none of these qualities, by themselves, explain his later charismatic authority over millions of people. (At best, they would have made him a moderately successful rabble-rouser — what he in fact was in the early 1920s).

What really invested him with charismatic authority among many Germans in the 1930s were his successes, including his unlikely electoral gains, his astonishing diplomatic and military victories after he gained power, and perhaps most of all the taming of German unemployment. It did not matter much whether some of these successes were actually attributable to Hitler, or based on illusory assessments, so long as he was visibly associated with them. And because Hitler wildly exceeded initial expectations (he was, after all, a perfect outsider), too many people adjusted their priors “too much” in the direction of “miracle worker.” But by the same token, when his decisions led to a massive failure that he had to take responsibility for (in particular, the defeat at Stalingrad) his charismatic authority started to ebb. (It had to be a massive failure, by the way: minor failures would not have dented his reputation much, as they would have been easily rationalized).

Similar stories could be told for other classic cases of charismatic leadership in this period. A common thread in these stories seems to be that leaders who are later said to be charismatic are successful bluffers, outsiders who make unlikely gambles and win. Mussolini with his “March on Rome” is another case in point. The march represented no big threat to the Italian state (Prime Minister Luigi Facta was ready to impose martial law to prevent it, and would likely have succeeded), yet king Vitorio Emmanuele III folded and gave Mussolini the prime ministership. This success was one event that helped construct Mussolini’s charismatic authority, complementing the ritual dimensions of fascist rule. Fascist spectacle by itself was insufficient; Mussolini, another paradigmatic outsider, required unlikely, striking successes for large numbers of people to greatly increase their trust in him as a leader. But again, when he failed, his charisma quickly ebbed, and he came to depend more and more on the legal authority of the state rather than on his personal authority as a charismatic leader.

This is the logic of lex talionis

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018

William Ian Miller’s Eye for an Eye did not make it onto T. Greer’s top 10 reads list for 2017, but he did find it quite thought-provoking:

Miller is an unusual creature: part law professor, part medievalist, Miller is equally comfortable discussing ancient Hittite legal decrees, the etymology of old Norse runes, the tropes of Elizabethan Drama, and modern tort law. I suppose if you were to take J.R.R. Tolkien, Thomas Schelling, a good dose of dead-pan humor, and a pinch of the morbid, and then shook them up together in a bottle, Mr. Miller is the man who would emerge.

Miller’s book looks at the politics of social life (in places like medieval Iceland):

When one man (or one women) meets another calculations begin: how should I treat this person? Are we equals, or is he my social inferior? Or perhaps he is my social superior? How do I let him know what my social status is, and how should I respond if he does not take the hint? Is this person worth an insult? A fight? What are the consequences of letting things slide? What are the consequences of refusing to do so?

Eye for an Eye looks at lex talionis — “the law of the talion, the principle of an eye for an eye, of justice through vengeance, retaliation sanctioned by culture and law”:

This understanding of justice is what propels the Icelandic sagas. But it wasn’t just a Viking tick. “Eye for an eye” was standard practice just about everywhere a few thousand years ago, from the shores of Germainia and the fields of the Greek polis to the warring tribes of Canaan and the even more distant lands of the Kurus and the Zhou. We view this understanding of justice as backward and crude. We say things like “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Miller aims to convince us otherwise.

In Bloodtaking and Peacemaking, Miller tells the story of some Norwegian merchants who had chopped off Skæring’s hand and thought the judgment too steep:

“Then I shall make you another proposal,” said Gudmund. “I will pay Skæring the thirty hundreds that you were judged to pay, but I shall choose one man from amongst you who seems to me of equivalent standing with Skæring and chop off his hand. You may then compensate that man’s hand as cheaply as you wish.”

This did not appeal to the Norwegians and they decided to pay the original award immediately. Gudmund took Skæring with him when they left the ship.

[...]

To the Norwegians the award should reflect the price of a middling Icelandic hand. Gudmund forces them to conceive of the award in a different way: it is not the price of buying Skæring’s hand, but the price of preserving a Norwegian hand.

This is the logic of lex talionis, T. Greer explains:

This is why “an eye for an eye” did not in fact make the whole world go blind. The principle of an eye for an eye, as Miller sees it, is “the more ancient and deeper notion that justice is a matter of restoring balance, achieving equity, determining equivalence, making reparations… getting back to zero, to even.” Trading eyes for eyes is not so much about indiscriminate, unthinking violence as it is carefully calculated attempts to match punishment to crime. Talionic justice is a system built on deterrence — not only deterring criminals from committing crimes, but deterring vengeance seekers from exacting too heavy a price in retaliation for crimes committed against them. This is empathy enforced by blood. You think carefully about the pain you inflict on others knowing, that measure for measure, the pain you give others will be given back to you.

We have a sorry habit thinking about revenge as “as going postal and blasting away,” but as Miller notes, “revenge cultures did not think of it that way.” This is obvious if you read the stories revenge cultures created. Characters in the Icelandic sagas approach murder with the meticulousness of a father inspecting his daughter’s suitor. They conducted their feuds not in the heat of rage, but through cold, calculations. Heroes from revenge plays like The Oresteia cycle or The Orphan of Zhao plan their vengeance months or even years in advance, and when the moment comes often have to be goaded into taking revenge. One gets the sense that these people believed that feuding was utterly necessary but not entirely natural.

Despite treating a caricature of a caricature with trivial algorithms

Monday, February 12th, 2018

A few months back, while I was stepping through Techniques of Systems Analysis, Scipio Americanus recommended Keith R. Tidman’s The Operations Evaluation Group as “a fine overview of the development of the OR/OA field from the naval perspective.” I immediately ordered a copy, read it, and failed to achieve OR Enlightenment, so I didn’t get around to preparing a post full of insights from the book.

Gwern, on the other hand, did follow through and did produce just such a review, which summarizes my experience, too:

So overall: reasonably well-written, covers intrinsically interesting topics like ASW in WWII and Vietnam air tactics; compromised by official history purpose to recount thoroughly uninteresting internal details while omitting too much of both context and technical detail for my tastes and suspiciously hamstrung in certain areas like nuclear strategy or Harpoon.

Here is Gwern’s list of insights from the book:

  • after compiling all data about U-boat sinkings, Edison found merchant shipping routes were unchanged despite the risk, 94% of sinkings were during the day, and <4% of ships carried listening devices or radios. Edison set up a simple war game on a map simulating a merchant vs U-boat, proving that travel by night from port to port would largely eliminate sinkings. Unfortunately, his findings were ignored.
  • Blackett’s Circus used animal experiments demonstrating that lethality of air pressure blasts was overestimated 5x, reducing over-optimistic estimates of the effect of bombing campaigns in Germany
  • Depth charges were set to explode at 100 feet depth, on the assumption that U-boats would be that deep after being spotted; analysis indicated that half had not even submerged when depth-charged, much less reached 100 feet, and the optimal setting was 20 feet (which the depth charges didn’t even allow as a setting), which “new setting [of 35 feet] at least quadrupled their destructive capability.”
  • Big convoys turned out to have half the loss rate of small convoys, due to U-boats being unable to amass more, leading to a shift away from small convoys
  • A British naval program in the Mediterranean armed merchant ships with AA guns to reduce losses from aerial bombing; the program was going to be canceled because only 4% of attacking planes were being shot down and the deployment of scarce guns looked like a waste, however, an OR re-analysis of ship rather than aircraft losses showed that the armed ships had a 10% loss rate versus unarmed ships’ 25% loss rate. The latter was clearly a more relevant end-metric.
  • initial attempts by naval researchers to record underwater ship sounds to fool sound-based naval mines failed as the device invented to make ship-like sounds turned out to not sound much like a ship at all; this device serendipitously turned out to be nearly perfect for fooling the German sound-seeking homing torpedoes, largely scuppering their deployment (and freaking out the U-boat crews by its bizarre sounds, who were sure that the “singing saws” were “some powerful, dangerous weapon”)
  • William Shockley (taking a break from electronics research to serve as an OEG analyst during WWII), deployed to England to observe ASW there and was struck by an incident in which a plane attempted to bomb a discovered U-boat but the bomb jammed due to rust, then, fixed, went out again 2 days later only to crash in the fog. Shockley found that “on the average, an aircrew had just one opportunity to kill a submarine before its own members were either killed or wounded or at least moved on to another assignment. An aircrew thus had little or no opportunity to learn on the job.” ASW could only be developed institutionally and given the nature of search over large areas, statistically.
  • OEG was deeply involved in the early development of optimal search theory (Bayesian or otherwise), developing models of what probability a search plane had of spotting U-bots or periscopes under various conditions and altitudes. This then allowed development of optimal search patterns and setting up barrier patrols, which, when deployed in the Strait of Gibraltar, caught 3 U-boats in 4 months and then sealed off the Mediterranean; this was followed by capture or destruction of 4 of 5 German blockade-runners carrying vital rubber/tin supplies from Malaysia/Japan (the equivalent of “a year and a half” of German supplies).
  • study of U-boats off the US East Coast and also the Caribbeans showed that air patrols were staying far too close to land and needed to be outfitted with radios and spotlights; the patrol patterns were changed.
  • on the other side of the Atlantic, radar+spotlights on even a few planes around France proved to be a potent combination in striking U-boats at night when they typically surfaced to rest & travel rapidly, forcing them to shift travel to during the already-dangerous day. “In sum, the night flying of 2 squadrons had increased the effectiveness of antisubmarine operations in the Bay [of Biscay] by more than 7 squadrons of day flying.” (And also prompting the introduction of radar-detectors, which led to radar-detector-detectors etc.) A similar scenario played out in the Pacific: analysis demonstrated that US subs were lost at the same rate regardless of using their radar, so the Japanese planes did not have radar-detectors, and US subs could go back to using radar full-time.
  • The existence of radar-detectors led Caribbean pilots, when outfitted with a new radar that regularly revealed vanishing contacts, to assume they were being detected by U-boats, and to abandon use of the highly effective radar, crippling their submarine hunting. OEG didn’t believe radar-detectors could have been deployed so fast by the Germans and investigated; the vanishing contacts turned out to be glitch in the radar and the pilots resumed use.
  • US submarines were being lost at high rate in the Pacific for unknown reasons, as few survived long enough to report the cause; study of US submarine miss rates in attacking Japanese subs (which able to report back) revealed that contrary to the US Navy’s belief, most of the US subs were being killed by Japanese subs and not airplanes or surface ships. Immediately, tactics and sound equipment were revised to emphasize anti-torpedo tactics, and “By the close of the war, several commanders had credited the modified torpedo detection equipment and new tactics with saving their submarines from destruction.” While they were at it, they modeled mine fields and appropriate counter-tactics, and “of 12 submarines assigned to operate in the Sea of Japan, none was lost to the mines that heavily dotted the straits leading into and out of the area.”
  • anti-kamikaze tactics were likewise worked out (evasive maneuvers: big ships yes, small no; turn towards a high-diving but away from a low-diving)
  • Analysis of Korean fighter-bomber strikes showed the F4U was much more vulnerable than the F9F, due to tactics like going much lower and more often in range of AA (and even small-arms fire). It also showed pilots were wrong about their belief that the last airplane in a strike ran the largest risks due to loss of the element of surprise (it actually ran the least risk). Changes reduced the F4U losses.
  • a 1958 OEG study found a ‘window of vulnerability’ of the US to USSR pre-emptive strikes 1961-1963 and a ‘missile gap’. Tidman defends the report, noting that it made a number of suggestions for eliminating the ‘window’, many of which were taken: “…the hardening and dispersal of fixed weapons sites, a program of continuous flights by SAC bombers, the sped-up procurement of available weapons systems (such as mobile cruise missiles), and the increased preparedness of naval air. OEG also recommended that emphasis remain on the development of mobile and concealable forces, rather than on fixed-site forces. Polaris, for example, was spotlighted as meriting accelerated production. The defense policies of two administrations were greatly influenced by this expectation of a possible low point in U.S. deterrence…As soon as John F. Kennedy took over the presidency, however, he decided to embark on an extensive program of strengthening American strategic forces. Mirroring much of what OEG’s study had recommended three years earlier, he increased the production rate of Polaris submarines by several months, and added 10 submarines to the original planned total. He also doubled the capability for producing Minuteman and improved the alert status of SAC’s B-52s.”
  • during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy’s order to blockade Cuba was implemented by the US Navy based heavily on OEG-researched doctrines and with active OEG assistance; OEG further studied data during the blockade about intercept rates, helping confirm that the blockade was tight and intercepting almost all Soviet vessels.
  • this blockade research would be further used in Vietnam as part of the “Operation Market Time” blockade/intercept line, where OEG optimized it & showed that the blockade there too was highly effective in eliminating Vietcong supplies
  • around 1966, OEG “conducted a study of surface-to-surface missiles that led directly to the development of the Harpoon antiship cruise missile.” (Unfortunately, Tidman doesn’t go into more detail about Harpoon other than to note later OEG involvement in finetuning Harpoon based on field exercises and against what was known of Russian ship defenses.)

Here is Gwern’s more meta insight:

Kahn makes an interesting point: one often sees an argument (particularly in conservative/libertarian circles) about ‘Chesterton’s fence’ and variants thereof — that societies have evolved rich and highly effective tactics through vast experience & evolution that mere humans cannot hope to improve upon nor understand; yet, as OR has proved many times, it is possible — easy, even (“it was found that almost any honest, technically competent person could turn out worthwhile and interesting results”) — to apply a little statistics to a problem and despite treating a caricature of a caricature with trivial algorithms or even none at all beyond basic arithmetic, improve, possibly quite a bit, over the carefully-considered judgments of humans in the field with decades of experience. And of course we can add many examples of human judgment being exceeded in areas like chess or Go or math despite millennia of study, or entire areas of human knowledge turning out to be almost 100% wrong (religion, medicine) before the introduction of methods like ‘record all data’ or ‘flip a coin to decide whether to administer a medicine to see if it works’.

Kahn ascribes this in part to technological change (no one is competent to understand how to hunt German submarines in WWII because it is too novel a problem for any folk wisdom to have evolved), and while that’s certainly a problem (witness Shockley’s anecdote of why no air crews could develop real expertise), we also have to note the presence of systematic biases and error in human reasoning demonstrated throughout OR. The problem with Chesterton’s fence is that everything does change, people can’t learn the right thing in the first place, and from an information-theoretic & genetics perspective, there just is not enough reliable transmission of information nor selection within or between societies to maintain more than a few traditional practices with cryptic efficiency. (If societies were a bacteria with a genome, they would succumb to mutational meltdown almost instantaneously.)

Communist-style incentives at work

Friday, February 9th, 2018

While we were recently discussing flawed incentive systems, David Foster brought up some Communist examples:

There’s an old story about a Soviet-era factory that made bathtubs. Plant management was measured on the total tonnage of output produced–and valves & faucets don’t add much to the weight, certainly not compared with the difficulty of manufacturing them. So the factory simply made and shipped thousands of bathtubs, without valves or faucets.

He notes that the above story may be apocryphal. The version I heard involved cars and people stealing each other’s windshield wipers.

He continues with a more spectacular example from Viktor Suvorov, who was working on a communal farm in Russia, when the General Secretary of the Party announced that they needed to increase their output, and the fertilizer plant resolved to do its part:

A vast meeting, thousands strong, complete with brass bands, speeches, placards, and banners, was urgently called at the local Chemical Combine. To a man, they shouted slogans, applauded, chanted patriotic songs. After that meeting, a competitive economy drive was launched at the Chemical Combine to harvest raw materials and energy resources.

The heroic efforts of the factory workers filled the plant’s storage tanks to capacity, and the local communes had 24 hours to take possession of their liquid fertilizer:

There was a long queue of trucks of different makes, dimensions, and colours standing outside the Chemical Combine. But the queue was moving fast. I soon discovered that lorries, which had only a moment before been loaded, were already returning and taking up new places in the queue. Every one of these lorries ostensibly needed many hours to deliver its valuable load to its destination and then to return. But they rejoined the queue in a matter of minutes. Then came my turn. My tanks were rapidly filled with the foul-smelling liquid, and the man in charge marked down on his list that my native kolkhoz had just received the first one and a half tons of fertilizer. I drove my lorry out through the Combine’s gates and followed the group of lorries which had loaded up before mine. All of them, as if at a word of command, turned off the road and descended a steep slope toward the river Dneiper. I did the same. In no time at all, they had emptied their tanks. I did the same. Over the smooth surface of the great river, the cradle of Russian civilization, slowly spread a huge poisonous, yellow, stinking stain.

Foster warns us not to get too smug though. If you read the whole thing, he has an example of capitalist stupidity, too.

Darwinism confirms the psychological and spiritual truths of the Fall

Thursday, February 8th, 2018

Jim takes a neoreactionary look at fixing Christianity:

Either we go with Darwin alone, or we go with a Christianity reconciled with Darwin.  Anything else is the death of European civilization.  And very few people can handle Darwin alone.  Most of those who claim that they can, are lying, and are in fact preaching progressivism, a form of Christianity rendered observably false by being transliterated from the next world to this world.

The doctrine of the fall contains important truths about the nature of man. The doctrine of evolution also contains similar important truths about the nature of man. Our state religion is going to have to deploy both doctrines simultaneously.

And the doctrine of evolution is that we are risen killer apes who rose upon a thousand genocides. So, death did not literally come into this world with the loss of innocence. Rather, it is a spiritual truth about the black pill, about spiritual death.

A lot of it is a matter of explicating what predecessors said and did reverentially but not uncritically. If the process of explication uncovers errors and defects, it has to be pointed out and fixed accordingly. This is how you make old books live again and recover and reactivate traditions.

If you don’t integrate Darwin and Christ, the clever sillies, claiming falsely to know the truth from Darwin, whom they do not read and do not understand, will take down Chesterton’s fence, and you will start agreeing with them that Chesterton’s fence is really stupid and come up with some clever reasoning that it is not really part of Christianity. And I see this happening right now, and it has been happening ever since Darwin

Christianity is a church, adoptive kin, it is necessarily a tribe, and thus, being a tribe, necessarily something rather like a state. Merely individual Christianity, a personal and individual relationship with god, is not Christianity. Faced with a hostile belief system, Christians are retreating before it, and yielding the collective and tribal functions of the Church to the educators, to the progressives. And inventing a merely individual Christianity that is concerned with merely individual salvation. In so doing, they are hoping to save Christianity by abandoning it.

The clever sillies invoke Darwin merely as a creation myth, to discredit the bible and to discredit the moral, psychological, and spiritual truths of the fall. The correct response is to retreat from young earth literalism, while pointing out that Darwinism confirms the psychological and spiritual truths of the fall. Christianity’s response has been to retreat from young earth creationism as literal truth and also to retreat from the moral, psychological, and spiritual truths of the fall

Religion needs to be a true statement about this world, as well as an unfalsifiable statement about the next. Christianity needs to be fixed so that it once again makes the true statements about this world that it used to make. Speaking truth about this world is a vital and important task of religion, which task it has fled from fearing condemnation by the state religion of progressivism Instead of speaking the truth, they torture the texts, Jewish style, to make them say the opposite of what they say. They turn Saint Paul into a feminist, and turn Deuteronomy and Proverbs into twenty first century anti family and anti marriage law.

Under the old code we had ample condemnatory terms

Wednesday, February 7th, 2018

Megan McArdle suggests that we listen to the “bad” feminists:

How has the most empowered generation of women in all of human history come to feel less control over their bodies than their grandmothers did?

Let me propose a possible answer to this, suggested by a very smart social scientist of my acquaintance: They feel this way because we no longer have any moral language for talking about sex except consent. So when men do things that they feel are wrong — such as aggressively pursuing casual sex without caring about the feelings of their female target — we’re left flailing for some way to describe this as non-consensual, even when she agreed to the sex.

Under the old code, of course, we had ample condemnatory terms for men who slept with women carelessly, without much regard for their feelings: cads and rakes, bounders and boors. Those words have now decayed into archaism. Yet it seems to me that these are just the words that young women are reaching for, when instead they label things like mutually drunken encounters and horrible one-night stands as an abuse of power, a violation of consent — which is to say, as a crime, or something close to it. To which a lot of other people incredulously respond: now being a bad lover is a crime?

[...]

If you cast an eye back over history you’ll see that what most societies have actually come up with is the social equivalent of a cartel: if you want the sex, you’re going to first have to invest in some sort of relationship, because it’s not (readily) available any other way. Those regimes, of course, were often quite punishing to women, but then, that’s how cartels often work; when a cartel member cheats by selling below the fixed price, it is the member, not their customer, who suffers retaliation from the rest of the cartel.

[...]

Tragically, any suggestion that women have the power to change the dynamic is labeled “victim blaming” — as if we lived in an ideal world where being the person most likely or able to change something was always neatly synonymous with being the person who caused the problem in the first place.

They aren’t important enough to risk the system over

Monday, February 5th, 2018

It is easy to imagine that politics would inevitably decay into legal battles, Anomaly UK notes, but, at least in established long-standing democracies, this rarely happens:

Outside of the developed West, this is quite a common occurrence. The last few years have seen disputes over whether candidates acted lawfully in Ukraine, Venezuela, Honduras, just off the top of my head.

As a general approach, those norms can’t be a solution to the problem: if there is a strong norm against prosecuting opponents, that would surely tempt politicians further into legally questionable territory in order to take advantage of it, approaching the point where there is a significant danger of prosecution.

One solution that would work is for the grey area to be shrunk down: if the real rules (which might not be the same as the formal rules) are very clear and very easily interpreted, then nobody will make a fatal mistake, either of stepping over the line so that his opponents have to take legal action against him, or of taking a situation to the legal arena which the other party has reasonably assumed to be safe.

That could be the case, but really doesn’t appear to be.

Another solution would be if politicians feared the punishments for malpractice much more than they wanted to win, so that they would never take even small risks of getting caught. Again, that does not appear to be the case.

Another solution in a democracy would be if any malpractice is looked on so severely by the electorate that it would be counterproductive. That surely is not the case. It might be that that has been the case until recently. There is a whole narrative, quite logical, that the populations of the Western democracies used to be so attached to democratic values that any breach of those principles would outrage them to the point of unelectability, and that a recent increase in partisanship has fatally damaged that equilibrium.

There are two problems I can see with that narrative: first, that there is no history of notably clean politics in the democracies: lies, bribes, and gerrymandering being commonplace throughout history. Second, that it doesn’t make sense for voters to be so moralistic about their own side cheating. The current situation, where supporters of a candidate see accusations of cheating as either signs of the viciousness of the enemy propaganda, or as indications of his own heroic strength, or both, seems far more natural than such high-minded fairness.

My own view is that the thing that has made democracy work, in those rare cases where it has worked, is that the apparently opposing parties are really part of the same ruling class. The issues that stand between the parties are low-stakes issues, which are resolved by the parties staying within the rules. The reason they stay within the rules is because they are united on the high-stakes issue, of the existing ruling class holding on to its position, and aren’t prepared to jeopardise that by fighting no-holds-barred over side questions.

For instance, take the quote from Jeremy Paxman’s book The Political Animal that I picked up in 2011: “In April 1925, for example, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, announced that Britain was to return to the Gold Standard, whereby the value of sterling was guaranteed by allowing pounds to be exchanged for gold. This momentous (if ultimately unsuccessful) decision had been two months in preparation, involving heartfelt arguments on both sides of the debate. Yet not a word of it appeared in the newspapers. Indeed, it was hardly heard outside the confines of the Treasury.”

Or, as I put it another way in 2008 : ” They only situation in which a government can genuinely act in the interest of a class wider than just politicians is when there is a larger class of relatively powerless people – slaves or peasants – who would be a threat to a divided ruling class. That is the characteristic of democracies before the twentieth century.”

If both sides politically are actually united on maintaining the system that favours them, that doesn’t mean that their disagreements are fake. It just means that they aren’t important enough to risk the system over. However, from the point of view of an outsider to whom the disagreement is most important, that is almost the same thing.

We’re still living by Iron Age ethics

Sunday, February 4th, 2018

We may be living in the 21st century, Razib Khan says, but we’re still living by Iron Age ethics:

Something happened in the centuries around 500 BCE all around the world. Great religions and philosophies arose. The Indian religious traditions, the Chinese philosophical-political ones, and the roots of what we can recognize as Judaism. In Greece, the precursors of many modern philosophical streams emerged formally, along with a variety of political systems.

The next few centuries saw some more innovation. Rabbinical Judaism transformed a ritualistic tribal religion into an ethical one, and Christianity universalized Jewish religious thought, as well as infusing it with Greek systematic concepts. Meanwhile, Indian and Chinese thought continued to evolve, often due to interactions each other (it is hard to imagine certain later developments in Confucianism without the Buddhist stimulus). Finally, in the 7th century, Islam emerges as the last great world religion.

It has long puzzled me why all the great institutional faiths arose in about 1,000 years. And then not much since then (numerically Sikhs are marginal, while the fracturing of Christianity in the 16th still left the daughter sects recognizable and possibly reconcilable).

I think here perhaps an analogy to our technological conundrum applies. One reason we don’t have jetpacks and flying cars is that the limitations of physics make it difficult. Some things may be physically possible, but the engineering costs are prohibitive. The several waves of life-transforming technological revolutions between 1750 and 1950 slowly started to ebb in the past generations. Why? It turns out that going from horse and human power, to fossil fuels, and nuclear power, were huge transitions in terms of gains in power. There may not be much to do at this point (fusion is perhaps the major exception).

Similarly, the reason that modern people can get a lot out of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Confucius’ Analects, and the Bible, is that the ethical low-hanging fruit was picked. Recently there have been advances in domains such as the abolition of slavery, so it isn’t as if no progress has been made. But if you read about the Bronze Age world, you see one where human sacrifice is still routinely practiced, as opposed to being an aberration. The distance between 0 AD and 1000 BC is arguably greater ethically than between 0 AD and 2000 AD.

Living in large complex societies with social stratification posed challenges. A religion such as Christianity was not a coincidence, something of its broad outlines may have been inevitable. Universal, portable, ethical, and infused with transcendence and coherency. Similarly, god-kings seem to have universally transformed themselves into the human who binds heaven to earth in some fashion.

The second wave of social-ethical transformation occurred in the early modern period, starting in Europe. My own opinion is that economic growth triggered by innovation and gains in productivity unleashed constraints which had dampened further transformations in the domain of ethics. But the new developments ultimately were simply extensions and modifications on the earlier “source code” (e.g., whereas for nearly two thousand years Christianity had had to make peace with the existence of slavery, in the 19th century anti-slavery activists began marshaling Christian language against the institution).

Some of his ideas are mystical and sound really strange

Saturday, February 3rd, 2018

Arnold Kling has a few reasons for being less than fully bought into Jordan Peterson:

He is a spellbinding speaker but his first book, Maps of Meaning, was turgid. There is something disconcerting about the fact that his ideas seem to come across better in a format that allows for less editorial polishing. I noted this in December of 2016, when the Peterson tsunami was just forming.

Some of his ideas are mystical and sound really strange.

He gains some of his stature by attacking post-modernists who are intellectual weak, at least in the way that he presents them. For me, it is more impressive to take on stronger opponents than weaker ones.

He may now be over-rated by his fans on the right. But he is badly, badly, under-rated by smug leftists whose ability to understand opposing viewpoints pales in comparison with his.

Using the three-axes model, I put Peterson firmly in the conservative camp. He sees civilization as fragile and precious, and he is animated by the civilization vs. barbarism axis.

Jordan Peterson returns to the Joe Rogan Experience

Friday, February 2nd, 2018

Jordan Peterson came back on Joe Rogan’s show (Joe Rogan Experience #1070), and I recommend watching (or simply listening):

Private gun ownership in Kenya

Thursday, February 1st, 2018

Alan Kasujja of the BBC World Service visited a gun range near Nairobi, Kenya to interview Anthony Wahome, chair of the [Kenyan] National Gun Owners Association and a former police officer, about private gun ownership.

Two things stood out. First, there are roughly 10,000 legally owned firearms in Kenya, versus 700,000 not-so-legally owned firearms. He points out that most of those are in the semi-arid regions, where cattle rustling is a problem. Second, he was at a shooting competition when news started coming in that the Westgate mall was under attack. They stopped the competition and decided to go to the mall to help. I was wondering why armed citizens were at the mall in shooting vests covered in IDPA patches. (The Kenyan police and military are not held in high esteem, by the way.)

Its rules are designed with one eye on how those rules might be exploited down the line

Thursday, February 1st, 2018

Steven Johnson looks beyond the Bitcoin bubble:

History is replete with stories of new technologies whose initial applications end up having little to do with their eventual use. All the focus on Bitcoin as a payment system may similarly prove to be a distraction, a technological red herring. Nakamoto pitched Bitcoin as a “peer-to-peer electronic-cash system” in the initial manifesto, but at its heart, the innovation he (or she or they) was proposing had a more general structure, with two key features.

First, Bitcoin offered a kind of proof that you could create a secure database — the blockchain — scattered across hundreds or thousands of computers, with no single authority controlling and verifying the authenticity of the data.

Second, Nakamoto designed Bitcoin so that the work of maintaining that distributed ledger was itself rewarded with small, increasingly scarce Bitcoin payments. If you dedicated half your computer’s processing cycles to helping the Bitcoin network get its math right — and thus fend off the hackers and scam artists — you received a small sliver of the currency. Nakamoto designed the system so that Bitcoins would grow increasingly difficult to earn over time, ensuring a certain amount of scarcity in the system. If you helped Bitcoin keep that database secure in the early days, you would earn more Bitcoin than later arrivals. This process has come to be called “mining.”

[...]

Token economies introduce a strange new set of elements that do not fit the traditional models: instead of creating value by owning something, as in the shareholder equity model, people create value by improving the underlying protocol, either by helping to maintain the ledger (as in Bitcoin mining), or by writing apps atop it, or simply by using the service. The lines between founders, investors and customers are far blurrier than in traditional corporate models; all the incentives are explicitly designed to steer away from winner-take-all outcomes. And yet at the same time, the whole system depends on an initial speculative phase in which outsiders are betting on the token to rise in value.

“You think about the ’90s internet bubble and all the great infrastructure we got out of that,” Dixon says. “You’re basically taking that effect and shrinking it down to the size of an application.”

[...]

So much of the blockchain’s architecture is shaped by predictions about how that architecture might be abused once it finds a wider audience. That is part of its charm and its power. The blockchain channels the energy of speculative bubbles by allowing tokens to be shared widely among true supporters of the platform. It safeguards against any individual or small group gaining control of the entire database. Its cryptography is designed to protect against surveillance states or identity thieves. In this, the blockchain displays a familial resemblance to political constitutions: Its rules are designed with one eye on how those rules might be exploited down the line.

Much has been made of the anarcho-libertarian streak in Bitcoin and other nonfiat currencies; the community is rife with words and phrases (“self-sovereign”) that sound as if they could be slogans for some militia compound in Montana. And yet in its potential to break up large concentrations of power and explore less-proprietary models of ownership, the blockchain idea offers a tantalizing possibility for those who would like to distribute wealth more equitably and break up the cartels of the digital age.

The blockchain worldview can also sound libertarian in the sense that it proposes nonstate solutions to capitalist excesses like information monopolies. But to believe in the blockchain is not necessarily to oppose regulation, if that regulation is designed with complementary aims. Brad Burnham, for instance, suggests that regulators should insist that everyone have “a right to a private data store,” where all the various facets of their online identity would be maintained. But governments wouldn’t be required to design those identity protocols. They would be developed on the blockchain, open source. Ideologically speaking, that private data store would be a true team effort: built as an intellectual commons, funded by token speculators, supported by the regulatory state.

Like the original internet itself, the blockchain is an idea with radical — almost communitarian — possibilities that at the same time has attracted some of the most frivolous and regressive appetites of capitalism. We spent our first years online in a world defined by open protocols and intellectual commons; we spent the second phase in a world increasingly dominated by closed architectures and proprietary databases. We have learned enough from this history to support the hypothesis that open works better than closed, at least where base-layer issues are concerned. But we don’t have an easy route back to the open-protocol era. Some messianic next-generation internet protocol is not likely to emerge out of Department of Defense research, the way the first-generation internet did nearly 50 years ago.

Yes, the blockchain may seem like the very worst of speculative capitalism right now, and yes, it is demonically challenging to understand. But the beautiful thing about open protocols is that they can be steered in surprising new directions by the people who discover and champion them in their infancy. Right now, the only real hope for a revival of the open-protocol ethos lies in the blockchain. Whether it eventually lives up to its egalitarian promise will in large part depend on the people who embrace the platform, who take up the baton, as Juan Benet puts it, from those early online pioneers. If you think the internet is not working in its current incarnation, you can’t change the system through think-pieces and F.C.C. regulations alone. You need new code.