Reason Interviews Andy Weir

October 2nd, 2015

“I want us to have a self-sufficient population somewhere other than Earth,” Andy Weir (The Martian) says, “because 25 years of being a computer programmer has taught me the value of backing things up”:

Shakespeare in American Politics

October 2nd, 2015

T. Greer recently enjoyed Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All, which starts with a tour of Shakespeare’s reputation though the centuries:

In Shakespeare’s lifetime Pericles was the most popular of his works; in the 19th century, lines from King John and Henry VIII, much neglected today, were the most likely to appear in the quote books and progymnasmata collections so popular then. Emerson bitterly lamented that Harvard, his alma mater, had no lecturer in Shakespearean rhetoric. His lament went unheeded; neither Harvard nor Yale included Shakespeare among their course readings until the 1870s. Yet for 19th century men like Emerson this really was no great loss. The American people of this era were so engrossed with Shakespeare that no one living in America could escape him: evidence of his place in America’s “pop culture in the nineteenth century [can be found in everything from] traveling troupes, Shakespeare speeches as part of vaudeville bills, huge crowds and riots at productions, [to accounts of] audiences shouting lines back at the actors.” I am reminded of Tocqueville’s observation that every settler’s hut in America, no matter how squalid or remote, had a copy of a newspaper, a Bible, and some work of Shakespeare inside it. Tocqueville used this as evidence to buttress his claim that the Americans were more educated and cultivated than any other people on the Earth. He may have been on to something. One cannot read the diaries, letters, and editorials of 19th century America without wondering at their eloquence and erudition. What caused this, if not the many hours they spent as children on their mother’s knee learning to read from the Jacobean English of the King James Bible and the plays of Shakespeare?

Greer goes on to discuss Shakespeare in American Politics:

These allusions to Shakespeare only occupy a small portion of the two men’s debate–no more than a few paragraphs out of ninety or so pages of text. Nevertheless, the use of Macbeth’s script in the debate is telling. Neither Webster nor Haynes thought it was a waste of their time to debate the finer points of Shakespeare’s plays in the halls of the Senate. The reader senses that Webster, in particular, did so in a positively gleeful fashion. it is also worth noting that the play is not just used a source of pithy wisdom or quotable poetry. Webster discusses elements of its plot at length to drive home his meaning.

These speeches were given to a full standing audience. They were later printed and distributed in newspapers and periodicals across the nation. Webster and Haynes assumed, therefore, that the average reader of their words would understand the allusions made. You would be hard pressed to find an equal number of Americans today who would understand all such talk of Banquo’s ghost.

We have, since then, “gone from long discussions of Shakespearean drama on the senate floor to the shallow repetition of disembodied sentence fragments.”

Lexington Green adds that this is no accident:

You left out a conscious decision for the last 60 or so years by the educational establishment to downgrade the curricula of all of our schools, K-12-colllege. An ideological rejection of any literary canon composed of dead, white, European males was a conscious decision, aggressively and relentlessly maintained fro decades. It was and is a policy. Three entire generations of Americans were cut off from their past, their heritage, the glories of their own language, in a conscious and intentional act of cultural warfare.

South African Rape Study

October 2nd, 2015

A new survey says more than 1 in 3 men admit to rape:

A 2010 study led by the government-funded Medical Research Foundation says that in Gauteng province, home to South Africa’s most populous city of Johannesburg, more than 37 percent of men said they had raped a woman. Nearly 7 percent of the 487 men surveyed said they had participated in a gang rape.

More than 51 percent of the 511 women interviewed said they’d experienced violence from men, and 78 percent of men said they’d committed violence against women.

A quarter of the women interviewed said they’d been raped, but the study says only one in 25 rapes are reported to police.

A survey by the same organization in 2008 found that 28 percent of men in Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces said they had raped a woman or girl. Of the men who had committed rape, one third did not feel guilty, said Rachel Jewkes, a lead researcher on both studies.

Two-thirds of the men surveyed in that study said they raped because of a sense of sexual entitlement. Other popular motivating factors included a desire to punish women who rejected or angered them, and raping out of boredom, Jewkes said.

Naturally, this is all a legacy of Apartheid.

Henry Dampier on The True History of the American Revolution

October 1st, 2015

Henry Dampier reviews Sydney George Fisher’s The True History of the American Revolution:

Essentially, the patriots were able to mobilize a highly ideological minority to suppress loyalist opinion and keep moderates on the sidelines:

But the mobs went on with their work in spite of [John] Adams’ protest. All through the Revolution the loyalists were roughly handled, banished, and their property confiscated. Even those who were neutral and living quietly were often ordered out of the country by county committees, because it was found that a prominent family which remained neutral deterred by their silent influence many who otherwise would have joined the rebel cause. Few loyalists dared write about politics in private letters, because all such letters were opened by the patriots. In many of them which have been preserved we find the statement that the writers would like to speak of public affairs but dare not. A mere chance of most innocent expression might bring on severe punishment or mob violence.

These mob techniques are not so different from today’s technologically-enabled mobs, except perhaps the old kind were more eager to use tar and feathers.

This is not, then, a new factor in American life, but instead is a founding tendency which we see periodically re-emerging throughout our history. It also meant the ruination of countless loyalists, who either lived on in poverty or otherwise had to flee back to the home country:

The disastrous effects of the rise of the lower orders of the people into power appeared everywhere, leaving its varied and peculiar characteristics in each community, but New England suffered least of all. In Virginia its work was destructive and complete, for all that made Virginia great, and produced her remarkable men, was her aristocracy of tobacco planters. This aristocracy forced on the Revolution with heroic enthusiasm against the will of the lower classes, little dreaming that they were forcing it on to their own destruction. But in 1780 the result was already so obvious that Chastellux, the French traveler, saw it with the utmost clearness, and in his book he prophesies Virginia’s gradual sinking into the insignificance which we have seen in our time.

When the British began to prosecute the war in earnest after the replacement of Howe in 1778 by General Clinton, it was essentially too late to prevent the entry of the French into the war and the eventual conclusion.

Why study aristocracy?

October 1st, 2015

Why study aristocracy?, Harold Lee asks:

The past, it’s said, is a foreign country. If so, that country lies firmly in the third world. Past societies were much poorer than ours, and had significant amount of inequality. The vast majority of people in medieval times were peasants, not nobles; most Romans were landless poor, and even in classical Athens citizens were outnumbered by slaves. In all these societies, only a tiny fraction of the population was wealthy enough and educated enough to do intellectual work.

What’s less appreciated is the obvious corollary, that a tiny fraction of aristocrats was responsible for the entire intellectual output of premodern civilization. Whether you’re reading Greek philosophy, Roman oratory, Indian Vedas, or the collected works of Darwin, what you’re reading is the product of the aristocracy.

Aristocrats were few. They weren’t particularly selected for intelligence; certainly compared to our modern Ivy League elites. And in many ways, they were poorer than we are – more servants, but fewer books, no Internet, no precision machining, no modern dentistry. And yet, despite all those disadvantages, they were able to produce work that we look up to as classics. You could certainly argue that in some areas, our artists and scientists could hold their own against the ancients. The best of HBO could probably stand up to the best of classical theater, for example. But the fact that the aristocrats were even in the same league, coming from impoverished societies with only a tiny class of knowledge workers, is a marvel.

We don’t have aristocrats today. Oh, we do have plenty of rich people, and even the middle class among us could outspend all but the wealthiest ancient aristocrats. But the key factor that made aristocrats productive wasn’t money; it was freedom. It was the freedom to tinker and engage in intellectual play, to focus on being an excellent person, on living well, and doing things. Being an aristocrat is not about having a lot of stuff, it’s about not having higher ups to please.

And that’s something that even the rich mostly don’t have today.

Star Wars as Propaganda

September 30th, 2015

Imagine that the Star Wars movies aren’t what “really” happened in a galaxy far, far way, but are instead propaganda:

First of all, let’s conduct a thought experiment of removing religion from politics. I mean, let’s remove the Force religion from the lore of the Star Wars universe. Most importantly, remove the religious dogma that the Sith and the Dark Side are automatically Satanic evil and the Jedi are automatically good guys, unless they fall to the Dark Side.


We can assume the movies show the viewpoint of some really credulous guys who think Palpatine can throw lightning bolts for roughly the same reasons some really credulous guys in Ancient Greece believed Zeus can throw lightning bolts.


But notice how it makes it far harder to determine who is good and who is evil! Now we cannot trust the Force making this judgement obvious. We have to make up our own minds. Perhaps the Sith are good and the Jedi are evil now? Or both evil? Or both good? Or there is no such thing as good or evil at all? Now we have to start thinking a bit harder, don’t you find?


So, after all, if the Jedi could be evil, the Jedi Media and Jedi Academia, and the Overall Mainstream Jedi Republican Narrative — the movies — could be lying to us?

So how about a counter-narrative? Let’s say the Republic could not do its one job right: to keep various factions from erupting into civil wars, to keep various planets and star systems from erupting into local wars. In short, they failed at keeping peace and order. Senator Palpatine, seeing how it doesn’t work, and wanting to save the Galaxy from untold suffering, pulled a Julius Caesar move and attempted to restore peace and put an end to the many local pockets of bloodshed through establishing imperial authority and basically undisputed dominance, a Galactic Pax Romana. His motive was noble and one that could be reasonably considered efficient: to have a force of Galactic Peacekeepers, Galactic Police around to keep everybody else from killing each other.

Except that some guys didn’t like it at all. And some of the guys who didn’t like that could be called positively evil. Former Senators who enjoyed the power gained by participating in the murky, inefficient chaos of the politics of the Republic. Planetary bigwigs who wanted to wage war on the next planet. Consider Leia’s dad, who was a Senator and Prince or Viceroy. Maybe the old ruling class didn’t like their power reduced? It could interfere with their schemes like waging a local war or supporting a power-hungry Senate faction, right? The Republic had a huge ruling class of senators, local monarchs, bureaucrats and the suchlike, all kinds of intermediate level of strongmen who didn’t like the new Emperor bossing them around and reducing their power. So they engineered a Rebellion. And another group who engineered that Rebellion were a cabal of top Jedis. They used to have immense informal power in the murky chaos of Republican politics: the power of the advisor. The power and influence of the intellectual, opinion leader, who does not rule directy: he does not have to. He simply tells other people who actually rule what to think, be that the kings of monarchical planets or the voters of democratic planets. His rule is not of the iron fist but the glib tongue, the power of “free speech”, persuasion, manipulation, seductive half-truths wrapped into a lingo of sugary, bleeding-heart idealism — can you say Jedi Mind Tricks? And they too did not like losing their influence much. So these two group of highly influential and highly unethical people engineered the Rebellion.

Of course they did not tell most Rebels what it is really about. Most Rebels are in fact good guys, good guys in the sense of foolish idealists. Pure hearts, if not much in the way of brains. So they lapped up the whole sugary idealistic bullshit about freedom, democracy and ending oppression.


Meanwhile, the Emperor had a tough job. The Rebels were infecting everybody who is nice and stupid — and most people are — with idealistic propaganda, presenting themselves as those who fight for truth, freedom and justice, while the Emperor is an evil tyrant. On the other side, the Emperor had a simple and honest agenda, too simple and too honest for people to actually believe it: to keep the galaxy from erupting into violent chaos by basic simple military-police type repression. His agenda was just the basic civilized one: if you don’t want hooligans at a British football match to start fighting each other, you just send a lot of policemen to the match and make it clear everybody who starts trouble will get into one. Of course the hoodlums consider that oppressive. From the civilized angle, they should. So basically he just had the basic Pax Romana type of motive and plan. At any rate, the Emperor could not recruit the idealistic type of folks as they were almost all duped and fighting for the other side. He had to recruit the kind of folks he could, not necessarily the folks he wanted — and if you have to fight against shiny-eyed, pure-hearted idealists — duped by an evil cabal with silver tongues and Jedi Mind Tricks — the kind of folks you can recruit against them are not going to be particularly wholesome characters.


Is this alternative narrative entirely implausible? If not… try to unlock the metaphors for the real world.

Writing Funny

September 30th, 2015

Picking a topic is an important first step in writing funny, Scott Adams (Dilbert) explains:

The topic does half of your work. I look for topics that have at least one of the essential elements of humor:

  1. Clever
  2. Cute
  3. Bizarre
  4. Cruel
  5. Naughty
  6. Recognizable

His other recommendations:

  • Simple Sentences
  • Write About People
  • Write Visually
  • Leave Room for Imagination
  • Funny Words
  • Pop Culture References
  • Animal analogies
  • Exaggerate, then Exaggerate Some More
  • Near Logic
  • Callback
  • Genetic Abnormality

Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to Newark public schools failed miserably

September 29th, 2015

In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to Newark, New Jersey’s failing public-school system to turn it around in five years. Somehow this failed miserably. Shocking, I know.


September 29th, 2015

Henry Dampier contrasts modern and classical education:

The 20th century approach to liberal arts education has mostly been a creation of head-stuffing — encouraging students to memorize these sorts of pat reasoning chains so that they can buttress more political interventions and the growth of bureaucratic management. These stories are often supported by emotionally powerful tales that lend them some shrill urgency. Professors test for ideological conformity and passion, because knowing the party line and truly believing it generates a reliable sense of legitimacy for the state. This method is common to all rationalist politics regardless of what position the ideology has on the ‘spectrum.’

This differs from the classical liberal arts, which were heavy on the transmission of cultural experience from thousands of years of Western history. Rather than the reduction of history to the pat reasoning of a small number of liberals thinking over a short period of time, it was more about 1,000s of years of history recorded to the best of our ability. Students would then go on to further studies in their specialization. And those students were not the bulk of society — not even the bulk of the intelligent — but a tiny fraction of the elite.

Egalitarian political systems — like the United States after Andrew Jackson expanded the franchise — tend to be uncomfortable with gross disparities in knowledge, especially the kind which is supposed to elevate the student politically over others which the ideology considers politically equal. Simplifying the incredibly complex makes it easier for people who aren’t equal to see one another as equals, to maintain a pretense of egalitarianism, and the ability of an ordinary person to grasp the whole of human experience rather than only a tiny portion of it.

Scott Adams’ Hypnosis Reading List

September 28th, 2015

Scott Adams came to the art of persuasion by way of hypnotism, which he finds a more powerful term:

When I talk about hypnosis I am speaking broadly and conflating all forms of influence in daily life. The only thing I am EXCLUDING is the trance phenomenon and the things that stage hypnotists do. Those things have no use to you.

He presents a reading list, divided up into “chapters”:

Chapter 1 – Things You Can Stop Believing

The first chapter is designed to make you skeptical about your ability to comprehend reality. If you are already a hardcore skeptic, you can skip this chapter.

Chapter 2 – Stretching your Imagination

These books are selected to open your mind for what follows. If you have experience with LSD or mushrooms, you might not need this chapter. (Yes, I am serious.)

Chapter 3 – The Moist Robot Hypothesis

The Moist Robot Hypothesis first appears in my book that is listed below. The idea is that humans are biological machines, subject to cause and effect. According to this view, free will is an illusion and humans can be programmed once you understand our user interface.

With this chapter I ease you into the notion that humans are mindless robots by showing you how we are influenced by design, habit, emotion, food, and words. Until you accept the Moist Robot view of the world it will be hard to use your tools of persuasion effectively because you will doubt your own effectiveness and people will detect your doubt. Confidence is an important part of the process of influence.

Chapter 4 – Active Persuasion

This chapter gets into the details of how to influence people. My opinion is that you will be less effective with these tools if you do not have a full understanding of our moist robot nature introduced above. The only book on this list that I have read is the Gerry Spence book. And I have taken the Dale Carnegie course in person. But based on reviews, the other books on this list will give you some useful tips on persuasion that I have acquired from a variety of other sources over my life.

New Technique Can Cheaply and Efficiently Detect All Known Viruses in a Blood Sample

September 28th, 2015

Think of VirCapSeq-VERT as a massive exercise in fishing for viruses:

To make the hooks, the team identified and synthesized distinctive stretches of DNA from the genomes of every known group of virus that affects humans and other vertebrates. They ended up with two million of these hooks, each of which was baited to snag a different virus. If you dangle them in a blood sample, yank them out, and then sequence everything that’s attached to them, you end up with the full genome of every virus present.

The team tested the system using tissue samples spiked with genes from many infamous viruses, including those responsible for Ebola, dengue, flu, and MERS. They also tried analyzing a nasal swab from a patient and a stool sample from a bat. VirCapSeq-VERT successfully identified all the viruses in these samples, even when they were present at miniscule amounts.

Someone Who Loves Learning and Hates School

September 27th, 2015

Michael Strong revisits his essay on How to Give Your Child an Expensive Private Education for Less Than $3,000 Per Year:

(I’ve brought this up before.)

O’Sullivan’s First Law

September 27th, 2015

O’Sullivan’s First Law first appeared in the October 27, 1989, issue of National Review:

Robert Michels — as any reader of James Burnham’s finest book, The Machiavellians, knows was the author of the Iron Law of Oligarchy. This states that in any organization the permanent officials will gradually obtain such influence that its day-to-day program will increasingly reflect their interests rather than its own stated philosophy. To take a homely example, congressmen from egalitarian parties somehow end up voting for higher pay and generous expenses for congressmen. We can also catch an ironic echo of Michels’s law in Stalin’s title of General Secretary, as well as in the fact that powerful mandarins in the British government creep about under such deceptive pseudonyms as “Permanent Under-Secretary.” All of which is by way of introducing a new law of my own. My copy of the current Mother Jones (well, it’s my job to read that sort of thing — I take no pleasure in it) contains an advertisement for Amnesty International. Now, AI used to be a perfectly serviceable single-issue pressure group which drew the world’s attention to the plight of political prisoners around the globe. Many people owe their lives and liberty to it. But that good work depended greatly on AI’s being a single-issue organization that helped victims of both left- and right-wing regimes and was careful to remain politically neutral in other respects. Its advertisement in Mother Jones, however, abandons this tradition by calling for an end to the death penalty.

The ad itself, needless to say, is the usual liberal rhubarb. “In American courtrooms,” it intones, “some have a better chance of being sentenced to death.” That is true: the people in question are called murderers. But Al naturally means something different and more sinister — namely that poor, black, and retarded people are more likely to face the electric chair than other murderers.

Let us suppose this to be the case. What follows? A mentally retarded person incapable of understanding the significance of his actions cannot be guilty of murder or of any other crime. A law that punishes him (as opposed to one that confines him for his own and society’s safety) is unjust and should be changed — whether or not he faces the death penalty. On the other hand, someone who is guilty of murder may be executed with perfect justice. His race or economic circumstances do not affect the matter at all. The fact that other murderers may obtain lesser sentences does not in any way detract from the justice of his own punishment. After all, some murderers have always escaped scot-free. Would Amnesty have us release the rest on the grounds of equality of treatment? Finally, Amnesty’s argument from discrimination could be met just as well by executing more rich, white murderers (which would be fine with me) as by executing no murderers at all. Significantly, Amnesty’s list of death-penalty victims” does not include political prisoners. America does not, have political prisoners, let alone execute them. Why, then, Amnesty’s campaign on the issue?

That is explained by O’Sullivan’s First Law: All organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing. I cite as supporting evidence the ACLU, the Ford Foundation, and the Episcopal Church. The reason is, of course, that people who staff such bodies tend to be the sort who don’t like private profit, business, making money, the current organization of society, and, by extension, the Western world. At which point Michels’s Iron Law of Oligarchy takes over — and the rest follows.

Is there any law which enables us to predict the behavior of right-wing organizations? As it happens, there is: Conquest’s Second Law (formulated by the Sovietologist Robert Conquest):

The behavior of an organization can best be predicted by assuming it to be controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies. Examples: virtually any conservative party anywhere, the Ronald Lauder for Mayor campaign, and the British secret service. That last example is, however, flawed, since the British secret service actually was controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies in the form of Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, et al. In which case, Conquest’s Law should have operated to make M1-6 a crack anti-Soviet intelligence service of James Bond proportions. But these are deep waters.

Incidentally, Bob Conquest, who also doubles as a poet and literary critic, presciently commented ten years ago on the recent controversy over the Mapplethorpe exhibition. His 1979 collection of essays, The Abomination of Moab (not, alas, published in this country), coined the term Moabites to describe the false friends of art as opposed to its open enemies, the

Philistines: “The characteristic of modern methods of destroying art is that they are carried out by those who far from being indifferent or hostile, are deeply concerned.” The Biblical Moabites were the insidious enemies of Israel “who, from their capital at Shittim, infiltrated temple and harem and set the children of light whoring after strange doctrines.” Today’s Moabites have been out in force to defend both Mapplethorpe and a strange doctrine of — unrestrained government funding of the arts. The falseness of their friendship consists of their denial of any distinctions, moral or artistic or political, where Art is concerned. Morally, they argue that if Mapplethorpe’s pornographic photographs are banned today, the Venus de Milo will have to wear a bra tomorrow. Artistically, they discern no distinctions between different works of art which would offer a general basis for providing or withholding subsidy. And, politically, they obliterate any distinction between the absence of a subsidy and outright censorship.

Once something is called Art, Bob told me over the phone, Moabites take. it to be transcendental and beyond human criticism: “In which case it is, in effect, a religion and thus debarred from federal funding under the First Amendment.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates to Write Black Panther Comic for Marvel

September 26th, 2015

Black Panther No. 1 CoverDuring The Atlantic’s New York Ideas seminar in May, Ta-Nehisi Coates interviewed Marvel editor Sana Amanat about — what else? — diversity, and this led to an invitation for Ta-Nehisi Coates to write Black Panther:

Diversity — in characters and creators — is a drumbeat to which the comic book industry is increasingly trying to march. Marvel recently announced the December start of “The Totally Awesome Hulk,” whose title character is Amadeus Cho, a genius Korean-American scientist who will find himself transforming into that emerald behemoth. The book is written by Greg Pak and drawn by Frank Cho, both of whom are Korean-American. (“My wife is Korean, so I scored massive points,” Mr. Alonso said.)

Over at DC, Cyborg, who is black, is starring in his own series (and a film in 2020), and Beth Ross is the first female (and teenage) commander in chief in the biting satire “Prez.” This month Image Comics released “Virgil,” a graphic novel by Steve Orlando and J. D. Faith, about a black, gay cop in the not-so-inclusive Kingston, in Jamaica. “Showing different faces under the masks is very important for everyone,” Mr. Alonso said.

What Our Primate Relatives Say About War

September 26th, 2015

Inter-group conflict may be important among chimpanzees, but Homo sapiens turned it into an art:

Although the details remain highly controversial, a series of new studies in archaeology and anthropology have debunked Rousseau’s myth of the peaceful savage. Death rates (as the percentage of adult males killed in intergroup conflict) among indigenous and prehistoric societies make the wars of the 20th century seem like skirmishes. Although humans were not always at war, human societies were always organized around its ever-present threat.

A sensitivity to human evolution and the behavior of chimpanzees and bonobos forces students of modern students of conflict to face two hard truths. First, we evolved in conditions of resource competition where fear of others, aggression and violence offered adaptive solutions to protect and provide for ourselves and our kin. We therefore need to amend Clausewitz. Humans do indeed wage war for political purposes, but long before war for raison d’etat there was war for resources. International politics is therefore not the root of war but merely an example of it—the continuation of seeking access to valuable resources by other means. Accordingly, when we consider “Why war?,” we have an answer: war is one of Mother Nature’s solutions to compete successfully for resources.

Second, the human traits of egoism, dominance, and in-group/out-group bias are at least partly adaptations to the ecological conditions prevalent in human evolution. It is not assumed that we simply inherited these wholesale from a common ancestor, or the common ancestor we share with the chimpanzee. Clearly, we have undergone many physiological and behavioral changes since then and ecology has been as or more important. But although humans and chimpanzees appear to have travelled much of the road to war together, we have gone far further. The particular socioecological setting in which humans evolved meant that aggression and war were significant behavioral adaptations. These same settings led to remarkable levels of cooperation as well, but note that this cooperation is selectively directed towards in-group members, the better to avoid exploitation by rival groups and organize for war. These adaptations, lamentably, remain with us today and influence our behavior, politics and society.