Some religions are religions

June 17th, 2018

Some religions are religions, Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains, while some religions are just bodies of laws:

Judaism and Islam are not religions like Christianity is a religion, the exact opposite. Let me explain.

The foundation of Judaism was law, but it was minuscule, it was for a tribe. It was law: “you should not go and do this or that.” Then in Islam, the same word, din, in Arabic means law in Hebrew, but not in Syriac, which is a Semitic language used by Christians, where they use two different words, one nomos, law, and one, din, for religion. Why is it so?

Islam and Judaism are laws. It’s law — there’s no distinction between holy and profane — whereas Christianity is not law. Why isn’t it law? A simple reason — you remember the Christ said what is for Caesar and is not for Caesar? It’s because the Romans had the laws. You’re not going to bring the law because they already have the law, and very sophisticated law at that, the Romans.

With Christianity was born the separation of church and state. It’s secular, so it’s effectively a secular religion that says that when you go home, you do whatever you want. Of course, Christianity, they got to have theocracies, a few, but it was all cosmetic.

For example, when you have the codes, whether Theodosius or Justinian Code — you take Justinian’s code, you look at it. You see, just cosmetically, he said you were blessed by the grace of God , et cetera — two pages.

The rest is intact, the Roman law. When you talk about religion, when people are talking about Salafi Islam — it’s not a religion in the sense that Mormon Christianity is a religion. It is a body of laws. It’s a legal system. It’s a political system. It’s a legal system.

So people are very confused when they talk about religion. They’re comparing things that are not the same. Effectively, when I say that I’m Christian, it’s very different from saying I am something else.

The same weakness that I see sometimes describe ethnicity. Being Greek Orthodox is more ethnicity than something else, or being Serbian versus Croatian. Sometimes religion becomes an identity, sometimes law, sometimes very universal.

And sometimes you have pagan tendencies hidden under some kind of Taqiya that you see in the north, you have the monastic religions. Comparing religions naively is silly, it’s heuristic and leads to things like saying, “Well, he has a right to exercise his faith.”

Some faiths should not have the right to be exercised, like Salafis or extreme jihadism because they’re not religions. They’re a legal system. They’re like a political party that wants to ban all other political parties. If you go with that, you’re repeating certain mistakes.

We’re not in here to eat mozzarella and go to Tuscany

June 16th, 2018

The point is that we are imperfect, Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains:

And the way you can function best is accepting we’re imperfect. It’s why we have theology. You want perfection, you can find it in theosis and find a lot of things.

Incidentally, to go back to the idea of being orthodox, theosis is a way for us humans to rise above our condition as human, and it’s given to us openness, this equal opportunity for anyone. If you consider that we are imperfect, and the way you can arise, this sense of honor, by doing duties or self-sacrifice, then you have a lot of risk in the game.

It’s taking risks for the sake of becoming more human. Like Christ. He took risks and he suffered. Of course, it was a bad outcome, but you don’t have to go that far. That was the idea.

I didn’t talk about theosis. I just mentioned it in one footnote. It’s like we understand that we’re not in here to eat mozzarella and go to Tuscany. We’re not in here to accumulate money. We’re in here mostly to sacrifice, to do something. The way you do it is by taking risks.

Some people take risks and some people labor in the fields. You have the option of doing either one or the other. But my point is you should never have someone rise in society if he or she is not taking risks for the sake of others, period. That’s one rule.

Re-creating the first flip-flop

June 15th, 2018

The flip-flop was created 100 years ago — in the pre-digital age:

Many engineers are familiar with the names of Lee de Forest, who invented the amplifying vacuum tube, or John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley, who invented the transistor. Yet few know the names of William Eccles and F.W. Jordan, who applied for a patent for the flip-flop 100 years ago, in June 1918. The flip-flop is a crucial building block of digital circuits: It acts as an electronic toggle switch that can be set to stay on or off even after an initial electrical control signal has ceased. This allows circuits to remember and synchronize their states, and thus allows them to perform sequential logic.

The flip-flop was created in the predigital age as a trigger relay for radio designs. Its existence was popularized by an article in the December 1919 issue of The Radio Review [PDF], and two decades later, the flip-flop would find its way into the Colossus computer [PDF], used in England to break German wartime ciphers, and into the ENIAC in the United States.

Modern flip-flops are built in countless numbers out of transistors in integrated circuits, but, as the centenary of the flip-flop approached, I decided to replicate Eccles and Jordan’s original circuit as closely as possible.

This circuit is built around two vacuum tubes, so I started there. Originally, Eccles and Jordan most likely used Audion tubes or British-made knock-offs. The Audion was invented by de Forest, and it was the first vacuum tube to demonstrate amplification, allowing a weak signal applied to a grid to control a much larger electrical current flowing from a filament to a plate. But these early tubes were handmade and unreliable, and it would be impractical to obtain a usable pair today.

Instead I turned to the UX201A, an improved variant of the UV201 tube that General Electric started producing in 1920. While still close in time to the original patent, the UV201 marked the beginning of vacuum-tube mass production, and a consequent leap in reliability and availability. I was able to purchase two 01A tubes for about US $35 apiece.

Flip-Flop Circuit Diagram

In a flip-flop, the tubes are cross-coupled in a careful balancing act, using pairs of resistors to control voltages. This balancing act means that turning off one tube, even momentarily, turns the second tube on and keeps the first tube off. This state of affairs continues until the second tube is turned off with a control signal, which pushes the first tube on and keeps the second tube off.

Achieving the right balance means getting the values of the resistors just right. In their laboratory, Eccles and Jordan would have used resistor decade boxes, bulky pieces of equipment that would have let them dial in resistances at different points in their circuit. For reasons of space, I decided to use fixed resistors of a similar vintage as the patent.

I was able to obtain a set of such resistors from the collection of antique radios that I’ve accumulated over the years. In the 1920s, radio manufacturing exploded, and the result is that I have quite a few early radios that are pretty nondescript and beyond repair, so I didn’t feel too bad about cannibalizing them for parts. Resistors made before 1925 were generally placed into sockets, rather than soldered into a circuit board, so extracting them wasn’t hard.

The hard part was that these resistors are very imprecise. They were handmade with a resistive carbon element held between clips in a glass enclosure. One way to get their resistance closer to the desired value is to open up the enclosure, remove the strip of carbon, make notches in it to increase its resistance, and put it back in. I adjusted several of the resistors this way, but it was too tricky to do with others, so for those I cheated a little and placed modern resistors inside the vintage glass casing.

Flip-Flop Replica

I used modern battery supplies, in order to avoid the use of the numerous wet cells that the inventors probably used. One of the issues with tube-based circuits is that a range of voltages is required. Four D cells wired in series provides the 6 volts needed for the indicator lamps and the filament of the tubes. Connecting eleven 9-V batteries in series provided the 99 V required for the tubes’ plate. A similarly constructed 63-V power supply is needed to negatively bias the tubes’ grids. Old-fashioned brass doorbell buttons let me tap a 9-V battery connection to provide the control pulses. To show the flip-flop’s state, I used sensitive antique telegraph relays that operate miniature incandescent lamps.

With a lot of trial and error and tweaking of my nearly century-old components, over the course of a year I was finally able to achieve stable operation of this venerable circuit!

You should try practice, then theory

June 14th, 2018

Nassim Nicholas Taleb had plenty to say to Bryan Caplan about what’s missing in education:

You know the Romans despised theory, and the Greeks despised practice, which is why The Black Swan is dedicated to Mandelbrot, a Greek among Romans, and the next one is dedicated to Ron Paul, a Roman among Greeks.

[...]

The route I was suggesting, education, is you send people, you make people work as nurses and then they go to medical school. Effectively, I spoke to a lot of doctors, and they think it’s a good idea because they’re afraid of medicine being now too theorized, becoming too theorized.

You make people run a local racketeering shop or a casino or something like that, for seven-eight years and then you go study economics.

We’re living longer, so this idea of front-loading education makes no sense.

[...]

I started trading and then discovered math. I said, “Oh, this is interesting.” I started discovering math, so I got immersed into math, and 15 years later, I went back to school. I went back to try to do math and effectively doing those classes. I did my thesis and that was it. But the idea — I started writing papers — the idea of having to start by theory and ending up with practice doesn’t work.

You should try practice, then theory.

[...]

Then, the root of that, my feeling, in the Anglo-Saxon world is the desire — this is why they call it liberal arts education — to aristocratic ties to themselves.

Again, let’s talk about the Greco-Roman world. You had the trivium or quadrivium, absolutely nothing practical about them, the rhetoric, the grammar, some things. The liberal education was what people learned in order to become aristocrat and idle upper class.

Then you had the real professions of becoming a baker, how to do something with wood. And the English, the upper class — of course they didn’t want to be working class, so they sent their kids to learn that stuff. And this is what came to America.

Education is split in two. You have technical education like law — not technical, but professional education — law, medicine, what else? Engineering and all these things, and then you have mathematics. If you look at it historically, the engineers didn’t really connect to the other ones because the Roman engineers did not use Greek geometry.

We only started using Greek geometry late in life after the educational system started including mathematics for these people. Engineers built cathedrals without clear geometry. It was actually more robust.

Geometry will give you these ugly corners. Before, we didn’t even know what the right angle is. Before, it was more involved, it was rule of thumb, and it was different. They had the separation, segregation.

So what you want to do? Is this liberal education that’s contaminating the rest? Or is it the technical that’s contaminating the expectation of what education should be like?

You say, “OK, this is the kind of thing you do like piano lessons on the weekends.” You read Homer and stuff like that. It’s important, and you become civilized. Stuff you do to be civilized and be able to have dinner with the vice president of the World Bank, these are the things you do. And these are the things you do to get you ahead in life.

[...]

You end up with a lot of people, in fact, today, this generation — because of the competitive environment and the closed circuit in the humanities — that basically don’t know anything about humanities. All they know is the theories du jour about this and this, and the postcolonial approach to this or that.

For example, when you start arguing with people who studied about something called Middle Eastern studies — which shouldn’t exist as a discipline — they start talking about colonialism of the French.

The French spent 21-and-a-half years in the Levant as a United Nation mandate. Explain to me the colonialism.

They say, “Well…” They don’t even know the basic facts because the more you have a ratio of theories and way more -isms, and stuff like that and the Marxism, so someone that’s good at Marxist interpretation of this and this in the postgender world. And they don’t know the facts.

This is why we can’t rely on these instructors to teach you the humanities — because you don’t get tenure from knowing the facts. You get tenure from inventing some full structural theory of baking beans and mint in Sassanid Persia. That’s how you get your tenure. These guys are ignorant.

[...]

The problem is, as society got rich, everybody wanted to reach education by imitating the aristocrats, with the illusion that it’s going to help them get rich.

When in fact, it’s the kind of thing you do when you’re already rich. This is where Alison Wolf and Pritchett come in to discover that these educational things are effectively the product of societies that are rich and definitely not causative to wealth.

It is a one-way conduit to bring another society into their living rooms

June 13th, 2018

The Amish have negotiated a pact with modernity:

It’s interesting that the Amish have different districts, and each district has different rules about what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. Yet it’s very clear there are two technologies that, as soon as the community accepts them, they are no longer Amish. Those technologies are the television and the automobile.

They particularly see those two as having a fundamental impact on their society and daily lives.

I think a huge part is that they shape our relationships with other people. The reason the Amish rejected television is because it is a one-way conduit to bring another society into their living rooms. And they want to maintain the society as they have created it. And the automobile as well. As soon as you have a car, your ability to leave your local community becomes significantly easier.

You no longer have to rely on your neighbor for eggs when you run out. You can literally take half an hour and run to the store. In a horse and buggy, when you don’t have your own chickens, that’s a half-day process.

[...]

The Amish use us as an experiment. They watch what happens when we adopt new technology, and then decide whether that’s something they want to adopt themselves. I asked one Amish person why they didn’t use automobiles. He simply smiled and turned to me and said, “Look what they did to your society.” And I asked what do you mean? “Well, do you know your neighbor? Do you know the names of your neighbors?” And, at the time, I had to admit to the fact that I didn’t.

And he pointed out that my ability to simply bypass them with the windows closed meant I didn’t have to talk to them. And as a result, I didn’t.

His argument was that they were looking at us to decide whether or not this was something they wanted to do or not. I think that happens in our society as well. We certainly have this idea of alpha and beta testing. There are people very, very excited to play that role. I don’t know if they always frame themselves as guinea pigs, but that’s what they are.

Strategists had planned for one set of crises, but got another

June 12th, 2018

In 1914 few people expected great power conflict:

If there were to be a crisis, most Europeans expected it to come either on the Rhine River between Germany and France, or in the North Sea between the British and German fleets. But the French and Germans had resumed normal, even productive, relations after the 1911 Morocco crisis, and the Germans had largely ended their attempt to challenge the Royal Navy. In late June 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife arrived in Sarajevo, sailors from the two fleets were getting drunk together at Fleet Week in Kiel. Winston Churchill, who was there, later observed that no one in Kiel could have imagined that they would be at war within a few short weeks.

The shooting of an obscure archduke ought not to have changed this placid picture; indeed, for most Europeans, it did not. Within a few days, the story of a supposedly deranged teenager’s act in a faraway city had largely disappeared from the front pages of newspapers in London, Paris, Berlin, and even Vienna. When European newspapers did discuss their fears of an impending war, they most commonly referred to the possibility of civil war in Ireland after the passage of a controversial Home Rule act in Parliament. If anything were to come out of the latest crisis in the Balkans, it would involve Austria-Hungary and Serbia only, and even then only if the Austrians could prove their allegations that Serbian officials had been behind the plot.

But the Austrian higher leadership read something different into the assassination. They believed that Franz Ferdinand’s assassination amounted to what we would today call state-sponsored terrorism. In their eyes, this meant that Austria found itself in a strangely advantageous strategic situation. All European governments and most European peoples sympathized with the murdered archduke and his wife. If Europeans knew anything about the couple, they knew that Franz Ferdinand had married the woman he loved, despite the fact that she was not a Habsburg. As a result, they had made a modern marriage for love instead of power, even though the emperor’s disapproval led them to be snubbed at court and their children excluded from the line of succession.

To the senior leaders of the empire, the sympathy pouring into Vienna meant that, for the first time in decades, Austria-Hungary appeared as an aggrieved party in a Balkan crisis. They therefore believed that European public opinion would permit them to push matters with Serbia a bit further than they had been able to do during past crises. Moreover, the absolutist regime in Russia might hesitate to support a state that backed regicide, even if the Russians publicly posed as Serbia’s nominal protector. Britain, meanwhile, was distracted by events in Ireland, and the French were enraptured by the final days of the trial of Henriette Caillaux, the wife of a prominent politician who had shot a newspaper editor. (Her lawyer claimed, for the first time in French legal history, that she was not guilty by reason of mental defect because, her husband having refused to challenge the editor to a duel, her female brain could not adjust to playing the male role of having to defend the family’s honor.) In any case, both Britain and France had shown themselves reluctant to get directly involved in past Balkan crises. Austria-Hungary’s leaders had every reason to believe that officials in London and Paris would move slowly during this one.

For senior Austro-Hungarian officials, the military situation created by the assassination was almost ideal. They guessed that no regime in Europe would jump to Serbia’s defense, not even Russia. The British, French, and Italians would likely stay neutral or, in any event, not intervene while Austro-Hungarian forces moved south. If those forces moved quickly and crushed the Serbians, they might present Europe with a fait accompli before the great powers could stop them.

Their German allies read the situation in much the same way. Senior military leaders in Berlin worried about Russian military and industrial growth. Within a few years that growth would render most German military planning obsolete, confronting the Germans with a two-front war that most assumed they could not win. Although only a few people knew it, the German war plan tried to get out of that dilemma by sending seven of its eight field armies against France no matter what diplomatic crisis triggered war. In this particular one, therefore, France might be caught sleeping, Britain might declare neutrality, and, for once, the Austrian ally in whom they had so little faith might have a motivation to fight well. The stars would likely never line up so favorably again.

Thus did Germany issue a “blank check” of support to Austria. If, as expected, Russia remained neutral, then Austria could inflict a devastating blow onto Serbia and Germany would gain by association without having to do anything. If Russia mobilized, then Germany could enact its war plan under extremely favorable circumstances, most notably by quickly attacking a distracted France, most of whose people saw no link whatsoever between themselves and an assassination in Sarajevo. Perhaps most crucially, the German regime could defend its efforts to the German people as a purely defensive response to Russian provocation.

Having drawn these conclusions, the Austro-Hungarians delivered their now infamous ultimatum to Serbia on July 23. It gave Serbia just 48 hours to reply, meaning that the long, slow diplomacy that had taken months to resolve and defuse recent crises in Morocco and Sudan had no time to work. Serbia tried to be conciliatory, but the Austrians, with German backing, wanted war on terms that they assumed were as favorable to them as they could ever hope to get.

Europe was stunned by the ultimatum, not the assassination; for this reason we call the crisis leading to war the July Crisis, not the June Crisis. Soldiers, including many senior leaders on leave in countries soon to be their enemies, hurried home to their units. Statesmen canceled vacations, and many foresaw that Europe was about to go to war over an issue that did not actually affect the vital interests of any of them except Austria-Hungary. They did not so much sleepwalk as awaken from a deep and pleasant slumber by a terrible fire that they could neither extinguish nor escape.

This is why the war that began in 1914 became the First World War instead of the Third Balkan War. The crisis hit too quickly and did not conform to the intellectual idea Europeans had of future war. It had not begun over a German-French confrontation as expected, yet the Germans were sending hundreds of thousands of soldiers to invade France and neutral Belgium. Perhaps more importantly, because Russia had mobilized first, every nation in Europe could defend its actions as essentially defensive in nature, and therefore just.

Europe, and by extension much of the world, was now at war for reasons no one could quite explain, except to say that they were fighting to protect themselves from an enemy immoral and inhuman enough to break the peace. Thus even socialists and most pacifists initially supported what they saw as a just war. Within a few dizzingly short weeks, the initial premise of Austria-Hungary’s demands on Serbia had fallen aside and the war had become a total war, fought for national survival and the complete destruction of the enemy. Unlike many past wars, there were no limited war aims to compromise over or to stop the fighting once attained. Thus were future mediation efforts by the Vatican, the Socialist International, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson doomed to fail.

The causes of the First World War do not belong to a dead past of ancient ethnic grievances or governments ruled by incompetent aristocrats. Instead, the war began because of fatal miscalculations and unexpected contingencies. Put bluntly, strategists had planned for one set of crises, but got another. Their world, much like our own, had changed far too quickly for their plans or their intellectual preconceptions to adjust. In effect, they fought the wrong war, but all of the great powers could plausibly claim (at least in August 1914) that they had fought for the right reason, self-defense.

(Hat tip to Jonathan Jeckell.)

If you want to profit from expertise, you must first tame it

June 11th, 2018

If you want to profit from expertise, you must first tame it:

To draw a line between when high expertise helps and when it potentially hinders, we first need to acknowledge that this anti-elitist trend did not emerge from nothing. ‘Experts’ as a group (if such a thing can be held to exist) have not exactly covered themselves in glory in the last few years, so the cynicism they now face is to some degree justifiable.

We need not get into the weeds here about the specific issues. But, suffice it to say, the complex manoeuvring of some extremely bright and learned people unwittingly triggered the financial crisis. Apocalyptic deadlines for climate change devastation came and went without fireworks. Election predictions on both sides of the Atlantic have been appalling, as have the predictions on the immediate consequences of those elections. Silicon Valley ‘geniuses’ plunge from one self- inflicted crisis to another. And, meanwhile, we have watched as what many people consider lunacy leaks out of the credentialed halls of academia and into the world at large.

In other words, smart people keep getting it wrong and scepticism about their competence has grown as a result. This seems to be a fairly straightforward story at first glance, and yet the public will only take their antipathy so far. Nobody says, “I want someone unqualified to be my president, therefore I also want someone unqualified to be my surgeon.” Nobody doubts the value of the expertise of an engineer or a pilot. This apparent inconsistency is what frustrates the anti-anti-elitists so much, not least because it seems to be unjustifiable.

However, it is worth drawing a distinction between these two types of expertise — the kind people question, and the kind people don’t. In short, people value expertise in closed systems, but are distrustful of expertise in open systems. A typical example of a closed system would be a car engine or a knee joint. These are semi-complex systems with ‘walls’ — that is to say, they are self-contained and are relatively incubated from the chaos of the outside world. As such, human beings are generally capable of wrapping their heads around the possible variables within them, and can therefore control them to a largely predictable degree. Engineers, surgeons, pilots, all these kinds of ‘trusted’ experts operate in closed systems.

Open systems, on the other hand, are those that are ‘exposed to the elements,’ so to speak. They have no walls and are therefore essentially chaotic, with far more variables than any person could ever hope to grasp. The economy is an open system. So is climate. So are politics. No matter how much you know about these things, there is not only always more to know, but there is also an utterly unpredictable slide towards chaos as these things interact.

The erosion of trust in expertise has arisen exclusively from experts in open systems mistakenly believing that they know enough to either predict those systems or — worse — control them. This is an almost perfect definition of hubris, an idea as old as consciousness itself. Man cannot control nature, and open systems are by definition natural systems. No master of open systems has ever succeeded — they have only failed less catastrophically than their counterparts.

Every king, queen, pharaoh, emperor, president, prime minister, and dictator-for-life in history has tried to master statecraft, and every one of them has failed. If they had not, their formula would have calcified into knowledge and rumbled on successfully indefinitely. And wasn’t such a legacy the goal of every single one of them? The better ones only failed more gradually, less bloodily, than the rest. But slowly their ideas, too, unravelled in the face of chaos. Ultimately, history has shown this to be axiomatic: the more you seek to control nature, to control an open system, the more disastrous the results.

Knowing this, it’s a wonder that humility in the face of open systems is still such a rare commodity amongst those who know them. Perhaps it’s because the Enlightenment granted us so much mastery over closed systems that we forgot the distinction existed. One could argue that we have earned our arrogance when it comes to technological progress, for instance. But just because we invented smartphones, it does not follow that we can predict the future.

Gastronomy is the science of pain

June 10th, 2018

Anthony Bourdain got his start in writing with this piece for the The New Yorker — which, from the get-go, demonstrates his dark streak:

Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay. It’s about sodium-loaded pork fat, stinky triple-cream cheeses, the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals. It’s about danger — risking the dark, bacterial forces of beef, chicken, cheese, and shellfish. Your first two hundred and seven Wellfleet oysters may transport you to a state of rapture, but your two hundred and eighth may send you to bed with the sweats, chills, and vomits.

Gastronomy is the science of pain. Professional cooks belong to a secret society whose ancient rituals derive from the principles of stoicism in the face of humiliation, injury, fatigue, and the threat of illness. The members of a tight, well-greased kitchen staff are a lot like a submarine crew. Confined for most of their waking hours in hot, airless spaces, and ruled by despotic leaders, they often acquire the characteristics of the poor saps who were press-ganged into the royal navies of Napoleonic times — superstition, a contempt for outsiders, and a loyalty to no flag but their own.

This is what charisma is like in action

June 9th, 2018

Randall Collins explains the micro-sociology of charisma:

A charismatic leader pumps up followers with emotional energy; they admire their leader and follow willingly in his or her trajectory. Emotional dominance is a different mechanism because it operates by hogging the emotional energy. Charisma includes people rather than excludes them. Durkheim would say that the charismatic leader becomes the sacred object for the group; I would say he or she is the focus of attention that sets the trajectory of the group, filling them with enthusiasm that they will accomplish something great together.

A few brief examples. Joan of Arc led French troops to assault English fortresses, not because she was a great fighter but because she carried the banner at the front, and her followers would swarm up after her because they believed she could not fail. In quieter moments, she would display her humility as an agent of God and her personal saints, by weeping in church, so expressively that everyone else would be weeping along with her. It is no exaggeration to say that she led a procession across France of crowds weeping, and rushing behind her into battle. The shared emotion of weeping — a bodily process that sweeps one out of control — was the emotional mechanism that generated the sense of religious-plus-political trajectory.

Jesus, like most charismatic leaders, was a good observer of persons; he knew who could be moved to join him, and who had something else on their mind. Jesus always seized control of the interaction by the second conversational turn: instead of replying to what someone else said, he intuited what they meant and challenged them on it. He could turn the tables even on hostile enemies by controlling the rhythm and letting embarrassing silences work against them, then seizing the moment to make his point.

Jumping to a recent example of a dominant business entrepreneur, Steve Jobs: Jobs was not an engineer or a designer, but he had excellent judgment as to who were the most creative people to hire. He recruited them, in part, by touting the revolutionary things they would invent, and offering generous shares of the profits. Above all, he challenged them to do things that they thought were impossible; his emotional domination in arguing with his technical staff was so strong that they jokingly said Steve had a reality-distortion field.

The way it worked was by an extremely intense interaction ritual in the workplace. Steve would visit the most advanced work group, look at what they had done, and start criticizing it. His comments were crude, obscene and insulting. We might think his high-tech experts wouldn’t stand for this, that they would quit or rebel. But Jobs was not the kind of boss who walks in, shouts at his workers, threatens them if they don’t do better, then slams the door and leaves. Steve would insult them until they were really angry; then he would stay and argue with them. His persistence was incredible — he would argue with them for hours. He was famous for dropping in on people and staying up all night arguing and expounding his vision. Obviously Steve has a lot of emotional energy to be able to do this: he shows the familiar pattern of the charismatic leader who doesn’t need sleep, a single-minded workaholic who never takes a break. This high level of emotional energy is the result of constantly being in the center of successful interaction rituals. But the most energizing interaction rituals are not mere emotional dominance, where everyone else’s emotional energy is crushed. Jobs wants energized workers who share his vision, technical experts who push beyond the limits of what they had thought possible.

The crucial pattern is in the time-sequence. Steve enters, and forcefully seizes the emotional center of attention. He uses negative emotions to begin with; he gets everyone seething with the same emotion, even if it is anger at himself. He gets them into an intense argument about how the thing they are inventing can or cannot be changed in ways no one has thought of before. Let us say, roughly, twenty minutes of insulting, then hours of heated argument. Over those hours, the emotions settle down; they are no longer focused on Steve and his insults, but about a vision of the piece of computer equipment in front of them, and where they can go with it. Steve did not always win these arguments; if something turned out to be genuinely impossible, he would tacitly accept that, provided they had figured out a work-around that would get them into the territory they were aiming for.

One could say that Steve Jobs was extremely egotistical, but his ego was in his products; and these were very much the products of a team, as cutting-edge as he could assemble. His core team became so convinced that Steve could do anything that they stuck with him, even in the dark days when he was forced out of Apple by the marketing and financial managers he had brought in to handle the non-technical side. It would be superficial to say that Steve Jobs achieved success by abusing his employees. He used very confrontational tactics to stir up emotions, but his secret was that he never walked away from them: but always saw the argument through to a shared resolution.  He was an expert at provoking intense interaction rituals.

This is what charisma is like in action: it energizes a group, along a trajectory that they believe will be a glorious success.

Conflicts can stop escalating even without deliberate agreement

June 8th, 2018

The most important lesson from micro level conflics that we can apply to the geopolitical level of nuclear war, is this:

Conflicts can stop escalating even without deliberate agreement, without negotiating, apologizing, or offering concessions.

In the world of international politics, the issue is generally posed as either taking a tough stance, or else turning to negotiations. But what do you do when the other side refuses to negotiate? Or when they make it clear that one thing that is not negotiable is building nuclear weapons that can wipe you out? This is a terrible dilemma. It makes advocates of negotiation look like they are shying away from a frightening reality through acts of blind faith. But micro-level conflicts show that there is another way out: threats of violence, even with the strongest expressions of hostility between the sides, nevertheless can arrive at an equilibrium that stops short of the brink. And this happens without negotiating, without making an explicit agreement.

When and how does this happen? Micro conflict shows it is a matter of shared emotional moods shifting over time. It is a minute-by-minute process, or day-by-day, even month-by-month. De facto de-escalation occurs with the sheer passage of time, avoiding irretrievable steps along the way, and keeping the sides in emotional equilibrium.

Look at the timing of how shooting wars break out — the timing of daily events that preceded the actual fighting.

[...]

In all these wars, the escalation of force — and the difficulty of de-escalating or extricating oneself– became locked in through a territorial incursion, when boots hit the ground.

[...]

Is this a conundrum, or an opportunity for violence to abort?

If neither side attempts a territorial incursion, we are in the same situation as a demonstration that doesn’t turn into a riot while the emotional danger-zone ticks by; in the same situation as gang members showing off their guns while trash-talking but only pointing them in the air. It looks dangerous, but it is survivable.

[...]

I am not saying that these leaders (or conceivably others) will decide not to strike, out of consideration for casualties of this scale. But they are feeling the emotional pressure. This adds one more force for delaying the moment, in the usual fashion of violence that does not come about because the “emotional moment that is ripe for violence” has not yet arrived.

Leaders will tend to prolong the decision. And waiting is itself a possible path to emotional de-escalation, perhaps the only path we have.

Show you are capable of violence

June 7th, 2018

Different groups of people have their specific ways of carrying out quarrels, Randall Collins explains, their own cultures of quarreling:

But cutting across most of them is an unconscious common denominator: most of the time they have ways of keeping their disputes this side of violence. Research on quarrels among roommates or neighbours shows that such disputes often fester, but they almost never go all the way to violence. Gangs have an explicit culture of violence; they brag about it and measure their prestige by it. Nevertheless, close ethnographic observations by trained observers on the spot show that gang fights are much more about showing off their weapons than using them.

Street gangs have a turf and challenge anyone who enters it who fits the demographic of a rival gang; and often in a show of bravado they will invade someone else’s turf. But what happens then? If the groups are more or less evenly matched, they confine themselves to flashing their gang signs, showing their colors, exchanging trash talk. On a schoolyard in southern California, rival gangs pull up their shirts to show the guns tucked in their waist-bands; but nothing happens, until the school janitor comes out and shoos them away. On the streets of west and north Philadelphia, the local culture of gun gesturing has evolved in the last 20 years — opening your coat to show the butt of a gun; pulling the gun but keeping it pointed at the ground while continuing the duet of insults; pointing the gun in the air. This requires a good understanding of what’s going on, and accomplished tough guys need to be able to read the signs of where this ballet of danger displays is leading. Shootings do occur in these neighbourhoods, but most of the time these incidents are survivable.

In Chicago, ethnographer Joe Krupnick accompanied seasoned gang members — men in their 20s who had gone through years of living dangerously, and who always went armed. But although they often met members of rival gangs on the street (this was after the big hierarchic gangs had broken up and no one controlled the old turf in the city projects), they had an etiquette of how to pass one another, with just enough recognition, and without showing too much suspicion that the other would turn on them. When things got escalated, these armed men might even fire a bullet in the air — a way to alert the police, and giving everyone an excuse to leave the scene.

These gangs displayed what Elijah Anderson called “the code of the street”: show you are capable of violence, don’t back down from a threat, but recognize that if we both play by the street code, we can save face and at the same time avoid violence. You gain prestige by playing the street code, and the highest prestige comes not from killing other people but by showing you are in the fraternity of those who know how to handle such situations.

Keep it to common terms of abuse

June 6th, 2018

Small-scale violence most frequently aborts, Randall Collins notes:

Curtis Jackson-Jacobs, a UCLA researcher, followed a loosely-organized gang in Tucson, Arizona, as they went looking for fights. It consisted of a couple of dozen young white men, all of them bored with middle-class life style, who went to parties hoping to find someone to fight with. They were looking for opponents who would give them some action and boost their prestige, at least in their own eyes: black guys, tough guys, Hispanic gangs, bikers, athletes. But although there were plenty of over-crowded house parties in this desert city, with plenty of loud music and drinking going on, the surprise is how difficult it was for them to find a fight. They took a belligerent attitude, bumped into people, gave people the eye, but most of the time fights didn’t happen. Fights were rare enough that when one happened, the group would spend weeks thereafter talking about it, going over the details, bragging about what they did and even about taking a beating if they lost.

Why did this action-seeking group have so much trouble finding fights? Jackson-Jacobs spelled out the subtle details that had to happen if two sides were going to fight. These little details were only semi-conscious, but they boiled down to the fact that both sides had to decide that a fight was coming up, and this had to be a mutual feeling of emotion and timing. Like a demo only turning into a riot a couple of hours in, no one walks into a party and starts a fight from the very first minute. And if the minutes go by long enough, there is a feeling that this isn’t the time and place, so the action-seekers go somewhere else.

[Another hypothesis is that fights were also inhibited because typically rival groups fight within the same identity or demographic: as we know from gang murders in Chicago (Andrew Papachristos’ research) and gang fights generally, most such violence is segregated: black gangs fight with black gangs, Hispanic gangs with Hispanic, Irish gangs with Irish, Italian Mafias with each other. Jackson-Jacobs’ white middle-class guys were an anomaly on the tough-guy scene; they didn’t identify as skinheads, so they had no counterpart group to fight with them. J-J’s crew were looking for the prestige of fighting somebody tough; maybe they didn’t perceive that the same goes for the other side, and real fighting gangs didn’t think they were a worthy opponent.]

The pattern holds generally across different kinds of small-scale fights: most encounters where people threaten each other with violence do not actually end in violence. Most stay at the level of angry insults — the human bark is worse than our bite. Even if it gets physical, most fights do not go beyond pushing and shoving. Videos of fights (posted from cell phones) generally show that after a few wild swings, fighters tend to spin away from each other, leaving themselves at a distance just out of reach while the fight winds down. Showing your willingness to fight is on the whole more important than what damage you do. Researchers in England, using CCTV from pubs and the streets outside, found that angry disputes were broken up, in the great majority of cases, by friends separating the fighters.

[...]

A key feature that keeps quarrels from escalating is when they are balanced. Two guys quarrel with each other. They push out their chests, get their hands into fighting position. They yell insults at each other, each getting louder, trying to shout the other down. A lot here depends on what the audience will do — whether other people take sides or encourage them to fight; or do the opposite, ignoring the quarrel, which tends to take the energy out of it. Left to themselves, the belligerents usually find themselves repeating the same insults, over and over; they are both talking at the same time, which means they aren’t listening to each other, and it just becomes a contest of keeping up the noise. (How long do dogs go on barking at each other? Check it out.) After a short period of time — usually less than 60 seconds — this gets boring. They get tired of a quarrel that is going nowhere. Typically they will break it off, with a gesture of disgust, or slamming the door on the way out.

This suggests some practical advice. If you get into a threatening face-contest with someone, keep it in equilibrium. Just mimic what the other person does; don’t escalate it. After a while it becomes boring — and boredom is your friend. (Sir Francis Bacon, 400 years ago, wrote that if you are in an angry dispute, keep it to common terms of abuse; don’t try to score a cutting remark with a personal insult that your opponent will never forgive.)

When do demonstrations become riots?

June 5th, 2018

Randall Collins turns his sociological eye on protest demonstrations and when they do or do not turn into violent riots:

According to Dr. Anne Nassauer, sociologist at the Free University Berlin, most demonstrations are peaceful. Her research focuses on demonstrations in the US and in Germany, with comparisons elsewhere in Europe, where 92–98% of protests are peaceful. The impression that demonstrations easily turn violent is created because the news media ignore most demonstrations unless they are violent.

Even when participants announce in advance they will use violence, that is not enough to predict that a demo will be violent. Nor does it matter whether authorities announce a zero-tolerance policy, declaring that any provocation by demonstrators will be met by force and arrest.

It makes no difference whether or not a demonstration includes participants who come prepared to fight. Since the 1990s, demos have generally included an avowedly violent group known as the Black Bloc — who wear black clothes, facemasks, body armor and shields, and link arms in aggressive tactics against police and opponents. The names have changed over the years; in the 1960s the pro-violence faction were called “Maoists”, while very recently they have gone under the “Anti-Fa” banner. Such groups are usually a small proportion of a large demonstration. But as we can see in photos of riots, only 5-10% of the those present do all the violence; so a relatively small violent group can potentially make a demo into a riot. The surprising finding is that whether such a group is present or not does not make a difference in whether the demo will stay peaceful or not.

Avowed intentions do not matter much when it comes to violence. Declaring that you are going to be violent does not predict what you will actually do. On the flip side, declaring that a protest will be peaceful does not guarantee that it will turn out that way; violence can break out even when demonstrators plan to use non-violent tactics and the policing style is hands-off. As Nassauer shows, even when the police announce they will avoid using force, and both sides meet beforehand to plan the protest route and agree on how to avoid confrontations, things can go wrong. At the moment of outbreak, violence is inflamed by surprise and outrage on each side that their agreement was violated.

Why don’t groups of people do what they say they are going to do? In contentious protests, whether the event turns violent is the result of turning points that first increase tension on both sides, and then trigger off a collective reaction. It is less a matter of conscious planning than of emotions building up during the situation when the two sides confront each other face to face. It is an emergent process. Dr. Isabel Bramsen of Copenhagen University, who studied demonstrations and violence in the Arab Spring uprisings, called her analysis “Route Causes of Violence” — i.e. the causes of violent outbreaks emerge en route, rather than determining what will happen in advance.

Typically, if violence occurs during a protest demonstration, it will break out one to three hours in. A demo does not start out by being violent from the very first minute. Even if protesters intend to be violent, they don’t start off with using rocks, guns, or gasoline fire bombs; nor do authorities immediately fire tear gas and automatic weapons.

[This is true, amazingly enough, even in Arab Spring locations like Tunisia, Bahrain, and Syria. Bramsen found that even though authoritarian regimes order their forces to use force, they do not start firing at the first sign of a demonstration. Here, too, timing and collective emotions determine what will happen.]

It takes time to build up high tension, to build up the feeling of when the moment is ripe for violence. This is a mutual moment felt on both sides.

[...]

If the emotional trigger does not happen by then, both sides start to relax. As if both unconsciously feel, too late now, maybe next time.

Voter issue preferences have almost nothing to do with who gets elected or what gets passed as law

June 4th, 2018

Xiaoyu Lu explores the cognitive dissonance of overseas Chinese students.

The rebellion against liberal democracy of these four individuals does not fit into prevalent narratives that portray Chinese overseas students as isolated, materialistic and politically insensitive. Their critical reflections came from genuine transnational exposure. However, does it mean that they became more nationalistic and supportive of China’s system? There is a further layer of complexity: most of the returnees I talked to insisted on their liberal values, agreeing on fundamental ideas of an open and inclusive society. In other words, they believed there was still a political gap for China to fill, but not one that followed a Western standard. This picture is perhaps troubling for both home countries and host countries, as they aligned with no particular model.

What they rebelled against was not the existence of a common value. Rather, it was the sense of superiority, the idea that there was no alternative, and the belief in liberal democracy as an orthodoxy,which they found frustrating. They became disillusioned with Western liberal democracy, because it did not live up to the promise of being a liberating force. Instead, they felt it limited democracy to a particular geography, history and set of institutions, which denied the participation of others. Their views underlined the tension between contemporary democratic values that reflect human universals, and the parochial politics that excludes so many people from claiming citizenship of a global community.

Their dilemma was how to express alternative views against liberal democracy while not being the proponents of political repression. Like me, they questioned a singular understanding of democracy, yet wanted to avoid relativism. They were hesitant to criticise the Chinese government, but also didn’t want to unquestioningly accept it. Their transnational encounters made them open to pluralism, and tolerant of multiple views and values, yet their pluralism was not always compatible with contemporary liberal democracy. Above all, they rejected that a single model or idea from another country could be the saviour for China. Rather, they are much more nuanced: double dissidents in an age of globalisation.

Hat tip to T. Greer, who has much more to say:

A few thoughts:

1) Interesting how almost every single one of these people conflates liberalism with democracy. It is quite possible to have deeply illiberal democracy. That might even be the global norm — especially for places with newly minted middle classes.

2) Democracy as practiced in the West is, in my humble opinion, better than other systems for mostly one reason: it provides a system of conflict resolution that does not require coups, civil wars, or violent suppression of the other side to manage disputes or power transitions.

3) Compare the track record of the United States (especially the northern half) and the British dominions with almost any other political regime on these grounds that has ever existed over a three-century period, and you will see the value of this quite quickly.

4) Democracy promises 3 political ideals that hold great power over the imagination. Some of these ideals are more strongly realized than the others in 21st-Century government. None, however, are guaranteed results of representative democracy.

They are: liberty, equality, and self government.

I suspect that disillusionment with democracy and liberalism writ large comes with the feeling that the gap between one of these ideals and the reality yawns to wide — or a disenchantment with the ideal itself.

Of the three, Western democracies have probably done the best at preserving liberty. This is the one I miss most while in China. My life is deeply affected by my inability to worship as I would like, to speak as I would like, and to associate with whom I will.

Libertarians will criticize Western governments for being too hostile freedom writ large, but for most people these things are protected. By and large, Westerners are also free from arbitrary detentions, torture, and have protections like habeas corpus, etc. These things matter.

You can hypothetically have all of those things in a non-democratic system. On the eve of WWI, most Europeans did have them, or something close to them, even though the amount of democratic influence differed strongly empire to empire (Russians are an exception).

You could feasibly have a non-democratic system in China that protected these things — just as you could feasibly have a democracy that did not.

This brings us to the next one. Equality.

Trouble with equality is everyone has a different definition of it. You can do complete economic equality on the one hand down to a much more restricted version of pure legal equality on the other. The definition I think is most meaningful is the one Tocqueville keyed in on.

Worth reminding ourselves that what Tocqueville found so extraordinary about America was not its freedoms — in some ways, he would claim, Americans were less free than folks who lived in aristocracies, as aristocrats have a much greater tolerance for heterodoxy than democratic politics ever allows. No, what impressed Tocqueville about America was its equality. He thought Americans were economically about equal — or at least they had equal economic opportunities. Later studies of economic inequality in the antebellum era have proven this notion wrong.

But Tocqueville made that inference from a solid observation: Americans of different classes were regarded as *social* equals. One can exaggerate that claim, of course. Class existed in the 1830s. But the difference between the USA & Europe was vast.

The reasons for this sense of shared social equality (disclaimer about white men, blah blah blah) came mainly from three sources: The first was that most Americans were functionally independent. They owned their own farms or shops. They were their own bosses.

So even if you met a millionaire, you could fool yourself into thinking you were his equal, because he did not control you — you controlled you.

This version of independence mostly disappeared by the 1920s in the USA. Populists tried to stop its leaving, but they failed.

Second reason: Americans were legally equal. One man, one vote. All shared the same liberties. This one has largely stuck around.

Third reason: Americans were possessed with this ideology of social equality. This ideology originally proposed that any white man was the social equal of any white man simply by merit of being a white man. Voting rates were so high in the late 1800s partially because they were strongly associated with manhood.

Well, women got the vote & the ideology changed a bit, but mostly stuck around. In America you could see that by the polls asking folks if they considered themselves middle class — both the poor and rich insisted on it, even when, statistically speaking, it wasn’t true. America wasn’t that much more economically mobile in earlier ages — people just really believed it was, and in many locales, especially rural ones, tried hard to downplay local differences.

But I suppose that’s mostly gone now in America, and I’d suggest, France. Amy Chua’s “market dominant minority” model is helpful here.

So whether you measure it in social terms or economic terms, mod democracy doesn’t really deliver on the equality thing.

Which leaves us with self-government. Back in the 19th c and early 20th c this was the center of the pro-democracy propaganda. Inasmuch as you say things like “we will follow the will of the people” I suppose you are still spreading it yourself.

Poli scientists Christopher Achen & Larry Bartels have a good book that shows how this a complete myth in any large scale polity, Democracy for Realists. Basically, voter issue preferences have almost nothing to do with who gets elected or what gets passed as law.

But that really isn’t what self government should be about. Self government is about communities making decisions for themselves — communities that are small enough for individual voices to be heard, and for a sense of communal identity to be formed.

Which basically means local government and civic societies. These, in my humble opinion, are where the brilliance of democracy is supposed to be — the place where democracy can make good on its 19th-Century claim to make better people out of its citizens than other regimes. But the 21st Century has done poorly here.

Civic society has been in a decline in the USA for a good six decades, and few other countries ever matched the USA at its height. And no one cares about local government anymore. Most are consolidated till they are not local anymore (story of school boards) or are subject to control from above.

Political activism is the opiate of the masses

June 4th, 2018

Jordan Peterson turns Marx on his head and claims that political activism is the opiate of the masses:

That is, it’s something people use to make themselves feel sort of vaguely good and self-satisfied, but which prevents them from engaging in the actually important work of spiritual struggle.

My interpretation of him (can’t be sure it’s right) says that he is worried that there are problems with society, and all else being equal he would like people to solve them. But he has the psychoanalyst’s usual worry that anything which is not the Work will be a defense mechanism that people use to avoid the Work. Here again I find a comparison with Lewis helpful (this is from his demon character Screwtape’s advice on how to tempt humans):

“I had not forgotten my promise to consider whether we should make the patient an extreme patriot or an extreme pacifist. All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy [God], are to be encouraged. Not always, of course, but at this period. Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them. Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop inside itself a hothouse mutual admiration, and towards the outer world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the “Cause” is its sponsor and it is thought to be impersonal.”

I think Peterson assumes that a psychologically undeveloped person starting to dabble in politics will be eaten alive by various virulent memes, chewed up, and spit out as a Hofferian True Believer in about five minutes. At best they will end up as an never-shutting-up slacktivist who calls people out for not changing their profile picture on Facebook quickly enough, and at worst as some kind of totalitarian. I think he would argue there’s a vicious cycle here — the less psychologically developed you are, the more political activism will destroy you, and the more political activism destroys you, the less likely you are to ever psychologically develop further.

One of his twelve rules, “Set Your House In Perfect Order Before Criticizing The World”, is about this, and doesn’t preclude the possibility of getting involved in politics after you’ve sorted out your own life. I don’t know what this is supposed to mean, since presumably this is an eternal project that is never completed. Clearly Peterson himself thinks he’s at the point where he can participate in politics, so I don’t know.

Do I agree with him here? From a consequentialist point of view, what would it mean to get the least psychologically developed 50% of people out of political activism? If you’re a mistake theorist, it might be great — it takes an equal number of people away from both sides, but raises the quality of discourse. If you’re a conflict theorist, it might be awful — it decreases the number of troops available to the People in their struggle to overcome inertia and fight the Elites.

Rather than try to resolve that, I would just note that “Jordan Peterson saying psychologically underdeveloped people shouldn’t get involved in politics” does not remove the least psychologically developed people from politics. It removes from politics some group of people weighted towards reading Jordan Peterson, being psychologically underdeveloped, and having enough humility to realize that they might be psychologically underdeveloped (which is itself possibly a sign of not being underdeveloped). Whether or not you think this is worth it depends on your opinion of the average Peterson reader.