Star Wars as Propaganda

Wednesday, 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

Wednesday, 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

Tuesday, 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.


Tuesday, 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

Monday, 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

Monday, 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

Sunday, 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

Sunday, 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

Saturday, 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

Saturday, 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.

When Radiation Isn’t the Real Risk

Friday, September 25th, 2015

A small group of scientists met in Tokyo this past spring to evaluate the deadly aftermath of Fukushima:

No one has been killed or sickened by the radiation — a point confirmed last month by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Even among Fukushima workers, the number of additional cancer cases in coming years is expected to be so low as to be undetectable, a blip impossible to discern against the statistical background noise.

But about 1,600 people died from the stress of the evacuation — one that some scientists believe was not justified by the relatively moderate radiation levels at the Japanese nuclear plant.

Evacuations can be prompted by the linear no-threshold model of radiation deaths. If one sievert of radiation causes fatal cancers in 5 percent of the people exposed, then one millisievert must cause fatal cancer in 0.005 percent of the people exposed:

By avoiding what would have been an average cumulative exposure of 16 millisieverts, the number of cancer deaths prevented was perhaps 160, or 10 percent of the total who died in the evacuation itself.

But that estimate assumes the validity of the current standards. If low levels of radiation are less harmful, then the fallout might not have caused any increase in the cancer rate.

The idea of hormesis goes further, proposing that weak radiation can actually reduce a person’s risk.

We’ve discussed Fukushima’s incredible death toll before — and the fact that radiation is good for you.

Wedge Issue

Friday, September 25th, 2015

A successful political campaign needs one great, controversial slamdunk juggernaut wedge issue to power it to victory:

Bloom County Wedge Issue

How Snoopy Killed Peanuts

Friday, September 25th, 2015

Snoopy killed Peanuts, Kevin Wong argues:

The now famous debut strip is an important reminder of what Peanuts used to be. Note that it stars Shermy and Patty, both of whom stopped being featured in the strip in the 70s:

Peanuts Debut

It establishes, from its very debut, that this strip is not about the adorable inanities of being a child. It’s about the cruelties and hardships of being a child; children can be bullying, backstabbing, petty people. And sometimes, children can be irrational, and hate someone for no reason — simply ‘because.’

The happiness we feel for these characters, when they occasionally get the final word or win, is poignant because they’re dragged through the muck so many times. One of the most famous Peanuts strips is this one:

Peanuts Happiness is a Warm Puppy

But that’s all most people know of Peanuts, and that’s a gross oversimplification of the strip. Because in his prime, Schulz always balanced the sentiment with the flipside of it, sometimes over the course of multiple strips, and sometimes in the context of a single Sunday strip, with multiple panels.

Peanuts Happiness is Feeling the Wind and the Rain in Your Hair

Snoopy began the strip as a normal dog, and the majority of his gags were of him doing traditional dog stuff. But a couple of years in, Schulz figured out how to characterize Snoopy; he was a dog who resented being a dog. So, Snoopy spent most of his time trying on other identities — usually those of other animals, and occasionally those of humans.

But the end result was always failure — for whatever reason, he would always revert to being a dog, because the new identity didn’t fit him properly. It was a great commentary on self-acceptance, but also on embracing creativity and the need to dream of something better.

Failure was the key to Snoopy’s charm; as it was to Charlie Brown, who never kicked the football; as it was to Linus, who couldn’t give up his security blanket; as it was to Lucy, who never got Schroeder to look her way. On the rare instances Snoopy tried to be human, Frieda or Lucy tried to cut him down.

And on the occasions that he cultivated human emotions, he got hurt.

But near the end of the 60s and well into the 70s, the cracks started to show. Snoopy began walking on his hind legs and using his hands, and that was the beginning of the end for the strip. Perhaps he was technically still a dog, but in a very substantial way, Snoopy had overcome the principal struggle of his existence. His opposable thumbs and upward positioning meant that for all intents and purposes, he was now a human in a dog costume. One of his new roleplays was to be different Joes — Joe Cool, Joe Skateboard, etc.

Peanuts Joe Cool

None of this had any greater, narrative payoff, or ended with Snoopy realizing he was a dog. It was always a pure visual gag, and it lacked the subtlety, pain, and vision that had previously been the strip’s trademark. In short, there was no balance. It was just a series of Snoopy in new costumes, almost as if Schulz was anticipating merchandise demands. Cuteness had replaced depth in a strip that had always celebrated the maturity and adult-like nature of precocious children. And since the strip had become globally, universally loved, there was little impetus to revisit the darker social commentary of years past.

Europe Discovers a New Geography

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

The Mediterranean, it turns out, is not the southern border of Europe:

Rather, that border lies somewhere in the Sahara Desert from where African migrants coalesce into caravans headed north. And as they have throughout history, the Balkans still form a zone of human migration from the Near East. For decades, the dream of the European Union was to become a post-national paradise of prosperity and the rule of law, and gradually, through various association agreements, extend the bounties of civil society to contiguous regions. Now the process is being reversed: The contiguous regions are exporting their instability into Europe itself. Eurasia, a super-continent of historic exoduses, is starting to reintegrate Europe.

This tumultuous process occurs as the social welfare state — the moral answer of European elites to the carnage of the 20th century — has become nearly impossible to sustain at its current level in some countries. The prolonged multi-year stagnation, exacerbated by bad monetary policy, has begot populist movements that will turn against the latest wave of refugees once the initial bout of public compassion runs its course. Extremely low economic growth, plus the inevitable incidents of crime and terror, will darken the popular mood soon enough.

Open Borders and the Welfare State

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

Milton Friedman said that you can’t have a welfare state and open borders, but Alex Tabarrok disagrees:

What we think of as the welfare state encompasses many different programs, many of which are not handouts. Social Security for example is mostly a forced savings program. For these types of insurance programs there is no problem at all as, for the most part, a person has to work and pay into the program to get money out of the program. For programs like schooling there is also no problem–even if the schooling is provided free to immigrant children–because the schooling leads to higher wages later in life which are taxed. In these cases, the immigrant children are really just receiving a loan which they will have to pay back from their own earnings later in life. The story for basic health is similar. Thus, the only cases where there is a worry about excessive transfers from citizens to immigrants is in pure handouts or health benefits to say the elderly. In these cases, I would simply say that such benefits are not available to immigrants or only available after five years or some such time period.

Commenter Peter Schaeffer notes that the fiscal impact of Middle-Eastern immigration has been extensively studied in Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, the UK, etc.:

A report just came out in Norway showing that each Middle-Eastern immigrant costs taxpayers $700,000 (net).