The Communist Manifesto: A Graphic Novel

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018

Gord Doctorow reviews British graphic novelist Martin Rowson’s illustrated adaptation of The Communist Manifesto:

The preface describes how the middle-aged Rowson became smitten by Marx and Engels’ exciting prose when he was only 16. Aside from expressing his great admiration for Marx’s writing, as well as his own critical stance, he furnishes the reader with some historical backdrop to the completion of The Manifesto. Marx had been commissioned to write it by a socialist group in the summer of 1847, but, under pressure, succeeded in producing it at the beginning of 1848. Significantly, that was before the outbreak of revolutionary movements in Europe later on in 1848. Rowson goes on to explain that the initial publication failed to attract the attention of many people. Only after the events of the Paris Commune in 1871 did the pamphlet receive a wide audience and a publication renewal.

The illustrations create an atmospheric accompaniment to the Marx figures whose speaking balloons relay the text of The Manifesto. The graphics pair nicely with the text with dense images that impart the feeling of the clashes of historical forces (classes) or with the dramatic rendering of the first lines of The Manifesto in which a spectre appears, so Hamlet-like in two dark and foreboding images to haunt the reader’s mind. There is plenty of theatricality too: images of Marx interacting from a stage with a hostile audience (Rowson’s added flourishes added to enhance the exposition in a stimulating theatrical way).

The Communist Manifesto A Graphic Novel

As a literary work, the illustrations do justice to the marvelously compressed, yet sweeping, literary quality of Marx’s verbal imagery and present readers. Though I had read The Manifesto years ago, I found the adaptation to be both a refresher and newly insightful.

Quite… uncritical.

Google’s leadership was quite dismayed by Trump’s election

Wednesday, September 12th, 2018

Breitbart just shared a video recorded by Google shortly after the 2016 presidential election, where the leadership is obviously dismayed:

  • (00:00:00 – 00:01:12) Google co-founder Sergey Brin states that the weekly meeting is “probably not the most joyous we’ve had” and that “most people here are pretty upset and pretty sad.”
  • (00:00:24) Brin contrasts the disappointment of Trump’s election with his excitement at the legalization of cannabis in California, triggering laughs and applause from the audience of Google employees.
  • (00:01:12) Returning to seriousness, Brin says he is “deeply offen[ded]” by the election of Trump, and that the election “conflicts with many of [Google’s] values.”
  • (00:09:10) Trying to explain the motivations of Trump supporters, Senior VP for Global Affairs, Kent Walker concludes: “fear, not just in the United States, but around the world is fueling concerns, xenophobia, hatred, and a desire for answers that may or may not be there.”
  • (00:09:35) Walker goes on to describe the Trump phenomenon as a sign of “tribalism that’s self-destructive [in] the long-term.”
  • (00:09:55) Striking an optimistic tone, Walker assures Google employees that despite the election, “history is on our side” and that the “moral arc of history bends towards progress.”
  • (00:10:45) Walker approvingly quotes former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s comparison between “the world of the wall” with its “isolation and defensiveness” and the “world of the square, the piazza, the marketplace, where people come together into a community and enrich each other’s lives.”
  • (00:13:10) CFO Ruth Porat appears to break down in tears when discussing the election result.
  • (00:15:20) Porat promises that Google will “use the great strength and resources and reach we have to continue to advance really important values.”
  • (00:16:50) Stating “we all need a hug,” she then instructs the audience of Google employees to hug the person closest to them.
  • (00:20:24) Eileen Noughton, VP of People Operations, promises that Google’s policy team in DC is “all over” the immigration issue and that the company will “keep a close watch on it.”
  • (00:21:26) Noughton jokes about Google employees asking, ‘Can I move to Canada?’ after the election. She goes on to seriously discuss the options available to Google employees who wish to leave the country.
  • (00:23:12) Noughton does acknowledge “diversity of opinion and political persuasion” and notes that she has heard from conservative Google employees who say they “haven’t felt entirely comfortable revealing who [they] are.” and urged “tolerance.” (Several months later, the company would fire James Damore allegedly for disagreeing with progressive narratives.)
  • (00:27:00) Responding to a question about “filter bubbles,” Sundar Pichai promises to work towards “correcting” Google’s role in them
  • (00:27:30) Sergey Brin praises an audience member’s suggestion of increasing matched Google employee donations to progressive groups.
  • (00:34:40) Brin compares Trump voters to “extremists,” arguing for a correlation between the economic background of Trump supporters and the kinds of voters who back extremist movements. Brin says that “voting is not a rational act” and that not all of Trump’s support can be attributed to “income disparity.” He suggests that Trump voters might have been motivated by boredom rather than legitimate concerns.
  • (00:49:10) An employee asks if Google is willing to “invest in grassroots, hyper-local efforts to bring tools and services and understanding of Google products and knowledge” so that people can “make informed decisions that are best for themselves.” Pichai’s response: Google will ensure its “educational products” reach “segments of the population [they] are not [currently] fully reaching.”
  • (00:54:33) An employee asks what Google is going to do about “misinformation” and “fake news” shared by “low-information voters.” Pichai responds by stating that “investments in machine learning and AI” are a “big opportunity” to fix the problem.
  • (00:56:12) Responding to an audience member, Walker says Google must ensure the rise of populism doesn’t turn into “a world war or something catastrophic … and instead is a blip, a hiccup.”
  • (00:58:22) Brin compares Trump voters to supporters of fascism and communism, linking the former movement to “boredom,” which Brin previously linked to Trump voters. “It sort of sneaks up sometimes, really bad things” says Brin.
  • (01:01:15) A Google employee states: “speaking to white men, there’s an opportunity for you right now to understand your privilege” and urges employees to “go through the bias-busting training, read about privilege, read about the real history of oppression in our country.” He urges employees to “discuss the issues you are passionate about during Thanksgiving dinner and don’t back down and laugh it off when you hear the voice of oppression speak through metaphors.” Every executive on stage – the CEO, CFO, two VPs and the two Co-founders – applaud the employee.
  • (01:01:57) An audience member asks if the executives see “anything positive from this election result.” The audience of Google employees, and the executives on stage, burst into laughter. “Boy, that’s a really tough one right now” says Brin.

Every specimen is arguably irreplaceable

Thursday, September 6th, 2018

Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro burned down, which is terrible, but not terribly surprising:

The burned building was the largest natural-history museum in Latin America, but it had never been completely renovated in its 200-year history. It had long suffered from obvious infrastructure problems including leaks, termite infestations, and — crucially — no working sprinkler system. Recognizing these problems in the 1990s, museum staff began planning to move the collection into a different site, but without stable funding, those plans proceeded in fits and starts.

[...]

The museum’s herbarium, its main library, and some of its vertebrates were housed in a different building that was untouched by the fire. But together, these reportedly account for just 10 percent of the museum’s collection. For comparison, the remaining 90 percent includes twice as many specimens as the entire British Museum. Museum staff carried out whatever they could by hand, including parts of the mollusk collection. Time will tell what else survived, and some losses are already clear: The floor beneath the entomology collection collapsed, for example, and the 5 million butterflies and other arthropods within were likely lost.

The museum’s archeological collection had frescoes from Pompeii, and hundreds of Egyptian artifacts, including a 2,700-year-old painted sarcophagus. It housed art and ceramics from indigenous Brazilian cultures, some of whose populations number only in their thousands. It contained audio recordings of indigenous languages, some of which are no longer spoken; entire tongues went up in flames. It carried about 1,800 South American artifacts that dated back to precolonial times, including urns, statues, weapons, and a Chilean mummy that was at least 3,500 years old.

Older still was the museum’s rich trove of fossils, from crocodile relatives like Pepesuchus to one of the oldest relatives of today’s scorpions. It harbored some of the oldest human remains in the Americas: the 11,500-year-old skull and pelvis of a woman who was unearthed in 1975 and nicknamed Luzia. “The skull is very fragile,” the artist Maurilio Oliveira told The New York Times. “The only thing that could have saved it is if a piece of wood or something fell and protected it.”

One might think that fossils, being rock, would be immune to fire. But as Mariana Di Giacomo, a paleontologist from the University of Delaware, described in a Twitter thread, fires can reach temperatures that are high enough to crack stone. It destroys buildings, causing walls and ceilings to fall on fragile specimens. It burns the labels attached to fossils and the numbers that are painted onto them, turning something that’s part of the scientific record into uninformative rock. “Without data, we only have old bones/shells/logs,” wrote Di Giacomo. Even the water that’s used to quench the flames can make things worse, causing fossils to swell and crack, dissolving adhesives, ruining labels even further, and stimulating the growth of mold.

The burned building housed skeletons of several dinosaurs, including Maxakalisaurus, a 44-foot-long, armor-backed, long-necked titan, and Santanaraptor, a lithe predator that contained beautifully preserved soft tissues in its legs, down to individual muscle fibers. “That really stabs me in the heart as a scientist,” said John Hutchinson from the Royal Veterinary College. “I always wanted to go study that specimen. It could have been revelatory. Now that probably will be impossible for anyone.”

The museum was also home to an irreplaceable collection of pterosaurs — flying reptiles that soared over the dinosaurs’ heads. Brazil was something of a “heaven for pterosaurs,” and the discovery of spectacular creatures such as Tapejara, Tupandactylus, and Tupuxuara, with their marvelously complete skeletons and improbably ornate crests, helped to reshape our understanding of these animals. “We may have lost dozens of the best preserved pterosaurs in the world,” said the paleontologist Mark Witton. “There really is no collection comparable … We find them elsewhere in the world, but the quality of the Brazilian material is remarkable.”

Many of these presumably lost specimens were holotypes — the first, best, and most important examples of their kind. Every specimen is arguably irreplaceable, but holotypes are especially so. Losing them is like losing the avatar of an entire species. Some of these specimens have been drawn and described in the scientific literature, but that information is often patchy, which is why scientists frequently return to holotypes to study them with their own eyes.

I’m reminded of all the Middle Eastern artifacts housed in London — where they’re a good deal safer.

Call it moxie

Monday, August 27th, 2018

Gregory Clark finds that social status is strongly heritable, and Gregory Cochran runs with this:

Combined with a very high degree of assortative mating for the genetic factors behind this heritability, social mobility is surprisingly low. This happens without anyone particularly trying to make it this way — although it can happen less if people do try to stop it. An interesting example out of Plomin’s group: genetics explains “twice as much variance in educational attainment and occupational status in the post-Soviet era compared with the Soviet era.”

Plomin (or maybe more exactly his student Kaili Rimfeld) says that “The extent of genetic influence on these social outcomes can be viewed as an index of success in achieving meritocratic values of equality of opportunity by rewarding talent and hard work, which are to a large extent influenced by genetic factors, rather than rewarding environmentally driven privilege. ”

I don’t think that statement is entirely wrong. Estonia today is better run than it was in 1953, or 1990. But I am just as sure that it isn’t entirely right. We’re talking about genetic factors that tend to increase social status: intelligence helps, sure, but the people at the top, the people running the show are rarely the smartest — or the most decent, or the most effective. If we define ‘merit’ as a tendency to effective action that favors the best interest of society as a whole — surely what high-status people have more of is only loosely associated with ‘merit’. They have more of what works for themselves. Call it moxie.

So the ideal social policy would attempt — and succeed — at picking people for high-status job that were good at getting the job done — not just good at getting the job. Talent and hard work are influenced by genetic factors, but then so is being a back-stabbing, credit-stealing asshole.

I don’t think it would be easy: nature’s agin it. But it’s possible. I think. To a degree.

What should the Classical Greeks have done with Alcibiades, who surely had enough genetic moxie for a platoon? Answer: shoot the bastard. Him better off dead.

Relying on the priests’ potentially corrupt interpretation

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2018

Sociologist Francesca Tripodi takes an ethnographic approach to studying how partisan groups interact with media:

There is a narrative out there, floating around the executive offices at Google and Facebook, lurking in the halls of prominent publications like The New York Times or The Washington Post, and emerging from the mouths of most cable news pundits that “fake news” has ruined democracy. Tied up in this narrative is an accusation that supporters of President Trump were “tricked” into voting for him because Russian bots fed them a steady stream of misinformation. If only, the story goes, there was some way to reach Trump supporters — who, according to a study by the Oxford University Computational Propaganda Project, more frequently like and share “fake news.” Why don’t they do their research? some bemoan. Don’t they check the facts? The assumption: If only they could learn to think critically, accessing, analyzing, and evaluating a variety of sources, then they would be informed voters.

The thing is — they do, and they are. During 2017, I began regularly attending Republican events associated with two upper-middle class communities in the Southeastern United States: a women’s group and a college group. [...] At one point during the meeting, the Pastor turned from the Bible to the new tax reform bill, where he encouraged the group to apply the same “deep reading.” The group poured over the text together, helping each other decide what it really meant rather than relying on mainstream media coverage of the bill. In that moment, I realized that this community of Evangelical Christians were engaged in media literacy, but used a set of reading practices secular thinkers might be unfamiliar with. I’ve seen hundreds of Conservative Evangelicals apply the same critique they use for the Bible, arguably a postmodern method of unpacking a text, to mainstream media — favoring their own research on topics rather than trusting media authorities.

[...]

Distrust in translation of text also explains why the debate-watching parties I attended favored television stations without pundits, like C-SPAN. They did not need CNN to tell them who had won; they relied on Trump’s words to signify that the values they described to me as “faith, family, the constitution, and national security” would be protected. The style of media literacy that I witnessed among Conservative groups helps explain the strategy of several prominent Conservative media organizations. These organizations stress that liberal ideology is formed by disputable claims and emotional appeals instead of fact-based evidence.

[...]

Herein lies the problem with media literacy approaches. Based on my data, upper-middle class Conservatives did not vote for Trump because they were “fooled” into doing so by watching, reading, or listening to “fake news.” Rather, they consumed a great deal of information and found inconsistencies, not within the words of Trump himself, but rather within the way mainstream media “twisted his words” to fit a narrative they did not agree with. Not unlike their Protestant ancestors, doing so gave them authority over the text rather than relying on the priests’ (i.e. “the elites’”) potentially corrupt interpretation.

The historical inspiration for the novel was not, actually, the American Revolution

Sunday, August 19th, 2018

Travis Corcoran’s The Powers of the Earth recently won the Prometheus Award (for best libertarian sci-fi novel of the year), and he penned this acceptance speech:

I’m sorry I couldn’t be here tonight, but I live on a farm and it’s harvest season in the Granite State. Live free or die!

I first heard of the Prometheus Award a quarter century ago and put “writing a novel worthy of winning it” on my bucket list. It was an amazing honor to be nominated alongside so many other worthy authors, and I can still barely wrap my head around having won.

Eric S Raymond said it best: “Hard SF is the vital heart of the field”. The core of hard science fiction is libertarianism: “ornery and insistent individualism, veneration of the competent man, instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering”.

I agree; science fiction is best when it tells stories about free people using intelligence, skills and hard work to overcome challenges.

[...]

The Powers of the Earth is a novel about many things.

It’s a war story about ancaps, uplifted dogs, and AI fighting against government using combat robots, large guns, and kinetic energy weapons.

It’s an engineering story about space travel, open source software, tunnel boring machines, and fintech.

It’s a cyberpunk story about prediction markets, CNC guns, and illegal ROMs.

It’s a story about competent men who build machines, competent women who pilot spaceships, and competent dogs who write code.

It’s a novel that pays homage to Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which in turn pays homage to the American Revolution.

…But the historical inspiration for the novel was not, actually, the American Revolution. It’s the founding of the Icelandic Free State almost a thousand years earlier. The difference is subtle, but important.

The American Revolution was an act of secession: one part of a government declaring itself independent and co-equal, and continuing to act as a government. The establishment of the Icelandic Free State is different in two important particulars. First, it did not consist of people challenging an existing government, but of people physically leaving a region governed by a tyrant. And second, the men and women who expatriated themselves from the reign of Harald Fairhair did not create a government — they wanted to flee authoritarianism, not establish their own branch of it!

(The Kindle edition is currently 99 cents.)

When the west started losing wars

Saturday, August 18th, 2018

When the West took up the “White Man’s Burden” is when the west started losing wars:

It led the British general who was invading Afghanistan to believe he was doing Afghans a favor, and if he was sufficiently nice to them they would throw flowers at his troops. So he forbade his troops to take necessary measures for self defense, and, as a result, he and his troops died.

The white man’s burden was profoundly counterproductive to social cohesion, because it led to them sacrificing near (British officers and troops) for far (afghan officers and troops)

If it is a burden, then you proceed to conspicuously display your holiness by burden carrying — which is apt to mean making your troops carry burdens.

Before the British intervened in Afghanistan, the most recent news that most people had of it was records of Alexander’s army passing through two millenia ago.

The empire of the East India company was expanding, and the empire of the Russias was expanding, and it was inevitable that the two would meet. And so it came to pass that the Kings of Afghanistan encountered both, and played each against the other.

When the British became aware of Afghanistan, they interpreted its inhabitants as predominantly white or whitish – as descendants of Alexander’s troops and camp followers and/or descendants of Jews converted to Islam at swordpoint.

Afghanistan was, and arguably still is, an elective monarchy, and the fractious electors tended to fight each other and elect weak kings who could scarcely control their followers, and so it has been ever since Alexander’s troops lost Alexander.

Mister Mountstuart Elphinstone, in his account of is mission to Kabul in 1809, says he once urged upon a very intelligent old man of the tribe of Meankheile, the superiority of a quiet life under a powerful monarch, over the state of chaotic anarchy that so frequently prevailed.

The reply was “We are content with alarms, we are content with discord, we are content with blood, but we will never be content with a master!”

As Machiavelli observed, such places are easy to conquer, but hard to hold, and so it proved.

To conquer and hold such places, one must massacre, castrate, or enslave all of the ruling elite that seems fractious, which is pretty much all of them, and replace them with your own people, speaking your own language, and practicing your own customs, as the Normans did in England, and the French did in Algeria, starting 1830. The British of 1840, however, had no stomach for French methods, and were already starting to fall short of the population growth necessary for such methods.

So what the British could have done is paid the occasional visit to kill any king that they found obnoxious, kill his friends, family, his children, and leading supporters, install a replacement king, and leave. The replacement king would have found his throne shaky, because Afghan Kings have usually found their thrones shaky, but the British did not need to view that as their problem, knowing the solution to that problem to be drastic and extreme. If the throne has been shaky for two thousand years, it is apt to be difficult to stop it from rocking.

After a long period of disorderly violence, where brother savagely tortured brother to death, and all sorts of utterly horrifying crimes were committed, King Dost Mahomed Khan took power in Kabul in 1826, and proceeded to rule well, creating order, peace, and prosperity, and receiving near universal support from the fractious and quarreling clans of Afghanistan.

The only tax under his rule was a tariff of one fortieth on goods entering and leaving the country. This and the Jizya poll tax are the only taxes allowed by the Koran, at least as Islamic law is interpreted in this rebellious country which has historically been disinclined to pay taxes, and because this tax was actually paid, it brought him unprecedented revenues. On paying this tax “the merchant may travel without guard or protection from one border to the other, an unheard of circumstance”

However he did not rule Herat, which was controlled by one of his enemies, who been King before and had ambitions to be King again. He therefore offered Herat to the Shah of Persia in return for the Shah’s support against another of his enemies, Runjeet Singh. He was probably scarcely aware that Runjeet Singh was allied to the British, and the Shah was allied to the Tsar of all the Russias.

Notice that this deal was remarkably tight fisted, as was infamously typical of deals made by Dost Mahomed Khan. He would give the Persians that which he did not possess, in return for them taking care of one of his enemies and helping him against another.

The British East India Company, however, saw this as Afghanistan moving into Russian empire, though I am pretty sure that neither the Shah of Persia nor the King of Aghanistan thought they were part of anyone’s empire.

So Russia and the East India Company sent ambassadors to the King of Afghanistan, who held a bidding contest asking which of them could best protect him against Runjeet Singh. He then duplicitously accepted both bids from both empires, which was a little too clever by half, though absolutely typical of the deals he made with his neighbors.

Dost Mahomed Khan was a very clever king, but double crossing the East India Company was never very clever at all. No one ever got ahead double crossing the East India Company. It is like borrowing money from the Mafia and forgetting to pay them back.

Russia and England then agreed to not get overly agitated over the doings of unreliable and duplicitous proxies that they could scarcely control – which agreement the East India Company took as permission to hold a gun to the head of the Shah of Persia. The East India company seized control of the Persian Gulf, an implicit threat to invade if the Shah intervened in Afghanistan to protect Dost Mahomed Khan. It then let Runjeet Singh off the leash, and promised to support his invasion of Afghanistan.

So far, so sane. Someone double crosses you, then you make an horrible example of him, and no one will do it again. Then get out, and whoever rules in Afghanistan, if anyone does manage to rule, will refrain from pissing you off a second time.

The British decided to give a large part of Afghanistan to Runjeet Singh, and install Shah Shoudjah-ool-Moolk, a Kinglet with somewhat plausible pretensions to the Afghan throne, in place of Dost Mahomet Khan.

Up to this point everything the East India Company is doing is sane, honorable, competent, just, and wonderfully eighteenth century.

Unfortunately, it is the nineteenth century. And the nineteenth century is when the rot set in.

His Majesty Shah Shoudjah-ool-Moolk will enter Afghanistan, surrounded by his own troops, and will be supported against foreign interference, and factious opposition, by the British Army. The Governor-general confidently hopes, that the Shah will be speedily replaced on his throne by his own subjects and adherents, and that the independence and integrity of Afghanistan established, the British army will be withdrawn. The Governor-general has been led to these acts by the duty which is imposed upon him, of providing for the security of the possessions of the British crown, but he rejoices, that, in the discharge of this duty, he will be enabled to assist in restoring the union and prosperity of the Afghan people.

So: The English tell themselves and each other: We not smacking Afghans against a wall to teach them not to play games with the East India Company. On the contrary, we are doing them a favor. A really big favor. Because we love everyone. We even love total strangers in far away places very different from ourselves. We are defending the independence of Afghanistan by removing the strongest King it has had in centuries and installing our puppet, and defending its integrity by arranging for invasion, conquest, rape and pillage by its ancient enemies the Sikhs, in particular Runjeet Singh. Because we love far away strangers who speak a language different from our own and live in places we cannot find on the map. We just love them to pieces. And when we invade, we will doubtless be greeted by people throwing flowers at us.

You might ask who would believe such guff? Obviously not the Afghans, who are being smacked against the wall. Obviously not the Russians. Obviously not the Persians. Obviously not the British troops who are apt to notice they are not being pelted with flowers.

The answer is, the commanding officer believed this guff. And not long thereafter, he and his troops died of it, the first great defeat of British colonialism. And, of course, the same causes are today leading to our current defeat in Afghanistan.

The commanding officer of the British expedition made a long series of horrifyingly evil and stupid decisions, which decisions only made sense if he was doing the Afghans a big favor, if the Afghans were likely to appreciate the big favor he was doing them, and his troops were being pelted with flowers, or Afghans were likely to start pelting them with flowers real soon now. The East India company was no stranger to evil acts, being in the business of piracy, brigandry, conquest, and extortion, but people tend to forgive evil acts that lead to success, prosperity, good roads, safe roads, and strong government. These evil acts, the evil acts committed by the British expedition to Afghanistan, are long remembered because they led to failure, defeat, lawlessness, disorder, and weak government.

As a result, he, his men, and their camp followers, were all killed.

His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

The newish Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie (which is on HBO Now through the end of the month) didn’t catch my fancy, but the audiobook (narrated by Stephen Fry) did, and this prescient passage caught my attention:

The President in particular is very much a figurehead — he wields no real power whatsoever. He is apparently chosen by the government, but the qualities he is required to display are not those of leadership but those of finely judged outrage. For this reason the President is always a controversial choice, always an infuriating but fascinating character. His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it. On those criteria Zaphod Beeblebrox is one of the most successful Presidents the Galaxy has ever had — he has already spent two of his ten presidential years in prison for fraud.

Has the United States now arrived at the brink of a veritable civil war?

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

How, when, and why, Victor Davis Hanson asks, has the United States now arrived at the brink of a veritable civil war?

Globalization

Globalization had an unfortunate effect of undermining national unity. It created new iconic billionaires in high tech and finance, and their subsidiaries of coastal elites, while hollowing out the muscular jobs largely in the American interior.

Ideologies and apologies accumulated to justify the new divide. In a reversal of cause and effect, losers, crazies, clingers, American “East Germans,” and deplorables themselves were blamed for driving industries out of their neighborhoods (as if the characters out of Duck Dynasty or Ax Men turned off potential employers). Or, more charitably to the elites, the muscular classes were too racist, xenophobic, or dense to get with the globalist agenda, and deserved the ostracism and isolation they suffered from the new “world is flat” community. London and New York shared far more cultural affinities than did New York and Salt Lake City.

Meanwhile, the naturally progressive, more enlightened, and certainly cooler and hipper transcended their parents’ parochialism and therefore plugged in properly to the global project. And they felt that they were rightly compensated for both their talent and their ideological commitment to building a better post-American, globalized world.

One cultural artifact was that as our techies and financiers became rich, as did those who engaged in electric paper across time and space (lawyers, academics, insurers, investors, bankers, bureaucratic managers), the value of muscularity and the trades was deprecated. That was a strange development. After all, prestige cars, kitchen upgrades, gentrified home remodels, and niche food were never more in demand by the new elite. But who exactly laid the tile, put the engine inside the cars, grew the arugula, or put slate on the new hip roof?

In this same era, a series of global financial shocks, from the dot-com bust to the more radical 2008 near–financial meltdown, reflected a radical ongoing restructuring in American middle-class life, characterized by stagnant net income, family disintegration, and eroding consumer confidence. No longer were youth so ready to marry in their early twenties, buy a home, and raise a family of four or five. Compensatory ideology made the necessary adjustments to explain the economic doldrums and began to characterize what was impossible first as undesirable and later as near toxic. Pajama Boy sipping hot chocolate in his jammies, and the government-subsidized Life of Julia profile, became our new American Gothic.

High Tech

The mass production of cheap consumer goods, most assembled abroad, redefined wealth or, rather, disguised poverty. Suddenly the lower middle classes and the poor had in their palms the telecommunications power of the Pentagon of the 1970s, the computing force of IBM in the 1980s, and the entertainment diversity of the rich of the 1990s. They could purchase big screens for a fraction of what their grandparents paid for black-and-white televisions and with a computer be entertained just as well cocooning in their basement as by going out to a concert, movie, or football game.

The Campus

Higher education surely helped split the country in two. In the 1980s, the universities embraced two antithetical agendas, both costly and reliant on borrowed money. On the one hand, campuses competed for scarcer students by styling themselves as Club Med–type resorts with costly upscale dorms, tony student-union centers, lavish gyms, and an array of in loco parentis social services. The net effect was to make colleges responsible not so much for education, but more for shielding now-fragile youth from the supposed reactionary forces that would buffet them after graduation.

An entire generation of students left college with record debt, mostly ignorant of the skills necessary to read, write, and argue effectively, lacking a general body of shared knowledge — and angry. They were often arrogant in their determination to actualize the ideologies of their professors in the real world. A generation ignorant, arrogant, and poor is a prescription for social volatility.

Illegal Immigration

Immigration was recalibrated hand-in-glove by progressives who wanted a new demographic to vote for leftist politicians and by Chamber of Commerce conservatives who wished an unlimited pool of cheap unskilled labor. The result was waves of illegal, non-diverse immigrants who arrived at precisely the moment when the old melting pot was under cultural assault.

The Obama Project

We forget especially the role of Barack Obama. He ran as a Biden Democrat renouncing gay marriage, saying, “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage.” Then he “evolved” on the question and created a climate in which to agree with this position could get one fired. He promised to close the border and reduce illegal immigration: “We will try to do more to speed the deportation of illegal aliens who are arrested for crimes, to better identify illegal aliens in the workplace. We are a nation of immigrants. But we are also a nation of laws.” Then he institutionalized the idea that to agree with that now-abandoned agenda was a career-ender.

Read the whole thing. (I edited down each point.)

Peterson comes across as pompous, self-absorbed, and not very self-aware

Tuesday, August 14th, 2018

Like many folks recently, Robin Hanson decided to learn more about Jordan Peterson, so he read Maps of Meaning:

He doesn’t offer readers any degree of certainty in his claims, nor distinguish in which claims he’s more confident. He doesn’t say how widely others agree with him, he doesn’t mention any competing accounts to his own, and he doesn’t consider examples that might go against his account. He seems to presume that the common underlying structures of past cultures embody great wisdom for human behavior today, yet he doesn’t argue for that explicitly, he doesn’t consider any other forces that might shape such structures, and he doesn’t consider how fast their relevance declines as the world changes. The book isn’t easy to read, with overly long and obscure words, and way too much repetition. He shouldn’t have used his own voice for his audiobook.

In sum, Peterson comes across as pompous, self-absorbed, and not very self-aware. But on the one key criteria by which such a book should most be judged, I have to give it to him: the book offers insight. The first third of the book felt solid, almost self-evident: yes such structures make sense and do underlie many cultural patterns. From then on the book slowly became more speculative, until at the end I was less nodding and more rolling my eyes. Not that most things he said even then were obviously wrong, just that it felt too hard to tell if they were right. (And alas, I have no idea how original is this book’s insight.)

Hanson shares one of his own insights that he had while reading the book:

It occurs to me that this [evolvability] is also an advantage of traditional ways of encoding cultural values. An explicit formal encoding of values, such as found in modern legal codes, is far less redundant. Most random changes to such an abstract formal encoding create big bad changes to behavior. But when values are encoded in many stories, histories, rituals, etc., a change to any one of them needn’t much change overall behavior. So the genotype can drift until it is near a one-step change to a better phenotype. This allows culture to evolve more incrementally, and avoid local maxima.

Implicit culture seems more evolvable, at least to the extent slow evolution is acceptable. We today are changing culture quite rapidly, and often based on pretty abstract and explicit arguments. We should worry more about getting stuck in local maxima.

Robertson’s The Last Utopians is instructive and touching, if sometimes inadvertently funny

Monday, August 13th, 2018

Michael Robertson’s The Last Utopians: Four Late Nineteenth-Century Visionaries and Their Legacy is instructive and touching, Adam Gopnik says, if sometimes inadvertently funny:

The instructive parts rise from Robertson’s evocation and analysis of a series of authors who aren’t likely to be well known to American readers, even those of a radical turn of mind. All four wrote books and imagined ideal societies with far more of an effect on their time than we now remember. The touching parts flow from the quixotic and earnest imaginations of his heroes and heroine: the pundit Edward Bellamy, the designer William Morris, the pioneering gay writer Edward Carpenter, and the feminist social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. His utopians showed enormous courage in imagining and, to one degree or another, trying to create new worlds against the grain of the one they had inherited. They made blueprints of a better place, detailed right down to the wallpaper, and a pleasing aura of pious intent rises from these pages.

The comedy, which is inadvertent, springs from Robertson’s absence of common sense about these utopian projects, pious intent being very different from pragmatic achievement. Hugely sympathetic to his subjects, he discovers again and again as he inspects their projects that, for all the commendable bits that anticipate exactly the kinds of thing we like now, there are disagreeable bits right alongside, of exactly the kinds that we don’t like now. The utopian feminists are also eugenicists and anti-Semites; the men who dream of a perfect world where same-sex attraction is privileged also unconsciously mimic the hierarchy of patriarchy, putting effeminate or cross-dressing “Uranians” at the bottom of their ladder. The socialists are also sexists, and the far-seeing anarchists are also muddle-headed, mixed-up mystics.

The sensible lesson one might draw from this is that the human condition is one in which the distribution of bad and good is forever in flux, and so any blueprint of perfection is doomed to failure. Instead, Robertson assumes that if we can just add to the utopian visions of 1918 the progressive pieties of 2018 — if we reform their gender essentialism and their implicit hierarchism and several other nasty isms — then we will at last arrive at the right utopia.

Read the whole thing.

Organisation is suppression

Sunday, August 12th, 2018

Nick Land argues that organisation is suppression in a 1997 Wired UK interview:

According to Dr. Nick Land, lecturer in Continental Philosophy at the University of Warwick (a title that he hates), pretty much everything the Western tradition has come up with in the way of thinking about itself and the world around it is not only wrong but bad. Using the work of French writers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari as a jumping off point, Land substitutes a vision of a world of flux forever constructing and reconstructing itself via the operations of countless “machinic processes” for the models supplied by the linear, rationalist thought of the classical, modernist and postmodernist traditions. He draws parallels between the processes of late twentieth century capitalism, fascism, and schizophrenia, and strongly resists attempts to categorise his work, ridiculing the notion that there is even such a thing as “philosophy”. He has no time for the academic consensus that you have to produce a turgid tome every two years to prove that you are “serious”. At present, his favoured medium is multimedia performance, and he works closely with arts collective Orphan Drift.

James Flint: Why is it that much of the content on the Internet, this supposedly amazingly democratic, anarchic forum, is becoming dull and corporate and organised?

Nick Land: Your question suggests that there’s some pre-existing social pool of liberatory, revolutionary, emancipatory creative potential that could be expected to spontaneously express itself as soon as it had an opportunity to do so. But there is no such intrinsic power of innovation latent in the human organism that’s just waiting to bounce out onto the web. So the question really is what are the assemblages that are emerging? And correspondingly to what extent are distributed systems becoming operative as such?

JF: So how do systems which are initially freeform and distributed give way to centralised power structures?

NL: You have to understand that organisation involves subordinating low level units to some higher level functional program. In the most extreme cases, like in biological organisms, every cell is defunctionalised, turned off, except for that one specialised function that it is allocated by the organic totality. And hence the preponderant part of its potential is deactivated in the interests of some higher level unity. That’s why the more organised things get, the less interesting their behaviour becomes — “interesting” simply meaning here how freely they explore a range of possible behaviours, or how “nomadic” they are.

JF: I take it from that that you are not as keen on the idea of “self organsiation” as some thinkers.

NL: Organisation is suppression. It’s more accurate to say that systems which avoid self-organisation whilst maintaining trajectories of productive innovation end up parasitically inhabited by organisms of all kinds, whether those organism are biological organisms, corporations or state systems. The history of life on this planet right through to Microsoft is of the successive suppression of distributed, innovated systems.

JF: Can you give me an example?

NL: Well, first of all one has autocatalytic chemical systems that are subject to code control by RNA. When RNA begins to complicate enough to start exhibiting various kinds of lateral interference and experimental deviations, it becomes overcoded by DNA. The absolute crucial event in the whole history of the planet is the point at which the earth’s bacterial life system — which is very loosely code controlled, comparatively — is subjected to exterminatory gassing by oxygen-emitting, massively highly structured securo-maniac metazoan organisms. Many of the bacteria disappear except insofar as they are captured as productive subcomponents of highly organised, nucleated, concentrational systems which are now what dominate all life on the planet and have done for five hundred million years.

JF: So how would you interpret the classical picture of evolution as a tree-like structure?

NL: The bacterial net is successively suppressed by levels of organisation, tiers of control that have a tree-like structure. But that tree-like structure is not at all inherent, it’s actually produced by organisation. It’s incredibly similar to the relation between corporations and markets, in the sense that markets are potentially open ended, distributed transaction systems which are subjected to regularisation, hierarchical structuralisation, specialisation and concentration by the corporate structures that superimpose themselves upon them.

JF: Might the widespread use of computers and the net challenge these structures?

NL: The thing about the potentialities of massively distributed computation capacity is that they disperse productive potential. And there’s a certain sense in which the personal computer introduces a fundamental break in the traditional structure of investment by being simultaneously a piece of consumer electronics and a piece of productive apparatus. But although this is the case, the old structures are being artificially maintained.

JF: How?

NL: Buying a personal computer is treated as productive investment if it is done by a corporate entity and as a piece of personal consumption if it is done by dis-integrated [sic] consumers. And presumably this kind of trompe d’oeil is getting results, because the intersection between software, broadcast media and telecommunications is at the moment in an absolute orgiastic state of capital concentration. And clearly the key actors in this sector think that their strategies are based upon some viable avenue of continued advantage — a continuation of the modernist situation of economies of scale, if you like. Their picture is clearly not one of disintegration into small scale horizontal agents.

JF: But can’t the net itself help us overcome these illusions, through increasingly universal access to knowledge and communication?

NL: Certainly the great potential in the technical infrastructure of the net is the telecoms base rather than the broadcasting base. This is not a very original thought, but nevertheless it seems of crucial importance. Capitalist and state organisations have an absolutely immense investment in disabling the telecoms dynamics of the forthcoming digital media system. But that doesn’t mean that much has yet been done that is particularly exciting with this telecoms infrastructure. The more of it the better, the more that you have a multi-switched high bandwidth communications oriented digital system rather than a one to many broadcast oriented, media-production-media-consumption oriented system, the more chance there is of actually eliciting innovative behaviour out of innovative systems. But I’d be very cynical with regard to the extent to which we have seen any of that yet.

Extraordinarily pessimistic, and yet still extraordinarily motivational

Saturday, August 11th, 2018

Peter Thiel speaks to Die Weltwoche, in English — after beginning the conversation in German with an American accent:

At the moment, Silicon Valley still looks all-powerful.

The big question is: Will the future of the computer age be decentralized or centralized? Back in the 60s, you had this Star Trek idea of an IBM computer running a planet for thousands of years, where people were happy but unfree. Today, again we are thinking that it is going to be centralized: Big companies, big governments, surveillance states like China. When we started Paypal in 1999, it was exactly the opposite: This vision of a libertarian, anarchistic internet. History tells me that the pendulum has swung back and forth. So, today I would bet on decentralization and on more privacy. I don’t think we are at the end of history and it’s just going to end in the world surveillance state.

What has become the problem with Silicon Valley?

One of the paradoxes of Silicon Valley is that this internet technology revolution is supposed to get rid of the tyranny of place and geography. And yet, it was all happening in one place. There is, however, always a tipping point with network effects. At the beginning, they are very positive, but at some point they can become negative. In economic terms, they become negative when the costs get too high. If you have to pay 2000 dollars a month for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, maybe that is a sign of the boom. But when it is 4000 dollars a month – with a city government where the police don’t work, the roads don’t work, the schools don’t work – 4000 dollars is just a very high tax, in effect. There is also a cultural component: At one point, the wisdom of crowds tips into the madness of crowds – and you end up with a sort of conformity, lemming-like behavior. It actually becomes a somewhat less creative place.

You label yourself a “contrarian”. How did you become one? How does one become a contrarian?

It is a label that has been given to me, not one that I give normally to myself. I don’t think a contrarian per se is the right thing to be. A pure contrarian just attaches a minus sign to whatever the crowd thinks. I don’t think it should be as simple as that. What I think is important for people is to try to think very hard for oneself. But yes, I do deeply mistrust all these kinds of almost hypnotic mass and crowd phenomena and I think they happen to a disturbing degree.

Why do they happen in a supposedly enlightened society?

The advanced technological civilization of the early 21st century is a complicated world where it is not possible for anybody to think through everything for themselves. You cannot be a polymath in quite the way people were in the 18th century enlightenments. You cannot be like Goethe. So there is some need to listen to experts, to defer to other people. And then, there is always the danger of that going too far and people not thinking critically. This happens in spades in Silicon Valley. There is certainly something about it that made it very prone to the dotcom bubble in the nineties or to the cleantech bubble in the last decade.

Tell us about how your support for Donald Trump for president of the United States was received in the Silicon Valley.

That was quite striking. My support for Donald Trump was, on some level, the least contrarian thing I have ever done. If it is half the country, it cannot be that contrarian. And yet, in the Silicon Valley context it has felt extraordinarily contrarian. It is not that politics is the most important thing. I think there are many things that are much more important than politics: Science is more important, technology is more important, philosophy, religion… We normally think that political correctness is literally about politics. But politics is sort of a natural place to start. If you cannot even have differences of opinion in politics, that’s a sign that things are very unhealthy.

What was unique about the Trump campaign?

Republican candidates have always been way too glibly optimistic about everything. I’ve thought for many years that it was critical for the Republicans to somehow run a more pessimistic candidate just because that was a more honest description of what was going on. It is very hard to know how to do that because if you are too pessimistic, you demotivate people: If everything is just going down the drain, no point even voting for me. Somehow, the genius of Trump was that it was extraordinarily pessimistic, and yet still extraordinarily motivational. The slogan “Make America Great Again”, the most pessimistic slogan of any presidential candidate in a hundred years: The country used to be great, it is no longer great. That is a shocking, shocking statement!

Another issue that is debated very controversially is Trump’s trade policy. People are shocked by his imposition of tariffs.

At the center of this is the question with China. The US exports something like 100 bn a year to China, we import 475 bn. What’s extraordinary, is that if we had a globalizing world, we would actually expect the reverse to hold: you would expect the US to have trade surpluses with China and current account surpluses because we would expect that there is a higher return in China because it is a faster growing country than the US. This is what it looked, let’s say, in 1900, when Great Britain had a trade surplus of 2 percent and a current account surplus of 4 percent of GDP. And the extra capital was invested in Argentinean railroads or Russian bonds.

The fact that the US does not have a surplus, that actually it has a massive deficit, tells you that something is completely wrong with the standard globalization picture that we have. It is sort of like: Chinese peasants are saving money and it is flowing uphill into low-return investments in the US and bonds in Europe with negative interest rates. There is something completely crazy about that dynamic.

What’s your view on Switzerland?

Switzerland is an extraordinarily well functioning country. I don’t like the neighborhood it is in, but it is really remarkable. If you compare Switzerland with Austria or Scandinavia, human capital is equally good but the per capita income in Switzerland is 50 to 100 percent higher. It does tell you that there is something that people are doing that is dramatically better. The question is whether its cities are big enough. If you are a talented young person: Do you move to Geneva or do you move to London? It was good if Switzerland had a somewhat better answer to that sort of question. But as I stated at the beginning, I think the technology will be more decentralized and so I think what has been a limitation for Switzerland will be much less going forward.

Are you jealous that you didn’t invent Bitcoin?

It is hard to be jealous of something that you weren’t remotely capable of doing. I have to acknowledge I would never come up with anything like that. So I can’t even be jealous. I was very interested in all these virtual currencies in the late 90s. We started Paypal thinking about that, but at the end it was a payment system for existing fiat money. Somehow, that experience weirdly primed me to underestimate Bitcoin early on. It was on the radar in 2011 and there were people telling me I should buy it, and we didn’t really get involved until 2014. When you have experiences and you learn things, it is often very dangerous and my experience in the late 90s was that cryptocurrencies didn’t work. And it was largely correct, but you always have to be open to think about it.

(Those are just some of the questions and answers.)

Why does tech have so many political problems?

Monday, August 6th, 2018

Why does tech have so many political problems? Tyler Cowen suggests some reasons:

  • Most tech leaders aren’t especially personable. Instead, they’re quirky introverts. Or worse.
  • Most tech leaders don’t care much about the usual policy issues. They care about AI, self-driving cars, and space travel, none of which translate into positive political influence.
  • Tech leaders are idealistic and don’t intuitively understand the grubby workings of WDC.
  • People who could be “managers” in tech policy areas (for instance, they understand tech, are good at coalition building, etc.) will probably be pulled into a more lucrative area of tech. Therefore there is an acute talent shortage in tech policy areas.
  • The Robespierrean social justice terror blowing through Silicon Valley occupies most of tech leaders’ “political” mental energy. It is hard to find time to focus on more concrete policy issues.
  • By nature, tech leaders are disagreeable iconoclasts (with individualistic and believe it or not sometimes megalomaniacal tendencies). That makes them bad at uniting as a coalition.
  • The industry is so successful that it’s not very popular among the rest of U.S. companies and it lacks allies. (90%+ of S&P 500 market cap appreciation this year has been driven by tech.) Many other parts of corporate America see tech as a major threat.

What would the decline of America look like?

Tuesday, July 31st, 2018

So, Tyler Cowen asks, what would the decline of America look like?

In recent years, the underlying rate of productivity growth often has been about 1 percent, and rates of economic growth are not even half of what they used to be. Meanwhile, America will have to increase taxes or reduce spending by about $2,200 per taxpayer per year to keep the national debt-to-GDP ratio from rising ever higher, and that figure predates the Trump tax cuts. To fund that shortfall, the U.S. will cut back on infrastructure maintenance. At least one-third of this country will end up looking like — forgive the colloquial phrase — “a dump.” The racial wealth gap will not be narrowed.

Aging and entitlements will force the president, whether Democratic or Republican, to look for a mix of spending cuts and tax increases. The spending cuts will diminish the range of the military, and the tax hikes will ensure that economic growth doesn’t pick up. The integrity of Medicare and Social Security will be (mostly) protected, but the U.S. will lose the ability to project power around the globe.

Over a period of less than five years, China will retake Taiwan and also bring much of East and Southeast Asia into a much tighter sphere of influence. Turkey and Saudi Arabia will build nuclear weapons and become dominant players in their regions. Russia will continue to nibble at the borders of neighboring states, including Latvia and Estonia, and NATO will lose its credibility, except for a few bilateral relationships, such as with the U.K. Parts of Eastern Europe will return to fascism. NAFTA will exist on paper, but it will be under perpetual renegotiation and hemispheric relations will fray.

One area of major technological advance will be drugs, and I don’t mean beneficial pharmaceuticals. The opioid crisis eventually will subside, but new waves of ever more powerful addictive substances will arise. Easy home lab production will make interdiction at the border fruitless. More than 80,000 Americans already die from alcohol every year, and more than 60,000 from drug overdoses. Total losses from addiction will rise.

Other technologies will indeed provide a bounty, but not all of it will be positive. Artificial intelligence and facial and gait surveillance will lead to unprecedented invasions of privacy, causing another 1 or 2 percent of Americans to decide to “live off the grid.” The impact of assassin drones will be curbed — by filling the skies with police drones. Public crimes will plummet, but public spaces in major cities will have a depressing sameness, due to the near-total absence of spontaneous behavior. Advances in recording technologies will make most conversations in public, and many in private, remarkably bland.

Driverless cars will be “the next big thing,” but they’ll make roads more crowded. The elderly will insist on their driverless car rights, and defeat economists’ proposals for new congestion charges. Americans will spend another hour a day in their cars, although texting and watching TV, rather than driving.

The very worst fears about climate change won’t come true. But a nagging succession of storms, plus required adjustments along the coasts to accommodate a rise in sea level, will eat up about 0.5 percent worth of economic growth. So when America does occasionally approach 3 percent growth, in terms of living standards it may feel more like 2 percent.

One of his “petty gripes” looks familiar:

Due to the limited selection on Netflix streaming, fewer and fewer people will watch the great movies of the past, thereby neutering the durability of the 20th century’s greatest art form. And live performances of classical music — another of the West’s most significant and beautiful achievements — will cease to be regular in all but a few major U.S. cities.