Friday, May 01, 2015

Hooray, hooray, it՚s the first of May

It՚s the special day of the year where we honor international labor solidarity. I hereby acknowledge whatever it is I have in common with all the other people in the world who must work for a living. That՚s most of us, I guess, excluding those who have made or inherited fuck-you money. May Day is about the dream that the more lowly working stiffs, who know they will never have that degree of freedom, will at least have a small space in which they can say fuck you to those they are obligated to serve. No wonder it coincides with a pagan festival.
At my age I can՚t work up much hatred for capitalism any more. Not only am I too bought into the system, I am deeply unimpressed by all the proposed alternatives and most of the people who advocate them. Yes, there՚s something horrible about it, all the more so when you consider how capable it is of putting on a friendly face. It may be destroying the planet, it may be converting human culture into a mindless bland mass market nothing. But it՚s also feeding billions of people and producing actual life-enhancing innovations, so there՚s that. Still, just for a day, I would like to say a hearty fuck you to our economic system and all it embodies. Just for a day, then I will go back to work, and go back to giving money, the people who wield its power, and the bourgeoise virtues in general the respect they deserve.

I՚ve been part of a non-money-based world at Burning Man, but Burning Man, like May Day, lives in a special zone where dreamlike alternatives come temporarily into reality and then vanish once more into the mists. They leave us tantalized with possibility and discouraged at the default world we actually inhabit. I have a weird relationship with these sorts of collective dreams – both deeply skeptical and inexorably attracted. I think of myself as too smart or too critical to embrace these childish fantasies, but I՚m not so smart that I can live without dreams.

The dream of the labor movement and the left seems old and tired at this point. It used to offer the hope of a better world, not just materially better, but spiritually better – that is the point of solidarity, that very religious-sounding bedrock concept of leftist thought. A certain way of being among your fellow human beings – recognizing that we are all (in some sense, some of the time) working together for the same things. There՚s really nothing better than that feeling, which of course is not the exclusive property of leftist movements.

In fact the capitalists of Silicon Valley are experts at generating this feeling (or a simulacrum of it) among their employees, with team-building exercises, shared meals, and other efforts to create communal feelings. Capitalism excels in giving people what they want, and apparently people very much want something that feels like socialism.

Most people don't seem to have any problem blending this community spirit with the presence of power, money, hierarchy, and authority, but I do, and it may be one of the roots of my general difficulty with the corporate world. Oh I will take fake solidarity when I can get it, it's better than nothing, but I'll be damned if I'll confuse it with the real thing.

Or maybe working at faking solidarity is the real job we all have, maybe our greatest obligation is to do this so well that it becomes effectively real.

Previous May Day posts

Monday, March 16, 2015

Mr. Burns

I caught a performance of Mr. Burns yesterday, and I would highly recommend it except that I think that was the last of its run in San Francisco. This was a meta enough production to satisfy any nerd — a play about the nature of memory and narrative, whose own story is about survivors of a somewhat unspecific apocalypse trying to keep their lives together by remembering and re-enacting old episodes of The Simpsons.

It occurred to me that Mr. Burns is doing for the future what Art Spiegelman's Maus did for the past. That is, both grapple with issues that are too horrible to contemplate directly by going at them through an ostensibly non-serious medium.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Against Pi Day

I don՚t want to poop on anybody՚s celebration of Pi Day, but while pi itself is certainly something to be wondered at and celebrated, the fact that an arbitrarily numbered point on the human calendar aligns with the decimal approximate representation of something transcendental and timeless does not excite me in the least.

What I՚m saying is, we live in a universe where pi pops up everywhere, so every day (defined by a rotation of our pi-manifesting spherical planet) should be pi day.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

What's on my mind

Messing around with some computational language tools, I generated this list of words which are more frequent on this blog relative to a standard corpus (some misspellings removed), in order from most overused. Many of these are unsurprising, but I had no idea I used "cannot" more than is normal. Or "parasitical", which is more worrying.

cannot simpleminded parasitical excoriate delegitimize kvetching temperamentally treacly politcs cosmopolitans authoritarians twitter rightwingers inexpert constructivists constructionists entertainingly clathrate undesireable frenzies mystifies wastefulness repurpose gintis wobblies kunstler turmoils bukovsky bankrolls laitin smidgeon sociopaths scienceblogs cleavon oddsmaker vegetating reifying situationists doper yecs popularizer nobels cultish solidary arduino militarist prolixity congealing proft larded atran nixonian seatmate appeaser rationalists leftish libertarianism literalist materialist vitalism rejoinders schuon fusty facebook torahs arduously hugeness universalizing tinkerers factuality autoworkers parasitize rationalist dominionism physicalist incarnating idiocies axiomatically ferreted gourevitch glaringly symbiote averagely incisively shitheads skimped netzach appall metonymic onrush chokehold halldor churchy scampers starkest agentive dalliances emet mistimed ceasefires hallucinated reimagined overplaying bioethicist copleston disempower flippancy oversimplifies outrageousness indvidual ginned douchebags explicates plumbs mencius metaphysically schelling foregrounding polarizes outlives subtexts acquiesces nostrums undescribable malkuth marketeer analagous preeminently remediable flamers slipperiness bunraku proles burkean peaceniks materialists unaccountably athwart mcworld petraeus romanticizing unnamable huffpo ineffectually commonsensical interoperating empathizing wingnut supplicants hypostasis inchoate obama transhumanists fulminate affordance nonviolently geneological gashed mussed chuppah charnel felin reconstructionism verbalizing tegmark crabbed armys shalizi dehumanization hoohah vannevar copyable bungler unlikeliest preindustrial legitimated downscale fugs bilin slavering egomania naveh determinedly oligarchies chasten reappropriated bekki taleb bioethicists valdis ultraconservative wahabi straussian rewatch anthropomorphism ecstasies libertarians ruination exceptionalism vacillate overreach forthrightness informationally bushites rottenness biomorphic parceled twittering sorley parapsychological irreligious statists maddeningly selfing militarists bushite infuriates deconstructionist dallying harrows glutted worths misplacement engross jewishness hearkens girdled zombified prohibitionist braf sniggering positivists prostrating doomy schmaltzy yesod hewing philosophize doomsayers unconcern conflate jibes misappropriate convulse constructionist relabeled cavalierly mesmeric phantasms atrophied nattering reductionist personhood asocial placating incuding amorality incontestable weida greybeard inescapably scrabbling foreordained puthoff antiabortion commandeering iphone reinterpreting fudges minsky spluttering obsessional explicating rovian subdues ascription graeber counterargument plops

Now I'm playing the Burroughs-ish game of trying to find meaning in this shredded language. "physicalist incarnating idiocies axiomatically" sounds applicable to a number of discussions I've been having lately.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Martyrs and The Coordination of Sentiment


That Je Suis Charlie meme is a great example of the spontaneous political sacred – it declares a public communion with some genuine martyrs. I forwarded it around myself, but felt self-conscious about it. Not that I didn՚t feel like standing in solidarity with the murdered political satirists, but because it seemed that to post it on Facebook seemed to be in part bragging about it. If I had been in the city I might have joined in a rally, that would feel authentic, but doing it online is sort of like attending a church service by teleconference – inauthentic at best, sacriligious at worst.

Perhaps enough rationalist anti-politics memes have penetrated me that I am leery of moral posturing, in myself and others. Still, this seems like a pretty easy case. An act like this compels choosing a side, and there isn՚t much question about what side I or anybody I would care to share the planet with would find themselves on. Team Civilization is what Jon Stewart called it yesterday – and he used the occasion to assert that the American politicians he mocks aren՚t really his enemies. I՚m not so sure about that, they are killing us too, just more slowly. And they unleash many orders of magnitude of violence and death than a couple of Islamic terrorists. Still I admired his ability to find the right tone of horror and reconciliation and self-awareness needed to get back to the business of comedy.

You probably have a collection of confused emotional reactions to an event like this – a mix of anger, fear, hatred, distress. Perhaps you are angry at Muslims in general – that would be pretty natural, although disallowed by liberalism (It՚s also quite likely that that is exactly what the murderers were aiming for – sharpening the contradictions, firming up the boundaries, promoting conflict, acting as violence entrepeneurs). Maybe you are finding it difficult to maintain your liberal faith in the bright line between speech and violence. Or f you are a right-winger, you may subconsciousnly be welcoming the sharpened contradictions yourself, as it justifies your own miltancy, and maybe you feel a bit guilty about that. Or maybe your reaction is confused by the racist nature of some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, which included some pretty classic antisemitic caricatures that did double duty against Jews and Arabs.

Sacred rituals exist around things that are confusing, terrifying, too big to think about rationally – death and other absolutes. It՚s how people deal; at least it allows us to be confused together. So there is a guilty benefit for horrific events like the Charlie Hebdo murders or 9/11 or natural disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes. They bind society together simply by virtue of being too big and violent to ignore.

Like other sorts of rituals, I find this process weird and somewhat alien even as I allow myself to mostly be carried along with it.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Nerds vs Feminists

Scott Alexander has a 14Kword post (which he oddly couldn՚t manage to title) about nerds vs feminists and who is really oppressed. And it has close to 1000 comments! Of course it is passionate and funny and well-argued, and it not only demolishes the post by Amanda Marcotte that is its immediate target, it entirely demolishes her as a person, painting her as sort of mindless political harpy who is only too happy to take cheap shots at the expense of someone else՚s pain and openness, specifically, MIT professor and blogger Scott Aaronson՚s heartfelt description of how his attempts to reconcile what he thought of as feminist principles with his personal desires were so difficult that it drove him into near suicidal despair.

I haven՚t been able to make myself read the article to see if it deserves this treatment or not. Probably it does. But it saddens me to see manifested once again the animosity towards feminism and social justice that seems to be a feature of the rationalist universe. Because it seems like nerdism and feminism should be natural allies, or at least, that is how I experienced it in my own life.

Feminism became a public thing during my adolescence (in the mid 70s), and to me it was a breath of fresh air. Of course it was a much different time, it hadn՚t developed it՚s PC-thought-police side. To me, the message was that girls were not this insane alien other species but just another kind of person. It՚s hard to remember that era accurately but my impression was that feminism as an idea was liberating both to women and to me, as a young socially awkward person. Whatever else it was doing, it worked for me, it opened up possibilities that had been closed.

But that was a long time ago and feminism has changed, and nerddom seems to have changed as well. Both seem like more established things, distinct ideologies and factions. Feminism seems to have morphed from liberating idea into a crushing orthodoxy, at least as experienced by many younger people.

Being an old crusty person, I am no longer surprised to find myself doing standard old person things like viewing the younger generations as somehow deficient. But I can՚t help thinking that there is an awful lot of emotional coddling and whining going on these days. Being a nerd when I grew up was just as traumatic but I didn՚t write about it at length, I didn՚t share my feelings, I barreled through my problems, not out of some great strength of character but because I didn՚t have any other options. It was a tougher world and it produced a certain toughness which seems absent in later generations, who have had their psyches pampered and protected (of course the world of my parents was tougher yet, given that included the depression and WWII and fleeing Nazis).

God knows I am grateful that my children don՚t have to go through some of the crap I did. Bullying, for instance, was just an accepted thing when I was growing up, even though it means essentially letting young children live in a lawless violent anarchy where assault was accepted and commonplace. Now at least it is supposed to be controlled by the supervising authorities. I don՚t think being the victim of bullies as a child made me a better person, but it did mold my character in a certain way – the potential reality of violence is always a salient thing for me, and I know that I can survive it.

Protecting children from violence may be like protecting them from dirt -- seems like a good idea, but you end up with an untrained immune system. And the problems with feminism also seem like a sort of cognitive autoimmune disorder. You end up with people so fearful of their own capacity for aggression that they are unable to function.

So are the younger generations less tough because they՚ve been more protected? Who knows, but it sometimes seems that way, and I՚m conflating my own adolescent children with the grown adults who are having trouble with feminism. I want to say to both these groups – stop kvetching and man up. Although that is probably useless and offensive advice. Oh well, it՚s a tough world and everybody gets beaten up by it sooner or later.