Thursday, December 30, 2010

Blogyear in review

Continuing the tradition, here's a collection of some of the more substantial posts of the past year, awkwardly clustered into categories. Focusing on just one of those categories might be a good idea...but unlikely to happen. So I expect that my readers and I can look forward to yet another year of miscellaneous.

Hell in a Handbasket

(aka doom, doom, and more doom)
Collapse the Movie
The Ship is Sinking
Cheap Shit Means Dead Pigs
Dancing on the Edge
Bombs Bursting in Air
I'm Not Saying We Wouldn't Get Our Hair Mussed

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"A power so great, it can only be used for Good or Evil"

As I knew would happen, my earlier unfair review of Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants obligated me to read the thing and give it a real one. I have to say I wanted to pick a fight with this book, for reasons that are unclear to me. Partly it's because it is in some ways very close to my own point of view, yet so different in important respects, and I'm a People's-Front-Of-Judea type of guy. Partly it's that Kelly is selling grand visions, but he seems to be unable or unwilling to also adopt the equally important critical stance. But I was disappointed in my search for an argument, because this turns out to me an essentially religious book, and in my experience there's no point arguing with religion. Either you buy into the vision or you don't. So the subject of this book is not actually technology, but the nature of existence itself and where it is supposed to be going.

You'd think the story of technology would be a large enough subject in its own right, but Kelly's scope is so all-encompassingly vast that he has to devote the a good chunk of the book to a discussion of biological life. This is necessary because a key part of his argument is that life and technology are just different aspects of the same process. Evolution (or whatever you want to call it) may have started with chemistry and nucleic acids but is now working with electronics and silicon. In support of this argument, he compares the evolution of various technological forms with biological evolution (eg, the way variant forms of military helmets or trumpets can be arranged in phylogentic trees), and then elides the differences between them, in order to paint them as just different phases of some grander tendency of the universe to evolve towards complexity/goodness/whatever. Progress, in other words. The technium (Kelly's term for the whole sphere of technological development) is simply an extension of the biosphere, or both are manifestations of some underlying, more abstract tendency.

That's the first part of Kelly's thesis. The second is that the evolution of both life and technology is a strongly convergent process, meaning roughly that while evolution obviously involves large amounts of randomness and contingency, its general tendencies and ultimate destination is in some sense foreordained. It was inevitable that we'd evolve multicellularity, muscles, eyes, and computation, although the exact form may vary across the possible universes. Kelly labels this "ordained becoming" and I believe most of these ideas have their roots in the work of Simon Conway Morris, an evolutionist who (not coincidentally) also has a "theology of evolution" at the core of his thought.

Inventions and discoveries are crystals inherent in the technium, waiting to be manifested. There is nothing magical about these patters, nothing mystical about technology having a direction. All complex, adaptive systems...will exhibit emergent forms and inherent directions. (p 186)
Given the above points, the story becomes not so much "what technology wants" as where technology (and everything else) is inevitably heading. This may be a difference which may make no difference, just as it doesn't matter in some sense whether a sunflower follows the sun because it "wants" to or it has an innate tropism-generating mechanism. Calling the trajectory of technology a "want" suggests, though, that it might want something different, or that it can be induced to go somewhere else. The arguments Kelly advances suggest otherwise.

The third part of the book is devoted to those who think they can escape from technology (such as the Amish) or put a halt to its onslaught (such as the Unabomber). It's a bold choice to make Ted Kaczinsky the focus of a chapter, I thought. Kelly does a credible and fair job of presenting his viewpoint. But the (perhaps unintended) thrust of this is to paint anybody who hopes to argue with or resist the advancement of an autonomous, self-willed technium as a madman. There are many level-headed and sane critics of technology that could have been used as foils. In some ways Kaszinscky is Kelly's mirror-image: both are equally eager to totalize technology, to paint it as a unified and nearly unstoppable force.

The urge for self-preservation, self-extension, and self-growth is the state of any living thing...there comes a moment in the childhood of our biological offspring when their childish selfish nature confronts us, and we have ot acknowledge that they have their own agenda (sic)... Collectively we are at one of these moments with the technium...At a macroscale, the technium is following its inevitable progression. Yet at the microscale, volition rules. Our choice is to align ourselves with this direction, to expand choice and possibilities for everyone and everything, and to play out the details with grace and beauty. Or we can choose (unwisely, I believe) to resist (p187)

It's odd that more reasonable efforts to redirect technology are given short shrift, given that Kelly was an editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, which advanced the idea that you could repurpose and redirect technology for alternative purposes. I guess his later career at Wired has overridden that...but he does run a site called Cool Tools which is very close in spirit to the old WEC, so he hasn't abandoned that ethos (in fairness, Kelly does discuss his personal transition from low to high tech).

The fourth part of the book is an effort to characterize the nature of the inevitable progress of technology. "Technology wants what life wants" which is "increasing efficiency, increasing opportunity, increasing emergence, increasing complexity...increasing freedom, increasing mutualism increasing beauty... " (p 270). This is the point where things skidded off the road and into the gauzy, light-filled realm of heaven for me. I've been a technologist all my life, and while I certainly believe in the wonderful things it can do and the beauty it embody, I can't take such a rosy view. Technology is not just your iPhone and Facebook, it's hydrogen bombs, ecological disaster, and the constant radical undermining of human values. It's not just those either, of course, but to consider one side without the other can't be done if you are trying to get an honest picture of the technosphere. It's the same as with biological life, which for all its beauty has no particular interest in your personal well-being and contains many "wanters" that treat humans as so much raw material, from mountain lions to malaria parasites.

Kelly is not oblivious to the possible downsides of technology, of course. But when it comes time to tot up the good vs the bad, it comes down to this:

The message of the technium is that any choice is way better then no choice. That's why technology tends to tip the scales slightly toward the good, even though it produces so many compounds the good in the world because in addition to the direct good it brings, the arc of the technium keeps increasing choices, possibilities, freedom, and free will in the world, and that is an even greater good.
Argh, this is libertarian rot. A greater availability of choice is not always "good". Would we be better off if anyone could have the choice of obtaining RPGs or nuclear weapons at the local 7-11? More choices can make people overwhelmed and unhappy. And if we are being propelled irresistibly forward into some foreordained attractor, do we really have any choice at all?

Kelly is constantly revisiting the issue of whether technology makes us better people or not. I find this a ridiculous question, and it undercuts his own premise. We do not have the option of doing without technology, with all due respect to Amish refuseniks. As a civilization, a species, we've built ourselves a technological layer that we now live in and can't get rid of (unless we are prepared for an order-of-magnitude dieoff). The question of "is technology good or evil" is a stupid question, frankly. You can talk about a particular bit of technology and what its effects are and what human interests it serves or subverts, but to try to put a moral valence on technology as a whole is like a fish giving a lecture on "water: threat or savior"?

As before, I can't help but compare Kelly to Latour. Both start with what should be a fairly straightforward task of describing the processes of science and technology, but end up going off on wild metaphysical joyrides. The difference is that Latour has a political/sociological view, while Kelly's is primarily religious (not that Latour doesn't get into that now and then). Both are trying to locate agency somewhere other than in its traditional home of individual humans, but while Latour distributes it throughout the material world, Kelly seems to locate it in some transcendent heavenly omega point. That's why ultimately Latour seems to be more of a humanist -- the desires he talks about are human-scaled, even if they inhabit odd objects.

To summarize: this book is the product of a particular kind of vision, of a world that is hurtling despite itself towards a transcendently positive future of increasing complexity and capability. "Technology" is not the real subject, that just happens to be the current edge of the curve. It's an attractive vision, and certainly it's possible to see some of this in the world when approached from the right angle. Evolution and related processes do have a ratchet effect; the world is learning to do what it does better. That's great, but either this happens with human guidance or without it. If technology in truth can't be managed, then we don't really need to think about it, we can just play with our gadgets. If, on the other hand, technology can be shaped and guided by humans, then we need better ways to do just that. Dealing with climate change is the most obvious area where we need more control, not less. Getting transported into ecstasies by the technical sublime doesn't help. The reality of our technological world -- its glories and its disasters, its potentials and ptifalls -- has to be faced squarely. Trying to paint a moral valence on technology as a whole is a mistake; like the humans who propel it forward, it contains multitudes.

[[title courtesy of The Giant Rat of Sumatra by The Firesign Theater]]

Go tell the Spartans

In honor of the repeal of DADT, here's Bill Hicks:

Yes, it's a great thing that homosexuals now have the same opportunities to become cogs in a relentless machine of imperial conquest as the rest of us. A real step forward.

I am straight and so not really entitled to an opinion, but I think I preferred it when gays were transgressive rather than determined to be normal middle-class people with marriages and jobs, including jobs in the bureaucracy of violence and death. But I suppose nobody really wants to live as an outsider if they can avoid it; it is difficult and risky and you can't get health insurance. So gay people have fought for and largely won the right to be normal, which is good for them perhaps, but leaves society short of strangeness.

[[Update: Here is IOZ on the idea that gays and women in the miltary will somehow make that institution more warm and fuzzy:

The a vast metaphoric rape machine, a big hard thing shoving itself in where it isn't wanted. To waste time pondering how "feminine traits" like "intercultural dialogue" ... can be further incorporated to help "stabilize" the world's Afghanistans, so that we can teach their backward cultures what it would be like if they "privileged, remunerated and valorized the care and feeding of functional future citizens in the same way that [they] valorize soldiering," is to avoid the rather more pertinent question: what are we doing there in the first place?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Distracted from distraction by distraction

The weird thing is that this struck me as an excellent image of social media even before I read to the last line:
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.
T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Nightmares of Reason

Over at tggp's blog I was sucked into a fairly pointless discussion about the meaning of "technocrat". That led me to read this article about Robert McNamara, that portrayed his career as somehow paradigmatic of a certain generation of mangers, and did so in a much more sympathetic way than I am used to. (via)

I have a certain idea of McNamara in my head as some kind of monster of rationalism, a bloodless bureaucrat presiding over horrific violence and death without the slightest bit of human compassion softening his considerations. Sort of Eichmann-lite. From this article (and also from Errol Morris's film The Fog of War) he appears to be an altogether more appealing person, a tragic figure who simply was lead astray in his efforts to put his strengths into service. Those strengths were rationality, measurement, and goal-directed action. These talents worked pretty well for him in his career prior to the Kennedy administration, but utterly failed in government, when politics and conflict enter into the picture.

So was Vietnam "blundering efforts to do good", as McNamara would have it, or just another in a long line of evil imperialist actions, as the Chomskyite left would have it? I find myself caught between these two irreconcilable views. Can't it be be both? Can't McNamara be a good man who found himself unknowingly caught up in a bad system? Someone whose worldview left him blind to the effects of his own actions? Thinking along these lines leads to wondering about the nature of evil and if even Hitler was doing good by his own lights.

If McNamara's story is a tragedy of reason, the story of the left since the Vietnam era is a tragedy in the opposite direction. The war and the failure to put a stop to it led large segments of the cultural and political left to be suspicious of reason as such and to abandon it, for new age nostrums or smug deconstructionist pseudo-critique. Essentially, it prompted a new round of romantic reaction to the failures of the modern world, in this case represented by the button-downed rational managers of the postwar military-industrial complex.

In my own career I've been on the fringes of the artificial intelligence field, which had its origins in the same cold war rationalism that McNamara exemplified. The field has also suffered from the failings of narrow instrumental rationalism, which constricted the set of allowable models of intelligence to a very small and boring set. When I was in grad school I was loosely connected to a set of people trying to reform and break away from those limitations. Most of those people, myself included, instead drifted away from AI to pursue other areas (biology, sociology, user interface research, Buddhism...) I now find myself in closer contact with the old-fashioned kind of AI than I have been in years, and remembering why I never could be as enthusiastic about the field as I needed to be to work in it. It's not just the explicit military applications; it's an entire concept of what it means to be intelligent that is just so overwhelmingly wrong that it makes me want to scream. Yet the field chugs on, possibly even making some advances although it's hard to see what they are. The "peripheral" areas of AI, like robotics and vision, tend to make steady visible progress, but the more central areas like planning, reasoning and representation seem to be stuck, working on the same problems they were 20 or 30 years ago.

Monday, December 06, 2010

WikiLeaks and Open Government

I argue with my friend Amy Bruckman about the goodness of WikiLeaks on her blog. Basically she's taking the not unreasonable position that institutions need to be able to have a degree of privacy if they are to operate, and I'm saying, well, if your institution is up to no good, then it deserves to have its veil torn away. And the function of WikiLeaks, and the press more generally, is to provide that kind of a check to power.

I don't think there is an objective ethical solution to this (which she seems to be trying to provide). It's a battle of interests between the institutional insiders and outsiders.

On NPR I heard a guy from the Government Accountability Project criticize WikiLeaks for being irresponsible, and damaging their efforts to get better legal protections for responsible whistleblowers. That was a very good argument, I thought, although it still seems to highlight a division between "insiders" (in this case, lawyers who want to get good laws passed) and "outsiders" (the hacker/anarchist/whatevers of wikileaks). I am temperamentally sympathetic to outsiders, but I suppose more real change happens due to the boring activities of the more adult insiders.

Tom Slee is a guy who write critically of libertarianism and starry-eyed technology visionaries, and usually I agree with him, but I think his take on Open Government is overly negative. Here he's talking about the relationship between WikiLeaks and Open Gov, because apparently a lot of other people are, but this seems very confused. Open Gov is about making very ordinary government data and services public, like crime statistics or health code violations, with the idea that developers and others will create apps that help connect government to the citizenry in useful ways. I think this is a great idea, although with an associated hype bubble. But it's basically an apolitical idea, a technocratic vision that thinks the government should do basically what it does now, but more efficiently and with sexier interfaces than you typically associate with the DMV. Nobody in the Open Gov movement, as far as I know, expects the CIA or DoD to open up their operations to anybody with an iPhone. WikiLeaks is just operating at a very different level of government with very different issues, and I don't see the two as having a whole lot to do with each other.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Book Review -- Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?: How the European Model Can Help You Get A Life

This chatty and engaging book by Thomas Geoghegan explores the little-known world of the present-day German industrial economy -- a form of quasi-socialism which involves large measures of worker control, through unions, "works councils", and other mechanisms. Contrary to what you would expect if you read only the financial press, this model appears to work quite well -- Germany is the world's biggest exporter (outdoing China), and they've managed to retain and make use of a skilled manufacturing workforce. According to Geoghegan, the lifestyle of a typical middle-class German is vastly better that that of a similar USian, at least along some obvious dimensions (vacation time, guaranteed health care, job security and hence no need to work like a dog to keep your job) and some non-obvious ones (a strong feeling of social solidarity, the way job stability helps to build a high-value workforce).

This is a book of personal impressions rather than something systematically researched and thought out. Geoghegan wanders in and out of the country in a daze, not quite believing this can work. Most of the people he talks to in Germany believe their system is doomed and the Anglo-American model of capitalism will triumph there as it has everywhere, and the German workers will join the race to the bottom along with the rest of the world. Yet even the center-right parties (the Christian Democrats) have robust support for the existing system.

There is some wistful but unconvincing speculation about how the US could somehow someday adopt a model like this. I'm dubious. The social and economic fabric of the US has frayed so far that it is hard to imagine it coming together again to make a society like that of Germany, where people feel responsibility for each other and enact that responsibility through social institutions with enough actual power to restrain economic rapaciousness. OTOH, think about the hellish world that present-day Germany grew out of. So dramatic changes for the good can happen. I hope it doesn't require passing through utter catastrophe.

Geoghegan's earlier book, Which Side Are You On: Trying to be for Labor When It's Flat on Its Back is also very good.

Speaking of solidarity, another interesting-looking book on my queue is Yellow Blue Tibia, a novel in which Stalin after the end of WWII enlists a troop of Soviet science fiction writers to create a a new threat to bind the country together -- sort of Watchmen meets Gary Shteyngart. Uniting-against-a-fake-common-enemy is a hoary idea, but presumably the setting puts a new spin on it.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

No Compassion

The latest TSA regulations seem to have converted large swathes of the normally politically supine into rabid civil libertarians, ready to lay down their life for the principle that their junk should not be touched. Well, great, I sympathize with them, they are right. But where was this outrage when the government was fomenting illegal wars, ordering the assassination of US citizens, putting obviously innocent people to death, torturing teenagers, pouring a trillion dollars a year into the security apparat...well, I could go on. Apparently none of this matters because it didn't happen to normal, white, middle-class people. But mess with air passengers -- people with credit cards and Samsonite bags -- well, that's a different story. Aux barricades!

To me, this indicates that our political culture suffers from a lack of imagination and empathy. The underlying psychology of conservatism involves the deliberate denial of these factors, while liberalism promotes them. That does not mean, of course, that conservatives are sociopaths who lack empathy -- they are for the most part just normal human beings, and perfectly capable of putting themselves into another person's point of view -- and also capable of not doing so. To first approximation, everyone can empathize with their neighbors or co-workers and people who they see every day. It's a bit more of a stretch to take the point of view of people in the next town, or those from a different ethnic group or class, or the gay, or the homeless, or those who dwell in radically different social worlds (Afghan tribesmen, say). The liberal humanist imagination at least strives to see the world through the eyes of others; whereas the conservative mind seems to thrive on shutting out foreignness, or reducing it to something known. Here's an interesting piece which shows several examples of conservative politicians who depart from their usual hard line of no handouts when they actually have personal contact with someone from the needy classes -- ie, Nancy Reagan suddenly is all for Alzheimer's research. So they can have empathy for people like them or people they personally know. That works great for peasants, but doesn't really work in a modern society.

Politics involves the construction of fictional identities that promote collective identities and thus a degree of cross-empathy with ones fellow citizens. I think this is most clearly visible in the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, when the meanings of "Frenchman" and "Italian" were quite deliberately cobbled together, but I think it's a universal principle. The underlying conflict of our resent-day politics is over the American identity -- whether to be an American is to be an urban, cosmopolitan, inclusive, multicultural person, or a member of a white christian tribe. Naturally I favor the former, but I feel like I need to acknowledge that there is at least something vaguely legitimate about the emotions that power the latter group. Being cosmopolitan is hard, it takes work. Empathizing with others is also hard -- and it's not even clear what it should mean. Nobody has the time and resources to empathize with everyone, but the modern world puts us in contact with essentially everyone. The American identity that grew up over the last few centuries (and evolved through many different versions during that history) is being eaten away by globalization and many other factors. What will replace it? Nobody is sure. The elites will do OK, they always do, but those not in the elite don't know what they are going to be in the future, and that produces existential fear, which I think is what is really driving the tea partiers.

On the other side, Obama positioned himself as the One to lead the country into the imagined future of the cosmopolitans -- which was a great marketing campaign, it was what we needed and he had the unique personal story to embody it. But now buyer's remorse has set in, and we realize that the perfectly designed package just had a very normal mainstream centrist politician inside the wrapping.

Sorry, this post was supposed to be about airport screening, wasn't it? Anyway -- I think we have a real failure of social imagination in this country, and in addition to all the factors mentioned above we have a glut of media, and as a result a lack of compelling unifying stories. The national mind pays more attention to balloon boys and Bristol Palin than it does to our foreign wars or departments of torture. And why not? Those are compelling, understandable narratives, as is the overreach of the TSA and the brave citizens resisting it. It doesn't take much work to understand it and take a side. That could be me getting my groin felt up -- but it's hard to see me getting my wedding party hit by predator drones. That only happens to some other sort of person, so it doesn't really happen at all.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Transvaluation of Values

[[updated below]]

Remember how around the time of the Sotomayor nomination, "empathy" became a swear-word on the right? Here's Thomas Sowell and Charles Krauthammer:
...if nothing else it [conservatism] stands unequivocally against justice as empathy -- and unequivocally for the principle of blind justice.
Sometime later, Glenn Beck decided that "social justice" also could be turned into an ooga-booga scare term for his idiot minions:
I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words....Now, the idea -- hang on -- ... am I advising people to leave their church? Yes. ...If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop and tell them, 'Excuse me. Are you down with this whole social justice thing?'
And now apparently the idea of "sustainable development" has turned into something to organize against, presumably because it might lead to more people living in cities which are notorious dens of vice and Democrats.

Here's a Teatard group in Maine that is up in arms because a 4-H Club activity dared to promote ideas of sustainability:
Indoctrination only works if you are not aware its being done. Waste not want not is a good frugal way to live. Respecting G-d's creation is absolutely a right way to live. They have turned these ideals and principles into a way to deliver a godless concept of wordshipping [sic] creation and reducing humans to parasites upon the earth...the programs/policies that are vehicles for the massive reduction of private property ownership. If you do not have the right to property precisely what rights do you have? Without the right to property, you are reduced to slavery. Your life? Your natural right to use your life and your liberty to the result of your property is being taken literally, right out from under your own feet.

Raising the children up to believe that the very air they expel, CO2, is a poison to the planet is raising a generation of slaves, primed for complete control by the state.
I repeat, the apocalyptic rant above was generated by a 4-H Club project. IMO, it would certainly be nice if there were some sort of green youth corps that was being radicalized by cadres from the state Ag schools -- that's the sort of thing that might conceivably save this sinking ship. But I think the teabaggers are a wee bit hysterical in this case.

Anyway, call me old-fashioned but I always thought that empathy, social justice, and sustainability were good things. Nowadays I guess that makes me weird. I bet if Democrats sponsored a bill to give everybody a kitten, somehow purring would be made to seem evil by Fox News and its collaborators. And, given how the rest of the media and culture falls into line, evil would be the denotation of kittens from that point forward.

And speaking of transvaluations, that website is called "paintmainered". When did "red" become the color of the right? (actually I know the answer to that -- it was the TV coverage of the 2000 election which assigned red to the Republicans and blue to the Democrats, and for some inexplicable reason it has stuck that way ever since). Is communism really so dead that one of its main symbols can already be recycled by the other side? But it also serves as another piece of evidence, as if one were needed, that the tea party is simply a wing of the Republican party, despite some protestations to the contrary.

[[update: a further thought -- I realize that the three terms above all partake of the ethos of caring and thus have a slight tinge of the feminine about them. At some level all the political crapola boils down to that -- Republicans are calling the Dems pussies, and more importantly, getting agitated that feminine weakness might undermine their own masculinity.

Taken to its extreme, this style of politcs leads directly to fascism. I've smelled traces of fascism in wingnut language before. It's hard to imagine the roly-poly Glenn Beck as an embodiment of the fascist ideal of masculinity -- OTOH his main advertiser is some gold scam that has G. Gordon Liddy as a spokesman. I don't completely get what's going on there, which I guess is why I am drawn to watching the trainwreck.]]

Friday, November 19, 2010

Parasitic Liberalism

This hot-off-the-press paper by Samuel Bowles investigates the "parasitic liberalism" thesis, which is roughly the idea that liberal societies do not produce enough civic virtue to maintain themselves, and instead are parasitic on the older inherited forms of social organization (clans, eg) that they displace. If the thesis is true, then liberalism is doomed, because it will ultimately cannibalize the source of its own success.
For example, in the absence of a strong work ethic and feelings of reciprocity among employers and employees, an adequately functioning labor market would be impossible. If trust, truth-telling and other ethical behaviors were absent among borrowers and lenders, credit markets, likewise would collapse. The same is true with even greater force of other institutions, so that: " social system can work which everyone is ...guided by nothing except his own ...utilitarian ends.." (Schumpeter).
I know academic papers are supposed to speak with an air of timelessness and not riff on current events like blogs, but it must have taken effort to write the highlighted sentence in 2010 without making explicit reference to the actual state of our society.
... the following are commonly held to be among the cultural foundations of a well functioning liberal order: willingness to help others at a cost to oneself (voluntarily paying taxes and contributing to public goods for example) and upholding social norms such as respect for private property, honesty, fair treatment, and political participation even when these do not enhance one's material benefits...

By liberal society I mean one characterized by extensive reliance on markets to allocate economic goods and services, formal equality of political rights, the rule of law, public tolerance, and attenuated ascriptive barriers to mobility... examples of liberal societies are Switzerland, Denmark, Australia, the U.S. and the U.K., while examples of non-liberal societies... are Saudi Arabia, Russia, Ukraine, and Oman as well as the small scale societies of hunter-gatherers, herders and low technology farmers...
So, to restate the idea, traditional human society develops a rich texture of human relationships, based on kinship, professional guilds, personal loyalty, etc. Liberalism (aka modernism, aka the market) comes along and sweeps most of the relational structure away and replaces it with individualised, atomistic economic transactions. But the market depends on a certain level of trust and good faith. All that stuff comes from an earlier time, and the grinding gears of the market will eventually use up the store of it that was generated from earlier times, and we're left with a harsh landscape of pure self-interest and low trust, which just won't work that well.

This is apparently an old idea but it's somewhat new to me, at least crystallized in this form. Bowles cites classic authors like Burke, Tocqueville, Hayek, Polanyi, Habermas, Rawls, Mill, and others who have touched upon it before. And there's a wide range of cited literature from behavioral economics that I'm not going to have time to read, but looks fascinating.

So then the paper presents a mathematical model for thinking about virtue and liberalism. There's a lot about this kind of thing that raises my hackles. For instance, it's not really clear that you can tell much from ultra-simplistic models in which "virtue" is represented by a single numerical variable. But it may that an ultra-simplified model is better than no model at all. Certainly much has been made before of game-theoretic models like the Prisoner's Dilemma, and this is just a slightly more complexified version of that.

This topic is related in various ways to an earlier paper by Bowles and Jayadev on guard labor.
Indirect evidence consistent with the predicted inverse relationship between virtue and the extent of markets is found in the fact that the U.S., perhaps the most market-based of the advanced economies, also excels in the fraction of its labor force devoted to what Jayadev and I call guard labor, namely, that devoted to (or the consequence of) maintaining order.
Bowles' conclusion is that while there is some general truth to the parasitic liberalism thesis, it paints too simplistic a picture:
...the parasitic liberalism thesis fails not because it misunderstands the cultural consequences of markets or the tendency of liberal institutions to erode traditional institutions and cultures, but rather because it overrates the benign contribution of tradition to the moral underpinnings of liberal institutions, and underrates the contribution of the liberal state and other non-market aspects of liberal societies to the flourishing of these values.
My own take: The US certainly seems to have consumed a large stock of its virtue, while cultures with deeper roots in tradition seem to have deeper wells of virtue to draw on (for "virtue", read "willingness to cooperate with others" or simply "fraternitié", the third and often neglected leg of the French version of liberalism). That may be why the US seems to be heading into banana republic territory while European states actually seem to use there powers to take care of their citizens. The people who do really well at small-scale, ground-level capitalism in the US are those with large family/ethnic networks to draw on.

More generally, it's just too soon to tell. Liberalism, modernism and capitalism constitute a major change to human society, and we are only part-way through the transition. Technology continues to evolve and it drives new variants of political structures (ie, print supported the rise of nationalism, radio supported the rise of fascism, and we don't really know what the Internet will do yet). Liberalism is only a few hundred years old and given its self-mutating nature it is impossible to say what its long-term prospects are.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

How to prevent the apocalypse

A couple of climate change stories floated into view today, both of which indicate that global warming effects are happening faster than anybody thought they would. Glaciers are melting, and the North American forests may change from carbon sink to a carbon source. Oh, and let's check up on my favorite thing to worry about, the possible massive release of sequestered methane in permafrost and ocean hydrates: oh fuck.

It occurs to me (not for the first time) that I am not taking this seriously enough. Climate change is an active threat to my children, but what am I doing? Kvetching on a blog? Changing my lightbulbs? It seems pitifully inadequate. Organizing a mass movement? Not really in my realm of competence, and the people who actually have the temperament for something like that don't seem to be doing very well. Rioting in the streets? Ecotage? Bringing down industrial civilization may stop climate change but it will cause equivalent misery, so not really a solution. There are no good social tools to apply to solving world-scale collective action problems, and my individual actions can't do much.

Well, I am foregoing whatever theoretical riches I could make working in a Facebook gaming startup or whatever, and instead working (however indirectly) to support the kind of science that might actually be able to do something about climate change. That makes me feel a little bit better. At least I'll be able to say I went down fighting.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Keeping an eye on the exit

[[update below]]

Glenn Beck's little festival of anti-semitic propaganda last week has got me once again looking at options for living somewhere else. It's not exactly that I expect stormtroopers to be marching down the street anytime soon (on the other hand, my grandparents in Germany and Czechoslovakia didn't think things would get that bad either, and it's only that they had the prudence to send their children out to England early that I am here to write this). But the fact that a major corporation could permit such unadulterated crap to appear under its name is just a further sign of the general disfunctionalization of society. It's one thing for the world to be run by a clique of self-interested elites -- that's the norm of human history. It's quite another for the elites to be nothing but grifters, looters, and sociopaths who can't apparently even take the trouble to try to maintain the society they are sucking dry.

It's sort of the difference between a more-or-less benign parasite and virulent pathogens. Normal capitalists are tapeworms, Fox News is Ebola.

Anyway, smart rootless cosmopolitans keep a bag packed and their options open. Ironically, it looks like I may qualify for German citizenship so perhaps I can make the opposite journey that my parents did. Don't think I could really take living in Germany (although this recent book makes it sound pretty attractive) but the EU's a big place, and perhaps better equipped to go into the future with a modicum of sanity.

[[update: Here's Digby making essentially the same point at greater length. Key quote: "What's broken down is down is the institutional system that forced elites to work at least somewhat on behalf of the people. Government, clergy, journalism, high finance, the legal system, the military, all of it, has stopped functioning properly." Beck is both a symptom of this breakdown and a contributer to it. ]]

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Republic of Heaven

This year they moved my polling place to City Hall, right on the ocean. This is one of the most beautiful times of year here in Pacifica; it was a cool clear day with a high surf, breaking over the sea wall, and producing a fine mist instead of the more usual fog, so everything was suffused in a blinding white light. Since I already have a model in my head of voting as participating in a civic ritual, it felt like entering Democratic heaven.

I enjoy election time, it's a chance to come across whole classes of people I never see in ordinary life, and enter different spaces. Everyone's spirits seem a little bit freer than usual, with this temporary escape from the usual structures of power into the sphere of democracy. Even if the candidates are bought and sold, and cynicism is off the charts, the feeling persists, because ritual is powerful that way.

I approach voting the way I do actual religious services -- with mixed feelings, genuine enthusiasm combating a more informed and powerful skepticism. With something of a sense of duty -- it's not like this is what I really want to be doing, but it's what humans do, and since I haven't invented anything better for myself yet I must participate along with the community if I don't want to be a complete outsider to life.

Of course around here people are also high on the other civic religion of the US, baseball. I have to admit that I have an active disinterest in professional sports and although almost everyone in the Bay Area has Giants fever, from intellectuals to manual laborers to punk anarchists, it leaves me cold. This makes me feel like an awful snob. From my outside perspective, pro sports seems like an even purer version of The People's Romance -- a sort of Schelling point for communal enthusiasm, a way to unleash the spirit in a controlled and harmless way (not always harmless, actually the US is pretty tame in this respect compared to European soccer hooligans and the Blues and Greens of Rome). I can see the functional role. But why can't this be something that's at least interesting? Why can't every city fund a big band, for instance, and have them engage in a series of cutting contests until they reach the World Series of Jazz? That would at least be worth watching.

[[note: the post title is a reference to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Even though the novels kind of fell apart once he started getting too metaphysical, "The Republic of Heaven" is a damn fine concept.]]

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Health Care Brownshirts

The guy in this video is retired (thank god) General Willian G. Boykin, who was Undersecretary of Intelligence in the State Department under George Bush. He was previously known for publicly and in uniform spouting off thing like "I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol."

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Loci of desire

I haven't yet read Kevin Kelly's new book What Technology Wants. I suspect I'll find it mostly annoying -- he has a habit of addressing issues I care and think about, in ways that are sort of like my own opinions, but taken too far or off in some quasi-theological direction that I find grating (OK, and the fact that he reaches orders of magnitude more readers than I do might also contribute to my annoyance). But I did pick it up in the bookstore and look in the index to find no mention of Bruno Latour, which was slightly surprising, since Latour has been talking about investing agency into non-humans for decades.

But then it occurred to me that there is something fundamentally different about Kelly's view and Latour's (disclaimer: I actually have no idea what Kelly's view is, I'm judging the book by its title which may not be fair). Latour grants agency to things, but I very much doubt he would ever imbue technology as a whole with desires, as Kelly does. Latour is interested in the politics of things and the networks that connect things and people; their alliances, their conflicts, their failures and triumphs. His project is to tease out and describe these networks -- for instance, how a mass spectrograph connects the researchers and engineers who developed it, the manufacturer, its purchasers and users, the inscriptions it generates, the actual sample being measured, and the theory it will hopefully support. Under the Latourian view humans and non-humans have ontologically equal status and are connected in networks as equals.

That is an intriguing if difficult idea, but it's very different from Kelly's, which posits some sort of overarching teleology. In Latour's world model, everything (technology included) is radically distributed and radically democratic. In Kelly's, technology is some external, autonomous, and presumably unstoppable force of nature rolling over humanity like a tidal wave of disruption.

I can actually see merits to both views; they can both be useful perspectives. But I think Latour's is subtler, richer, and ultimately more humanistic since it is all about how the desires of humans and technologies are connected.

Damn, now I guess I'll have to read Kelly's book to see if I'm being unfair to it.

The broader issue is one that has obsessed me for some time -- the fact that in the modern era nobody really knows what wants are or where they come from. A whole constellation of forces, from the Freudian unconscious and the Darwinian roots of behavior through the modern-day manipulation of the mass media -- all conspire to make it glaringly obvious that desire is never a simple act of an atomic self. So what is it, and how do we talk about it intelligently?

Here's another critique of Kelly's book, also unfair since it came out more than 30 years before he wrote his.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

In the vortex we are all free

I need to have a tag for "semi-interesting, semi-weird things I stumble upon in downtown SF while waiting for my kids to finish their activities". Last time it was a Ron Paul rally, today it was a piece of the Bioneers Conference, which is some sort of high-end new-age green whole-earthy gathering. They were having a free film screening at the SF Library so I saw some of these visions of doom:

Here's a quite good one from the same series, in which Werner Herzog provides the voice for a plastic bag on an existential quest:

Plastic Bag Trailer (By Futurestates and narrated by Werner Herzog) from Strawberry Earth on Vimeo.

Like the Singularity Summit, there's a few things going on at Bioneers that seem interesting (like a Buckminster Fuller workshop and a session on green chemistry) but the general atmosphere would give me hives. And it seems way too much like a trade show for some shady industry.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Lighting out for the territories

This week's vocabulary word is pantisocracy, coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1794 to describe a utopian scheme cooked up by him and his friend Robert Southey. They proposed to get 12 families to emigrate to America and live communally, and even had location picked out (the Susquehanna Valley, for some reason).
Their plan is as follows: Twelve gentlemen of good education and liberal principles are to embark with twelve ladies in April next..... Their opinion was that they should settle in a delightful part of the new back settlements; that each man would labor two or three hours in a day, the produce of which labor would, they imagine, be more than sufficient to support the colony ..... The produce of their industry is to be paid up in common for the use of all; and a good library is to be collected, and their leisure hours are to be spent in study, liberal discussions, and the education of their children..... The regulations relating to the females strike them as the most difficult; whether the marriage contract shall be dissolved if agreeable to one or both parties..... America is certainly a desirable country.
It's easy to hear the pre-echos of the Zionist movement 100 years later, or the 1960s communards. Coleridge and friends never realized their dream, and he sought utopia in opium instead:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
I don't see today's youth investing in such romantic schemes, which is probably for the best. The world no longer has large uncolonized areas for elites to project their fantasies onto. Burning Man is a party where people pretend to be pantisocrats for a week. Maybe the next crop of idealists will put their energy into re-engineering the places they find themselves in rather than looking for an empty place to build on from scratch.

[for John Lennon's 70th]

Sunday, October 03, 2010

I, for one, welcome our new Chinese technocrat overlords

Hacker/activist Jeff Lindsay was musing about what a technologist political party would look like (possibly inspired by today's idiot Thomas Friedman column which is best answered by this 50-year-old Jules Feiffer cartoon).

I mentioned the American technocracy movement, with its roots in Edward Bellamy's scary utopia and Thorsten Veblen's "soviet of technicians". But that's just me being retro; most technopolitics these days is larded up with libertarian ideology, so that the idea that scientists and engineers should actually run society is not even considered, because libs believe nobody should run society.

But I also accidentally learned today that almost all the leaders of China are engineers by training. The premier, Wen Jiabao is one of them -- he has a postgraduate degree from the Beijing Institute of Geology. He was on Fareed Zakaria's show today and despite being a ranking member of the Communist Party was recommending as his favorite books Adam Smith's Theory of the Moral Sentiments and Marcus Aurelius.

So, we're doomed. Not to extinction perhaps, but to eclipse. We're run by a combination of lawyers and lunatics; how could a society run by wise engineers not surpass us? Presumably a society run by engineers will at least not neglect to invest in infrastructure like we do.

The US still has a lot on the ball in its ability to do science, engineering, and innovation. But I worry about the macro-scale level of investment necessary to continue to do such things, particularly in education. The advantage of a strong, centralized, semi-authoritarian state is that it can easily decide to make such investments. The post-WWII US had that property; all the centralizing forces of the war were redeployed into a military-industrial-academic complex that gave us the computer industry and the Internet. But that was in economic good times; now that we've squandered our wealth it is hard to maintain that kind of machine.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Under construction

Construction is one of those intriguing ideas that seems to some people (including me, some of the time) to be so strong that it has the potential to remake one's entire worldview. The idea that ideas are constructed appears in various confusingly overlapping schools of thought: constructivism, (Piaget, Vygotysky), constructionism (Papert), and social construction (Latour and assorted philosophers). Here's a paper that untangles some of these differences, but here I'm interested in their common thread -- the idea that knowledge, ideas, mental stuff in general is built rather than found.

Constructivism is usually applied to things like people learning mathematics or object permanence, but the thing that most people spend most of their energy constructing is themselves -- their social roles, their internal sense of self, their own narratives. But then who is doing the building? The term "autopoeisis" was coined by Maturana and Varela to name systems that constructed themselves, but naming is not explaining and as far as I know the school of thought they founded belongs in the same category as some of the other ideas I've mentioned recently -- which is to say, not necessarily wrong, but it has not been nearly as productive of science as more boring mechanistic approaches. It's fringy.

There's a vast literature on self-construction in anthropology, psychology, and related fields most of which I'm unfamiliar with, and I've never been able to quite get into it when I tried. How do you study something so elusive and amorphous? There are no instruments for selves, and studying social interaction (which seems the best entry into the subject) just gives you the traces, not the phenomena itself. But that's a reflection of my intellectual limitations, or rather, how my own self is constructed.

It occurred to me today that one of the main functions of religion is to construct selves. Theistic religions construct a person who runs the universe and provides rules and techniques for the individual person to relate to it. Such relations obviously mirror the relations between actual human persons, and vice-versa. Consider the historical construction of human selfhood, religions function as a kind of cultural scaffolding for individuals to create and interpret themselves.

Religions create persons in very different ways and, so as a result create very different kinds of selves. Someone who believes they are at the core an immortal being who is only temporarily and incidentally wearing a body as a kind of fleshly envelope just has/is a very different kind of self than I do/am. Yet this song still moves me, so maybe the differences are merely superficial and our spiritual core is the same.

Buddhists seem to be deconstructionists of the self -- they talk about this process critically. They talk about how people are constantly trying to make themselves appear to be solid, permanent, real things when in fact they aren't. And this process of delusion is at the root of suffering. But my own dabbling in meditation (Buddhism ultra-lite at this point) suggests the opposite -- it seems to be about constructing an additional layer of self, one that can stand somewhat outside and monitor all the other self-construction going on. I may be doing it wrong.

During the Yom Kippur service, the Ashamnu prayer has the congregation chanting together:
Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, deebarnu dofee. Heeveenu, v' heershanu, zadnu, chamasnu, tafalnu shaker. Yaatznu ra, keezavnu, latznu, maradnu, neeatznu. Sarar'nu, aveenu, pashanu, tsarar'nu, keesheenu oref. Rashanu, sheechatnu, teeavnu, taeenu, teetanu.

Who are we? We are God's image and truth and infinite wisdom, eternal goodness. Yet we've abused, we've betrayed, we've been cruel, yes we've destroyed...we have missed the mark.
The "infinite wisdom and eternal goodness" seems to be a recent addition to this particular translation, and it's a bit too treacly a sentiment for me. But the idea that sin is an error, a case of "missing the mark", I can get behind. (Here's a good present-day interpretation). The most striking feature of the Hebrew is that it is a litany of words suffixed with -nu, the first person plural possessive ("our"), which emphasizes that all these faults are faults of the community and not solely of individuals. Consider not so much content of this prayer, but the fact that here's a community of people who get together, at some expense of time, money, and attention, and jointly declare a view of their nature. Isn't that odd? It seems almost to be a performative linguistic act, not as explicit as a marriage vow, but still functioning to bind together.

So the self under construction in this world is a social self, a self inherently part of a community doing things together and taking a collective responsible for itself and the world. Maybe this is an unremarkable thing to most people; after all Jews and others have been doing it for thousands of years; if it's so fundamental to human nature then it usually operates without thinking about it. I may be more consciously and intellectually aware of these sorts of commonplace phenomena because with me they don't generally work all that well.

Friday, September 24, 2010


I'm in the process of changing jobs, so posting may be lighter than usual the next few weeks. Or heavier, or change subject matter. The new position involves more Promethean tampering with the fundamentals of Life Itself, so should be interesting. Well, actually I'm just building software for the people who are doing the actual tampering. So probably it will be like 5% dealing with the mysteries of life and 95% dealing with the mysteries of divergent Javascript implementations. Still promises to be interesting and challenging and have some actual impact on the world.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed

I saw a talk by Richard Rhodes last night at the Long Now. Rhodes recently published his fourth book on nuclear weapons; I've read the first two and they are great. The theme of this latest is somewhat more hopeful now that the idea of nuclear weapons seems to be in decline. A couple of highlights from the talk:

- most of the destruction of a nuclear strike comes from fire effects rather than the blast or radiation, which affect only a fairly small radius. But the heat is enough to set a whole city ablaze. One prediction is that if India and Pakistan have a "small" nuclear exchange with 50 Hiroshima-sized weapons apiece, that would be enough to cause a mini-nuclear winter effect approximately the same as a a major volcanic eruption, and with the global food system as stretched as it you might see a billion deaths from starvation.

- all world leaders quickly realized that nuclear weapons were basically unusable. He quoted Khruschev:
When I was appointed First Secretary of the Central Committee and learned all the facts of nuclear power I couldn't sleep for several days. Then I became convinced that we could never possibly use these weapons, and when I realized that I was able to sleep again.
So as a result, nuclear weapons development is basically a very expensive signalling game (7.8 trillion during the period 1948-1991 according to his estimate).

- The idea that a state would develop a nuclear capability and then hand it off to a terrorist group is just silly.

I don't know, personally I have moved on and don't give much thought to nukes any more and haven't for years. Bioterrorism is a lot more scary, because unlike nukes the development technology is accessible to non-state groups and getting more so all the time.

The short feature before the talk was this nice little visualization of all the (terrestrial) nuclear explosions since Trinity:

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

More random than usual

I'm sure these have something to do with each other, if you squint at them hard enough.
And a quote:
The adjective 'concrete' is abstract, the adjective 'incommunicable' is communicable, the adjective 'unique' is general, and to utter the word 'intuition' is not itself an act of intuition.
-- Leszek Kolakowsky, Bergson

And today's theme song:

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Why do engineers become terrorists?

This article (via Crooked Timber) claims that engineers are quite a bit overrepresented in the ranks of terrorists -- including Mohammed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 attacks.

Well, I've spent some time tracking political extremism in engineering culture, although not of the violent type, so here's some random attempts at a theory:

- engineering historically has been a profession caught between the upper and working classes. The lowest-status of the professions, it has been a way for children of laborers to move up to professional status. I don't know how much this is still the case, but it wouldn't surprise me if it is still so in the developing world.

- this sociological fact causes a good bit of status-anxiety and role confusion, among a class of people whose social skills aren't usually that great to begin with.

- engineers are also often mathematically inclined and hence drawn to abstractions.

- so, one cure for being lost in society is finding a cult to belong to, preferably one with a simple, powerful, self-reinforcing belief system, that is, a form of fundamentalism.

- but, engineers also having a practical, real-world orientation, they will also be drawn to taking action, and may be more skilled than average in doing so.

This is drawn from my experience with libertarians and Randroids, who whatever else you can say about them are not particularly violent (Ayn Rand depicted blowing stuff up in her novels and was drawn to serial killers, but her followers don't seem to follow her that far). But I'm guessing some of the psychological forces that pull engineers into those ideologies may also draw others into violent religious and right-wing fundamentalism. Libertarianism is a form of enlightenment fundamentalism, it fetishizes and oversimplifies enlightenment virtues like rationality, self-interest, and individuality, and turns them into an ideology and a cult.

Now of course the vast majority of engineers aren't terrorists or libertarians or extremists of any kind. And almost no libertarians are terrorists as far as I know -- but they do tend towards unhealthy obsessions with weaponry and in that respect the culture tends to merge into other more violent tendencies of the extreme right.

I hope nobody interprets this as an attack on engineers or engineering culture. Engineering's successes represent some of the highest forms of human creativity and progress. But we are talking here about failures, people on the margins who, due to either their own limitations or the limitations of their education, failed to direct their energies in a creative direction and instead chose destruction.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Too close for comfort

Feel like I ought to say something profound about the explosion in San Bruno, mere miles from where I live, that has destroyed a whole neighborhood and undoubtedly killed many people (only 4 in the official count so far, but its got to be in the tens). And on Rosh Hashanah no less. Not a good way to start the year. Random thoughts:

- I know this area and it's about as boring a place as you could imagine around here -- not poor, not rich, tucked away in a corner away from things. But it's also over a utility corridor. I wonder if the people there knew that.

- My drive home took me very close to the fire as it was going on. I saw many people on the highway pull to the shoulder to gawk. People, in a disaster you either figure out some way to help or GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE WAY.

- I followed the story from Twitter and seemed to stay about five minutes ahead of the TV news, who ended up showing the same Google maps views and this interesting map of gas pipelines. OTOH, they had the helicopter video.

- I almost had to put a "-prayer" term in my Twitter search, so many people were posting stuff like "our hearts and prayers are with you". Not informative! But it's interesting in a way, that's what prayer is for, for communion, for making yourself feel what other people are feeling. Perhaps this is obvious to the normally spiritual person but a fascinating alien phenomenon for me. And also interesting to see social media as a vehicle for it.

- Speaking of gas pipelines, we live in an energy-intensive society, and somehow that energy has to be delivered, and that means there is always some risk involved. I guess it's fortunate in a way that this happened in a suburb rather than a more densely populated city, where there is presumably an even greater energy flux.

- There's been rumors of negligence by PG&E. If they turn out to be true, it doesn't really say anything about the evils of capitalism -- government is no stranger to irresponsible management of big technology (see: Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans). I do wonder why it took hours to shut the pipeline down though, that seems like either poor design or poor response. It's right on top of the San Andreas Fault, so you'd think that the system would have been engineered to deal with a rupture.

- It's scary to be reminded of the fragility of our existence, but also gratifying to see the resilience of the community response. People really do want to help each other.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Labor and Discipline

I seem to have accidentally established a tradition of Labor Day posts. Therefore, I'm obligated to come up with one today, therefore, it starts to take on some of the less pleasant aspects of work. Not that I really mind, and not that there is actually anything forcing me to do it. In a way it's good to have my choices of what to write about slightly constrained, rather than wandering all over creation like I usually do.

One of the chief status markers in our world is enjoying work or at least appearing to. People who work at tasks they dislike for the sake of a paycheck are low-status; high-status people are supposed to be working for the sheer joy of it. This makes intuitive sense, because if you don't like your work then you need to have someone telling you what to do and thus are inherently lower status than your boss. But almost everyone answers to someone.

It may be that figuring out a working relationship between what one wants to do and what one is obligated to do is the key to life. Certainly religions work with this problem (see the recent post on submission, eg); so do political ideologies (what is libertarianism but a bogus answer to this question?). It was the foundation of Freud's theory of mind and later theories of moral development like Kohlberg's.

The issues come up in education and child rearing. I am, in theory, a great believer in self-direction in education, since it largely worked for me (or at least, it's how I learned whatever it is I know -- perhaps I'd have been better off with more externally imposed discipline, but there's no way to know). Schools always seemed like broken institutions since they are inherently designed to undermine whatever natural joy a student has in learning and replace it with a top-down authoritarian model. But people are different -- one of my kids, for example, is teaching himself music largely on his own; the other has had discipline and attention problems in school but (to my great and ongoing surprise) responds well to the extraordinarily strict discipline of his classical ballet instructor.

A large part of the process of becoming an adult is an ongoing process of learning to get oneself do certain things whether one wants to or not. It's always been problematical for me anyway, but I wonder how universal my experience is. Some people seem to manage without a struggle, others are happy to rely on the external discipline of a corporate hierarchy or similar authority system. Do hunter-gatherers have these problems? Do they work?

Work in the abstract is an intriguing and irreducible combination of the spontaneous and the disciplined, the autonomous and the externally imposed. I think that's why the concept of labor is so fetishized by Marxists; it is something that must be done and yet there are so many different ways it can be done and so appears to be a potential fulcrum for harnessing economic forces and transforming society. Buddhist meditation (in so far as I understand it, which is not far) treats breathing in much the same way; it's a bodily function that can be completely automatic or the object of focused conscious attention or both at the same time, and thus is a fulcrum for reconciling the willed and the inevitable.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Purity of Essence

In between dropping off one child at the SF Ballet School (which to me represents the purest form, in the contemporary world, of the old aristocratic mode of society and artistic production) and taking the other one to the SF Public Library (which, in a nice contrast, is the best working institutional expression we have of the spirit of democratic communalism), I chanced upon...a libertarian rally! Ron Paul was the star speaker! It's odd how the collection of randoms there manage to situate themselves as far as possible from both sets of virtues -- they have neither class, nor any principled opposition to class.

OK, some good stuff -- The people had perhaps the biggest table there, and they are not completely insane. I learned that they are an offshoot of something called the Randolph Bourne Institute, which I approved of -- in fact I could have sworn I'd discussed Bourne here but Google says not, anyway, he is best known for the phrase "War is the health of the state". Well. I'm antiwar, so I could get behind them and the fraction of speeches that related to that. OTOH, their honcho Justin Raimondo is co-publishing with Hitler apologist Patrick Buchanan -- that kind of puts a damper on their appeal for me.

There were plenty of teatards, drug legalizers, 9/11 truthers, old weathered beatnik types, along with some minor local politicians in suits. The major theme, other than opposition to war, seemed to be financial crankery, "sound money", paranoia at the Fed, proposals to go back on the gold standard, etc. Someone running for the State Assembly handed me a leaflet proudly announcing her opposition to such vital issues as water flouridation and the "Codex Alimentarius". It was a pretty small-scale event, considering the nominal leader of the entire Libertarian movement was speaking.

I didn't feel much like engaging with this crowd, but my son hasn't been burned out with decades of the same old arguments like I am, so I encouraged him to get verbally combative...he needs the practice. He got into it with some woman at a table promoting the Bay Area Voluntaryists for around 20 minutes, and held his own pretty well -- I'm encouraging to get on the debate team. He took a version of the Nolan test and it indicated that he the most statist person there. A sensible boy, and he generates his own opinions.

I guess my take on this is not that different from this one on a left-wing anarchist gathering -- I can't help feeling some genuine fondness for individuals trying to make sense of the world, and willing to go out on ideological limbs to do so, but damn, can't they manage to do so while retaining a minimum of critical reasoning facilities? Don't people who want to devote their lives to this sort of thing have an obligation to think at least one step beyond their visceral dislike of authority and try to understand what government is, why it is, and how maybe its structure reflects some human realities and getting rid of it does not get rid of the problems that it arose to solve? Argh. OK, it took me awhile to think through these issues myself, and I consider myself pretty bright, so I guess it's no surprise that so many others haven't gotten past the first step.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


I had an unusual Sunday evening: I got invited/dragged to a Ramadan break-the-fast interfaith service, in a mosque just off of Market street in San Francisco. There were some speeches promoting interfaith understanding and the idea of a moderate version of Islam, a service in the mosque, and a vegetarian dinner (mostly Pakistani food). The first part succeeded in conveying that Muslims were normal people who could even tell jokes. The second part was the first time I had seen Muslim worship up close, and it both moved and disturbed me...the muezzin's call harking back to ancient desert tents, the women relegated to the back of the large east-facing room, the men prostrating themselves.

One of my companions mentioned that, for all the cultural similarities between Jews and Muslims, there were some key differences in their beliefs, which he boiled down to the idea that Jews are supposed to wrestle with god while Muslims are supposed to submit. The idea of submission has a powerful spiritual charge, to be sure, a form of or pathway to egolessness. But it's not really my thing, although I guess there's an element of it in my awkward dalliances with any sort of religious practice.

The prostration was the point at which my empathy dropped away and I felt momentarily that I was viewing something foreign and potentially dangerous. The moment passed, but left me with the realization that interfaith understanding and coexistence is not something easy and automatic, but must be laboriously constructed. And of course there is a whole network of people -- the "interfaith community" -- who do this on a regular basis.

There were quite a few references to the Cordoba House project, of course. I went to this event partly to spit in the eye of the repellent and harmful Islamophobia on display from the likes of Newt Gingrich. But it can't be denied that any religion has the potential to pose a threat to the liberal order of society, and while most Muslims aren't al-Qaeda they don't exactly strike one as fertile grounds for progressive values. So my feeling is, build the community center by all means, and encourage the more progressive elements in Islam and build dialog, but at the same time I can't entirely dismiss the fear that the right is mongering.

Oh well, to get the taste of submission out of my mouth, here's St. Yossarian:
"And don't tell me God works in mysterious ways," Yossarian continued, hurtling on over her objection. "There's nothing so mysterious about it. He's not working at all. He's playing. Or else He's forgotten all about us. That's the kind of God you people talk about-a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena, as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation ? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain?"   
"Pain?" Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife pounced upon the word victoriously. "Pain is a useful symptom. Pain is a warning to us of bodily dangers."   
"And who created the dangers?" Yossarian demanded. He laughed caustically. "Oh, He was really being charitable to us when He gave us pain. Why couldn't He have used a doorbell instead to notify us, or one of His celestial choirs? Or a system of blue-and-red neon tubes right in the middle of each person's forehead. Any jukebox manufacturer worth his salt could have done that. Why couldn't He?"   
"People would certainly look silly walking around with red neon tubes in the middle of their foreheads."   
"They certainly look beautiful now writhing in agony or stupefied with morphine, don't they ? What a colossal, immortal blunderer! When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly little mess He made of it instead. His sheer incompetence is almost staggering. It's obvious He never met a payroll. Why, no self-respecting businessman would hire a bungler like Him as even a shipping clerk!"   
Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife had turned ashen in disbelief and was ogling him with alarm. "You'd better not talk that way about Him, honey," she warned him reprovingly in a low and hostile voice. "He might punish you."   
"Isn't He punishing me enough?" Yossarian snorted resentfully. "You know, we mustn't let Him get away with it. Oh, no, we certainly mustn't let Him get away scot  free for all the sorrow He's caused us. Someday I'm going to make Him pay. I know when. On the Judgment Day. Yes, that's the day I'll be close enough to reach out and grab that little yokel by His neck and-"   
"Stop it I Stop it!" Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife screamed suddenly, and began beating him ineffectually about the head with both fists. "Stop it!"   
Yossarian ducked behind his arm for protection while she slammed away at him in feminine fury for a few seconds, and then he caught her determinedly by the wrists and forced her gently back down on the bed. "What the hell are you getting so upset about?" he asked her bewilderedly in a tone of contrite amusement. "I thought you didn't believe in God."   
"I don't," she sobbed, bursting violently into tears. "But the God I don't believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He's not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be." 
Yossarian laughed and turned her arms loose. ‘Let’s have a little more religious freedom between us,’ he proposed obligingly. ‘You don’t believe in the God you want to, and I won’t believe in the God I want to. Is that a deal?’

-- Joseph Heller, Catch-22
Random related links:

Background on mosques in America

Asshole against coexistence

Islamophobia and Reality