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.