Saturday, December 24, 2011

Blogyear 2011 in Review

Time for a year-end retrospective of the blog. Mostly this filters out the posts that are of just passing interest. There seem to be more posts included than in past years, so I guess I'm getting more profound. This has been a hell of a year in so-called real life, so I'm probably just diving more deeply into concept-space in order to escape.

As usual, the categories are somewhat arbitrary, and if there is any value at all in my writing, it lies in how it cuts across these groupings.

Media, Technology, Computation

Occupy Computation
Not Everything is Free
Pouring Thoughts into New Vessels
Performing Ourselves

Politics, Violence, Authority

On Political Violence
St. Augustine, O.G.
The Pointy End of the Spear
Gay Marriage Impacts Everyone
Babylon is Nothing But an Infinite Game of Chance

Rebellion, Anarchy

A Furious Egalitarianism
Be Your Government

Causality, Conspiracy, Group Agency, Leadershit

Philosophy of Conspiracy
Loci of Knowledge
Don't follow leaders, watch the parking metes
Blame Game
Working Toward Steve Jobs
The Great Man Theory


Argument as the Basis for Thought
Visible Strings
Morlocks and Eloi
The Potato Chips Did It
Elan Vital

My brilliant career

Unauthorized Expertise
Report from Inconsistency Robustness 2011


Ron Paul R[love]ution (suddenly more timely)
Volunteered Slavery
Libertarians for Slavery
Libertarian Bizzaroworld
[I got so tired of this topic, and my inability to leave it alone, that I started a new microblog for it]


Counting the Omer: Compassion (and following in series)
Why do Religion?
How to Avoid the Singularity
Random Rosh Hashana Religion Ruminations
This Embarrassment

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel has died. I always had an odd sort of affinity for him, perhaps because he looked a bit like my father, who was also a native of Prague. Here's some of his writing that seems very apropos of the events of the day:
... That week was an experience I’ll never forget. I saw Soviet tanks smash down arcades on the main square and bury several people in the rubble. I saw a tank commander start shooting wildly into the crowd. I saw and experienced many things, but what affected me most powerfully was that special phenomenon of solidarity and community which was so typical of that time. People would bring food and flowers and medicine to the radio station, regardless of whether we needed them or not. When Tríska didn’t broadcast for a couple of hours, the station was bombarded with telephone calls asking if we were all right. ... I have no intention of romanticizing that period either. I only think that, taken all together, it made for a unique phenomenon which to this day, as far as I know, has never been analyzed in any depth sociologically, philosophically, psychologically, or politically. But some things were so obvious you could understand them immediately, without any scientific analysis. For example, that society is a very mysterious animal with many faces and hidden potentialities, and that it’s extremely shortsighted to believe that the face society happens to be presenting to you at a given moment is its only true face...None of us knows all the potentialities that slumber in the spirit of the population, or all the ways in which that population can surprise us when there is the right interplay of events, both visible and invisible.
And more:
Or the question about socialism and capitalism! I have to admit that it gives me a sense of emerging from the depths of the last century. It seems to me that these thoroughly ideological and often semantically confused categories have long since been beside the point. The question is wholly other, deeper and equally relevant to all: whether we shall, by whatever means, succeed in reconstituting the natural world as the true terrain of politics, rehabilitating the personal experience of human beings as the initial measure of things, placing morality above politics and responsibility above our desires, in making human community meaningful, in returning content to human speech, in reconstituting, as the focus of all social action, Ihe autonomous, integral, and dignified human "I," responsible for ourselves because we are bound to something higher, and capable of sacrificing something, in extreme cases even everything, of his banal, prosperous private life-that "rule of everydayness," as Jan Patočka used to say-for the sake of that which gives life meaning. It really is not all that important whether, by accident of domicile, we confront a Western manager or an Eastern bureaucrat in this very modest and yet globally crucial struggle against the momentum of impersonal power.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Friday night funk comes on Thursday this week

I had some unutterably profound thoughts this morning about the reconciliation of religion and science, the nature of existence, and the origins of political order but decided to spare everyone and put up this instead:


From the Treme soundtrack album which is quite worthwhile.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Occupy Computation

The title slogan popped into my brain this morning; now I have to figure out what it means. I have a pretty solid idea of what computation is and I hope you do too, so this will mostly explore the meaning of "occupy".

Really it's what I've been trying to achieve for most of my career -- making computational worlds visible, controllable, buildable, and habitable by the people who need to interact with them. Often this manifests as some form of end-user programming language, but there are other ways to do it. Spreadsheets, for example, succeeded because they created a tactile, habitable way of interacting with data.

Occupying a computational (or virtual) space is different than occupying physical space, of course. Easier in that there are no logistics to overcome, none of the scarcity and commitment that defines our physical world. On the other hand we have highly evolved tools for dealing with physical reality; our methods for dealing with computational worlds are primitive and difficult to use in comparision.

Virtual Reality always seemed to me like a crude, overly-literal way to have people live in computation. So I've not spent much effort on 3D graphics and goggles, instead I'm more interested in coupling more modest user interfaces technology with complex worlds like bioinformatics, animal behavior, programming in general. So I've built visual programming systems, tactile interfaces, spreadsheet-like systems, and the like, all in an effort to lower the barrier between mind and the structures in the computer.

 Part of occupying computation is erasing the class barriers between developer and user. in this world, users are the 99%, developers like me are in the 1%. Other people have noted that the word "users" is in itself somewhat demeaning*; "the only two industries that call its customers users is the computer industry and drug dealers." The word encodes a kind of passivity which needs to be challenged. Users need to become programmers. There have been many attempts to extend programmability to the non-expert; I've worked on quite a few such projects. I don't think any of them were wildly successful, partly because either they come from programmers who think everyone should think like them, or they come from non-programmers, in which case they are messy and inelegant.

I ran across the phrase "habitable systems" awhile back, although I can't remember where (ah, OK, it's from Richard Gabriel's book Patterns of Software (big PDF)). Gabriel is, non-coincidentally, a Lisper. Habitability, in his writing, is linked to the idea of piecemeal evolutionary growth -- designing software systems so that the inhabitants can modify them based on their day-to-day changes in experience and needs:
I think this should be the goal for computer science practice. Most programming languages are excellent for building the program that is a monument to design ingenuity—pleasingly efficient, precise, and clear—but people don’t build programs like that. Programs live and grow, and their inhabitants—the programmers—need to work with that program the way the farmer works with the homestead.
Habitability is great -- but the point of an Occupy Software movement is to demand habitability, to find ways to force systems to be habitable. It's a more active form of the concept.

Lisp environments are (for me, and many others) the quintessence of a computational habitable systems. Lisp combines several properties -- interpretability with a read-eval-print loop, a basic data structure that is simple to serialize and deserialize, a unity between programs and data -- to make an environment where you can touch what's going on. This quality is so important, and so missing from standard languages (although this is changing). The very first thing I did when encountering Java was to write a small Lisp, not to actually program in but for the REPL loop, to give me a way to inhabit the computational world.

 One of the keys to the web's explosive success (taken for granted these days, but in no way inevitable) is that its standers were open, and its contents were open -- for any web page you see that does something interesting, you can click on View Source and see how it did it. So many non-technicals learned web building in this way. But that only gets you so far.

The Free Software Movement started out as a political effort to resist what was effectively an enclosure of the commons -- what was open research software, habitable by anybody with sufficient technical skills, was being converted to proprietary code that locked most people out. This has been amazingly successful in creating occupy-able systems, but only for hackers. Ordinary people don't have access. So the software is only sort-of habitable.

A hacker is someone who knows how to inhabit a system, who wants to inhabit it so much that they will do anything to force their way in, (in some meanings of the term) will go so far as to use illegal techniques to overcome barriers set in his way.

The Maker movement is another cultural push in the direction of habitability. All these motions are efforts to make everybody an insider -- whether this is practical or not, it's enormously appealing; the inclusivity of it very much in the American mold.

As an example of a non-habitable system, take iTunes and its genius feature (which generaates music playlists based on a starting example). This works rather well, and I use it a lot, but lately I've been irritated at its repetitiveness -- the same songs from my collection keep coming up again and again until I'm sick of them. Presumably there is some parameter hidden in there, but I can't change it because the geniuses at Apple didn't see fit to create a UI affordance for it.

If it was open source, then in theory I could go study the code, find where this parameter is, and alter it. In practice I'd be unlikely to do so (for one thing, it's probably written in a language I don't program in every day, and thus the overhead to figure it out would be pretty large). So an imagined inhabitable music player would not only be open source, but have its rules encoded in some accessible way, so that you don't have to be an expert to modify it.

So, this is what occupy means to me -- a declaration, both individual and collective, that I/we have a right to inhabit this world, this space, this society. To live in it, make it habitable, to share it, to humanize it. And that these rights are not handed out by some authority, but must be taken. Spaces under the control of systems that are not life-enhancing must be occupied and transformed. That's the impetus behind the main movement of OWS -- the shared recognition that the financial system is a life-sucking vampire squid and needs to be replaced -- with what, nobody knows, but that is, for now, beside the point.
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
                    -- Woody Guthrie, This Land is Our Land
Now the occupy meme is starting to spread. There are many things I'd like to occupy, areas that seem closed where they should be open. Occupy music, occupy language, occupy religion, occupy your own mind... This blog itself is an act of occupation, my little insistence that my voice is out there and part of the public discourse. There are people with orders of magnitude more impact than I have -- doesn't matter, much. It is the act of occupying that is important.

One last note: The future is going to be a network of smart, networked objects and algorithmic policy engines. Our lives will be only become more inextricably bound up with software. It is critically important that these systems not be closed off, that ordinary people retain a measure of control. We will be living in these systems whether we like it or not, but there is a difference between mere living and occupying.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Feeding Frenzy

It's rare to get such a clear demonstration of our primate heritage:


The WalMart scuffle was apparently caused by the announcement of $2 waffle makers. Gotta have it!

Occasionally I find myself playing the SWPL game of sneering at WalMart and its customers, then catch myself and feel guilty for it.  Then I see something like this...

 (via tbogg and Balloon Juice)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Don't let us get sick

So bad living caught up with me and I am typing these words from a bed in the cardiac unit of Stanford Medical Center...kind of a shock since I don't think I've spent a night in a hospital since I was 3 years old. No particularly trenchant observations from this experience...except that it is very jarring to transition from being a relatively autonomous person to an object for all sorts of people to probe, poke, examine, and manipulate. Reminds me that the grammatical term patient is the opposite of agent, "the participant of a situation upon whom an action is carried out".

Also that if you do have a serious or mysterious medical episode it is definitely a good idea to have it near a topnotch hospital, and having that at hand is one of the benefits that the high cost of living around here pays for. My father had the presence of mind to have his heart attack on the street just outside the U of Chicago Medical Center, in front of a group of docs coming back from lunch.

Anyway, having perplexed the local would-be Houses here for awhile, they seem to have me figured out and stabilized and I may get out of here in a day or two.

[[update: I passed my stress test yesterday (a rather ridiculous affair where they have you bicycle while lying down, while hooked to an EKG and an ultrasound tech poking at you), which means my heart can do stuff, so they sent me home where I am recuperating. Thanks for all the good wishes. ]]

Sunday, November 06, 2011


Libertarianism has a slick new website, funded by Cato, ie the Kochtopus. I couldn't find anything obviously mock-worthy on a quick overview, and I have to applaud their including a whole list of pointers to anti-libertarian writings. OK, so the fact that it is titled "Critics of Liberty" rather than "Critics of Libertarianism" is pretty laughable. As is the listing of Ayn Rand, Thomas Sowell, and Murray Rothbard in a list of "major libertarian thinkers"...oh well, I don't want to get started here, because I have a new place to do it.

I will take this opportunity officially launch a side-microblog I've had for a little while now, Libertardian. I started this because my obsession with libertarianism is boring but I seem to be unable to give it up, and because so many of these freedom-lovers censor comments on their blogs (anyone else who has been banned from EconLog or elsewhere is welcome to be come a contributor). I have no real excuse for this, and people are giving me a hard time about the name, but what the hell.

I also wanted to investigate what micro-blogging was all about, and I admit to being baffled, because the features of Posterous seem only slightly different from a full-blown blogging platform like Blogger. Maybe inability to percieve these niches is why I'm not a successful web entrepeneur.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


It's pretty exhilarating to see a mass movement that actually seems to be getting some traction and also seems to be largely independent from the usual political actors, at least for now.  Some links:
Looking for something deep to say about this rare phenomenon, a bottom-up spontaneous large-scale collective action with no clear goal and no clear boundaries. What binds it together? The slogan "we are the 99%" is brilliant. There's a deep vein of anger at the manifest economic injustices that have become baked into the structure of society. "Banks got bailed out, we got sold out" was another good slogan being chanted the last time I was there.

I believe that a sense of injustice, rather than mere resentment at the economically fortunate, is what animates most of the participants. The sense of fair play, that everyone in society is playing by the same rules, has been virtually destroyed in the last few decades; we want to get it back.

And about that "we": it feels odd for me to include myself in anything this massive and populist, to use the first person plural as if I can speak for it, but also feels oddly right. I don't pretend to be near the center of it, or even a fraction as involved as many other people, but it doesn't matter. We're all doing what we can.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


For John McCarthy:

Here lies a Lisper
Uninterned from this mortal package
Yet not gc'd
While we retain pointers to his memory
Also, too.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Everybody Knows

This has been suggested as a suitable anthem for Occupy Wall Street:


 And it's a pretty good choice, but I think I still prefer the Tom Waits number I posted about a year ago.

Actually neither really works, an anthem for a movement has to have at least a hint of a brighter future; these two are both in their different ways about the inevitable fuckedupness of the world.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tempus fugit

A while back I had the unusual pleasure of meeting someone in person that I met through the blogosphere -- Venkatesh Rao, proprietor of the Ribbonfarm blog (and now hitting the big time by blogging at Forbes). That sort of thing often doesn't go well, but in this case it did, we had an invigorating conversation. I hope he won't mind me saying so, but he feels like a kindred spirit, from his notions of being an "illegible person" (and thus difficult to categorize), to his use of ideas from narrative theory in his book Tempo: Timing, Tactics, and Strategy in Narrative-Drive Decision Making.

Tempo is a small book which is about too many different things; many of them some of my own favorite topics: conceptual metaphor, narrative, decision theory, enactment, situatedness, Minsky's Society of Mind theory. Again, I'm in complete sympathy with the author, because I too can't write anything without a couple dozen different ideas and approaches creeping in. In a way it reads like a proposal for a much longer book, a grand work of synthesis that could be called something like "The Temporal Structure of Action". But perhaps he's not in a position to write a longer book, or doesn't want to, or maybe nobody reads monumental tomes anymore. But that seems to be what he's trying to get at:
I define tempo as the set of characteristic rhythms of decision-making in the subjective life of an individual or organization, colored by associated patterns of emotion and energy.
Although I don't think this is made quite explicit, what struck me most about this concept is that it blithely crosses the boundary between agent and environment. Tempo is a property of the situation, and is equally objective and subjective.
The most basic decision-making skill is adapting to the tempo of your environment, and setting your own pace within it... 
[an analysis of the task of driving as an example] 
...Driving graphically illustrates the four main skilled behaviors that constitute the overall skill of timing: merging, going with the flow, pacesetting, and disrupting.
That last gives you a feel feel for the book. It's mostly a collection of temporal patterns, or attitudes toward time and action. Like pattern languages elsewhere, I find I have a dual reaction: yes, these all seem like useful ideas in a sort of cookbook-y way, but where's the theory behind them? What unifying principle lets you declare that these are the patterns of reality and not others? That's not a fair question in this context, because rather than presenting a rigorous or pompous philosophical system, Tempo reads somewhat more like a self-help or business book, urging readers to come to grips with the temporal nature of their world.

Also among the ingredients in this stew is a dollop of military theory, which is an area I'm almost totally unfamiliar with. But it fits in well, since matching your actions to a ongoing fluid situation is obviously something armies have to be good at. 

Anyway, this book is hard to categorize, hard to classify, and hard to locate, in keeping with the author's idea of illegibility. I put it somewhere in between the land of academic cognitive science, management theory, and self-help. Although the style is totally different, it also seems to have something in common with books on meditation, since that too is a way of redirecting attention to the temporal nature of reality.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

This embarrassment

For Yom Kippur:
Philosophy may be defined as the  art of asking the right it, the awareness of the problem outlives all solutions...In religion, on the other hand, the mystery of the answer hovers over all questions. Philosophy deals with problems as universal issues; to religion the universal issues are personal problems. Philosophy, then, stresses the primacy of the problem, religion stresses the primacy of the person.  
The fundamentalists claim that all ultimate questions have been answered; the logical positivists maintain that all ultimate questions are meaningless. Those of us who share neither the conceit of the former nor the unconcern of the latter, and reject both specious answers and false evasions, know that an ultimate issue is at stake in our existence, the relevance of which surpasses all final formulations. It is this embarrassment that is the starting point for our thinking. 
      -- Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man 

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Great Man Theory

All the Steve Jobs love is starting to get on my nerves. No wish to piss on the man or his memory or his very real achievements, but I feel a reaction building, so will vent here.

First, here's the Onion capturing things perfectly as usual.

Second: boy, do Americans love them some CEO, especially an arrogant one. For a bunch of freedom-loving rebels there is certainly a strong streak of servility in the national character.

Third, I can always rely on Mencius Moldbug to articulate have exactly values that are diametrically opposed to my own. Here he's just channelling his hero Carlyle and his Great Man Theory of history. "There is no act more moral between men than that of rule and obedience." Well, OK then.

Fourth, here's a piece I wrote a little while ago on whether Jobs or all the thousands of creative people who worked for him and on the technologies he appropriated deserve credit. Also see this proposal for the tomb of the unknown engineer.

Jobs was a master packager and salesman, an innovator rather than an inventor. He took ideas that were largely developed by other people, added some design vision and marketing zing and produced cool. That's not nothing, but it's not exactly world-transformative either. Without him, technology would probably have developed along almost exactly the same lines, although perhaps more slowly, and with less impact on lifestyle trends.

But I use and appreciate Apple products, wouldn't be caught dead with Microsoft. I prefer Linux as the platform of actual netocratic democracy rather than top-down authoritarian tastemakers, but don't have the commitment to be an open source ideologue. So Steve Jobs has improved my life.

Whether history was primarily driven by singular individuals or was a product of vast impersonal forces was a big question in the 19th century.  When I find myself oscillating between two sides of a debate that has gone on for that long, I like to aim for something beyond the dialectical poles. Let's just say that technology is the creation of radically distributed networks of creativity, more so than any other human thing. Your iPhone contains the contributions of hundreds of thousands of people, from the guy who sweated over the exact shape of the bezel, to the Chinese workers who assembled it, the generations of engineers who brought semiconductor technology up to the level where it could be incorporated, and so many others. 

But we aren't very good at thinking about those kinds of networks, so it's much more convenient, perhaps necessary, to have a single human face to put on it all. Jobs was that face, and he was not at all shy about taking on that role.
In historical events great men—so-called—are but labels serving to give a name to the event, and like labels they have the least possible connection with the event itself. Every action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own free will, is in an historical sense not free at all, but in bondage to the whole course of previous history, and predestined from all eternity. -- Tolstoy, War and Peace

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Be your government

An old friend called me out of the blue to announce that he's running for office, in association with a group/site/platform called (identity of friend and office is secret for awhile, since he hasn't officially announced anything yet). I liked the name of this group, because one thing I keep hammering on here (partly to convince myself I suppose) is that there always is going to be some kind of government, that is, there will always be some institutional mechanisms by which societies regulate themselves. This doesn't mean they have to be the size of states or have the structure of states, but there's always something. And if you, the individual, are not part of that government, then you are merely subject to it. Since we live in a society in which everyone ostensibly can be part of the government, then if you aren't you deserve what you get.

That's me in idealist mode. I still have a large cynical streak where my the attitude is more that government is an unpleasant fact of life; that one should avoid it when possible; tolerate when necessary; not be in the least surprised to find it doing damaging, stupid, or evil things. And one should busy oneself with living one's life despite all these things, rather than obsessing over them. That is a a form of disgust with government that at least seems honorable, and has a long tradition in this country.

But what absolutely infuriates me is the hypocritical institutionalized cynicism and moral preening of libertarianism. I've gone over the reasons why often enough, I guess I won't repeat myself here. The essence of libertarianism is the denial of the social sphere and the consequent repudiation of democracy. Government to the anarchists of the right is some kind of alien destructive force that has imposed itself on society, rather than a key functional part of society. Libertarianism smugly complains about the failings of government while taking for granted the benefits it brings.

This critique applies to a good chunk of the left as well, of course.

Let me try another wording: the problem is both the perceived and real alienation of government from the governed. So the slogan of BeYourGovernment is a nice, accurate, and concise blow against this attitude.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Random Rosh Hashana Religion Ruminations

Today is Rosh Hashana, went to services last night, as usual am suffering the effects of being half-in and half-out of this religion thing.

Religion is how people and communities establish a relationship to the transcendent, to the eternal, to the infinite, to the absolute, to the sacred, to things unseen and to the powers that underlie the world. So in some sense, you have to have a religion, even if it's one that denies that these things have any sort of reality or meaning whatsoever -- that too establishes a relationship. We all have to live in the world, we all have to deal with its immensity and our smallness.

If the above is how we relate to the cosmos, the other part of religion is about how we deal with each other. It is less clear to me that these things have to be managed by the same institution, but that seems to how things have evolved.

Judaism is very proud of the fact that it invented monotheism (highly disputed, Freud thought they got it from the Egyptians, here's an interesting looking paper that traces it back to Assyria), supposedly the best idea evar. Opinions differ, some say it's the worst. My own feelings (good for today only):

a) it's an important step in the evolution of the human mind, that is, it has approximately nothing to do with whatever is powering and governing the universe and a lot about how we construct and construe ourselves;

b) while it's a crucial part of the growth of western civ, including the devlopment of science, and thus is baked into the deep structure of my own mind, we are in a cultural point where we have to move on to the next thing. God is dead, but gods have a way of coming back from death, generally transformed in some way.

The flavor of Judaism I am currently involved with is the San Francisco fuzzy kind, so the kind of monism on display tends towards the mystical rather than the authoritarian. That's a lot more acceptable, although sometimes it gets too gloppy for me. Everyone's too nice, it leaves out the part of Jewish culture that resonates most with me, argument. On the other hand, insofar as it works for me at all, it works because the genuine spirituality of the community is capable of sneaking past my rationalist defenses.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Libertarian Bizarroworld

Bryan Caplan gives the game away:
Since you're nerdy enough to read EconLog, I assume you're familiar with Bizarro WorldBizarro Superman, and Bizarro Jerry.  Now imagine adding a new figure to this mythology: Bizarrro Wolf Blitzer.  In Bizarro World, the masses and the mainstream media (Blitzer included) are thoroughly libertarian.  Statists are just a handful of hard-blogging oddballs.  To signal his open-mindedness, Bizarro Blitzer invites a leading statist on his show....
My claim: The people of Bizarro World have a far better understanding of right and wrong than the people of the real world.  In Bizarro World, people know that it's morally permissible to refuse to help a total stranger who failed to purchase health insurance, and morally impermissible to treat a peaceful immigrant like a criminal.
My response on EconLog was censored, because apparently "WTF" is such strong language that it makes Galtian supermen clutch their pearls and head for the fainting couch. So reproduced (reconstructed) below:

WTF does "morally permissible" mean? It can't mean "moral under the generally accepted moral code of western civilization", since that makes charity a moral requirement (as stated explicitly in the Torah, in the New Testament, and in fact by most moral codes elsewhere).
If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother: But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth. "  -- Deuteronomy 15:7-8
So it must mean "moral according to the rules of libertarian bizarroworld", which inverts the usual moral codes. In libertarian bizarroworld, selfishness is a virtue and charity is a sin.  The sociopath-admiring Ayn Rand I guess is the prophet of this inverted religion.

So Caplan's "claim" is basically a tautology; that in bizarroworld, inverted morality is "better" and more generally accepted than normal morality.  That's fine for bizarros, and you know who they are. But it has nothing to do with the real world except to serve as a horrible counterexample of how to think and behave.

[[update: this is too good (emphasis added):

Suppose a guy with no health insurance and no assets shows up at a hospital emergency room with an urgent life-threatening condition. Should you let him die? Ordinary compassion says no. The heightened compassion of the economist says, at the very least, maybe.

Has there ever been a field so self-regarding as libertarian economics? Any field that is so in love with its own abstractions, so convinced that they confer moral virtue?

I will give the author of that quote, Steve Landsberg, credit for making it a "maybe" (sure, anything might be true), and focusing on an important issue (the scope of compassion). But still.]]

Sunday, September 11, 2011


A friend pointed out that this was not only the 10th anniversary of the al Qaeda attacks, but also the 105th anniversary of the start of Gandhi's Satyagraha campaign.
And people were wondering, how can we resist with the state so powerful, and we don’t have any weapons, you know, because every time, even today, when somebody talks about resistance, everybody thinks in terms of weapons and war and fighting. And that’s when grandfather explained to them that we don’t need any weapons of mass destruction. We have the ability to respond to this nonviolently and with self-suffering. And that’s what he encouraged the people to do. And they came out into the streets with love for the enemy. You know, grandfather didn’t tolerate any hate for the enemy or any anger for the enemy. He said nonviolence has to be complete nonviolence. We have to have love and respect for the enemy, and that is the only way we can overcome them. And that’s what he showed in his work.   -- Arun Gandhi
I tend to be dubious of political programs that rely on saintliness, given the short supply. Nonviolence seems so impractical, until you compare it with the track record of violence.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Oh look, Ann Coulter said something stupid and offensive (this time, claiming that being a kindergarten teacher was not a "real job", whatever that means). This is not news, nor very interesting. There are many blogs (like the link target) who make a business of being outraged at this sort of thing, and others who do a good job of mercilessly mocking it. But I usually don't bother posting in this area, although I read plenty of those who do.

However, this time I started thinking about why the hell am I clicking on that link and watching a video of this harridan, when I know exactly what to expect, and that I will not be any wiser or otherwise improved afterwards? Indeed, I'll feel rather nauseated. So what's the attraction? Do I enjoy being offended and outraged for some reason? I tell myself I read right-wing blogs for of the intellectual challenge of trying to wrestle with a differing world-view, but that rationale seems less and less credible, and with Coulter it doesn't work at all. Or I tell myself its a form of amateur oppo research, but that doesn't really fly either.

No, something else is going on. Despite her superficial hideousness, there must be something attractive there. It may be the same sort of attraction found in horror movies, or the way we learn to like certain kinds of rottenness found in strong cheese. The very qualities that make her repulsive also make her attractive, on some different and largely unconscious level.

I think what attraction Coulter's shtick has for both me and her right-wing fans is based on its transgressive qualities. She's violating the rules of decency, while appearing (sort of) charming and amusing about it. That puts her opponents in the position of moralistic prigs, who believe that they are in a position to dictate what's right to the rest of us. She's a rebel! A truth-speaker!

So much of modern conservatism seems to be based on this need to transgress against what is supposed to be the dominant moral order, let's call it boomer liberalism. According to this ethos, you are supposed to be compassionate, tolerant, responsible, sensitive, cosmopolitan, educated. You are not supposed to be explicitly competitive or aggressive, except in certain approved and highly constrained ways.

Now, I don't really have too much against this moral order, which on the whole is an improvement on what it superseded. It suits my cultural biases. But like any other moral order it can be stultifying, and like any order it creates its own status hierarchies and winners and losers. Not everyone can easily conform to these norms. The result is a strong resentment at liberal elites, coupled with assertions of masculine brutality against what is seen as a feminized ethos of niceness. Coulter is a master of playing with these resentments, of giving voice to the part of the world who doesn't particularly want to be nice, of packaging them up into something outrageous enough to get her in the news while not being so outrageous as to get her banned (eg, she's careful not to veer into explicit racism, unless it's against Arabs).

Thus the entire basis of the conservative movement appears to be almost the opposite of what conservatism is supposed to be about. It's not about the preservation of an aristocratic elite, but the attempt to unseat one, one that is felt as illegitimate. (Whether they are pawns of the older more traditional elites who are trying to regain the power they lost is an interesting question, but not relevant to this particular train of thought).

At some level, I too feel the dominant moral order to be an imposition, and at some level I resist it like I would any externally-imposed authority. I can feel and share in the resentment even though the alternatives being touted appall me. Any political group seeks to impose a moral order, and I say screw 'em all, which is why I often feel more truly anarchic than the anarchists. And yes, this attitude is immature and being mature means joining up with and helping maintain a moral order, one way or the other, which I've done as best I can. But the old feelings remain; advanced middle age has not cured me of them as one might have hoped.

So I read these right-wingers for the little tingle of transgressivity they supply. It's a form of intellectual pornography I suppose.

[a previous post on a similar topic.]

Monday, September 05, 2011

Solidarity forever, someday

Obligatory Labor Day post. Not too much to say today, except that being for "labor" these days seems like a sucker's game, since even the working classes for the most part can't be bothered. Solidarity is a wonderful thing, but there's a point past which it can't be salvaged and we seem to have blown past that sometime in the last 30 years or so.

I don't really believe that it's dead and replaced by the realm of total individual self-interest that was the dream of Ayn Rand and the reality of Wall Street. But the old banners -- of class, party, or ideology -- haven't held up. Something new will need to emerge, and it isn't quite there yet.

In the meantime, here's a nice instance of inter-generational continuity.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Libertarians for slavery

At this point I should be jaded, but I still get a little chuckle when I find the gods of libertarianism devoting their efforts to defending some of the most brutal enemies of human freedom. Here we see Murray Rothbard musing over Just War theory and deciding that the only ones he approves of are Revolutionary War and "the War for Southern Independence". That is, he is happy to support the collective rights of slavers over the individual rights of slaves, who barely register in his consciousness.
In 1861, the Southern states, believing correctly that their cherished institutions were under grave threat and assault from the federal government, decided to exercise their natural, contractual, and constitutional right to withdraw, to "secede" from that Union. The separate Southern states then exercised their contractual right as sovereign republics to come together in another confederation, the Confederate States of America. If the American Revolutionary War was just, then it follows as the night the day that the Southern cause, the War for Southern Independence, was just, and for the same reason: casting off the "political bonds" that connected the two peoples. In neither case was this decision made for "light or transient causes." And in both cases, the courageous seceders pledged to each other "their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor."
we must always remember, we must never forget, we must put in the dock and hang higher than Haman, those who, in modern times, opened the Pandora’s Box of genocide and the extermination of civilians: Sherman, Grant, and Lincoln.

Perhaps, some day, their statues, like Lenin’s in Russia, will be toppled and melted down; their insignias and battle flags will be desecrated, their war songs tossed into the fire. And then Davis and Lee and Jackson and Forrest, and all the heroes of the South, "Dixie" and the Stars and Bars, will once again be truly honored and remembered.
via. He has a grain of a point -- the rise of a strong federal government made it possible for the US to spend the next 150 years building the military empire we have today, which is also anti-freedom. But the cause of southern slavery is the worst argument possible against federalism.

Seeing libertarians like these guys and Bryan Caplan write about war is kind of painful. I presume they own a little chunk of real estate like the rest of the middle class -- are they under the impression that their title doesn't squat over an ocean of blood? That because they obtained their little territory by sitting down in a realtor's office rather than swinging a sword, it doesn't represent a conquest over other people who might have thought they had a right to live there?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Working toward Steve Jobs

[[updated below]]

I have nothing against Steve Jobs, he's obviously done a lot of good in the world and I wish him the best of luck dealing with his medical problems.

But the tone of the headlines today really grate on my nerves. Is Apple Doomed? Well, if they are, that sucks, because it means a collectivity of thousands of people and enormous wealth and creativity is nothing more than the manifestation of the will of a single individual. Or more likely, it's just that the press and popular imagination can't envision the nature of a collective so have to project everything onto a single person. That sucks in a slightly different way.

Of course the work of many has gone into making Apple's products what they are, from the original inventors of important tools that Apple popularized (eg Doug Englebart (mouse, hypertext) and Alan Kay (windows UI, object-oriented programming)) to the lead Apple engineers (Bill Atkinson and Jef Raskin are two names who come to mind), through the thousands of lesser engineers who sweated the details to the anonymous Chinese drones who put the stuff together. Everyone knows this, but something in our cognitive structure can't handle large networks, so we fixate on a single person as the metonymic embodiment of the hundreds of thousands, and write glowing articles about him and his quirks rather than the organization he sits on top of.

Maybe this is just how things work. Maybe it's the case that any really great organization has to be led by a single individual who combines exceptional vision, charisma, and organizational capabilities, and can serve as the human embodiment of the organization. Maybe that's what makes "genius" or "leadership" and we should be thankful to have it on occasion. But it pisses me off. I want a more democratic world, where everybody's judgement and talent and contributions matter, not just that of a few dictator/leaders. Even supposedly decentralized, cooperative organizations like Wikipedia seem to coalesce around a leader and take on his personality and preferences. Having spent a few times in groups that tried to work on leaderless principles, I'd say that it very rarely works, people being what they are.

I am genuinely torn, because I find my values in conflict. On the one hand, the dictatorship of Steve Jobs is what elevates Apple above the level of other corporations. On the other hand, I don't like authority. But if you have to work in a hierarchical organization, I guess it's good if the leader is a man of both vision and taste. It is damn rare to have someone who can both lead a large organization and at the same time pursue a great personal vision. More often those who ascend to the apex of the pyramid do so by leaving any socially positive values behind. So until we solve the problem of anarchist organization, we need more Steve Jobs.

[[update: Here's another opinion:
It turns out that it is possible for ad hoc, loosely affiliated, impermanent groups of humans to, without direction or governance, collaborate on extremely complex and sophisticated tasks and achieve exceedingly specific ends.
Well, call me a bourgeois sellout, but (a) I didn't see anything all that objectionable about the NPR reporter's tone -- she's bemused but hardly as befuddled as IOZ paints her, and (b) yes, it is possible for loosely affiliated groups to accomplish things. But the kinds of things that anonymous does (destructive hacking and espionage) are for the most part not creative endeavors and are parasitical on the complex systems that have been created by others. In other words, not all that "complex and sophisticated". Can a loose affiliation create a computer or a network? Networks are distributed but their protocols are designed through centralizing processes, that's why the distributed nodes are able to talk to each other. IOZ would have been on better ground if he cited something like Linux or Apache or Wikipedia as an example, but even those examples draw on energy and ideas from centralized organizations and of course they do have "direction and governance".

The simpleminded opposition of distributed and centralized systems is a plague on the land; these are important issues and it's very rare to see them treated with any degree of critical realism. Speaking of Leviathan, I have Yochai Benkler's new book on order, maybe it does a better job, but I'm afraid it looks a bit too much like a cheerleading business book. We'll see.]]

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Report from Inconsistency Robustness 2011

This was a small but very interesting and spirited gathering. Like many interdisciplinary events, many of the people weren't quite sure what the meeting was actually about or why they were there, but that just made things more interesting. The instigator, chair, and chief agenda setter was Carl Hewitt, known best for developing the Actor model of computation, which is something that seems deeply important but has never quite set the world on fire the way it promised to. Actors, for the uninitiated, is a radically distributed model of computation at the most basic level, replacing the Turing/Von Neumann model that is essentially the basis for everything in the field. The somewhat metaphorical extensions of this approach (eg, in The Scientific Community Metaphor and Offices are Open Systems) strike me as very fruitful ideas whose potential is yet to be realized.

Carl's recent efforts have been in the direction of remaking logic in much the same sort of way as he tried to remake computation. The linkage is clear; distributed systems that contain representations will naturally and necessarily end up with conflicts and inconsistencies. The real world is both distributed and inconsistent; it is only the useful but ultimately misguided vision of a single centralized processor (with its its implied objectivity) that creates the illusion that there can be a formalized, complete, and consistent representation of reality.

However, this foray into logic does not strike me as a very fruitful path. I think logic is simply the wrong approach; it brings along too much baggage; it is something that needs to be discarded along with the rest of the centralized view, rather than reformed. And I have not really been able to make sense of his recent work in direct logic. This may be a prejudice or failing of mine; I studied mathematical logic in my youth and eventually had an allergic reaction to it, to the point where using the kind of typographic symbols logicians use causes me to break out it hives or at least stop reading.

Nonetheless, there seem to be important and good intuitions there. Hewitt cites Latour and some of Latour's followers (Annemarie Mol, John Law), and the Latourian part of his approach (which seems to be underemphasized, but its there) is to foreground the importance of arguments over deduction. He says: "Since truth is out the window for inconsistent theories, we need a reformulation in terms of argumentation". This is good, but in his formalism arguments are still inferential chains, just like in standard logic. He still wants to achieve "precision and rigor". This seems like a mistake. To capture real-world reasoning in argumentative form, you need to include all sorts of fuzzy and unformalizable forms of evidence and reasoning. In some of his writing Carl seems to say the same thing, but his use of mathematical notation obscures this, I think.

The other attendees included a smattering of people working in AI and law (makes sense, law is an inherently argumentative form of reasoning and has long-settled technologies for being robust to inconsistency), some security people, some Media X people, Hugo Mercier, a bunch of programming language/runtime people, a sociologist, and assorted unclassifiables and luminaries. The most straightforwardly technical talk was by David Ungar, whose earlier work in prototype-based object systems and environments was an influence on my grad-school work. He presented a system for dealing with very large datasets used in business query systems by allowing some inconsistencies to creep in in a controlled fashion.

The most interesting thing I learned about there had pretty much nothing to do with inconsistency and was not a formal part of the conference; it's that Mark Miller, who has been working on capability-based security models for 20 years (a promising Actor-like idea, that never seemed to take off), is now at Google Research and has successfully gotten his ideas into the revised JavaScript standard so that in the very near future it will be part of everyone's everyday computational environment. This is amazing in several dimensions; JavaScript seems like the last language environment on earth capable of being made elegantly secured, but apparently he's pulled it off. And it means that while the desktop OSs will clunk along with their security model that hasn't changed since the sixties, the browser will have one that actually might be capable of dealing with the challenges of 21st century computing.

My own talk went pretty well (paper, slides). But outside of letting me get some ideas and complaints out of my system, not sure what it really accomplished now that I'm back at my day job. I would love to work on reinventing computing from the ground up, but unlike Hewitt or Miller, I don't really have either an obsessive devotion to my ideas, nor the patience to navigate the politics required in order to have large-scale effects. Still, if anybody wants to fund me to work on this stuff, please do drop me a line.

I also participated in the panel on the Singularity, and pretty much gave the same quasi-theological argument I did here (slides), having determined that yes in fact I could get away with it. And afterwards, much to my astonishment, somebody said that my presentation was one of the more lucid ones of the day.

I think that the issues raised at the workshop are pretty much the most important things in the world. Some seriously powerful design ideas are going to be needed to manage the computational objects in the increasingly distributed, embedded, always-on world we are creating willy-nilly. Something like a coarse-grained version of Actors would be a good start. "Inconsistency" seems like too weak a word to name the processes of merging and reconciling divergent representations that must necessarily arise once everything is talking to everything else, but it too is at least a step in the right direction.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Working on my own supertheory

Through the maelstrom of the knowledge
Into labyrinth of doubt
Frozen underground ocean
melting - nuking on my mind

Yes give me Everything Theory
Without Nazi uniformity
My brothers are protons
My sisters are neurons
Stir it twice, it's instant family!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Argument as the basis for thought

So I finally got around to reading the Mercier & Sperber paper that was buzzing around the blogosphere recently, Mercier, H., & Sperber, D. (2011). Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34(02), 57-74. I love an argument and so would be predisposed to like a paper that tries to show that argumentation is the basis for human reasoning. And it turns out that Mercier is going to be one of the featured speakers at this conference I'm going to.

In some ways this is a glaringly obvious thesis to me, but only because I've been turning my thinking in this direction for quite awhile. It seems very similar to Latour, in some abstract way, although he's not cited (these guys are cognitivists, which means they think about what goes in inside the head, while Latour is a sociologist who things primarily about what goes on outside). But the emphasis on the agonistic nature of reasoning is the same; the idea that the purpose of representation and thinking is fundamentally to strengthen a position. Latour and M&S seem to be coming at the same insight from two rather different approaches. Latour is coming at it from a combination of sociology and advanced metaphysics; M&S muster tons of experimental evidence to show that people are better at shoring up existing beliefs with argument than coming up with objective truths.

What's odd to me is that this position seems like a very natural fit for computationalists, yet most AI people are stuck thinking that representations are mere symbols, that squat in the brain and have a magical rapport with things in the world. But the essence of computational thinking (in my version of it anyway) is to be acutely aware of the relationship between representations and the processes that use and generate them. So if there is an argument or other interested process behind thoughts, that should come as no surprise, but apparently it still is.

Agre & Chapman and others analyzed this problem and tried to fix it, ages ago, but it didn't seem to take. In fact I now recall that one of Agre's hacks was a dialectical situated action agent that would argue with itself about how to cook breakfast, or something like that. I wonder if it's time for another run at the problem?

Monday, August 08, 2011

How to avoid the singularity

I have somewhat unaccountably been asked to be on a conference panel on the topic "Inconsistency Robustness and the Singularity". What do I know about the singularity? It is unknowable by definition. So almost anything said about it is guaranteed to be nonsense.

Yet nattering on about the unknowable is long human tradition. It is increasingly obvious to me that Singulatarianism has the form of a religion, specifically, a religion of the monotheistic, transcendent, and eschatological sort. God is the original singularity, and the technological singularity that is so longed for is just the rapture for nerds.

This is not exactly a criticism -- there's nothing inherently wrong with religion in my view, but there is something wrong in practicing religion while failing to acknowledge it, and instead pretending to "rationalism" (at least when rationalism was young, this was explicit).

Monotheism is the source of much that is good and even more bad in our thinking. Whatever good it may be responsible for (science!) it's pretty clear that it died in the modern era and we are in the midst of its death throes. Singulitarianism is just one of the spasms, a church for shallow thinkers, people who thought they'd gotten rid of a theistic mythology only to replace it with a near-replicate. It is not radical enough, because it presumes that while enormous technical changes will happen, we (the nerds) will still be pretty much the same. Consider eg the obsession with cryonics, which is nothing more or less than the effort to sustain the atomic, isolated indvidual past the point of death.

The cure for singulatarianism lies is in the direction of sociology and network thinking in general. Monotheism wants to collapse the universe's locus of control into a single transcendent point; whereas the reality of human life has it distributed all over the place. The real radical changes will come not from hyper-empowered individuals but from the networks that are in the process of being woven, of which the current most visible (Facebook etc) are just a shadow, a hint. The world runs on networks and will be determined by them. Perhaps a different theology is required.

What's this have to do with inconsistency robustness? Well, the implications for computational systems is that they too need to deal with distributed control, divergence of beliefs, goals, plans. Traditional logic is to monotheism as distributed, inconsistentent, argument-based logics are to a network-based metaphysics. In a distributed world, inconsistency is the norm and consistency the exception. The social world has evolved techniques for producing consistency and cooperation; computation needs to learn to do the same.

Hm, well, I have no idea how much of this I can or should shoehorn into a presentation at a technical conference.

[update: my slides]

Monday, August 01, 2011

Introspection and meditation

I blundered into a conversation about introspection at Less Wrong (I have a sort of fondness for that community, although I disagree with their premises, they are smart and earnest, and I go over there every few months to stir up shit).

A couple of thoughts: one, the term "introspection" is misleading. We can't use some magical mechanism to peer into our minds. In some deep sense we are strangers to ourselves and have to cobble together stories about our own goals and behavior in the same way we do for other people.

Two, and here I'm on very shaky ground, but it seems to me the point of Buddhist meditation is not accurately captured by "introspection". In fact in my own limited experience with it, it is more like a cure for the pathologies of introspection. But maybe that's just me. I really don't know what I'm talking about in this area, so here's someone who perhaps does making roughly my point. My expert consultant on such matters is off at The Buddhist Geeks conference, but will perhaps chime in.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

National greatness and its opposite

Took the kids to see the Bay Model in Sausalito, a huge scale-model of the hydrological systems around San Francisco Bay, built a long while back by the Army Corps of Engineers. They are refurbishing it so it was empty of water, which somewhat diminished the experience. It's also a bit fusty around the edges since it is no longer needed for its original purposes, having been replaced by computer models. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is an incredibly important and incredibly fragile piece of California's infrastructure (a good part of it is under sea level and protected by old, fragile levees, likely to collapse soon even without taking climate change into account). The Bay Model doesn't much go into the politics of water in California, although anyone who's seen Chinatown (or better, read Cadillac Desert) knows how much the two are linked.

But this post isn't about water, it's about a side-exhibit there on the Marin shipyards which used to be on the site where the model is located, which were thrown together in WWII and began churning out Liberty Ships at a rapid rate (one of the films shows that as one ship was being launched, they were already lowering part of the keel for the next one into the construction bay). People were drawn into the area from all parts of the country and all walks of life, with housewives being trained as welders overnight, black sharecroppers pouring in from the South. It was an incredible coordinated effort. It took a mere three months from deciding where to site the shipyard to starting lay steel in. Hard to imagine today.

I couldn't help contrasting the spirit that animated this effort with the current deadly stagnation in Washington, where even raising an arbitrary numerical limit seems to be impossible, let alone actually doing something. There is not even a hint of a shared national spirit, some grand project that could get people working together on the vast scale seen during the war. The calls to mobilize seem to fall on deaf ears.

Of course the war efforts were unencumbered by environmental constraints or much respect for individual rights. And while national greatness sounds a lot better than national stagnation, it seems as if it's usually a byproduct of war, the most destructive and wasteful thing in the world. Greatness may not be worth it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Babylon is nothing but an infinite game of chance

Awhile back I suggested that the only solution to our economic problems was a Biblical jubilee, and pointed to some economists who were talking semi-seriously about it. Now here's another one, with a twist that could make it work: rather than have one every 49 years, do it probabilistically, with a 2% chance in every year, so people don't game the system.

I wonder if a non-global jubilee would work. What if you only forgave the debts of a randomly-chosen 1/5 of the economy every ten years, or something?

I don't suppose something like this would ever happen; there is a built-in bias against random processes in government, perhaps because of its inevitable extrapolation. There used to be a draft lottery, and some public goods are distributed that way (such as slots in desirable schools in San Francisco), so it's not inconceivable.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

The potato chips did it

Bennett's ontology is also perhaps the first to make room for potato chips: 
In the case of ... potato chips, it seems appropriate to regard the hand's actions as only quasi- or semi-intentional, for the chips themselves seem to call forth, or provoke and stoke, the manual labor 
And further: 
˜To eat chips is to enter into an assemblage in which the I is not necessarily the most decisive operator™ (p40)...eating does not mean conquering raw material and assimilating it to ourselves, as Leon Kass holds (p47). Instead, the food-actors with which we engage constitute our individuality...
From a review by Graham Harman of Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter, apparently the state-of-the-art in neo-vitalism.

I was trying to make a clever post title, somehow inverting "I ate the potato chips" where the chips are the subject's hard to do! "The chips made me eat them" expresses the idea but retains traditional grammar roles. We need a new verb, like "The chips eta me". Which is just to say that our ideas about agency are very solidly embedded in language and it requires quite a heroic effort to get around them.

Monday, July 04, 2011

There's a fine line between independence and alienation

Posting has been light, so in lieu of new thoughts here's a different UI for the old content courtesy of Google and HTML5.

I see the Republicans are still playing chicken with the economy. I'm in one of my anti-political moods though, our institutions seem deeply broken and there's not a lot I can do about it. There are bloggers with 105 more readers than me, and they can't do anything about it either. The thing to do, borrowing a term from the software industry, is to remain agile.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Gay marriage impacts everyone

Congratulations to gays and the marriage equality movement for a major victory in New York. But rather than marching along in a pride parade, I need to be contrarian and point out one small but significant area in which the opponents of gay marriage actually have a point. It's not a decisive point by any means -- I still favor allowing gays to marry and so should you -- but it nags at me.

The pro-gay-marriage position is based on the idea of individual and equal rights, and a standard argument for it is that allowing gays to marriage cannot have any conceivable impact on heterosexual marriages (eg here or here). This seems very wrong to me. Despite this argument generally coming from the left, its underpinnings are identical to the libertarian/conservative dismissal of social reality, put in its starkest form by Margaret Thatcher's line "there is no society; there are only individuals". Well, no. Society is a real thing, we are all involved in it in one way or another, and it is involved with our lives. Marriage is a social institution, not merely something two individuals decide of their own free and independent wills to do. This is true of pretty much everything, but it's glaringly obvious in the case of marriage, which comes with a huge set of legal, social, and cultural baggage.

So extending the bounds of marriage to include same-sex couples is in fact a big change that impacts everyone, whether or not they themselves are going to get hitched to someone with similar genes and plumbing. Conservatives are right to sense this. Society works by means of norms and institutions, which are very real things (and sorry if I sound like a college freshman who has been bowled over by his Soc 101 course, but my naive and amateurish interest in the sociological won't be still) and changing them changes the world for everyone.

Now, that particular bit of truth is quite separate from the idea that such a change is necessarily pernicious. And even if it was, those theoretical harms would have to be balanced with the very real harms done to individuals by denying them equal rights.

But proponents of marriage equality should be careful in their arguments. Extending individual freedom is great, but pretending that it doesn't have any impact on society is a bad tactic because it isn't true, and people (including the people who need to be convinced in order to continue the legislative victories) know that it isn't true.

The issue is complicated by the fact that marriage generally has a religious and a secular component, but they are tightly interwoven. Proposals to split it up and get government out of the marriage business entirely and just have it manage the legal relationship of civil union made a lot of sense, but that's not the way things have been playing out. Marriage has remained a unified concept and that's where the battle is taking place, and if our side wins let's not pretend that there was a ground to fight over and the other side has not lost something.

The larger issue is that the left should not be in the business of making libertarian arguments and ceding the ground of society to conservatives.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Why do religion?

I feel a need to apologize for or explain the recent excursion into mystical shit. Why, I'm not sure – who am I apologizing to? Myself I guess. Does anyone else care? In part it was motivated by a feeling that I have to put some money where my mouth is. If I really believe, as I've said here on occasion, that religion is an important and fundamental part of being human, then I have to do it. Whatever religion is, it's not just something you think about or believe, it's something you practice. So I'm doing, in a fairly random and haphazard way, to be sure.

The whole Omer/Kabbalah stuff really just served as way to nucleate my usual self-absorption along certain lines that happened to be the same as other people in our synagogue's little study group. The point of this was to do this collectively, as part of a social group, which is not something I normally do. It's hard to make sense of that communal act out of its context – it is at least as much about doing something together with a particular group of people as it is about the ostensible content. Last week I was at a scientific meeting on synthetic biology (crashing it actually), and I'm struck by what ought to be by now a banal truth, which is that more than half the point of these things is networking or simply being there and constituting a social group, rather than some kind of pure disembodied information exchange. This is a pervasive phenomenon, but it's just more obvious in the case of religion than it is in cases where there are rational reasons for people to be together.

So religion is fundamentally social, just like everything else. I am someone who is (or at least perceives himself as) fundamentally asocial and areligious, and constantly working on trying to fix that.

What I ask of the free thinker is that he should confront religion in the same mental state as the believer…He who does not bring to the study of religion a sort of religious sentiment cannot speak about it! He is like a blind man trying to talk about colour.

The most bizarre or barbarous rites and the strangest myths translate some human need and some aspect of life, whether social or individual…Fundamentally, then, there are no religions that are false. All are true after their own fashion. All fulfill given conditions of human existence, though in different ways.

Because society can exist only in and by means of individual minds, it must enter into us and become organized within us. That force thus becomes an integral art of our being…

There cannot be a rational interpretation of religion which is fundamentally irreligious; an irreligious interpretation of religion would be an interpretation which denied the phenomenon it was trying to explain.

From my standpoint...religion ceases to be an inexplicable hallucination of some sort and gains a foothold in reality. Indeed, we can say that the faithful are not mistaken when they believe in the existence of a moral power to which they are subject and from which they receive what is best in themselves. That power exists, and it is society...In this way, religion acquires a sense and a reasonableness that the most militant rationalist cannot fail to recognize. The main object of religion is not to give man a representation of the natural universe...religion is first and foremost a system of ideas by means of which individuals imagine the society of which they are members and the obscure yet intimate relations they have with it.

– Emile Durkheim (the son of a rabbi, I just learned), The Elementary Forms of Religious Life

Well, I could pull quotes from Durkheim all day, but the overarching point is that religion is about something real, and that whatever it is, is the same thing that animates social life in general. So, my interest in religion has two aspects: from the personal side, I do it to align myself with the social, something that I feel I need to do in order to be a mature adult (still working on that at my advanced age). And from the outside, I don't think you can understand politics without understanding religion, a point I touch on occasionally and is the subject of an interesting-sounding new book on "political theology".

We live in a dangerous time. The old gods are dead, the new ones have not sorted themselves out yet. I feel some sort of an obligation to be part of the sorting process.