Monday, May 30, 2011

The pointy end of the spear

[Previous Memorial Day posts here, here, here]

I watched Dr. Strangelove with my kids the other day (me for the umpteenth time, they for the first), and, since I knew it so well, could focus on some of its less obvious qualities. Like the looks, how perfectly it captured some of the era's technology and design aesthetic. And how it treated humans bound up into technological systems that escaped their creators. In particular, the crew of the bomber, little human fleshopoids that travel along with the aeronautical and nuclear technology and guide it along, towards their own destruction.

The technology seems rather quaint, coming as it does at a too-early stage of the control revolution, where you had to have actual humans close to the weaponry. Having humans in the loop means unreliable control, and unacceptable cost. Nowadays our nuclear deterrent is based largely on ICBMs, where the humans are far from the destruction. More significantly, remote-controlled drones are becoming the weapon of choice, also pushing humans back from the front.

War, up until recently, involved groups of men carrying sharp sticks running into each other. Technology like cannons and armor and fortifications made some differences, which were very important in context (even something as simple as the stirrup is supposed to have played a significant role in the spread of feudalism), but it didn't change the basic way in which humans were immersed in violence. They were of necessity, close to it.

With the coming of the industrial age the balance started to change. The technology of destruction became too powerful for humans to withstand, and too complex for humans too control. This became obvious in WWI, but not really remediable until recently. Now we can have wars without soldiers, nobody but our enemies needs to risk anything worse than carpal tunnel syndrome. We've already removed most of the visible economic costs of war from the public consciousness, the human cost is the next to go.

Well, not quite. We are still getting a solider or two killed per day in Afghanistan, for no apparent reason. We're supposed to start withdrawing them in a few months, also for no apparent reason. Perhaps in the next war we'll have eliminated the need for memorials.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Counting the Omer: Hod (Awe, Majesty, Submission)

Due to various work and home crises swamping me, I haven't had time this week for much mystical shit, but feel obligated to say something nonetheless. And this Sephira seems particularly obscure to me. In this fairly slapdash study I've tried to stick mostly to Jewish sources and not get sucked into the vast web of new age, occult, and other material that has grown out around the Kabbalah. But in trying to get some handle on Hod, I stumbled on this page, which despite its flaky-looking web desigm actually had a pretty coherent and understandable constructionist model of the Kabbalah. And I happened to note that the author had an email address at HP Labs! Turns out it's this guy, a researcher/occultist with impressive and very un-Jewish hair.

Anyway, according to him, Hod is identified with "consciousness of form". The whole left side of the tree of life is the "pillar of form", with "force" forming its dual on the other side. OK. As it happens, this weekend was the annual Bay Area Maker Faire, a scene which I have a great admiration for even if I'm pretty much a passive participant. What's a "maker"? Someone who can make ideas into physical form -- artists, engineers, hackers, hobbyist builders. I can't even begin to articulate how much I admire people who can do this. I am somewhat a maker myself, kind of -- writing software, or prose, is also a kind of making, and like the physical kind involves a certain degree of struggle between ideas and the constraints of the medium in which they have to be realized. But I rarely make physical objects, I just don't have the patience (hm, that was last week's topic), and am somewhat in awe of those who do.

What does this have to do with awe? The Maker Faire has art in a completely non-pretentious context, a festival rather than the hushed somber, and pseudo-sacred space of a museum. If there's a sense of religious awe, it's a noisy pagan sort of feeling as opposed to more churchy forms. Some works were certainly awe-inspiring, like the 70-foot hight Colossus interactive sculpture (above), or ArcAttack, the Tesla coil band:

Presumably Energy needs to adapt a Form before it can inspire Awe. Makers are those who can manage to do the necessary wrangling. They are the ones who are not overawed by awe, they can live with it, channel it, spread it around, in some cases even make a living from it.

Om another note, today happens to be Bob Dylan's 70th birthday, certainly one of the more important music makers of my generation, so here he is in an awe-full mood:

And here's the only song of his I can think of that celebrates a feat of engineering (actually a Woody Guthrie cover -- not very surprising, things like dams and skyscrapers were only objects of popular admiration up until the cold war/sixties reaction to modernism, but that's a whole other post):

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Counting the Omer: Netzach (Patience, Eternity)

[warning: very stream-of-consciousness]

As usual I start off by going to the opposite pole -- impatience, the transitory. Thinking about the evolution of technology towards immediacy and how it produces in us a radical impatience, a small-scale anger that triggers at any millisecond delay between us and the digital response we seek.

Sometimes my mind feels like a Wall Street trading pit (do they till have those?) Furiously aggressive and competitive shouters battling each other over tiny differences in abstract transactions, trying to gain some small advantage here, shave some seconds there. Giving themselves early coronaries. Like Wall Street, little actual value is created from all this passion. Presumably it's all in the service of making a shitload of money that will be enjoyed some other time, a time that never seems to come.

I think somehow the effort to create coherent selves (which serve to allow us to not be trapped by every local temptation) gets too caught up in status seeking, and becomes a kind of frantic competition. It's a disorder of volition, a condition where long-term goals and short-term behaviors are too separated to support each other. Patience may be a way to connect the levels.

Patience in a way requires faith, a belief that in fact things will improve, that they'll work out even if we don't get every little thing done, that goals will get closer, even without impossible exertions and emotional flipping out. Eternity is in no allowing a little eternity to filter into our daily lives, we can moderate the unhelpful proddings of all the things we would like to do and don't have time for. Too much eternity is overwhelming, I suppose -- how the hell are you supposed to get anything done if you think about the ultimately trivial impact of our actions on the universe? But a little is good, it lets you downscale the concerns that loom so enormously.

"Things happen of their own accord, or not at all." -- Gene Wolfe

I don't know, patience can bleed into passivity. Gregory Bateson's was derisive of conscious purpose, as somehow un-ecological or unsound. Easy for him to say. It's the comfortable who can zone out into some kind of cosmic holism, secure in their estates. The rest of us have to scramble for a living, and we need goals and plans if we aren't to be slaves of other people's.

One more thought on eternity: like atheism and anarchism, it is a concept that is defined by negation (in this case, of time), and is thus hopelessly infected by what it seeks to deny. Time is even harder to avoid than god or the state. Yet all three of these concepts make a certain degree of sense, if only as asymptotes or attractors that draw us forward.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Volunteered slavery

I suppose if I didn't have a real job and a real life I might devote myself to critiquing the George Mason economics department. I already seem to spend an inordinate amount of time doing that. My defense is that when it comes to bashing libertarians, at least I'm picking on some of the most prominent, ones who are well-respected academics as well as popular in the blogosphere, public intellectuals (of a sort). And they are also one tentacle of the Kochtopus, so there's that, I feel like I'm doing my small part to battle this fearsome monster. There's also the alarming fact that this libertarian tendency has been seeping into mainstream discourse for decades and is a large part of what is making the institutions of government completely dysfunctional.

Anyway: Bryan Caplan is one of those people who even when I agree with his conclusions, I feel like he's wrong. Here's a post where he asserts that "conscription is slavery" (echoed by Robin Hanson, my other bete noire). Now, I am no fan of conscription or the military. But there's clearly something wrong here, if only because this has exactly the same form as the standard libertarian assertion that "taxation is theft", and there's clearly something wrong with that. So I wrote in a comment:
Conscription is slavery in exactly the same way that taxation is theft: that is, it isn't really, except in the most superficial form of analysis. And just as your precious bank account is not really yours in some cosmic, absolute, and unqualified way, neither is your body or self, it turns out. The government gets to take a slice of both. Why? Because it's the government.

The way people around here and Hanson's blog use the idea of status is fairly obtuse. Instead of saying "people have a very strong innate bias for government over firms", maybe you should enquire as to why that is.

If you are an anarchist, then OK, you can complain about government all you want. If not, then you really can't whine when it comes around to collect the bill.
To expand on the cryptic second paragraph, Caplan should check out his colleague Daniel Klein's paper The People's Romance. He's just down the hall (I imagine). This paper outlines a reasonably good theory of why governments exist, why people align themselves to it, and why that's important to the functioning of society.

The larger point: the only reason libertarians can maintain their stupid ideology is because they are, almost uniformly, white middle-class suburbanites who are almost completely isolated from the violence necessary to prop up the state that maintains their pampered little lives. They don't go to prison, they don't go off to fight in wars. And they don't actually fight the government, as real radicals do, and thus they never feel its wrath.

The core of libertarianism (and most other anarchist tendencies) is to take the fact that modern societies have more or less granted government a monopoly of violence and "coercion", and reason from there that if only we got rid of government, we'd get rid of the violence. The error here is completely obvious once you've thought about it for ten seconds, yet the idea won't die. Anarchists are like atheists -- they define themselves by what they claim not to believe in.

Libertarianism always involves a corruption of language. They took the perfectly good word "libertarian" and co-opted it to mean an apologist for power, and Caplan is busy trying to do exactly the same thing for "pacifist", so that it no longer means someone deeply committed to non-violence, who will risk their life for the principle, but just someone who thinks in the abstract that war is bad. Is Caplan going to lie down in front of a troop transport? I think not.

So does the fact that Bryan Caplan doesn't like conscription mean I have to be for it? Not really. But there's one somewhat good argument for it -- it democratizes the costs of war, and thus may dampen the tendency of states to go to war. That dynamic certainly was active during the Vietnam War era, and is absent now. If states are inevitable, then wars are inevitable, and the best way to keep it in check might be to make sure everyone has a risk of being killed, or forced to kill. Or else forced to become actual pacifists, conscientious objectors who will actually risk something for their principles.

[update: some unrelated George Mason shenanigans. And it appears that the next Commerce Secretary may come out of the Mercatus Center? WTF?]

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Counting the Omer: Tiferet: Beauty, Integration

As usual when I try to write about this abstract metaphysical stuff I find my mind flying to the opposite pole of where it is supposed to be headed. So if this week was supposed to be about integration, I instead thought about all my unintegrated tendencies, one of which is exploring this religious nonsense. Is my mind a chaos of divergence? Well, yes, but I like to think that at some level it does all fit together into something coherent, which I would hesitate to label beautiful but perhaps there's a conceptual elegance to be found there. If I've gained anything from too many decades of programming computers, it's a sense for that sort of thing, for what is required to capture a lot with a little. And that seems to be closely linked to integration, because given the limited capacities of the human mind, increasing the elegance and power of its conceptual apparatus is the only way to extend its reach. You can't integrate things without a powerful representational framework.

Of course, that's not really the type of integration I'm supposed to be meditating on. It's more about having an integrated character, a self that's a whole rather than a loosely-bound collection of tendencies. Again, my natural tendency is to the opposite, I am fascinated by thinkers like Minsky and Ainslie (and Buddhists perhaps) who highlight the fragmentary nature of the mind, the lack of a real self.

That's all very well, but the fact remains that no matter how fragmented the infrastructure of the mind might be, there's a need to have at least a fictional coherent unified self, for social purposes, for moral purposes, for simply managing a life. The self and God are almost exactly the same kind of fiction, and they may be equally necessary. The God of the Bible himself seems to be a radically un-integrated character, at one moment loving, the next angry, both omnipotent and jealous, clearly a product of multiple authors. Yet at some level those authors are writing about the same (possibly fictional) thing. God hangs together no better than we do, but like our selves does nevertheless have some sort of coherence.

The idea of integration suggests holism, an idea that has hovered around the background of my thinking, a somewhat flaky and mysterious alternative to mechanistic reductionism. Gregory Bateson may have had the most coherent version of this idea, but even in his relatively lucid writing it appears as something too profound to be thought about in any clear or rational way. Holism has faint overtones of religion, and like religion it just won't go away.

So, holism is the (unsupported) faith that the universe is in fact integrated, and that some of the entities within it reflect that integration by being wholes themselves: organisms, ecosystems, whatever. This is one of those things that seems to be a glowing and resonant truth to some people, and nonsensical to others. To these cheerful mechanists, holism and soulism are just illusionary artifacts that ought to be dispensed with by clear-thinking folk.

As usual, I can't quite put myself squarely in one camp or the other but have to oscillate between them. I am thus unintegrated, but only because I seek an even greater integration, one that leaves nothing out. The obvious hopelessness nature of this quest is what drives me to religion, which seems to be the only human construct even remotely capable of containing such longings. Science is great, but it is not up to that kind of task, and is usually wise enough not to try.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Counting the Omer: Gevurah

[#2 in a series]

Let's start with Jewish joke #54:
On Yom Kippur, the rabbi stops in the middle of the service, prostrates himself beside the bema, and cries out, "Oh, God. Before You, I am nothing!"

Saul Rosenberg, president of the temple is so moved by this demonstration of piety that he immediately throws himself to the floor beside the rabbi and cries, "Oh, God! Before you, I am nothing!"

Then Chaim Pitkin, a tailor, jumps from his seat, prostrates himself in the aisle and cries, "Oh God! Before You, I am nothing!"

Rosenberg nudges the rabbi and whispers, "So look who thinks he's nothing!"
There is no simple English translation of the term Gevurah, which suggests boundaries, limits, discipline, humility, strength, and judgement. It's something of an antinomy or dual with chesed, so where chesed suggests a somewhat sloppy, overflowing sense of love, gevurah is severe, withholding, proper. Perhaps accuracy is a good word to use. The idea is not to abase yourself, but to have an accurate representation of yourself, to be neither grandiose or unnecessarily small.

I usually worship limitlessness, at least in the intellectual plane. My goal has always been to know everything, connect everything, take home every book in the library and somehow incorporate it into myself, to not be limited by any field or discipline. This is of course impossible, ridiculous. It's a bit disturbing how much the world has evolved towards making this ridiculous goal sort-of realized, what with devices that provide internet everywhere and much of the world's knowledge at the other end. But sadly, having all that at my fingertips doesn't quite equate to my actually knowing everything, in fact it just makes it all the more clear how little I actually know.

So limits, boundaries, structure, to whatever it is I am trying to do sound amazingly useful. Simply agreeing to follow the Omer for a few weeks creates some structure and focus. A sense of humility might also be useful, in that recognizing my finite, serial-processing brain is never going to be able to absorb even a small fraction of the interesting and worthwhile material available to it. Somehow I need to face these limits squarely rather than dance around them. Embrace finitude.

I've written before how the social media seem to screw up boundaries -- of social spaces, and of the self. They create connections and break down barriers, to good and ill effect -- but in that post I was complaining about the generalized mush it makes of our social connections, reducing a rich texture of bounded spaces into flatland.

Boundaries are obviously important political issues, whether literally as in borders and immigration policies, or more subtle questions of what the boundaries of citizenship are, what it means to belong or not belong, to be an insider or outsider. Boundaries are also social constructs, meaning they are part illusory, part permeable, and that work has to be put into maintaining them. Again, my first strong instinct is resentment and indignation at borders, seeing as how they are tools of the state to control individuals. But then again I don't want the whole world tramping through my living room. Some boundaries are not only useful but necessary, and institutions like individuals need some kind of membrane that sets them off from everything else.

I am looking for the right balance between respecting and resenting these walls, between acknowledging them and bypassing them.

A software engineer's meditations on humility