Thursday, December 31, 2015

Blogyear 2015 in review

My posting rate continued its steep decline, only 17 posts this year compared to 24 last year. There are many reasons for that I suppose: I have been writing a lot on private social media groups, and so-called real life has been making some demands on my time. Here՚s a review of all posts except those that were obviously trivial or transitory:

Nerds vs Feminists riffs on some of the tension between feminism and nerd culture, which I took as an excuse to go into The Kids These Days, They Have It So Easy, Why In My Day mode.

Martyrs and the Coordination of Sentiment was written in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings and relates loosely to early writings on the sacred and politics.

This May Day post briefly examines my mixed attitudes towards both the left and capitalism and identifies something I labeled “fake solidarity”, which may be worth a longer examination. And a companion piece issued on Fake Labor Day toyed with my very uninformed notions about the Marxist concept of labor, another thing that might get worth knowing more about.

Three Forms of Antipolitics is also a product of the interaction of various nerdish ideas and politics, or more precisely the efforts of the former to deny or escape from the latter. It led into a followup about the specific incident when Mencius Moldbug got banned from the Strange Loop conference.

Another massacre, another post about the political sacred. I՚m starting to be slightly embarrassed by using such events as excuses to exercise my intellectual obsessions. If I was actually profiting from it, I՚d feel guilty of exploiting tragedy.

Burning Man Politics is about just that. And now I՚m embarrassed in a different way, by the fact that I՚m focusing on the least festive aspects of a festival. Why am I so obsessed with the political dimension of things? It՚s not like I՚m some grand macho radical, or even that I feel qualified to tell other people how they should behave. I don՚t even really like most political discourse these days, which tends to be split between the virulently idiotic and the appallingly self-righteous. But somehow I feel compelled to focus on the topic, as if some obscure duty was calling me.

Then finally I emitted a long piece about play and David Graeber, which is too fresh to be reviewed. It՚s a small chunk cut from a tangled web of thoughts about big ideas like goals, activity, representation, how minds actually work, and the meaning of life. I haven՚t really had much success in squeezing those ideas into blog form.

If I could bring myself to make a conscious effort to build an audience then I՚d probably start from my all-time most popular post on human-hostile systems and try to wire myself into the current excitement about AI risk. I am pretty sure all those people are wrong, but I am not sure why I believe that, and since “all those people” includes some very smart individuals it might be interesting and worthwhile to try to figure it out in more detail.

2016 promises to be an interesting year as the US political system goes through a slow-motion implosion, climate change becomes harder to ignore, and software continues to eat large chunks of the world.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Graeber v. Gradgrind

At the last Refactor Camp I presented a theory of play, which was quarter-baked at best, and I never got around to fully baking it. The underlying impetus was one of my periodic attempts to come up with a theory of mental representation that isn՚t completely broken – which seems like a ridiculously ambitious project, but I don՚t see anyone more qualified tackling it, so every so often I nibble at it. Anyway, that՚s how I came to be thinking about play back then, and haven՚t much since. However, my attention was recently directed to this article by David Graeber on the subject, which rekindled my interest a bit. Graeber also has ambitious goals for his theory of play. He is an anarchist and closely identified with the Occupy Wall Street movement, and he sees play as a weapon in an ideological battle against certain versions of biology and economics, but one that ultimately requires an alternative metaphysics.

I had very mixed reactions to this essay, which seems to have its heart in the right place, but like much of Graeber՚s writing he can be intellectually sloppy, especially about the political implications of whatever he՚s talking about. So this is mostly an attempt to winnow some genuine insights from the chaff of error.

Play is a subject both deep and slippery (in that it is difficult to even define or pin down as a phenomenon) Let՚s define play roughly as when humans or non-human animals engage in behavior patterns that seem to be modifications of more obviously functional ones (like fighting) but in are somehow modified to be less serious, decoupled from their usual triggers and consequences. It՚s tedious to think about play without some actual playfulness at hand, so here՚s a clip of my dog (the white one) playing with her friend:

From this and many other examples, we should have no problems believing that animals play (whether or not play is confined to mammals or is found in other clades is a matter of contention). This suggests, at the very least that play is not a late, spurious artifact of culture but something that is rooted deeply in the foundations of cognition and behavior.

The No-fun Universe

Because play has this definitionally quality of being decoupled from ordinary purpose, it may seem to have no purpose at all. Graeber seizes on this to use play as a tool to attack an ideological enemy that that seems to be a kind of coalition between science, capitalism, and rationality. The apparent uselessness of play becomes an argument against the linked ideas of neodarwinian evolutionary theory and economic rationalism, which in his view are anti-fun, anti-play, and thus anti-human. Under their oppressive sway, reality is a relentless battle for survival and dominance. Both are aggressively intellectually hegemonic as they aim to be totalizing theories that supervene on every single phenomenon of biological or social life. Such theories, according to Graeber, have no room for something definitionally purposeless like play. On observing a worm engaging in some behavior that seemed play-like:
How do we know the worm was playing? Perhaps the invisible circles it traced in the air were really just a search for some unknown sort of prey. Or a mating ritual…Even if the worm was playing, how do we know this form of play did not serve some ultimately practical purpose: exercise, or self-training for some possible future inchworm emergency?…Generally speaking, an analysis of animal behavior is not considered scientific unless the animal is assumed, at least tacitly, to be operating according to the same means/end calculations that one would apply to economic transactions. Under this assumption, an expenditure of energy must be directed toward some goal, whether it be obtaining food, securing territory, achieving dominance, or maximizing reproductive success…
According to Graeber, the very nature of science limits the sort of theories that behavioral scientists are allowed to entertain:
I’m not saying that ethologists actually believe that animals are simply rational calculating machines. I’m simply saying that ethologists have boxed themselves into a world where to be scientific means to offer an explanation of behavior in rational terms—which in turn means describing an animal as if it were a calculating economic actor trying to maximize some sort of self-interest—whatever their theory of animal psychology, or motivation, might be. 
… the neo-Darwinists were practically driven to their conclusions by their initial assumption: that science demands a rational explanation, that this means attributing rational motives to all behavior, and that a truly rational motivation can only be one that, if observed in humans, would normally be described as selfishness or greed. As a result, the neo-Darwinists went even further than the Victorian variety.
Let՚s call Graeber՚s ideological enemy Gradgrindism, after the character in Dickens՚ Hard Times who exemplifies a sort of cartoon version of utilitarian rationality:
Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over…. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. 
“You are to be in all things regulated and governed … by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery.
Gradgrindism holds that if humans play, that is, engage in behavior without a clear purpose, it՚s a mistake to be corrected. And while most scientists would strongly disagree, Graeber sees the scientific worldview as basically Gradgrind՚s.

Against Gradgrindism Graeber describes the purported tendency of all animal life towards seemingly useless action, and not just in our near relatives the mammals but in ants and lobsters as well. Animals, Graeber asserts, do things just for fun, solely for their own amusement:
That’s why the existence of animal play is considered something of an intellectual scandal. It’s understudied, and those who do study it are seen as mildly eccentric…. even when it is acknowledged, the research more often than not cannibalizes its own insights by trying to demonstrate that play must have some long-term survival or reproductive function.
…Why do animals play? Well, why shouldn’t they? The real question is: Why does the existence of action carried out for the sheer pleasure of acting, the exertion of powers for the sheer pleasure of exerting them, strike us as mysterious? What does it tell us about ourselves that we instinctively assume that it is?
So Graeber paints play as being inherently purposeless, or at least, with no purpose outside of itself. Although he doesn՚t quite say this explicitly, it՚s as if rational, calculating action has an inherently slavish quality to it, since it is always driven by external goals; while play is autotelic, existing and acting for its own sake. It՚s easy to see why an anarchist would be drawn to the latter. Play is autonomous and spontaneous, the opposite of the drab and calculated work of rationality.

Does fun have a function?

This is an extremely problematical stance in about a zillion ways:
  • If play truly has no evolutionary function, then why does it exist and persist ?
  • Since certainly some action is rational and calculated, do we need two completely separate systems for explaining action, one grounded in the utilitarian rationality, and another in just-because?
  • If so, how do they interact?
  • The view of play as purposeless carries within it an explicit refusal to be analytical.
Worse of all, “Just for pleasure” simply doesn՚t fly as an explanation in science or really in any kind of serious thought. Assuming that it՚s an accurate description of animal motivation, the question of why certain actions are pleasurable, why action x is fun and action y isn՚t, doesn՚t go away. To refuse to entertain explanations is anti-science and anti-intellectual.

If play is pleasurable there have to be reasons for it, and knowing those reasons doesn՚t have to subtract anything from the experience of play We assume that many pleasurable sensations (such as those generated by fatty foods or sex) have a grounding in natural selection, and acknowledging that doesn՚t ruin our enjoyment of them If play is by its nature apurposive in some narrow sense, that doesn՚t mean there aren՚t broader rational justifications for why people and animals play.

If I try to steelman Graeberism, the best version I can come up with (and I don՚t know if it՚s still properly Graeberian any more) is that it is not so much a theory of actual animal behavior, but a critique of certain impoverished modes of scientific explanation. It՚s not that even playful behavior doesn՚t have a purpose, it՚s that dumb and greedy theories of rationality fail to be rich enough to capture the actional logic that drives any kind of complicated behavior. Playful behavior doesn՚t have a simpleminded purpose, which puts it perhaps outside the grasp of current science but not of science in principle.


Natural selection can indeed seem like a brutal and merciless engine. But this doesn՚t mean that the products of evolution must reflect this brutality. Evolution, despite the relentless competition at its root, it somehow manages to generate beauty, community, compassion, and other things we prize and praise. If the function of play seems inexplicable under the logic of evolution, take the more easily explicable quality of maternal care. It clearly has a purpose, in the natural selection sense of enhancing reproductive fitness, but we don;՚t think of it as brutal or greedy, even if it was produced by a process with no mercy in it whatsoever. By analogy, lay, if it is really a widespread and important and coherent trait, is likely to be adaptive as well, even if the underlying universe is not particularly playful,

I think Graeber is tripping over a very common confusion, roughly, a failure to understand emergence and to acknowledge that phenomena at one level might have characteristics and qualities that are not the same as those of the underlying level that supports it. Tables are made of wood but can have qualities (such as seating capacity or esthetic style) that are not properties of wood, and organisms, even if they are made of mechanisms that evolved through ruthless competition do not have to be ruthless themselves. In the latter case, of course, the metaphors used to describe genes and the evolutionary basis of behavior adds to the confusion. The “ruthlessness” and “selfishness” of genes is a purely mechanical causal consequence of natural selection without any moral or cognitive content whatsoever.

Play in the foundations of the cosmos

For whatever reason Graeber is not interested in any explanatory theories of play, whether reductionist or emergentist. Instead he urges us to think of play and freedom as foundational qualities, to be found in some form not only in living organisms but perfused through all things down to the subatomic:
Unlike a DNA molecule, which we can at least pretend is pursuing some gangster-like project of ruthless self-aggrandizement, an electron simply does not have a material interest to pursue, not even survival. It is in no sense competing with other electrons. If an electron is acting freely—if it, as Richard Feynman is supposed to have said, “does anything it likes”—it can only be acting freely as an end in itself. Which would mean that at the very foundations of physical reality, we encounter freedom for its own sake—which also means we encounter the most rudimentary form of play.
I՚ll give Graeber credit for fairly clearly stating the political/metaphysical principles that are at stake in his argument:
I don’t deny that what I’ve presented so far is a savage simplification of very complicated issues. I’m not even saying that the position I’m suggesting here—that there is a play principle at the basis of all physical reality—is necessarily true. I would just insist that such a perspective is at least as plausible as the weirdly inconsistent speculations that currently pass for orthodoxy, in which a mindless, robotic universe suddenly produces poets and philosophers out of nowhere.
It is a real enough question: how can various high-level phenomena, from consciousness to kindness, be supported on a mechanical infrastructure that doesn՚t seem to have any of those things baked into it? There are people trying to answer that, and others who believe that the very effort is misguided and there must be Something Else Going On. So the real issue doesn՚t have much to do with play, it՚s more to do with the supposed limits of materialism as a foundation for human existence. Graeber is adding his voice to the large and diverse set of thinkers who can՚t accept the purely mechanical reductionism of science, especially of human behavior. God or élan vital or something is needed, something that can՚t be reduced to crude machinery. Otherwise the universe belongs to Thomas Gradgrind and his ilk.

And if you need to enliven the cold machinery of reality with an animating spirit, why not play? I՚d rather have that be foundational than god or consciousness or any of the other dreary abstractions that are usually proposed for that role.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Fake Labor Day Post

I missed my traditional Fake Labor Day post last year thanks to Burning Man, which seems somehow appropriate. Burning Man is many things, and one of those things is is a deliberate celebration of unalienated labor. The amount of effort that goes into the production of all the spectacle is truly astonishing, and it՚s all done for some reason other than the normal economic ones. Yet it certainly is a kind of work. If your work is your own you don't need a day off from it to celebrate yourself.

So what is labor? Making art is labor, so is mining coal or working as a cashier at Arby՚s, and maybe even writing these blog posts. It՚s a very expansive term, almost to the point that it is hard to say what human activity isn՚t labor. Lying on the couch watching TV? But even that involves some level of engagement, there is no such thing as purely passive ingestion of content.

Here՚s the best definition I can come up with off the top of my head: Labor is the focused application of intelligent action to a goal-directed task that engages with the world.

It՚s vaguely Marxist concept, I guess. I՚m not a scholar of such things and am not about to become one, I՚m just trying to tease out this sense I have that there is something about this conception of labor that is powerful and valuable. It՚s too bad that the philosophical ideas are so thorougly contaminated with the manifest failures that ensued when they have been put into political practice.

Marx viewed labor as one of the essential defining qualities of humanity, that which distinguishes humans from animals:
For labor, life activity, productive life itself, appears to man in the first place merely as a means of satisfying a need – the need to maintain physical existence. Yet the productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life. … 
The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is its life activity. Man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life activity.
The word “labor” points to a certain view of the relationship between mind and world. Vaguely similar concepts from philosophy of mind like “embodiment” have a bit of a Marxist tinge to them, whether or not this is made explicit. All these ideas seem to be working against what might be called the Cartesian/computational default model of the mind, a symbol procesor in a box that only incidentally interacts with the outside world through narrow channels of perception and action.

Marxism has rather famously failed, and as far as I know all the efforts to reform AI and philosophy of mind through embodiied or situated approaches also failed. Perhaps they are all just completely wrong, but I actually don՚t think so. Their critiques were incisive, but their solutions were naive, half-baked, or perhaps just premature. It still seems to me that the way into the future requires both less alienating ways to organize human labor and better ways for computational systems to take on some of the real qualities that make human labor possible.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Burning Man Politics

What are the politics of Burning Man? This article claims the event is perniciously libertarian, despite a veneer of communal rhetoric and practices. As you can imagine, that caught my attention, since it arose conflicting passions. I՚m as persistently anti-libertarian as anybody, yet I kind of dug Burning Man, and didn՚t detect any of the things I hate about libertarianism there. There was a capitalist camp, but despite its name it didn՚t seem very paradigmatic of Burning Man as a whole, and in fact they spend a lot of energy apologizing about how they conflict with BM principles. The Black Rock Census says there are about 3 times as many Democrats as Republicans and Libertarians combined, as one might expect.

Burning Man՚s rhetoric of sharing, inclusion, and decommodification makes it sound like a socialist utopia, a radical critique of capitalism, an effort to establish a set of values that are wholly at odds with the accumulationist materialism of the mainstream. They are pretty serious about obliterating the market economy: no monetary transactions are allowed (with two exceptions: ice and coffee are for sale) and you are even expected to tape over corporate logos on clothing or equipment. Gifting is the norm, and participation rather than passive consumption is expected. It might sound like bullshit, but I was pleasantly surprised by how thoroughly and successfully these values are realized in practice.

This attitude coexists uneasily with the huge influx of Silicon Valley money and other rich individuals. Not only hip young tech leaders like Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg, but the VCs and even Republican moneymen like Grover Norquist have thrown in. The participatory nature of the event appears threatened by so-called “turnkey camps” where rich people pay for fancy RVs and “sherpas” to do the hard work of providing life support and comfort in the harsh desert environment. All of a sudden the elitism of the default world threatens to reproduce itself into this alternative universe that was supposed to be an escape from things like that.

Burning Man has always ben elitist, in a sort of self-selecting way – not an elite of the moneyed, although going isn՚t cheap. While you have to have a certain level of well-offness to participate, it really requires more in the way of freedom than money. Doing it right requires months of preparation, so the real filter is whether you are enough of an independent artist/hipster/whatever to devote your life to something crazy. This very high level of required commitment (of time, money, risk, and discomfort) is a big reason it works at all. Sharing is a lot easier when you know that everyone else is committed to the same craziness you are. Subcultures in general have a problem of getting diluted by hangers-on who aren՚t fully committed as they should be; making you camp out in a remote alkalai desert serves a similar function to a fraternity initiation or gang tattoo – it creates a barrier to entry and forces people to pay for the privilege of belonging. Being there is itself a costly signal of shared values which enable the participants to trust each other more than they would some random on the street.

That՚s the real reason people are upset at turnkey camps, not because rich people are douchebags but because the commitment barrier is threatened. If you can buy your way in, the cultural value of being there is diminished. I don՚t mean to imply that this is mere snobbery: boundaries are important if you are trying to establish a space that is explicitly different from the everyday world. Money eats away at social boundaries, both traditional ones and subcultural ones.

If the issue was just that a great annual desert party and subculture was getting its soul diluted, then nobody but the participants should really care. The article advances the much stronger and more interesting thesis that Burning Man՚s politics mirrors and feeds larger trends in the Silicon Valley culture – libertarian ones basically, the idea that government and democracy is fundamentally broken, that we should rely on the largess of the enlightened rich to provide public goods.

So rather than an egalitarian community of roughly equal sharers, the author sees an aristocracy of the rich providing bread and circuses (literally at Burning Man, figuratively elsewhere) for the masses, mirroring the weakening of democratic institutions and their replacement by the whims of corporate largesse. Mark Zuckerberg՚s intervention in the Newark public schools being an exemplar of this in the default world. Charity is lovely but not a replacement for robust governance, and Burning Man՚s promotion of a gift economy, rather than a harmless image of a better world, actually becomes propaganda for rule by aristocracy and against democracy.

While there may be some truth to this, I don՚t really buy it as a critique of Burning Man, which is simply too huge and overwhelming a phenomenon to be reduced to ideology. The event doesn՚t pretend to be a democracy, it՚s a community with alternative rules and alternative status hierarchies – and being a rich turnkey camper is pretty low status. As far as I can tell, the event still is about insane levels of commitment to art, individualism, and other weirdness, and none of that essential nature is threatened by the presence of some rich people. If they are spectators rather than participants, it՚s their loss, nobody else՚s. That՚s the thing about radical participation, those who participate get to say what something means, those who stand outside watching or critiquing have missed the point.

The attempt to graft a political agenda onto an ecstatic festival reminds me of the rupture in the sixties between the hippie/psychedelic/dropout wing of the counterculture vs. the more politically-minded parts like the anti-Vietnam war movement (I am not quite old enough to have personal experience of this). These two factions never quite got each other, despite their shared opposition to the mainstream. They expressed different values in different ways, although of course many individuals had connections to both camps. The politicos were impassioned humanistc idealists who wanted to change the world by seizing power, the hippies were more like romantic artists, whose strategy for change was self-transformation and personal empowerment. My own favorite sixties heroes were the Yippies like Abbie Hoffman and Paul Krassner, who were explicitly trying to bridge this gap.

Burning Man is way above and beyond politics. It՚s some combination of wild party, transcendent art experience, and temporary autonomous zone, and as such should be taken as an effort to break out of the tedious parameters of default world politics. Not left or right, but orthogonal to that axis, pointing in a direction beyond. Nobody should confuse it with a political movement for social change, despite the idealistic communal values. Like the drugs that are a key component of the experience, it should be considered a temporary alternative state of being, that at best has some tantalizing suggestions for how the regular world could be different.

[ I am missing out on Burning Man this year, instead wistfully and lamely listening to the online radio station and watching the video feed to recapture a bit of the mood. Some part of me is there; some part of it is here with me, trying to express itself. ]

Fred Turner՚s excellent paper on the relationship Burning Man and the tech community explores these issues in more depth. Basically he agrees with Jacobin that Burning Man culture and Silicon Valley culture mirror reinforce each other, although he is less focused on the pernicious aspects. ]

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Swinging Dicks

All politics is sexual politics; the president is supposed to be the Big Swinging Dick of the nation. This is usually a bit below the surface, but the topsoil of reason is eroding leaving the bedrock of the id exposed:

In a similar vein, there was an idiot on Press the Meat this morning (Alex Castellanos) repeating the line about how Obama was "the first female president" and how we need a "manly" president for gladiatorial combat:

Politics is always something of a dick-measuring contest, and Trump's power (and the reason he is a threat to the system) is that he brings it into the open, he's far too obvious about the fact that he's running for the post of alpha baboon.

His current surge of popularity was kicked off by his remarks about alleged Mexican rapists, an issue with approximately zero actual impact on society but exactly the sort of thing to rouse primal fears. That the Democratic candidate is likely to be a woman is also inflaming the lizard brains of threatened masculinity.

All this is crushingly obvious and an old story; I don't have any new insights to offer. Since I've been giving rationalists a hard time for being repulsed by politics, let me acknowledge that it can be pretty repulsive.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

In post-Soviet Russia, eschaton immanentizes you!

Nick Land (a philosopher who is now a major neoreactionary) links to this video of the genuinely scary Russian reactionary philosopher Alexander Dugin calling modernity “pure satanism”. On the other hand, the National Review (!) calls Dugin՚s philosophy not only satanic but fascist and an effort to immanentize the eschaton:
Repeating the ideas of Nazi theorists Karl Haushofer, Rudolf Hess, Carl Schmitt, and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, Dugin says that this liberal threat is not new, but is the ideology of the maritime-cosmopolitan power “Atlantis,” which has conspired to subvert more conservative land-based societies since ancient times. Accordingly he has written books in which he has reconstructed the entire history of the world as a continuous battle between these two factions, from Rome vs. Carthage to Russia vs. the Anglo-Saxon “Atlantic Order” today.
Meanwhile Hamas claims to have captured an Israeli spy that happens to be a dolphin. Robert Anton Wilsion may have passed into the universe next door, but this one is increasingly beginning to resemble one of his novels.

More seriously, to any nrx-fellow-travellers who might be reading: how far are you going to let your anti-liberalism take you, and to where? A lot of you seem to want to get to Singapore (that is, a modern state run like a tight-knit corporation, authoritarian but highly rational and technical). But mostly what you actually get without liberalism is this sort of violent ethnic Blut und Boden nationalism, which is anything but nerd-friendly. That՚s a hell of a thing to aim for just because some SJWs were mean to you or whatever the motivation is.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

The backpfeifengesicht primary

Backpfeifengesicht is a German word that means roughly, “face that cries out to be punched”. After last week՚s debate I was drawn to rank the Republican candidates in order of how much this word seemed to apply to them.


Cruz and Walker are basically tied for first place; they inspire an almost Lovecraftian level of loathing when I see them on the tube. 

*Trump is really in a category of his own, because while he is eminently deserving of a punch, it is actually pretty entertaining to watch him act out his version of the archetype of America՚s asshole id. Unlike the others, he՚s a professional showman who knows how to draw and keep the attention of an audience. He is beyond embarassment so somehow transcends punchability.

This is pretty much the exact anti-correlate of electability in the general election. That is, it is conceivable that a normal person would not be completely repulsed by Rubio and Bush, so the best hope for the country is that the primary will continue to propel the more aggravating candidates to the top of the pack.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Political Sacred

Political symbols are highly charged with sacredness and its opposite. Think of what the red flag and hammer and sickle meant to devoted communists and to their enemies, and still does. Or the swastika, but that՚s almost too powerful to even talk about. The American flag is a sacred symbol to many, and a symbol of violence and oppression to others. All these symbols point both to big abstract ideas and to concrete political formations. They were created in part for this very purpose, to bind people together, to give them something larger than themselves to work towards. And, not accidentally, they also are selective, they attract certain people and label others as outsiders or enemies.

The sacred is nothing without something profane to act as contrastive background. I can think of a few not-very-successful attempts to create political sacred symbols that were supposed to be universal and non-exclusive:

the UN and its iconography

or the Earth flag

These haven՚t really caught on. Their message is slightly obnoxious, to display them says that one is above the tribalism that has everybody else in its grasp. It embodies neatly the inherent contradictions of liberalism, a tribe for the cosmopolitan.

[In the comments to the last post, my pet troll was trying to make me justify my interest in neoreaction. It՚s simply this – it makes me a better liberal. Like any other modern political movement, liberalism is both a set of particular people and values (a tribe) and a universalizing ideology. The trick to not being a mindless liberal is to acknowledge both sides of that contradiction.]

But this post was inspired by something rather less lofty, namely the confederate flag and its prominence in the current political conversation, thanks to the mass killing at an African American church in Charleston, by a young man who was deeply immersed in southern racism.


Here Mr. Roof is displaying the flags of Rhodesia, apartheid-era South Africa, and the Confederacy. This has spawned a movement to try to get rid of the confederate flag, seeing as how it is a symbol of racism and treason. Even Mitt Romney is on board.

I have to say that I too am onboard with the efforts to get rid of the confederate flag, especially from official locations like the South Carolina state house. Oddly some of my justifications for this have a neoreactionary flavor. A neoreactionary state clamps down firmly against any kind of political threats to its authority and stability. And it՚s not clear why the United States should allow a symbol of a defeated rebellion against its authority be so prominently displayed. Since I՚m a liberal and not a neoreactionary I think individuals should have the right to display symbols of treason, but if it՚s on proud display by the government, something is profoundly wrong.

Yet I am trying to put myself in the heads of people to whom it is a sacred symbol. People for whom the confederate flag is not a symbol for something foul, but a marker of their highest values: loyalty, tradition, whatever. I don՚t doubt that their attachment to the symbol is genuine, but that doesn՚t redeem it or them in the slightest. They remain the enemy.

How does one deal with an internal enemy? The neoreactionary solution is to annihilate or suppress them completely. The liberal solution, apparently, is to let them go about maintaining their “heritage” and hope they՚ll improve themselves over time. It՚s been 150 years since the civil war, that hasn՚t really seemed to work out very well. Unfortunately conflicts between sacred values can՚t be argued out rationally; they require either battle or separation.

Or maybe that is only a short-term view, a tribal view. Maybe all the tribal battles between groups dedicated to their limited sacred values – their idols – will give way over time to reconciliation under the umbrella of more universal and transcendent values. Just because it՚s harder than the naive folks with their UN and hippie earth flags thought, does not mean it can՚t happen over the long course of time.

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Saturday, June 06, 2015


I was just talking about nerd politics, and lo and behold, we have a fresh spasm of geek outrage to examine. Strange Loop, a hip technical conference, invited Curtis Yarvin (the real-word persona of Mencius Moldbug, the inventor of neoreaction) to give a talk on his Urbit system. Then, quite rapidly they rescinded the invitation when his political writings came to their attention, causing a fairly major internet fracas. It gave the right a chance to complain about censorship and the puritanical minds of SJWs, and they never pass one of those up.

But they really have no grounds for complaint, because freedom of speech is a liberal value, and Moldbug is quintessentially anti-liberal. From the neoreactionary viewpoint, there is no public sphere, not the streetcorner (which belongs to the monarch) and certainly not a private conference. The owners get to decide what is done with their property and the outrage of the offended non-owners carries no weight at all. And in this case, the owners of the conference decided they didn՚t want to be associated with a purveyor of flagrant racism.

I was kind of on the fence about it myself. On the one hand, I like robust freedom of speech; I dislike the new oversensitivity; and having technical presentations censored because of not-obviously-related political opinions of the presenter seemed like a really bad precedent.

On the other hand, Moldbug՚s opinions really ought to be beyond the pale of polite society. While I wouldn՚t interfere with his rights to post them on his own site, I don՚t think Strange Loop has an obligation to be open to all. Their argument is that hate is different from political opinion, they have a duty and obligation to keep their community friendly, and having Nazi-level crap in the mix might interfere with that job.

On the other other hand, to pretend that there is some categorical difference between hate and politics seems a trifle disingenuous. Hate is pretty fundamental; ideologies or groups in general define themselves in terms of what they hold sacred and its opposite. Moldbug isn՚t any more hateful than the rest of us, he just doesn՚t hate the right things. In the world we live in, hating racism is OK (required even), but hating a race is not.

Some claim he is not a racist, which is ridiculous if you՚ve read any of his stuff. What might be true is that he isn՚t fundamentally motivated by race hatred. If you take him at his word, what he really hates is disorder. Singapore is his ideal, a strong state with clean streets and no messy dissent. This is what makes neoreaction primarily a nerdy antipolitics, whose ideals are more abstract than the more typical loyalties and resentments of the mainstream.

But, while he may not be primarily motivated by race-hatred, he's just perfectly willing to allow racial oppression in the service of maintaining order. That may not be classical racist hate, but it's close enough. One of the Nazi՚s main justifications for their crimes against Jews was order and purity.

On the tactical level, Moldbug has scored a huge win for himself, and Strange Loop shot itself in the foot. He՚s got way more publicity, for both his technical and political work, than if he had given his talk. And now the conference has got a lot of unwelcome attention and associations. It would have been smarter to let him come and publish a disclaimer in the program or something.

Certainly I have been forced again to re-examine my assumptions, to look anew at my own ideas and values and how I defend them against challenges. Moldbug is good medicine for genuine progressives, who more than most have an obligation to think through their beliefs. It՚s strong and possibly toxic medicine, but having your thought congeal into mindless ideology is even more toxic.

[update: someone pointed out that al3x (linked above) is not officially associated with StrangeLoop, and linked a response from one of the actual organizers.]

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Three forms of antipolitics

There՚s a certain quality that unites libertarianism, rationalism, and neoreaction, and helps to explain my somewhat conflicted attitude towards all of them. They are all in their own way antipolitical, and for roughly the same underlying reason. To put it crudely, nerds don՚t like politics, perhaps because they are generally no good at it. These ideologies are all, in different ways, trying to replace politics with something more tractable to the nerdish brain – something with neat well-defined rules. These formal systems are obviously better than the messy and violent reality of actual politics in every respect but the most important one – they don՚t engage with the actuality of power

I՚m going to just assume that nerdism is something like lightweight Asperger՚s, which means that some of the normal mental circuitry that deals with modelling and interacting with other people just doesn՚t work as well as it should. As a consequence, aspie-nerds tend to be awkward socializers but often with compensating skills at formal reasoning. They can grasp formally complicated structures so they often excel at computer engineering and similar pursuits. They tend to like board games.

The similarity I see in the three ideologies is that they are all efforts of the nerdish to try to apply their board-game thinking to the real world. In some sense these are laudable efforts – what could be more important than trying to come up with better models for understanding and influencing the real world? The three ideologies all have powerful models they are organized around, and that model is a powerful enough tool that it suggests to some people that it is foundational, that the model is somehow sufficient for everything. There՚s a point where a system of useful ideas becomes an ideology, a fetish, and a cult.

To be a bit more concrete: libertarians fetishize individual property rights and the marketplace, rationalists fetishize objectivity, and neoreactionaries fetishize centralized power. Note that these things are not really very compatible with each other, yet these groupings are quite socially close and people drift from one camp to the other rather easily. Which is evidence for my thesis that it is a certain kind of intellectual fetishization of simple rule systems that unites them, even if the rule systems themselves vary widely.

But the messy world of actual politics is another matter. The effective leader of rationalism, Eliezer Yudkowsky has a widely read post called “Politics is the Mind-Killer”, which puts the thesis pretty starkly: politics interferes with the rationalist goal of pure objective cognition. Rationalism defines itself around figuring out what is true. Having interests, especially political interests, interferes with this. And indeed, politics is not about what is true so much is it is about what people want, and how they collectively go about getting it.

Rationalists tend to be repelled by social phenomenon like that. A comment on Scott Alexanders blog, expressed the great unease he feels in a political crowd:
“I’ve never been to such an event, but I also don’t get them. In fact, I find myself actively creeped out by many forms of collective displays of emotion/enthusiasm.”
Libertarianism is a sort of antipolitical political belief system. It is an ideology for those who don՚t believe in politics, don՚t trust politics, and think that the messy business of human collective goal-seeking can be replaced by the purely individualistic and quantitative mechanisms of the market. Libertarianism holds great attraction for nerds in part because of its (ostensible) elegant distribution of control. The realities of winner-take-all monopoly capitalism don՚t enter into their thinking, as far as I can tell. Libertarianism has been critiqued to death, by me and others (over and over) and I don՚t want to do that here, just to acknowledge that I believe what attracts at least the nerdy to libertarianism is not greed (the usual critique from the left) but the desire to replace the political reality of society with something simpler.

Neoreaction spun out of libertarianism, and while it seems to have attracted a whole bunch of unsavory racists, I believe the true motivation of its founder Mencius Moldbug was basically the same as the libertarian one, namely, to eliminate the inter-group conflict of politics and replace it with something better, that is, something simpler and more formalizable – he even calls his imaginary system “formalism”. I can՚t tell whether he is more horrified by the violence of inter-group conflict (which is something that can be truly horrifying) or its messiness, its failure to be captured by simple rules.

Moldbug basically was a libertarian who was too smart to accept the fantasies of the market worshipers, so rather than giving up he doubled down and advocated rule by an absolute monarch. This stroke of genius eliminates politics altogether, in his fantasy. (Note: any readers not in Silicon Valley may have problems believing that people are seriously putting forward this idea, but trust me, it՚s a big deal among the advanced thinkers of nerdistan).

Much to my surprise neoreaction grew from a single blog run by a single genius to a major movement, which now has an incalculable number of websites and buy-in from some fairly serious people. It՚s now in the fissile stage where groups are firing off manifestos to each other as the break up into separate groups – it seems that trying to run a movement on radically authoritarian principles may be as difficult as trying to run one on radical anarchist principles. This warms my heart.

So, rationalism, libertarianism, and neoreaction all stem from and share a revulsion to normal politics. Yet are all political movements in themselves: the last two obviously so, but rationalism, given that it is in part a movement, an ideology, even a bit of a cult, can՚t help taking on political characteristics of its own. Rationalism has an agenda, just like any other human group, and is thus political (just like any other well-meaning non-profit group, like say Amnesty International, it acts as though its values are or should be universal).

I believe these people are all deeply wrong, although I am torn because I empathize with some of the motivations that lead them to these antipolitical forms of politics. Yes indeed, politics sucks, but no, it cannot be avoided, to try to do so is to simply give yourself over to the manipulations of others. And, while revolutions do happen and replace one political order with another, I am skeptical that you can replace politics with a well-engineered formal system.

I could be wrong, and it could also be that the effort to do so results in valuable insights and ideas. So I don't consider these movements to be valueless by any means. Spinning fanciful political utopias and working to realize them is obviously a broader phenomenon, so why shouldn't nerds do it? Political fantasy can be dangerous but it is also the source of change, and god knows we need some changes.

I myself am a bigtime nerd, and am pretty bad at and kind of hate politics, and wish it would leave me alone. So antipolitical ideologies present themselves as temptations that I need to fight against. That՚s why I spend so much energy fighting them, it is a battle with a part of myself.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Hooray, hooray, it՚s the first of May

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous May Day posts

Monday, March 16, 2015

Mr. Burns

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

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

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Against Pi Day

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

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

Sunday, January 25, 2015

What's on my mind

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

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

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

Friday, January 09, 2015

Martyrs and The Coordination of Sentiment


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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Nerds vs Feminists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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