Continued elsewhere

I've decided to abandon this blog in favor of a newer, more experimental hypertext form of writing. Come over and see the new place.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

He who builds his house by the sea builds on sand

If California slides into the ocean
Like the mystics and statistics say it will
I predict this hotel will be standing
Until I pay my bill.
-- Warren Zevon, Desperados Under the Eaves

Here we see two brave little backhoes attempting to hold back the Pacific ocean,

which is undermining the bluffs upon which stand some typical California cheap-ass apartment buildings.

The analogy to the attempts of our weak, corrupted, and dysfunctional government to deal with its sea of troubles is too obvious. Economic collapse and climate change lap inexorably at the sandy foundations of our civilization. A line from one of the news stories could be the epitaph for the current era: They had a great view while it lasted.

Oh well, nothing abides*. Let's hope this coming decade is better than the last one and that whatever tides lap at our well-being, they do it slowly enough that the human talent for adaptation can successfully operate.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Blogyear in review

Borrowing an idea from Brian Leiter's blog, I've gathered some of the better posts from the last year (where year is arbitrarily extended back into Nov 2008). If you filter out the random commentary and picking fights with wingnuts, some actual themes start to emerge; which I'm somewhat surprised and pleased to see.

Economics, government, anarchism, social cohesion

Alternative procedures
Real conservatism and rent control
Do androids dream of electric justice?
The ritual function of the Olympics
Nobel prize in anarchy
The sacred state
Joining the celebration

Violence and non-violence

The organization of nonviolence
Nonviolence entrepeneurs


Nobody believes in embryonic personhood
Are Palestinians people?
The psychic unity of mankind

Mind of society, society of mind

The social construction of scientific sausage
How dumb spreads
Anarchy of mind

Form and void

What cannot be said

My post on Phil Agre got linked from some popular sites and thus got a couple orders of magnitude more views than is usual.

A posting from this blog was cited in an actual journal article: Networks and cronyism: A social exchange analysis, Thomas M. Begley, Naresh Khatri, and Eric W. K. Tsang, Asia Pacific Journal of Management, March 2009. It's paywalled but you can download the first page for free. Seems like an interesting article.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy birthday

Although not a Christian or even close, I can take some recognizance of what the day is supposed to be celebrating -- the entry of the divine into the world in a radically new form. This is apparently a very powerful idea. Some possible responses:

1) Worship and celebrate it (Christians)
2) Mock it (atheists)
3) Ignore it and go out to a Chinese restaurant (Jews)

I'm going to a lot of (3) (in fact, I'm going to take the kids to see Avatar which I just realized is mildly amusing in the context of this blog post). I've been raised to be allergic to Christianity. But using my finely honed powers of abstraction, I can also take some time to appreciate the underlying metaphysical ideas, which are different from the messy and sorry actual history of Christianity as an institution. It's a twisty kind of irony since Christianity is about the realization of a mighty divine abstraction in the concrete flesh of Palestine year zero.

Is all of human intellectual history an effort to bridge this gap between abstract and concrete? AI and cognitive science are the latest attempt, not really very successful ones in my estimation. We've found ways to make the word into electronic flesh through symbolic computation, but have not come close to doing the same for the spirit. Whatever that is.

Previous birthday wishes.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Philosophical list-making

Here's a high-minded top-ten list: "The 10 most pressing philosophical issues of the 21st Century". Let's overlook the somewhat oxymoronic notion of a "pressing" philosophical problem -- any issue that is actually pressing is not going to be waiting on philosophers for a solution. I guess it's somewhat charming that philosophers think they are that important.

Here's the list (more detail at the link):

10. Finding a new basis for common sensibilities and common values.
9. Finding a new basis for social identification.
8. The Mind-Body problem.
7. Can freedom survive the onslaught of science?
6. Information and misinformation in the information age.
5. Intellectual property, in the age of remix culture.
4. New models of collective decision making and collective rationality.
3. What is a person?
2. Humans and the environment.
1. Global Justice.

And here's my breakdown:

10, 9: 1 seem to be essentially the same, or at least closely related. All are driven by globalization, the progressive kniitting-together of disparate cultures by technology and commerce. All seem to center around the nagging contradiction at the heart of liberalism; the idea that there must be a neutral public sphere and people's deepest moral commitments are relegated to private or semi-private space; resulting in the paradox of having to tolerate the intolerant. How do people and communities with different sets of values coexist? Good questions, and I can believe that philosophers have something to contribute here.

8,7: are chestnuts that philosophy has made no progress on in hundreds of years and there is no reason to think that they will do any better in the future. Also, what exactly is pressing about them?

6,5,4: are very interesting and important issues but not very philosophical. They will be dealt with by economists, lawyers, techies, and media designers. The answers will be on the order of "Google PageRank" and "Wikipedia" and "Facebook": new forms of social media, possibly linked to new structures of governance. Philosophy has little to contribute, sorry.

3: Good question, one where I suppose philosophy may be able to say something, because personhood is socially defined, not a biological property. Although I think sociology and science fiction (particularly Phil Dick and Octavia Butler) have done a better job of addressing it.

2: What was the question? Yes, certainly we need to become more cognizant of the environment and our relation to it, but that's a job for scientists and the environmental movement. Not sure what philosophers have to do with it.

Honestly I'm not nearly in touch enough with the actual practice of modern philosophy to judge it. It seems that most branches of philosophy are constructed to explicitly avoid making any progress. I guess I believe that philosophy should be in the business of examining and improving the world's assumptions and abstractions. An obviously important task. But what counts as an improvement? If they are the watchmen of thought, who watches the watchmen?

More anti-philosophy philosophy here.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Afghan Highs

For some reason these two bits of intel on Afghanistan seemed worth putting side by side.

First: Afghanistan is not a country; but a collection of tribal areas. It may be defined as that part of central Asia that has historically been resistant to conquest by empires. One unifying factor is that most of the men are constantly stoned on the locally produced high-potency opium and hashish.

(via Digby) Is this accurate? Dunno, sounds plausible, if I had to live in the Afghan tribal areas I'd probably want to be high most of the time. On the other hand, it's hard to square this picture with the Afghani's reputation as fierce fighters.

So, that's a view of Afgahnistan from the ground level. Meanwhile, perched on the commanding heights of a modern-day massive bureaucratic war machine, the American would-be benevolent rulers get high on insane business graphics (via Yglesisias). Something this fucked up could only be generated by people who were huffing too much white-board marker fumes.

Full PDF report here. I have an ongoing debate with a colleague about the value of graphics and visualizations, including some tangled network diagrams like this which are common in systems biology. I'm generally pro-pretty-pictures, but this is a great piece of evidence for his side. Measurement is pretty tricky in biological systems, but at least you know there is something real going on that could in theory be measured, like the amount of mRNA being made off a particular gene. In this chart, you have somthing like "coalition force density" -- which presumably could be an objective number, albeit not a very meaningful one -- is combined with variables like "indivdual competence, judgement, and ability to execute" and "ANSF Corruption & Tribal Favoritism", which can't possibly be defined tightly enough to be measured. So what is the point of this, other than to highlight what a hopless morass fighting a counterinsurgency warfare in mountainous country half a world away where we don't speak the language, understand the culture, or have an idea for an endpoint or exit strategy? None of those arrows point to an exit.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Parapolitical violence notes from all over

Here's a promising trend: domestic counterinsurgency warfare. Salinas, CA, previously best known for being John Steinbeck's hometown, apparently has a ridiculously bad gang problem. Its homicide rate is three times the national average. It's a war zone out there! So they've called upon the experts to deal with it:
Since February combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have been advising Salinas police on counterinsurgency doctrine, bringing lessons from the battlefield to the meanest streets in an American city: "It'™s a little laboratory," said retired Col. Hy Rothstein, the former Army career officer in Special Forces who heads the team of 15 faculty members and students (from the Naval Postgraduate School), mostly naval officers

Rothstein notes the significant overlap with how you deal with insurgencies and how you deal with cities that are under siege from gangs.

Leonard A. Ferrari, provost of the naval Postgraduate School, embraced the project from the start, hearing an opportunity for a school in transition from just a defense institution to a national homeland and even a human security institution.
Lind basically invented the notion of 4th-generation warfare. He comments further:
The Naval Postgraduate School is a DOD institution, part of the U.S. government. Its involvement in Salinas marks the federal government'™s formal recognition of Fourth Generation war on American soil, and the need for a  œnational model   to counteract it. If we must involve the U.S. military to lead counterinsurgency efforts in American cities, then it is difficult to deny that we face something like insurgencies in those same cities.
It recalls to mind an earlier flamewar I participated in, where I (in quasi-anarchist mode) tried to convince some wingers that there was no fundamental difference between General Petraeus and a Chicago gang leader. This line of argument went nowhere, despite the venue proudly proclaiming its refusal to be sentimental about the uses of political violence.

On a rather different note, Goldman-Sachs honchos are apparently stocking up on firearms in case the proles start to get any ideas (via Taibbi).

Also, Digby explains very slowly to a conservacretin why it might actually be in his self-interest to support the distribution of food stamps.

Are these signs of a more general fraying-at-the-edges of the existing order? Who knows. I don't mean to sound the least bit celebratory of this sort of stuff, but given the certainty that the US will be continuing to contribute to violence and chaos abroad for the foreseeable future, having some at home seems both just and possibly even corrective over the long term.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Social Construction of Scientific Sausage

[updated below]

Bruno Latour is a sociologist of science best known for his insistence that scientific facts are constructed rather than discovered. He's widely reviled by scientists and critics of postmodernity; I rather like his work myself and feel that it's usually misinterpreted. Anyway, my guess is he's laughing his Gallic ass off right now at the so-called Climategate affair, which seems like a perfect test case for his point of view.

Thanks to the acts of some hackers, we got to see some politicized science construction in action. The scientific consensus around climate change is revealed to be the result of an ongoing human process, involving a variety of academic politics and a few somewhat shady-sounding practices, including:
  • applying pressure to journals to keep conflicting articles out of press
  • instructing people to delete emails, possibly in violation of the law
  • applying fudge factors to data to make it conform to theory
It appears that at least in this case the making of science is like the making of laws or sausage: not for the squeamish. The import of any of this stuff is up for contention. Is it improper? Unusual, or just normal behind-the-scenes stuff? Does it imply anything at all about the physical facts of the matter? After a couple of hours of scanning the web and looking at some of the email and code that was stolen, I don't know. I have a couple of insights which I may post about later; for now I'm just interested in the sociology.

One thing is clear -- it's pretty clear that even a relatively science-literate layperson can't hope to have a reasonable opinion on this stuff which relies only on raw data and not its suspect interpretations. I suppose if I spent 2-3 months on this stuff I might understand it well enough to be useful, but without that much time to spend I am stuck relying on the judgement of others. And given that, my most important decision is deciding which others to trust. There have been some self-proclaimed experts diving into the material and proclaiming fraud; my impression is that while there is some suspicious stuff there it is impossible to tell exactly what they mean at this stage.

It's somewhat amazing to me how closely the opinions on AGW line up with people's political sensibilities, considering that this is presumably over a physical question which has a matter-of-fact answer (unlike, say, the definition of "conservatism"). But the climate of the past is something that cannot be measured directly, so there is plenty of room for variant interpretation (I suppose a proper sociologist of science would say that nothing is "measured directly"). Almost all the global warming sceptics I come across are also libertarians or right-wing cranks of one stripe or another, who have a vested ideological interest in the denial that there is a vast collective action problem to be solved. And of course, the scientists who support AGW have a vested interest in climate being a significant social problem because it affects their funding. There seems to be no light between the politics and the science, which of course is one of Latour's points.

There have been calls as a result of this for greater openness and transparency in the process of science. The Open Notebook Science movement is already on this. At first glance this seems like a great idea, but I'm somewhat sceptical about the workability, because science is no different than any other field in being a staged performance requiring a backstage zone where the performers can work on the non-public parts of the show (that's a link to Erwin Goffman, another favorite sociologist).

So, channeling my inelegant, Americanized version of Bruno Latour again: here's a situation where there is presumably a physical matter of fact (the actual state of the earth's climate in the past, and the various proxy measurements like tree-rings that we hope reflect it). There are scientists, journals, computer programs, datasets, and funding agencies which are all being deployed to construct competing theories. Only one gets to win, and the battle is enjoined on many levels with little regard for the supposedly neutral gentlemanly rules of combat that the Whig version of science history gives us. That's what the social construction of science is, only now it will occasionally get spread out all over the Internet for all to see. The rubes are shocked; scientists and sociologists are not.


Full 61M of released materials.

A bunch of podcasts with a variety of philosophers of science.

Mapping Controversies on Science for Politics is a really interesting-sounding project by a bunch of European labs (including Latour's) to do just what it says.

[[update: I called Latour's attitude fairly accurately:
What I found so ironic in the hysterical reactions of scientists and the press was the almost complete agreement of opponents and proponents of the anthropogenic origin of climate change. They all seem to share the same idealistic view of Science (capital S): "If it slowly composed, it cannot be true" said the skeptics; "If we reveal how it is composed, said the proponents, it will be discussed, thus disputable, thus it cannot be true either!". After about thirty years of work in science studies, it is more than embarrassing to see that scientists had no better epistemology to rebut their adversaries. They kept using the old opposition between what is constructed and what is not constructed, instead of the slight but crucial difference between what is well and what is badly constructed (or composed).
from An attempt at writing a "œCompositionist Manifesto" (pdf) ]]

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Phil Agre, an appreciation

[updated below]

Phil Agre, a friend and former UCLA professor who I've often mentioned on this blog, has gone missing, and some of his friends are organizing an informal search of the streets. As far as anyone knows, he had some sort of severe mental breakdown and is presumed to be homeless somewhere in LA.

Phil was one of the smartest people I knew in graduate school. More than smart, he had the intellectual courage to defy the dominant MIT sensibilities and become not just an engineer but a committed critic of the ideology under the surface of technology, especially as it was applied to artificial intelligence. He was a leader of the situated action insurgency in AI, a movement that questioned the foundations of the stale theories of mind that were implicit in the computational approach. Phil had the ability to take fields of learning that were largely foreign to the culture of MIT (continental philosophy, sociology, anthropology) and translate them into terms that made sense to a nerd like me. I feel I owe Phil a debt for expanding my intellectual horizons.

Phil was a seminal figure in the development of Internet culture. His Red Rock Eater email list was a early predecessor to the many on-line pundits of today. Essentially he invented blogging, although his medium was a broadcast email list rather than the web, which didn't yet exist. He would regularly send out long newsletters containing a mix of essays, pointers to interesting things, and opinions on random things. He turned email into a broadcast medium, which struck me as weird and slightly undemocratic at the time, but he had the intellectual energy to fuel a one-man show, and in this and other matters Phil was just ahead of the times -- now the web is stuffed to the brim with outsized personalities, but it wasn't so back then. Here's one of the last recorded posts on RRE, on Vaclav Havel, which includes an explanation of what Phil termed "issue entrepreneurship". I picked this out at basically at random from the archives, and it typifies the insight, clarity, and urgency of Phil's writing:
What is needed and missing in the United States is the other major component of Vaclav Havel's life story -- the intellectual seriousness that believed down deep that the world is made of ideas and that the health of a society depends on the health of its language. ... Civilization cannot survive when language becomes the terrain of a thoroughly instrumentalized political war. Vaclav Havel and his colleagues won a contest of decency against the dead hand of an authoritarian system that had nothing living inside it. Today's authoritarians are altogether more resourceful. Today's civil society will have to discover a correspondingly deeper meaning in its own ideals.
Some of Phil's better-known essays include:
  • What is Conservatism and What is Wrong with it? - cuts to the heart of our present politics.
  • Networking on the Network: an early guide to using the Internet to build intellectual communities and careers.
  • How to Help Someone Use a Computer - excellent practical advice. This particular bit I use all the time: "Whenever they start to blame themselves, respond by blaming the computer... When they get nailed by a false assumption about the computer's behavior, tell them their assumption was reasonable. Tell *yourself* that it was reasonable."
  • The Practical Republic - An examination of the importance of social skills in the creating of citizenship
Phil was constantly dispensing excellent advice. I wish I had taken more of it.

The tragedy is that for all his intellectual engagement and instruction of others in social skills, something seems to have gone wrong with Phil's own social life. The energy he poured into his writing seems to have left him little to spare to form close relationships -- or something like that, something that allowed him to slip away from the society about which he had so much to say. It is somewhat mystifying that a UCLA professor with a huge Internet following could just vanish with nobody noticing, but that is what seems to have happened. When Phil's voice suddenly ceased a few years back, I assumed he had decided to focus on a book or some other major project. Apparently everyone else made the same assumption. I've been out of the academic circuit for years, that's my excuse, but I don't quite understand how those in the loop could have let this happen. It's a stunning indictment, but I can't say exactly of whom or what.

This reads too much like an obituary. I hope to hell it isn't, and that Phil finds his way back from wherever he's gone off to. We still need him.

[update: the news as of early 2011 is that Phil is in good physical health but wishes to be left alone; the people who were searching for him are going to respect that wish.]

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day

For the Union Dead

Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.

Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.

My hand draws back. I often sigh still
for the dark downward vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized

fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,

shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.

Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound's gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die –
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.

On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.

The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year --
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
And muse through their sideburns

Shaw's father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son's body was thrown
and lost with his "niggers."

The ditch is nearer.
There are no statues for the last war here.
On Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling

over a Mosler safe, the "Rock of Ages"
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessed break.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

-- Robert Lowell, 1964

I have almost no personal connection to the US military -- my father served in the British Army during WWII, and I was too young for Vietnam, although not to protest it. It bothers me that there is this huge machinery of violence that claims to be acting for me. The usual stance of today's left is to try to distance themselves as far as possible from the military, but there's an element of dishonesty in that, as if war could be vanquished by keeping our individual hands clean of it. Like the state, we can't embrace it and we can't live without it. Today is for those who made or found themselves part of the business end of the machine, whatever the reason.


The Sacred State, Memorial Day, War Sucks, Iraq Casuality Memorial.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Gentlemen! You can't fight here, this is the war room!

I'm not sure why it should be shocking that violence can erupt in the middle of an Army base. I guess it's analagous to a gun backfiring and injuring the hand that holds it. Or it's like a mistake in syntax, since Americans are supposed to be exclusively the subjects and not the objects of violence.

9/11 briefly reminded the US political culture that its causal connection to the rest of the world is bidirectional, but that insight lasted about two weeks.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The right way to present economic statistics

I've occasionally wondered why there isn't more anger at the looting of the economy by its upper echelons. Americans are violent, but they are also lazy and disorganized. So there hasn't been the kind of rioting in the streets that the situation really demands -- most Americans don't even have proper streets, just subdivisions and strip malls, not at all suitable for civil insurrection.

Then there's this guy. plenty of violent anger but apparently confined to his own garage:

He scares me a bit, maybe due to the trace amount of racism amidst the otherwise perfectly reasonable ranting.

Of course, this being 21st century America it's likely that this anger will result in nothing more than a viral YouTube video and 15 seconds of fame, rather than a mob of baseball-bat wielding crackers marching on Wall Street looking to break heads. Probably for the best.

via Matt Taibbi

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Nobel Prize in Anarchy

For awhile now I've been saying that economists should be paying attention to open-source and other commons-based models of production. How often does a radically new way to organize production come along, after all? It seems like academic economists should be studying the hell out of it. There are some books by Yochai Benkler and Steven Weber but they barely scratch the surface.

I was making this argument to Herbert Gintis, a prominent political scientist with a good book-review blog on Amazon. Gintis is a smart guy but has some weird blind spots (Israel and open source, for starters) which I could not resist poking at. Anyway, in the middle of the conversation, the Nobels in Economics were announced. I had never heard of the awardees but it turns out that one of them, Elinor Ostrom, won it specifically work on the structures of economic governance for in-common resources such as fishery stocks, water resources, and also "knowledge commons" such as open-source software projects. Huzzah! Well, I felt somewhat vindicated and also somewhat embarrassed to find that the economics profession was actually ahead of my recommendations. On the other hand, Ostrom is not an economist, she's in political science, and apparently a couple of famous economists who write for the New York Times were unfamiliar with her as well. Gintis was very familiar with her work but for whatever reason that didn't seem to affect his view of open source as economically trivial.

One of the famous economists who had not heard of Ostrom, Steven Levitt said: "...the short answer is that the economics profession is going to hate the prize going to Ostrom even more than Republicans hated the Peace prize going to Obama." I'm not sure that's true. I see many libertarians on the net trying to get in front of this wave, even though her work is essentially a complete refutation of the libertarian framework of thought.

Libertarianism is erected on a foundation of individual rights, private property, self-interest, and markets. Notice what's missing? Any notion of society and in particular institutions, the very thing both of this years laureates were studying. People like Somin would like to think that because the institutions Ostrom is studying are not (in general) states that she's on his side. But Ostrom's work (OK, I haven't actually read it yet so I'm just going on net commentary) has more in common with critics of capitalism such as Karl Polanyi and left-anarchist theorists of cooperation like Kropotkin.

On reading some more of the Hayekian blogs I fear I may be doing an injustice to them (and maybe Ostrom), probably because I tend to conflate idiocies of net.libertarians with the more sophisticated theories of academics. Perhaps her work transcends left and right, which wouldn't bother me, those categories from the French Revolution seem to be increasingly stale. Not that they don't have some validity but for the last hundred years or so the two sides seem to spend most of their time taking on each other's worst characteristics. It would be nice to have some new ideas about how society should be governed and it would be nice to have those solidly grounded in empirical research. Ostrom's work seems to fit the bill.

One question I have is how these cooperatively-owned resources enforce their rules. For things like fisheries, there are community and peer enforcement of rules, but at some scale this turns into a state or something indistinguishable from it, I would think. Of course, with informational commons like Wikipedia or open-source their is no scarcity and hence no need to patrol for cheaters. Unfortunately we can't yet eat information, so the extension of open-source models to the physical world is questionable.

Some links:
Ostrom's win is a blow against simplistic private, market-based economies.

Academics debate just how Hayekian Ostrom's work is.

Creative Commons notices.

Here's Ostrom talking on "Beyond the Tragedy of the Commons":

I note she cautions against "top-down solutions".

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Random Bits

Clay Shirky on the dismal future of newspapers.

Origins of the Vagina (SFW, includes platypodes)

Thelonious Monk's creative advice (his birthday was yesterday)

1/4 of the world's population is Muslim, going on 1/3 by 2050

This is quite disturbing. Germans ought to not attempt humor involving mass murder even in a good cause (NSFW).

Wanted for Treason (wingnuts of 1963).

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The ritual function of the Olympics

When I read this piece by Phil Greenspun on the economics of the Olympics I had contradictory reactions. On the one hand, I agree with his conclusion (that hosting the Olympics is a terrific waste of resources) and his argument is based on the idea that political leaders have different and conflicting motivations from the populace at large, an explanation dear to my heart[*]. But I also thought it was missing something, was too reductive, but I wasn't sure why. Here's the meat of his argument:
...if the Olympics were guaranteed to lose money, how come any city would bid on them? My response was that bidding for the Olympics highlights the conflict between rulers and subjects, or "œpoliticians" and "taxpayers" as we might refer to these groups in the U.S. The mayor of a U.S. city wants to get the Olympics so that he or she can be in the national and international spotlight for a few months, which might result in being able to obtain a more powerful job. The mayor has the ability to spend taxpayer's™ money, and borrow billions more on their behalf through construction bonds, for personal advancement.
That's fine as far as it goes. But it doesn't go far enough. In general, leaders can't lead without the support of a significant fraction of the led. In Chicago, somewhere betten 45% and 75% of the population was in favor of hosting the Olympics. Would this be the case if it was really so inimical to their interests? Are people simply easily conned by their leaders?

I submit that the purpose of the Olympics (or indeed any other sports event or public spectacle) needs to be understood as symbol and ritual -- an occasion for the expression of the People's Romance, aka civic and national pride. It's a chance for ordinary people to feel like they are part of something larger than themselves. This is something people seem to want desperately. It's delivered most explicitly by religion but the rituals of civic life seem to offer the same thing in alternate forms. Sports fandom (entirely foreign to me) in particular seems to engender deep emotions, attachments, and occasional violence. The Olympics melds this with nationalism and the powerful echo of pagan rites to produce a pompous spectacle of ritualized warfare -- which at least has going for it that it is far preferable to actual warfare.

Historically, religion organizes a certain set of inchoate and irrational impulses to form the core of culture, and government was not separate from religion. Today we have, in theory, split off the religious functions into their own sphere and government is supposed to represent a set of common rational interests, but this Enlightenment surgery was only partially successful.

What Phil is asking for, that societies make their choices on an economically rational basis, is simply missing the point. Government combines the ceremonial with the functional, resulting in the peculiarities of architecture that seem to run from the grandiose (the US Capitol) to the stripped-down functional (your local DMV) without much in-between. But without the ritual and spectacle the state is nothing. And most people do not want to face the spectre of anarchy so are all too willing to support the state's ritual celebrations of itself.

What is the message of the above ritual? Any force capable of organizing that many people into synchrony is something that you better damn well pay attention to, whether or not you approve of such things. And going back to the original economic argument -- the apparent wastefulness and irrationality of such rituals is part of their demonstrative power. A country that hosts the Olympics is showing that it can afford to blow a few billion dollars on spectacle. It is, in short, a sacrifice, a public, hard to fake indicator of commitment. It's not supposed to be economically rational. And it is certainly true that political leaders get more out of it than the citizenry, but if they couldn't get people to join into these massive displays, they wouldn't be leaders.

[*] not sure if I've ever addressed it explicitly, but the idea is implicit in some pieces on polarization and violence entrepreneurs.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Wingnut update

Let's check in with our favorite right-wing lunatics:

Mencius Moldbug was going to give a talk at a conference on seasteading organized by Milton Friedman's grandson, but pissed off another, more prominent speaker by calling him a faggot and got disinvited. Oops.

Lawrence Auster was weirdly obsessed for awhile with the "The Game" aka pick-up-artistry. He's the most popular search keyword for this blog, so I guess I should mention him again.

Scipio was the subject of an profile in Esquire (the author shared my alarm that someone this deranged was in charge of a classroom of children), after which his site went down, and has remained that way for weeks. If he was hacked, well, maybe it was by one of the liberals he fantasized about stabbing to death.

Spengler is trying to protect some rigid definition of Judaism from the practices of actual Jews. L'shana Tovah, bro.

Gagdad Bob continues to spew forth metaphysical mush interspersed with attacks on the left. I still find something fascinating in how coherent his worldview is, although it's both wrong and repellent and supported with transparent lies.

Both Gagdad and Moldbug strike me as creatively intelligent people who for whatever reasons could not accept the consensus worldview of their peers, and so struck out in (somewhat) original directions. That's the source of their continued appeal to me, but in their determination to separate themselves off from liberalism have veered far into paranoid craziness, and have hence dug themselves into intellectual corners that they can't escape. Their ideologies are impervious to critique -- Gagdad like to crow about things he knows with "absolute certainty" -- or argument from outside; facts are selectively chosen or radically twisted to fit the paradigm.

There are certain kinds of genius who create their own worlds; many of the greatest artists belong to this group. That's all well and good for fiction and art (Joyce, Tolkien, Picasso, Sergio Leone come to mind), but for poltics it is ultimately either tedious or dangerous. Politics is the art of the possible; the only justification for thinking about it is if doing so can help to understand and improve the real world. Too many people think it's about building castles in the air. This was always at the core of my long argument with libertarians -- they are nerds in love with an elegant theory and don't care about the mismatch with reality. Gagdad and Moldbug are more interesting but have the same general flaw.

All of which is to say I am trying to get over my unhealthy fascination with wingnuts. They are just not that interesting except as pathology. Besides, now the academics are getting into it. My Yom Kippur resolution is to spend less time on these wackjobs and more on tikkun olam.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


A couple of decades ago I got ahold of High Weirdness by Mail and made a hobby of collecting crank literature from variety of religious and political nutjobs. I viewed this as a form of research. Seeing the odd pathways it is possble for human minds to go down was a way to understand the workings of more ordinary ones. My former housemate Donna Kossy made a small career out of similar activities.

The Internet of course has made it too easy to find disturbed and disturbing people, so it became somewhat less interesting to me. Also there was an element of it I found distasteful, as if I was mocking the patients in Bedlam as was the practice in 18th century. So I mostly dropped that hobby. Kookdom, I supposed, would continue as ever on the fringes of discourse, perhaps gaining some strengths from the net's ability to let interest groups coalesce.

I never expected the nutjob paranoid style -- the kind that likes to draw elaborate influence diagrams -- to become mainstream. Yet here is Glenn Beck, owner of a show on a mainstream corporate network and Time magazine cover subject, ranting away about some conspiracy involving Che, Woodrow Wilson, George Soros, and of course Obama.

I don't really believe that Beck is a genuine kook (although who knows about his audience). He is a showman, and has cleverly appropriated the style of paranoid conspiracy theorists for his own purposes. Note that whereas the genuine paranoids would at least pick targets for their diagrams that had some actual power (The Trilateral Commission, Bilderbergs, Rothschilds, etc), Beck targets organizations like ACORN and the SEIU which are composed largely of poor and working-class people. This cleverly redirects whatever genuine insights the conspiracy-mongers have to offer. There is, in fact, an elite who runs the world, whether they need to meet in shadowy rooms to do it or not. They do not have your interests at heart. This fact drives some people mad, but at least their madness is grounded in something real. The madness of Beck and his followers lacks that. It's either insincere or just plain stupid. It's paranoia for lazy obese Americans who can't even manage to generate their own crazy obsessions.

Beck's success at peddling a faux version of kookery just proves once again that the genius of America is its ability to convert absolutely anything into a product.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ayn Rand (and the) Sociopath

This article on Ayn Rand and her cult has gotten a lot of attention recently, but it didn't tell me much that I didn't already know -- both her and her followers were immature, emotionally stunted and dysfunctional. The sexual and power escapades of the cultists are somewhere between amusing and pathetic.

This, however was new to me and genuinely horrifying. Good Lord.

The wall between political ideology and psychopathology just keeps getting weaker. Or, put it another way: politics inherently involves deep-seated psychological processes: emotion, attachment, self-image, object-relations, purity, boundaries, etc. Like religion, it's one way people deal with their inner turmoils and conflicts, by projecting them outside themselves. Extremism in politics goes together with extreme psychological states. The madness outside is a reflection of the madness inside.

One of the reasons Marxism seems so hokey to me is that it presumes that people's politics should be based on a rational material interests. Not on this planet. I suppose standard capitalist economics makes the same assumptions but is more robust to their falsity.

I always thought that autism was the right model for Randroids but perhaps the sociopath is closer. In both diseases, the person has something fundamentally wrong with their theory-of-mind module. Rand elevated this lack of ability to have compassion into the cardinal virtue of her ethical system. Most Randroids of course do not have anything organically wrong with their brains, they are merely would-be sociopaths.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Health care assortment

The issues for dummies:

After Obama's speech the stock price of major health insurers rose fairly significantly. This is a pretty good sign that Wall Street, at least, believes that the public option won't happen and nothing in whatever reform happens will impact the profits of these almost entirely parasitical entities.

Speaking of that, a friend of Doug Henwood points out that the total market cap of these companies amounts to about $150 billion, whereas the administrative overhead they impose over a single-payer scheme is closer to $250 billion. Thus a simple nationalization via buyout would easily pay for itself in a year. Obviously, nothing that sensible will happen.

How is it that we have a sizable chunk of population that is obviously at risk of health cost catastrophe (I refer to the white, lower class yahoos who make up the teabaggers) yet is willing to put themselves out to prevent a guarantee that they won't lose their insurance? I truly don't get it. Obviously these aren't the brightest bulbs in the chandelier and can easily be whipped into a frenzy of hate and paranoia, but in a visble economic downturn how much brains does it take to realize that you are at risk of losing your job, your insurance, and are thus at risk of medical bankruptcy? I really do not get it.

Friday, September 11, 2009


Yes, let's memorialize the 3,000 or so Americans (and others) who died in the attacks of 9/11, but only if we also remember the 4343 American soldiers who died in the course of waging a wholly unnecessary and ill-conceived war in the wake of 9/11. And, of course the roughly 100,000 Iraqi civilians who have died in the course of that war.

I'm trying to refrain from political thinking today, in the hope that that will be the best way to honor the dead. The vast majority of the dead indivduals above probably weren't that interested in politics, religion, or war, and just wanted to live their lives. But as Trotsky said, "œYou may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you." Choosing sides is always necessary; the best we can do is be on the side that is against conflict.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Union Maid

I'm lazy today but I seem to have a tradition of having labor day posts, so I'm outsourcing this one to the Guthrie family.

And yeah, before people chime in to tell me how horrible unions are, let's remember who gave us the weekend, the eight-hour day, child labor laws, and work-safety laws. To be sure, they also did their part in contributing to the decadence of American industry.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Due to a major (positive) life event I have had in the past couple weeks numerous old friends, old photographs, old possessions, and old ideas all turning up unexpectedly. A few weeks back I cleaned out the garage and dug up several boxes of old records, this week I managed to get the turntable hooked up and listened to some tracks that have been following me around unheard of for two decades or more. Old Rounder Records disks (Vassar Clements' Crossing the Catskills, obscure Robert Fripp projects, Roland Kirk Live in Copenhagen 1963, Siegel-Schwall Band. Sweet stuff. Listening to it after all these years felt odd. Most of it I still liked, but not necessarily for the same reasons I liked it back then. I am not the same person I was back then, though he and I obviously have some things in common.

Some weeks before that I stumbled upon the documentary film Proteus which brings together a bunch of my old interests -- form in nature, Coleridge, reconciling science and religion. It is primarily centered around Ernst Haeckel, known mainly today for his exquisitely trippy illustrations of radiolarians and other natural forms, but who was actually one of the major figures of 19th century biology. Large parts of the film are rapid-fire animations based on his drawings. These interests of mine, like the records, have been effectively sitting around in boxes getting slightly musty and mildewed, and it is with mixed feelings that I unpack them and examine them after so many years.

Oddly the film did not touch on the more controversial issues surrounding Haeckel -- his advocacy of eugenics, anti-semitism, and source of Nazi ideology, and accusations that he falsified some of his famous drawings that were a staple of evolution textbooks for decades. The former set of accusations seems exaggerated, since in fact the Nazis banned Haeckel's works along with others advocating "œthe superficial scientific enlightenment of a primitive Darwinism and monism", but it's still an unsettled issue among historians.

My attraction to this stuff has an ambiguous quality. I am fascinated by form and by the various holistic, romantic, or platonic currents of thought at the margins of science, but feel like I can't quite grasp it or devote myself to it wholeheartedly as some do (I dabbled in computer graphics and generative art but don't really have the artist's sensibility). Such stuff almost always seems to veer off into an unproductive self-righteousness and navel-gazing, or worse, cultishness. My background is in quite the opposite direction, but I am unsatisfied with it as I am with all belief systems.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Weimar? No wei!

The protests and counter-protests and mildly violent mobs that are occuring at town halls around the company reminded me of Weimar Germany, and Mark Kleiman had the same thoughts. But a little thinking made me change my mind. What's going on now is nothing like the street brawls between factions of that time, because we live in a wholly different media environment.

You can bet that when Nazis went out to the beer hall after beating up some communists, they were bragging about how many heads they smashed. In our era, when union people and random conservative nudniks mixed it up briefly, each side was bragging about how much they had been victimized. One black conservative goes down for 2 seconds and its a national scandal, amplified to hysteria as only the perverse echo chamber of the right can.

In Weimar Germany the street was an actual locus for political contestation. How much power your side wound up with was directly related to how much muscle you could bring to a brawl. In our time, the locus is the media, and your success depends on whether you can get your YouTube clip picked up by the cable talking heads. Everything is
spectacle: "All that was once directly lived has become mere representation."

I have sometimes complained that Americans these days can't get off their fat asses and protest outrages that demand action. On the other hand, Weimar did not end well. Maybe we are all better off now that the struggle goes on in TV studios and Google's PageRank engine.

On the other hand someone is bound to be killed or seriously hurt at one of these things soon enough. The wingnut hysteria seems like it has to keep increasing, "doubling down on craziness" as some put it, and there are an awful lot of unstable individuals with access to guns out there. What happens then, I don't know.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

How Dumb Spreads

If I had another life to spare I'd like to do research in memetic epidemiology -- how ideas spread and mutate through populations. Yesterday, Glenn Beck publicized a deeply moronic piece of hysteria -- that, the Fed-run consumer site for the cash-for-clunkers program -- was the thin edge of a wedge of complete government takeover of everything on your computer!!!! Of course, there is approximately no basis. There is a bit of legalese on a page that is only for car dealers, consumers never even encounter the hideous piece of text that supposedly permanently hocks your computer's soul to Obama.

This looks like an interesting case, epidemiologically speaking. There appears to be a single source (Beck) and you can see it trickling slowly through the blogosphere. It's pretty easy to identify. Probably it won't spread too widely; even the wingnut sites have comments pointing out how silly it is.

What's amazing to me is the mainstreaming of this kind of stuff. It's one things for stupid memes to propagate over random blogs, but this is being instigated from a major television show, backed up by one of the largest media corporations. Kimberly Guilfoyle is if anything even more hysterical than Beck -- this is a woman who used to be an assistant DA and was wife to Gavin Newsome, mayor of San Francisco and likely next governor of California. People in stations like this used to have a smidgen of responsibility, but these people clearly haven't got the slightest interest in the truth, and are perfectly willing to spread bullshit if it helps stoke their narrative of the evils of the Obama administration.

Well, this meme will die out soon I predict. More significant winger memes include those the drive the birther movement (apparently infection rates in white Southerners are an astonishing 70% or higher) and the idea that that Obama's health care plan involves mass euthanasia of the elderly (some examples here and here). Ooooh, here is a neat convergence!
check out this perfectly usable (until the federal government got a hold of it) Volvo being purposefully destroyed because of this program...Imagine instead of a car purposefully being put to death its your grandmother or grandfather being put to death by the federal government.
The euthanasia meme is going to go far, I predict. It just has the perfect combination of ingredients -- simple facts inflated wildly out of proportion, gruesomeness, paranoia, the invocation of sacred family ties. And seniors are easily manipulated.

Gary Farber does a good job with this sort of thing.
Here, for example, he tracks the fauxtrage over a photo from the recent white house beerfest. But he's just one man and is not using systematic techniques. We need some serious analytics applied to this stuff.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Gatesgate test

The Gatesgate affair may be mercifully behind us once the principals have enjoyed a beer together at the whitehouse, but it's been an instructive little summer newstorm. Your reaction to it may be taken as a pretty definitive test of your politcal leanings. Try to think back to when you first heard the story. If your reaction was sympathy for the policeman, you are an authoritarian, with a reflexive tendency to submit to authority and a desire for others to do the same. If your sympathy was with Gates, then you are a (small-l) libertarian, inclined to distrust authority and favor the individual in contests with state power. Note that this has little to do with the facts of the case. The ambiguity of the event makes it a nice litmus test.

Obama is neither of these, and I believe his unfortunate remark that the "police acted stupidly" may be explained as an interaction of these competing frames. His sympathy for the underdog (Gates) in this particular case competes with his effective role as Chief of Police (or, executive officer of the most powerful government in the world). He has no desire to delegitimize state power, but in this case the results were undesireable so it was applied "stupidly".

Of course simple racism also affects what side one falls in, but racists tend to be authoritarians, who would like nothing better for the inferior races to adopt their former subservient stance. To such people the very existence of someone like Dr. Gates is an affront.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match...

Readers (well, one) have occasionally accused me of being anti-Catholic for my harsh words about some of the misdeeds of the Catholic Church, while ignoring the sins of the Jews. So just for the record let me state that I highly disapprove of rabbis who are part of international human-organ trafficking rings, with or without the mayors of Secaucus and Hoboken as co-conspirators. Oy, what a shande.

This story is one of those things that would sound too extreme if it occured in fiction, sort of The Sopranos mashed up with Larry Niven and, oh I don't know, Gary Shteyngart? In fact, the medical anthropologist who first uncovered this ring had trouble getting the FBI to believe her -- after all, everyone knows that all those stories of people waking up missing a kidney are urban legends.

And of course we can count on libertarians to defend the practice of commdifying human organs.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Giant Vampire Squids

Matt Taibbi and Max Keiser (who I never heard of before this) are having a very enjoyable friendly competition to see who can produce the best invective about Goldman Sachs. Are they financial terrorists who should be brought up on charges in the Hague, or giant vampire squids their tentacles wrapped around the face of humanity? We report, you decide.

Here's Keiser on French TV, which is apparently a lot better than ours:

And here's the more sober Eliot Spitzer saying essentially the same things:

As a well-known financial ignoramus, I truly am not sure how pissed off I should be at this, but until I hear otherwise I'm willing to trust the above commenters. If this anger would penetrate the gelatinous brain of the average American we might actually be at risk of something happening...but it won't.

Most depressing is the realization that the Obama administration is just as much in the pocket of the financial "services" industry as the Republicans, if not more so. Not really a surprise, but the temporary mood of hope and change sure has faded fast.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

What cannot be said

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, daruber muss man schweigen.
What we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.

-- Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
The idea of apophatic theology has gotten some play in blogs recently, mostly due to a book by Karen Armstrong defending the idea, and some leading uncompromising atheist scientist flamers have attacked her. I'm not sure I see why. Apophaticism by design does not make any positive statements about God or anything else, thus it cannot conflict with science. You'd think that would satisfy the militants, but no, they will not rest until anything even vaguely smacking of religion is razed to the ground.

Not me! I have a mystical streak and a contrarian streak, so this form of enlightenment through negation appeals to me. I see Jerry Coyne is having a contest to name those atheists who like me are less than thoroughly hardcore. I think I like "placatheist" the best of his candidates so far.

One good argument for apophatic theology is to look at what happens when douchebags and pinheads think they have a line on God and "the Absolute". Apparently He's not only American, but a wingnut Republican as well. I think the wingers have (in embryonic form) something of a new religion, in which the saints are the founding fathers and Ronald Reagan, and Sarah Palin is playing Joan of Arc. In keeping with the apophatic approach I am not very comfortable giving attributes to God and I can be pretty sure that he doesn't pick sides in US electoral contests, nor does he have some special affinity for people born in North America.

The obnoxiousness of the noisy religious right is a large part of what drives intelligent people to atheism, but I think it's a tactical error. There is generally a hidden metaphysical core at the heart of most political belief systems, and the left needs to be more explicit about it. There is a vague correspondence between the apophatic demand for silence about metaphysics and the liberal walling-off of religious arguments from the public sphere. But it's not clear that apophatic religion can compete with the more primitive forms as a political organizing tool.

If you can't say anything about that-which-we-usually-call-God but probably deserves a more mystagogic name like "the One" or "the Absolute", what can you do with it? Contemplate it silently I suppose. Keep it in mind as a reality underlying the visible world. Or, you can just deny that the concept has any meaning or utility at all as the hardcore atheists do, but that is boring and philistine. Or you can make meta-level statements about your inability to say anything about it itself. This is what Wittgenstein and others do. A great deal end up being said about that of which we cannot speak.
I'm in the business of effing the ineffable.
-- Alan Watts
Why I, like others, am compelled to issue words on this topic which demands silence, I cannot say. Call it a nagging dissatisfaction with the standard stories. Neither the materialist nor the standard religious pictures of the world make much sense to me, so I'm trying to construct my own. The loudmouths for God or for atheism strike me as team players, which I am not. Universal skepticism is more my thing. Even the existence of an apophatic tradition makes me suspicious; I wouldn't want to accidentally be part of a movement.
Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.
-- Samuel Beckett
Links to the tradition:

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Wingnut of the week -- Spengler

To qualify for Omniorthogonal's prestigious wingnut of the week award (which needs a better name, since I hardly do this weekly), the recipient has to exhibit above average intelligence, erudition, or imagination, as well as being a right-wing maniac. We're not talking ordinary mouth-breathers here, or the likes of Jonah Goldberg. I'm not looking simply for dumb people to mock; those are too common and too boring and plenty of other places take care of them. I'm looking for people who think differently from me and do so in a way that's strong and strange enough that I might actually learn something or be convinced to change my opinions. Then I mock them.

Spengler is the pseudonym of David P. Goldman, who used to write at Asia Times and now is an associate editor and blogger at the reactionary religious First Things, and before that had an apparently interesting and varied career in finance and philosophy. I'm not sure this guy deserves the wingnut label; his writing seems orders of magnitude more organized than most. He seems to represent the best sort of conservative thought: acerbic, learned, and rigorous. He's also knowledgeable about classical music, and I have to admit to being intimidated by people who can claim that, since it's one of my larger blind spots.

So why would he even qualify as for my prestigious award, seeing as he has the wing but not the nut? a lengthy confession of his political history, he admits to having been a dedicated follower of Lyndon Larouche for ten years! This mystifies me, because I distinctly remember figuring out for myself that the Larouchies were creepy crackpots when I was about 17 years old. If my unformed youthful self could figure it out, how could someone of such manifest intelligence waste ten years of their life chasing these ideas? Oh well, people are different and what is obvious to one person is not necessarily so to another. Anyway, Spengler gradually figured out that he was beholden to a "gnostic cult" and extricated himself.

If that wasn't enough to interest me, it turns out that before he hooked up with Larouche, Spengler was affiliated with Hashomer Hatzair, a Socialist-Zionist youth movement that I myself belonged to for a few years (also around age 17). How one transitions from that to the vaguely anti-semitic Larouche cult is another mystery. Goldman has a complicated relationship to his Jewishness and his present conservatism seems to be an effort to recapture something that he missed in his red-diaper-baby childhood.

I sometimes wonder why I never had this kind of rebellion. My parents were conventional liberals, I was somewhat radical in my youth and am now more or less a conventional liberal myself. My brother, on the other hand, became a raving right-wing nut, and many other people from left-wing backgrounds have become rightist ideologues. I think the people this happens to are those who take their political beliefs too seriously, who want to use a political ideology as a personal identity and a root philosophy. As a math and computer geek I looked elsewhere for that stuff, and so I never expected politics to conform to a neat conceptual system, so never felt the need to shift from one extreme to another.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A mathematician's lament

I know just what he's talking about:
For truly on countless occasions throughout my life I have had this experience: persons for a time talk pleasantly with me because of my work among the sick, in which they think me very well trained, but when they learn later on that I am also trained in mathematics, they avoid me for the most part and are no longer at all glad to be with me.
-- Galen, On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body, 200AD or so.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Field guide for visitors to Palau

Don't be confused:


(Uighur truck drivers in Tibet)


[Sorry, it had to be done.]

Anarchy of Mind

Thanks to reader bhyde's recommendation I've been reading George Ainslie's Breakdown of Will, which is on the whole excellent. I can't quite believe that I never ran across it before, since I did my graduate work on somewhat similar issues. But while I explored all sorts facets of the control of behavior by networks of loosely-coupled goal-directed units, I was innocent of economics or utility theory, so missed out on some things.

The underlying idea of Ainslie's work is that we prefer more immediate rewards to longer term ones, and that the discount curve for such preferences is hyperbolic rather than the more rational exponential curve predicted by standard utility theory. The hyperbolic discount curve leads us to preferences that are not consistent over time, and thus to a process of "inter-temporal bargaining" between different versions (or parts) of ourselves.

The phenomenon of akrasia -- acting against one's own better judgement and values -- has been recognized for millenia, and has its most obvious manifestation in the form of addictions and the failure to overcome them. Ainslie extends his scope way beyond that, however, and attempt to explain everything from scratching intolerable itches to empathy using his framework. I'm not completely convinced, but I probably need to make another pass over the book to fully understand the theory.

Most interesting to me, he posits that the need to manage intertemporal relations between parts of the mind are the root of the self itself. Mental phenomena like will and selves results from attempts to build internal structures that constrain and rationalize divergent preferences. The structure of the person mirrors what we know of the structure of social institutions:
The historic difficulty of specifying what the self consists of doesn't come from its superfluousness, but the fact that it's a set of tacit alliances rather than an organ. The logic of limited war relationships naturally creates a population of cooperating processes, a fringe of outlaw processes, and a means of determining which will be which. And since limited warfare is conducted among individuals as well as within them, we can observe some of its properties in interpersonal examples.

Societies settle disputes within legal systems. Some depend on legislators...who lay down procedural principles. They've been the model for conventional allegorical theories of intrapersonal governance. But the most successful legal system in history, the English common law, has no lawgiver and no written constitution, only a tradition...

Like the common law, this process doesn't require an executive function to steer it. Nevertheless, a person's efficiency at developing personal rules s probably ncreased by executive processes....Thus "ego functions" may be learned on the bass of how they improve intertemporal cooperation.

Ironically, this picture of the person mirrors what our picture of a corporate hierarchy has become...people in corporations don't blindly follow orders, but act only when they're confident of each other's commitment to act. Executives don't function effectively by rationally analyzing facts as by finding facts that make good rallying points.

(p. 98-100)
All this is very reminiscent of Minsky's Society of Mind, which also had a large focus on competition between different parts of an individual's mind. Both theories paint a picture of the self as radically discordant, a network of semi-independent processes whose coordination is not given, but has to be achieved. However, Minsky focused more on cognition and mechanism and less on utility and reward.

Ainslie writes in a highly compressed style that is sometimes difficult to follow. His ideas raise more questions than they answer (for instance, they suggest ways to re-think some standard psychological ideas like the Freudian superego, authoritarian personality characteristics, and "disorders of volition" like depression). And when I read this kind of stuff I always worry a little bit if it is psychologically harmful -- given the effort we put into constructing coherent selves, subverting that effort by pulling the curtains aside and revealing the backstage machinery seems to entail a risk of spoiling the show. But these caveats aside, I found this book extremely worthwhile.

Here's a musical accompaniment:

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Nobody believes in embryonic personhood

I've been trying to find something original to say about the assassination of George Tiller. That this is an act of domestic terrorism seems indisputable. That this terrorism was egged on by a major media corporation, Fox News, is also indisputable. It also seems very likely that the suspect Roeder had assistance from Operation Rescue, making the event the fruit of a criminal conspiracy, and that he had financial backing from someone, since he had about $10 to his name.

But if you are an anti-abortion crazy, this terrorism is supposedly justified to stop the greater harm of murdering helpless infants. Now, for the purposes of practical politics I take the standard liberal position on abortion, but in terms of theory I find the question (to use my favorite word) interesting, because the situation of a pregnant woman simply doesn't fit into the framework of individual rights that underlies liberalism. A pregnant woman is not an individual, but a system of one full-fledged person and some fraction between 0 and 1 of another person. And that's not even considering whatever rights and responsibilities the father might have, that's a whole additional kettle of worms. Fetuses (and post-birth dependent children as well) simply do not fit neatly into simple legal and moral categories.

Let's dig into the anti-abortion position a bit deeper. It has the virtue of simplicity: any fertilized zygote, any cell with roughly 46 human chromosomes, is a full-fledged person, and killing one is murder. No troublesome ambiguity or middle ground. Unfortunately, it is easy to show that the anti-abortonists do not actually hold this position. In practical terms, they follow the same common-sense mental schema that everyone else does -- a zygote is not a person, but a quasiperson or potential person, that does not enjoy the full suite of attributes that come with personhood but instead gradually achieves them during development.

I've argued this before by pointing out that roughly half of all fertilized eggs fail to implant and are ejected with the menses. If zygotes were people, this would mean our infant mortality rate was 50%, and that priests would be sifting through discarded tampons with a microscope looking for blastulas to say prayers over. In fact, this doesn't happen, and nobody would consider doing it. Thus, nobody actually considers that zygotes and blastulas are people.

But the Tiller murder made me think of an additional support for this proposition. If full-blown personhood starts from conception, and there is no moral difference between abortion and murder of an adult, then there is also no difference between a late-term abortion of the kind that Tiller specialized in, and an earlier one. But somehow the anti-abortion terrorists singled out Tiller as being uniquely evil due to his willingess to perform late-term abortions. This is further evidence that the anti-abortion radicals do not really hold to their professed ideology. In fact, if you really believed that all fetuses and embryos were equal, Tiller's actions would be marginally more moral than other abortionists, since most of his procedures were performed out of medical necessity.

So moral prescriptivism aside, from a purely descriptive stance zygotes and other pre-birth forms of the human organism are not treated as people, even by those who hold an ideological position that defines them as such.

[update: Here's a good post that makes the same point in passing; and also includes some interesting facts on the frequency of late-term abortions (they're very rare, about .01% of all abortions performed).]