Archive for October, 2007

Who’s ever had 95 good theses all at once?

A man with one new idea can start a creed, a cult, an ideology. A man with a hundred, a thousand, starts nothing. He might perhaps awake a dormant mind, but if he does the triumph will simultaneously mark the limit of his own influence, for this is the opposite of conversion, the opposite of creating a following.

One says, “I believe this, this and this to be true,” and always with a certain dishonesty. The will to overcome with one’s beliefs lies at the root of all such talk.

What happens when the simplicity of one’s goals and the complexity of the means adopted to achieve them becomes too great? Is it too much to kill the dragon to spend a night with the maiden? To write an encyclopedia in order to obtain a mention in one?

In 4th grade the flower first introduced me to the circularity of existence. The color, the shape, its efficient decadence, all to lure the bee and create another flower. Must there not be more? The attempt to impart meaning through evolutionary reasoning failed entirely for me. It is no reason for something to exist to extend itself. If anything, two copies needs even more justification than one. And for a species, perhaps an infinite. A flower may be beautiful, but in responding so and planting more are we not not simply made tools in this futile enterprise? This was no more effective in resolving an abstruse subject in my mind than when I was five and asked the Catholic parents of a friend of mine who had gotten chicken pox why this seemed to happen to us all at that age (I hadn’t yet heard of chicken pox parties). “Because God is testing us,” said the mother. “Yes, but why do we get chicken pox?”

Behavioral scientists like to perform experiments like giving chimpanzees and ravens a little stick or some blades of grass and making them try to fish an apple out of a bucket or pull a lure off a clothesline. It’s supposed to show their tool-making and problem-solving to be quite high for animals but still considerably subhuman. But I wonder how well the people you see hanging around outside 7-11 or Wal-Mart would do with a little stick and a few blades of grass. Without the accumulated collective knowledge that resides in the more advanced tools that let us avoid such predicaments in general. And how would they do if they had never heard tell of any previous possibly relevant situation? I don’t deny that a real cognitive gap between the species seems to exist, but I wonder how much the facility of language magnifies it to the point of blinding us to its real magnitude, such that in accomplishing the little tasks of daily life we like to see ourselves as capable individual problem-solvers when in fact a horde, an army, the collected mass of past humanity provides a precedent, a mode of operations for almost all of them.

links for 2007-10-27

An even better use for a humidor than defying U.S. trade sanctions!

Been watching the Colorado Rockies rise out of the Slough of Despond and 70-80 Win Seasons for no readily apparent reason and put on an increasingly convincing performance as the Team of Destiny du jour (though it’s still not completely convincing, kind of like movies with Uma Thurman where you have to mentally insert your own idea of a beautiful woman to understand the effect she’s supposed to have on people). Aside from the fact that my current interest seems sort of guiltily bandwagonish, even though my family bought season tickets when they first started playing in 1993, since I, like I’d say about 95% of the rest of the state of Colorado lost interest in them about five years ago, and that I find it interesting that despite having swept two playoff series only one of the baseball writers on predicts that they’ll win more than two games against the Red Sox (which incidentally is about the same as what was predicted for them in those last two playoff series), I think one of the most interesting elements of this whole resurgence is that it seems that one of the most secretly, unexpectedly powerful forces in turning around an entire franchise seems to have been…the baseball humidor!

I remember when they first installed that four or five years ago it was fairly widely believed even in Colorado that a major league team could never be successful there because it was impossible to pitch well consistently at such altitude. And the humidor was roundly ridiculed not only as a last-resort, pathetic, cheapskate solution to the pitching problem but also for the implication on the part of the Rockies that all their lack of success and mismanagement could be attributed to the density of the baseballs. Now, half a decade later, their pitching has been, especially in the postseason, at the least very good, if not spectacular, and they’re at least a playoff series beyond what many people thought they would ever be capable of. And yet, as an example of gaining a competitive advantage through technology (or at least negating a fairly serious disadvantage), it’s gotten about 1/1000 the attention that the Patriots’ filming opposing teams’ defensive signals has, despite the evidence over the last few weeks that suggests that the actual difference those two things have made for their teams that is probably closer to the other way around. Interesting.

Beyond history

Gravity defines destiny. This might sound absurd. And not only because it would seem ridiculous to reduce existence to such a single bare physical fact, but also because of course gravity is not a process with some ultimate future product, but a force, which is (as far as is known) equally present at every moment. And yet of course it registers itself as a sort of precondition of existence, in the sense that every body in the universe must somehow conform itself to and engage with gravity’s force. In a sense, much the same could be said about evolution and yet, crucially, people equate evolution much more readily with human teleology than gravity.

Yet evolution, too, represents not a process but a force, in fact a kind of property of time. A property of time, and hence present at every instant of time. Maybe the mistake originates in the view of history embedded in the demonstration of the concept of evolution. We learn of bacteria over many generations leading to people. But this long train of happening represents not the force of evolution itself but merely its effect. Evolutionary pressure is no more historical than that which caused the king of France’s head to fall upon the ground after being guillotined. In its barest form evolution seems almost a tautology; that which survives, thrives, and that which cannot, disappears. And of course gravity itself represents but one of many obstacles to a living thing’s existence that together constitute evolutionary pressure.

The habit of thinking in terms of process and result betrays the mind into conceiving of evolution as having some end, into asking questions like “is the toe adaptive?”, or even worse: “is religion adaptive?” Such a question in one way can never be answered. So long as an organism bearing a trait remains alive and capable of spawning more, one could say: “adapted well enough.” Only extinction definitely proves a point about adaptation (and since all the living things on earth are relatives to some extent, true extinction has never yet been seen). Like a macabre parallel of Popper’s falsifiability principle, extinction proves non-adaptation but nothing proves adaptation, because evolutionary fitness is never ultimate or final, but always relative, temporary, ever-moving.


The Queen of the Quagmire

“Some suggest today that the US failure in Iraq is due simply to lack of planning; to specific policy errors— debaathification, looting, the abolition of the army, and lack of troops; and to the absence of a trained cadre of Arabists and professional nation-builders. They should consider Bell and her colleagues, such as Colonel Leachman or Bertram Thomas, a political officer on the Euphrates. All three were fluent and highly experienced Arabists, won medals from the Royal Geographical Society for their Arabian journeys, and were greatly admired for their political work…But their task was still impossible. Iraqis refused to permit foreign political officers to play at founding their new nation. T.E. Lawrence was right to demand the withdrawal of every British soldier and no stronger link between Britain and Iraq than existed between Britain and Canada. For the same reason, more language training and contact with the tribes, more troops and better counterinsurgency tactics—in short a more considered imperial approach—are equally unlikely to allow the US today to build a state in Iraq, in southern Afghanistan, or Iran. If Bell is a heroine, it is not as a visionary but as a witness to the absurdity and horror of building nations for peoples with other loyalties, models, and priorities.”

It’s the Oil

“The occupation may seem horribly botched on the face of it, but the Bush administration’s cavalier attitude towards ‘nation-building’ has all but ensured that Iraq will end up as an American protectorate for the next few decades – a necessary condition for the extraction of its oil wealth. If the US had managed to create a strong, democratic government in an Iraq effectively secured by its own army and police force, and had then departed, what would have stopped that government from taking control of its own oil, like every other regime in the Middle East? On the assumption that the Bush-Cheney strategy is oil-centred, the tactics – dissolving the army, de-Baathification, a final ‘surge’ that has hastened internal migration – could scarcely have been more effective. The costs – a few billion dollars a month plus a few dozen American fatalities (a figure which will probably diminish, and which is in any case comparable to the number of US motorcyclists killed because of repealed helmet laws) – are negligible compared to $30 trillion in oil wealth, assured American geopolitical supremacy and cheap gas for voters. In terms of realpolitik, the invasion of Iraq is not a fiasco; it is a resounding success.

Still, there is reason to be sceptical of the picture I have drawn: it implies that a secret and highly ambitious plan turned out just the way its devisers foresaw, and that almost never happens.”

The genealogy of envy

The rulers of North Korea flail their domain like little demon kings, but for what? I’ve read that DVD players and vacations abroad remain exclusive privileges of the ruling class there. DVD players and vacations abroad!? That places them where, in the lofty company of the top 70% of Americans? Sure, Kim Jong-Il might have a couple of billion tucked away somewhere, but he’s squeezed the tube about as hard as one possibly can, driven half the population to the brink of starvation, so there can’t be much more to be had. Compare that to the commercial magnates of the outside world, some of whom have much greater wealth and almost limitlessly greater potential to gain more. So it’s not exactly a trade-off between personal gain and suffering for everyone else. It seems more like collective suffering, where even the rulers stand to lose from their oppression.

So from an economic sense it appears utterly perverse that the rulers themselves shouldn’t choose to release the vice a bit. Surely they could take the path that China has and contrive to hold on to their DVD’s and overseas holidays at the very least, and improve the lives of so many others. And as China proves, going that route there is not even a very big chance that they would all wind up hanged as war criminals. So why not change? Perhaps there’s something repulsively appealing to them about being so much better off than all those around them, which would not be possible in the comparatively greater equality of an open society even if they were richer.

Such an impulse not just to be well-off but specifically to be better off than one’s fellow man might not make sense economically, but it does evolutionarily. Almost every impulse accompanying an evolutionary function can be hoodwinked in a sense, satisfied without fulfilling that function: sex with contraceptives intentionally blocking conception, the offspring-nurturing impulse distracted by animals or adopted children (though these might not be wholly evolutionarily non-productive). Evolution is in its deepest grasping heart comparative (or I suppose “positional” is the currently fashionable term), actuated on being better off than everyone else in one particular sense. Why is it unreasonable to suppose that the mania for being #1 might lead to a situation, like in North Korea, where mercilessly guarding one’s own preeminence causes everyone to suffer materially? Or maybe it’s even evolutionarily adaptive, since the very specific sense in which evolution favors primacy lies in having the most offspring (actually it’s more about creating the maximum number of copies of DNA, but that distinction is not terribly important here), and even if the rulers of North Korea are not nearly as rich as the wealthiest non-North Koreans, in a society where the only possible path to a half-decent existence for oneself and one’s family and children runs through them their reproductive opportunities, to put it very crudely, are probably quite plentiful.

And yet so many thinkers continue to either ignore envy and the desire for preeminence as a fundamental human trait or pander to it. Strange that the free-marketers who generally pride themselves on their realism in acknowledging the self-interest and greed of humanity should so often dismiss the evidence of its enviousness, or at least the implications this has on, for example, their tolerance of income inequality. And as for those who believe envy worthy of being propitiated for its own sake… Envy cannot possibly be sated on a society-wide scale. It’s self-contradictory. And in a way, those that think it can be by, for example, imposing economic inequality are just as dismissive of the basic reality of envy as the others. Because how logical is it to think that the desire to be better off than others can be satisfied precisely by denying anyone the ability to be better off than anyone else?

links for 2007-10-08