Archive for the 'Ramblings' Category

Masters of feelings

Temperament is habitually recognized in our daily affairs but overlooked in regard to society and history. How can the natural-born rebel communicate his fervor and dissatisfaction to the timid and meek? How can the good-natured and jovial persuade the militant to moderation? Or as Elsa Morante says in the dedication of her novel La Storia, a message sent from one of these to the other is “por el analfabeto a quien escribo.” We share over 98% of our genes with every other human in the world, yet almost all the means by which we can effectually communicate our emotions lies in the other 2%. One could then, then, expect a single reaction to events from all of humanity even if the feelings they provoked were substantially the same. And what to make of ideas themselves, limitlessly reproducible and communicable, at least in theory? Richard Dawkins even goes so far as to claim that human ideas are self-replicating evolutionary units like genes. He calls them memes. These are the real ghosts in the machine, the real spiritual entities if there are such, much more than the mind as a whole, which is irrevocably physical in nature at least in part, if nothing else because it cannot be liberated from a particular piece of matter. Ideas, on the other hand, can transmit from person to person like beacon signals, even though they cannot exist, seemingly, without some mind to receive or create them. Yet there’s the rub. While Dawkins would have it that the power of genes to replicate themselves arises from the fact that they are in a way information as opposed to matter, and hence universally transmissable, a property they share with ideas, at a further look it seems clear that their drive originates in a different engine, namely from the fact that they design the very organic systems which perpetuate them. This system is also the medium of transmission of ideas, i.e. a living organism, but it is designed by genes. It may well be that ideas can exert an effect on organisms in turn through feedback, but since genes establish the system which exists at the outset of every generation according to their own needs, one might expect that the receptivity to and ability to create certain ideas will ultimately be determined by its amenability to the perpetuation of genes, so that the tendency across time will be for ideas to subordinate themselves to genes (this is of course a trend, not an absolute reality at any given time).

Dear anonymous person who lives in my building

Next time you do your laundry, how about cleaning the lint filter in the dryer after removing your clothes? It’s not that I have any problem with lint per se, but lint isn’t all that the lint filter catches. For example, a quick glance at the lint you left behind for me to clean from the filter before loading my own clothes makes it clear, based on the pubic hair content, that you were washing your sheets and/or underwear this morning.

Now, I’m not paranoid enough to think there’s a significant associated health risk and I certainly don’t want to discourage you from washing your sheets and underwear, but being forced to handle a total stranger’s pubes is, in the famous words of a good friend of mine, fucking repugnant.

Thank you.

From the middle class to the Middle Kingdom

I would like to mention to anyone interested that, starting a week from tomorrow, I will be going to Shanghai and thence, after three weeks of TOEFL training, to Tianjin (the third-largest city in China, about an hour away from Beijing) in order to teach English literature at Nankai University, the alma mater of none other than Mr. Zhou Enlai, as well as Chen Xingshen, one of my brother’s personal heroes (well, that may be an exaggeration, but a guy whose work he admires). Maybe this will not make much of a difference with regards to this site except for a few more pretty pictures, but I feel, in the interest of sincerity, that I should warn everyone that, for reasons which I am sure most of you will well understand, I may not be entirely at liberty to speak unreservedly about various sensitive political topics, at least until I get back home. I really don’t anticipate any problems, but just so that you know, I will doubtless be ready at that time to divulge any impressions of my experience that I don’t feel it prudent to mention during the course of my stay, though if any such situations arise I will try to at least give some indication of that fact. As I say, I honestly don’t anticipate this being a problem, especially as I have heard that China has opened up considerably intellectually and is now a much freer environment for discussion than, say, Singapore, but nevertheless it is something that should be mentioned, as it may possibly affect my own way of approaching various topics, even if there are no concrete reprecussions of any sort. So if those words are sufficiently cryptic for everyone, I am greatly looking forward to the whole experience, my first in Asia, and fully expect to be enamored by the adventure. Anyway, in the words of Jerry Springer, take care of yourselves, and everyone else.

Conservative revolutionaries

The true revolutionaries in history lived in one world and stepped into a new one. We, born into some of the preconceptions and views that they established, often find baffling the assumptions of the society into which they were born and bred and which they usually had to respect to some extent even in making a conscious break with elements of it. This perhaps accounts for one of the seemingly obvious and yet curious characteristics of history, which is that the revolutionaries of our past often seem more conservative than radical in their attitudes. A correlary but not not identical observation is that the more influential they were the more conventional they are likely to appear, since they helped to establish a new orthodoxy. Hence the old saw about Shakepeare’s plays being full of clichés. Locke’s views on education and human rights are one of the preeminent examples of this.

But even beyond this, as radical as a person’s ideas may be, they are likely to retain some elements of their intellectual heritage. So Francis Bacon, whom I am reading right now, is known as in some sense the initiator of the theory of the scientific method and hence perhaps the closest thing to a founder of modern science as we are likely to find. And of course science is often viewed as the pre-eminent intellectual challenge to religion and supernaturalism in general. And yet Bacon’s own religious views were more orthodoxally Christian than probably the vast majority of people living today. Many people today think they are to some extent following Karl Marx when they denigrate materialism or the value of material goods in society. But Marx was probably one of the biggest worshipers of the value of material goods in history. Marxism is not more formally known as dialectical materialism for nothing. He wasn’t interested in transcending the craving for goods, just in distributing them in his view more fairly. It was precisely their value that made this endeavor worthwhile. Or, to take yet another example, Charles Darwin famously resisted applying his theories of natural selection to human society, notably the now-notorious Social Darwinism. He was a Christian and no innovator in the field of ethics, and not inclined to believe that morality just sort of sprang up from the ground, even if life did, nor that it mainly existed just to further the drive for survival and reprouduction.

What often seems to be the case is that when a concept like natural selection proves capable of explaining enough phenomena it at some point becomes a self-sufficient worldview, at least for some people. But the originator of the idea, knowing the process of assumption-making and inference that went into creating the theory, is not likely, so long as he is of a somewhat sober and rational disposition, to be able to see it as just a given, a fact of life, as the subsequent more superficial-minded students brought up with the theory do, even if he does live long enough to see all the predictive claims of the theory thoroughly vindicated, which does not often happen. Marx’s case seems a bit different; since Marxist theories, at least in America, have become more or less the province of muddle-headed English professors who think they are being thoroughly Marxist whenever they “interrogate” the assigning of value and hierarchical relations in capitalistic society, it is probably more a matter of falsely identifying oneself with a philosophy that shares a common enemy.

Lastly, it should not be assumed a priori that the caution of the originators of big ideas is necessarily more justified than the grandiosity of their disciples. Social Darwinism may have been premature and even repugnant, but the notion of applying evolutionary thinking to behavior and human society has been rather spectacularly vindicated through the growth of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and the rest. Bacon’s careful distinctions between the proximate natural causes of things and the ultimate divine causes are likely to seem rather Panglossian and greatly unnecessary to most people today. Einstein’s insistence that the concept of relativity did not apply outside physics was no doubt justified as it pertained to the bastardized and ill-digested notions of relativity that infected the humanities and popular culture.  But it nevertheless seems like an overly comparmentalized view of the world in the sense that a physical theory so fundamental is bound to have some implications on the universe as a whole and everything inside it, the problem being more that so few people really understand relativity that almost no one is in a position to say exactly what those are.  But Einstein’s disastrous verdict against quantum theory on grounds apparently as much philosophical as empirical showed that he was not always particularly forward-looking in his views. So perhaps we should view the innovators as particularly imperfectly assimilated the societal worldview of any era, or at least especially adept at convincingly making a transition from one to another.

Wo war das hohe Gericht, bis zu dem er nie gekommen war?

It seems like I have had a discussion with just about every educated person I know about Kant’s categorical imperative at least once. I had another such the other day, and it happened to connect with a couple of other things I was thinking about. I have to say that for some time I have found the idea of a priori ethical systems a little arbitrary. When it comes to Kant, it is easy to be misled by his language into thinking that he is postulating a consequentialist or even quasi-utilitarian view of ethics. But this is not true, and his admonition about it being wrong to lie to a would-be murderer about the whereabouts of the person he is seeking to kill because lying is an unacceptable general moral principle should demonstrate that pretty convincingly. So instead there must be some intrinsic connection between moral imperatives like telling the truth and the good.

But if the goal of ethics is ultimately, as I believe, to try to maximize the happiness of the members of a group, or at least to make their individual desires capable of co-existence as much as possible, the categorical imperative manifestly fails to do so, as evidenced by that very example. The famous criticism of Kant by Schopenhauer that “everything is sacrificed to a rage for symmetry,” or in this case consistency, comes to mind. It seems to me that it is necessary to be flexible in one’s principles of action, and careful in balancing what is at stake, or one could find oneself giving directions to a murderer, so to speak. Even if deeds like telling the truth are on the whole the best policy in most cases, one cannot justify the instances in which they are not by reference to those in which they are.

Response to Google/China, 5 months late

In light of recent revelations, it’s amusing to look back at contemporary responses to Google’s decision to accede to China’s censorship in order to gain a toehold in the largest emerging digital marketplace in the world. At the time I intended to post a link to Neal Stephenson’s “The Kingdom of Mao Bell” as a rejoinder to Calacanis’ post linked above, but never got around to it. So there it is.

(Oh, and if you have the time, check Stephenson’s “Mother Earth, Mother Board”, which is excellent)

Rationalistic or rationalizing ethics?

So I’m back on the grid after a long absence.  I apologize if anyone has been eagerly expecting my presence for the last month-and-a-half, although I suspect there is about a 2% chance of that.  In addition to the explanations that my brother has already provided, I would add that I have been trying to distance myself a little from this project to think about what I want to do with it and perhaps re-orient myself a little.  The major thing is that I would like to make my presence a little less reactive, not just responding to things I’ve read but also pushing the cart of my own volition, though of course most things I think about are sparked by some outside stimulus.

 One thing I’ve thought about a lot lately is the pragmatic basis for a lot of our ethics.  I’ve always thought that morals should be able to stand and fall on their own basis, but I have to admit that most of the time they owe a lot to communication.  What I mean by that is not any particular principle, but just the difference between how we apply our ethics to, for example, other adult people versus, for example, animals or children.  I don’t intend to claim that this this form of discrimination is a bad thing or a good thing, but I would like to simply observe one or two things.

It is usually presumed, at least in our society, that all adult people in the world have essentially the same moral rights.  Yet this does not really seem to me purely a matter of principle.  Partly we grant rights to others out of a fear of what they or their allies might be able to do to us if we do not, and also out of a desire to secure the possible benefits of their goodwill.  Because intelligence and communication greatly amplifies the ability of an individual or group to affect those around them, no matter how isolated or oppressed.  In short, being social animals, cooperation is generally the best strategy for us from a purely self-interested point of view, although even this often comes at the expense of certain other individuals.  This is obviously not the case with, for example, animals (even the relationship with useful animals like dogs or horses canno be considered cooperative in the same way).

 With them it is basically ethics in the abstract.  Whether we treat them well or badly is not likely to have much of an effect on us.  Maybe an individual will lash out if threatened or in pain, but they are not likely to coordinate their efforts or make use of technology to harm us in any significant or prolonged manner.  Sure, people are wary of animals that can harm them, either as individuals or in packs, like bears or bees or army ants.  But even in this case it is only within an immediate context.  There is little fear that wiping out a nest of hornets with a can of Raid will result in the incident’s being remembered in the collective hornet memory and avenged by other groups. 

 Even with children, despite the ability to mutually communicate, the risk of retaliation, due to smaller size and experience, incomplete intellectual formation, strong attachment to parents, etc. make them much less likely to band together in any sort of menacing way.  It is generally claimed that children enjoy less rights because they need to be protected and guided until they attain adulthood, and I think there is a good deal of merit in this.  But one could nonetheless legitimately turn this around and claim that is is because they are inexperienced and vulnerable (and small) that it is possible to get away with granting them fewer rights.

 By none of this do I mean to claim that ethics is just a fraud, or that animals should enjoy rights commensurate with humans, or that parenting is just a rationalized subjugation.  I simply mean to point out that perceived principles often conform remarkably closely with rules of behavior which are in aggregate simple self-interest.  With a number of animals, for example, we are essentially programmed to eat them, not cooperate with them.   This may be explained away, generally by reference to their (perceived) lesser intelligence, but I would simply point out that lesser intelligence is not generally an admissable criterion for discrimination in ethical debates.  But my whole point is that whether this is right or wrong seems a bit academic, since the fact of the correspondence (whether causal or not) between self-interest and ethics more or less ensures that it will continue for the most part, whether the Spanish government tries to grant rights to the great apes or not. 

Fill in the blanks

Yesterday, I saw (and heard!) a 91-year-old woman go through a glass table. 91. Through it. Since this was a metal-framed table topped with old, untempered glass, it’s a miracle she didn’t break her hip or bleed to death on the spot.

Given that I was standing in line at the post office at the time, waiting to mail in my even-more-painful-than-usual tax return (the three people who know what I’m talking about are grimacing right now) and morbidly trying to figure out what percentage of my taxes would go to pay for more Border Patrol television ads (“The Border Patrol–No mission more important, more challenging, or more rewarding!”)…well, I’ll just let you fill in your own metaphor.

You can’t kill the middleman

Jeff Jarvis correctly notes that ABC’s decision to offer popular programs for free download is big news, but then goes off the rails a bit in the comments. First, the good stuff:

What this really means: TV is grabbing a share of online advertising by redefining TV as both broadcast and broadband. Advertisers have always been more comfortable spending big money on TV. Now they can continue to spend their money with those familiar players and get broadband, too. And TV is doing this so as not to lose money to other media even as broadcast — and next, cable — shrink; this is how they rescue upfront. And if TV succeeds at holding advertisers’ attention and money, other players — online companies, magazines, newspapers — may not be able to break in. This an effort for both networks and ad agencies to keep ahead.

In the comments, though, Jay Currie speculates:

[E]xactly why do the producers of these shows need the networks if these models work? If I own – to take an old example – Seinfeld why not put the entire thing up on the net with a few different revenue options and see what sticks.

(I’d sell that entertainment conglomerate stock too.)

Jarvis agrees:

Exactly right. At some point, soon, content producers will get rid of all middlemen.

Now, I’m not picking on Jarvis or Currie or anybody else in particular, but on this sentiment, which is pretty widespread, practically to the point of tautology, among the digerati. See, e.g., David Heinemeier Hansson’s self-congratulatory post on publishing. But, as Tim O’Reilly says in the comments to Hansson’s post, it’s really not at all clear that the “middlemen” are going anywhere. Or, more precisely, it’s not at all clear that middlemen, as an integral part of the distribution system, are going anywhere, even if the currently-extant middlemen disappear from the scene.

You see, even aside from the fact that writers tend not to be their own best editors and musicians tend not to be their own best producers, there are potentially billions of people out there who are or will be self-publishing their creations. The internet already comprises (at minimum) hundreds of gigabytes worth of material and, as broadband proliferates, that’s only going to increase exponentially. How am I, as a content consumer with a day job, supposed to unearth the good stuff from the overwhelming sea of crap?

The traditional answer is that publishers/record labels/movie studios find the good books/albums/movies and distribute them, then reviewers sift through the still-gigantic mountain of published material and point you and I towards the best of it. Of course, this system isn’t perfect and never was, but it actually does pretty effectively relegate rather a lot of the crap (which, of necessity, comprises the overwhelming majority of artistic work) to obscurity. And the need for that aspect of traditional middlemen will only increase as more people get hooked up to the internet.

Which, as I hinted above, doesn’t mean that tomorrow’s middlemen will look anything like yesterday’s. Probably the biggest middleman on the internet today is Google; just imagine how hard it would be to find anything interesting or useful online without a search engine. Or what about Slashdot, Digg, and YouTube (to name just four examples I use), which aggregate content based on how popular it is among their users? They’re middlemen, too. So are popular linkblogs like InstaPundit and boingboing. None of these sites looks like Time-Warner or Arista, but, from the consumer standpoint, they perform basically the same essential function of separating the wheat from the chaff.

No, the difference between traditional content distribution and future content distribution is not that there won’t be any middlemen in the future, but that the middlemen will less homogeneous: in composition, process and in scope. The composition part is easy to see: some will be corporate (like ESPN or Wired or Google), some will be collaborative (like Slashdot or Digg), some will be individual (like Glenn Reynolds). The process part is also easy to see: Google is on one end of the automation spectrum, Wired and (presumably) Glenn Reynolds are more or less on the other end and sites like Slashdot and are somewhere in the middle. This is even more muddied by the fact that many of the “middlemen” are themselves content-producers.

The inhomogeneity of scope is also relatively easy to see for anyone who spends a fair amount of time online. A middleman like Google is pretty good at picking out sites and information relevant to both relatively standard queries (like “ABC” or “William Gibson”) and extremely esoteric queries (like “circumcenter activities” or “Helmut Hofer”), but isn’t good at all at finding stuff relevant to vague or only slightly unusual queries. Google’s scope, being global, is just too broad to be effective in those circumstances. For example, if you’re looking for useful (and free) productivity software on the Mac with no foreknowledge of the subject, your best bet is probably to use Google to look for more specialized middlemen like Lifehacker or VersionTracker and then search those sites for links to potentially useful software (or maybe just to even more specialized middlemen). Quicksilver is a fantastic bit of software, but you have to go through at least two or three layers of middlemen to find it, especially since you would probably never guess, ahead of time, that such a thing exists.

Anyway, the point is that middlemen aren’t disappearing; if anything, they’re proliferating. It’s just that people confuse the decline of particular middlemen (such as the perceived decline of publishers or TV networks) with a general decline in the importance of the middleman.

Update Mark Cuban agrees with me. Indirectly, anyway.

Conspiracy deluxe (now with smug math references)

The following was intended to be a direct response to a couple of statements in Curt’s last post, but, as these things tend to do, the direct response quickly metastasized into a rambling diatribe only tangentially related to the initial impetus. So, never one to lose an opportunity to pad my post count, I’m pulling it out of its original destination in the comment box and posting it here for all to see, comment on and, if need be, snicker quietly under their breath.

Would complicity in 9/11 change your estimation of the American government’s valuation of human life and liberty?

In the sense that I have a hard time accepting the concept that an institution as massive as the federal government even has a coherent “valuation of human life and liberty”, no. But, even if you think that George W. Bush is Satan’s person knob-polisher, he didn’t personally orchestrate the entire thing even if we accept the hypothesis that he (or Cheney, or whoever) is ultimately behind it, so in the sense that rather a lot of people, presumably not all sociopaths, would have had to have been involved, it would be quite troubling.

In both cases, the assumption seems to be that there are only two possible theories, so any nagging inconsistencies or incompleteness in one theory is implicitly support for the other. The towers falling straight down so quickly or life getting started in the first place might be problematic for the conventional explanations, but they are not really positive evidence that God exists or that the U.S. government blew up its own buildings.

I’ve spent rather a lot of time interacting with “conspiracy theorists”, so I think I’m qualified to say that this is a somewhat inaccurate caricature. Are there some conspiracy theorists who see the nefarious USG behind any unusual or hard-to-explain occurrences with bad results? Of course. Are there more who always blame evil Republicans for 9/11, global warming, cold winters and bad television? Absolutely. But there are plenty who were/are at least moderately more rational. To extend the towers-falling-straight-down example, some pursued a thought process more or less like the following: first, questioning (more or less idly, at least initially) whether the towers falling straight down was a plausible outcome given the purported circumstances, then deciding that the circumstances as stated weren’t a plausible explanation, then questioning what set of circumstances would have led to the indisputable result of both towers collapsing straight down and then, finally, in most (but not all) cases embracing some alternative set of circumstances that would be more plausible.

It’s instructive to point out that the conspiracy theories tend, on the whole, to lose their coherence at this last stage. The controlled demolition theory is popular, but by no means universal; there are those who are convinced the planes were loaded with missiles, or that they were drogues full, not of passengers, but of high explosives, or whatever. Oh, sure, most blame the thing on the government, but, assuming one accepts the reasoning in the above paragraph as more or less sane, there’s no escaping the fact that someone had to have placed the demolition charges or put missiles on the planes or flew the drogues or whatever your favorite explanation is and, really, it’s hard to think of any organization other than the USG that could have pulled any of those off. Unbelievable as it might seem to argue that the federal government placed, wired up, timed and ignited demolition charges in three separate buildings (don’t forget WTC 7) without anyone noticing (which, given the precision required would be rather a hard thing to do), it’s orders of magnitude more difficult to believe that the Mafia or the Chinese or even al Qaeda could have done it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, provided one thinks more is going on than meets the eye, involving the government in your explanation (though perhaps not actively) is more or less inevitable.

Note that I’m not necessarily endorsing this particular line of reasoning; I’m just saying it’s not as cracked out as it might first seem. In broad outline the path to becoming a conspiracy theorist isn’t terribly unreasonable: something seems fishy, seek alternative explanation, recognize alternative explanation requires additional participants with significant resources and opportunity, deduce participation of local actor with most of both. Any particular deduction of a conspiracy theory almost certainly rests on questionable assumptions, but that’s likely to be the case even for a true conspiracy theory, since a conspiracy theorist is, by definition, someone not in on the conspiracy.

At this point a number of “conspiracy theorists” of my acquaintance point out that the official explanation is itself a conspiracy theory in that it seeks to explain what happened by means of a secret conspiracy: in this case, of Arab fanatics. This is, presumably, intended to justify alternative theories by putting them on the same level as the official one (whether by raising up the alternatives or by dragging down the official explanation I leave up to you); semantics, granted, but sometimes semantics are important. Of course, this means that, be the official explanation never so true, it’s likely to suffer the same defects as any other conspiracy theory; it would actually be much more troubling if the official explanation explained everything perfectly, since this would imply that either the people who came up with it were themselves a part of the conspiracy or that they were able to perfectly reconstruct rather a lot of events that were only observed by people who are now dead. The conspiracy-minded response to this observation is obvious and the ensuing recursivity is left as a simple exercise for the reader.

At this point any freshman English teacher could tell you that I ought to end with some sort of coherent conclusion that ties all of the above together, but I guess the point is that I don’t have one. I do think there are some suspicious aspects of the official theory, but an inevitable consequence of the above exercise is that at least some such difficulties are a priori inevitable, especially when one takes into account the equally inevitable mixture of incompetence, corruption and coincidence. On the other hand, there are some aspects of various “conspiracy theories” which sound compelling at least to a non-expert like myself. So there.