Monday, February 28, 2011

The obfuscater of last resort

I never thought I'd find myself agreeing with Antonin Scalia, but I have to join him in decrying the Supreme Court's ruling in Michigan v. Bryant. The Constitution is very clear that "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused [has] the right ... to be confronted with the witnesses against him." Period, end of story, no exceptions. But the Court has ruled that "because the primary purpose of the interrogation was to enable police to deal with an ongoing emergency, the statements resulting from that interrogation were not testimonial and could be admitted without violating the Confrontation Clause."

Scalia in his dissent writes that the decision "distorts" the Constitution and "leaves it in shambles... Instead of clarifying the law, the court makes itself the obfuscator of last resort." Which, of course, it does. But no more than the proposition that corporations are entitled to Constitutional protections but gays and women aren't. Perhaps Justice Scalia needs to be reminded that as ye sow, so shall ye reap.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Why Isn't Wall Street in Jail?

Matt Taibbi plumbs the depths of Wall Street and Washington corruption. Long, but as usual worth reading all the way through. The U.S. is not quite yet a banana republic but it's getting too close for my comfort. What has the world come to when China is the leader in innovation, Russia wins the space race by default, and Egypt sets the standard for government of the people, by the people and for the people?

Republicans are hypocrites

Yeah, I know, tell you something you didn't already know. But this is pretty brazen even by Republican standards: the Democrats introduced an amendment to the Patriot Act that would require government officials to follow the Constitution. All but two Republicans voted against it.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Glen Beck is a complete lunatic

This video is proof. In it, Beck spins this bizarre conspiracy theory about how labor unions, communists and radical Islamists are plotting to bring about "fundamental change" in the United States under the rubric of "One Nation." He specifically cites as the cyberspace HQ for this nefarious plot.

Trick is, is a right-wing web site advocating English-only education. One has to wonder if Beck (or his producers) even bothered to look at the site before deciding to point to them as the bogeyman for the twenty-first century.

No wonder even Bill O'Reilly looked skeptical.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

If you think sexism is dead...

Think again.

Watching C-SPAN is usually about as exciting as watching the proverbial paint dry but I found this hour-long argument about parliamentary procedure to be oddly captivating. In it Congressman Anthony Weiner of New York presses a point of order that the Republicans failed to follow their own rule requiring every new piece of legislation to cite the specific section of the Constitution that gives Congress the authority to enact the proposed law. It's fun watching the Republicans squirm while Weiner keeps asking them which section of the Constitution gives them the power to outlaw abortion and they are, of course, unable to provide an answer.

But what is most striking is the badinage between all the good old boys while Jan Schakowsky of Illinois tries for almost thirty minutes to be recognized to speak while the chairman pointedly ignores her. If you're an American it's really worth taking an hour out of your life to watch the whole thing. This is your government at work.

Good night. And good luck.

The hardest part of getting what you want -- part 3

When I was a kid I went through a new-agey period where I "realized" that the boundaries between "me" and "the rest of the universe" were not as clearly delineated as I had thought, and I spent a few months feeling as one with the Universe. But that is, of course, wrong, Just because the boundaries aren't crisp doesn't mean they aren't there. It is in fact one of the hallmarks of life is to draw the line between itself and its environment. The invention of the cell wall arguably marked the beginning of life as we know it. Separating itself from its environment is essential to -- perhaps even the essence of -- life. You cannot be alive without distinguishing (even if not explicitly) between "myself" and "the other."

We humans have multiple layers of boundaries. We are eukaryotes. We draw boundaries even within the confines of our own cells, which glom together to make higher-order boundaries between organs, which glom together to make individual humans.

Because our human consciousness resides as an (apparently) unified whole within a body that is also a physically unified whole with more or less clearly defined boundaries it is tempting to think that the hierarchy ends with those bodies. But this is not necessarily the case. The idea that physically distinct entities ought to be considered logically distinct individual life forms is a prejudice. Ants and honeybees, for example, glom together to form colonies which have more of a claim to the title of "individual living entity" than do individual ants or honeybees. Most individual ants and bees are sterile and cannot reproduce when separated from the colony or hive, just as most of the organs in our bodies exist under similar constraints. So it is a not unreasonable point of view to look at an ant colony as a living individual whose component parts just happen not to be rigidly attached to each other.

Most "higher" life forms cannot reproduce as single individuals. It takes at least two to tango, as it were. And in the case of humans, it takes, as they say, a village. It is an extremely rare human who can survive for more than a few days without the support structure of at least some kind of society. This is why we are social creatures and being alone for too long drives us mad.

This is another thing that the rationalists get wrong. Discussion of rational behavior is invariably predicated on the assumption that the quality metric is bound to an individual human. We speak of rational people but never of rational groups whose group interests may or may not coincide with the interests of the individuals making up those groups. Indeed, self-proclaimed rationalists seem to actively resist even considering such quality metrics, and take it as axiomatic that, for example, having individual humans whose minds believe in objective truth is a good thing. There is no rational justification for this, which makes it all the more ironic.

So you get Lisp programmers who spend all their time honing the arguments for why Lisp is the best programming language, and C programmers who ignore those arguments, write a bunch of ugly code, and take over the world. You get evolutionists who spend all their time honing the arguments for why evolution is true, and creationists who ignore those arguments, tell people that they are special because they are created in the image of God, and take over the world, not because they were correct but simply because the "you are special" meme reproduces better in the mind of a social creature than the "you are alone in a hostile universe" meme does.

Kudos to Egypt

I have to say that I am amazed at the events in Egypt over the last 48 hours. Right now it really does appear as if that country is on the road to the successful conclusion of a (mostly) peaceful democratic revolution. Two weeks ago I would not have thought that possible. I knew there were reasonable Muslims out there, I just didn't think there were so many of them in Egypt of all places. It remains to be seen if the center can hold, but right now it's looking a lot more promising than I would have predicted two days ago.

I think a lot of the credit has to go to the army. I find it hard to imagine that it never crossed Mubarak's mind to use Tiananmen Square as a model for how to resolve the situation in Tahrir square. Someone high up in the army must have, either implicitly or explicitly, let Mubarak know that was not going to happen on his watch. I really want to know who that was.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Maybe it's just a plain ol' conspiracy after all

Glen Greenwald on the BofA campaign against Wikileaks:

The U.S. Government's obsession with destroying WikiLeaks has been well-documented. And because the U.S. Government is free to break the law without any constraints, oversight or accountability, so, too, are its "private partners" able to act lawlessly. That was the lesson of the Congressional vesting of full retroactive immunity on lawbreaking telecoms, of the refusal to prosecute any of the important Wall Street criminals who caused the 2008 financial crisis, and of the instinctive efforts of the political class to protect defrauding mortgage banks.

The exemption from the rule of law has been fully transferred from the highest level political elites to their counterparts in the private sector. "Law" is something used to restrain ordinary Americans and especially those who oppose this consortium of government and corporate power, but it manifestly does not apply to restrain these elites.


In this world, law does not exist as a constraint [on large corporations]. It's impossible to imagine the DOJ ever, ever prosecuting a huge entity like Bank of America for doing something like waging war against WikiLeaks and its supporters. These massive corporations and the firms that serve them have no fear of law or government because they control each. That's why they so freely plot to target those who oppose them in any way. They not only have massive resources to devote to such attacks, but the ability to act without limits."

Worth reading the whole thing.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The hardest part of getting what you want... part 2

I realized from Don's comments on yesterday's post that I gave a mistaken impression. That post was intended to be about politics, not my personal quest for meaning in life. (I am not quite so narcissistic as to think that that is worth blogging about.) I was just couching it in first-person terms to be illustrative. The point I was trying to make was that rationality is in some sense self-undermining. It leads you inexorably to the conclusion that our fundamental nature as humans is a substrate for competing replicators (and even that is just an approximation to the underlying metaphysical truth). This is not a statement about purpose, it's a statement about objective reality, or at least some reasonably accurate approximation of it. And the point I was trying to make was simply that some people can't handle the truth and so they turn to God. I hope I don't have to describe how this has political ramifications.

There is an additional aspect of the underlying objective truth that I hinted at yesterday: "It is not possible to rule out the possibility that there are other replicators resident in ourselves whose nature is not quite so apparent." This alludes to what I dubbed (to my everlasting regret) the "great conspiracy" (a name which turns out, incidentally, to be already taken), the possibility that there are "mega-memes" or "meme-complexes" that are coherent replicating wholes that are distributed across multiple brains. This could account for the fact that, for example, no one seems to be in charge of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt. One might be tempted to argue that this is not evidence for a "mega-meme" but merely the large-scale replication of an ordinary meme of the sort that lives in one brain at a time. The problem with this theory is that it is not readily apparent what that meme might be. The obvious candidate, the freedom-and-democracy meme, is also obviously wrong. When (no longer "if") Hosni Mubarak falls the most likely replacement is the Muslim Brotherhood, and the most likely result of that is Sharia law. Egypt is not trading repression for freedom, it is trading secular repression for religious repression [UPDATE: it seems I may be wrong about this -- see the comments] despite the fact that not a single individual involved in the protests would be willing to concede that.

You can see the same disconnect between individual rhetoric and underlying collective reality in American politics as well. Republicans talk about being fiscally responsible and getting government out of people's lives while at the same time running up record deficits, and going to some rather extraordinary lengths to invade people's privacy when it comes to things like drugs, abortion, and "national security." Democrats talk about ending Republican abuses but then continue nearly every one of those abusive policies. No one on either side of the ideological divide seems to notice the gaping disconnect between rhetoric and reality.

There are at least three plausible explanations of all this. One is that the vast majority of people are simply too stupid to notice that what they are being told is not what is actually going on. The main problem with this theory is that there are an awful lot of apparently smart people falling for a wide variety of flim-flam, both political and not. Say what you will about Karl Rove, he is not stupid.

The second possibility is that there is an actual conspiracy, a shadowy cabal of powerful individuals who are consciously and deliberately manipulating the world's politics for their own benefit. The problem with that theory is: who are these people? I don't see any plausible candidates for the role of puppet master, particularly in the middle east. In the U.S. I can see an argument to be made that there is a sociopolitical elite that essentially cultivates the general population like a herd of domestic animals to provide them with whatever their avarice desires, but who is pulling the strings in Cairo and Tunisia? The elephant in the living room of the traditional conspiracy theorists is Islam: who benefits from its rise? In the case of Christianity you can always point to the Church, but Islam has no Church, no cache of wealth, no central locus of power. If Islam is a conspiracy, who is conspiring, and to what end? (Yes, I suppose one could point to the House of Saud, but surely the Saudis have nothing to gain by fomenting discontent in Egypt, so say nothing of Yemen.)

The third, and to my mind most plausible, explanation of all this is that individual humans are not in fact the principal actors on the world stage. The political and macroeconomic forces at play in the modern world do not seem to be working for the benefit of the vast majority of individual humans in the world, but they are clearly benefiting, in Darwinian terms, certain meme complexes, with Islam being the poster child, and various forms of corporatism and nationalism running close behind.

It may be that in the deep dark recesses of the world's mosques and membership clubs and private jets is a small collection of imams, politicians and corporate leaders who are living deliriously happy lives at the expense of the rest of us. But I really doubt it. I really believe that very nearly every individual human struggles to figure out their role in the scheme of things, and what we see is the predictable, understandable, and cosmically (or maybe that should be comically?) tragic result.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The hardest part of getting what you want...

Over the weekend I got a very flattering but somewhat bizarre request in the comments of a post I wrote nearly a year ago. Someone who goes by the handle lordbap asked me to write a book about my "take on politics, and hints toward conspiracy theories." It's very gratifying to know that someone out there cares what I think about politics, but writing a book is a non-trivial undertaking, and writing a book about a topic about which I don't actually know very much would probably suck up the better part of a year. So if I were going to take seriously lordbap's request to write about conspiracy theories I would first cast a very jaundiced eye towards the request itself and start to wonder about what sinister ulterior motives might be lurking behind it.

Which brings me to the topic of this post.

In the ongoing battle between the forces of rationalism and faith my natural sympathies tend towards the rational. From my privileged vantage point near the top of the socioeconomic ladder (at least when measured on a logarithmic scale) I can see the positive effects that rationality has on the material well-being of me and my fellow humans. It is natural then to wonder why irrationality (a.k.a. faith) seems to be so resilient. One theory is that faith is an effective palliative against existential angst and other psychological (and even physical) maladies, and it derives its resilience from the same source as other drugs: it's addictive. I still believe that, but in the nearly two years since I first advanced that theory I have come to believe that there is something much deeper going on.

In terms of Darwinian evolution, humans are the caretakers of at least three different kinds of replicators: genes, memes, and, in the last decade or so, computer viruses. (I say "at least" because it is not possible to rule out the possibility that there are other replicators resident in ourselves whose nature is not quite so apparent.) Even leaving aside computer viruses for the moment it is apparent that we serve the reproductive interests of both ideas and DNA. Sometimes those two replicators are symbiotic (like when memes invent antibiotics and sanitation), but not always. Promiscuous sex, for example, can be a very effective reproductive strategy for genes, but having to raise a few dozen kids doesn't leave much time for scholarly pursuits. Memes have since responded by inventing contraception and pornography, which for the moment seems to have given them the upper hand in the eternal reproductive arms race, at least in certain circles.

If one opts to travel the rational road, that is, if not the final destination, at least a major truck stop along the way.

Having reached this place, one can for a while bask in the warm glow of understanding, revel in the power of being able to manipulate one's environment, and enjoy the hedonistic pleasures that become available in an industrialized world of material plenty. But after a while one comes face to face with a very thorny problem: having freed ones self from the constraints that guided the existence of one's ancestors one must now make a weighty decision: now what do I do? Hang out on the beach? That gets old surprisingly quickly (at least it did for me). Write? Write what? Novels? Screenplays? Essays? Code? A book? That seems like it could be interesting, but is that really what I want, or is that just the part of my brain that has been parasitized by my memes manipulating me into frittering away the rest of my life on serving their interests? (I actually hate writing because I hate reading the crap that most of what I write turns out to be. But I love having written.)

Then too, I love learning new things, which seems like an honorable pursuit (but again maybe that's just my memes talking?) Maybe I should take a class? (I sometimes toy with the idea of going to law school.) Oh, but it's so much easier and faster to just look things up on the web. In fact, it's so much easier and faster that I can quench the desire to learn, at least for a while, by skimming a few wikipedia articles. Maybe it's too easy? Wikipedia seems like scholarly pornography -- you get the endorphin rush without having to go to the bother and risk of seducing an actual woman or doing some actual research work.

Write some code? Start a company? So much easier (and more fun) to just pot shots at the people who are actually doing it (but getting it all wrong of course) and justify it to myself as bestowing the benefits of my wisdom and experience on all those green aspiring entrepreneurs and angel investors out there. And how is that so different from what I'm doing right now? Well, the person I'm taking pot-shots at right now is me, and I'm doing it because someone asked me to instead of on my own initiative, but is this really what I want out of life? Am I really so unsure of my own self-worth that I need cultivate a pack of ass-kissing (lordbap's description, not mine) sycophants to make me feel whole? (Note to lordbap: you asked me not to edit. Careful what you wish for.)

Deep understanding and financial independence are not the panacea they may appear to be. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't trade my problems for anyone else's. But even nice problems to have can still be real problems.

The hardest part of getting what you want.... is figuring out what it is. And the more options you have the harder that becomes. Which is, I think, why beyond a certain point money really can't buy happiness.

When it comes to choosing a direction in life the rationalist is truly adrift. He has no god to turn to. He cannot blindly follow the dictums of society. He has nothing to rely on but himself, the data, and Bayes' theorem. It works for a while because there are clear immediate needs to attend to that both genes and memes can agree on: vanquishing disease, increasing crop yields. But, like I pointed out earlier, once basic needs are met the agendas diverge. And here the rationalist has no choice but to peer into the abyss, because this is a fundamentally irreconcilable conflict as decreed by none other than Darwin himself.

The reason religion is so resilient is not just that it helps deal with existential angst, it's because it provides a goal. Rationality can provide the tools for making decisions, but it cannot provide a quality metric, at least not for an individual. "What do you want out of life" is a question that only you can answer. The problem with rationality is that it eventually leads you to wonder who -- and what -- "you" are. Is it really "you" who wants to start that business? Write that book? Surf that wave? Fuck that woman (or man)? Vote for that candidate? Argue for that position? Or is it some gene or meme complex that has hijacked your brain for its own soulless purpose? (For that matter, do you really have "free will" to make decisions about what "you" want? Do you even exist, or are you just a butterfly dream or an artifact of quantum decoherence?

It's very easy to get wrapped around the axle over such questions. I think it's a rare human being who has fully grappled with them and not either decided to punt or gone insane. When you gaze into the abyss...

For the other seven billion of us it is very tempting to just hand that kind of heavy lifting over to God and let Him deal with it. And, on those occasions when God isn't available, the Republican Party is there ready to pick up the slack.

Well, lordbap, that's the result of five hours of unedited (except for typos and grammar) writing. Not the twenty you were asking for, but I'm afraid that's all I have in me right now.


If you shrank the sun down to the size of a ping pong ball, the earth would be the size of a very fine grain of sand about three yards away.

Jupiter would be the size of a small pea about 15 yards away.

Pluto would be just over 100 yards away, and it would be so small you'd need a microscope to see it.

At this scale, light travels about a foot a minute, and the nearest star is... 400 miles away.

It's a big universe. And it's mostly empty space.