Funny in Theory

Featured image is Democritus, by Johannes Moreelse.

Francis: I would like to apply some of what I have read recently, if you wouldn’t mind.

Paco: Unless you’ve recently been reading murder mysteries, I don’t see why not.

Francis: I’ve been reading theories of humor.

Paco: Oh, that is so much worse.

Francis: Come on, I want to try to make you laugh!

Paco: I would rather you killed me in a more direct way.

Francis: Don’t be such a spoilsport. Try this one on for size: what happens if you eat yeast and shoe polish?

Paco: Do you really need me to ask “what”?

Francis: The next morning, you’ll rise and shine!

Paco: …

Francis: You see, that was an example of “wordplay”. It makes use of the flexibility of meaning to subvert expectations.

Paco: Well, now that I know why it’s funny, I guess that’s my cue to laugh.

Francis: You’re right, you’re right. I shouldn’t need to give you the theory, if it’s really funny. Let me try an ethnic joke to help you overcome your sociocultural inhibitions—

Paco: You know what, I think I’m comfortable with my inhibitions. Thanks for the thought, though.

Francis: OK, but I’ve got this wonderful one that lets us indulge in our shared superiority to the outgroup—

Paco: Have any of these theorists ever successfully cracked a joke in their life?

Francis: I don’t see how that’s relevant.

Paco: …

Francis: Let’s not confuse theory and practice, here. I know you haven’t read as much as I have, but that’s pretty elementary.

Paco: So there’s some value in observing comedians as if they were chimpanzees, then?

Francis: How else could we really explain what it is that they do?

Paco: But if the theorists are completely incapable of cracking a good joke, what good are their theories? In what sense have they understood humor, at all?

Francis: Would you expect a particle physicist to be better at…being…a physical thing?

Paco: I see you bring a similar wit to your jokes and your rejoinders.

Francis: Well, is application all that there is to theory?

Paco: Surely you would agree that physics and comedy are very different.

Francis: Knowledge is knowledge.

Paco: The principles that govern a catapult or a nuclear power plant are the same everywhere and at any time in history. What makes something funny is almost entirely tied up in a particular situation. It’s tied to life! It’s not something you know in advance, it emerges as practice, it is understood in application, and nowhere else.

Francis: That’s an interesting theory.

Paco: Nice try, but you have got to work on your timing.

Francis: I mean it! You’ve just made the classic mis-step of theorizing about the impossibility of theoretical knowledge! The argument defeats itself.

Paco: But this is different.

Francis: How?

Paco: Because I’m right.

Francis: I know just the theory that explains why I find that response humorous…

Paco: Is murder still on the table?

Francis: Come on, admit when you’ve been bested.

Paco: It’s very possible that I have been. But I worry that we may fail to distinguish just because we’ve used the same word for something. Surely the knowledge it takes to understand a joke in a way that makes us laugh is different from the knowledge of Pythagoras’ Theorem or the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. And surely the kind of theory that allows us to build a catapult is different from the kind of theory that helps us understand jokes in a general way.

Francis: And is this theory of theories yet another kind of theory?

Paco: All right, I admit I don’t know all the proper distinctions and can’t anticipate your traps. I’m sure you’ve read much more about this than I have.

Francis: No need to be cranky about it. Here, this will cheer you up: why did the picture go to jail?

Previous Posts in This Thread:

Just one experiment

Like many people, I’ve tried to lose weight at points in my life. I even succeeded a couple times at losing a substantial amount of weight. Perhaps less like other people, this interest sent me into a decade-long study of human metabolism and nutrition, reading medical journals, scientific papers, popular health books, blogs – the whole mix. I have since abandoned discussing this topic in public much though because the whole conversation around nutrition and weight loss (in America at any rate) is just so ideological and stupid it hurts my brain.

That’s why I practically had an aneurism this morning reading this Vox article. It contains a bit of useful scientific data (such as the Hadza study), but the whole article is just steeped in the mindset of calories being important, and is unable to break out of it even when the data is staring them right in the face.

Let’s put it this way. Nutrition, despite how many people practice it, is subject to scientific inquiry using standard scientific methods. You propose hypotheses and do experiments, and if the results from the experiment contradict your hypothesis, the hypothesis is wrong.

The idea that calories are a central or important to weight gain or weight loss is a hypothesis. And it doesn’t matter how many experiments you do that produce results consistent with the hypothesis. If you do just one experiment that produces results contrary to the hypothesis (all caveats about experimental design and measurement error being a given), then the hypothesis is wrong.

Do you know someone who can eat pretty much whatever and never gains weight? I bet you do, because they’re fairly common. Calories aren’t the story.

Did you notice in that Vox article that the Hazda have the same calorie expenditure as humans in modern societies, and yet they’re all fairly lean? They eat the same number of calories, and burn the same number of calories, but their bodies don’t create large fat deposits. Calories aren’t the story.

Have you ever read an over-feeding study? Probably not, but they’re fascinating. One experiment fed US prisoners (who volunteered for the study in exchange for a reduced sentence) as much food as possible while forcing them to remain as sedentary as possible. We are talking quantities of food between 5,000 and 10,000 calories per day, for months. Most of them gained 5 to 10 lbs and then stopped gaining weight. Their bodies adapted to the new calorie load and the experimenters couldn’t make most of the prisoners gain any weight beyond that point. Calories aren’t the story.

Have you read any medical journal articles about patients on low-calorie diets that don’t lose fat mass? I have. They lose “weight”, sure, but it’s all muscle, bone, and internal organs. They don’t lose fat, even when on a “diet”. Some of them even die of organ failure from starvation even while retaining abundant fat stores. These people aren’t normal by any means, but they are evidence that calories aren’t the story.

Did you read the Men’s Fitness article years ago about the fat triathlete? This guy wasn’t a little fat. He was Santa Claus fat, no matter how many triathlons he did or how many calories his little pedometer said he burned. Exercise isn’t the story either.

Just the examples above, and many, many others, are experimental data. And they disprove the hypothesis that calories consumed (or calories burned by exercise) are the relevant variables in weight loss and gain. (No, again, it still doesn’t matter how many experiments are consistent with those hypotheses. That’s not how science works) If you want to understand how weight loss and gain work, you need to just stop talking about calories entirely for a while. If you can’t break the habit, I suggest biting yourself on the hand very hard every time you use the word “calorie”. It should only take a couple negative-reinforcement lessons to kick the habit.

So what matters? In a word, hormones. Your body’s cells, after all, do not know how many calories you eat in a given day. Each cell in your body is a local decision-maker, deciding whether to do things like burn fatty acid stores or create them. And they make this decision based on how hormonal signals interact with their internal chemistry. (Very similarly, to you Econ nerds, how local economic agents respond to price signals even if they don’t know what’s causing the prices to go up or down)

I’m not going to write the entire book that might be needed to convince you of this. I don’t have the time or inclination for that. I’ll lazily point you to how teenagers go through wild swings of body weight and composition. I’ll suggest you ponder why taking Testosterone and HGH injections causes people to become very lean (in addition to heavily muscled). I’ll suggest that you read studies on how X amount of exercise can cause fat loss, but 3X causes bodyfat composition to increase (Hint: because cortisol makes you retain bodyfat, regardless of calories “burned”). I’ll remind you that any study that measures “weight loss” without considering body composition is useless. I’ll suggest that studies on how artificial lighting can affect sleep, and that in turn affects weight gain, might be worth pondering deeply (unless you think LED lamps somehow throw off excess calories in addition to lumens).

And so forth. Calories aren’t the story (except to the extent they change your hormone profile). Exercise isn’t the story (except to the extent it changes your hormone profile). Hormones are the story.

And that’s all I have to say on this topic for the year 2016, I hope. Maybe one day the Great Establishments of Health & Medicine will come around to finally seeing what’s right in front of their nose. Maybe one day they’ll remember that it only takes one experiment to disprove a theory. Maybe it will even happen one day soon. (They’ve recently come around on saturated fat, after all, after only half a century of misadventures) But meanwhile the loud and “official” conversation continues to sonorously repeat the disproven theories, for reasons that probably have as much to do with grant funding as actual belief.

Objectification, Dehumanization, Pornography

Objectification of women is a recurring theme of feminist discourse. The basic idea is that women are objectified when they are viewed or treated primarily as objects rather than as human beings, whether this is through pornography, modern advertising, or direct interpersonal interactions (cat-calling, ogling, groping, etc). Objectification is a form of dehumanization that can facilitate direct harms like sexual assault as well as more indirect harms like mental health problems, eating disorders, body image issues, etc.

But objectification is not at all a simple concept. Martha Nussbaum has argued that not all objects are treated the same, so it’s worth examining which particular ways we treat objects are inappropriate for treating humans. In her essay Objectification (pdf here, also appearing in her book, Sex and Social Justice), she suggests we treat objects in at least seven different ways, conceptually distinct but not mutually exclusive; indeed they’re often overlapping and mutually reinforcing.

  1. Instrumentality: The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.
  2. Denial of autonomy: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.
  3. Inertness: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.
  4. Fungibility: The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type, and/or (b) with objects of other types.
  5. Violability: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary-integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.
  6. Ownership: The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.
  7. Denial of subjectivity: The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.

Some of these are a little confusing without examples. I couldn’t make sense of “agency” but by “inertness” Nussbaum seems to mean something like “involving processes”; she gives the example of a word processor as something that is not inert, whereas a rock is inert. We use many objects instrumentally, as tools for our purposes, but we often wouldn’t use an ancient tree in a forest as a tool; we may treat an animal as a tool, but rarely merely as a tool, perhaps because animals have subjectivity. Ink pens are fungible and instrumental, but Michelangelo sculptures are not; both lack autonomy and subjectivity and can be owned.

Continue reading “Objectification, Dehumanization, Pornography”

Minding the Overton Door

It’s often said that public advocacy of radical reform, such as that of ‘open borders’, is good because it can create space for public advocacy of less radical reform. In smartypants terms, the advocate for radical reform is thought to serve the purpose of opening wider the “Overton window,” which contains the range of policy ideas deemed currently reasonable or acceptable.

I’m not aware, though, that any hip jargon exists for conveying the following possible downside of advocating radical reform: When one steps out to advocate a very radical reform, any ensuing public debate will necessarily pit many supporters of incremental reform against the advocates of radical reform. And it seems very plausible that such a debate, in which the radical reform is soundly rejected, might displace a debate over an incremental reform. And what if the would-have-been debate over incremental reform could have been won by the pro-reform side? The initial advocacy of radical reform might then be interpreted as a counterproductive distraction.

Certainly, whatever it is that is displaced by radical advocacy in a given situation might not be a healthy and winnable debate over incremental reform. The point here is not to dispute that radical advocacy can sometimes valuably open a window, but to say it ideally would be wielded carefully enough so that shifting air pressure ‘in the room’ does not cause a good door to shut.


Vote “Yes” on the MEFTA

I think every thought experiment should conducted n times, where n is the number of unique moral agents contained in the experiment. Doing so might help mitigate the risk of our inborn proclivities toward The Fatal Conceit.

(Finally – finally – I have been given an excuse to invoke Hayek on these pages, a rarity for the pulpit-pounding Misesian of the group. But that is just what impact Samuel’s recent argument against free trade had on me.)

Re-conducting the thought experiment n times will hopefully provide us with a certain moral weight.

Let n = k + s, where is the number of kings, gods, aristocrats, wonks, and watchmakers in the world and s is the number of serfs, plebes, average joes, peons, and Trump voters. Let us further note that in every system across the totality of human history, including the present system, s > k. And not just “>,” but “much >.”

Let us further acknowledge that, at the time of this writing, the only person who stands to profit in the near term from terra-forming Mars is the most vocal proponent of doing so:

Humanity could colonize Mars with a few key technological advances, Elon Musk said. Chief among them are fully and rapidly reusable rockets, and the ability to produce rocket propellant from local materials on the Red Planet….

For example, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket costs about $16 million to build, but the fuel for each of the booster’s liftoffs costs just $200,000, Musk said Tuesday. So finding a way to fly rockets again and again has the potential to slash the cost of spaceflight by a factor of 100, he added.

Musk hopes to be a key player in the spread of humanity to another planet, but he doesn’t expect to be around to see the full fruits of his labor.

Emphasis mine. $16 million (plus margin) is a lot of cheddar. You can bet that’s going to show up in the marginal tax rates and rates of inflation borne by s. To be sure, k will also bear some of this cost… but then again, it was their choice to do so. (They’re the k‘s, remember?)

And while I’m banging away at libertarian hobby-horses, let’s briefly tackle “what is unseen.” The chief cost of terra-forming Mars is the opportunity cost of spending hundreds of billions of dollars and countless human lives mitigating against a risk that never comes to pass. (Yes, Elon, such as superintelligent killer robots.) There is a whole other trajectory of human progress that may unfold if we choose to do pretty much anything other than protecting ourselves from non-existent killer robots. That trajectory will impact the quality of life for both the k‘s and the s‘s, but it will make the best and most important impact on the s‘s.

Okay, now go ahead and re-run the thought experiment n times. Run through the billions of poor people who will continue to die in the streets for lack of improved economic development. Run through the billions of dollars that could have been spent on increasing the number of cancer screenings in the world, or on reducing the cost of insulin analogues, or on increasing the wage rates of the desperate, or etc., etc. Do this s times, for every s alive in today’s world, and for every s that will ever live over the course of the development of Musk’s Mars plan. Then do it again for every s living on both Earth and Mars, who could easily trade with each other and improve their lots in life, but for the k‘s who just happen to “know” that the hypothetical risk of an imaginary killer robot or et cetera is too great to justify raising the total amount of calories consumed by an abandoned Bangladeshi child.

Then, when you’re done with all that, go ahead and run through the k‘s. They probably won’t save themselves (no matter how rich they get) because they’ll be long dead before the plan ever comes to fruition. But they do get a substantial utility boost, after all. It’s not just the money, it’s the knowledge they have that they’re saving humanity – perhaps not today’s starving child, but some child who never would have existed otherwise! Just think of how many lives are saved or created by this process! And since “humanity” is infinite (especially if “we” save it), and “starving child” is finite, that’s a whole lot of salvation the k‘s get for their money.

Still, after all this, I have a difficult time believing that anyone who went through the thought experiment n times would walk away concluding that, yep, we gotta break a few eggs and cook ourselves an omelet. That is likely why Samuel ended with the Tyler Cowen quote that he did: when our growth plan involves redirecting calories from the mouths of today’s starving to the future of humanity many generations from now, the decision just doesn’t make sense.

This, too, is part of the “neoreactionary” ethos – an important part. We can deride them for being “populists” or “anti-elite” (sometimes called “anti-intellectual”), but when our thought experiments place us in the position of k‘s, while they can only ever be s‘s, their criticism sticks. It’s not as if it’s irrational to think that the elites might cook up a plan that comes at a terrible cost to the rest of us. It’s happened before. If we are to take neoreactionism seriously, we’ll have to acknowledge this.

Now, I’m not an unreasonable man. If a few eccentric k‘s want to spend their own money, combined with voluntary donations, on interplanetary colonialism, I say more power to them! Fair is fair: I spend my disposable income on too many guitars and too much cognac, they spend theirs on space ships. But that’s a choice any n can make, be she a k or an s.

But if we succeed in colonizing Mars, then I’m already in favor of MEFTA. Free trade is fair trade. No moat!


Build That Space Moat

Elon Musk says we need to colonize a second planet to ensure the long run survival of human civilization. Stephen Hawking agrees.

The smart people have thought it through: Earth puts all our eggs in one basket. While the world is fairly healthy now and incremental progress marches on, it just takes one major asteroid, one nuclear world war,  one mass extinction event, or one unfriendly AI to send us back to the stone age (or worse). And while the probability of most apocalyptic scenarios is tiny, they can be made infinitesimal by diversifying humanity across another astronomical object.

Earth 2 is about diversifying against risk. Colonizing Mars does nothing to diversify against the risk of a massive solar storm, since it shares the same star. But it does diversify against the risk of global contagion, climate catastrophe, and robot wars. If and when we colonize Mars, however, it would defeat the purpose to carry on extensive interplanetary trade. Deep linkages between Earth 1 and 2 might have short term benefits (the division of Martian labor is limited by the extent of the market), but it would also allow major shocks on one planet to propagate to the other—the very thing the costly endeavor of terraforming Mars is trying to avoid.

It’s worth reiterating how long term and counter-intuitive this thinking is. Musk and Hawking are not unmoved by the massive improvements that have been made in global health and well-being in their lifetimes. But they also aren’t autoregressive thinkers, expecting that the state at period T to always closely resemble the state at period T-1. Their mental model contains the possibility of making slow and steady progress that is totally reversed by a single, rare roll of the dice.

Now substitute linkages with Earth 2 with the linkages globalization has created with the rest of the world. And substitute the far fetched risk of an unfriendly AI with the very real risk of global financial crisis, collapsing political authority, and the reversion to predominately decadent and dysfunction political institutions like those of the pre-Enlightenment era.

This is the forecast in the subtext of neoreactionary and paleocon fears about modernity and globalization. While global trade networks have created supply chain redundancies, reduced inter-state conflict, and raised millions out of poverty, a common market also creates the possibility of systemic risks that affect everyone. Think Europe’s deflationary debt spiral. Add to that a dominant liberal-cosmopolitan ideology which denies hard truths about assimilation, and you get an out of control refugee crisis, authoritarian backlash and the terminal decline of Western civilization. Or something like that.

See, I don’t know if I buy any part of this story. But I believe in the principle of charity, which means framing my opponent’s view in the best possible light and avoiding attacks based on their motivation. And often the best way to do just that is to substitute your opponents argument with an analogous one which you’re already sympathetic to. In this case, my opponents are anti-globalists. They want an Earth 2 called the West, which limits its linkages with the rest of the world, forgoing short run benefits in favor of protection against radical, systemic changes with uncertain long run effects.

Given my priors, it’s easy for me to think of antiglobalists as simply xenophobic hatemongers, whose fear of modernity is nothing more than sublimated white identity politics. And many of them are. But I also know many who aren’t—many who are smarter than me, and more kind and humane, too.

So I’m torn. If the rallying cry for anti-globalists is “build that wall,” then the rallying cry for Musk and Hawking is “build that space moat”. And while I accept the latter I whole-heartedly reject the former, but can’t quite figure out why. Mood affiliation? Status seeking? Because the fantasy of colonizing Mars is far, while the implications of not responding to the refugee crisis are here and now, and will lead to real and tangible harms? Or because, in the case of globalization vs isolationism, the uncertainties cut both ways in roughly equal proportion?

It’s this last possibility that, Tyler Cowen argues, means we should focus on doing things we know produce good consequences in the short run:

Let us start with a simple example, namely a suicide bomber who seeks to detonate a nuclear device in midtown Manhattan. Obviously we would seek to stop the bomber, or at least try to reduce the probability of a detonation. We can think of this example as standing in more generally for choices, decisions, and policies that affect the long-term prospects of our civilization.

If we stop the bomber, we know that in the short run we will save millions of lives, avoid a massive tragedy, and protect the long-term strength, prosperity, and freedom of the United States. Reasonable moral people, regardless of the details of their meta-ethical stances, should not argue against stopping the bomber.

No matter how hard we try to stop the bomber, we are not, a priori, committed to a very definite view of how effective prevention will turn out in the long run. After all, stopping the bomber will reshuffle future genetic identities, and may imply the birth of a future Hitler. Even trying to stop the bomber, with no guarantee of success, will remix the future in similar fashion. Still, we can see a significant net welfare improvement in the short run, while facing radical generic uncertainty about the future in any case.

Black Crow Events


Featured image is the End of the World, by John Martin

Fellow sweet talker Sam has pointed out the surface similarity between the case for space exploration and the case for anti-globalisation.

That is, earth, being our only planet, is vulnerable to certain extinction level events, thermonuclear war, environmental degradation , super-AIDS and the always popular death from the skies, and given that it would be nice for the species to continue existing we should seek out an alternate planet to live on to double the chances of at least some humans surviving. Similarly, given that there is increasingly only one, global economy on which we all depend for meaning and sustenance, it might perhaps make sense to erect some barriers, so that, to give a hypothetical, dodgy securitisation practices in the United States doesn’t obliterate the seemingly unrelated economy of a small island nation. However these risks interact with the rest of the world in fundamentally different ways, and need to be managed differently.

While in school I did an internship at a local electrical utility. Most major urban networks at that time were radial, isolated, and manually redundant, that is power comes from a central distribution transformer and is distributed outwards like spokes on a wheel. Under normal operation there is no active connection between these different islands, however the infrastructure exists and is in place to connect them with the throw of a switch by the operator or command centre.

The advantage of linking the networks together is that when something goes wrong in one network, the other networks can pick up the slack. If a tree hits a major line, and causes a blackout the operator can flip a few switches and get power restored to many of the affected houses in a short period of time. Power to critical infrastructure, like telephones, will be connected to batteries so that if primary power is lost, the batteries will automatically kick in and the system as a whole still works. Telecoms even started installing battery packs at the customer locations, as fibre has overtaken copper as the technology of telecommunications and it was no longer possible to use the telephone wire to power the telephone if your house loses power. This is redundancy, and it is the primary tool we use to keep networks resilient to failures.

The increasing linkages that come with globalisation often operate in the same manner. If there a drought in Florida, oranges can be imported from a different area of the globe. If a major flood destroys the garment industry in Bangladesh other workshops in Africa and Indonesia can be found. Further, since expertise and equipment can be deployed globally, if a disaster destroys a major or sole supplier of a particular good the nexus can be reconstituted elsewhere. It also allows a greater variety of substitution goods, so that if a blight destroys most of a year’s cotton crop, even in all areas, we can substitute linen, or silk, or synthetics and still produce a workable garment.

So given the advantages of linking these networks together, why didn’t we make the links in our power network? There are two good reasons. The first is that when you want to take a particular area down you only need to throw one switch to do it, so that an operator wouldn’t throw a switch and assume that the network was down, only for power from another source to come back in without their knowledge, potentially fatally. The second is that it limits the damage done by any individual fault. If a crow lands on your transformer, only the transformer, and the things downstream of the transformer will be taken down, the rest of the network is oblivious. (The crow is also oblivious, as his internal organs are plasma. RIP crow, I didn’t want to save that report anyway).

It’s the second point that is most relevant here. Near the beginning of my term at the utility we had planned for one of the transformers to go down while we did maintenance on it. The linesmen closed the relevant switches, linking the two networks together, and then got in the truck to open the switches that isolated the transformer to be taken out of service. While they were driving, a tree hit a major line, blowing protective devices on both transformers and melting the wire. What would have been an isolated fault taking out about a third of the city now took out the entire city for the better part of a half a day.

The increasing interlinkage of the global economy leaves it vulnerable to these kinds of events. A problem that wipes out the banking sector will affect the global banking sector instead of being contained in a national banking sector. A pest that destroys a particular tree will spread across the globe, destroying trees all over the globe instead of just on one continent. So why not maintain the same barriers that other networks do for their safety?

First, the networks had certain barriers, but were never actually islands. The linkages between the networks were all in place, waiting for the right moment to be activated. But the global system is closer to a biological than a mechanical system. Linkages have to be grown, and having grown be used to be strengthened. There isn’t a standby export infrastructure waiting for the command centre to throw the switch, there are actual exporters and actual ports and actual longshoremen and truckers and roads that need to be maintained trained and built, and can only be built by being used. Movies need distribution channels and rightsholders working in concert which takes time and skill. The redundancy required for resilience needs to already be in place and operational.

Second, it is easier to cut a connection than to make a new one. The vast majority of systemic faults don’t begin as systemic faults. They begin as relatively minor, localised faults which, when not handled appropriately, escalate into larger faults and sometimes spread, what engineers would call failure cascades, but in finance is usually called contagions. Handling these problems properly means acting quickly to contain them to as small an area as possible while they are still small, or limiting their ability to grow. This doesn’t mean the creation of barriers, but retaining the ability to create barriers quickly. Figuring out how to detect small problems and handle them before they become big problems, and making sure the disease is worse than the cure, is the majority of modern engineering work, and an essential part of any regulatory apparatus. When done well it can be accomplished in a way that the remaining equipment doesn’t even notice, and with minimal downtime for the affected equipment.

Finally there are some kinds of problems that simply can’t be dealt with internally. A well designed, fully parallel battery back-up won’t save you when the operator comes in drunk and runs over it with a forklift, or when a rattle snake decides to make its home inside and the groundskeeper, being a good west Texas boy decides this is a problem that should be solved with a shotgun. (The snake was reportedly delicious).

Or when nearby equipment explodes

The only way to deal with this is reduce, as far as possible, the number of systems that will act as single points of failure, by creating parallel systems as far away as practicable. It is these sorts of cases that earth 2 is designed to protect against, and in which the logic of anti-globalisation is strongest. There is one major difference. Earth 2, by its distance, can’t help you when something goes wrong. The species survives, you’re still screwed. By contrast access to rice grown in Thailand can help you, and cutting yourself off from it can decrease global systemic risk only by increasing the chances that a local survivable risk is turned into a local catastrophic one.

Who is the Social Scientist?

Featured image is Saint Jerome in His Study, by Marinus van Reymerswaele.

It is easy to think that a paper or a conversation, or even an academic convention, happen in relative isolation. After all, if a paper gets hundreds of citations, it is considered wildly successful. Meanwhile, the biggest websites measure their link counts in the tens or hundreds of millions. An academic field provides a relatively small audience even for its rockstars, and specialized sub-fields are yet smaller.

But the consensus of these fields has implications for all of us. We have nuclear power but also nuclear weapons, vaccines and antibiotics but also chemical and biological weapons, sophisticated tools for financing businesses and college educations and home buying…but also the volatile and bewilderingly complex financial system. Academic conversation played a role, to varying degrees, in each of these cases.

In the human sciences, the academic conversation concerns the very question of what it means to be human. And the conclusions which are drawn there, again, do not occur in a vacuum. The approach that a legislator or an agency rule-maker takes depends to no small degree on just what sort of animal they—or their social scientist advisers—believe human beings to be.

The architects of the American administrative state believed that individual humans were nothing more than organs or cells which added up to a body politic, with the state as the head. They believed that individual rights were a relic of historic superstitions, and in any case were articulated before the Industrial Revolution, which changed everything. All that mattered was the health of the body politic—and so undesirable individuals became mere polluting elements, threatening the short or long term health of the body. These illiberal reformers thus set to work drafting immigration restrictions, as well as forcible sterilization laws, to name but two of the legacy of their honored stewardship of the American project.

Continue reading “Who is the Social Scientist?”

Stirred, Not Shaken

The history of the British crown is a history of revolt, usurpation, connivance, thrall, and intrigue. In that respect, it is akin to most other monarchies. It parts ways with its Continental cousins in its persistent acrimony towards subjects. Consider King Cerdic. Widely considered to be the first proper king of the Saxons in Wessex, this interloping swine slaughtered the Briton incumbent Natanleod, effectively incinerating the remnants of the bitter near-victory of the Iceni over the Roman occupation five hundred years earlier. Cerdic’s brutal line lasted until Danish boggart Sweyn Forkbeard, husband of Sigrid the Haughty, swept on with threshing oar to spank poor, feckless Æthelred the Unready right off the throne. At least for a few months. Back and forth these two fetid dynasties waged their petty contests for dominance over a squalid archipelago populated by illiterate mud-squatting peasants. Back and forth for fifty years and change these doomed lineages wrangled. Back and forth until French fop William the Bastard settled their hash but good. In 1066, this flaccid pirate king handed Harald the Flatulent his baggy ass at Hastings. By the conventions of the primitive Whig hagiography that once passed for the history of Great Britain as taught in the United States, the Norman Invasion of 1066 marked the beginning of proper British history. The Celtic, Jute, Saxon, Briton, Anglo, and other assorted tribes, clans, and proto-nations were but prelude to the glories of the houses of Blois, Anjou, Plantagenet, Lancaster, York, Tudor, Stuart, and after the Acts of Union, Hanover, and finally Windsor (nee Saxe-Coburg). A great deal of fuss here in the forlorn colonies attends key moments in that squalid potted history. Certain provisions in a Manorial accord from 1215 allegedly provide the underpinnings of what eventually became the English rule of property law. The impious sacrilege of pudgy Tudors severing ties with Rome not over the corruption of simony and the decadence of the Pope, but rather that the head of state could dip his quill in a fresh pot of ink helped justify the fissiparous tendencies of Protestantism abroad. The surly ouster of James II and the sallow capitulation of William the Orange to the Exchequer upon his restoration gave the English-speaking world the basis for parliamentary government, in which the former locus of power became little more than a gelded, gilt symbol for the adoration of the stinking public rather than the hard kernel of bloodthirsty tyranny it had been for so long.  Continue reading “Stirred, Not Shaken”

Against Temper Tantrums

Featured image is Argument Over A Card Game, by Jan Steen.

Remember South Park Conservatives?

At some point, the whole political and social spectrum bought into the cult of authenticity. The sloppy and spontaneous, the vulgar and unrestrained, are more truly human, have more integrity, than the polished, disciplined, and polite. Or so the story goes.

That the elites who believe this still feel the social pressure to be somewhat polished and polite is no object here—if anything, it merely heightens their admiration for those able to break the chains of decorum.

This is one of the great imbecilities of our age. For one thing, it mistakes mere childishness for some higher virtue, some deeper connection with nature. For another, it merely substitutes one script for another, and pretends to have done away with artifice as a result.

Continue reading “Against Temper Tantrums”