Archive for the 'Politics' Category

The mind of conspiracy theorists

I’ve started reading a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time: Julian Jaynes “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” (There’s a title that would not make it in today’s popular science writing market!) I’ve seen the book mentioned in various places for years, mainly for its stunning assertion that humans only became conscious fairly recently, like 3000 years ago. (I think that’s the number; I’m sure I’ll find out soon.)

I’ve read the first couple chapters and see that part of how Jaynes supports his argument is as one might suspect: by defining down what consciousness is, thus making the idea that we could live without it more palatable. That said, I think his definition of consciousness is perfectly valid. He points out something I think we’ve all noticed: the process of reasoning, often touted to be about extensive rumination and consideration (all done consciously of course), is really oft a sudden gut feeling that is then justified via logic. In chapter one, he states… (BTW, this chapter is online.)

But more complex reasoning without consciousness is continually going on. Our minds work much faster than consciousness can keep up with. We commonly make general assertions based on our past experiences in an automatic way, and only as an afterthought are we sometimes able to retrieve any of the past experiences on which an assertion is based. How often we reach sound conclusions and are quite unable to justify them! Because reasoning is not conscious.

He then adds an interesting point.

And consider the kind of reasoning that we do about others’ feelings and character, or in reasoning out the motives of others from their actions. These are clearly the result of automatic inferences by our nervous systems in which consciousness is not only unnecessary, but, as we have seen in the performance of motor skills, would probably hinder the process.

This ties in with a lot of my thoughts about various conspiracy theories. I’m always amazed by people who believe that George Bush planned 9/11 or that various people are covering up Obama’s secret Kenyan and Muslim roots, or that thousands of medical professionals are keeping quiet about how vaccines cause autism. I’m amazed because these conspiracies would involve organized evil on the part of so many, with not much payoff. I guess I could understand why George Bush might have determined it was in his favor to effect a false flag operation, but why would the various minions who would be needed to enact it decide to go along? Perhaps the head of some pharmaceutical company would keep quiet about his poisonous vaccine, but why would the entry-level chemists who would certainly figure it out. What would their motivation be? I’ve discussed this with people who believe such theories and they don’t seem to see the issue. They freely accept evil as a payoff unto itself. As Jaynes says above, neither I nor the conspiracy theorists are using consciousness in our assessment of people’s character and motivations, we are using automatic inferences. (These inferences play a big part in the ideas of neuroscientist Antonio Damassio who I’m a big fan of.) These are not arguments of reason, but of differing instincts.

Having said that, I believe my automatic inferences are correct and those of people who disagree with me are wrong.

Maybe salespeople are on to something

Freddie Deboer had a interesting post recently titled “Pedantic ridicule never convinced anybody of anything.” His point—a rather obvious one—is that trying to convince people that they are wrong by talking down to them and treating them like shit will probably have the opposite effect. (This has been been affirmed in various studies that claim to measure such things.) As Deboer states…

I can’t find it now (edit: here), but some Facebook friends of mine last year were sharing a comic about white privilege that was essentially the “argument through aggressive disdain and ridicule” thing to the absolute zenith. It literally ended with a cartoon character looking into the frame and saying “fucking educate yourselves!” to its implied audience. Let me assure you of something: no one, in the history of persuasion, has ever been persuaded by someone indignantly ordering them to educate themselves. Telling people to educate themselves in that manner is essentially ensuring that they won’t. At some point you have to decide if you’re more invested in the fun of feeling righteously superior or the actual need to convince others.

It’s worth checking out the white privilege comic to get a feel for what Deboer is talking about.

I always had an embattled relationship with liberalism because of this sort of thing. While I agree with at least some of liberalism’s ideas, I find the attitude of so many of its proponents to be completely off-putting. This is partly because I came into political awareness while living in Olympia, Washington and Seattle—two enclaves I think even moderate liberals would agree are stifling in their progressive orthodoxy.

But what is it precisely that bugs me about this kind of “fucking educate yourselves” argumentation? I think one hears it and suspects that the person making the point is being disingenuous. Take the cartoonist described in DeBoer’s post. Is their point really that they want to make the world a better place by eliminating inequality, or is it that they want to buffer their self image and serve the needs of their ego by saying, “Look at me! Look how wonderfully progressive and right-minded I am!”?

Well, that’s really an impossible question to answer since I’m not a mind reader, and, frankly, I’m arguing that this cartoonist is not even themselves aware of their real intent. We really have no way of knowing another person’s intent (though I think we can take some reasonable guesses). But I will note this: there is a class of people who really are focused on getting people to do something. These people are called salespeople, and usually they are trying to get you to buy something. And they are almost never pedantic or assholes, if fact, they usually bend over backwards to be nice. They try to appear as your friend. (Sometimes they try to dissuade your dubiousness to the idea that they are your friend by explaining their self interest in what they are presenting as a win-win. “I’m not going to lie to you, Bob, I’ll get a healthy commission if you buy this car. But I honestly think you will look great driving off in it too.”)

Is my point that liberals (or anyone seeking to cause political change) should be a lot more like salespeople? Well, sort of. At least I think folks find people who don’t seem indentured to their own egos as more convincing than those who are.

Interestingly, I stumbled on a web post just the other day that touched on this point. It was titled, “You’re Wrong And I Can Help You.

The reason that I no longer want to act like I think I’m better/smarter than others is because I think it’s damaging my relationships. Previously, I’ve written about Power and Intimacy. I talk about how in relationships, power and intimacy are opposite: treating someone else (whether it’s a friendship, family, a partner, a colleague) as though you know better than them, distances you.

So even if you’re the smartest person you have met, or more insightful or more loving – whatever it is that makes you better than others – if you act on it while deep down thinking “you’re wrong and listening to me will help you,” think twice.

Rethinking The Fountainhead

A while back there was an interesting blog post on Andrew Sullivan’s site (written by a guest writer) tying Ayn Rand’s book The Fountainhead in to the issues surrounding the hacking of the Sony Corporation. Rand’s writing is, of course, often lauded by libertarian free market types. This post had a different take… (Warning: Major Spoiler Alert about The Fountainhead.)

The problem of willingly selling out to the Chinese reminded me of Ayn Rand, whose bracing moral lessons I’m sure Freddie had in the back of his mind. Rand’s finest novel,The Fountainhead, is an anti-capitalist screed about the spiritual and cultural evil of catering to market demand. Forget the problem of giving the commie censors what they want. It’s wrong to give the free market what it wants, when what it wants is aesthetically debased, which it always is. The architect hero of The Fountainhead, Howard Roark, is the ultimate in spine, the patron saint of never selling out. When one of his perfect, austere modernist buildings is bowdlerized the better to suit the public taste, he blows it up. That’s right, Howard Roark is a terrorist, a jihadi for artistic integrity.

This is the first time in writing I’ve ever seen someone wrestle with what I always found confounding about the novel. When I read the book, I was struck by how anti-libertarian Roark’s actions seems; he shows no respect for property rights when he blows up the building. I assumed it was a kind of glitch in the philosophy of the book but it could be that it is the philosophy of the book. It does, at least, present the trait I’ve always liked about Rand: love her or hate her she clearly did not give a shit what anyone else thought, so much so that she present a character who is essentially a terrorist as a hero. (I believe I’m correct that no one is actually killed when the building is destroyed as he does it late at night.)

Caught on tape

Readers may recall my piece on Michelle Shocked a while back. Shocked, at the time, had just been recorded making controversial comments about gays during a performance in San Francisco. The audio of her comments went viral and denunciation was swift. Her career, if not ruined, was certainly wounded. (Resurrection, of course, is not uncommon in the music biz.)

I was reminded of this when the Donald Serling scandal popped up. He too was recorded, though this time while on what he presumed to be a private phone call. His racist comments have now been heard by millions and he lives in infamy.

Slightly related to this: Rapper Jay Z being caught on tape being attacked by his sister in law. Or Mitt Romney’s caught-on-tape comments about the 47 percent.

In all this cases there was not necessarily the assumption of privacy but I don’t think any of the victims thought their words or deeds would be observed by millions.

The L.A. Times has an interesting article on the topic. In closing, the author observes that we can spy on our fellows easily now. And we are facing the death of privacy.

You can be a flaneur now without leaving the house. Without your shoes on! Voyeurism is clickable. Our curiosity and digital technology have come together to produce a beast.

The beast is nimble, able to leap duplex walls or suspend itself, like the hero of an action movie, above the heads of famous people in elevators.

The beast is everywhere. The invasion of privacy has been democratized. Governments do it. Google and Facebook do it. V. Stiviano and hotel security cameras do it.

For most of us average joes, the threat of being constantly on tape doesn’t matter all that much. If someone recorded Wil Forbis making racist statements, I doubt they’d be able to find a media outlet to air the tape. But I think we may be entering an era where something we say—at a party for example—is recorded without our knowledge and then shared with our boss, our significant other, or posted to our facebook page for all our friends to hear. Basically the Serling situation on a smaller scale. And at that point we have to ask ourselves whether everything we say in confidence is sterile enough to avoid the judgment of our peers.

In my case, the answer is absolutely a big, fat, fucking no.

Good teacher, bad person?

Andrew Sullivan has an interesting post on the fact that college students are rejecting their commencement speakers with a seeming newfound vigor. Their reasons are usually an objection to the proposed speaker’s political views or actions. Sullivan quotes another author who says:

The entire point of college is to be exposed to different things: Different types of people, different ideas—and maybe some of those people will hail from organizations that negatively impacted poor countries, or maybe they were partly responsible for a war that ate up the country’s resources and resulted in human rights abuses and lots of needless death. But if, at the end of your time as an undergrad, you haven’t learned that oftentimes you find great wisdom in shitty people, or just that there might be some value in hearing what someone you don’t like or respect might have to say, what on earth have you learned?

“…oftentimes you find great wisdom in shitty people…” Boy, ain’t that the truth.

Reminds me of an old lyric of mine.

You say I’m a hypocrite
Well, I’ll pay that price
Listen up fellow because sometimes hypocrites
Give the best advice

Uncomfortable truths

I’ve been admittedly lax in blogging and will continue to be so for a while. I’ve gotten caught up in learning some cartoon animation software and it has grabed my focus.

That said, I’ve been interested in the discussion that’s risen over NY TImes Science writer Nicholas Wade’s book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History.” As many have stated, Wade is arguing two things: There is such a thing as race and humans have been continually evolving up to present day.

When stated as such, it’s hard to see what the fuss is about. Most people, egalitarian platitudes aside, buy into the premise of race as a useful dividing line. Few people, for example, are oblivious to the race of an actor or celebrity. But what Wade is noting is that people have variations of genes specific to their race. Race is more than skin deep. (See here, particularly the seventh paragraph, for more on this.) If we accept that our behavior is influenced by our genes (which I think is the prevailing view though there are dissenters) then we open ourselves up to the idea that different races have different behavior tendencies. For example, a tendency towards increased violence. And, if we accept that intelligence has a genetic factor then we open ourselves up to the notions that certain races will be statistically “smarter” than others, and you know what a can of worms that is.

It’s interesting that this book came along when it did. A couple months ago I stumbled across discussion of the HBD movement. These are people who argue in favor of “human biodiversity” – the notion that there’s qualitative variation in our genes and these lead to variation in our behavior and traits. When stated in that fashion it generates at best a yawn from most people. But what’s really being said here is that some people are smarter, more violent, less sociable, more empathic, etc. than others. It drives a sword into the heart of the “everyone is equal” sentiments found (usually) on the left.

I have to say, when you nose around in HDB web sites like this one, you don’t have to look hard to come across commenters who have a disconcerting zeal when they advocate recognizing racial differences. That said, there’s some thought provoking ideas there.

I don’t really have a conclusion here other than I want to follow the debate. I haven’t read any of the criticisms of Wade’s book so far, so I’m relatively unlearned on the topic. But I do think science has a way of revealing uncomfortable truths.

Will robots earn a living in the future?

Over at Reason magazine, there’s an article contemplating the possibility of autonomous technology. This isn’t technology that is conscious (though plenty of people are contemplating that) but software and robots that exist as entities that can support themselves economically. The article muses on a self-driving car that operates as a cab and uses its income to pay for gas and repairs. Or investment software that buys and sells stocks; some invest-bots might make millions, some would go broke, but they would be out there.

The author states…

This little [invest-]bot can be made with technology that we have available today, and yet it is totally incompatible with our legal system. After all, it is a program that makes and spends money and acts in the world, but isn’t owned by a human or a corporation. It essentially owns itself and its capital. The law doesn’t contemplate such a thing.

It’s a fascinating idea—computer programs that are independent, money-making units. But if they are too successful, will the humans begin to eye them jealously? Will men seethe in anger when they discover millionaire robots taking their wives out for a night on the town? Are the seeds of the coming human/robot war being sowed as we speak?

Filner’s deep dark secrets

I came across this recent L.A. Times article on the sentencing of Bob Filner, the disgraced Mayor of my city, San Diego. (Filner, as you likely know, was dethroned after it was revealed that he sexually harassed numerous women.)

Hello probation. Goodbye dignity.

Monday’s coda to the career implosion of former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner is yet another cautionary tale for powerful men: You could end up like Filner, jobless and disgraced, with your deepest secrets laid out in the cold, precise language of a probation officer’s report.

Obviously my curiosity is piqued. Deepest secrets? What could they be? He had a stash of midget porn? He dressed as a woman? He was the one person who watched the new Seth MacFarlane sitcom “Dads”?

Er, no.

What the probation report also details are very private issues: He recently underwent a root canal and broke a finger on his left hand. He is seeing a doctor for interstitial cystitis and irritable bowel syndrome. He is seeing a psychologist, as well as a psychiatrist. And he takes half a dozen prescription medications, including two (Lexapro and Buspirone) that are often used to treat anxiety and one (Lamictal) that is used as a mood stabilizer.

Wow… a root canal. Way to embarrassing him L.A. Times. And IBS. And cystitis, whatever the fuck that is.

Of course the rest of it is somewhat interesting though hardly qualifies as deep secrets. Filner was on a variety of anti-depressants and seeing shrinks. Just like about 30% of the western world.

But this opens up an interesting question. If Filner is “funny in the head” can he be held accountable for his actions? If something in his neural wiring is off, is “he” responsible for what he did?

Nobody likes these questions of course. With Filner we all get something we want – a public figure we can unabashedly hate. To imply that he might be sick, not evil, takes away our righteous anger.

Nonetheless, I submit that asking these questions would have made for a more interesting article that a rather flaccid reveal of somebody’s dirty laundry.

Who owns what?

I’ve mentioned that I’ve been reading Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget,” a tome that bemoans (or should I say “a bemoaning tome”) the free economy which has overtaking music, much of writing (you aren’t paying for this blog post, for example) and possibly soon, movies. Last night I dug up some of Lanier’s various TV appearances on you tube. (I did not pay to view them of course.)

Fundamentally Lanier is getting at the question of how we valuate things. Obviously we’ve long used markets to do so, though they have always been affected by external manipulations e.g. tariffs, price setting, caps by government or industry on how much of something can be produced etc.

If we look at music we can note that music used to be worth something—generally about a dollar a song though that’s a flawed estimate— and now it’s worth much less. It’s hard to really say what a song is worth these days. I guess they still sell for 49 cents to 99 cents over at iTunes, but most people can dig up any song they want to hear on piracy sites or youtube or Spotify. I haven’t paid to listen to music for years unless I’m buying a friend’s music (and even then I grumble.)

Have markets decided that music has no value? It’s a bit more complex than that. Markets are dependent on the state to enforce the notion of private property. If I can just take want I want, markets really have purpose (at least to me, the person doing the taking.) The debate in the world of music right now is over what the product is an who owns it. If I buy a song, am I free to make a digital copy of it and send it to my friends? Technically, in the eyes of the law, no, but realistically, yes, insomuch that laws that aren’t enforced are worthless.

I tend to side against the “free information/piracy” types, but I do concede these are hard questions to answer. How can anyone really own what is essentially information on a computer?

And I’ll entertain even more Marxist thoughts. Let’s look at the realm of physical objects. A chair, say. Some guy cuts down a tree and makes a chair which I buy with my money. Did he really “own” that tree? Maybe it was on his land but how did he get that land? Did an ancestor of his take it from Indians who themselves had no real sense of ownership (since they were hunter-gatherer types who just wandered around)? At some point the earth had no intelligent creatures on it – who owned everything then?

On some level these are silly questions, but I think you get my point. The very premise of ownership of anything is somewhat shaky.

Anyway, Lanier is trippy to watch so I will include a video here.

On “You Are Not a Gadget”

I’ve just started reading a book that I’ve mentioned being interested in: Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget.” The book is something of a condemnation of aspects of modern Internet culture, made all the more damning by the fact that Lanier is technologist who played a role the development of the web. Many of the “pro-Internet” views he takes on belong to good friends of his.

One argument he makes is that eccentricity—the expression of unique behaviors and ideas—is being removed from modern culture. Part of this is because of the mob-like nature of Internet comments sections. As I have noticed, in many Internet forums a consensus view often develops among the participants. Those who express opinions different from this view are either mocked or ignored (as I have been until I gave up on opinion forums.) People tow the party line and are not exposed to ideas that may challenge their views. And, as has been well commented on, people gravitate towards blogs and sites that correspond to their world view, further isolating their thought processes.

(Related to this: I once argued that the fluid communication the web enables makes one realize just how hard it is to be unique.)

Lanier also sees individuality taking a hit on social networking sites like Facebook. In the mid 90s people defined themselves on the web via home pages, many of which were housed on now deceased hosting site geocities. I remember these pages and you probably do too. They were often amateurish in design and usually had god-awful background tiles that made text unreadable. But they had personality. It was hard to confuse one person’s home page for another’s. The same is not true with Facebook—most people’s pages look basically the same. (Yes, you get your own header but that’s not much.)

Now the fact that everyone’s Facebook pages look similar is hardly the greatest calamity facing society. But I get Lanier’s point. It’s one more chip away from the idea of individuality, of personality. The Internet is not encouraging individuation, but a borg-like assimilation into a mono culture. I predict this will cause the death of all humanity within 20 years.