Archive for the 'Politics' Category

What are words for?

I’ve been doing some thinking about the limits of words, specifically how words can cordon off the real meaning of ideas. For example, consider that we are all aware of the word “justice.” What does that word really represent? One’s person’s definition might fall towards “social justice,” whereas another’s is more about property rights, while a third person has yet another definition. When these people speak, their use of the word “justice” is out of synch.

I was looking for examples of this sort of thing and I had some vague recollection that two nations either came to blows or almost did because of a mistranslated word in a speech. I couldn’t find the example (which may exist only in my head) but I was surprised to find that Khruschev’s famous “We will bury you comment was a mistranslation.

n 1956, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was interpreted as saying “We will bury you” to Western ambassadors at a reception at the Polish embassy in Moscow. The phrase was plastered across magazine covers and newspaper headlines, further cooling relations between the Soviet Union and the West.

Yet when set in context, Khruschev’s words were closer to meaning “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will dig you in”. He was stating that Communism would outlast capitalism, which would destroy itself from within, referring to a passage in Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto that argued “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.” While not the most calming phrase he could have uttered, it was not the sabre-rattling threat that inflamed anti-Communists and raised the spectre of a nuclear attack in the minds of Americans.

The James Damore Manifesto

The latest internet controversy seems to be about James Damore, a Google employee who posted a manifesto to the company’s internal message board. The manifesto mades various arguments, among them the idea that women may not be suited to the rigors of software engineering for reasons of biology. After Damore posted his document, it leaked to the public, the predictable uproar ensued and the author was fired.

Nothing can really be gained by offering my thoughts on this, but what the hell.

I’m aware that Google has every right to fire any employee whenever they want so there’s no free speech issue here. That said, I don’t think firing Damore was the best tactic. We live in an era where, for every workplace grievance, the only punishment advocated is employee termination. But in this case I suspect the result will be that Google employees sympathetic to Damore’s statements will now just keep their mouths shut. Their views will not be challenged (since one can’t challenge unexpressed ideas) and they’ll probably even harden their stance because of what they saw happen to a fellow traveller.

What if, instead of firing Damore, Google had presented a public debate on the issue of gender roles and biology? This would have producing an airing of the issues and allowed Google to explain why they found Damore’s ideas repugnant.

I concede that one can make a decent argument for Damore’s firing. After his screed was posted, any female subordinate of his could justifiably fear that his biases were harming her career. She could fairly suspect that his beliefs prevented a fair assessment of her talents.

So far, I’ve been avoiding the elephant in the room. How legitimate are Damore’s arguments? First, I have to confess that I’m currently sitting in a Discount Tire showroom with no internet access so I can’t review the specifics of his manifesto. But they are arguments we are all familiar with: women can’t handle stress, they like an even work/family balance that limits their ability to do overtime, they aren’t as status driven as men and thus slower to climb to high positions, etc. Are any of those points valid?

Well, I don’t know. I don’t think any of those arguments have been proven scientifically. I doubt they could be. And I think gender bias is real so we need to consider that as a cause for lack of women in traditionally male vocations. Additionally there’s plenty of evidence that the mostly male software development culture has elements of misogyny.

That said, I think most of us believe that there are behavioral differences between men and women. And we suspect that some of those differences have biological causes that were “programed” into our brains by evolution. (I recognize there are a all sorts of controversies tied into the preceding sentences: nature versus nurture, how behaviors can be encoded into biology, and so on. I’m going to ignore them for now.)

Is there any evidence for these beliefs and suspicions? It’s been awhile since I’ve read up on the topic, but I believe there is some meat on the bone, generally focused on testosterone/estrogen levels and that sort of thing. I’m entirely willing to be proven wrong by contrary evidence.

But exploring this evidence (or lack thereof) is exactly the kind of thing I think an open debate would have initiated. Instead we’ve simply gotten more anxieties and simmering resentments.

Sammy Hagar on our robot overlords

I happen to be reading through Sammy Hagar’s autobiography, “Red,” these days. (I know—I’m always reading these dense, philosophical tomes!) As you might predict, it has a lot of dirt on Eddie Van Halen.

It also has a paragraph that ties in with a lot of modern commentary on the robotization of the workforce and the dangers it presents. Sammy discusses his meetings with a bigwig at the Campari company.

He showed me the new $100 million Campari factory. Only about five people were running the whole place with these efficient new machines that wrap and seal twenty-five hundred cases of Campari in, like, two minutes. … Twenty years ago, they probably had six thousand employees. Now they have a dozen, most in the office.

From six thousand to a dozen. Hmmm…

Repeating history

I’ve been reading Robert Wright’s religious history tome, “The History of God.” The chapters I’m currently on describe a lot of the pre-Christ (BCE) world of Israel and the middle east. One thing that strikes me is that many of the issues the countries of this world faced are the ones we face today.

For example, a big issue back then was foreign workers. Some people were for them, some loathed them. In a section on the Biblical book of Ruth, Wright notes…

According to the Bible, Israel was then employing many foreigners as workers on royal projects and mercenaries in the army. Maybe, the argument goes, the book’s theme of ethnic intolerance was meant to validate foreign intercourse of an economic sort.

Later Wright adds…

When foreigners agree to work for Israel’s elites, elites and foreigners alike see a gain in the relationship.

Of course, who gets pissed at this relationship? (Not unjustifiably I might add.) The non-elites e.g. the Donald Trump voters of old testament times.

What do I think of Trump so far?

First, I have to note that it’s been a long while since I’ve posted here. I suppose the web is filled with people apologizing for not updating their blogs so I won’t do that. I’ll simply note that life can be hectic. Obviously I’m still writing over at acidlogic.com and keeping busy with other things.

So yes, Trump. Keen-eyed readers who followed my writing during the elections will note that I was a fan of Scott Adams’ theories on Trump, ideas that generally presented Trump as a kind of political genius. And we all have to concede that Trump’s rise was extraordinary, predicted by almost no-one (other than Adams and a few others.)

But (there’s always a but) if Trump was such a genius why has he been, as a president, a complete boob? He seem largely ineffectual, incapable of enacting much of his agenda, and basically clownish.

One can postulate that there are different types of skills. The skills relevant to getting elected may be far removed from the skills necessary to governing. It could be that Trump is merely a genius promoter and that’s it. It could also be that running a national government is simply a far more complex task than running a business empire.

Part of the Trump appeal seemed to be that he was going to aid certain groups, particularly poor and middle class whites. And that he was going to break from Republican orthodoxy (free-markets, etc) to do so. I don’t really get a sense of that happening. It seems like the Obama-care repeal that Trump touted is falling apart mainly because some Republicans feel it will hurt these very groups. (Granted, Trump himself did decry the House version as “mean.”)

In one sense Trump has been very predictable and this is because he continues to be, as he was while campaigning, very unpredictable. (He’s predictably unpredictable.) I think the media and intelligentsia still haven’t completely got this. But it’s an almost pointless lesson to learn as it offer no real predictive value.

I will say this: I think Trump may last a lot longer than some do. I’m dubious this Russian thing is going to take him down unless it develops some real teeth.

Our fractured culture

I’ve been reading through Andrew Keen’s book “The Cult of the Amateur” (2007). Keen is known in certain circles as a kind of internet nag who argues that the rise of the web has done more bad than good. Though I find his arguments a little overwrought at times, I definitely sympathize.

A certain passage jumped out at me today. I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of narratives, particularly that a culture lacking a kind of shared narrative is going to be fractured. Keen makes a similar point:

…as anthropologist Ernert Gellner argues in his classic Nations and Nationalism, the core modern social contract is rooted in our common culture, in our language, and in our shared assumptions about the world. Modern man is socialized by what the anthropologist calls a common “high culture.” Our community and cultural identity, Gellner says, comes from newspapers and magazines, television, books, and movies. Mainstream media provides us with common frames of reference, a common conversation, and common values.”

The point being that when that common culture is split into gazillions of web sites and blogs, each touting their own viewpoint, often lacking any fact checking or counterarguments, you get a fractured culture (e.g. the world outside your window.)

Having said all that, I think some consideration needs to be given to the other side here. The pre-web narrative (as written by the big magazines, TV shows, etc.) was biased towards certain parties. (Basically towards what I would call center-left/white culture though that’s a vague description.) I think there was some value that came out of the breaking up of mainstream media’s power.

Ultimately it all comes down to finding the real, objective truth of any matter. And we all know how easy that is.

Political Narratives

I was browsing through this New Yorker article and a particular comment jumped out at me.

Senator Ben Sasse… added, “We need a shared narrative about how we are as a people, what government can and can’t do, and what the beating heart of the First Amendment and free press and freedom of assembly and speech and religion means to us.”

The specific phrase “shared narrative” is what got me. I’ve mentioned the idea of narratology before… the notion that the stories we tell ourselves, as individuals, as communities, as a nation and a world, impact how we react to events.

What I think Sasse intimates is that Americans used to have a shared narrative, or a maybe a couple. (Basically the right and left narrative.) In 1980, you had three television networks that offered middle of the road center-left narratives, the major newspapers did much of the same and you had a few slanted magazines like The Nation or National Review. But there wasn’t really that much too keep track of. Conspiracy theorists were largely voiceless.

With the advent of the internet we now how dozens of narratives. Libertarians weave one, anti-fascist lefties weave another, conventional conservatives weave a third, neo-liberals another, and on and on. There’s no agreement what the story even is, and I think this is the crux of Sasse’s complaint. Before we can even solve anything, we need to agree on the story. It’s like the entire nation had developed multiple personality syndrome.

It really rather depressing.

Can we hack our way to affordable medicine?

We are, of course, in the middle of a possible Obamacare recall, and the subject of health insurance is in everyone’s minds. It struck me the other day that we wouldn’t really need health insurance if medical care was simply cheap. I mean really, really cheap. Like, what if cancer drugs were 20 bucks for a six month supply? What if eye surgery was 150$?

Is such a thing possible? Beats me; I basically made those numbers up. But it does strike me that in this age of automation and AI, as well as easy distribution of information, there must be ways to drive the cost of medicine down. I keep hearing about robotic surgery, for example. Could we use deep learning technology to enable robot surgeons to learn from each surgery they perform thereby becoming better and better surgeons. As a result, training a new surgeon would not be a matter of pushing some human through eight years of school, but simply copying a program. (I’m aware it’s more complicated than I make it seem, but I don’t think the idea is crazy.) Could we at least have this as an option, so that a doctor could say, “we need to cut your tumor out. You can pay this human surgeon 100 grand to do it, or use the robo-doc for 10 grand. (Again, I’m making these numbers up.)

And let’s consider drugs. Drugs are expensive. I started wondering how hard it is to reverse engineer drugs these days. Not hard, it turns out. What’s stopping people from reverse engineering any drug and putting the recipe online (probably on the “dark web”), allowing people to mix their own versions? Well, mainly that it’s illegal. But if I had to chose between no medicine and illegal medicine I’d chose the latter.

I’m aware that there are numerous ethical and philosophical dilemmas with what I’m proposing here. I’m mainly wondering, “could this happen? Will it happen?”

It many ways this all ties in with the transhumanist movement. Transhumanism is about hacking technology (computer and biological) to improve health humans. I see no reason it can’t be done to improve sick humans.

The future of intelligence inequality

A few posts back I discussed Charles Murray’s interesting idea on the increasing role of intelligence in society. As I explained it:

[I]n earlier eras, having a bit more intelligence wasn’t that much of an advantage. If everybody was farming or doing manual labor you didn’t get much economic benefit from having an IQ of 120. But in the 20th century, being smart started to pay off big time. The rise of computers, complex physics, complex financial products etc. meant that having brains equalled power and money.

As a result, according to Murray, we’ve seen the rise of the intellectual class: smart people, usually coastal, who have segregated themselves off from the stinking, steaming masses (my words, not his.) You could reasonably make the case that the election of Donald Trump was the revenge of the great unwashed against the intellectual class.

So why should we really care? Well, many people question whether this disparity is about to get a whole lot worse. If we are on the verge of a genetic engineering revolution then the intelligent class many soon be able to become a whole lot more intelligent (and healthier, and better looking, etc.) This Vox interview with a science historian gets to the crux of it.

Well, let’s put it this way: If only rich people have access to these technologies, then we have a very big problem, because it’s going to take the kinds of inequalities that have been getting worse over recent decades, even in a rich country like ours, and make them much worse, and inscribe those inequalities into our very biology.

So it’s going to be very hard for somebody to be born poor and bootstrap themselves up into a higher position in society when the upper echelons of society are not only enjoying the privileges of health and education and housing and all that, but are bioenhancing themselves to unprecedented levels of performance. That’s going to render permanent and intractable the separation between rich and poor.

Currently, we might have a situation where some poor kid struggles to get through his computer coding class whereas a rich kid who got a Mac on his 4th birthday and had a personal tutor for years sails through it. In the future that poor kid is struggling against a rich kid who had his DNA genetically altered for high IQ (and had all the other stuff too.)

Good fucking luck, poor kid.

The debate on race and IQ

I’ve been thinking a bit more about the work of Charles Murray, as discussed in my last post. As I mentioned, Murray is controversial because of his book “The Bell Curve.” What claims in the book earned him his notoriety?

I would say these two claims.

1. The claim that the mean average IQ for black people is lower than white people. (By about 15 points.)

2. The claim that IQ is largely heredity and not determined by environment.

Claim 1 sounds shocking and racist, but if it were a “fixable” problem then it would not be so bad. But claim 2 basically says it’s hard to fix.

So how correct are these claims? I’ll let you know right now that I don’t know. I’ve looked into this stuff before and, frankly, it’s a big headache and the data always seems to be changing.

There are a number of possible arguments one can make to counter claim 1. One is that the data is simply wrong. Another is that IQ is a meaningless measurement not correlated to anything that determines human fortunes. Another argument is that the claim is correct but it’s due to structural racism. For instance, it could be argued that a large segment of blacks live in crappy environments with poor nutrition and this drives down IQ. Related to that is the argument that culture at large generally pushes blacks towards non-achievement so they don’t apply themselves while taking the IQ test.

Let’s take those one by one.

The data is wrong
On the web are a number of people who make this claim but it doesn’t seem to be the majority view. A more standard view is to say the discrepancy exits but can be explained by non-hereditary factors.

IQ is meaningless. 
There are people who claim this and it strikes me as having some validity. Intelligence is a pretty vague concept and it’s hard to tie it down to a single digit. Nonetheless, IQ does seem to correlate pretty well to a person’s fortunes Additionally, intelligence seems to apply across a lot of disciplines. By this I mean a high IQ person can become good at math, and language, and music etc. There are few people who are awesome at math but totally baffled by music.

Lousy environments lead to low IQ
In the interview with Sam Harris, Murray seems to make the claim that much (most?) of what determines IQ is hereditary, not environmental. I’m not so sure. There does seem to be a fair amount of correlation between IQ and environment, nutrition etc. (though I’ve found people who dispute this.)

Low achievement culture leads to low IQ
I didn’t come across much discussion of this but it seems reasonable to me.

Personally the last two seem valid to me and could explain the entirety of a discrepancy between any races. (I’m not going to get into the “is race a real thing” debate here, though I have in the past.)

I’ll also say this. This debate is incredibly difficult to wrap your head around. This is true with statistics in general. You can observe trends in anything, but determining what is a cause of a trend and what’s just a correlation is really difficult. As a result, I think reasonable, intelligent people can come to differing conclusions. The automatic supposition that people who say there are genetically caused differences in intelligence are secretly neo-Nazis strikes me as pretty stupid. (Though genuine neo-Nazis surely appreciate their work.)