Saturday, July 24, 2021

Fireworks, natural and unnatural

Up, up, and New Jersey

Sabine is on the case: What’s the difference between valid speculation and bad science?

Sabine Hossenfelder, Can Physics Be Too Speculative? Backreaction, July 24, 2021.

She acknowledges that speculation is critical to intellectual progress, but...

The question how much speculation is healthy differs from the question where to draw the line between science and pseudoscience. That’s because physicists usually justify their speculations as work in progress, so they don’t have to live up to the standard we expect for fully-fledged scientific theories. It’s then not as easy as pointing out that string theory is for all practical purposes untestable, because its supporters will argue that maybe one day they’ll figure out how to test it. The same argument can be made about the hypothetical particles that make up dark matter or those fifth forces. Maybe one day they’ll find a way to test them.

The question we are facing, thus, is similar to the one that the philosopher Imre Lakatos posed: Which research programs make progress, and which have become degenerative? When speculation stimulates progress it benefits science, but when speculation leads to no insights for the description of nature, it eats up time and resources, and gets in the way of progress. Which research program is on which side must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

She goes on to consider several examples:

  • Dark matter
  • Early universe and fifth forces
  • String theory
  • Multiverse theory
  • Is Oumuamua alien technology?

I don’t think there’s a clear line between valid speculation and intellectual nonsense. I doubt that Hossenfelder does either; she certainly doesn’t make any such claim. The problem we have to place we can ‘stand’ and observe science from the outside and thereby observe what lines of investigation where heading towards truth and which ones were just lost in the wilderness. If such a point of view were available to us, we’d just go to it and then zip right over to the truth, skipping the painstaking process of scientific observation entirely. Thus the problem of distinguishing valid speculation from high-class nonsense is something the community must solve however it can.

I’ve become interested in a related problem: When does a fruitless line of investigation resort to signaling behavior to close itself off from the world? Signaling is simply the superset of what has become called virtue signaling in a variety of current debates surrounding issues of social justice, but also conspiracy theories. To emit a signal, in this sense, you assert a belief that many consider to be outrageous in order to affirm your solidarity with some in-group. You affirm your loyalty to Donald Trump by asserting (among many other things) that, yes, his was the largest inauguration ever. You affirm your loyalty to QAnon by asserting your belief in a worldwide ring of Satan-worshipping pedophiles. And so forth. Are any lines of degenerate science in such a zone?

Friday, July 23, 2021

Friday Fotos: Trumpet [elegant plumbing]

Billionaires in Space, Part 5: Is nothing sacred? [What is an engineer mage?]

In my experience that question – Is nothing sacred? – is usually asked in a tone of exasperated irony by someone who, more likely than not, is a thoroughly secular person. I’m a secular person, but I ask the question without irony, which implies that I am also asking whether the category of “the sacred” is a meaningful one in a secular world. Nor am I exasperated, much. More curious, and pondering.

My friend the late Charles Cameron was a deeply religious man, a mystic, and a poet. He feared that, if travel to the moon became routine, that would rob the moon of its value as an attractor for contemplation of the sacred. In my recent article at 3 Quarks Daily I made a remark that points in that direction:

The fact that at long last America had landed on the moon, that changed the valence of the whole man-in-space project. As long as it was out there in the future we could treat it as a blank slate and write anything on it we wished. Now we had been there, three of us at least; it became real in a way it had not been before.

I then went on to mention an episode in The Crown, season 3, episode 7, “Moondust.”

Prince Philip had been feeling a bit depressed over the fact that he’d given up a career as an air force pilot to be, in effect, a jewel in his wife’s crown. The Apollo astronauts, however, were on a tour of Britain and he arranged to have a private meeting with them. It did not go as he’d hoped. They had not somehow become magical larger-than-life beings. They were mere men, like himself, and not particularly articulate about the experience of having landed on the moon.

What I didn’t say is that that episode began with Philip speaking to a cohort of priests who had come to a retreat at an otherwise unoccupied house on one of the royal estates. As they tell him why they’d come to the retreat he gets restless and tells them that they need action, not contemplation. He leaves. Then we have the incident with the astronauts. As the episode closes Philip has returned to the retreat, apologized to the priests, and asked for their help in working though is mid-life issues.

Charles saw the short blog post I did about that episode and remarked in comments:

Okay. If “religion” fails to offer the sense of mystery and wonder, and “science” in the form of going to the moon (dust, mainly, as if a reminder of “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” unfortunately) doesn’t assuage the quest to “meaning” either, something we might term “imagination” or "spirituality" – perhaps falling somewhere between the two, or in triangulation with a meditative “peace”, might still do the trick. Anyway, that's the direction my own “quest” / “questioning” is leading me in...

Notice all the scare quotes and the trailing ellipses. THAT, I believe, is where we are, though just who “we” refers to is an open question, one perhaps best answered by each individual. But in the end we – some very substantial collective – are going to have to agree on some kind of answer and that answer will help guide us through the climate issues facing us and will guide us perhaps into outer space. To what end? That has yet to be determined.

...we need to be involved in and committed to something greater than ourselves.

I don’t think Richard Branson has anything useful to say in this conversation. He’s just a charismatic joy-riding billionaire. Bezos is less charismatic – the cowboy hat did not do the trick – and I doubt that he has much to say either, though he has a lot more money to spend.

And there is the peculiar shape of his rocket, which has been getting a fair amount of attention. I’ve already linked to Joe Rogan’s Instagram comment, which is rather crude, as one can expect from Rogan. But Rogan has the most watched pod-cast on the planet. Then there’s this video on YouTube:

It’s approaching a million views. That’s not Joe Rogan territory, but it’s worth thinking about. How many more views will it get? How many others are or will be satirizing the shape of that rocket.

When I first saw the shape I thought nothing of it. And when people started either hinting at or outright saying it’s a giant dick, I dismissed those remarks. Why? Because the shape of the rocket is largely dictated by physical considerations. It has to have the shape of a cylinder and the top needs to taper. Now I’m beginning to wonder. Does the capsule really need to be wider than the rocket itself in a way that resembles the glans of a human penis? Was that aerodynamically necessary? Didn’t any one in Blue Origin’s PR department point out that that shape could be embarrassing?

Aren’t these questions just a little silly? Maybe yes maybe no. The fact that they arise speaks to the lack of a shared cultural framework through which we can understand this current space race as anything more than billionaires showing off and living out childhood fantasies. Yes, there’s the tech and the possibilities of spin-offs. That’s what NASA said back in the 1960s. It was a thin truth then and it’s thin now. Technology isn’t what’s driving this race now – except, perhaps, in the case of Musk. But let’s finish up with Bezos first.

I don’t know what goes on in the mind of a billionaire who may think he’s some kind of god. I hear Bezos thinks we are or should be an interstellar species. So what? That’s been in science fiction for decades. He gets no credit for thinking such thoughts. Whatever he is, he is no philosopher king. Nor perhaps should he be. I could say more about Bezos – his predatory attitude toward his employees for example, but let’s just leave it there.

And then there’s Elon Musk. I’ve written so much about him I’ve made him a named topic here. As I remarked yesterday, “He’s built an actual [space] business, though one that depends on getting government contracts. He wants to go to Mars. I don’t know what I think about that.” He may well go down in history as the Henry Ford of the electric automobile. He has some strange ideas about direct brain-to-brain communication and apparently he’s not a very nice person. So what? He’s not a philosopher king either.

But he may be something else. A real life Tony Stark? To be honest, I’m not invested enough in the Marvel Universe to know whether or not that judgment is worth spit. But I rather doubt that the Marvel Universe can support what I have in mind, what I’m searching for, what Charles Cameron was searching for. Can Musk support that? 

He is an engineer. A designer. He may even be a profound engineer. A builder. Maybe he is an engineer mage.

We’ll see.

There is this idea, at one and the same time a cliché and a profound truth, that we need to be involved in and committed to something greater than ourselves. Does Richard Branson think there is anything greater than Richard Branson? Jeff Bezos? Does cheering them on lift us out of ourselves to something greater?


I’m not sure about Musk.

* * * * *

Why engineers? you ask. Because engineering is about designing and constructing. I have quite a bit to say about engineers and engineering here at New Savanna. In the preface to my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, I characterized my method as speculative engineering. One of the important things about Grace Lindsay’s new book, Models of the Mind: How Physics, Engineering, and Mathematics Have Shaped Our Understanding of the Brain, is that she recognizes the importance of engineering. More personally, my father was an engineer, a very good one. It’s in my blood, as they say. 

Compared to science and scientists, engineers don't get no respect, as Rodney Dangerfield might say. Engineering is not as deeply implanted in our philosophical superstructure as science is. Philosophy of science is a thriving subject. Philosophy of engineering? Doesn't exist. I suspect there is a class issue here, the gentleman scientist vs. the blue collar engineer, but also calculation vs. manipulation. There's an intellectual issue as well. This bears looking into.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Žižek on environmental catastrophe

Slavoj Žižek, Last Exit to Socialism, Jacobin, 7.21.2021:

So what should we do in such a predicament? We should above all avoid the common wisdom according to which the lesson of the ecological crises is that we are part of nature, not its center, so we have to change our way of life — limit our individualism, develop new solidarity, and accept our modest place among life on our planet. Or, as Judith Butler put it, “An inhabitable world for humans depends on a flourishing earth that does not have humans at its center. We oppose environmental toxins not only so that we humans can live and breathe without fear of being poisoned, but also because the water and the air must have lives that are not centered on our own.”

But is it not that global warming and other ecological threats demand of us collective interventions into our environment which will be incredibly powerful, direct interventions into the fragile balance of forms of life? When we say that the rise of average temperature has to be kept below 2°C (35.6°F), we talk (and try to act) as general managers of life on Earth, not as a modest species. The regeneration of the earth obviously does not depend upon “our smaller and more mindful role” — it depends on our gigantic role, which is the truth beneath all the talk about our finitude and mortality.

If we have to care also about the life of water and air, it means precisely that we are what Marx called “universal beings,” as it were, able to step outside ourselves, stand on our own shoulders, and perceive ourselves as a minor moment of the natural totality. To escape into the comfortable modesty of our finitude and mortality is not an option; it is a false exit to a catastrophe. As universal beings, we should learn to accept our environment in all its complex mixture, which includes what we perceive as trash or pollution, as well as what we cannot directly perceive since it is too large or too minuscule (Timothy Morton’s “hyperobjects”).

What to do:

The answer to the heat dome in the United States and Canada is not just to help the affected areas but to attack its global causes. And, as the ongoing catastrophe in southern Iraq makes clear, a state apparatus capable of maintaining a minimal welfare of the people in catastrophic conditions will be needed to prevent social explosions.

All these things can — hopefully — be achieved only through strong and obligatory international cooperation, social control and regulation of agriculture and industry, changes in our basic eating habits (less beef), global health care, etc. Upon a closer look, it is clear that representative political democracy alone will not be sufficient for this task. A much stronger executive power capable of enforcing long-term commitments will have to be combined with local self-organizations of people, as well as with a strong international body capable of overriding the will of dissenting nations.

I am not talking here about a new world government — such an entity would give opportunity to immense corruption. And I am not talking about communism in the sense of abolishing markets — market competition should play a role, although a role regulated and controlled by state and society. Why, then, use the term “communism”? Because what we will have to do contains four aspects of every truly radical regime.

First, there is voluntarism: changes that will be needed are not grounded in any historical necessity; they will be done against the spontaneous tendency of history — as Walter Benjamin put it, we have to pull the emergency brake on the train of history. Then, there is egalitarianism: global solidarity, health care, and a minimum of decent life for all. Then, there are elements of what cannot but appear to die-hard liberals as “terror,” a taste of which we got with measures to cope with the ongoing pandemic: limitation of many personal freedoms and new modes of control and regulation. Finally, there is trust in the people: everything will be lost without the active participation of ordinary people.

The Way Forward

All this is not a morbid dystopian vision but the result of the simple realistic assessment of our predicament. If we don’t take this path, what will happen is the totally crazy situation which is already taking place in the United States and Russia: the power elite is preparing for its survival in gigantic underground bunkers in which thousands can survive for months, with the excuse that the government should function even in such conditions. In short, government should continue to work even when there are no people alive on the earth over whom it should exert its authority.

H/t 3QD.

Billionaires in Space, Part 4: What's the net worth of Darth Vader? Did he have a 401K?

Billionaires in Space, Part 3: What do I think? [What's the WHOLE picture?]

It’s complicated. I’ve written a fair amount on man-in-space. Somewhere in their I’ve told how, when Sputnik was launched in October of 1957, my father took me outside to observer the night sky. He pointed Sputnik out to me? Did I actually see what he was pointing at? Could you actually observe Sputnik from earth? I don’t know, but I believed we saw Sputnik that night. That is when my personal life met world-historical time in my memory.

Even before then I’d been drawing pictures of space ships, flying saucers, robots (remember, Forbidden Planet had come out a year before Sputnik). I watched Walt Disney extol the virtues of space travel. I assembled plastic models of rockets and space ships. I even designed some. I was into it. I wanted to become an astronaut.

But when I came time to enter college, I declared a psychology major, then changed to philosophy, and ended up doing a de facto degree in literature. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969 I didn’t watch it on TV. It was too ‘establishment.’ And I wasn’t into establishment.

Years later, in the mid-1990s, I was in Orlando, Florida at a trade show. I took the last day off to drive to Kennedy Space Flight Center and see the land from which those moon rockets were launched. They had a Saturn V hanging from the roof in one long shed. I was awed. I felt that I was on sacred ground.

Billionaires in space? Right around the corner Michael Liss asked me a question:

Bill, Disney's insistent focus on the future was part business, but it was also part mission. Are there futurists now who you think have the resources (or access to them) and desire to do the same? I'm knocking out the vanity space-flights because they seem purposeless, but you can disagree.

Here’s my reply:

That’s a very interesting question, Michael. And context matters. You’re right about Disney, part business AND part mission. Moreover, back in Disney’s time science fiction wasn’t all over the screen and, of course, humans had not yet landed on the moon. Things are very different now.

Bezos was born in 1964. He would have been five when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. What could that possibly have meant to him? Star Trek came on the air in 1968; Star Wars came out in 1977. He’s grown up in a world with space-oriented science fiction, one where humans have been to the moon and back, and were now flying missions to low earth orbit. In that world, does thinking Disney-like thoughts count as vision any more? Just WHAT DOES count as vision?

When all these ideas are out there as science fiction, what counts as vision? Has Bezos done anything more that flip the switch on some science fiction tale and say, “I want one of those, I’m a billionaire?” Is he doing anything more than re-enacting childhood fantasy? Is his vision just slip-streaming off of good old Uncle Walt?

And what was he doing wearing the cowboy hat? You know what I think of when I think of cowboy hats in space? That’s right, Slim Pickens riding the bomb in Dr. Strange Love. In a way I’d like to see Bezos earn that hat by bull riding on the rodeo circuit for a year, or actually working on a cattle ranch. If he wants to prance around in the bedroom with his current squeeze while wearing a cowboy hat, that's fine. That's play. But when he's in public with millions of people watching, no, he doesn't get to do that. He doesn't get to play while millions are hurting from Covid, some of whom work for his company. He doesn’t get to mess with American myth simply because he’s a billionaire.

Musk, I think, is in a different class. He’s built an actual business, though one that depends on getting government contracts. He wants to go to Mars. I don’t know what I think about that. But he wants to do it for real. If he actually does it, that changes the game, big time. Even if it’s only a one-time shot and he leaves some dead astronauts on Mars.

But vision?

Like I said, it’s complicated.

I’m not at all sure that I like the idea that, at the moment, the billionaires dominate media coverage of humans-in-space. Space should not be the preserve of rich men. It belongs to us all, no?

Not, mind you, that the race to the moon was for the good of humanity. It was America vs. the Russians, one nation-state against another. Don’t like that either.

Which is better, dueling billionaires or dueling nation? Of course China is getting to the act as well. How does that change things?

I do note, however, that Bezos is being lambasted, at least on Twitter, for that cowboy hat and for the phallic shape of his rocket. That’s fair game; it’s all to the good. He’s also been criticized for his remarks about how he couldn’t have done it without all his wonderful Amazon employees. In making those remarks he was playing the benevolent paterfamilias; but he was being criticized as an exploitive boss. That too is fair.

These guys don’t get exclusive control over the spin. How much traction will the resistance get? I don’t know. It remains to be seen just how these events get interpreted. That’s just beginning.

What I’m getting at is that we have to think of the whole picture, what these billionaires do AND how those actions play out in the public sphere. What are we as a culture and a society making of all this right now? Where are we, and our billionaires, going?

This is going to take awhile.

Billionaires in Space, Part 2: Neil deGrasse Tyson (explaining science) and Chuck Nice (cracking wise)

It's going to be interesting to see how this plays out in the media. This clip is an interesting combination of scientific explanation and comic relief. The billionaires can't control how they play out in the media. 

If billionaires want to feed their egos, act like fools, while also advancing technology, why not? That is to say, as long as there is a commentariat calling them on it, let them go. But we need the commentariat, we need the comedic takes like Chuck Nice is supplying, we need the court jesters. 

Billionaires in Space, Part 1: Joe Rogan's take on Jeff Bezos (or is it Bozos?)

What was he thinking wearing that cowboy hat? Yeah, I know, I wore a cowboy hat when I was a kid, but I was just a kid and I was playing at being a cowboy. Is that what Bezos was doing? If he wants to prance around in the bedroom with his current squeeze while wearing a cowboy hat, that's fine. That's play. But when he's in public with millions of people watching, no, he doesn't get to do that. He doesn't get to play while millions are hurting from Covid, some of whom work for his company.

When I think of cowboy hats in space I think of Slim Pickens riding the bomb down at the end of Dr. Strange Love. Maybe Bezos should give it a try. Not a live bomb, of course, a dud. He can ride that dud to anywhere he pleases. If not that, he should at least earn the hat by going on the rodeo circuit for a year and breaking broncos or riding bulls. 

What was he thinking? He was thinking "I'm Jeff Bezos, I can do anything I want to." But cowboys are American mythology. You don't get to fuck with American mythology. Not Jeff Bezos, not Donald Trump, no one, not even John Wayne (and he's dead).

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Embrace the light

What’s the difference between a conspiracy theory and a far-out, but reasonable, idea? When does signaling go haywire?

My answer: It’s hard to tell. It may come down to the identity of the believing community and, of course, who’s making the judgement. I am thus considering some kind of continuum where we have crazy conspiracy theories at one end and far out speculative ideas at the other. Ideas that fall in the middle...who knows?

Republicans and Trump

Before we go there, however, let’s look at a recent column by Paul Krugman, Republicans Have Their Own Private Autocracy, NYTimes, July 19, 2021. Here’s the opening three paragraphs:

I’m a huge believer in the usefulness of social science, especially studies that use comparisons across time and space to shed light on our current situation. So when the political scientist Henry Farrell suggested that I look at his field’s literature on cults of personality, I followed his advice. He recommended one paper in particular, by the New Zealand-based researcher Xavier Márquez; I found it revelatory.

“The Mechanisms of Cult Production” compares the behavior of political elites across a wide range of dictatorial regimes, from Caligula’s Rome to the Kim family’s North Korea, and finds striking similarities. Despite vast differences in culture and material circumstances, elites in all such regimes engage in pretty much the same behavior, especially what the paper dubs “loyalty signaling” and “flattery inflation.”

Signaling is a concept originally drawn from economics; it says that people sometimes engage in costly, seemingly pointless behavior as a way to prove that they have attributes others value. For example, new hires at investment banks may work insanely long hours, not because the extra hours are actually productive, but to demonstrate their commitment to feeding the money machine.

Signaling is the key here. One of the things that happens in dictatorial regimes is the underlings will assent to all sorts of problematic things, not because they really believe in them, but to signal that they believe in and are loyal to the Great Leader. And, Krugman argues, Republicans are doing this all the time now, where Trump, even in exile, is the leader at the center of this signaling activity.

We saw it as soon as Trump was inaugurated. Remember how he insisted that he had the largest crowd EVER at his inauguration even though the photographs did not show it? The fact that so many, from the hapless Sean Spicer on down, agreed with him, shows that they were willing to bow to his will, even in the face of reality. Trump’s been doing it ever since. The Republicans have become fawning courtiers at the foot of the great prince.

QANON and conspiracy theories

A similar argument can easily be made about QANON and various other conspiracy theories. People assent to these crazy beliefs as a way of signaling their loyalty to the group. The moment a person assents to these beliefs they become a member of the group. Thus, from the NYTimes, Jan 17, 2021:

What attracts Ms. Gilbert and many other people to QAnon isn’t just the content of the conspiracy theory itself. It’s the community and sense of mission it provides. New QAnon believers are invited to chat rooms and group texts, and their posts are showered with likes and retweets. They make friends, and are told that they are not lonely Facebook addicts squinting at zoomed-in paparazzi photos, but patriots gathering “intel” for a righteous revolution.

This social element also means that QAnon followers aren’t likely to be persuaded out of their beliefs with logic and reason alone.

“These people aren’t drooling, mind-controlled cultists,” Mr. Rothschild said. “People who are in Q like it. They like being part of it. You can’t debunk and fact-check your way out of this, because these people don’t want to leave.”

Our need for community is so strong that, in the right circumstances, we’ll choose community over a clear-eyed perception of reality. We signal that choice by giving assent to beliefs with little or no evidence to back them up, indeed, that often have quite a bit of evidence against them.

Religion is caused by memes

Let’s consider a somewhat different case, that of memes. Here I’m not talking about internet memes, though there is a kinship here, but about the idea that culture is organized by ideas the flit around from one person’s head to another. These ideas are thus immaterial homunclear bots of some kind. As I explain in Q: Why is the Dawkins Meme Idea so Popular?, Dawkins created the idea of memes in 1976 in The Selfish Gene. He proposed it as the cultural equivalent of the biological gene.

So far so good. It was just a casual idea. Dawkins had no clear idea of how these things worked or even whether or not they existed inside people’s brains or outside in the world; he entertained both possibilities in 1976. But things changed as the idea caught on. In particular, the meme idea became a favorite way of explaining religious belief, at least in a certain intellectual community, one that believes in scientific materialism, reductive explanation, and human reason.

Religious belief is irrational and, in some cases, goes quite against the grain of the biological imperative to reproduce – I’m talking about celibacy among priests and nuns and other religious. Why, given that people are basically rational beings – so this community believes – would people harbor such irrational beliefs? It’s obvious, isn’t it? Their minds have been taken over by memes.

This explanation would be one thing if these meme-believers could explain how memes worked. But they can’t. These memes just somehow flit from mind to mind converting one person after another. And that’s that. That is not much of an explanation coming from someone who believes in materialism, science, and human reason. For such a person to believe such a flimsy idea is, why, it’s irrational!

And maybe that’s the point. It IS irrational. And so it is a good vehicle for these rationalists, the “Brights” as Dan Dennett likes to call them, to signal their loyalty to their belief system, which otherwise has many commendable aspects. These beliefs certainly aren’t as irrational as Republican groveling at the feet of Trump, or as QANON, but they don’t make much sense either. That people do believe in memebots (my term, not theirs) and argue passionately for them requires an explanation. I think signaling may do the trick.

The Tech Singularity

Where does the Technological Singularity fall on this continuum? By this I mean a loosely related complex of beliefs. The central belief is that at some point in the future computers will become so “intelligent” that they will surpass us and then, who knows? One possibility is that they will prove malevolent and turn on us. This shows up often in science fiction – see, e.g. my current article at 3 Quarks Daily on Forbidden Planet and The Terminator. Related beliefs include 1) the possibility of uploading (or is it downloading?) one’s mind to a computer and thus achieving immortality, 2) the idea that we’re right now living in a computer simulation created by a super-advanced civilization, and 3) the possibility of establishing direct links between human brains and AIs and, for that matter between one brain and another.

There very little reason to believe that any of this is likely. As far as I can tell, the strongest argument is: “Well, you can’t prove it won’t happen.” No, I can’t, nor can anyone else. So we’re at a standoff.

Except that one could argue that these ideas are mere projection. Here’s something David Hays and I published in 1990:

The computer is similarly ambiguous. It is clearly an inanimate machine. Yet we interact with it through language; a medium heretofore restricted to communication with other people. To be sure, computer languages are very restricted, but they are languages. They have words, punctuation marks, and syntactic rules. To learn to program computers we must extend our mechanisms for natural language.

As a consequence it is easy for many people to think of computers as people. Thus Joseph Weizenbaum, with considerable dis-ease and guilt, tells of discovering that his secretary “consults” Eliza—a simple program which mimics the responses of a psychotherapist—as though she were interacting with a real person (Weizenbaum 1976). Beyond this, there are researchers who think it inevitable that computers will surpass human intelligence and some who think that, at some time, it will be possible for people to achieve a peculiar kind of immortality by “downloading” their minds to a computer. As far as we can tell such speculation has no ground in either current practice or theory. It is projective fantasy, projection made easy, perhaps inevitable, by the ontological ambiguity of the computer. We still do, and forever will, put souls into things we cannot understand, and project onto them our own hostility and sexuality, and so forth.

In the middle of that second paragraph we assert that two singularity beliefs are projective fantasy. That’s not an argument. But the idea that the computer is somehow ambiguous to people raised in a world of animals, mechanical devices, and human beings, so that it doesn’t really fit into any of those categories, that could be put to use in an actual argument. To that we can add the cultural lineage I sketch on in that 3 Quarks Daily piece, Then let’s toss in an alternative interpretation the singularity, that it is taking place in our ideas, Redefining the Coming Singularity – It’s not what you think. Now we’ve got some material with which to fashion an argument that Singulatarianism, if you will, is best seen as a quasi-religious cult rather than as a set of possibly fruitful speculative beliefs about the future of technology. The fact that this set of beliefs is backed by high tech billionaires is no more an argument in their favor than is the fact that Republican denial of reality is backed by a different set of billionaires.

* * * * *

What do I believe? I’m not sure. I want to think about it some more. I’m talking about four different groups of people here, or is it only two? There is, after all, some overlap between Trumpists and conspiracy theorists, on the one hand, and Dawkinsian memeticists and Singulatarians on the other. I rather suspect that each group eyes the other with suspicion, when they do so at all. But are they really so different. I’m not sure. 

An exercise for the reader

One way to think of this is to think of the relationship between the adherents (of some belief or belief system) and non-adherents. Is the distinction a sharp one or a loose one? Do non-adherents respect the ideas of adherents, or do they think they’re crazy? Do adherents respect the ideas of non-adherents, or do they think they’re crazy.

How do those considerations work out with respect to the four groups above?

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Poverty and Apollo

The weakness of networked movements

Hamilton Park greenery, 2007

Is the 40 hour work-week going the way of the Dodo? Are we about to give up on this fetish about the inherent virtue of work?

Bryce Covert, 8 Hours a Day, 5 Days a Week Is Not Working for Us, NYTimes, July 20, 2021.

While Europeans have decreased their work hours by about 30 percent over the past half century, ours have steadily increased. We have long needed better work-life balance, but despite constantly trying to hack our lives by waking up before dawn or exercising during lunch, that can be achieved only by actually working less.

To Americans, who log 7 to 19 percent more time on the job than our European peers, that may sound heretical. But we should heed the other countries that have come to this realization. This year, the Spanish government announced a pilot program to entice companies to try out a four-day workweek without reducing anyone’s pay. Last month, Japan released economic policy guidelines encouraging employers to do the same. Iceland just published results from an experiment with a four-day week in Reykjavik that ran from 2015 to 2019 and found that productivity didn’t decline and in some cases even improved. The reduced schedule showed “that we are not just machines that just work,” one Icelandic participant said. “We are persons with desires and private lives, families and hobbies.” Employees reported being less burned out and healthier.

Working too long is bad for our health, associated with not just weight gain and more alcohol and tobacco use but also higher rates of injury, illness and death. A study that looked at long work hours across 194 countries found a higher risk of heart disease and stroke, leading to about 745,000 attributable deaths. Long work hours are “the largest of any occupational risk factor calculated to date,” the authors wrote.

There is a class divide in overwork in the United States, however. The demand to spend 60 hours at an office is one that depletes the lives of professional, higher-paid workers. What would appear to be an opposite problem plagues those at the lower end of the wage scale. In 2016, about one-tenth of American workers were working part time but trying to get more hours. Despite current hand-wringing that these workers are refusing to come back to the job, thanks to lucrative unemployment benefits, the problem is typically the opposite: People who work in retail or fast food often struggle to get enough hours to qualify for benefits and pay their bills, just to survive. [...]

“The overlap between the overworked executive and the underemployed hourly worker,” said Susan Lambert, a professor of social work at the University of Chicago, is “that they cannot fully engage in their personal or their family life.” Employers steal both overtime hours spent in front of a computer and off hours spent piecing a decent income together.

If everyone worked less, though, it would be easier to spread the work out evenly to more people.

See Why are we as a culture addicted to work? [Because we have forgotten how to play.]