Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Walt Disney and the scientists, Hubble and Huxley

The photo was taken on October 24, 1940, about a month before the release of Fantasia. You can see art work for the film on the wall behind the men.

The moon on two different days last year

A note to my friend Bill Berry: Is anyone thinking about a more soulful future?

About a week ago my friend Bill Berry – we’d collaborated on Meanderings back in the early days of the web – and a long post on his Facebook page describing his and his wife’s search for a church. He wanted where the style of worship was like what he’d grown up with in Newark in the middle of the previous century. They weren’t having much success, and that saddened him. I posted a response to his Facebook page. It opens with a quote from his post:

That’s the thing. Style of worship is very particular and important. I was looking for what I had, what I walked away from, and couldn’t find it, probably because it didn’t exist any longer. Maybe it exists only in my head?

I think I can understand that. I don't know what you grew up with, but I'm pretty sure it isn't what I grew up with in suburban Western Pennsylvania. It was a Lutheran church and the people and the style where white. I can remember one Christmas service when I took it on myself to get a little enthusiastic and threw some variations into one of the hymns. People looked at me like I was doing something wrong, committing some kind of sin, you know, “Thou shalt not be enthusiastic in your worship of the Lord because then you might enjoy it and the Lord does not want you to enjoy anything, ever, certainly not singing his praises.”

Whatever it is you had growing up, I think we all need and want it, the style, the community. But how do you separate those things from the dismaying doctrine that so often accompanies them? A good friend of mine has been involved with his local Unitarian Church for years, in fact he's now executive director of the church, he told me – at about the time I'd been to that church service I told you about – that some Unitarian ministers were interested in Black vernacular preaching. Now as you know, Unitarians tend toward the cerebral and austere in doctrine and style, so for Unitarians to be hungering from some down home preaching, that's saying something.

But I think somehow that we as a society have to find a way to get there because otherwise we are not going to be able to get through the trying times ahead. I mean, let’s get real, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are not going to save us with their rockets. Bezos has figured out how to deliver cheap goods to us while exploiting his workers and business partners. Musk has given us the electric car, which is a good thing, but he's loony tunes on this Vulcan mind-meld neuro-technology. And hyperloop? That's mostly loopy hype.

Rockets are not the road to salvation. And salvation is what we need. You know what, we'll settle for some good songs that promise salvation. That will somehow get us through the darkness.

Who is trying to envision a future that isn’t centered on super-wonderful technology? We know how to do that, envision more and better technology. That will come. But there’s more to a better life than better technology. Does anyone know how to envision richer fuller lives for more people, richer and fuller because they are more meaningful, more soulful, more spiritual?

Graph theory and children's designs

Hinduism and Catholicism

Banksey refects on deep history

Monday, July 26, 2021

Sunday, July 25, 2021

A reminder of other things

Historical language records reveal a surge of cognitive distortions in recent decades [#DH]

Significance of linked article:

Can entire societies become more or less depressed over time? Here, we look for the historical traces of cognitive distortions, thinking patterns that are strongly associated with internalizing disorders such as depression and anxiety, in millions of books published over the course of the last two centuries in English, Spanish, and German. We find a pronounced “hockey stick” pattern: Over the past two decades the textual analogs of cognitive distortions surged well above historical levels, including those of World War I and II, after declining or stabilizing for most of the 20th century. Our results point to the possibility that recent socioeconomic changes, new technology, and social media are associated with a surge of cognitive distortions.

Abstract from linked article:

Individuals with depression are prone to maladaptive patterns of thinking, known as cognitive distortions, whereby they think about themselves, the world, and the future in overly negative and inaccurate ways. These distortions are associated with marked changes in an individual’s mood, behavior, and language. We hypothesize that societies can undergo similar changes in their collective psychology that are reflected in historical records of language use. Here, we investigate the prevalence of textual markers of cognitive distortions in over 14 million books for the past 125 y and observe a surge of their prevalence since the 1980s, to levels exceeding those of the Great Depression and both World Wars. This pattern does not seem to be driven by changes in word meaning, publishing and writing standards, or the Google Books sample. Our results suggest a recent societal shift toward language associated with cognitive distortions and internalizing disorders.

H/t Tyler Cowen.

CORRECTION – Alas, the study is deeply flawed [7.26.21]

Check out the whole thread on Twitter.

Is Elon Musk Different? [Progress]

Walter Isaacson reviews two books about Musk in the NYTimes:

LIFTOFF: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days that Launched SpaceX, by Eric Berger.
POWER PLAY: Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Bet of the Century, by Tim Higgins.

He tells how Musk went for broke in 2008 when the Falcon 1 had crashed and burned three times and they only had parts for one more flight. That forth rocket worked. At the same time Tesla only had three weeks of cash left. By putting millions of his own cash at risk, Musk coaxed more money from his investors and Tesla and avoided bankruptcy. He drove the Model S prototype in March 2009.

Miraculously, Musk had survived what seemed like two certain flameouts. “It felt like I had been taken out to the firing squad, and been blindfolded,” he said. “Then they fired the guns, which went click. No bullets came out. And then they let you free. Sure, it feels great. But you’re pretty [expletive] nervous.”

In his famous “Think Different” ad for Apple in 1997, Steve Jobs saluted people like himself: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels… Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” Musk is in some ways the current incarnation of Jobs. As these two books show in vivid detail, Musk can drive people hard. He can drive them to distraction. But he can also drive them to do things they never dreamed were possible. “Please prepare yourself for a level of intensity that is greater than anything most of you have experienced before,” he wrote in one staff memo. “Revolutionizing industries is not for the faint of heart.”

Like Jobs, Musk has a reality distortion field. “In meetings, Musk might ask his engineers to do something that, on the face of it, seemed absurd,” Berger writes. But unlike Jobs, Musk has an understanding of physics and thermodynamics that has helped him know what boundaries could be successfully pushed. “When they protested that it was impossible, Musk would respond with a question designed to open their minds to the problem, and potential solutions. He would ask, ‘What would it take?’”

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Fireworks, natural and unnatural

Up, up, and away...in 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?

No.

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.]

Monday, July 19, 2021

Off-color leaves and flowers

Dystopian Science Fiction @ 3QD [the fracturing of the American psyche]

My latest article for 3 Quarks Daily is posted:

From “Forbidden Planet” to “The Terminator”: 1950s techno-utopia and the dystopian future.

I must say that I like it, I even like it a lot. Yes, it’s got problems, which I will work on a bit (see below). But I like what it is, what it does, where it goes.

Interpretive, descriptive, and formalist

For one thing it is an interpretive article. I am interpreting two specific films, Forbidden Planet and The Terminator – and, by implication, a larger body of work, against events in American political and cultural history. At the same time the article is both formalist and has a substantial descriptive element.

One of the questions that keeps nagging at me as I criticize literary criticism for its flagrant and sad neglect of form, while at the same time talking of formalism, is: What happens to interpretation in the new regime that I am proposing, where I’ve been calling it ethical criticism? It’s not that I think it will go away, and my own work, even the descriptive work that concentrates on form, has plenty of interpretation in it, but still, for whatever reason, the question bugs me. For some reason, though, this essay satisfies me on that point in a way that other work has not.

Perhaps it is because the essay is obviously both formalist and descriptive as well. It’s formalist in the way that I compare three texts, The Tempest, Forbidden Planet, and The Terminator; and that comparison necessarily involves description. One major section of the essay, “Monsters from the Id Meet Your Progeny, Skynet,” is devoted to that formalist comparison. In a more formal academic presentation I might well use a chart or two, perhaps even a diagram. Who knows?

What’s particularly gratifying is that the essay controverts an idea about formalist that is prevalent in literary criticism, that formalist criticism necessarily treats texts as autonomous and hence independent of history. Instead, I am invoking history to explain the formal difference between Forbidden Planet and The Terminator. Form does not work the way literary formalist seem to think that it does. But then they aren’t actually talking about formal elements that you can and should describe. They’re just invoking the idea of form to justify their critical approach.

Things are missing: What about the women?

There is one big thing missing from the argument: After describing the central roles that women play in these two films, Altaira in Forbidden Planet, and Sarah Conner in The Terminator, I don’t really do much with it. I don’t really explain just what they are doing at the center of these plots. That’s because I don’t quite know what to do.

But the way to begin would be with some more description, starting with The Tempest. Prospero was once the Duke of Milan, but he was more interested in magic than in governing and so neglected his duties. His brother Alonso usurped the dukedom and exiled Prospero. Ferdinand is Alonso’s son. The pending marriage between Ferdinand and Miranda is thus vehicle through which he can reclaim his dukedom.

That kind of connection does not exist in Forbidden Planet. We no know nothing about Morbius’s former life in earth or why he went into space, scientific curiosity most likely. Thus he has nothing to gain if his daughter marries the handsome captain of United Planets Starship C-57D and everything to lose, his daughter. When his daughter leaves, he has no human companionship at all. I’m inclined to read his possessiveness as a kind of symbolic incest. When Capt. Adams is successful in his courtship, he thus rescues her from that relationship. This is a very different from the psychological dynamic in the Shakespeare play, though it is structured around the same fundamental human relationships, that between a father and a daughter, and that between a young woman the man she is to marry.

The Terminator is different from both. Sarah Conner’s father plays no role in the story at all; there is no Morbius/Prospero figure. The man she has sex with, Kyle Reese, and who (we suspect) is the father of her child, was sent back into the past by her child, John, to save her from a killer robot, the Terminator. Frankly, this feels like some kind of weird hyper-incest. Think of Skynet as a predatory father who wants to murder his daughter to keep her from giving birth to a son, his grandson, who will in turn murder him (Skynet). But his grandson outfoxes him and saves his mother so she can give birth to him.

It doesn’t compute. But somehow, in the depths of myth-logic, it must. Not rationally of course. But somehow it works.

Implications

Finally, this essay has some interesting implications that I sketched out in a recent post, Mind Hacks 3: 1956 – The Forbidden Planet Within [Media Notes 59]. I argue that these two films, and their historical relationship, have something to tell us about fears of super-intelligent AI turning on us:

Those fears are projective fantasy. Just as the Monster from Id in Forbidden Planet is a projection from the mind of a central character, Dr. Morbius. The mechanism is obvious in the movie. Morbius has been hooking himself up to advanced mind technology and it has, in turn, created the monster that stalks the planet.

Skynet in the Terminator films is thus a cultural descendant of that Monster from the Id. The same is true for all that crazy advanced technology that threatens the human race in so many science fiction films. But the same is true about those fears of out-of-control AI that real people have, real people who should know better. I’m thinking of people like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Bill Joy, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Nick Bostrom, and others. It’s a bit scary to realize that these businessmen and ‘thought leaders’ indulge, are allowed to and even encouraged to, indulge in projective fantasy so openly and transparently.

We are seeing that the development of ‘mind technology,’ that is, artificial intelligence, has this side effect, that the ‘dark side of the mind’ is being projected into policy discussions in the civic sphere.

What I’m saying is that these men are availing themselves of a trope developed in science fiction as a way of rationalizing their anxieties about whatever it is that’s bugging them but they don’t want to own up to.

Cultural evolution of electronic music

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Three views of grass - ZOOM

Zen is when...we all get stoned? Hemp cultivation for mind-bending may go back 12K years in East Asia.

Many botanists believe that the cannabis sativa plant was first domesticated in Central Asia. But a new study published on Friday in the journal Science Advances suggests that East Asia is the more likely source, and that all existing strains of the plant come from an “ancestral gene pool” represented by wild and cultivated varieties growing in China today.

The study’s authors found that the plant was a “primarily multipurpose crop” grown about 12,000 years ago during the early Neolithic period, probably for fiber and medicinal uses.

Farmers began breeding the plant specifically for its mind-altering properties about 4,000 years ago, as cannabis began to spread into Europe and the Middle East, the authors of the study said.

Michael Purugganan, a professor of biology at New York University who read the study, said the usual assumption about early humans was that they domesticated plants for food.

“That seems to be the most pressing problem for humans then: How to get food,” said Professor Purugganan, who was not involved in the research. “The suggestion that even early on they were also very concerned with fiber and even intoxicants is interesting. It would bring to question what were the priorities of these Neolithic societies.”

Indeed. Yes, we need to feed our bellies, but we also need to feed the soul. Of course, is the bellies are starved, pretty soon the soul won’t matter. But just how did our ancestors make those calculations? Take a look at this post from a couple years ago: Personality, understanding, and anxiety as the driver of cultural evolution [Tech Evol]. If smoking weed reduces anxiety, that’s a good reason to cultivate it.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Robotics is hard

Two shots of Newport Marina 15 years ago

Exploration and consolidation in the trajectory of creative careers [Talent Search]

From the abstract of the linked article:

Hot streaks dominate the main impact of creative careers. Despite their ubiquitous nature across a wide range of creative domains, it remains unclear if there is any regularity underlying the beginning of hot streaks. Here, we develop computational methods using deep learning and network science and apply them to novel, large-scale datasets tracing the career outputs of artists, film directors, and scientists, allowing us to build high-dimensional representations of the artworks, films, and scientific publications they produce. By examining individuals' career trajectories within the underlying creative space, we find that across all three domains, individuals tend to explore diverse styles or topics before their hot streak, but become notably more focused in what they work on after the hot streak begins. Crucially, we find that hot streaks are associated with neither exploration nor exploitation behavior in isolation, but a particular sequence of exploration followed by exploitation, where the transition from exploration to exploitation closely traces the onset of a hot streak. Overall, these results unveil among the first identifiable regularity underlying the onset of hot streaks, which appears universal across diverse creative domains, suggesting that a sequential view of creative strategies that balances experimentation and implementation may be particularly powerful for producing long-lasting contributions, which may have broad implications for identifying and nurturing creative talents.

If I look at my own career, my undergraduate years were one's of exploration, which I then consolidated through my MA Thesis on "Kubla Khan." I went off to graduate school where I did more exploration. I took English lit courses in my department while at the same time working on computational linguistics with David Hays and reading in the whole cognitive science literature on language. Consolidation through my disseration, "Cognitive Science and Literary Theory." Then things and stuff for twenty years while writing a series of articles with David Hays and doing Visualization: The Second Computer Revolution with Richard Friedhoff. Explore and consolidate while doing Beethoven's Anvil (2001) and consolidate after with a series of four papers on literary topics for PsyArt: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. That's the period when I wrote up my notes on Attractor-Nets, a kind of consolidation stretching over my whole career from symbolic computation in the 1970s to complex dynamics (Walter Freeman) in the music book. Since then....