Archive for November, 2011

A Modest Proposal

Typically, around nine in the evening, after preparing individual meals for the children and seeing them off to bed, I will recline for an hour or so and watch whatever is available on our local PBS affiliate. After opting some time ago to not get cable service, I find that the only programming I can watch in the evenings tends to be of the public variety. So it was last night as I watched an episode of Nature on the intelligence of crows. Last week I saw a remarkable episode of the same program on the intelligence of turkeys.

Coincidentally, earlier yesterday I stumbled upon a blog post on a lefty site bemoaning the fate of the planet, and in particular, the horror of greenhouse gases that will be released into the atmosphere in coming years as energy consumers burn the dirty, dirty oil that is currently being dredged up from the tar sands of the Alberta prairie. The shale oil will certainly be burned, either here in North America or somewhere else. We know this to be true. Humans need energy and fuel and so forth.

Crows are smart enough to use tools to make tools. Now if you think about that for a minute it’s really quite impressive. It’s something that, apparently, even our fellow primates don’t do. Intelligence appears to be an inevitable outcome of natural selection.

Perhaps it’s time for our species to get out of the way. If the planet is getting used up, then we ought to plan our own demise and set a timeline for the end. My suggestion is that the entire species voluntarily refrain from reproducing after a certain date. Let’s say we have about two-hundred years left, so we make sure we stop reproducing completely by the end of the 21st century. That will free us up to exploit the planet as much as we want for another three or four generations. It could be a wonderful party. Without having to worry about waste and scarcity of resources, the human population of the planet will be able to live in style on its way out.

The crows won’t miss us much (although they have adapted quite well to living among us). And I think we as a species ought to be proud of our accomplishments and make every effort to preserve an archive of those accomplishments for the crows (or whatever other creature) succeeds us in a few million years. The sun is only about half-way through its lifespan, so this planet could easily be around long enough to support the development of another equally intelligent species.

Who do you Protect? Who do you Serve?

So ran one of the refrains at UC Davis after, you know, that pepper spray thing…

What I’m curious about is the pathology of police officers. I’m honestly curious about this, because I have never, for one moment of my existence, had any desire to be a cop.

What makes them tic? Did they feel threatened? I know, the whole country is outraged, blah blah blah. It’s only when the brutality is broadcast over and over, and those poor students were defenseless… The best part of that video is the cops backing up to the street. You kind of wish the crowd would just lunge at them and see if that fat guy can run. I think his pepper spray bottle is empty now.

Shit the NYC cops have more weapons than most developed countries. Maybe they got their own nuke by now. Maybe Bloomberg bought them a nuke. It’s possible.

And how about these guys:

Oh shit. I thought we were in Oakland.

notes on entropy

There is a great illusion that we pursue. To be in control of events; to suppress the chaotic forces that swirl around us. The dream of constancy is a butterfly aloft above the chasm. To know that this is the case is no solace. The materiality of the self resists with equal force, and so our flesh remains intact, and our identity demands similar continuity. The threat of dissolution through death, or worse, through incapacity, stalks each of us. The persistent continuity of the flesh belies the fragility of its intentionality. Your musculature will retain its shape even while your will and hopes are distorted out of shape. Your lungs will keep breathing, and your heart will keep beating, even while the you that you believe you are is slowly, inexorably evaporating. This is entropy.

And how does one discover this evaporation? Through anxiousness and dread. The thoughtless fear of disappearance will numb you. That tingling of the fingertips, the shortness of breath: the body is not in distress. It will adjust. But the you that you think you are will be reduced in preference for the body. And you are nothing but, after all. The you that you think you are, if all else fails, will sleep.

There is the essential quality of familial relationships, i.e. between the suckling child and the nurturing mother. Beyond that the connections become strained and the entropic forces pull what is artificial and dispensable apart. Fathers are eliminable. What will naturally decay must be held together by force, and if local force proves insufficient then increase the size of the family. Church temples, burning inside with the fervor of the faithful, bind the sheaves together, burn the sheaves together and so keep the hoarfrost of cold death outside the Family of God. The wind eventually blows from within, blows the doors off of the church, and sweeps out the charred (m)embers of the host, onto the street, cold and quiet.

Political entities, parties that like termite colonies serve the queen to grow the party, grow the swarm, consume the soldiers/workers. This is held together by its own weight, but those flying buttresses will crack eventually. More disorder, colder, quieter.

The state, a reified, sado-masochistic fantasy, is mass hypnosis.

Culture is that awful pop tune stuck in your head.

Yes, the bits of us that matter are matter and they are spinning away from each other (faster than the speed of light?) Disturbing.


I like this blog. via Adam, via Stumplane


re Square One

From Anarchurious earlier today:

And, to be nasty, I look at capitalism and I see the Congo. I look at Marxism and I see despots. I look at liberal democracy and I see raped Vietnamese women. I look at conservatism and I see lebensraum and Manifest Destiny. I look at anarchism and I see futility. I look at libertarianism and I see privilege confused for principle. I see the world’s ideologies, like its faiths, and I see ugliness, ruin, waste, and error. I pick from their corpses and I go back to work.

So true. So bleak.

I sometimes completely lose faith. By that I mean, I am sometimes tempted to give up on the human species altogether.

Cüneyt’s indictment is correct. What is the appropriate response?


Self Improvement

That last post was weak. I’m good at self-criticism, terrible at self-improvement.

Determinism seems to be in the news lately. I saw a defense of free will over at the NYT, then something at Slate. The gist is that the better we get at neuroscience, the more evidence there is for hard determinism (as we discover more and more details about all the little neurons firing away).

I prefer to think of myself as a fatalist rather than as a determinist. What are the implications for self-improvement? How good are we at changing ourselves, anyway? I’m rather suspicious of it. As I said, I’m not good at it.

Given the right circumstances, one can be motivated to change. Often the biggest slackers become the most enthusiastic converts. But just as often, that enthusiasm wanes and the reformed slacker drifts back to his or her natural state.

Whether we can freely choose to be slackers or high performers isn’t important. Our first person account of such behavior is always going to entail intentional action of some kind. So the fact that our behavior is determined by a physical state shouldn’t comfort us at all.


Overrated Intelligence

You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you? If intelligence was destiny you’d be a one percenter, right?

Let’s face it. Being smart is way overrated. All those college prep classes you took in high school. Waste of time. Your SAT score. Big deal. Just means you know how pass tests. Graduating summa. Who cares.

In fact, truth be told, that so-called intellect of yours might be a disadvantage. Consider the current collection of candidates vying for the nomination as their party’s candidate for President of the United States. They are a successful bunch. Each has demonstrated his or her ability to circumnavigate the complexities of our society adroitly. (See how I continue to use those words from the SAT after all these years?) They don’t seem to be encumbered by their lack of intellectual heft. This contest is about Leadership and Values.

Mr. Cain is a brilliant example of what I call money smarts. You know the type. Probably hasn’t read a book in twenty years (except for the one he “wrote” himself). He’s a glorified version of your local successful Chamber of Commerce guy. Caught a few lucky breaks along the way. Knew how to use them to his advantage. But there’s nothing special about his intellect. He’s not a deep thinker. Doesn’t need to be. His gut tells him everything he needs to know, in every situation. It’s a transactional intellect. Armed with this ability, many people wind their way up some corporate ladder or other. Each decision is based on simple sixth-grade math. It’s about the money. It’s always about the money. And if you can train yourself to think like that, you will become successful. They can’t teach this shit in schools. You have to learn it from a master. (Or have it as a God-given gift).

The rest of the field are typical political creatures with the usual measure of college-ready intelligence and ruthless ambition all combined with a hefty dose of emotional intelligence.  Yes, it’s the latest corporate craze! You don’t need smart employees, you need employees with high EQ. Watch out for those little smarty-pants guys that try to push the envelope. What you need are good glad-handers and back-slappers that can lie to your face and not even know their lying. If that’s not a necessary condition for success in politics, I don’t know what is.

But your kind of intelligence? You know, the kind that is more likely to lead to a maddening impasse rather than a decisive conclusion? That’s not very useful. You will be paralyzed by your own warped sense of obligation to little things like “facts” and “reality”. Your reliance on historical context and proof will cripple your earning capacity for years. Your only hope is to limit your exposure to new ideas as much as possible so as to avoid a perpetual state of neurological nausea. Better to dull the senses than pollute the mind.

Intrinsic Worth

This quote by Mr. Montag has been stuck in my head for a few weeks:

My sense of equality is an ideal. It’s FAKE. It does not obtain. Here it is nonetheless: No matter how powerful — regardless, even, of an individual’s utility to society — every person’s time is of equal value. That entrepreneurial ability, or test taking ability, or influence peddling ability are rewarded so much more richly than a strong back and a willingness to get dirty, is demented. The system of rewards is indeed a function of a demented religion of financial power. It is a system by which circumstance dictates whose potential will be fulfilled, and whose will lie dormant for lack of training or education or simply the lack of official sanction. Under such a system, circumstance always favors established power, and gatekeepers and nepotists reign.

You can read the rest of his post here.

I agree with him. As I think he has said elsewhere, money is FAKE. So it follows that the accumulation of wealth and one’s ability to generate material abundance has absolutely no relation to the worth or value of the individual. None. Not one iota. This is in keeping, in my view, to the radical notion that individual autonomy (self-ownership and direction) is the overarching, guiding principle for the conduct of relations between human beings (and possibly to other creatures).

Is it fake though? Does it truly not obtain, as he says? If the trappings of human society, and the conventions that are used to transact human relations (including the distribution of goods) happen to be based on a contrived or perverted set of values, that doesn’t invalidate the definition of equality that he describes.

The question is, does it follow that we are obliged to remedy this inequality? That is, if you happen to have been rewarded (under this system) for the accident of being born a white male in the west, is there a moral obligation to diminish yourself in some way? Or is this merely an example of moral luck? It’s not a question about charity. It’s a question about value.


Akrasia Anonymous

“Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” Rom. 7:20 (NIV)

I attended my first AA meeting in 1986. Roughly a third of my days since then have been “sober”. But I have never been a good AA. The longest stretch of continuous sobriety was around three years, but that stretch was without AA. My adult life has been punctuated by periodic episodes of abstinence.

So, I reckon I’ve attended a few thousand AA meetings in my life. I have affection for the AA fellowship and have no desire to disparage the beneficial impact it has had on innumerable lives (including mine).

But seriously, is this the best we have been able to do as a society to deal with addiction? How can the pseudo-medical establishment dispense millions of prescriptions to Xanax every day and at the same time offer nothing to addicts and alcoholics besides AA? How can the medical establishment charge upwards of $30,000 to provide so-called “treatment” and then turn all these folks over to AA (or NA)?

I know it’s an intractable problem. But how irresponsible is it for medical doctors who claim to be “experts” in addiction to dump addicts and alcoholics back on the streets and expect AA to take care of them? AA has its own anachronistic definition of addiction (allergy). It does a pretty good job of diagnosing the chronic, male alcoholic of 1940. Bill Wilson did an amazing thing (for those who have any experience of the subject, his 12 Traditions are much more significant than the 12 steps).

But the emphasis on “spiritual recovery” is a joke when introduced by an MD writing scrips for benzos.

There is a phenomenon of physical addiction. Anyone who uses opiates for a sufficient period of time will become physically addicted. That’s pretty easy to comprehend. But alcohol doesn’t work like that. The vast majority of alcohol users are not addicts. Some become chronic. The definition of addiction has been stretched to include anyone that has a problem with self-control.

This is misguided. As some of you may have noticed, I am a bit interested in Weakness of Will (akrasia). I continue to puzzle at the impotence of the human will. The fact that AA has been successful (although I believe it is waning in influence) has more to do with a particular religious point of view. Many of us are aware that, like St. Paul we do what we do not want to do. We feel powerless. AA offers a solution: there is a God (of your own understanding) who will do for you what you can’t do for yourself. He will be your power.

But it is a lie. There is no God that does such a thing. And deep down we already know that. And it’s not just picking up a drink or shooting up, it’s your whole life.

I’m not condemning those who believe that this is the case. St. Paul had a wonderful solution to the puzzle. God knows that you’re a sinner, but He loves you anyway, and His grace is sufficient. He made you the way you are (fucked up) to demonstrate his love and glory.

I don’t believe it, but I get it.

Drinking and drugs are disruptive forces that affect society (that’s why they are sanctioned). But what about all the other deficiencies we have? Don’t we all fall short? Don’t we all imagine that we could do more or be better if we only applied ourselves properly and did what we ought to do (according to our own conscience)? Our will is weak. We all fall short. We are all less than we could be. That’s the human condition. It’s not sin. We’re not powerless. We’re just weak.

“Cosmos” and the fabric of…

I just finished watching the first installment of Nova’s adaptation of Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos. I read Greene’s book a few years ago–actually, I think I read it twice–as well as The Elegant Universe. Had I been more competent at mathematics, I might have studied physics. It remains mesmerizing to me. The Nova version was wonderful and brought back memories of another PBS series that consumed my attention many years ago…

Watching Carl Sagan back in the late 70′s as a young person was a revelation. I can’t think of any television program that I recall with such emotional attachment from that era. There was the melancholic, spacey music of Vangelis. There were the cool effects (for the time). There was the genial contempt that Sagan displayed toward superstition (and by extension, religion). And there was Sagan himself: his tweedy turtleneck, his odd vowelly speech and his naive admiration of the glorious history of scientific progress. For Sagan, science was a spiritual experience, and his series was evangelical in its enthusiasm.

Greene seems a good successor to Sagan. He is equally enthusiastic about his subject (though physicists these days must hold dogma loosely). But he shares some quality of communication that I find appealing. Unlike Sagan, however, I don’t detect any spiritual glorification of science in Greene’s work. Perhaps physicists have been humbled by their own bumbling progress (the more they figure out, the less they seem to know). He isn’t preaching the gospel so much as sharing the latest version of our map of reality. And it’s a pretty strange map. The first episode concludes with the truly mind-bending notion that the universe is a hologram.

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