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Showing posts from May, 2018

Slackers

Our world is infested by parasites; what keeps them down is partly Democracy and blah; partly that anywhere that becomes too uncompetitive gets out-competed. That's not a careful analysis, but what I mean is that we accept a balance as we must: as long as society functions, and produces enough wealth for all or most, we tolerate some parasites. And at least at the moment it is working: the share captured by the unproductive isn't too high...........William Connolley Libertarians generally, and rich people especially, are preoccupied by slackers - those they perceive to not be pulling their weight.  Of course we don't all quite agree on who those "parasites" are.  There are some obvious suspects - the young, the aged and infirm.  Then, of course, are the unemployed.  People like that creep Mitt Romney think they are anybody who doesn't pay income taxes, even if the other taxes they pay amount to a higher tax rate than paid by Romney and his rich fans.

Most of …

Literature: By the Numbers

BBC Culture asked writers around the globe to pick stories that have endured across generations and continents – and changed society.  They asked 108 critics to pick their top five, and came up with a top ten and top 100 list - which ought to suggest that there was substantial diversity in the critics opinions.  The changed society component of this game means that literary merit is not the sole criterion, and indeed that is evident.  Of the top five, I had only read numbers four and five:
1. The Odyssey (Homer, 8th Century BC)
2. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852)
3. Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)
4. Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell, 1949)
5. Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe, 1958) Of these, I think only number one and perhaps number four count as among the greatest works of literature, but the influence on history of Stowe's book was immense. Six through ten are all truly great though:
6. One Thousand and One Nights (various authors, 8th-18th Centuries)
7. Don…

Brainiacs

Human evolution took an unusual turn a couple of million years ago.  Some species started growing giant brains, and some of the brainiacs eventually displaced all the other human species, including other brainiacs like the Neandertals.  This path was not taken by any other ape or really, by any other animal.  Why so?  It's clear today that that brain growth facilitated a whole lot of other human progress, like speech, manufacture of complex tools, and cooperation in large groups, but evolution is always about the past, not the future, so why did the brain growth mainly come first?  Or perhaps we should ask why it stopped just as those things were reaching a critical mass?

The disadvantage of a big brain is that it has a high metabolic cost.  It's the intellectual equivalent of having a car with a big V-8 (or V-10 or V-12) engine.  Powerful but expensive to operate.  And that's not even counting the cost of having young who might decide to become philosophy majors.

A paper i…

Book Review: The Three Body Trilogy

I've mentioned before that I really liked the initial book of the series by Cixin Liu (The Three Body Problem), but now that I have read The Dark Forest and Death's End I should mention that I don't like them as much.  A good feature of the first book was the author's portrayal of the Chinese Great Cultural Revolution and its aftermath.  I find his future societies less compelling.

This, I suppose, is a personal problem, but I also disliked the relentlessly pessimistic tone of the latter two books, and started to find his conceptions of future technology and science more irritating than entertaining.

The author narrows his focus in the latter books and concentrates mostly just on one character.

Libertarianism: Why Do I Hate Thee

I have probably written a lot on my beefs with libertarianism, but I find I keep coming back to this theme.  So here goes one more time.  Let me count the ways.

1) It's a mask for untrammeled corporate power.  Under the guidance of the Kochs and their ilk, American libertarianism has been used to protect the depredations and outright criminality of corporate theft, murder, and environmental destruction.  See, e.g., Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

2) Similarly, it justifies the political power of corporations and vast personal fortunes, creating a ruling political aristocracy that controls the legislature and the courts.  See as above.

3) It protects one kind of collective power, that of corporations and money, while attacking any collective action of workers and others who lack great financial resources - for example, labor unions.

4) It is deeply dishonest in the way it pretends to celebrate individual freedom but actually p…

The Rich

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If poor people knew how rich the rich were, they would be rioting in the streets.......... Chris RockA new article in The Atlantic, which apparently borrows heavily from a new book by Richard V. Reeves, claims that the real problem is not the rich, but the upper middle class, defined as the 9.9%, meaning those members of the top ten per cent in wealth who are not members of the top 0.1%.  It argues somewhat persuasively that the tax code, zoning laws, labor and licensing laws, elite university admissions policies and much else have been rigged to specifically benefit those persons at the cost of everybody else.  Matthew Stewart, the author of the Atlantic piece, argues that the 9.9% constitute a new American aristocracy.

In recent decades, economic inequality has exploded in the US, and economic mobility (the movement of persons from one economic level to another) has sharply declined.  Who is to blame?  The new aristocrats says Mr. Stewart.

This kind of  action deserves some kind of …

Auto Auto: Stay in Your Lane!

The attempt to construct the truly automatic automobile goes on.  We now know how the self-driving car in Arizona happened to kill the pedestrian attempting to cross the road - it knew that emergency braking was needed but its programmers had decided that such a maneuver was so important that it should be reserved for the human driver, who wasn't paying attention.  Such problems will be solved eventually, some of them, quite unfortunately, through trial and catastrophic error.

Meanwhile, back in 2018, a few automatic car features, like adaptive cruise control, have crept into the mainstream and work reasonably well, if the driver remembers when they are on and when not.  Another one, automatic lane keeping, seems to really suck.

I have one of these vehicles, and have test driven a number of different brands, and, so far as I can tell, none of them work very well.  That opinion seems to be widely shared.  Among other problems, they seem to fail utterly at keeping one in the center …

Fumble Fingers

Our bumbler-in-chief managed to blow up whatever chance there for some kind of settlement with North Korea.  I was never very optimistic about its chances, but they went rapidly to zero as soon as John "Libya Solution" Bolton opened his mouth.

The BIC is reputed to be a pretty good golfer.  I wonder how he manages to avoid hitting himself in the head with every shot.

Quotas

There is no more fraught question in biology, anthropology and sociology than the question of differences in cognition, behavior, and other traits that may be correlated with ancestry. David Reich, in his new book, Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past, is brave enough to tell us that we should be prepared to confront such possibilities.  He notes, for example, that world championship level sprint events are utterly dominated by persons of West African ancestry.  He is not prepared to attribute that to intrinsic genetic superiority across the board though, noting that West Africans are more genetically diverse than Europeans or Asians, and consequently may well exhibit a wide range of abilities, as I'm sure they do.  

Unfortunately I don't know of any data on the world's slowest sprinters, broken down by ancestral population, so we can't really tell.  I don't think the diversity argument is crazy though, and some really fa…

More Than One Demon

I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates on Kanye West.  It was a very good piece, but not because it said much about Kanye.  The good stuff was mostly about Coates.  An early theme is Michael Jackson, and the terrible disappointment of concluding that Jackson desperately wanted to be white.  The trouble with Kanye, says Coates, is just the same.  That's why, he thinks, that Kanye says stupid stuff about liking and identifying with Trump, and slavery being "a choice."

Of course, he also realizes that Kanye doesn't know a whole heck of a lot about history, or politics, or other things precious to intellectuals like himself.

I think Mr. Coates is locked into a demonology that really only has room for white people, and while I can't fault him for being fixated on oppression of black people and other minorities, it may limit his insight into the psychology on Kanye, many of whose demons seem to be those common to all of the human race.  That might well be the case for Jackso…

Western Conference Finals

The Houston Rockets who absorbed a beat down in game 1 were not recognizable in game 2.  Neither were the Golden State Warriors who had administered it.  Game 2 was the turn for the Rockets to have defensive intensity, and, especially, to cut and pass.  At the same time GS lost those abilities - passes became turnovers and they started playing one man ball.  The Warriors got crushed in rebounding and assists.

Right now I have no clue who is going to win this - but both teams have shown they know how to lose it.  Both Curry and Paul seem a bit hobbled, but so far Chris looks better.

The Zionist Disaster

The opening of the American Embassy in Jerusalem was the occasion of a massive protest at the walls of the Gaza prison camp, and dozens of Palestinians were slaughtered and well over a thousand wounded.  Such is the cost of Israel's apartheid policy.  One trouble with Zionism is that Israel was begun just when colonialism was going out of fashion - it was starting to become unpopular to seize the lands of militarily weaker people and and exterminate or crush them.  Another problem was that Israel was embedded in a larger culture that was profoundly hostile.

Israel has always had a superior PR department, and the newspapers are all full of stories blaming Hamas - if only they hadn't encouraged Palestinians to try to escape their prison, they wouldn't be dead or missing shot off limbs.  That is true, I suppose, but the fact that people are desperate enough to protest where there is likelihood of death or catastrophic injury is not something conjured out of thin air.

Under Ne…

The Unity of the Virtues

Plato believed in the unity of the virtues.  He claimed that you couldn't have some without having them all.  I'm listening to some great Wagner while I write this.  Wagner was an odious asshole, but he wrote great music.  As it happens, a lot of great artists, and others, were nasty pieces of work in their personal lives.  JFK, and likely Bill Clinton, seem to have been serial sexual abusers.

I'm pretty sure that Plato was deluded on this point.  He seems to have believed that virtue originated in an intellectual appreciation of the form of the best, and that anyone who truly knew what the virtuous course was would follow it.  He didn't believe in the possibility of weakness of will or ακρισία, acting against one's better judgement.  At least to those of us mortals suffering from that disease, this is a very weird belief to have.

Bad behavior seems to be rampant in men with a lot of power.  The most obvious explanation is that as Lord Acton proclaimed, power corrup…