Bad Content vs. Good

So I was reading this interesting article on “The Journalistic Tattletale Industry,” by Glenn Greenwald, recommended by a friend, and came across this quote:

The article itself is about how these people have become censorious hall monitors who go crying to the principal if they think you even breathed a bad word, and Oliver here is one of these whiny hall monitors, demanding that “Big Tech” change its algorithms to stop bad-faith actors.

That said, Oliver here has stumbled onto something interesting: all systems are vulnerable to gaming by unscrupulous actors.

Let’s look at ecosystems, for example. Here you are, a nice, innocent rabbit, eating grass, feeding your bunnies, when bam! a hawk swoops down and just takes advantage of all your hard work and f’ing EATS YOU. If I were a rabbit, I’d be royally pissed for those few seconds before the hawk tears my head off.

Or, from a different perspective, here you are, a good, hard-working hawk, bringing food home to your chicks, when some sneaky bastard parasite infects you and starts eating your food. Here you did all the hard work to catch that food, and now that tapeworm is just lying there, doing nothing and absorbing your nutrients.

Ask anyone who’s ever lived in a “planned society”: actually getting societies to work and be good, pleasant places to live in is difficult. Just look at the issues people had in the Soviet Union, the city of Brasilia, or any cult. Even if everyone starts off with good intentions, (which they often don’t,) things have a habit of going wrong in unexpected ways.

Every society involves planning to some extent–even in very simple societies, some large-scale decisions that affect the whole group have to be made, like “we are going to the watering hole today,” or “we’re going to hunt for game over in that valley instead of this one.” The Soviet Union stands as an example of an extensively planned society, but many ordinary societies struggle with mundane issues like police bribery or the red tape.

One of the big problems with discussing cheaters, parasites, and social defectors is that you have to think about the problem on two levels. On the ground level, ordinary people have to morally disdain cheaters and defectors and parasites and refuse to work with them. They need to view them with disgust and react accordingly, because this makes it much harder for cheaters to operate.

On the planning level, you have to abandon the notion of parasites as free-willed agents who can just be convinced to behave if you just exhort them and ask why the system creates conditions where cheaters and parasites thrive in the first place.

For example, if you make regulations and red-tape so onerous that honest businessmen simply can’t operate in the market, then you get an extensive black market. Here the ultimate solution isn’t “encourage black-market merchants to be better people,” nor “exhort ordinary people to avoid black markets,” (though these are still good things to do,) nor “execute the black-market merchants,” but “take some of the regulatory burden off honest businessmen so they can turn a profit.”

So if you’re concluding that bad content thrives on these platforms (a take I agree with, though I define “bad content” differently than Oliver does,) then you need to ask why this bad content is so popular. No one designed the algorithms with “spread bad content” in mind, after all.

Personally, I’m inclined to think that “bad content” is mostly a side effect of these being systems where you talk/listen to a bunch of strangers. You don’t know them and they don’t know you. The ordinary consequences of lying to or hurting someone in your community are largely non-existent on the internet, or vastly distorted. And the best solution I’ve come up with so far (ironically, since this is a blog,) is for most people to avoid spending a lot of time interacting with strangers on the internet. If you’re addicted to Twitter, just send rude comments to the right people and they’ll do you the service of kicking you off the platform for you. Limit your Facebook to actual, real-life friends and family, if you must. Use the internet to organize real-life events like meetups or hikes or parties for your dog, especially once this stupid pandemic is over, but keep it grounded in the real. Love your families, value your friends, and have some children, for goodness’ sakes.

Modernity selects for those who resist it, after all.

Avoiding hyperstimuli

Hyperstimuli are like regular stimuli, but turned up to 11. Fruit contains naturally occurring fruit sugars, which your body craves because sugar is an important energy source and fruit is full of valuable nutrients. Fruit is a natural stimulus. Candy is made from a vegetable, sugarcane, that has had all of the annoying fibrous vegetable part stripped away and been refined down to a pure, sugary, chemical substance. Running is normal; riding a rollercoaster is not. Chatting with your friends is a normal social interaction; getting a thousand likes on Facebook is not.

Most of us have happiness “setpoints” that we tend to return to after weathering the slings and arrows of fate and fortune. Some of us tend to be happy people, facing misfortune with confidence that things will turn out; some of us tend to be dour, facing happiness as a trial to be endured until misery returns. Of course there are exceptions and things that really do radically alter your life (“I’m not starving anymore! Yay!”) but for most of us, most of the time, will trend back to our normal moods.

This implies that the hyperstimuli in your life are not really making you any happier. Long-term, you are no happier eating hamburgers and pizza than you would be eating rice and beans, because you adjust to the presence of the hyperstimulus and downgrade to treating it like a normal stimulus. Pizza once a year is a feast. Pizza once a month is fun. Pizza every day is monotonous.

But once your brain is used to processing hyperstimuli like normal stimuli, regular stimuli look pale and boring by comparison. If you can have ice cream and cookies and hamburgers and pizza for dinner, why would you have rice and beans? Oh, sure, you know rice and beans are “better” for you. You have some sense that you’d weigh a lot less on rice and beans, and that you’d spend a lot less on food. You might even avoid a heart attack. Abstractly, these are all nice things, but rice and beans are boring. You don’t want rice and beans. You want pizza.

Of course, maybe if you’d never started eating hyperstimulating food every day in the first place, you’d think a good plate of rice with a side of nicely spiced beans was pretty nice.

Everyone’s a Conspiracy Theorist, now

We live in interesting times. The internet was supposed to usher in an era of increased knowledge, understanding, and maybe even human harmony. Instead it has turned us all into conspiracy theorists.

Don’t get hoity-toity and claim that it’s only those Bad Guys over on the other side of the aisle who believe in conspiracies. The Left believes that the country is run by a secret cabal of heterosexual white men whose tentacles reach into every aspect of life, from prenatal care to television to incarceration. As conspiracies go, this one is well-established and believed to some degree by nearly everyone on the Left; millions of dollars have been funneled into university research departments for the purpose of “uncovering” more evidence of this secret cabal’s universal reach.

The Right’s beliefs are far more heterogenous–unlike the left, they struggle to pick a single enemy to blame and focus all of their attacks on–but right now they are united in their belief that Democrats cheated and stole the election. This right-wing conspiracy is nearly identical to the left-wing conspiracy of 4 years ago that Russia stole the election. If any leftists are reading this, I hope you realize now just how dumb your Putin conspiracies sounded and I hope you sincerely regret the billions of taxpayer dollars you guys spent investigating that nonsense. There are people struggling to pay rent and buy food, you know.

Ahem.

To be clear, just because something is a conspiracy doesn’t make it wrong. People have conspired in the past; people will conspire in the future. Sometimes there genuinely is something going on. Most of the time, though, people aren’t conspiring in the way we typically use the word. People look out for themselves. They make backroom deals; they protect their turf. They grift and graft and try to cover up incompetence. Things aren’t done in “secret” so much as “most people don’t have time to keep track of all of the boring details.”

Unfortunately, if you yourself do not know much about a field, it is rather difficult to distinguish between someone who actually knows a lot about that field and someone who merely sounds like they know about that field. If you have any expertise in any field, you have probably noticed both people who think they know a lot about your field when they actually don’t and also people who believe these fakers. Many normal people simply can’t distinguish between actual expertise and things that sound like expertise.

The situation only gets worse when the popular view of a field is already incorrect. Take, for an historical example, heliocentrism versus geocentrism. If you were an ordinary person in Gallileo’s age, you’d know in your bones that geocentrism was obviously correct. Things don’t move unless you push them, and what’s going around pushing the Earth? You’ve moved–you walked and run, ridden horses and ridden in carts–and you know what movement feels like. It feels like an earthquake, which clearly doesn’t happen every day. Any idiot can look up at the sky and notice that the clouds, sun, moon, planets, and stars all clearly go around the Earth. This is all common sense. The idea that some ivory-tower mathematicians have invented a “new math” (lolwut) and used it to determine that the Earth is secretly moving but you can’t feel it because *handwaves* “You only feel acceleration and deceleration, not steady movement, I have never ridden on a horse,” is clearly just nerds making stuff up.

From the inside, any particular worldview provides detailed and accurate explanations of the universe around it, and from the outside, looks silly. Why did it rain? Well, because we did a rain dance / because the Crocodile God was angry / because energy from the sun sucked water from the ocean into the air as invisible water, and then a low pressure zone in Canada made the air flow over to your neighborhood and as the air moved uphill, it lost the ability to hold up the water and it formed into clouds and rained. Why didn’t it rain again today? You did the rain dance wrong / your sacrifice to the Crocodile God made him happy / Canada warmed up.

My mother has recently become very enthusiastic about Qanon. I don’t consider this a problem–she’s bored because of Covid and it gives her something to do–but it is fascinating to watch which ideas she finds credible and which ones she doesn’t. Of course, most conspiracies contain, at their hearts, some grain of truth. Does the Vatican have a pedophile problem? Well, yes. Is the Roman Catholic Church something like a huge international network of powerful pedophiles working together to protect each other from prosecution? Well, that’s not exactly the first definition I’d give of it, but I can see how someone who was abused by a priest as a child might see it that way. Did the Pope hack the US election in order to get Trump out of office before he shuts down the Vatican’s Satanic international child trafficking ring? I have serious doubts.

Good luck disabusing a Qanon fan of their favorite conspiracy theories: Q is internally consistent enough to provide explanations for all observed phenomena, and before you start, you’ll have to do a bunch of research on your own to figure out which of their claims are actually true and which aren’t supported by the evidence. Then you’ll have to come up with a good explanation for “why all of these seemingly trustworthy people are lying” and a bunch of alternative explanations for all of the pro-Q evidence, at which point you are trying to convince your friend that there exists a secret conspiracy of people on the internet who completely fabricated this entire Qanon thing for years and tricked her into believing it for no discernable reason other than “the lols” or maybe ad revenue, at which point you sound like the crazy conspiracy theorist.

And the exact same is true on the Left. Just try to convince them that there is not actually a great big conspiracy of white men trying to oppress them and you’ll get an endless stream of “what about this” and “you’re wrong about this minor point” and “here’s a psych study that was conducted by totally unbiased researchers that proves babies are racist.”

Bizarre effect of the internet: everyone now believes in conspiracies.

New Year, New President

My husband made a good point yesterday, that an historian a hundred years from now could reasonably argue that Trump was never truly president because he was never allowed by the rest of the system to assume full power. For these four years America has been essentially sans-president.

The system has chosen Biden; never mind whether it reflects the will of the voters–if we cared about true democracy, we wouldn’t have an electoral college, either. The rule isn’t “no cheating,” the rule is “only do as much cheating as you can get away with.”

Of course it is better if the cheating is done behind closed doors, so it doesn’t undermine the legitimacy of the system, but the system was already having serious legitimacy issues due to the rest of the government having a serious allergic reaction to Trump.

The Specter of Morality

I think one of the problems with the teaching of history/our understanding of morality is that we look back on he past and think, “Oh it’s so OBVIOUS that X was evil, only evil people could have supported X. If I lived back then, I’d have been a good person who opposed X.”

For example, most people today think the Nazis were evil. Not just run of the mill evil, like shoplifters or people who kick animals, but cartoonishly, over-the-top, literal-Satan evil. Similarly, they also think that slavery was deeply, horrifically evil. Most people think that, had they lived in Nazi Germany or in antebellum America, they’d have opposed these evils–if not vociferously, then at least privately. Sure, other people–bad people–might have supported these evils, but we of course would have had the moral clarity and fortitude to believe the very obviously right things.

The thing history class tries to tell you, but really doesn’t get across, is that if X is widespread, then a majority of people probably think X is good. If you lived back then, you’d either think X was okay, or secretly question whether maybe you’re ta terrible person for not agreeing with X.

You think you’d be triumphant, the only good person on your block who sees through the lies. Instead you’d feel like you were going slightly crazy, wondering why you’re really the only person who can’t see the Emperor’s Clothes. And when you gently broach the subject with your friends, like as not, they make it clear that you are definitely a terrible person for even entertaining such thoughts.

And you don’t necessarily know whether your friends actually think you’re a terrible person, or if they’re just preemptively declaring, just in case anyone else is listening, that they are definitely not a terrible person like you and shouldn’t be lumped in with you, please don’t hurt me.

The difficulty lies in our social natures. If society declares that X is good and Y is bad, then unless you’re highly isolated or have some form of mental disability, then chances are good that you are sensitive to society’s judgements. Society’s morals underlie many things you (typically) don’t even realize are part of your belief system, like which historical figures make it into the textbooks. (Have you ever read a hagiography devoted to the guy who invented the seatbelt, thanking him for saving millions of people’s lives?) No one has the time to go read first-hand accounts of every historical event and reconstruct all of their ideas from scratch.

Anyway, Happy New Year, everyone. Sorry the blog has been quiet, lately.

Masks

One of the interesting effects of the pandemic has been the opportunity to watch formerly neutral, unpolitical things get marked as “political” and people who formerly had no opinion on them at all throw themselves onto one side or the other as though they had deep, long-standing commitments on the issue. (We have always been at war with Eastasia.)

Whether or not people should wear masks in order to slow the spread of SARS-Coronavirus-2, (the name of the disease is itself a victim of political vicissitudes, shortened to just “coronavirus” by the WHO explicitly so that people would not take it seriously,) has transformed from a matter of austere medical debate to an issue of such pressing concern that a question on the subject was actually posed to the candidates at the first presidential debate.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather my health policies, pro or con, to be motivated by something other than the sheer naked political process involved in presidential campaigns.

Side note: the American political system was explicitly set up with the intention of preventing any one person or branch of government from wielding too much power. Debate that intention and its functional persistence in our modern system as you will, but it is clear that there is still enough plasticity left to correct for a great many deficits in any particular leader (which is good, because our leaders are mortal men with many, many deficits).

If Trump does not order a mask mandate, then so what? Wear your own mask if you want to. Shop at businesses where the employees wear masks. Sew cute masks for your relatives. Prompt your local legislature to pass mask laws. Etc. There are many, many options here that don’t involve executive orders.

The idea of a national mask mandate is rather silly, because different people live in different places with different needs. A man in Montana who sees more cows than people in his day may not get any use out of a mask, while a man in New York who rides the subway every day may have benefitted from wearing a mask three years ago.

Masks should not be a political issue and it certainly should not hinge on the whims of one man.

Frankly, I don’t think anyone (much less mask enthusiasts) expects our current president to make medical policy, nor do they want him to. I care a lot more about our president’s opinions on trade and monetary policy than his opinions about medical advice (I’ll ask my doctor for medical advice, thankyouverymuch.)

Rather, I read the question as less about medical policy and more about political tribalism: “Here are the new shibboleths of my tribe. Will you accept them, or do you reject them?”

As a new shibboleth, masks have gone through a radical political transformation since last January. At first, they were not something we thought about at all: completely neutral, a-political objects. Surgeons wore them at hospitals, motorcyclists wore them to keep bugs out of their mouths; painters wore them to avoid fumes; skiers wore them to stay warm. Occasionally you saw a photo of someone wearing a mask on the subway in China or Japan, but that was just something done over there: someone else’s customs.

Then came the SARS-2. Wuhan shut down. Alarming videos showed the Chinese police dragging people into quarantine and welding apartments shut. In the States, only the Very Online were aware of the pandemic at this point. It was obvious that whatever was going on, the Chinese took it very seriously, and this itself was concerning. Were they over-reacting, or was it actually that bad?

This was when hazmat Twitter was born. These were the folks who photoshopped hazmat suits onto their avatars and, within a few weeks, became the first to don masks in real life, adopting the habit from Asia. Hazmat Twitter was arguably motivated by right-wing concerns about foreign infection vectors, but it was also, by modern leftist standards, completely right.

Amusingly, at this point, health “experts” in the US, being career bureaucrats interested in protecting their own piece of the bureaucratic pie and not Very Online, had no idea why people were suddenly upset over some random virus in China and adopting what they no doubt saw as a strange foreign custom–hence the early PSAs advising us that masks don’t work, there’s no need to wear a mask if you don’t feel ill, and that racism is the real virus.

Then we got the videos out of Spain and Italy. Clearly this would not be a repeat of SARS-1, which was bad enough. The virus was actually spreading. Even first world hospitals were overwhelmed. Then the virus came to New York and Seattle. Within weeks, the president ordered an international travel shutdown.

This post is not meant to be a full retrospective of covid policies. We’re here to talk about masks. It was when New York hospitals started filling up that people really started taking this seriously. Suddenly that mask idea stopped seeming so dumb. That’s when masks went from being a far right-wing thing to a mainstream thing. My health-obsessed normie Republican relatives, for example, decided that masks are awesome and spent the next two months lecturing me about them non-stop (despite the fact that I do not actually go places where I would need one).

But politicians and grifters (is there a difference?) are never content to let a good issue go to waste, and folks like Anne Coulter quickly jumped on the opportunity to make a political buck by opposing the issue of the day. And if Coulter was opposed to masks, good liberals must be in favor of them.

Likewise, since the worst outbreaks were in major cities, the people who felt the most pressing need to wear masks (for their own and others’ sakes), were city-dwelling liberals. Those of us out in the suburbs or the countryside, who don’t use public transportation and encounter a lot fewer strangers in our day-to-day lives, naturally feel less inclined to fear a spray of germs every time we leave the house.

Outside the internet, where people feel compelled to make every darn thing political, I think normies of all political stripes basically still favor wearing masks in appropriate situations, with variations only in what those situations are. Eg, this poll back in July found 3/4s of respondents favored mask mandates. Dems did like masks better than Republicans, 89% of them favored masks, as opposed to only 58% of Republicans, but that was still a majority.

So we have a real difference in the need for masks, and a real difference in preferences for masks that break down along political lines, but if it weren’t for the internet, we probably wouldn’t really notice and would go about our own business, taking care of our health problems as best we can, unconcerned that some guy on the other side of the country might sneeze on us.

The evolution of the morality around masks has also been interesting to watch. I feel like I finally really understanding what’s going on in Muslim communities when people talk about the necessity of wearing hijabs or burqas.

The early masks, as adopted by hazmat Twitter, were worn to protect the wearer. This is sensible and straight-forward: no one wants to catch SARS2.

But as the vogue for masking spread, society started running out of the good masks (and besides, people wanted to reserve them for hospital workers). So people had to make do with the smaller, flimsier masks, the ones that obviously don’t block much air at all. Here the rationale changed. Masks were no longer for your own protection, but to protect others.

Why wear a hijab? So the sight of a beautiful woman does not cause a man to feel sexual attraction for someone who is not his wife. The hijab prevents sin from happening. (Note: this is not the only reason for Islamic veiling. Islam is a big religion with many religious teachings.) Why wear a mask? So that if you have covid, virus-laden spittle from your mouth is stopped by the mask. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of standing too close to someone who regularly spits while talking, you understand the idea.

The rationale here for masks and hijabs are the same: they are morally required because, despite being an imposition to the wearer, they prevent the wearer from inadvertently harming others. The mask prevents the harm of catching corona, while the hijab prevents sin. Sin, of course, leads to suffering in Hell, which to a believer is a fate worse than COVID.

Well, it’s been an interesting year. What do you think?

Color Wheel Frustration

Crayola tempera paintRemember the color wheel?

When you were a kid, your art teacher probably taught you the standard color wheel: If you have red, blue, and yellow paint, you can combine them to make any color (except black, white, gold, silver, magenta, neon anything…) Okay, almost any color. Red + Blue = Purple, Blue + Yellow = Green, and Red + Yellow = Orange. Mix all three, and you get Brown.

mixed paint But if you’ve ever picked up a standard set of kids’ tempera paints and tried to mix them, you’ve probably noticed that things aren’t quite this simple.

Here are the results of mixing red, blue, and yellow. The green looks pretty good. The orange is still red, and the “purple” is terrible. No, that’s not your monitor messing up. It is actually almost black.

This happens because the red and blue in these kits aren’t actually primary colors. The real primary colors are yellow, cyan, and magenta. Why were we taught that red and blue are primary paint colors in school? I don’t know. I suspect it’s because teachers think little kids understand red and blue but don’t know what “cyan” and “magenta” are, (though if you’ve ever discussed dinosaurs with a four year old, you’ve know that kids know lots of big words).

Thankfully, if you are cursed with red, yellow, and blue, you can improve your results.

The blues that come in standard kids’ paints tend to be very dark, and the reds are dark compared to the yellow. Yellow is, by nature, very light. If you try to mix equal quantities of these pigments, the dark colors will overwhelm the light ones.

Add white to lighten the blues and reds, then increase the amount of yellow in the orange and red in the purple:

Why bother with the white? Even though you are adding paint, paint is essentially subtractive. Paint works by absorbing most of the light that strikes it and only reflecting a few particular wavelengths. When you mix paints, you don’t increase the range of light reflected, but narrow it: you’re now blocking two paints’ worth of colors. This is why our purple looks almost black.

So if you’ve mixed your colors and the result is still too dark, add some white.

The purple is still pretty blah, but purple is hard. We didn’t even invent good, cheap purple paint until the 1800s. (Before then, purple was expensive, which is why it was associated with kings.) Don’t feel bad if you can’t get a good purple and just buy purple paint.

brown?Now let’s talk about brown. Here is the brown I get when I mix all three colors.

Yeah. That’s awful.

I remember being very frustrated as kid because no matter how I mixed my red, blue, and yellow, I just got disgusting colors that didn’t even deserve the name “brown.”

brownThere is a much easier and better way to make brown: add a touch of black to your orange. Yes, the orange. Brown is actually dark orange.

Here you go: orange + black. See? Isn’t that better? Now we’ve got a color that could grace a tasty bar of chocolate, a friendly dog, or a wooden table.

Why is brown dark orange? That’s a good question. I’m not sure, but I think it has to do with how our eyes physically perceive color.

Dark blue and light blue are both good, recognizable colors.
Dark red and light red are both good colors.
Dark green and light green are both good colors.

Dark yellow isn’t a thing. Try it. Mix yellow+black. Now you’ve got olive, not yellow.

And dark orange, as we’ve discussed, is brown.

You might have noticed that when people talk about light, instead of paint, they use a different set of primary colors: blue, red, and green. Yes, blue and red are actually the primary colors of light. Light is additive: if you put more light in, you get more light out. Mix all of the colors of light together and you get white light, like the sun. The sun makes a lot of light.

The cones in your eyes are optimized to detect particular wavelengths of light. They tell your brain what they’ve detected, and your brain constructs an image that you perceive as color. Our cones are optimized to perceive red, green, and blue light.

Yellow light is made by mixing red and green, so when you perceive yellow, both red and green cones are activating at the same time. Orange is the same story, but with a more red activation.

A “dark” version of a color is just a version that is emitting/reflecting less light. I suspect that when you see “dark green,” you are activating fewer of your green receptors, but still activating some of them, so your brain gets a clear signal that says “green.” When you see dark red, the same thing happens. But in order to see yellow and orange, you need to activate both receptors. I suspect that when you see dark yellow and dark orange, not enough of both red and green get activated to send a clear picture to your brain. What you end up with is, essentially, a degraded signal: brown.

You can degrade signals in other ways–by just blocking out a lot of the colors, as when you mix all of the paints, for example–but it’s faster and easier to work with orange. (And that’s definitely the technique you’ll use if you’re coloring on a computer.)

Good luck and happy painting.

More on primary colors of light and paint

Great video.

Conspiracy Theory Theory

Our ancestors–probably long before they were even human–had to differentiate between living and non-living things. Living things can be eaten (and, importantly, can eat you back); non-living generally taste bad, can’t be eaten, and won’t try to eat you.

This is a task of such essential importance that I think it is basically an innate ability common to all thinking animals. Rabbits and fish need to distinguish between living things; both need to know whether the lump over there is a rock or a predator, after all. And we humans don’t have to explain to our children that cats and dogs are alive but tables aren’t. (Indeed, a defect in this ability that caused a person to regard tables as alive or other people as not is remarkable–and dangerous–when it happens.)

It is easy to divide most things into living and non-living. Living things move and grow; non-living things do not. Rabbits move. Rocks don’t. (Plants don’t move much, but they do grow. They’re also helpfully color-coded.)

But what about non-living things that nonetheless move and grow, like rivers or clouds? You can’t catch a cloud; you can’t eat it; but it still has a behavior that we can talk about, eg: “The clouds are building up on the horizon,” “The clouds moved in from the east,” “The clouds faded away.” Clouds and stars, sun and moon, rivers and tides all have their particular behaviors, unlike rocks, dirt, and fallen logs.

When it comes to mistakes along the living/non-living boundary, it is clearly better to mistakenly believe that something might be alive than to assume that it isn’t. If I mistake a rock for a lion, I will probably live until tomorrow, but if I mistake a lion for a rock, I very well may not. So we are probably inclined to treat anything that basically moves and behaves like a living thing as a living thing, at least until we have more information about it.

And thus our ancestors, who had no information about how or why the sun moved through the sky, were left to conclude that the sun was either a conscious being that moved because it wanted to, or was at least controlled by such a being. Same for the moon and the stars, the rivers and tides.

Moreover, these being were clearly more powerful than men, especially ancient men. We cannot catch the sun; we live at mercy of the wind and the rain. Rivers can sweep us away and sudden storms dash boats to pieces. We live or die according to their whims.

So ancient man believed these things were sentient, called them “gods” (or devils) and attempted to placate them through sacrifice and prayer.

Centuries of scientific research have gradually uncovered the secrets of the universe. We’ve figured out why the sun appears to move as it does, why clouds form, and that frogs aren’t actually generated by mud. We’ve also figured out that the “influence” (influenza, in Italian) of the stars doesn’t actually cause sickness, though the name persists.

We know better rationally, but the instinct to ascribe personhood to certain inanimate objects still persists: it’s why programs like Thomas the Tank Engine are so popular with children. Trains move, therefore trains are alive and must have feelings and personalities. It’s why I have to remind myself occasionally that Pluto is an icy space rock and doesn’t actually feel sad about being demoted from planet to planetoid.

If something acts like a conscious thing and talks like a conscious thing, we’re still liable to treat it like a conscious thing–even if we know it’s not.

Today, the vast implacable forces that rain down on people’s lives are less the weather and more often organizations like the IRS or the local grocery store. These organizations clearly “do” things on purpose, because they were set up with that intention. The grocery store sells groceries. The IRS audits your taxes. Wendy’s posts on Twitter. The US invades other countries.

If organizations act like conscious entities, then it is natural for people to think of them as conscious entities, even though we know they are actually made of hundreds or thousands of individual people (many of whom don’t even like their jobs) executing to various degrees of accuracy the instructions and procedures laid down for them by their bosses and predecessors for how to get things done. The bag boy at the grocery store does not think about lofty matters like “how to get food from the farm to the table,” he merely puts the groceries in the bags, with an eye toward not breaking the eggs and not using too many bags.

Human institutions often become so big that no one has effective control over them anymore. One side has no idea how the other side is operating. An organization may forget its original purpose entirely, eg, MTV’s transition away from music videos and The Learning’ Channel’s away from anything educational.

When this happens, their behavior begins to look erratic. Why would an organization do anything counter to its stated purpose? The answer that it’s because no one is actually running the show, the entire organization is just a lose network of people all following the instructions of their little part without any oversight or ability to affect the overall whole and the entire machinery has gone completely out of kilter is dissatisfying to people; since the organization looks like a conscious thing, then it must be a conscious thing, and they must therefore have reasons for their behavior.

Trying to explain organizations’ behaviors in terms of conscious intent gets us quickly into the realm of conspiracy theories. For example, I am sure you have all heard the claim that, “Cheap cancer cures exist, but doctors don’t want you to know about them because they want to keep you sick for longer so they can sell you more expensive medicines.” Well, this is kind of half-true. The true part is that the medical system is biased toward more expensive medications, but not because doctors make more from them. (If you could prove that you can cure cancer with, say, a mega-dose of Vitamin C, the vitamin companies would be absolutely thrilled to bring “Cancer Bustin’ Vit C” to market.) The not-true part is the idea that this is all being done intentionally.

Doctors can only prescribe medications that have official FDA approval. This keeps patients safe from quackery and keeps doctors safe(er) from the possibility of getting sued if their treatments don’t work or have unexpected side effects.

FDA approval is difficult to get. The process requires long and rigorous medical trials to ensure that medications are safe and effective. Long, rigorous medical trials are expensive.

As a result, pharmaceutical companies only want to spend millions of dollars on medical trials for drugs that they think they have the potential to make millions of dollars. Any drug company that tried spending millions of dollars on cheap treatments that they can’t sell for millions of dollars would quickly go out of business.

To sum:

  1. Doctors can only prescribe FDA-approved treatments
  2. The FDA requires long, rigorous trials to make sure treatments are safe
  3. Long trials are expensive
  4. Drug companies therefore prefer to do expensive trials only on expensive drugs they can actually make money on.

None designed this system with the intention of keeping cheap medical treatments off the market because no one designed the system in the first place. It was assembled bit by bit over the course of a hundred years by different people from different organizations with different interests. It is the sum total of thousands (maybe millions) of people’s decisions, most of which made sense at the time.

That said, the system actually does make it harder for patients to get cheap medical treatments. The fact that this consequence is unintended does not make it any less real (or important).

There are, unfortunately, plenty of people who only focus on each particular step in the process, decide that each step is justified, and conclude that the net results must therefore also be justified without ever looking at those results. This is kind of the opposite of over-ascribing intention to organizations, a failure to acknowledge that unintended, emergent behavior of organizations exist and have real consequences. These sorts of people will generally harp on the justification for particular rules and insist that these justifications are so important that they override any greater concern. For example, they will insist that it is vital that drug trials cost millions of dollars in order to protect patients from potential medical side effects, while ignoring patients who died because drug companies couldn’t afford to develop treatments for their disorder.

But back to conspiracy theories: when organizations act like conscious creatures, it is very natural to think that they actually are conscious or at least are controlled by by conscious, intentional beings. It’s much more satisfying, frankly, than just assuming that they are made up of random people who actually have no idea what they’re doing.

Now that I think about it, this is all very fundamental to the principle ideas underlying this blog: organizations act like conscious creatures and are subject to many of the same biological rules as conscious creatures, but do not possess true consciousness.

Businesses, for example, must make enough money to cover their operating expenses, just as animals must eat enough calories to power their bodies. If one restaurant produces tasty food more efficiently than its competitor, thus making more money, then it will tend to outcompete and replace that competitor. Restaurants that cannot make enough money go out of business quickly.

Similarly, countries must procure enough food/energy to feed their people, or mass starvation will occur. They must also be strong enough to defend themselves against other countries, just as animals have to make sure other animals don’t eat them.

Since these organizations act like conscious creatures, it is a convenient shorthand to talk about them as though they were conscious. We say things like, “The US invaded Vietnam,” even though the US as a whole never decided that it would be a good idea to invade Vietnam and then went and did so. (The president has a major role in US foreign policy, but he doesn’t act alone.)

Most systems/organizations don’t have anyone that’s truly in charge. We can talk about “the American medical system,” but there is no one who runs the American medical system. We can talk about “the media,” but there is no one in charge of the media; no one decided one day that we were switching from paper newspapers to online click-bait. We talk about “society,” but no one is in charge of society.

This is not to say that organizations never have anyone in charge: tons of them do. Small businesses and departments in particular tend to have someone running them and goals they are trying to accomplish. I’m also not saying that conspiracies never happen: of course they do. These are just general observations about the general behavior of organized human groups: they can act like living creatures and are subject to many of the same rules as living creatures, which makes us inclined to think of them as conscious even when they aren’t.

Review: Clean House, by Tom Fitton

While trapped in limbo with no internet, I read, well, the only thing available that wasn’t about cancer (thankfully I don’t have cancer), Tom Fitton’s Clean House: Exposing our government’s secrets and lies.

Overall: This book is four years old and kind of boring. It makes some interesting points, however, which I will try to summarize for you.

The good: It’s a fairly comprehensive review of the major scandals of the Obama Administration/government during Obama’s term.

Cons: The book doesn’t provide a solid comparison of the Obama admin to other administrations, and a lot of the stuff it tries to make political hay over seems like ordinary bureaucratic crud.

Why even bother with reading a book about old scandals? Aside from the lack of choice in the matter (I suppose I could have done more crosswords,) it is good to occasionally look back at the things we were previously concerned about and evaluate whether our concerns were justified or not. Did that thing turn out to actually be a big deal, or did it fizzle away?

One thing you’ll immediately note is that pretty much all of this has faded away. Remember the scandal about Hillary Clinton’s private email server? Well, the server didn’t disappear; we just don’t hear anything about it anymore. It was a political tool for one side to wield against the other side during an election, and once it had served its purpose, it was dropped.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Hillary’s server stopped mattering. Whether it ever actually mattered from a practical, legal, or national security standpoint remains whether it’s a useful political bludgeon or not.

The author, Tom Fitton, is president of Judicial Watch, an organization that exists for the purpose of filing FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests. They seem to target primarily liberal administrations; it would have been good if the book gave more details about anything from the Bush administration for comparison.

The scandals outlined in the book cover Hillary Clinton’s email server, Benghazi, the ATF’s “Fast and Furious” program, voter fraud, Congress and the Senate claiming to be “small businesses” to take advantage of DC taxpayers, the IRS targeting of conservative political orgs, and immigration/border enforcement. There’s also the general theme of “they keep denying our FOIA requests” that runs through the whole book.

The author makes a big deal about the Obama administration denying more FOIA requests than any previous administration, but here we are lacking some critical details, like whether the Obama admin received more FOIAs. Fitton doesn’t explore whether this increase in denials is due to some specific Obama-era policy or appointee, or if it’s just the latest incident in the incremental development of more lawyerly bureaucracies that find reasons to deny whatever you’ve filed a request for. I am personally inclined toward the latter theory, because I see the same trend everywhere in society. A form stars out as a way to request something a procedure as a way to get it done, and then they transform into a way to deny, slow down, and prevent things from getting done.

Here’s a quote from the book about “defying the inspectors general”:

The cavalier and obstructive attitude of the administration and its Justice Department was also demonstrated by the fact that agencies within the executive branch like the FBI have started refusing to comply with requests from the government’s own Inspectors General [IGs] to provide requested records, information, and documents the IGs need to conclude their investigations… In 2014, a majority of the IGs signed an unprecedented letter to Congress, complaining about the administration’s actions… asked Congress to use “all available powers” to enforce access.

Of course, this is not necessarily Obama’s fault–many government employees are career guys who work for many administrations or enforcing policies set up by their predecessors. I get annoyed when people attribute to the “X administration” things that really had nothing to do with it. Are there riots going on under Trump? Yes. Are these “Trump’s riots?” No.

I’m sure I don’t need to relate the fine details of Benghazi, which you probably know more about than I do. I did find Hillary’s first statement on the matter (at 10:08 PM) interesting, though:

Some have sought to justify this behavior as a response to inflammatory material on the internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation.

Now, this is an incredible statement on many levels, not just the obviously incendiary content (borderline 1st amendment violation, too.) But I don’t think we should take this at face value–in fact, I suspect the statement’s entire goal is to be so asinine that it distracts conservatives away from asking “Wait, what caused this?” and toward arguing about whether or not it’s appropriate for a woman who attends “spirit cooking” events to claim that the US Government has an opinion about people denigrating other people’s religious views. It certainly takes willpower not to argue against the the statement’s surface-level claims, but let’s try.

The thing we’re not supposed to notice is that the stated rationale for the attack–that it was in response to some random Youtube video–doesn’t make sense. It is more sensible to assume that the attack was a response to something more substantial, like other US actions in the Middle East (eg, the killing of Al-Qaeda’s Aboyahiye in Pakistan and a reprise of 9-11, since the attack happened on 9-11-12.) These people are terrorists/militia guys, not YouTube fans.

Here’s what I suspect was actually going on: The Obama administration wanted to support the so-called “Islamic Spring” because it was supposed to bring democracy to the Middle East, but honestly, when’s the last time a revolution in the area did anything good? (If there was one and I just haven’t heard of it, let me know.) Iran had a revolution, and look how that turned out. No, stable governments in the Middle East are generally better for their people and the rest of the world than civil war and lawless zones that get taken over by groups like ISIS.

Regardless, Obama and Hillary had decided they didn’t like governments of Syria and Libya, so they were arming the “pro democracy” forces there, which just coincidentally happened to be terrorists connected to the same terrorists who attacked the embassy in Libya. What they don’t want us to ask is, “Wait a minute, why are we funding a civil war in Libya?”

I suspect there are people somewhere in the government who really believe that we can finally have peace in the Middle East if we can just swap out this leader for that leader, much like some people think that sooner or later, their lottery number has to come up.

It never works.

If we think of human societies like natural ecosystems, then we know an ecosystem is in balance when it produces or has enough resources to feed everything in it; it goes out of balance if some disaster like a volcanic eruption or death of all of the wolves messes things up. Humans have to eat; societies also trade for useful goods and appreciate peace, health, and security. Every society tries to achieve a balance of strong enough government forces to keep people safe from invaders or local malefactors, but without harming innocent citizens or costing too much in the process.

When the US goes an mucks around with other countries, we change the balance of their ecosystems and like birds at a feeder, our inputs become part of the system. When those countries are complicated systems that we don’t understand, our involvement can quickly become a total disaster. (You can’t half-ass colonialism.)

This is where, as far as I can tell, Trump has so far done a better job than Obama (or Bush): he hasn’t gotten involved in any of these quagmires. When there was a question of Syria violating the Genevia Convention by using poison gas, he dropped a few bombs, but mostly he’s left other countries alone.

I don’t completely blame Obama for his Mid-East interventions, because many of these policies were simply continuations of terrible Bush-era policies, and it is difficult for most people to to question things that are just handed to them as received wisdom. Which is a bit of an insult to Obama’s intelligence, I suppose.

Next we have the Hillary Clinton email scandal, which you probably know all about already. It’s remarkable how quickly the media and everyone else stopped caring about Hillary’s emails once Trump got into office. The scandal does raise the question of how much technology is contributing to our notions of both secrecy and access. There wouldn’t have been any missing minutes from the Nixon Tapes had Nixon not tape recorded things in the first place. There wouldn’t be any missing Hillary emails had email not yet been invented. Just 50 years ago, before email, text messaging, and ubiquitous electronic record keeping, Washington produced far fewer documents than it does today. 100 years ago, they couldn’t have tape recorded everything; 200 years ago, they didn’t have typewriters or telegrams. What would there have been to FOIA during the Monroe administration? What if someone had tried to request all documents related to the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark’s expedition? Perhaps a law might declare that citizens have a right to attend sessions of Congress, but at what point do letters between George Washington and his cabinet become government documents? My basic inclination is that all government documents should be public by default, with exceptions only for matters of national security and the like, but this is not necessarily reasonable.

On the other hand, perhaps this new electronic media makes it easier for people to lie, because they can coordinate their stories faster.

In sum, yes, Hillary had an illegal email server and it was probably vulnerable to hacking.

The book spends a while discussing documents related to Huma Abedin’s financial disclosures, required as part of changing her job title. This sounds less like “corruption” and more like “people trying to deal with a byzantine, sclerotic bureaucracy.”

A bigger issue is whether the Clintons (Bill and Hillary) have benefited financially from their time in politics in a manner that is unseemly or inappropriate (again, it would be good here to have some comparison with other presidents and their speaking fees.)

A joint examination by the Washington Examiner and Judicial Watch found that former President Clinton gave 215 speeches and earned $48 million while his wife presided over US foreign policy.

(A former president being married to a current high-ranking government official or politician is a new arena of political morality.)

There are a few interesting bits about Bill and Epstein. Quoting an interview with Virginia Roberts (one of Epstein’s victims) from the NY Post:

…Clinton also visited Epstein’s private Caribbean retreat… “I remember asking Jeffrey [Epstein], “What’s Bill Clinton doing here?”… [He] laughed it of and said, “Well, he owes me a favor.”

And from New York magazine:

… in 2002, Clinton recruited Epstein to make his plane available for a weeklong anti-poverty tour of Africa with [a bunch of people, some of them famous, including the now-imprisoned Ghislane Maxwell].

(I wonder if they realize there’s plenty of poverty they could be touring right here in the US. 48 million dollars could go a long way toward helping foster kids get a better start in life.)

The “Fast and Furious” scandal, like some of the others, actually started under Bush II. Obama decided to expand the program, though.

In Fast and Furious, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) agents directed people known as “straw purchasers”–low level illicit weapons purchasers who work for the Mexican drug cartels’ smugglers inside the United States–to buy guns at Phoenix, Arizona-area federally licensed firearms dealers. Those guns were then smuggled into Mexico by cartel operatives, after agents let the weapons get into the hands of these cartel operatives by not tracking them. The smuggled guns continue to turn up in disturbing places. Fast and Furious weaponry was in the arsenal of two terrorists who tried to storm a cartoon convention in Dallas, Texas, in 2015 and was owned by Mexican drug lord Jaquin “El Chapo” Guzman at the time of his final 2016 arrest.

In October 2009, the ATF Phoenix Field Division created a gun-trafficking division for the purpose of funneling weapons illegally to the Mexican drug cartels.

I wonder if this program had any connection to the mysterious Las Vegas shooting, which we still haven’t learned anything about.

The point of all of this was to hopefully later use the guns to track down the larger organization that was using them, not just the guys doing the purchasing, in order to build a larger conspiracy case. Unfortunately, the program did not come with a way to effectively track the guns.

The odd thing here (well, one of the odd things) is that despite this being a local ATF program that the president normally wouldn’t be involved in one way or another, “Fast and Furious” was the only scandal in which Obama used his “executive privilege” claim to withhold documents that had been requested by the House of Representatives. The book’s best specuation here is that Obama wanted to use the program to score an anti-second amendment propaganda victory:

At the end of March 2009, Clinton visited Mexico’s capital, Mexico City… While there, Clinton gave speeches bashing American gun stores and gun owners for the violence. …

The nation’s top diplomat’s trip was much heralded in the press and was an obvious attempt by the political figures at the top of the Obama administration to mislead people into agreeing with her claim that “90 percent” of the “guns that are used by the drug cartels against the police and the military” actually “come from America.” …

Clinton’s claim is actually false. A diplomatic cable uncovered by WikiLeaks shows that 90 percent of the weapons the cartels get come from Central America or from corrupt Mexican military officials. Oftentimes cartels will raid armories in Guatemala. Or crooked Mexican military officials will split up a shipment of new rifles among their troops and the cartels. For instance, if two hundred new fully automatic AK-47s come in, a dirty military leader might give a hundred to his troops and sell the other hundred to his buddies int he cartel. …

For organized crime purposes, the guns the cartels get from Central America or from corrupt military leaders are better than what cartels could get from America. … The ATF’s own figures show that only 17 percent of the guns found at Mexican crime scenes have been traced back to the United States.

The other, more mundane theory (also put forth by the book) is that the ATF guys were trying to build up the size of their case in order to get more funding. (I suppose we are all trying to get more funding, after all. If an organization is paid to stop crime, then it naturally develops a certain interest in there being plenty of crime around for it to stop.) The only problem, of course, is that crimes had to actually be committed with the guns before the ATF guys could get their funding, and most people prefer that the ATF not try to get people shot.

The next chapter was on the push for voter ID/to clean up voter registries. I wish the author had provided some examples of actual voter fraud, rather than just invite us to imagine it. For example, there was some brazen fraud during LBJ’s senate race. I think both sides here have settled on a political stance without checking whether it actually benefits them–perhaps Democrats would actually benefit more than Republicans from requiring voter IDs, for example.

More interesting is the matter of prosecutors, who certainly have agendas:

A prime example of intimidation at the polls reveals the Obama administration’s disappointing attitude toward election crimes occurred in the 2008 federal election when two members of the New Black Panther Party stood in a doorway of a polling place in Philadelphia …

The case against the defendants was strong… but the case was abruptly curtailed and all but shut down by the newly appointed officials of the Obama administration.

Eventually some of the older lawyers left because they felt sidelined by the new guys.

Chris Coates, the chief of the voting section… was another lawyer who didn’t go along with the administration’s radical agenda and wanted to enforce voting laws in a racially neutral, non-partisan manner. The Obama administration was particularly angry at him because he had approved the filing of the voter intimidation lawsuit… Popper says the Obama administration set up an entire structure to bypass Coates… there was in essence “a shadow Justice Department” with subordinates making recommendations regarding Coates and the cases Coates should have been consulted on.

Hawaii had some incidents in which it tried to set up elections that only Native Hawaiians could vote in.

Then there’s a funny controversy where Congress and the Senate claimed to be “small businesses” employing only 45 people in order to qualify for a health insurance exchange for small businesses set up by the Washington, DC city council. In reality, the House and Senate employ over 20,000 people. 12,359 Congressional employees signed up for an exchange intended for businesses employing 50 people or fewer, totaling 86% of people enrolled. To say that they committed fraud is a bit of an understatement.

Next we have the IRS scandal, which was fairly famous in its day. Simply doing away with 90% of the tax code would solve most of this problem, of course.

IRS officials, led by Lois Lerner… issued a “Be on the lookout” [BOLO] with the criteria to be used to flag applications… whether “tea party,” “patriots,” or “9/12” were used in the organization’s name; whether the issues outlined in the application included government spending, government debt, or taxes; whether the organization was educating the public about “how to make America a better place to live” or about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; or if there was a statement b the organization criticizing how the country is being run This… went on for years.

I have also heard that the IRS targeted liberal organizations, but the book doesn’t talk about that.

… Lois Lerner sent confidential taxpayer information to the Federal Election Commission… in violation of Federal law… According to other emails obtained by Judicial Watch, she had communicated with the FBI and lawyers at the DOJ about whether it was possible for the DOJ to criminally prosecute conservative tax-exempt organizations for supposed “political activities.”

(Are they not supposed to do political activities?)

… Lerner illegally sent the FBI 21 computer disks containing 1.1 million pages of confidential information about tax-exempt organizations.

(There was also some colluding with senators about which orgs they wanted targeted and shut down.) Skipping over some details, the IRS then played the “Oops, we deleted the emails game,” even though they had backups and probably weren’t even deleted.

Judicial Watch finally obtained IRS documents that showed the IRS went to absurd lengths… to harass organizations applying for tax-exempt status, asking organizations like the Tea Party for copies of all information on its Facebook and Twitter accounts, or asking an Ohio group, American Patriots Against Government Excess, for all of the books read in their book club meeting–including a summary or book report for each of the books! …

Another IRS email thread… revealed that the inappropriately obtained donor lists were being used for a “secret research project” that because of redactions and blackouts, could not be identified. Other documents… confirmed that the IRS started using donor lists… to target donors for audits. The House Ways and Means committee announced… “nearly 1 in 10 donors were subject to audit.”

The IRS tried to get people on non-payment of a “gift tax” on donations which had been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court back around 1982. Like Hillary, Lois Lerner also conducted gov’t business on her private email account. As you might expect, the gov’t investigated itself, found it had done nothing wrong, and dropped the case without any convictions.

Nothing in the chapter points to Obama being personally involved in or knowing about the scandal ahead of time, but it was certainly done to help his side.

The next chapter is on immigration and border control. There is definitely a fundamental difference in how liberals and conservatives approach the issue, with libs taking a “the more the merrier” approach, and conservatives wanting to actually have some say over who moves to their country. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that immigrants tend to vote for the Democrats, not the Republicans, so more immigration is in the Dems’ interests.

None of the administration’s border security and extreme immigration policies should be a surprise. The administration is filled with radical political appointees like Cecilia Munoz, who joined the administration as the Director of Intergovernmental Affairs and then moved up to be the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Munoz, who was only able to join the admin after she was granted an ethics waiver from Obama’s supposed lobbyist ban, was a senior official at the National Council of La Raza. La Raza openly advocates for illegal alien sanctuary policies…

The Department of Agriculture sent the Mexican Embassy a Spanish language flyer advising Mexicans in the US that they would not need to declare their immigration status in order to get food stamps.”

Next chapter:

In May 2002, we sought information regarding Al-Qaeda as part of Judicial Watch’s terrorism Research and Analysis Project. It took the government 11 years to furnish the records we requested. … at the end of the [Bill] Clinton administration, the US disregarded an intelligence report about an Al-Qaeda plot to hijack a commercial airliner… because “nobody believed that Usama bin Laden’s organization or the Taliban could carry out such an operation…” The only reason the plot was not carried out was because the Chechen withdrew from the operation after the EU condemned Russian action in Chechniya.

Well, that’s about it for the interesting parts of the book. Judicial Watch may do valuable work (even if they’re partisan, well, there are plenty of partisans on the other side, too,) but the book itself is rather bland and, well, several years old. I hope you liked the review, though.

I’m back

Hey guys, sorry for going awol on you. I’ve been in the hospital. No, it wasn’t Covid and it’s not a baby. I did manage to write a little while I was cooped up without internet, so I’ll have something out soon. Good luck and stay healthy, everyone.