Unemployment, Disability, and Death

Source: NPR, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Security Administration
Credit: Lam Thuy Vo

I’ve been reading about the rise of disability, eg NPR’s Unfit for Work: The Startling Rise of Disability in America:

In the past three decades, the number of Americans who are on disability has skyrocketed… every month, 14 million people now get a disability check from the government. The federal government spends more money each year on cash payments for disabled former workers than it spends on food stamps and welfare combined. … The vast majority of people on federal disability do not work. Yet because they are not technically part of the labor force, they are not counted among the unemployed.

In other words, people on disability don’t show up in any of the places we usually look to see how the economy is doing. But the story of these programs — who goes on them, and why, and what happens after that — is, to a large extent, the story of the U.S. economy. It’s the story not only of an aging workforce, but also of a hidden, increasingly expensive safety net.

A friend of mine was homeless for a couple of decades. During that time he was put on disability. To this day, he doesn’t know why. He kept trying to fight it. It offended his sensibilities that some bureaucrat thought he was “disabled.” He wanted to prove to them that he was able, that he could still work and do valuable things.

He eventually ended up with full-blown schizophrenia, so the government official was probably correct in the first place–people who are homeless for multiple years tend to have something wrong with them, even if they themselves don’t recognize it. But he didn’t have schizophrenia then. Then he was just poor, and “disability” is backup welfare for the poor.

If that doesn’t seem obvious, ask yourself what disability means. For the government, disability isn’t a matter of how much pain you’re in or how many limbs you have; it’s a matter of whether you’re too impaired to work.

The article points out that “unemployment” numbers are kept artificially low by not counting the disabled among the unemployed, even though many of the “disabled” are really “people who can’t get job”:

There’s a story we hear all the time these days that doesn’t, on its face, seem to have anything to do with disability: Local Mill Shuts Down. Or, maybe: Factory To Close. …

But after I got interested in disability, I followed up with some of the guys to see what happened to them after the mill closed. One of them, Scott Birdsall, went to lots of meetings where he learned about retraining programs and educational opportunities. At one meeting, he says, a staff member pulled him aside.

“Scotty, I’m gonna be honest with you,” the guy told him. “There’s nobody gonna hire you … We’re just hiding you guys.” The staff member’s advice to Scott was blunt: “Just suck all the benefits you can out of the system until everything is gone, and then you’re on your own.”

Scott, who was 56 years old at the time, says it was the most real thing anyone had said to him in a while.

There used to be a lot of jobs that you could do with just a high school degree, and that paid enough to be considered middle class. I knew, of course, that those have been disappearing for decades. What surprised me was what has been happening to many of the people who lost those jobs: They’ve been going on disability.

Note: the text string “imm” does not appear anywhere in the article.

In Hale County, Alabama, nearly 1 in 4 working-age adults is on disability.

Source: NPR Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Security Administration
Credit: Lam Thuy Vo

As the article discusses, since the definition of “disabled” depends on your ability to get (or not) jobs, it depends, in turn, on the kinds of jobs a person is qualified to work. A programmer who has lost both legs in an accident can, with a few accommodations, still program perfectly well, whereas a farmer who needs to be able to do manual labor all day cannot. It’s easier to work despite a back problem if you have a college degree and can qualify for a white-collar job where you can sit down for most of the day. It’s harder if you have to carry heavy objects.

If you have a back problem and the only work you can get involves standing and carrying heavy things, well, that’s going to hurt.

Humans are fine at standing. Being on your feet a lot isn’t abstractly a problem. The Amish do tons of manual labor and they’re fine. But the Amish get to take bathroom breaks whenever they want. They can stretch or sit down if they need to. They get to dictate their own movements.

If you’re working at McDonald’s, your movements are dictated by the needs of the kitchen and the pace of the customers.

And that’s assuming you can get a job:

[Scott] took the advice of the rogue staffer who told him to suck all the benefits he could out of the system. He had a heart attack after the mill closed and figured, “Since I’ve had a bypass, maybe I can get on disability, and then I won’t have worry to about this stuff anymore.” It worked; Scott is now on disability.

Scott’s dad had a heart attack and went back to work in the mill. If there’d been a mill for Scott to go back to work in, he says, he’d have done that too. But there wasn’t a mill, so he went on disability. It wasn’t just Scott. I talked to a bunch of mill guys who took this path — one who shattered the bones in his ankle and leg, one with diabetes, another with a heart attack. When the mill shut down, they all went on disability.

Source: NPR Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Security Administration
Credit: Lam Thuy Vo

The human body isn’t designed to stand in one place all day. We’re designed to move. A strong or desperate person can do it,but the vast majority find it unpleasant or painful. Do it for years, combine it with another condition, close the factory… and you’ll find a lot of people willing to take that disability check over moving to a new city to try their luck at the next factory, again and again and again as each factory shuts down, moves, or fires everyone and replaces them with immigrants willing to work for wages that make disability sound attractive:

But disability has also become a de facto welfare program for people without a lot of education or job skills. … Once people go onto disability, they almost never go back to work. Fewer than 1 percent of those who were on the federal program for disabled workers at the beginning of 2011 have returned to the workforce since then, one economist told me.

People who leave the workforce and go on disability qualify for Medicare… They also get disability payments from the government of about $13,000 a year. This isn’t great. But if your alternative is a minimum wage job that will pay you at most $15,000 a year, and probably does not include health insurance, disability may be a better option.

But, in most cases, going on disability means you will not work, you will not get a raise, you will not get whatever meaning people get from work. Going on disability means, assuming you rely only on those disability payments, you will be poor for the rest of your life. That’s the deal. And it’s a deal 14 million Americans have signed up for.

I know people who’ve taken this deal. The really sad part is the despair. When people are filing for disability, it means they’ve given up. It’s like we decided to have Universal Basic Income, only we structured it the wort way possible to make recipients miserable.

I mean, this is AMERICA. Our ancestors were PIONEERS. They BUILT this place from the ground up.
My grandmother still lives in the house my grandfather built. Nearby, you can still visit the house my great-grandfather built. Those houses have all sorts of oddities because they were built by hand with whatever was available.

And say what you will, much of America is still beautiful. Forests mountains lakes rivers grasslands deserts. Beautiful.

An elderly woman I know lives in an an area with stunning natural beauty. “I hate it here,” she complains. Why? Is she blind? People stay inside and watch TV and grow lonelier.

I saw this “wine glass” at the store last night.

It was advertised as “for mom!” because what every kid wants is a drunk, alcoholic caregiver.

The marketing of chic-tee-hee isn’t it cute that we’re alcoholics? alcoholism to women is disgusting. It’s a sign of how far we’ve sunk that people see this as funny instead of a desperate cry for help.

And I don’t think I need to delve into the statistics on the opiate crisis and rising death rates among younger white women. All of the people who’ve lost their lives to drug addictions.

. Most of you live near museums, rivers, forests, parks, or other lovely places.

I can’t solve our problems. But please, don’t stop living. Keep fighting.

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Homeschooling Corner: Erdos, Fibonacci, and some Really Big Numbers

One of the nice things about homeschooling is that it is very forgiving of scheduling difficulties and emergencies. Everyone exhausted after a move or sickness? It’s fine to sleep in for a couple of days. Exercises can be moved around, schedules sped up or slowed down as needed.

This week we finished some great books (note: I always try to borrow books from the library before considering buying them. Most of these are fun, but not books you’d want to read over and over):

The Boy who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos, by Deborah Heligman, was a surprise hit. I’ve read a bunch of children’s biographies and been consistently disappointed; the kids loved this one. Improbable, I know.

I suppose the moral of the story is that kids are likely to enjoy a biography if they identify with the subject. The story starts with Erdos as a rambunctious little boy who likes math but ends up homeschooled because he can’t stand regular school. My kids identified with this pretty strongly.

The illustrations are nice and each page contains some kind of hidden math, like a list of primes.

Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space, by Dominic Walliman. This is a lovely book appropriate for kids about 6-11, depending on attention span and reading level. We’ve been reading a few pages a week and recently reached the end.

Minecraft Math with Steve, by Steve Math. This book contains 30 Minecraft-themed math problems (with three sub-problems each, for 90 total.) They’re fairly simple multiplication, subtraction, division, and multiplication problems, probably appropriate for kids about second grade or third grade. A couple of sample problems:

Steve wants to collect 20+20 blocks of sand. how much is that total?

Steve ends up with 42 blocks of sand in his inventory. He decides that is too much so drops out 12 blocks. How many blocks remain?

A bed requires 3 wood plank and 3 wools. If Steve has 12 wood planks and 12 wools, how many beds can he build?

This is not a serious math book and I doubt it’s “Common Core Compliant” or whatever, but it’s cute and if your kids like Minecraft, they might enjoy it.

We are partway into Why Pi? by Johnny Ball. It’s an illustrated look at the history of mathematics with a ton of interesting material. Did you know the ancient Greeks used math to calculate the size of the Earth and distance between the Earth and the moon? And why are there 360 degrees in a circle? This one I’m probably going to buy.

Really Big Numbers, by Richard Evan Schwartz. Previous books on “big numbers” contained, unfortunately, not enough big numbers, maxing out around a million. A million might have seemed really good to kids of my generation, but to today’s children, reared on Numberphile videos about Googols and Graham’s number, a million is positively paltry. Really Big Numbers delivers with some really big numbers.

Let’s Estimate: A book about Estimating and Rounding Numbers, by David A. Adler. A cute, brightly illustrated introduction. I grabbed notebooks and pens and made up sample problems to help the kids explore and reinforce the concepts as we went.

How Big is Big? How Far is Far? by Jen Metcalf. This is like a coffee table book for 6 yr olds. The illustrations are very striking and it is full of fascinating information. The book focuses both on relative and absolute measurement. For example,  5’9″ person is tall compared to a cat, but short compared to a giraffe. The cat is large compared to a fly, and the giraffe is small compared to a T-rex. My kids were especially fascinated by the idea that clouds are actually extremely heavy.

Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci, by Joseph D’Agnes. If your kids like Fibonacci numbers (or they enjoyed the biography of Erdos,) they might enjoy this book. It also takes a look at the culture of Medieval Pisa and the adoption of Arabic numerals (clunkily referred to in the text as “Hindu-Arabic numerals,” a phrase I am certain Fibonacci never used.) Fibonacci numbers are indeed found all over in nature, so if you have any sunflowers or pine cones on hand that you can use to demonstrate Fibonacci spirals, they’d be a great addition to the lesson. Otherwise, you can practice drawing boxes with spirals in them or Pascal’s triangles. (This book has more kid-friendly math in it than Erdos’s)

Pythagoras and the Ratios, by Julie Ellis. Pythagoras and his cousins need to cut their panpipes and weight the strings on their lyres in certain ratios to make them produce pleasant sounds. It’s a fun little lesson about ratios, and if you can combine it with actual pipes the kids can cut or recorders they could measure, glasses with different amounts of water in them or even strings with rock hanging from them, that would probably be even better.

Older than Dirt: A Wild but True History of Earth, by Don Brown. I was disappointed with this book. It is primarily an overview of Earth’s history before the dinosaurs, which was interesting, but the emphasis on mass extinctions and volcanoes (eg, Pompeii) dampened the mood. I ended up leaving out the last few pages (“Book’s over. Bedtime!”) to avoid the part about the sun swallowing up the earth and all life dying at the end of our planet’s existence, which is fine for older readers but not for my kids.

Hope you received some great games and books last month!

Book on a Friday: Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods by Danna Staaf

Danna Staaf’s Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods is about the evolution of squids and their relatives–nautiluses, cuttlefish, octopuses, ammonoids, etc. If you are really into squids or would like to learn more about squids, this is the book for you. If you aren’t big on reading about squids but want something that looks nice on your coffee table and matches your Cthulhu, Flying Spaghetti Monster, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea decor, this is the book for you. If you aren’t really into squids, you probably won’t enjoy this book.

Squids, octopuses, etc. are members of the class of cephalopods, just as you are a member of the class of mammals. Mammals are in the phylum of chordates; cephalopods are mollusks. It’s a surprising lineage for one of Earth’s smartest creatures–80% mollusk species are slugs and snails. If you think you’re surrounded by idiots, imagine how squids must feel.

The short story of cephalopodic evolution is that millions upon millions of years ago, most life was still stuck at the bottom of the ocean. There were some giant microbial mats, some slugs, some snails, some worms, and not a whole lot else. One of those snails figured out how to float by removing some of the salt from the water inside its shell, making itself a bit buoyant. Soon after its foot (all mollusks have a “foot”) split into multiple parts. The now-floating snail drifted over the seafloor, using its new tentacles to catch and eat the less-mobile creatures below it.

From here, cephalopods diversified dramatically, creating the famous ammonoids of fossil-dating lore.

Cross-section of a fossilized ammonite shell, revealing internal chambers and septa

Ammonoids are known primarily from their shells (which fossilize well) rather than their fleshy tentacle parts, (which fossilize badly). But shells we have in such abundance they can be easily used for dating other nearby fossils.

Ammonoids are obviously similar to their cousins, the lovely chambered nautiluses. (Please don’t buy nautilus shells; taking them out of their shells kills them and no one farms nautiluses so the shell trade is having a real impact on their numbers. We don’t need their shells, but they do.)

Ammonoids succeeded for millions of years, until the Creatceous extinction event that also took out the dinosaurs. The nautiluses survived–as the author speculates, perhaps because they lay large eggs with much more yolk that develop very slowly, infant nautiluses were able to wait out the event while ammonoids, with their fast-growing, tiny eggs dependent on feeding immediately after hatching simply starved in the upheaval.

In the aftermath, modern squids and octopuses proliferated.

How did we get from floating, shelled snails to today’s squishy squids?

The first step was internalization–cephalopods began growing their fleshy mantles over their shells instead of inside of them–in essence, these invertebrates became vertebrates. Perhaps this was some horrible genetic accident, but it worked out. These internalized shells gradually became smaller and thinner, until they were reduced to a flexible rod called a “pen” that runs the length of a squid’s mantle. (Cuttlefish still retain a more substantial bone, which is frequently collected on beaches and sold for birds to peck at for its calcium.)

With the loss of the buoyant shell, squids had to find another way to float. This they apparently achieved by filling themselves with ammonia salts, which makes them less dense than water but also makes their decomposition disgusting and renders them unfossilizable because they turn to mush too quickly. Octopuses, by contrast, aren’t full of ammonia and so can fossilize.

Since the book is devoted primarily to cephalopod evolution rather than modern cephalopods, it doesn’t go into much depth on the subject of their intelligence. Out of all the invertebrates, cephalopods are easily the most intelligent (perhaps really the only intelligent invertebrates). Why? If cephalopods didn’t exist, we might easily conclude that invertebrates can’t be intelligent–invertebrateness is somehow inimical to intelligence. After all, most invertebrates are about as intelligent as slugs. But cephalopods do exist, and they’re pretty smart.

The obvious answer is that cephalopods can move and are predatory, which requires bigger brains. But why are they the only invertebrates–apparently–who’ve accomplished the task?

But enough jabber–let’s let Mrs. Staaf speak:

I find myself obliged to address the perennial question: “octopuses” or “octopi”? Or, heaven help us, “octopodes”?

Whichever you like best. Seriously. Despite what you may have heard, “octopus” is neither ancient Greek nor Latin. Aristotle called the animal polypous for its “many feet.” The ancient Romans borrowed this word and latinized the spelling to polypus. It was much later that a Renaissance scientists coined and popularized the word “octopus,” using Greek roots for “eight” and “foot” but Latin spelling.

If the word had actually been Greek, it would be spelled octopous and pluralized octopodes. If translated into Latin, it might have become octopes and pluralized octopedes,  but more likely the ancient Roman would have simply borrowed the Greek word–as they did with poly pus. Those who perhaps wished to appear erudite used the Greek plural polypodes, while others favored a Latin ending and pluralized it polypi.

The latter is a tactic we English speakers emulate when we welcome “octopus” into our own language and pluralize it “octopuses” as I’ve chosen to do.

There. That settles it.

Dinosaurs are the poster children for evolution and extinction writ large…

Of course, not all of them did die. We know now that birds are simply modern dinosaurs, but out of habit we tend to reserve the word “dinosaur for the hug ancient creatures that went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous. After all, even if they had feathers, they seem so different from today’s finches and robins. For one thing, the first flying feathered dinosaurs all seem to have had four wings. There aren’t any modern birds with four wings.

Wesl… actually, domestic pigeons can be bred to grow feathers on their legs. Not fuzzy down, but long flight feathers, and along with these feathers their leg bones grow more winglike. The legs are still legs’ they can’t be used to fly like wings. They do, however, suggest a clear step along the road from four-winged dinosaurs to two-winged birds. The difference between pigeons with ordinary legs and pigeons with wing-legs is created by control switches in their DNA that alter the expression of two particular genes. These genes are found in all birds, indeed in all vertebrates,and so were most likely present in dinosaurs as well.

…and I’ve just discovered that almost all of my other bookmarks fell out of the book. Um.

So squid brains are shaped like donuts because their eating/jet propulsion tube runs through the middle of their bodies and thus through the middle of their brains. It seems like this could be a problem if the squid eats too much or eats something with sharp bits in it, but squids seem to manage.

Squids can also leap out of the water and fly through the air for some ways. Octopuses can carry water around in their mantles, allowing them to move on dry land for a few minutes without suffocating.

Since cephalopods are somewhat unique among mollusks for their ability to move quickly, they have a lot in common, genetically, with vertebrates. In essence, they are the most vertebrate-behaving of the mollusks. Convergent evolution.

The vampire squid, despite its name, is actually more of an octopus.

Let me quote from the chapter on sex and babies:

This is one arena in which cephalopods, both ancient and modern, are actually less alien than many aliens–even other mollusks. Slugs, for instance, are hermaphroditic, and in the course of impregnating each other their penises sometimes get tangled, so they chew them off. Nothing in the rest of this chapter will make you nearly that uncomfortable. …

The lovely argonaut octopus

In one living coleoid species, however, sex is blindingly obvious. Females of the octopus known as an argonaut are five times larger than males. (A killer whale is about five times larger than an average adult human, which in turn is about five times large than an opossum.)

This enormous size differential caught the attention of paleontologists who had noticed that many ammonoid species also came in two distinct size, which htey had dubbed microconch (little shell) and macroconch (big shell). Bot were clearly mature, as they had completed the juvenile part of the shell and constructed the final adult living chamber. After an initial flurry of debate, most researchers agreed to model ammonoid sex on modern argonauts, and began to call macroconchs females and microconcs males.

Some fossil nautiloids also come in macroconch and microchonch flavors, though it’s more difficult to be certain that both are adults…

However, the shells of modern nautiluses show the opposite pattern–males are somewhat large than females… Like the nautiloid shift from ten arms to many tens of arms, the pattern could certainly have evolved from a different ancestral condition. If we’re going to make that argument, though, we have to wonder when nautliloids switched from females to males as the larger sex, and why.

In modern species that have larger females, we usually assume the size difference has to do with making or brooding a lot of eggs.Female argonauts take it up a notch and actually secrete a shell-like brood chamber from their arms, using it to cradle numerous batch of eggs over their lifetime. meanwhile, each tiny male argonaut get ot mate only once. His hectocotylus is disposable–after being loaded with sperm and inserted into the female, it breaks off. …

By contrast, when males are the bigger sex, we often guess that the purpose is competition. Certainly many species of squid and cuttlefish have large males that battle for female attention on the mating grounds. They display outrageous skin patterns as they push, shove, and bite each other. Females do appear impressed; at least, they mate with the winning males and consent to be guarded by them. Even in these species, though, there are some mall males who exhibit a totally different mating strategy. While the big males strut their stuff, these small males quietly sidle up to the females, sometimes disguising themselves with female color patterns. This doesn’t put off the real females, who readily mate with these aptly named “sneaker males.” By their very nature, such obfuscating tactics are virtually impossible to glean from the fossil record…

More on octopus mating habits.

This, of course, reminded me of this graph:

In the majority of countries, women are more likely to be overweight than men (suggesting that our measure of “overweight” is probably flawed.) In some countries women are much more likely to be overweight, while in some countries men and women are almost equally likely to be overweight, and in just a few–the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Japan, and barely France, men are more likely to be overweight.

Is there any rhyme or reason to this pattern? Surely affluence is related, but Japan, for all of its affluence, has very few overweight people at all, while Egypt, which is pretty poor, has far more overweight people. (A greater % of Egyptian women are overweight than American women, but American men are more likely to be overweight than Egyptian men.)

Of course, male humans are still–in every country–larger than females. Even an overweight female doesn’t necessarily weigh more than a regular male. But could the variation in male and female obesity rates have anything to do with historic mating strategies? Or is it completely irrelevant?

Back to the book:

Coleoid eyes are as complex as our own, with a lens for focusing light, a retina to detect it, and an iris to sharpen the image. … Despite their common complexity, though, there are some striking differences [between our and squid eyes]. For Example, our retina has a blind spot whee a bundle of nerves enters the eyeball before spreading out to connect to the font of every light receptor. By contrast, light receptors in the coleoid retina are innervated from behind, so there’s no “hole” or blind spot. Structural differences like this how that the two groups converged on similar solution through distinct evolutionary pathways.

Another significant difference is that fish went on to evolve color vision by increasing the variety of light-sensitive proteins in their eyes; coleoids never did and are probably color blind. I say “probably ” because the idea of color blindness in such colorful animals has flummoxed generations of scientists…

“I’m really more of a cuddlefish”

Color-blind or not, coleoids can definitely see something we humans are blind to: the polarization of light.

Sunlight normally consists of waves vibrating in all directions. but when these waves are reflected off certain surface, like water, they get organized and arrive at the retina vibrating in only one direction. We call this “glare” and we don’t like it, so we invented polarized sunglasses. … That’s pretty much all polarized sunglasses can do–block polaraized light. Sadly, they can’t help you decode the secret messages of cuttlefish, which have the ability to perform a sort of double0-talk with their skin, making color camouflage for the befit of polarization-blind predators while flashing polarized displays to their fellow cuttlefish.

That’s amazing. Here’s an article with more on cuttlefish vision and polarization.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. The writing isn’t the most thrilling, but the author has a sense of humor and a deep love for her subject. I recommend it to anyone with a serious hankering to know more about the evolution of squids, or who’d like to learn more about an ancient animal besides dinosaurs.

The Politeness Problem

One of the rules of “polite behavior” is not making other people feel uncomfortable, and that means not pointing out their shortcomings and failures, even (perhaps especially) obvious ones. Bringing up people’s flaws tends to be embarrassing, and harping on them comes across as cruel.

For example, if someone is clumsy due to a disability, it would be rude to draw attention to them dropping a glass. It would be

But politely not-mentioning-flaws is dependent on other people being already aware of their flaws–in this case, clumsy people are presumably not volunteering to carry your fine china. But what happens when people aren’t aware of their own failings? People don’t generally appreciate criticism, especially if they don’t believe they deserve that criticism.

There are three general approaches to the problem:

1. The Shit Sandwich 2. Be Rude 3. Retreat

“Shit sandwich” refers to the custom in fiction critiquing communities of “sandwiching” criticism of what’s wrong in a story between two compliments. For example, “Wow, I can tell you put a lot of work into your Smurfs/Harry Potter crossover. However, I think Gargamel defeated Voldemort with the flux capacitor a little too easily. Voldemort is pretty strong in the books and I think your story would have more tension if Gargamel had to work harder for his dastardly triumph. Overall I thought it was really creative and loved the part where Smurfette gave all of the house elves makeovers.”

Sometimes you can’t think of two nice things to say about a story. Then you lie and say you liked something about it, because “This story sucked from top to bottom and made me want to wash my eyes with bleach” tends not to inspire improvement. Even if a story has tons of problems, people can only focus on improving so many at once.

The shit sandwich works by softening the blow of the criticism and making the critiquer sound friendly and non-hostile. It reassures the writer that the critiquer is trying to approach the work evenly, appreciating its good and bad, rather than just looking for an excuse to insult someone.

But sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes people react with anger and hostility to any criticism, no matter how softly it is framed. “How dare you not love my Thomas the Tank Engine Chainsaw Massacre? Horror is exactly what the toddler set needs!”

When the shit sandwich doesn’t work, people tend to escalate to option 2, Rudeness: “I threw up while reading this. There is no way I would read this out loud to my toddler.”

If that doesn’t work (or the mods step in,) people resort to option 3: avoid each other.

In online critique groups, avoiding problematic people works fine. Out i society where people often have to be around each other (you don’t get to pick your co-workers or fellow subway riders), it works much less effectively.

As a society, we are pretty bad at acknowledging our own flaws, politely pointing out unrecognized flaws, and acknowledging justified criticism. Instead we flail about yelling “I don’t suck, you suck!”

I could write a bunch of shit sandwiches about different groups, but chances are you’re already familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of each group. Women are great at nurturing but can be over-emotional; men are courageous and daring but also commit the vast majority of crime; Asians are really smart but many don’t take time to relax with friends; whites run nice countries but many of them are lizard-people; blacks are really creative but often aggressive. Have I covered all of the stereotypes?

I’d like to think that people could dispassionately take stock of their personal weaknesses and try to do better. I’ll never be a quantum physicist, but that doesn’t stop me from reading about about it. But society seems more inclined to shut down any and all criticism on the grounds that self-improvement isn’t as useful as screaming your opponents into submission.

The alternatives to politely recognizing our own failings and trying to work on them are either becoming ruder or avoiding each other. People have been trying to avoid each other for decades–first in the Great Migration, blacks decided to avoid Jim Crow and Southern whites. Then crime skyrocketed in urban areas, and whites fled to avoid blacks. But this is incredibly inefficient–not only have whole transit systems had to be re-built to handle the flow of commuters going in and out of the cities every day, but millions of people lost money they’d put into their houses and communities were destroyed.

And there is only so much avoiding people can do: sooner or later we meet each other on the streets or in the office, at school or in the park. No matter what we think of each other, we are all–for the foreseeable future–stuck in the same country together. We live under presidents and lawmakers voted for by other people.

If we can’t avoid each other, then what? ? Rudeness? Violence? Anger? A world increasingly run by HR departments?

We’d better figure something out.

Anthropology Friday: Original Gangster, by Frank Lucas pt. 3/3

Frank Lucas in his chinchilla skin coat, photo from Narcos Wiki.

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday, featuring Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster: the real life story of one of America’s most notorious drug lords. At his height, Lucas’s net worth was, by his account, around 52 million dollars, much of it stashed in off-shore bank accounts and American real estate. But at this point in our story, Lucas was still Bumpy Johnson’s driver.

One evening, Bumpy, Lucas and a few others were eating dinner:

At Well’s, I sat a few booths away from Bumpy. …

The chimes at the door rattled and in came a tall, lanky young man with a shock of red hair styled in a straightened conk. He made his way to Bumpy’s table and then stopped, waiting for permission from Bumpy before sitting down.

Bumpy smiled, just barely, and tilted his head to the side in a gesture that meant “have a seat.” …

The two of them spoke briefly. I wasn’t close enough to hear anything but I could tell it was a friendly, personal conversation. They didn’t look like they were in any kind of business together.

The guy took one sip of his coffee, looked at his watch, and stood up.

“Gotta go. Good to see you, Mr. Johnson.”

Always good to see you. Careful out there, Red,” said Bumpy…

Just like all of Bumpy’s associates, the guy called Detroit Red didn’t speak to me… But I knew him. I knew they called him Detroit Red and I always recognized the bright red hair he had. Years and years later, he would become Malcolm X.

I assume I don’t need to tell you about Malcolm X. He’s pretty famous–even I’ve seen the movie about him.

Bumpy decides to put Lucas in charge of a “numbers” spot, keeping track of gamblers. He explains to Lucas the different kinds of gamblers and how the operation works:

“[This guy] Can’t afford to play more than a quarter a day. But he plays it. He’d skip lunch before he missed playing his number. …

“This is a sensitive operation. It’s illegal–God only knows why–so you have to watch out for the police. Avoid the good cops. Pay off the crooked ones. …

“Spot like this one? Right next to the subway line. Brings in at least a hundred grand a week.”

Lucas’ January 1975 federal mug shot.

As crimes go, gambling is pretty mild and makes decent money, but Lucas finds it boring and itches to expand into something more exciting. While watching a news report about American servicemen in Vietnam getting hooked on the local heroin, described as purer and cheaper than the heroin available in the US. Those words stuck in his brain, but Bumpy nixed his idea to go to Thailand and buy drugs straight from the source, bypassing the Mafia. In the meanwhile:

[Frank’s third child] was born in the spring. And by the fall of 1960, I was in a situation that would make it much harder for me to go see him.

I got arrested for conspiracy to sell drugs and sentenced to thirty months in the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg… Doing jail time was no big deal to me. But what made it a little complicated was that they had blacks and whites desegregated. Around the time I went into Lewisburg, they’d passed some law that made it illegal to segregate prisoners. So, for the first time in the common areas and in the mess hall, black folks and white folk were together. I’m not so sue that was a good idea back then ’cause, for the most part, blacks and whites in jail were like the Bloods and Crips today.

And at Lewisburg, there were more white boys. We were outnumbered at least three to one, which just added to the tension when they started mixing us up.

I started this whole project hoping to find something on race and prison gangs (unfortunately, my local library didn’t have anything that looked promising on the subject.) Even within the genre of crime stories, it appears that most people aren’t very comfortable discussing racial conflict, but I doubt a stranger who started his memoir with a Klan slaying is any stranger to racial animosity.

With Bumpy’s passing, Lucas became one of the top gangsters in Harlem and could finally pursue his dream of importing heroin directly from Thailand. With military planes flying in and out of the area due to the Vietnam war, it wasn’t hard to arrange for a few more things to be shipped in their holds. The drugs arrive and Lucas arranges for a crew to unload it from the plane:

Doc and his boys moved everything out. They would take it to the second location to prevent the first crew from knowing too much about the operation. I always wanted to have more than one layer to my business proceedings. And with a project like this, it was even more important.

My work was now done. Doc and Glynn would make sure the product was prepared for the streets and sold. I didn’t touch any part of that process. … I was no longer a drug dealer. I didn’t deal with any junkies. I didn’t touch any drugs, and I was several layers removed from the streets. I was an entrepreneur; I simply dealt with supply and demand. Some folks import tea from China, art from Paris, or fabric from Italy. I imported heroin.

Both Mafia bosses and Frank Lucas used this technique of putting multiple layers of employees between themselves and the street-level handling, processing, and selling of the product (or street-level gambling operations, extortion, etc.) The Bosses call the shots, but with enough plausible deniability to make them difficult to prosecute (which is why they are often prosecuted on money-laundering charges, instead.)

With Frank Lucas managing the supply chain, the streets of New York were flooded with cheaper, more potent heroin–leading to thousands of deaths.

For years, I would use this to keep my mind off the guilt of what the heroin was doing to the people in my community. Joseph Seagram made sure the streets had beer, wine, and liquor. And I’m sure he didn’t feel bad about the winos and alcoholics in the street. Down in North Carolina, where I was from, R. J. Reynolds had tobacco fields everywhere. Made sure the streets were flooded with cigarettes… I know R. J. Reynolds didn’t feel bad about folks dying of lung cancer left and right.

I was Frank Lucas. I supplied the streets of Harlem with heroin. It was my profession. And, like war, it came with casualties.

Lucas goes to visit the poppy fields in Thailand:

I’m telling you, I felt like we crossed every river in Asia on our way. From the Ruak River to the Mekong, we trekked out on foot for miles and miles. ….

And across the land, there was nothing but poppies–everywhere. I was in complete shock.

Now, when I say there was nothing before me but poppy field, you really have to understand what I’m trying to tell you. I’m talking about land the size of all five boroughs in New York City combined. And there was nothing but the poppy seed plants–the plant that heroin is made from–stretching from one end to the other. I looked up and noticed that the entire field was covered with dark netting. The netting made it impossible to see the fields from the sky so that traveling military planes wouldn’t know what was going on there. But the sun could still shine through…

I asked my guide how the area had become the headquarters for heroin… In the 1960s, there was an anticommunist group of Chinese people who had settled near the border of China and Burma. They ended up getting support from the American CIA… The Hmong people traded in heroin, an with the CIA tuning a blind eye to their illegal activities, the region exploded. …

According to Wikipedia:

While the CIA was sponsoring a Secret War in Laos from 1961 to 1975, it was accused of trafficking in opium (an area known as the Golden Triangle). …

During its involvement, the CIA used the Meo (Hmong) population to fight Pathet Lao rebels. Because of the war against Pathet Lao rebels, the Hmong depended upon poppy cultivation for hard currency. The Hmong were very important to CIA operations and the CIA was very concerned with their well-being. The Plain of Jars had been captured by Pathet Lao rebels in 1964, which resulted in the Laotian Air Force not being able to land their C-47 transport aircraft on the Plain of Jars for opium transport. The Laotian Air Force had almost no light planes that could land on the dirt runways near the mountaintop poppy fields. Having no way to transport their opium, the Hmong were faced with economic ruin. Air America was the only airline available in northern Laos. “According to several unproven sources, Air America began flying opium from mountain villages north and east of the Plain of Jars to Gen Vang Pao’s headquarters at Long Tieng.”[2]

The CIA’s front company, Air America was alleged to have profited from transporting opium and heroin on behalf of Hmong leader Vang Pao,[3][4][5] or of “turning a blind eye” to the Laotian military doing it.[6][7] This allegation has been supported by former Laos CIA paramilitary Anthony Poshepny (aka Tony Poe), former Air America pilots, and other people involved in the war. … However, University of Georgia historian William M. Leary, writing on behalf of Air America, claims that this was done without the airline employees’ direct knowledge and that the airline did not trade in drugs.

Finally Lucas get a bit sloppy, shows off a bit too much wealth, and more than just crooked cops (who had long known about his business and been extorting him for money) come down on him. His house is raided and they find nearly $600,000 in cash (Lucas claims there was far more, but they stole it, including the key and subsequently contents of his safe deposit box in the Cayman Islands.) He was sentenced to 70 years in prison, but for providing evidence that lead to 100 other drug-related convictions, he was placed in the Witness Protection Program. His sentence was was soon reduced to five years plus lifetime parole.

After some more in-and-out with the legal system, he was released from prison in 1991.

Testimony during one of the trials from a grieving mother whose son overdosed on heroin began to make Lucas realize that he couldn’t just wash his hands of the results of his “business.” Tired of prison and the drug trade, Lucas was faced with the prospect of finding legal ways to make money:

As soon as I got out, my brother Larry asked me about working with him on an oil deal. He knew a man who was trying to import oil from Nigeria to Texas.

“He’s got a great connection,” said Larry. “He’s just trying to raise money.” … “Nothing illegal here, Frank. He just needs investors. Everything’s on the up and up.” …

I met with the guy and I was impressed with him right way. I agreed to start doing some fund-raising for him and try to get his oil business off the ground. Even though I wasn’t in the drug game anymore, I still knew people with money. I ended up raising close to a million dollars in three months… ‘The profits from the oil business started coming in quickly. It wasn’t big money. It was nothing like I’d experienced years before… But I did pull in about a hundred grand every few months. And I did it legally–for the very first time in my entire adult life.

Lucas soon found other ways to make money, like turning his life’s story into a book and then a movie.

At the memoir’s end, he approaches the premier of the movie about his own life, considers for a few minutes, and turns away:

In some small measure, my absence from the premier [of the movie about him] was out of respect to the many people, in Harlem and beyond, who suffered from the heroin industry that I helped to expand. …

Today, I write this book and outline all my successes and my failings in honor of every single person affected directly or indirectly by the evils of the heroin trade. … I’m seventy-eight years old today and I still have a lifetime of regret.

And every single word in this book is dedicated to those I impacted in any way.

Does he mean it? I suppose that is between him and God. Can a man of no conscience develop one? Can a man with psychopathic disregard for the lives of others (and his own) become a loving husband, father, and son? And can a man redeem himself for such crimes?

And from a societal perspective, what should be done with people like Lucas? Is there some alternative scenario where he didn’t enter a life of crime? Lucas certainly didn’t enter crime because he lacked the intelligence or talents necessary for other occupations, but because he was far too ambitious for the honest employment options open to him. Even if better jobs had been available, would he have wanted to pursue them, or would all of those years of school and training have been too tedious beside the allure of immediate money?

Finis.

Do Sufficiently Large Organizations Start Acting Like Malevolent AIs? (pt 2)

(Part 1 is here)

As we were discussing on Monday, as our networks have become more effective, our ability to incorporate new information may have actually gone down. Ironically, as we add more people to a group–beyond a certain limit–it becomes more difficult for individuals with particular expertise to convince everyone else in the group that the group’s majority consensus is wrong.

The difficulties large groups experience trying to coordinate and share information force them to become dominated by procedures–set rules of behavior and operation are necessary for large groups to operate. A group of three people can use ad-hoc consensus and rock-paper-scissors to make decisions; a nation of 320 million requires a complex body of laws and regulations. (I once tried to figure out just how many laws and regulations America has. The answer I found was that no one knows.)

An organization is initially founded to accomplish some purpose that benefits its founders–generally to make them well-off, but often also to produce some useful good or service. A small organization is lean, efficient, and generally exemplifies the ideals put forth in Adam Smith’s invisible hand:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages. —The Wealth Of Nations, Book I

As an organization ages and grows, its founders retire or move on, it becomes more dependent on policies and regulations and each individual employee finds his own incentives further displaced from the company’s original intentions. Soon a company is no longer devoted to either the well-being of its founders or its customers, but to the company itself. (And that’s kind of a best-case scenario in which the company doesn’t just disintegrate into individual self-interest.)

I am reminded of a story about a computer that had been programmed to play Tetris–actually, it had been programmed not to lose at Tetris. So the computer paused the game. A paused game cannot lose.

What percentage of employees (especially management) have been incentivized to win? And what percentage are being incentivized to not lose?

And no, I don’t mean that in some 80s buzzword-esque way. Most employees have more to lose (ie, their jobs) if something goes wrong as a result of their actions than to gain if something goes right. The stockholders might hope that employees are doing everything they can to maximize profits, but really, most people are trying not to mess up and get fired.

Fear of messing up goes beyond the individual scale. Whole companies are goaded by concerns about risk–“Could we get sued?” Large corporation have entire legal teams devoted to telling them how they could get sued for whatever their doing and to filing lawsuits against their competitors for whatever they’re doing.

This fear of risk carries over, in turn, to government regulations. As John Sanphillipo writes in City Regulatory Hurdles Favor Big Developers, not the Little Guy:

A family in a town I visited bought an old fire station a few years ago with the intention of turning it into a Portuguese bakery and brewpub. They thought they’d have to retrofit the interior of the building to meet health and safety standards for such an establishment.

Turns out the cost of bringing the landscape around the outside of the building up to code was their primary impediment. Mandatory parking requirements, sidewalks, curb cuts, fire lanes, on-site stormwater management, handicapped accessibility, drought-tolerant native plantings…it’s a very long list that totaled $340,000 worth of work. … Guess what? They decided not to open the bakery or brewery. …

Individually it’s impossible to argue against each of the particulars. Do you really want to deprive people in wheelchairs of the basic civil right of public accommodation? Do you really want the place to catch fire and burn? Do you want a barren landscape that’s bereft of vegetation? …

I was in Hamtramck, Michigan a couple of years ago to participate in a seminar about reactivating neighborhoods through incremental small-scale development. …

While the event was underway the fire marshal happened to drive by and noticed there were people—a few dozen actual humans—occupying a commercial building in broad daylight. In a town that has seen decades of depopulation and disinvestment, this was an odd sight. And he was worried. Do people have permission for this kind of activity? Had there been an inspection? Was a permit issued? Is everything insured? He called one of his superiors to see if he should shut things down in the name of public safety.

It’s a good article. You should read the whole thing.

Back in Phillipe Bourgeois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in el Barrio, Phillipe describes one drug dealer’s attempt to use the money he’d made to go into honest business by opening a convenience store. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get the store complaint with NYC disability-access regulations, and so the store never opened and the owner went back to dealing drugs. (What IQ, I wonder, is necessary to comply with all of these laws and regulations in the first place?)

Now, I’m definitely in favor of disabled people being able to buy groceries and use bathrooms. But what benefits a disabled person more: a convenience store that’s not fully wheel-chair accessible, or a crack house?

In My IRB Nightmare, Scott Alexander writes about trying to do a simple study to determine whether the screening test already being used to diagnose people with bipolar disorder is effective at diagnosing them:

When we got patients, I would give them the bipolar screening exam and record the results. Then Dr. W. would conduct a full clinical interview and formally assess them. We’d compare notes and see how often the screening test results matched Dr. W’s expert diagnosis.

Remember, they were already using the screening test on patients and then having them talk to the doctor for a formal assessment. The only thing the study added was that Scott would compare how well the screening results matched the formal assessment. No patients would be injected, subject to new procedures, or even asked different questions. They just wanted to compare two data sets.

After absurd quantities of paperwork and an approval process much too long to summarize here, the project got audited:

I kept the audit report as a souvenier. I have it in front of me now. Here’s an example infraction:

The data and safety monitoring plan consists of ‘the Principal Investigator will randomly check data integrity’. This is a prospective study with a vulnerable group (mental illness, likely to have diminished capacity, likely to be low income) and, as such, would warrant a more rigorous monitoring plan than what is stated above. In addition to the above, a more adequate plan for this study would also include review of the protocol at regular intervals, on-going checking of any participant complaints or difficulties with the study, monitoring that the approved data variables are the only ones being collected, regular study team meetings to discuss progress and any deviations or unexpected problems. Team meetings help to assure participant protections, adherence to the protocol. Having an adequate monitoring plan is a federal requirement for the approval of a study. See Regulation 45 CFR 46.111 Criteria For IRB Approval Of Research. IRB Policy: PI Qualifications And Responsibility In Conducting Research. Please revise the protocol via a protocol revision request form. Recommend that periodic meetings with the research team occur and be documented.

… Faced with submitting twenty-seven new pieces of paperwork to correct our twenty-seven infractions, Dr. W and I gave up. We shredded the patient data and the Secret Code Log. We told all the newbies they could give up and go home. … We told the IRB that they had won, fair and square; we surrendered unconditionally.

The point of all that paperwork and supervision is to make sure that no one replicates the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment nor the Nazi anything. Noble sentiments–but as a result, a study comparing two data sets had to be canceled.

I’ve noticed recently that much of the interesting medical research is happening in the third world/China–places where the regulations aren’t as strong and experiments (of questionable ethics or not) can actually get done.

Like the computer taught not to lose at Tetris, all of these systems are more focused on minimizing risk–even non-existent risk–than on actually succeeding.

In his review of Yudkowsky’s Inadequate Equilibria, Scott writes:

…[Yudkowsky] continues to the case of infant parenteral nutrition. Some babies have malformed digestive systems and need to have nutrient fluid pumped directly into their veins. The nutrient fluid formula used in the US has the wrong kinds of lipids in it, and about a third of babies who get it die of brain or liver damage. We’ve known for decades that the nutrient fluid formula has the wrong kind of lipids. We know the right kind of lipids and they’re incredibly cheap and there is no reason at all that we couldn’t put them in the nutrient fluid formula. We’ve done a bunch of studies showing that when babies get the right nutrient fluid formula, the 33% death rate disappears. But the only FDA-approved nutrient fluid formula is the one with the wrong lipids, so we just keep giving it to babies, and they just keep dying. Grant that the FDA is terrible and ruins everything, but over several decades of knowing about this problem and watching the dead babies pile up, shouldn’t somebody have done something to make this system work better?

The doctors have to use the FDA-approved formula or they could get sued for malpractice. The insurance companies, of course, only cover the FDA-approved formula. The formula makers are already making money selling the current formula and would probably have to go through an expensive, multi-year review system (with experiments far more regulated than Scott’s) to get the new formula approved, and even then they might not actually get approval. In short, on one side are people in official positions of power whose lives could be made worse (or less convenient) if they tried to fix the problem, and on the other side are dead babies who can’t stand up for themselves.

The Chankiri Tree (Killing Tree) where infants were fatally smashed, Choeung Ek, Cambodia.

Communism strikes me as the ultimate expression of this beast: a society fully transformed into a malevolent AI. It’s impossible to determine exactly how many people were murdered by communism, but the Black Book of Communism estimates a death toll between 85 and 100 million people.

Capitalism, for all its faults, is at least somewhat decentralized. If you make a bad business decision, you suffer the consequences and can hopefully learn from your mistakes and make better decisions in the future. But in communist systems, one central planner’s bad decisions can cause suffering for millions of other people, resulting in mass death. Meanwhile, the central planner may suffer for correcting the bad decision. Centralized economies simply lack the feedback loops necessary to fix problems before they start killing people.

While FDA oversight of medicines is probably important, would it be such a bad thing if a slightly freer market in parenteral nutrition allowed parents to chose between competing brands of formula, each promising not to kill your baby?

Of course, capitalism isn’t perfect, either. SpottedToad recently had an interesting post, 2010s Identity Politics as Hostile AI:

There’s an interesting post mortem on the rise and fall of the clickbait liberalism site Mic.com, that attracted an alleged 65 million unique visitors on the strength of Woketastic personal stories like “5 Powerful Reasons I’m a (Male) Feminist,” …

Every time Mic had a hit, it would distill that success into a formula and then replicate it until it was dead. Successful “frameworks,” or headlines, that went through this process included “Science Proves TK,” “In One Perfect Tweet TK,” “TK Reveals the One Brutal Truth About TK,” and “TK Celebrity Just Said TK Thing About TK Issue. Here’s why that’s important.” At one point, according to an early staffer who has since left, news writers had to follow a formula with bolded sections, which ensured their stories didn’t leave readers with any questions: The intro. The problem. The context. The takeaway.

…But the success of Mic.com was due to algorithms built on top of algorithms. Facebook targets which links are visible to users based on complex and opaque rules, so it wasn’t just the character of the 2010s American population that was receptive to Mic.com’s specific brand of SJW outrage clickbait, but Facebook’s rules for which articles to share with which users and when. These rules, in turn, are calibrated to keep users engaged in Facebook as much as possible and provide the largest and most receptive audience for its advertisers, as befits a modern tech giant in a two-sided market.

Professor Bruce Charlton has a post about Head Girl Syndrome–the Opposite of Creative Genius that is good and short enough that I wish I could quote the whole thing. A piece must suffice:

The ideal Head Girl is an all-rounder: performs extremely well in all school subjects and has a very high Grade Point Average. She is excellent at sports, Captaining all the major teams. She is also pretty, popular, sociable and well-behaved.

The Head Girl will probably be a big success in life, in whatever terms being a big success happens to be framed …

But the Head Girl is not, cannot be, a creative genius. …

The more selective the social system, the more it will tend to privilege the Head Girl and eliminate the creative genius.

Committees, peer review processes, voting – anything which requires interpersonal agreement and consensus – will favour the Head Girl and exclude the creative genius.  …

*

We live in a Head Girl’s world – which is also a world where creative genius is marginalized and disempowered to the point of near-complete invisibility.

The quest for social status is, I suspect, one of the things driving the system. Status-oriented people refuse to accept information that comes from people lower status than themselves, which renders system feedback even more difficult. The internet as a medium of information sharing is beautiful; the internet as a medium of status signalling is horrible.

So what do you think? Do sufficiently large organization start acting like malevolent (or hostile) AIs?

(Back to Part 1)

Do Sufficiently Large Organizations Start Acting Like Malevolent AIs? (pt 1)

(and Society is an Extremely Large Organization)

What do I mean by malevolent AI?

AI typically refers to any kind of intelligence or ability to learn possessed by machines. Malevolent AI occurs when a machine pursues its programmed objectives in a way that humans find horrifying or immoral. For example, a machine programmed to make paperclips might decide that the easiest way to maximize paperclip production is to enslave humans to make paperclips for it. Superintelligent AI is AI that has figured out how to make itself smarter and thus keeps getting smarter and smarter. (Should we develop malevolent superintelligent AI, then we’ll really have something to worry about.)

Note: people who actually study AI probably have better definitions than I do.

While we like to think of ourselves (humans) as unique, thinking individuals, it’s clear that many of our ideas come from other people. Chances are good you didn’t think up washing your hands or brushing your teeth by yourself, but learned about them from your parents. Society puts quite a bit of effort, collectively speaking, into teaching children all of the things people have learned over the centuries–from heliocentrism to the fact that bleeding patients generally makes diseases worse, not better.

Just as we cannot understand the behavior of ants or bees simply by examining the anatomy of a single ant or single bee, but must look at the collective life of the entire colony/hive, so we cannot understand human behavior by merely examining a single human, but must look at the collective nature of human societies. “Man is a political animal,” whereby Aristotle did not mean that we are inherently inclined to fight over transgender bathrooms, but instinctively social:

Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either above humanity, or below it; he is the ‘Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one,’ whom Homer denounces—the outcast who is a lover of war; he may be compared to a bird which flies alone.

Now the reason why man is more of a political animal than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech. And whereas mere sound is but an indication of pleasure or pain, and is therefore found in other animals (for their nature attains to the perception of pleasure and pain and the intimation of them to one another, and no further), the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state. –Aristotle, Politics

With very rare exceptions, humans–all humans, in all parts of the world–live in groups. Tribes. Families. Cities. Nations. Our nearest primate relatives, chimps and bonobos, also live in groups. Primates are social, and their behavior can only be understood in the context of their groups.

Groups of humans are able to operate in ways that individual humans cannot, drawing on the collective memories, skills, and knowledge of their members to create effects much greater than what could be achieved by each person acting alone. For example, one lone hunter might be able to kill a deer–or if he is extremely skilled, hardworking, and lucky, a dozen deer–but ten hunters working together can drive an entire herd of deer over a cliff, killing hundreds or even thousands. (You may balk at the idea, but many traditional hunting societies were dependent on only a few major hunts of migrating animals to provide the majority of their food for the entire year–meaning that those few hunts had to involve very high numbers of kills or else the entire tribe would starve while waiting for the animals to return.)

Chimps have never, to my knowledge, driven megafauna to extinction–but humans have a habit of doing so wherever they go. Humans are great at what we do, even if we aren’t always great at extrapolating long-term trends.

But the beneficial effects of human cooperation don’t necessarily continue to increase as groups grow larger–China’s 1.3 billion people don’t appear to have better lives than Iceland’s 332,000 people. Indeed, there probably is some optimal size–depending on activity and available communications technology–beyond which the group struggles to coordinate effectively and begins to degenerate.

CBS advises us to make groups of 7:

As it turns out, seven is a great number for not only forming an effective fictional fighting force, but also for task groups that use spreadsheets instead of swords to do their work.

That’s according to the new book Decide & Deliver: 5 Steps to Breakthrough Performance in Your Organization (Harvard Business Press).

Once you’ve got 7 people in a group, each additional member reduces decision effectiveness by 10%, say the authors, Marcia W. Blenko, Michael C. Mankins, and Paul Rogers.

Unsurprisingly, a group of 17 or more rarely makes a decision other than when to take a lunch break.

Princeton blog reports:

The trope that the likelihood of an accurate group decision increases with the abundance of brains involved might not hold up when a collective faces a variety of factors — as often happens in life and nature. Instead, Princeton University researchers report that smaller groups actually tend to make more accurate decisions, while larger assemblies may become excessively focused on only certain pieces of information. …

collective decision-making has rarely been tested under complex, “realistic” circumstances where information comes from multiple sources, the Princeton researchers report in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. In these scenarios, crowd wisdom peaks early then becomes less accurate as more individuals become involved, explained senior author Iain Couzin, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. …

The researchers found that the communal ability to pool both pieces of information into a correct, or accurate, decision was highest in a band of five to 20. After that, the accurate decision increasingly eluded the expanding group.

Couzin found that in small groups, people with specialized knowledge could effectively communicate that to the rest of the group, whereas in larger groups, they simply couldn’t convey their knowledge to enough people and group decision-making became dominated by the things everyone knew.

If you could travel back in time and propose the idea of democracy to the inhabitants of 13th century England, they’d respond with incredulity: how could peasants in far-flung corners of the kingdom find out who was running for office? Who would count the votes? How many months would it take to tally up the results, determine who won, and get the news back to the outlying provinces? If you have a printing press, news–and speeches–can quickly and accurately spread across large distances and to large numbers of people, but prior to the press, large-scale democracy simply wasn’t practical.

Likewise, the communism of 1917 probably couldn’t have been enacted in 1776, simply because society at that time didn’t have the technology yet to gather all of the necessary data on crop production, factory output, etc. (As it was, neither did Russia of 1917, but they were closer.)

Today, the amount of information we can gather and share on a daily basis is astounding. I have at my fingertips the world’s greatest collection of human knowledge, an overwhelming torrent of data.

All of our these information networks have linked society together into an increasingly efficient meta-brain–unfortunately, it’s not a very smart meta-brain. Like the participants in Couzin’s experiments, we are limited to what “everyone knows,” stymied in our efforts to impart more specialized knowledge. (I don’t know about you, but I find being shouted down by a legion of angry people who know less about a subject than I do one of the particularly annoying features of the internet.)

For example, there’s been a lot of debate lately about immigration, but how much do any of us really know about immigrants or immigrant communities? How much of this debate is informed by actual knowledge of the people involved, and how much is just people trying to extend vague moral principles to cover novel situations? I recently had a conversation with a progressive acquaintance who justified mass-immigration on the grounds that she has friendly conversations with the cabbies in her city. Heavens protect us–I hope to get along with people as friends and neighbors, not just when I am paying them!

One gets the impression in conversation with Progressives that they regard Christian Conservatives as a real threat, because that group that can throw its weight around in elections or generally enforce cultural norms that liberals don’t like, but are completely oblivious to the immigrants’ beliefs. Most of our immigrants hail from countries that are rather more conservative than the US and definitely more conservative than our liberals.

Any sufficiently intelligent democracy ought to be able to think critically about the political opinions of the new voters it is awarding citizenship to, but we struggle with this. My Progressive acquaintance seems think that we can import an immense, conservative, third-world underclass and it will stay servile indefinitely, not vote its own interests or have any effects on social norms. (Or its interests will be, coincidentally, hers.)

This is largely an information problem–most Americans are familiar with our particular brand of Christian conservatives, but are unfamiliar with Mexican or Islamic ones.

How many Americans have intimate, detailed knowledge of any Islamic society? Very few of us who are not Muslim ourselves speak Arabic, and few Muslim countries are major tourist destinations. Aside from the immigrants themselves, soldiers, oil company employees, and a handful of others have spent time in Islamic countries, but that’s about it–and no one is making any particular effort to listen to their opinions. (It’s a bit sobering to realize that I know more about Islamic culture than 90% of Americans and I still don’t really know anything.)

So instead of making immigration policy based on actual knowledge of the groups involved, people try to extend the moral rules–heuristics–they already have. So people who believe that “religious tolerance is good,” because this rule has generally been useful in preventing conflict between American religious groups, think this rule should include Muslim immigrants. People who believe, “I like being around Christians,” also want to apply their rule. (And some people believe, “Groups are more oppressive when they’re the majority, so I want to re-structure society so we don’t have a majority,” and use that rule to welcome new immigrants.)

And we are really bad at testing whether or not our rules are continuing to be useful in these new situations.

 

Ironically, as our networks have become more effective, our ability to incorporate new information may have actually gone down.

The difficulties large groups experience trying to coordinate and share information force them to become dominated by procedures–set rules of behavior and operation are necessary for large groups to operate. A group of three people can use ad-hoc consensus and rock-paper-scissors to make decisions; a nation of 320 million requires a complex body of laws and regulations.

But it’s getting late, so let’s continue this discussion in the next post.

Anthropology Friday: Original Gangster, by Frank Lucas pt. 2

Welcome back to Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster: the real life story of one of America’s most notorious drug lords. (Given that I’d never heard of Frank Lucas before reading this book, I’m not sure how notorious he actually is, but I’ll grant that I can’t name a whole lot of drug lords off the top of my head.)

To recap: at the age of 14, Frank Lucas arrived–penniless and homeless–in NYC. He began stealing food and quickly progressed to drug dealing and armed robbery:

I was crazy. I didn’t care about anything except where my next dollar was coming from and how I was going to spend it… I heard through the grapevine that I had at least five contracts out on my life. From the grocery-store owner to the group of gangsters I’d robbed at the gambling spot,* people were straight up making deals and promising money to anyone who would kill em dead in the street.

*Not a good idea.

I should mention here that I was all of seventeen years old.

I wasn’t afraid to die. More than that, I just didn’t care about dying. I was young, tough, good-looking, and strong. I was prepared to do whatever I had to do to live. If that meant killing anyone who tried to kill me, so be it.

I have a friend who was homeless for many years. During that time, he never held up a liquor store or so much as picked a pocket. He ate at soup kitchens and slept in homeless shelters, and while the food was dull and the environs terrible, he didn’t starve and he is very much still alive. Of course, the charity situation in NYC in the 40s may have been different, but I have not heard of their homeless just starving to death. Theft is not necessary for survival.

On the other hand, Frank Lucas was homeless for a far shorter time than my friend, and ended up with far more money.

For several weeks, I was a wanted man. But if you’d run into me at one of my Harlem hangouts you’d never have known it by looking at me. I was calm, cool. and collected. I woke up every morning ready to kill on sight. …

I continued robbing whoever and wherever, getting my money up, and I was still dating any woman I wanted.

Lack of fear is one of the signs of psychopathy (especially since psychopaths experience low emotional affect in general.) As Wikipedia puts it:

People scoring 25 or higher in the PCL-R, with an associated history of violent behavior, appear on average to have significantly reduced microstructural integrity between the white matter connecting the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex (such as the uncinate fasciculus). The evidence suggested that the degree of abnormality was significantly related to the degree of psychopathy and may explain the offending behaviors. …

Additionally, the notion of psychopathy being characterized by low fear is consistent with findings of abnormalities in the amygdala, since deficits in aversive conditioning and instrumental learning are thought to result from amygdala dysfunction, potentially compounded by orbitofrontal cortex dysfunction, although the specific reasons are unknown.

Back to Lucas:

I think we need to recap right here before I go any further. I come up to Harlem in the mid-1940s, just barely a teenager. I start robbing and stealing, move on to selling heroin, and within a few years, I’d made and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. … And I took it straight to the gambling and pool halls throughout my neighborhood and lost every penny.

Here are the 20 items from Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist:

Glib and superficial charm
Grandiose self-estimation
Pathological lying
Cunning and manipulativeness

Need for stimulation
Impulsivity / Irresponsibility
Poor behavioral controls
Lack of (realistic) long-term goals
Many short-term marital relationships / Sexual promiscuity

Lack of remorse or guilt / Lack of empathy
Shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Parasitic lifestyle
Early behavioral problems / Juvenile delinquency
Revocation of conditional release
Criminal versatility

Lucas does eventually get married, love his wife, provide for a couple of his many children, and feel remorse for selling the heroin that killed many people. But that’s later. At 17, he was wondering if he could get in on the murder-for-hire business:

I wondered if Icepick needed a little help in the kill-for-hire business. I would have killed someone for twenty-five thousand dollars. … It’s the mind frame I was in at the time. … It was kill or be killed, as far as I was concerned.

Icepick Red was wanted by the police for walking up to people in the streets and sticking icepicks into their chests, presumably in exchange for money. Lucas tries to talk to Icepick, but Icepick (who does not come across as the sanest guy) won’t even acknowledge his presence. (Later in the book, one of Lucas’s wives–upon realizing that he was going to be a terrible father–has an abortion, and Lucas has the temerity to object that killing fetuses is immoral.)

I wanted to find a picture for you of Icepick–or even the original newspaper article about him–but so far nothing specific has come up. I did, however, find an article confirming that icepicks were a popular murder weapon about this time:

Just when it seemed the ice pick served no purpose, a Brooklyn organized-crime syndicate, known as Murder Incorporated, found a deliberately sinister use for the otherwise antiquated tool. Historians estimate that the gangster ring carried out 400 to 1,000 contract killings. In more than a few cases, the victim met with his death at the end of an ice pick.

According to newspaper accounts, two young Brooklyn “underworld characters” were found dead in a vacant lot in New Jersey in 1932. Their bodies, each stabbed at least 20 times with an ice pick, were stuffed into sewn sacks. One victim had only one cent in his pocket.

In 1944, a jury found Jacob Drucker guilty of the murder of Walter Sage, a Brooklyn moneylender whose body was found “riddled with ice-pick holes” and strapped to a slot machine frame.

“Let me put it to you this way,” said a former New York City police detective. “An ice pick stabbed through the temple and through the brains was not uncommon in homicides.”

Back then, mobsters used ice picks not only because the tool was easy to get and did the job … but also because an ice pick instilled fear. It was employed to send a message, said the detective, Thomas D. Nerney, 72, who joined the New York Police Department in 1966 and worked in virtually every homicide squad in the city before retiring in 2002.

“Murder is not only to take somebody’s life away, but to terrorize,” Mr. Nerney said. …”That was the message that went out to the people who didn’t comply with the rules of the Mafia.”

Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson (10/31/1905 – 7/7/1968)

A little later, Lucas and Icepick Red got into a tense situation over a game of pool, when Bumpy Johnson stepped in (and, according to Lucas, saved his life):

I’d never seen him before. But anyone living in Harlem knew the name Bumpy Johnson. I’d read his name in the paper a few time and I knew that if anyone in Harlem wanted to do any kind of big business, he had to come see Bumpy Johnson first. Or die. …

I only knew the basics about Bumpy stuff I’d heard in the streets. He was from South Carolina. And I’d heard that he wasn’t a typical gangster. He worked the streets but he wasn’t of the streets. He was refined and classy, more like a businessman with a legitimate career than most people in the underworld. I could tell by looking at him that he was a lot different than most people I saw in the streets. …

From that day until the day he died, my place was at the right side of Bumpy Johnson. I went where he went. I did whatever he told me to do. I listened, I observed, and I learned. I didn’t ask questions. I only followed commands and order. And I learned everything about how the King of Harlem ran his enterprises.

Stephanie St. Clair

There’s some debate over how much Lucas actually worked for Bumpy. Bumpy’s wife, Mayme, tells the story differently. (Here’s an interesting story about Bumpy from Mayme’s POV.)

I’m not sure if Icepick Red was a real person, or multiple people rolled into one character, but Bumpy was definitely real. He moved to Harlem in 1919, and became an enforcer for Stephanie St. Clair, herself, fascinating. St. Clair, born in 1886 in Martinique of French and African parentage, became one of Harlem’s only female mob bosses. According to Wikipedia:

After the end of Prohibition, Jewish and Italian-American crime families saw a decrease in profits and decided to move in on the Harlem gambling scene. Bronx-based mob boss Dutch Schultz was the first to move in, beating and killing numbers operators who would not pay him protection.

Saint-Clair and her chief enforcer Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson refused to pay protection to Schultz, despite the violence and intimidation by police they faced. St. Clair responded by attacking the storefronts of businesses that ran Dutch Schultz’s betting operations and tipping off the police about him. This resulted in the police raiding his house, arresting more than a dozen of his employees and seizing approximately $12 million (about $216 million in 2016 currency). Saint-Clair never submitted to Dutch Schultz like many others in Harlem eventually did.

After Saint-Clair’s struggles with Schultz, she had to keep clean and away from police, so she handed off her business to “Bumpy” Johnson. Eventually her former enforcer negotiated with Lucky Luciano, and Lucky took over Schultz’s spots, with a percentage going to “Bumpy”. The Italians then had to go to “Bumpy” first if they had any problems in Harlem.

Luciano realized that the struggle with the Five Families was hurting their business, so Schultz was assassinated in 1935 on the orders of The Commission. Saint-Clair sent an insulting telegram to his hospital bed as the gangster lay dying. By the 1940s, “Bumpy” Johnson had become the reigning king in Harlem, while Saint-Clair became less and less involved in the numbers game.

Let’s return to Lucas’s account:

If you wanted to do business in Harlem, you went through Bumpy. And you paid him a percentage of your profits for the benefits of being in business in the neighborhood. It was like property tax–hazard insurance. If you didn’t want your hardware store, beauty salon, or grocery to go up in flames in the dead of night, you collected your fee every month and passed it off to one of Bumpy’s associates…

I saw a variety of celebrities come into his brownstone to visit. I saw the actor Sidney Poitier in the sitting room one afternoon, talking with Bumpy. On other occasions, I saw people like Billy Daniels and Billy Eckstine in the formal dining room for dinner. Of course, I never had conversation with these people. That wasn’t my place…

years later, I’d hear about how Bumpy Johnson was supposedly a big time drug dealer. I put my life on this statement right here: I didn’t know nothing about Bumpy and drugs. He never whispered a word to me about it and I was with him from first thing in the morning till late at night. I’m not saying he wasn’t. I’m just saying that if he was, he did it all without me hearing a word about it. …

Bumpy didn’t just shake down businesses in Harlem. If anyone made any money doing anything illegal, Bumpy was owed a piece of that, too. Soon after I started working for him, some guys from Harlem pulled a job off out in the Midwest, robbed some diamonds from somewhere. And they sent Bumpy his share of the heist. That kind of thing happened quite often.

The story of Icepick Red comes to an end after Icepick murders one of Bumpy’s associates and rapes the deceased’s wife. Bumpy sends Lucas and some of his other men to do what the police couldn’t: bring Icepick in. Bumpy proceeds to chain Icepick to a pipe and sic a couple of jars of fire ants on him. Icepick is eaten alive.

(Despite Icepick’s crimes, Lucas expresses horror at the nature of his murder, noting that he wishes he had just shot Icepick when they cornered him.)

Whether Icepick was real or a composite, I still wonder it took someone like Bumpy–not the police–to bring him down. Was it only in the 90s that the police got serious about stopping criminals, instead of occasionally beating them up and then returning them to the streets?

I’m running low on time, so that’s all for today. See you next Friday!

Cathedral Round-Up #28: They’re not coming for George Washington, that’s just a silly right-wing conspiracy–

Titus Kaphar’s Shadows of Liberty, 2016, at Yale University Art Gallery

Is that… George Washington? With rusty nails pounded into his face?

Holding up “cascading fragments of his slave records.”

Oh. I see.

Carry on, then.

I was going to write about Harvard forbidding its female students from forming female-only safe spaces (College will Debut Plans to Enforce Sanctions Next Semester) in an attempt to shut down all single-gender frats and Finals Clubs, but then Princeton upped the ante with Can Art Amend Princeton’s History of Slavery?

No. Of course not.

Princeton University [has] a new public-art project that confronts the school’s participation in the nation’s early sins. On Monday, the university unveiled Impressions of Liberty, by the African American artist Titus Kaphar. The sculpture is the conceptual core of a campus-wide initiative that begins this fall and aims to reconcile the university’s ties to slavery. The Princeton and Slavery Project’s website has released hundreds of articles and primary documents about slavery and racism at Princeton…

Attaching strips of canvas or other material to the faces of people he disapproves of is apparently one of Kaphar’s shticks.

I’m old enough to remember when George Washington was admired for freeing all of his slaves in an era when most people took slavery for granted. Today he is castigated for not having sprung from the womb with a fully modern set of moral opinions.

Impressions of Liberty, by Titus Kaphar

Impressions of Liberty is Kaphar’s portrait of Samuel Finley–fifth president and one of the original trustees of Princeton (1761-1766)–interwoven with photographs of black actors in historical dress etched in glass.

For generations, slave-owning Christians—including Princeton’s founders—used religious ideas to justify a horrific national practice, [Kaphar] noted; Finley is holding a bible in Impressions of Liberty.

Note the framing: yes, Christians used religion to justify owning slaves. So did Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, pagans, and atheists. There’s nothing unique about Christians and slavery aside from the fact that Finley was Christian. No mention is made of pagan Africans who captured and sold each other into slavery, nor of Muslims who raided Africa and Europe in search of slaves. There were Jewish slave merchants and Confederates, as well, for slavery was a near-universal practice justified by people all over the world prior to its abolition by whites in the 1800s. The article mentions none of that; only Christians are singled out for criticism.

The article doesn’t say how much Princeton paid for the sculpture it commissioned to castigate the memory of one of its founders. The work currently stands outside MacLean House, but will soon be moved indoors, to Princeton’s permanent art collection. MacLean House–completed in 1756–is a national landmark that was home to Princeton’s first presidents, including Samuel Finley. It also housed George Washington during the Battle of Princeton.

According to the article:

On the one hand, according to records, Princeton was a bastion of liberty, educating numerous Revolutionary War leaders and in 1783 hosting the Continental Congress… At the same time, Sandweiss found that the institution’s first nine presidents all owned slaves at some point, as did the school’s early trustees. She also discovered that the school enrolled a significant number of anti-abolitionist, Southern students during its early years; an alumni delivered a pro-slavery address at the school’s 1850 commencement ceremony. …

Princeton’s racist history enabled it to provide social and political benefits for alumni—an advantage that students will continue to enjoy well into the future.

While I happen to think that universities have it much too good these days and deserve to be taken down a notch, I find this claim extremely dubious. Harvard and Yale are located in staunchly abolitionist New England and had very few ties to slavery, (Mr. Yale apparently knew a guy who had slaves, and Harvard Law School received some money from a guy who had slaves,) yet these schools are arguably even wealthier and more powerful than closer-to-the-South and more-tied-to-slavery Princeton. Stanford was founded after slavery was outlawed, and yet its students enjoy social and political benefits on par with Princeton’s.

We could argue that the entire area of the Confederacy reaped the economic benefits of slavery, yet today this region is much poorer than the Free States of the North. There isn’t just no correlation between slavery, wealth, and power–there’s actually a negative correlation. Slavery, if it has any effect at all, makes a region poorer and weaker.

Monumental Inversion: George Washington, (Titus Kaphar,) Princeton Art Museum

… Princeton University is spreading the mission across various pieces of art through a show this fall entitled “Making History Visible: Of American Myths And National Heroes.” At the exhibit’s entrance, viewers begin with Kaphar’s piece Monumental Inversion: George Washington—a sculpture of the leader astride his horse, made out of wood, blown glass, and steel. The sculpture depicts the former president’s dueling nature: He’s glorified within a great American equestrian monument but he’s also sitting astride a charred cavity, surrounded by glass on the ground. In juxtaposing Kaphar’s artwork and a George Washington plaster bust, “Making History Visible” forces visitors, hopefully, to see and feel the contradiction in colonial leaders who sought freedom from tyranny but did not extend that ideal to slaves.

I repeat: George Washington freed all of his slaves.

We might question the point of all this. Kaphar is free to make his art, of course. His paintings display quite excellent technical skill, I admit. But why do we, as a society, feel the need to commission and display attacks on our founders? Princeton’s students could just as happily go to class each day without looking at images of Finley’s slaves; unlike Washington, Finley isn’t famous and most students were probably blissfully unaware of his slaveholding until someone decided to stick a sculpture dedicated to it on the lawn.

How do Princeton’s black students feel after walking past a sculpture depicting slaves? Uplifted? Happy? Ready to go to class and concentrate on their lectures? I doubt it. Art may be “powerful” or “open dialogues,” but no one seems to feel better after viewing such pieces.

No, I don’t see how this selective dwelling on the past improves anything.

A world in which images of your founders and heroes are defaced, their corpses judged and rusty nails are driven into their portraits: it’s like a cruel dystopia, Lewis’s That Hideous Strength or 1984. According to Wikipedia:

During and after the October Revolution, widespread destruction of religious and secular imagery took place, as well as the destruction of imagery related to the Imperial family. The Revolution was accompanied by destruction of monuments of past tsars, as well as the destruction of imperial eagles at various locations throughout Russia. According to Christopher Wharton, “In front of a Moscow cathedral, crowds cheered as the enormous statue of Tsar Alexander III was bound with ropes and gradually beaten to the ground. After a considerable amount of time, the statue was decapitated and its remaining parts were broken into rubble”.[40]

The Soviet Union actively destroyed religious sites, including Russian Orthodox churches and Jewish cemeteries, in order to discourage religious practice and curb the activities of religious groups.

You know, they tell us, “No one is attacking George Washington; that’s just a crazy right-wing conspiracy theory,” and then they go and do it.

Incidentally, Georgetown, according to the article, “announced last year that it would grant admissions preference to descendants of slaves whose sale it profited from in the early 1800s.” How do you qualify for that? Do you have to prove that you’re descended from the specific slaves involved, or can you be descended from any American slaves? Because I had ancestors who were enslaved, too, and I’d like to get in on this racket.

In the end, the article answers its titular question:

When Impressions of Liberty is removed from Maclean House in December and enters Princeton’s permanent museum collection, its greatest achievement may lie in the realization that no apology or recompense can ever suffice. …

“No civil-rights project can ever fully redeem anything.”