Vacation Posting pt. 2: Brain Modules, Fertility, and Conspiracy

Sorry, I’ve been on vacation (and no, I do not like vacations.) This has interfered with my normal writing schedule, (it is now past 4 am) but here are the notes I managed to jot down in the car:

2. Brain Modules

This is relevant to my previous post on “The Modular Mind,” in which I proposed that people use a kind of compartmentalized or “modular” thinking to break down the complexity of life into manageable chunks. People can hold two beliefs at once that they think are “logical” but contradict each other because each belief is sort of “lodged in” a different module.

For example, Module 1 likes to think about Pensions. Mod 1 knows that pensions are paid for via current workers’ salaries, so we have to have enough future workers to fund future pension obligations.

Module 2 likes to think about the Environment. Mod 2 knows that we only have so many resources and that a growing population will quickly exhaust them, so we must reduce birthrates to save the environment.

Mod 1 then looks around and panics because, Oh no, there aren’t enough young people around to fund the pensions!

Mod 1 doesn’t bother to check in with Mod 2 about why there aren’t enough babies around. It just has some vague idea that people don’t want to make babies for some reason, so it goes and finds some people who do make babies and propose that we let more of them into the country.

Mod 1: Problem solved!

Mod 2: Oh no, look what all of those new people just did to our carbon footprint! We will have to reduce and conserve even more!

Modular thinking lets people process one problem very effectively, but interferes with seeing connections between those problems. In this case, they don’t see why mods 1 and 2 are working in opposition to each other.

From the outside–to someone who encounters both thoughts at once and so doesn’t process them separately–it makes no sense that someone could advocate both at once. They obviously contradict. Hence, outsiders tend to assume this contradiction is deliberate, caused by conspiracy, malice, or ill-will.

(Don’t worry, this is the last of the vacation posting.)

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Cathedral Round-Up: You can have my towel when you pry it from my cold, dead hands

We’re going to kick off today’s Cathedral Round-Up with a trip down memory lane.

This may come as some surprise, given my scintillating wit and gregarious nature, but I was not popular in school. If there was a social totem pole, I was a mud puddle about twenty yards to the left of the pole.

The first time I felt like I truly fit in–I belonged–was at nerd camp. This was a sort of summer camp your parents send you to when you’ve failed at Scouting and they hope maybe you’ll pick up chemistry or philosophy instead.

One evening, when I was gathered in the dorm with my new friends, a girl burst triumphantly into our midst, brandishing a book. “I have it,” she triumphed. “I have it! The book!”

The Book, which we all proceeded to read, and after camp ended, to discuss in what were my very first emails, was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Over at Human Resource Executives, McIlvane reports on a new study by Stanford’s Correll and Wynn:

An interesting new study from Stanford University finds that company recruiters from tech firms may be putting off female college grads through their behavior—some of it a bit questionable. …

The researchers found that during their informational presentations, the recruiters—no doubt in an attempt to bond with their audiences—frequently referenced “geek culture favorites” such as Star Trek and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, focused the conversation exclusively on highly technical aspects of the roles or referred to high school coding experience. …

As diversity experts have pointed out before, geek culture references tend to resonate most strongly with white men while women tend to feel excluded by that culture.

In case you haven’t noticed or this is your first time visiting my humble blog, I am female. All of my friends at camp were female.

“Through gender-imbalanced presenter roles, geek culture references, overt use of gender stereotypes, and other gendered speech and actions, representatives may puncture the pipeline, lessening the interest of women at the point of recruitment into technology careers,” the researchers write.

Dear Diversity Experts: In the words of the first real friend I ever had, please disembowel yourselves with a rusty spoon.

The study itself is not easily available online, so I will respectfully judge them based on summaries in HRE and Wired.

Short version: A couple of sociologist “gender researchers,” who of course know STEM culture very well, sat in on tech company recruiting sessions at Stanford and discovered that nerds talk about nerd things, OMG EWWW, and concluded that icky nerds doing their nerd thing in public is why women decide to go apply for more prestigious jobs elsewhere.

Now, I understand what it’s like not to get someone else’s references. I haven’t seen Breaking Bad, NCIS, Sex in the City, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, or the past X Starwars installments. I don’t watch sports, play golf, or drink alcohol.

But I don’t go around complaining that other people need to stop talking about things that interest them and just talk about stuff that interests me. It doesn’t bother me that other people have their interests, because I have plenty of room over here on my end of the internet to talk about mine.

But apparently these “Diversity Experts” think that the cultural icons of my childhood need to be expunged from conversation just to make people like them feel more comfortable.

Dear Correll and Wynn: when people like you stop assuming that everyone in your vicinity is interested in hearing about wine and yoga and golf, I’ll stop assuming that people who show some interest in my culture are interested in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Notice that the problem here is not that the women are being turned away, or discriminated against, or receiving fewer callbacks than male applicants. No, the problem is that the women think geek culture is icky and so don’t even bother to apply. They have decided that they have better options, but since someone decided that is imperative that all professions be 50% women (except plumbing, sewer workers, truckers, etc.) they must somehow be tricked into going into their second-choice field.

No one seems to have thought to, ahem, consult the actual women who work in Tech or who have STEM degrees or are otherwise associated with the field about whether or not they thought these sorts of geek cultural references were off-putting. No, we do not exist in Correll and Wynn’s world, or perhaps because our numbers are low, there just aren’t enough of us to matter.

STEM/tech exists in this weird limbo where women abstractly want more women in it, but don’t actually want to be the women in it. Take Wynn. She has a degree in English. She could have majored in Chemistry, but chose not to. Now she whines that there aren’t enough female engineers.

People routinely denigrate law and lawyers. Lawyers are the butt of many jokes, and people claim to hate lawyers, but lawyers themselves are treated with a great deal of courtesy and respect, and have no difficulties on the dating market.

STEM works inversely: people claim to hold scientists and mathematicians in great respect, but in practice they are much lower on the social totem pole. Lots of people would like good grades in math, but don’t want to hang out with the kid who does get good grades in math.

So feminists want women to be acknowledged as equally capable with men at things like “math” and “winning Nobel Prizes” and “becoming billionaire CEOS” (hey, I want those things, too,) but don’t want to do the grunt work that is most of what people in STEM fields actually do. They don’t want to spend their days around sweaty guys who talk about Linux kernels or running around as lab assistant #3. For a lot of people, tech jobs are not only kind of boring and frustrating, but don’t even pay that well, considering all of the education involved in getting them.

The result is a lot of concern trolling from people who claim to want more women in STEM, but don’t want to address the underlying problems for why most women aren’t all that interested in STEM in the first place.

Are there real problems for women in STEM? Maybe. I have female commentators who can tell you about the difficulties they’ve had in STEM communities. It is different being a female in a male-dominated field than being female in a balanced or female-dominated field, and this has its downsides. But “men said nerd things” or “men referenced porn” is not even remotely problematic. (I will note that men have problems in STEM fields, too.)

While we’re here, I’d like to talk about these “Diversity Experts” whom HRE cites as proof for their claims that women find geek culture off-putting. Their link heads not to a study on the subject, nor even an actual expert on anything, but an opinion piece by Kerry Flynn on Mashable:

The lack of diversity in tech isn’t a new issue, and yet top leaders in Silicon Valley still struggle to talk about it.

They struggle so much that this is an entire article about a female CEO talking about it. Talking openly about a thing is the same as struggling to talk about it, right?

The latest stumble comes from YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki speaking with MSNBC’s Ari Melber and Recode’s Kara Swisher at the media companies’ first town hall titled “Revolution: Google and YouTube Changing the World,” which aired Sunday.

The latest stumble, ladies and gents! Wojcicki might be a female CEO of a tech giant, but what the hell does she know? Kerry Flynn knows much better than she does. Wojcicki had better shape up to Flynn’s standards, because Flynn is keeping track, ladies and gents.

According to Wojcicki, one reason for the lack of women in tech is its reputation for being a “very geeky male industry.”

Ouch.

That kind of statement makes it seem like Wojcicki has forgotten about the diverse and minority perspectives that are fighting for representation in the industry. For instance, with the #IlLookLikeAnEngineer campaign, engineer Isis Wenger wrote about the sexism she faced working in tech and inspired a movement of women shutting down stereotypes.

See, women and minorities are trying to counter the perception of tech being a “very geeky male industry,” which Wojcicki obviously forgot about when she claimed that tech has a reputation for being a “very geeky male industry.”

Kerry Flynn is very stupid.

The entire article goes on in this vein and it’s all awful. Nowhere does Flynn prove anything about women not liking The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy.

***

What other interesting articles does Stanford Magazine hold for us?

So what happens when you send your kids to Stanford? Stanford Magazine has helpful interviews with recent grads. Yeji Jung got enmeshed in Social Justice, changed her major from pre-med to “comparative studies in race and ethnicity,” graduated, and went home to her parents to make collages.

I searched for Yeji Jung’s art, which is supposed to be making the world a better and more just place, and found almost nothing. This red cabbage and the lips in the Stanford Mag article are it. This does not look promising.

I bet her parents are very glad they worked their butts off for years making sure their kid got all As in her classes and aced SAT so she could come home from Stanford and paste paper together.

A quote from the article:

A thesis project to investigate the links between her Korean-American identity and the experiences of her Korean grandmothers took her to Seoul, South Korea, and Manassas, Va., to interview them in Korean.

Wait, you can get a degree from Stanford by interviewing your grandparents? Dude, I call my grandma every weekend! That should be worth at least a master’s.

“[My grandmothers’] lives are so deeply gendered in a way that I just have not experienced as someone who grew up in the U.S. One of my interview questions was framed as, ‘What did you study in college?’ [My grandmother in Virginia said,] ‘Oh, I didn’t go to college — girls in that day didn’t go to college. We went to work.’ That was a moment for me of, ‘Wow, I just have these assumptions about my life that are not a given.’

Girls in my grandmothers’ day went to college. Both of mine went to college. One of them earned a PhD in a STEM field; the other became a teacher. Teacher was a pretty common profession for women in my grandmother’s day. So was nurse.

I can take that a step further: my great-grandmother went to college.

Perhaps she meant was girls in Korea didn’t go to college in those days, though I’m sure Korea had needed plenty of nurses about 70 years ago, and frankly I’m not sure many men were going to college in those days.

I often idly wonder if elites push SJW nonsense to remove competitors. Yeji Jung is probably a very bright young woman who would have made an excellent doctor or medical researcher. Instead she has shuffled off to irrelevance.

Book Club: Code Economy: Economics as Information Theory

If the suggestion… that the economy is “alive” seems fanciful or far-fetched, it is much less so if we consider the alternative: that it is dead.

Welcome back to your regularly scheduled discussion of Auerswald’s The Code Economy: a Forty-Thousand-Year History. Today we are discussing Chapter 9: Platforms, but feel free to jump into the discussion even if you haven’t read the book.

I loved this chapter.

We can safely answer that the economy–or the sum total of human provisioning, consumptive, productive and social activities–is neither “alive” nor, exactly, “non-living.”

The economy has a structure, yes. (So does a crystal.) It requires energy, like a plant, sponge, or macaque. It creates waste. But like a beehive, it is not “conscious;” voters struggle to make any kind of coherent policies.

Can economies reproduce themselves, like a beehive sending out swarms to found new hives? Yes, though it is difficult in a world where most of the sensible human niches have already been filled.

Auerswald notes that his use of the word “code” throughout the book is not (just) because of its modern sense in the coding of computer programs, but because of its use in the structure of DNA–we are literally built from the instructions in our genetic “code,” and society is, on top of that, layers and layers of more code, for everything from “how to raise vegetables” to “how to build an iPhone” to, yes, Angry Birds.

Indeed, as I have insisted throughout, this is more than an analogy: the introduction of production recipes into economics is… exactly what the introduction of DNA i to molecular biology. it is the essential first step toward a transformation of economics into a branch of information theory.

I don’t have much to say about information theory because I haven’t studied information theory, beyond once reading a problem about a couple of people named Alice and Bob who were trying to send messages to each other, but I did read Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and, Kenneth Cukier‘s Big Data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work, and think a couple of weeks ago. It doesn’t rise to the level of “OMG this was great you must read it,” but if you’re interested in the subject, it’s a good introduction and pairs nicely with The Code Economy, as many of the developments in “big data” are relevant to recent developments in code. It’s also helpful in understanding why on earth anyone sees anything of value in companies like Facebook and LinkedIn, which will be coming up soon.

You know, we know that bees live in a hive, but do bees know? (No, not for any meaningful definition of “knowing.”) But imagine being a bee, and slowly working out that you live in a hive, and that the hive “behaves” in certain ways that you can model, just like you can model the behavior of an individual bee…

Anyway:

Economics has a lot to say about how to optimize the level of inputs to get output, but what about the actual process of tuning inputs into outputs? … In the Wonderful World of Widgets that i standard economic, ingredients combine to make a final product, but the recipe by which the ingredients actually become the product is nowhere explicitly represented.

After some papers on the NK model and th shift in organizational demands from pre-industrial economic production to post-industrial large-scale production by mega firms, (or in the case of communism, by whole states,) Auerswald concludes that

…the economy manages increasing complexity by “hard-wiring” solution into standards, which in turn define platforms.

Original Morse Telegraph machine, circa 1835 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Morse

This is an important insight. Electricity was once a new technology, whose mathematical rules were explored by cutting-edge scientists. Electrical appliances and the grid to deliver the electricity they run on were developed by folks like Edison and Tesla.

But today, the electrical grid reaches nearly every house in America. You don’t have to understand electricity at all to plug in your toaster. You don’t have to be Thomas Edison to lay electrical lines. You just have to follow instructions.

Electricity + electrical appliances replaced many jobs people used to do, like candle making or pony express delivery man, but electricity has not resulted in an overall loss of jobs. Rather, far more jobs now exist that depend on the electrical grid (or “platform”) than were eliminated.

(However, one of the difficulties or problems with codifying things into platforms is then, systems have difficulty handling other, perfectly valid methods of doing things. Early codification may lock-in certain ways of doing things that are actually suboptimal, like how our computer keyboard layout is intentionally difficult to use not because of anything to do with computers, but because typewriters in the 1800s jammed if people typed on them too quickly. Today, we would be better off with a more sensible keyboard layout, but the old one persists because too many systems use it.)

The Industrial Revolution was a time of first technological development, and then encoding into platforms of many varieties–transportation networks of water and rail; electrical, sewer, and fresh water grids; the large-scale production of antibiotics and vaccines; and even the codification of governments.

The English, a nation of a couple thousand years or so, are governed under a system known as “Common Law,” which is just all of the legal precedents and traditions built up over that time that have come into customary use.

When America was founded, it didn’t have a thousand years of experience to draw on because, well, it had just been founded, but it did have a thousand years of cultural memory of England’s government. English Common Law was codified as the base of the American legal system.

The Articles of Confederation, famous only for not working very well, were the fledgling country’s first attempt at codifying how the government should operate. They are typically described as failing because they allocated insufficient power to the federal government, but I propose a more nuanced take: the Articles laid out insufficient code for dealing with nation-level problems. The Constitution solved these problems and instituted the basic “platform” on which the rest of the government is built. Today, whether we want to ratify a treaty or change the speed limit on i-405, we don’t have to re-derive the entire decisions-making structure from scratch; legitimacy (for better or for worse) is already built into the system.

Since the days of the American and French revolutions, new countries have typically had “constitutions,” not because Common Law is bad, but because there is no need to re-derive from scratch successful governing platforms–they can just be copied from other countries, just as one firm can copy another firms organizational structure.

Continuing with Auerswald and the march of time:

Ask yourself what the greatest inventions were over the past 150 years: Penicillin? The transistor? Electrical power? Each of these has been transformative, but equally compelling candidates include universal time, container shipping, the TCP/IP protocols underlying the Internet, and the GSM and CDMA standards that underlie mobile telephony. These are the technologies that make global trade possible by making code developed in one place interoperable with code developed in another. Standards reduce barriers among people…

Auerswald, as a code enthusiast, doesn’t devote much space to the downsides of code. Clearly, code can make life easier, by reducing the number of cognitive tasks required to get a job done. Let’s take the matter of household management. If a husband and wife both adhere to “traditional gender norms,” such as an expectation that the wife will take care of internal household chores like cooking and vacuuming, and the husband will take care of external chores, like mowing the lawn, taking out the trash, and pumping gas, neither spouse has to ever discuss “who is going to do this job” or wonder “hey, did that job get done?”

Following an established code thus aids efficiency and appears to decrease marital stress (there are studies on this,) but this does not mean that the code itself is optimal. Perhaps men make better dish-washers than women. Or for a couple with a disabled partner, perhaps all of the jobs would be better performed by reversing the roles.

Technological change also encourages code change:

The replacement of manual push-mowers with gas-powered mowers makes mowing the lawn easier for women, so perhaps this task would be better performed by housewives. (Even the Amish have adopted milking machines on the grounds that by pumping the milk away from the cow for you, the machines enable women to participate equally in the milking–a task that previously involved picking up and carrying around 90 lb milkjugs.)

But re-writing the entire code is work and involves a learning curve as both parties sort out and get used to new expectations. (See my previous thread on “emotional labor” and its relation to gender norms.) So even if you think the old code isn’t fair or optimal, it still might be easier than trying to make a new code–and this extends to far more human relations than just marriage.

And then you get cases where the new technology is incompatible with the old code. Take, for example, the relationship between transportation, weights and measures, and the French Revolution.

A country in which there is no efficient way to get from Point A to Point B has no need for a standardized set of weights and measures, as people in Community A will never encounter or contend with whatever system they are using over in Community B. Even if a king wanted to create a standard system, he would have difficulty enforcing it. Instead, each community tends to evolve a system that works well for its own needs. A community that grows bananas, for example, will come up with measures suitable to bananas, like the “bunch,” a community that deals in grain will invent the “bushel,” and a community that enumerates no goods, like the Piraha, will not bother with large quantities quantities.

(Diamonds are measured in “carats,” which have nothing to do with the orange vegetable, but instead are derived from the seeds of the carob tree, which apparently are small enough to be weighed against small stones.)

Since the French paid taxes, there was some demand for standardized weights and measures within each province–if your taxes are “one bushel of grain,” you want to make sure “bushel” is well defined so the local lord doesn’t suddenly define this year’s bushel as twice as big as last year’s bushel–and likewise, the lord doesn’t want this year’s bushel to be defined as half the size as last year’s.

But as roads improved and trade increased, people became concerned with making sure that a bushel of grain sold in Paris was the same as a bushel purchased in Nice, or that 5 carats of diamonds in Bordeaux was still 5 carats when you reached Cognac.

But the established local power of the local nobility made it very hard to change whatever measures people were using in each individual place. That is, the existing code made it hard to change to a more efficient code, probably because local lords were concerned the new measures would result in fewer taxes, and the local peasants concerned it would result in higher taxes.

Thus it was only with the decapitation of the Ancien Regime and wiping away of the privileges and prerogatives of the nobility that Revolutionary France established, as one of its few lasting reforms, a universal system of weights and measures that has come down to us today as the metric or SI system.

Now, speaking as an American who has been trained in both Metric and Imperial units, using multiple systems can be annoying, but is rarely deadly. On the scale of sub-optimal ideas, humans have invented far worse.

Quoting Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb:

“The end result of the complex organization that was the efficient software of the Great War was the manufacture of corpses.

This essentially industrial operation was fantasized by the generals as a “strategy of attrition.” The British tried to kill Germans, the Germans tried to kill British and French and so on, a “strategy” so familiar by now that it almost sounds normal. It was not normal in Europe before 1914 and no one in authority expected it to evolve, despite the pioneering lessons of the American Civil War. Once the trenches were in place, the long grave already dug (John Masefield’s bitterly ironic phrase), then the war stalemated and death-making overwhelmed any rational response.

“The war machine,” concludes Elliot, “rooted in law, organization, production, movement, science, technical ingenuity, with its product of six thousand deaths a day over a period of 1,500 days, was the permanent and realistic factor, impervious to fantasy, only slightly altered by human variation.”

No human institution, Elliot stresses, was sufficiently strong to resist the death machine. A new mechanism, the tank, ended the stalemate.”

Russian Troops waiting for death

On the Eastern Front, the Death Machine was defeated by the Russian Revolution, as the canon fodder decided it didn’t want to be turned into corpses anymore.

I find World War I more interesting than WWII because it makes far less sense. The combatants in WWII had something resembling sensible goals, some chance of achieving their goals, and attempted to protect the lives of their own people. WWI, by contrast, has no such underlying logic, yet it happened anyway–proof that seemingly logical people can engage in the ultimate illogic, even as it reduces whole countries to nothing but death machines.

Why did some countries revolt against the cruel code of war, and others not? Perhaps an important factor is the perceived legitimacy of the government itself (though regular food shipments are probably just as critical.) Getting back to information theory, democracy itself is a kind of blockchain for establishing political legitimacy, (more on this in a couple of chapters) which may account for why some countries perceived their leadership as more legitimate, and other countries suddenly discovered, as information about other people’s opinions became easier to obtain, that the government enjoyed very little legitimacy.

But I am speculating, and have gotten totally off-topic (Auerswald was just discussing the establishment of TCP/IP protocols and other similar standards that aid international trade, not WWI!)

Returning to Auerswald, he cites a brilliant quote from Alfred North Whitehead

“Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”

As we were saying, while sub-optimal (or suicidal) code can and does destroy human societies, good code can substantially increase human well-being.

The discovery and refinement of new inventions, technologies, production recipes, etc., involves a steep learning curve as people first figure out how to make the thing work and to source and put together all of the parts necessary to build it, (eg, the invention of the automobile in the late 1800s and early 1900s,) but once the technology spreads, it simply becomes part of the expected infrastructure of everyday life (eg, the building of interstate highways and gas stations, allowing people to drive cars all around the US,) a “platform” on which other, future innovations build. Post-1950, most automobile-driven innovation was located not in refinements to the engines or brakes, but in things you can do with vehicles, like long-distance shipping.

Interesting things happen to income as code becomes platforms, but I haven’t worked out all of the details.

Continuing with Auerswald:

Note that, in code economics, a given country’s level of “development” is not sensibly measured by the total monetary value of all goods and services it produces…. Rather, the development of a country consists of … it capacity to execute more complex code. …

Less-developed countries that lack the code to produce complex products will import them, and they will export simpler intermediate products and raw materials in order to pay for the required imports.

By creating and adhering to widely-observed “standards,” increasing numbers of countries (and people) are able to share inventions, code, and development.

Of the drivers of beneficial trade, international standards are at once among the most important and the least appreciated. … From the invention of bills of exchange in the Middle Ages … to the creation of twenty-first-century communications protocols, innovations in standards have lowered the cost and enhanced the value of exchange across distance. …

For entrepreneurs in developing countries, demonstrated conformity with international standards… is a universally recognized mark of organizational capacity that substantially eases entry into global production and distribution networks.

In other words, you are more likely to order steel from a foreign factory if you have some confidence that you will actually receive the variety you ordered, and the factory can signal that it knows what it is doing and will actually deliver the specified steel by adhering to international standards.

On the other hand, I think this can degenerate into a reliance on the appearance of doing things properly, which partially explains the Elizabeth Holmes affair. Holmes sounded like she knew what she was doing–she knew how to sound like she was running a successful startup because she’d been raised in the Silicon Valley startup culture. Meanwhile, the people investing in Holmes’s business didn’t know anything about blood testing (Holmes’s supposed invention tested blood)–they could only judge whether the company sounded like it was a real business.

Auerswald then has a fascinating section comparing each subsequent “platform” that builds on the previous “platform” to trophic levels in the environment. The development of each level allows for the development of another, more complex level above it–the top platform becomes the space where newest code is developed.

If goods and services are built on platforms, one atop the other, then it follows that learning at higher levels of the system should be faster than learning at lower levels, for the simple reason that leaning at higher levels benefits from incremental learning all the way down.

There are two “layers” of learning. Raw material extraction shows high volatility around a a gradually increasing trend, aka slow learning. By contrast, the delivery of services over existing infrastructure, like roads or wireless networks, show exponential growth, aka fast learning.

In other words, the more levels of code you already have established and standardized into platforms, the faster learning goes–the basic idea behind the singularity.

 

That’s all for today. See you next week!

Vacation posting: When Capitalism Devours Democracy

I am on vacation, and so have only been able to take notes on the posts I want to write for the past week. Here is the outline I jotted down in the car:

  1. When Capitalism Devours Democracy

Ken Star, Mueller, the media, and endless for-profit, anti-nation investigations into the president. (Actually, Tom Nichols’s discussion about the evolution of talk radio and Cable News and their deleterious effects on political discourse is one of the better parts of his book, The Death of Expertise.)

The overly complex legal code + endless investigation + the media + advertising dollars => undermining government function.

Watergate, White Water, Monica, Russiagate, etc.

Can you imagine the national reaction if someone tried to investigate George Washington the same way? It would have been seen not as “anti-George Washington,” but as fundamentally anti-American, an attempt to subvert democracy itself and interfere with the proper functioning of the nation.

Note the complexity of the modern legal, economic, and tax systems, which simultaneously make it very hard for anyone doing much of anything to comply with every single law (have you ever jaywalked? Accidentally miscounted a deduction on your taxes?) and ensure that, with enough searching, if you want to pin something bad on someone, you probably can.

This is why you never talk to the police. Reason #1:

Even though you believe in your heart that you have done nothing wrong, you have no idea whether you might be admitting that you did something that is against the law. There are tens of thousands of criminal statutes on the books in America today. Most of them you have never heard of, and many of them involve conduct that nobody would imagine could ever be a crime.

(Unless you’ve been pulled over for speeding. Then obviously you pull out your driver’s license and talk like a normal human.)

See also Joe Salatin’s Everything I want to do is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front.

In short, the media discovered, with Nixon and Watergate (at least within the past century or so,) that constant presidential scandals could be good for ratings, and certain folks in the government discovered with Bill Clinton and Monica and Lewinsky that if you go digging for long enough, eventually you can find some kind of dirt to pin on someone–even if it’s completely irrelevant, idiotic dirt that has nothing to do with the president’s ability to govern.

This creates the incentive for the Media to constantly push the drumbeat narrative of “presidential scandal!” which leads to people truly believing that there is much more scandal than there really is.

Theory: Monica, Benghazi, Russiagate, and maybe even Watergate were all basically trumped-up hogwash played for ratings dollars. (Well, clearly someone broke into the Watergate hotel.)

The sheer complexity of the modern legal system, which allows this to happen, also  incentivizes each party to push for constant investigations of the other party’s presidents. In essence, both sides are moving toward mutual defect-defect, with the media egging them on.

And We the People are the suckers.

I feel like there are concepts here for which we need better words.

Anthropology Friday: Oriental Prisons pt 2: Andaman Islands

Monument to the victims of the Black Hole of Calcutta, 1905. It was later moved due to nationalist Indian sentiments.

Welcome back to Anthropology-ish Friday: The History and Romance of Crime: Oriental Prisons, by Arthur Griffiths, a British prison administrator and inspector of the late 1800s. I am not sure when the book was published, but I believe it was sometime in the early 1900s, for Griffiths mentions events that occurred up to 1899 and died in 1908.

On Chinese prisons, an interesting mention:

“For capital and other offences of a serious nature there are six classes of punishment. The first, called ling che, has already been mentioned. It is inflicted upon traitors, parricides, matricides, fratricides and murderers of husbands, uncles and tutors. The criminal is cut into either one hundred and twenty, seventy-two, thirty-six or twenty-four pieces. Should there be extenuating circumstances, his body, as a mark of imperial clemency, is divided into eight portions only. … A great many political offenders underwent executions of the first class at Canton during the vice-royalty of His Excellency, Yeh. On the fourteenth day of December, 1864, the famous Hakka rebel leader, Tai Chee-kwei by name, was put to death at Canton in the same manner.”

Back to India:

“I cannot bring this account of crime in India to a close without mention of an atrocity which is unequalled in the annals of human oppression.

“What imprisonment may mean in the East, when inflicted in defiance of the most elementary conditions of health in a tropical climate, has been recorded in letters of blood in the awful story of the Black Hole of Calcutta. The miscreant responsible for the crime was the Nabob of Bengal, Surajah Dowlah, who had gained a fleeting triumph over the early English settlers, and having captured Fort William at the mouth of Hugli, and made all the occupants prisoners, he turned them over to his savage followers. For security they were incarcerated in one small room or chamber some eighteen feet square. The season was the height of summer; the room was closed to the eastward and southward by dead walls and to the northward by a wall and door, so that no fresh air could enter save by two small windows, strongly barred with iron.

“Into this limited space human beings were crammed, already in a state of exhaustion by a long day spent in fatiguing conflict, and several of them seriously wounded. Piteous entreaties were made to the guards on duty to diminish the numbers imprisoned by removal elsewhere; large sums were offered as the price of this boon, but with no effect. No step could be taken without the permission of the Nabob, who was asleep, and none dared wake him. After vain attempts to break open the doors and fruitless appeals to the mercy of the sleeping Nabob, “the prisoners went mad with despair.” The rest of the story can best be told in the words of one of the masters of the English language, Lord Macaulay.

““They trampled each other down, fought for the places at the windows, fought for the pittance of water with which the cruel mercy of the murderers mocked their agonies, raved, prayed, blasphemed, implored the guards to fire among them. The gaolers in the meantime held lights to the bars, and shouted with laughter at the frantic struggles of their victims. At length the tumult died away in low gaspings and moanings. The day broke. The Nabob had slept off his debauch, and permitted the door to be opened. But it was some time before the soldiers could make a lane for the survivors, by piling up on each side the heaps of corpses on which the burning climate had already begun to do its loathsome work. When at length a passage was made, twenty-three ghastly figures, such as their own mothers would not have known, staggered one by one out of the charnel house. A pit was instantly dug. The dead bodies, a hundred and twenty-three in number, were flung into it promiscuously and covered up.

“But these things which, after the lapse of more than eighty years, cannot be told or read without horror, awakened neither remorse nor pity in the bosom of the savage Nabob. He inflicted no punishment on the murderers. He showed no tenderness to the survivors. Some of them, indeed, from whom nothing was to be got, were suffered to depart; but those from whom it was thought that anything could be extorted were treated with execrable cruelty. Holwell, unable to walk, was carried before the tyrant, who reproached him, threatened him, and sent him up the country in irons, together with some other gentlemen who were suspected of knowing more than they chose to tell about the treasures of the Company. These persons, still bowed down by the sufferings of that great agony, were lodged in miserable sheds, and fed only with grain and water, till at length the intercessions of the female relations of the Nabob procured their release.

“One Englishwoman had survived that night. She was placed in the harem of the prince at Moorshedabad.”

“It is told in history how the merciless Nabob was eventually called to strict account. The English at Madras vowed vengeance, and an expedition was forthwith fitted out for the Hugli, small in numbers, but full of undaunted spirit, and led by one of the most famous of British soldiers, Lord Clive. The victory of Plassy, which consolidated the British power in India, overthrew Surajah Dowlah, who expiated the crime of the Black Hole when captured and put to death by his successor Meer Jaffier.”

Port Blair Penal Colony, Andaman Islands, 1872 (today, a memorial rather than a prison.)

A tribal feud comes to the Andaman Prison:

“An atrocious murder which echoed through the whole world was that of the viceroy of India, Lord Mayo, who was killed by an Andaman convict in1872. The viceroy had visited Mount Harriet, a finely wooded slope rising above Port Blair and looking out over Viper Island with a glorious view eastward, in order to judge of its suitability as a sanatorium. He had just finished the descent. “The ship’s bells had just rung seven; the launch with steam up was whizzing at the jetty stairs; a group of her seamen were chatting on the pier-end. It was now quite dark, and the black line of the jungle seemed to touch the water’s edge. The viceroy’s party passed some large loose stones to the left of the head of the pier, and advanced along the jetty; two torchbearers in front.”

“The viceroy, preceding the rest, stepped quickly forward to descend the stairs to the launch. The next moment the people in the rear heard a noise, as of “the rush of some animal” from behind the loose stones; one or two saw a hand raised and a knife blade suddenly glisten in the torchlight. The viceroy’s private secretary heard a thud, and instantly turning round, found a man “fastened like a tiger” on the back of Lord Mayo.

“In a second twelve men were on the assassin; an English officer was pulling them off, and with his sword-hilt keeping back the native guards, who would have killed the assailant on the spot. The torches had gone out; but the viceroy, who had staggered over the pier-side, was dimly seen rising up in the knee-deep water, and clearing the hair off his brow with his hand as if recovering himself. His private secretary was instantly at his side in the surf, helping him up the bank. ‘Burne,’ he said quietly, ‘they’ve hit me.’ Then, in a louder voice, which was heard on the pier, ‘It’s all right, I don’t think I’m much hurt,’ or words to that effect.

“In another minute he was sitting under the smoky glare of the re-lit torches, on a rude native cart at the side of the jetty, his legs hanging loosely down. Then they lifted him bodily on to the cart, and saw a great dark patch on the back of his light coat. The blood came streaming out, and men tried to staunch it with their handkerchiefs. For a moment or two he sat up on the cart, then he fell heavily backwards. ‘Lift up my head,’ he said faintly, and said no more.”

Alfridi members of the Khyber Rifles, 1895

“The assassin, Sher Ali, was a very brave man belonging to one of the Afridi tribes, who had done excellent service to more than one commissioner at Peshawar and distinguished himself as a soldier. He was completely trusted by Colonel Reynolds Taylor, one of the best of our Indian officers, when at Peshawar, and was often in attendance on his family; in fact, he was the confidential servant of the house. This man, however, belonged to a society in which tribal feuds were a hereditary custom. Some such feud existed in his family and he was called upon to take his part in exacting a bloody vengeance for a quarrel. Had he committed the murder on his own side of the frontier, no notice could have been taken of it; and it would have been esteemed a legitimate deed sanctioned by the religious feelings and customs of the tribe; but his offence was committed within British territory and must be tried by British laws. He was convicted and sentenced to transportation to the Andamans instead of death, which he would greatly have preferred. Continually brooding under a sense of wrong, he took the first opportunity that offered for murderous retaliation and found the death he desired, on the gallows.”

Some observations on the Andamanese

Two Andamanese men

“Attempts to escape from the islands were at times frequent, encouraged by the easy access to the sea and the facility with which boats could be seized. But recaptures were also constantly made, and there were other chances against the fugitives, especially that of being run down by the aboriginal Andamanese. The natives of these islands are savages of a Nigrito race allied to the Papuans, but who, from having had no connection with the outer world for several centuries, have kept their blood absolutely pure. They are of small stature, the males a little under five feet in height, but finely made and well proportioned. In colour they are a jet black, and are among the darkest hued specimens of mankind. They are inveterate smokers, men, women and children, and are bright and intelligent, somewhat childish, petulant and quick tempered, but merry and light-hearted. They constitute a good unofficial guard, and as they constantly prowl round the convict settlements are a great deterrent to escape. 160 Being well used to jungle life, they are very successful trackers, who frequently bring back fugitives dead or alive. If by chance the evading convicts fall into the hands of the Jarawa tribe, their fate is sealed. These Jarawas are and always have been utterly irreclaimable; neither kindness nor force has had any appreciable effect in overcoming their unconquerable dislike to strangers, even of their own blood belonging to other tribes. Armed with bows and arrows, they show fight whenever encountered, and when pressed and punishment is attempted, they retire into the impenetrable jungle.”

EvX: I have posted about the inhabitants of the Andaman Islands before, including the world’s most isolated people, the Sentinelese.

An Amusing Approach to Jail-Keeping:

“At one time the Ratnagiri gaol contained about three hundred and sixty convicts; “at least two-thirds were Chinamen and Malays from the Straits, great ruffians, each with a record of piracy or murder, or both combined. Many of them were heavily fettered and carefully guarded by armed police when at their ordinary work in the ‘laterite’ quarries, for they were mostly powerful men;” the tools they used were formidable weapons and as there were known to be deadly feuds always present among them, serious disturbances and outbreaks were constantly dreaded. Nevertheless, misconduct was exceedingly rare; breaches of gaol discipline were much fewer among these desperadoes than among the milder Hindus in the work-sheds within the gaol. The fact having in due course created much surprise, inquiries were instituted as to why pirates and murderers, usually so insubordinate in other places, were so well-conducted and quiet at Ratnagiri.

“The riddle was presently solved. “For some  years one Sheik Kassam had been gaoler. Belonging to the fisherman class and possessed of very little education, he had, nevertheless, worked his way upward through the police by dint of honesty, hard work and a certain shrewdness which had more than once brought him to the front. At last, toward the end of his service, the gaolership falling vacant, he was, with everyone’s cordial approval, nominated to the post.”

“With comparative rest and improved pay, the old gentleman waxed fatter and jollier and was esteemed one of the most genial companions the country could produce. The cares of state, and the responsibility of three hundred murderous convicts, weighed lightly on Sheik Kassam. He developed a remarkable talent or predilection for gardening, almost from the first. “He laid out the quarry beds, brought water down to irrigate them, produced all the gaol required in the way of green stuff, and made tapioca and arrowroot by the ton. …

“Presently this favourite slice of garden was safely boxed in from the public view by an enclosure some eight feet high, extending from the gaol itself round to the gaoler’s house, the only entrance to it being a little wicket-gate by the side of the sheik’s back-yard.

“At last the head-superintendent of the Bombay prison heard that Sheik Kassam’s disciplinary system consisted in his bringing the most dangerous of the Chinamen and Malays quietly into his back-yard from the adjoining garden, and there regaling them with plenty of sweetmeats, sugar, drink in moderate quantity, and adding even the joys of female society of a peculiar sort. If any one became unruly or saucy, he was liable to get a dozen lashes, but if they behaved decently they all had their little festivals with regularity. After this discovery, poor old Sheik Kassam’s character as a model gaoler was gone; he was dismissed, but with a full pension which he did not live long to enjoy.”

EvX: Sounds like the fellow had a pretty good system.

That’s all for now. See you next Friday!

War is Code for the Production of Corpses

Quoting Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb:

“The end result of the complex organization that was the efficient software of the Great War was the manufacture of corpses.

This essentially industrial operation was fantasized by the generals as a “strategy of attrition.” The British tried to kill Germans, the Germans tried to kill British and French and so on, a “strategy” so familiar by now that it almost sounds normal. It was not normal in Europe before 1914 and no one in authority expected it to evolve, despite the pioneering lessons of the American Civil War. Once the trenches were in place, the long grave already dug (John Masefield’s bitterly ironic phrase), then the war stalemated and death-making overwhelmed any rational response.

“The war machine,” concludes Elliot, “rooted in law, organization, production, movement, science, technical ingenuity, with its product of six thousand deaths a day over a period of 1,500 days, was the permanent and realistic factor, impervious to fantasy, only slightly altered by human variation.”

No human institution, Elliot stresses, was sufficiently strong to resist the death machine. A new mechanism, the tank, ended the stalemate.”

Big Data describes another war of attrition:

McNamara epitomized the hyper-rational executive who relied on numbers rather than sentiments, and who could apply his quantitative skills to any industry he turned them to. In 1960 he was named president of Ford, a position he held for only a few weeks before being tapped to join President Kennedy’s cabinet as secretary of defense.

As the Vietnam conflict escalated and the United States sent more troops, it became clear that this was a war of wills, not of territory. America’s strategy was to pound the Viet Cong to the negotiation table. The way to measure progress, therefore, was by the number of enemy killed. The body count was published daily in the newspapers. To the war’s supporters it was proof of progress; to critics, evidence of its immorality. The body count was the data point that defined an era.

McNamara relied on the figures, fetishized them. … McNamara felt he could comprehend what was happening on the ground only by staring at a spreadsheet—at all those orderly rows and columns, calculations and charts, whose mastery seemed to bring him one standard deviation closer to God.

In 1977, two years after the last helicopter lifted off the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, a retired Army general, Douglas Kinnard, published a landmark survey called The War Managers that revealed the quagmire of quantification. A mere 2 percent of America’s generals considered the body count a valid way to measure progress. “A fake—totally worthless,” wrote one general in his comments. “Often blatant lies,” wrote another. “They were grossly exaggerated by many units primarily because of the incredible interest shown by people like McNamara,” said a third.  — Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, Big Data

Humans are reasonably smart creatures, but we so easily get stuck in terrible modes of thinking.

On a battlefield men die quickly, they fight back, they are sustained by fellowship and a sense of duty. Here I saw people dying in solitude by slow degrees, dying hideously, without the excuse of sacrifice for a cause. They had been trapped and left to starve, each in his home, by a political decision made in a far-off capital around conference and banquet tables. […] The most terrifying sights were the little children with skeleton limbs dangling from balloon – like abdomens. Starvation had wiped every trace of youth from their faces, turning them into tortured gargoyles; only in their eyes still lingered the reminder of childhood. Everywhere we found men and women lying prone, their faces and bellies bloated, their eyes utterly expressionless. Anger lashed my mind as I drove back to the village. Butter being sent abroad in the midst of the famine! In London, Berlin, Paris I could see with my mind’s eye people eating butter stamped with a Soviet trademark. “They must be rich to be able to send out butter,” I could hear them saying. “Here, friends, is the proof of socialism in action.” Driving through the fields, I did not hear the lovely Ukrainian songs so dear to my heart. These people had forgotten how to sing. I could hear only the groans of the dying, and the lip-smacking of fat foreigners enjoying our butter… — Kravchenko, Victor. I Chose Freedom: The Personal And Political Life Of A Soviet Official

Like human sacrifice and cannibalism:

The word tzompantli is Nahuatl and was used by the Aztecs to refer to the skull-racks found in many Aztec cities; The first and most prominent example is the Huey Tzompantli (Great Skull-rack) located the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and described by the early conquistadors. … Excavations at Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan have revealed many skulls belonging to women and children, in addition to those of men, a demonstration of the diversity of the human sacrifices in Aztec culture.[15] After displaying severed heads, many scholars have determined that limbs of Aztec victims would be cannibalized [16]

… based on numbers given by Taipa and Fray Diego Durán, Bernard Ortiz de Montellano[18] has calculated that there were at most 60,000 skulls on the “Hueyi Tzompantli” (Great Skullrack) of Tenochtitlan. … There were at least five more skull racks in Tenochtitlan but by all accounts they were much smaller. —Wikipedia

All of the individual parts of a system can seem logical, and yet the end result can still be grotesque, inhuman, and insane.

I am on holiday so your normal Book Club post will resume next Wednesday.

A Modest Educational Proposal

Source

Fellow humans, we have a problem. (And another problem.)

At least, this looks like a problem to me., especially when I’m trying to make conversation at the local moms group.

There are many potential reasons the data looks like this (including inaccuracy, though my lived experience says it is accurate.) Our culture encourages people to limit their fertility, and smart women are especially so encouraged. Smart people are also better at long-term planning and doing things like “reading the instructions on the birth control.”

But it seems likely that there is another factor, an arrow of causation pointing in the other direction: smart people tend to stay in school for longer, and people dislike having children while they are still in school. While you are in school, you are in some sense still a child, and we have a notion that children shouldn’t beget children.

Isaac Newton. Never married. Probably a virgin.

People who drop out of school and start having children at 16 tend not to be very smart and also tend to have plenty of children during their child-creating years. People who pursue post-docs into their thirties tend to be very smart–and many of them are virgins.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I kind of like having smart people around, especially the kinds of people who invent refrigerators and make supply chains work so I can enjoy eating food, even though I live in a city, far from any farms. I don’t want to live in a world where IQ is crashing and we can no longer maintain complex technological systems.

We need to completely re-think this system where the smarter you are, the longer you are expected to stay in school, accruing debt and not having children.

Proposal one: Accelerated college for bright students. Let any student who can do college-level work begin college level work for college credits, even if they are still in high (or middle) school. There are plenty of bright students out there who could be completing their degrees by 18.

The entirely framework of schooling probably ought to be sped up in a variety of ways, especially for bright students. The current framework often reflects the order in which various discoveries were made, rather than the age at which students are capable of learning the material. For example, negative numbers are apparently not introduced in the math curriculum until 6th grade, even though, in my experience, even kindergarteners are perfectly capable of understanding the concept of “debt.” If I promise to give you one apple tomorrow, then I have “negative one apple.” There is no need to hide the concept of negatives for 6 years.

Proposal two: More apprenticeship.

In addition to being costly and time-consuming, a college degree doesn’t even guarantee that your chosen field will still be hiring when you graduate. (I know people with STEM degrees who graduated right as the dot.com bubble burst. Ouch.) We essentially want our educational system to turn out people who are highly skilled at highly specialized trades, and capable of turning around and becoming highly skilled at another highly specialized trade on a dime if that doesn’t work out. This leads to chemists returning to university to get law degrees; physicists to go back for medical degrees. We want students to have both “broad educations” so they can get hired anywhere, and “deep educations” so they’ll actually be good at their jobs.

Imagine, instead, a system where highschool students are allowed to take a two-year course in preparation for a particular field, at the end of which high performers are accepted into an apprenticeship program where the continue learning on the job. At worst, these students would have a degree, income, and job experience by the age of 20, even if they decided they now wanted to switch professions or pursue an independent education.

Proposal three: Make childbearing normal for adult students.

There’s no reason college students can’t get married and have children (aside from, obviously, their lack of jobs and income.) College is not more time consuming or physically taxing than regular jobs, and college campuses tend to be pretty pleasant places. Studying while pregnant isn’t any more difficult than working while pregnant.

Grad students, in particular, are old and mature enough to get married and start families, and society should encourage them to do so.

Proposal four: stop denigrating child-rearing, especially for intelligent women.

Children are a lot of work, but they’re also fun. I love being with my kids. They are my family and an endless source of happiness.

What people want and value, they will generally strive to obtain.

 

These are just some ideas. What are yours?

Anthropology Friday: Oriental Prisons pt 1: Thuggee

Group of Thugs, India, 1894

Welcome to Anthropology Friday. This month’s pick is more history than anthropology, but hopefully still interesting: The History and Romance of Crime: Oriental Prisons, by Arthur Griffiths, 1838-1908. I am not sure when the book was published, but I believe it was sometime in the early 1900s, for Griffiths mentions events that occurred up to 1899 and died in 1908.

Griffiths was a British prison administrator and inspector who wrote over 60 books, many of them mysteries or military histories–and many of them about prisons. According to Wikipedia:

Griffiths was born on 9 Dec. 1838, at Poona, India, the second son of Lieut.-colonel John Griffiths of the 6th Royal Warwickshire regiment. After graduating from King William’s College on the Isle of Man, Arthur Griffiths joined the British Army as an ensign in the 63rd Regiment of Foot on 13 Feb. 1855.

Serving in the Crimean War, Griffiths participated in the siege of Sevastopol. He also fought during the capture of Kinbum, receiving the British Crimea medal.

Today’s excerpts pertain to crime in India, chiefly that of thuggee, the semi-ritualized murder of travelers by a group known as the Thugs.

In General:

“Crime in India does not differ essentially from that prevalent elsewhere, although some forms are indigenous to the country, engendered by special physical and social conditions. As a rule, the people of India are law abiding, orderly and sober in character, but there is an inherent deceitfulness in them that tends to interfere with the course of justice.”

On the smuggling of money into the Montgomery jail in Punjab, one of the largest in India:

“The prisoners become very clever and use all sorts of devices to smuggle in coins, tobacco, opium and other drugs and dice. They are allowed to wear their own shoes, but these are examined very carefully, for the soles are frequently found to be made of tobacco, four-anna pieces and other things than leather.

““A common dodge,” says Captain Buck, “among the prisoners for concealing coins and other small things is to make a receptacle in the throat by means of a leaden weight about the diameter of a florin and half an inch thick; this is attached to a string some six inches long, a knot in the end being slipped between two teeth to prevent it sliding down the throat. By holding the head in a particular position for some time every day, ‘waggling’ the weight about, and from time to time altering the length of the string, a pouch can be formed in the throat suitable for holding as many as fifteen rupees. The possessor of this strange ‘safe’ is able to put in and take out his treasure with facility, but it is exceedingly difficult to make a man disgorge the contents against his will, or even to find out whether he possesses the pouch at all without the use of the Röntgen rays.” [X-rays]

Thuggee:

“When England’s work in India is reviewed in the time to come, full credit must be given to the humane administration which sternly suppressed the atrocious malpractices that so long afflicted the land, such as “Suttee,” or the burning of widows on the funeral pyre; the human sacrifices to the bloodthirsty idol of Jagannath; “Thuggee,” that vile organisation for secret murder which devastated the entire continent and killed so many unsuspecting victims. … It was fostered by the prevailing conditions in a vast extent of territory, divided among many princes and powers, each ruling independently and irresponsibly, with many kinds of governments, and with their hands one against the other, having no common interests, no desire for combination, no united police, no uniform action in the repression of determined wrong-doing. Everything conspired to favour the growth of these daring and unscrupulous land pirates.

“There were no roads in those early days, no public conveyances, no means of protection for travellers. The longest journeys from one end of the continent to the other were undertaken of necessity on foot or on horseback; parties hitherto complete strangers banded together for common security, and mixed unreservedly with one another. … it was possible to wander into by-paths and get lost among the forests, jungles, mountains and uncultivated tracts where but few sparsely inhabited villages were scattered. Direct encouragement was thus afforded to freebooters and highwaymen to make all travellers their prey, and many classes of robbers existed and flourished. Of these the most numerous, the most united, the most secret in their horrible operations, the most dangerous and destructive were the Thugs.

“The origin of Thuggee, as it was commonly called, is lost in fable and obscurity. Mr. James Hutton, in his popular account of the Thugs, thinks that they are of very ancient date and says they are “reputed to have sprung from the Sagartii who contributed eight thousand horse to the army of Xerxes and are mentioned by Herodotus in his history. These people led a pastoral life, were originally of Persian descent and use the Persian language; their dress is something betwixt a Persian and a Pactyan; they have no offensive weapons, either of iron or brass, except their daggers; their principal dependence in action is on cords made of twisted leather which they use in this manner. When they engage an enemy they throw out this cord having a noose at the extremity; if they entangle in this either horse or man, they without difficulty put them to death.” …

“In the latter part of the seventeenth century Thevenot speaks of a strange denomination of robbers who infest the road between Delhi and Agra and who use “a certain rope with a running noose which they could cast with so much sleight about a man’s neck when they are within reach of 50 him, that they never fail; so that they strangle him in a trice.” These robbers were divided into seven principal classes or families from which the innumerable smaller bands sprang.”

EvX: According to Wikipedia, Thugs have been known as organized bands of criminals in India for at least 600 years. The earliest known reference to their activities dates from 1356, in Ziyā-ud-Dīn Baranī‘s History of Fīrūz Shāh:

In the reign of that sultan [about 1290], some Thugs were taken in Delhi, and a man belonging to that fraternity was the means of about a thousand being captured. But not one of these did the sultan have killed. He gave orders for them to be put into boats and to be conveyed into the lower country, to the neighbourhood of Lakhnauti, where they were to be set free. The Thugs would thus have to dwell about Lakhnauti and would not trouble the neighbourhood of Delhi any more.

The strangest part about the story of the Thugs is that it is basically, as far as I know, true. There really was a secret cult, probably descended from Muslims who’d started worshipping Kali (somehow) and went around murdering people as part of their “religion” and more-or-less way of life. Wikipedia recounts:

Membership was sometimes passed from father to son, as part of a criminal underclass. The leadership of established Thug groups tended to be hereditary, as the group evolved into a criminal tribe. Other men would become acquainted with a Thug band and hope to be recruited, as Thugs were respected by the criminal community and had a camaraderie of numbers and shared experience. Robbery became less a question of solving problems associated with poverty and more a profession.

Back to Griffiths:

“At all times many hundreds of predatory castes existed in India, chiefly among the marauding hill and forest people, and some of them are still recorded by name in the census papers. These people lived openly by plunder, and were organised for crime, and for determined gang-robbery and murder. There was no established police in those days equal to coping with these gangs, and the government of the East India Company had recourse to the savage criminal code of the Mohammedan law.

“When Warren Hastings was governor-general, he decreed that every convicted gang-robber should be publicly executed in full view of his village, and that all of the villagers should be fined. The miscreants retaliated by incendiarism on a large scale. One conflagration in Calcutta in 1780 burned fifteen thousand houses, and some two thousand souls perished in the flames. A special civil department was created to deal with this wholesale crime, the character of which is described in a state paper dated 1772. “The gang-robbers of Bengal,” it says, “are not like the robbers in England, individuals driven to such desperate courses by want or greed. They are robbers by profession and even by birth. They are formed into regular communities, and their families subsist on the supplies they bring home to them. These spoils come from great distances, and peaceful villages three hundred miles up the Ganges are supported by housebreaking in Calcutta.”

EvX: Here is a version of the origin myth of the Thugs:

Once on a time the world was infested with a monstrous demon… who devoured mankind as fast as they were created… Kali cut the demon with her sword… but from every drop of blood that fell to the ground there sprang a new demon. She paused for a while, and from the sweat, brushed off one of her arms, she created two men, to whom she gave a rumal, or handkerchief, and commanded them to strangle the demons. When they had slain them all, they offered to return the rumal, but the goddess bade them keep it and transmit it to their posterity, with the injunction to destroy all men who were not of their kindred.

She condescended to present them with one of her teeth for a pickaxe, a rib for a knife, and the hem of her skirt for a noose, and ordered them, fo the futuer, to cut and bury the dbodies of whom they destoryed.

“In the early part of the nineteenth century the audacity and murderous activity of the Thugs increased to such a fearful extent that the British government was roused to serious consideration. … Mr. Brown, when engaged in his inquiry at a village named Sujuna, on the road to Hatta, heard a horrible story of a gang-robbery in the neighbourhood. A party of two hundred Thugs had encamped in a grove in the early morning of the cold season of 1814, when seven men, well-armed with swords and matchlocks, passed, conveying treasure from a bank in Jubbulpore to its correspondent in Banda. The treasure was ascertained to be of the value of 4,500 rupees, and a number of Thugs, well-mounted, gave chase. Coming up with their prey at a distance of seven miles, in a water course half a mile from Sujuna, they attacked the treasure-bearers with their swords, contrary to their common practice of strangling their victims, the latter plan being possible only when the objects of their desire were taken unawares. Moreover, the robbers left the bodies where they lay, unburied and exposed, which was also an unusual proceeding. A passing traveller, who had seen the murderers at work, was also put to death to prevent his giving the alarm. As much rain fell that day, none of the villagers approached the spot till the following morning, when the bodies were discovered and a large crowd came to gaze at them.

“Great difficulty was experienced in bringing home the crime to its perpetrators. This often happened in such cases from the strong reluctance of people to give evidence and appear in court for the purpose; even the banker who had lost his cash hesitated to come forward and prove his loss, and this was no isolated case. …

“Sir William Sleeman has left a personal record of his own achievements. “While I was in the civil charge of the district of Nursingpoor, in the valley of the Nurbudda, in the years 1822, 1823 and 1824,” he tells us, “no ordinary robbery or theft could be committed without my becoming acquainted with it; nor was there a robber or a thief of the ordinary kind in the district, with whose character I had not become acquainted in the discharge of my duty as magistrate; and if any man had then told me that a gang of assassins by profession resided in the village of Kundelee, not four hundred yards from my court, and that the extensive groves of the village of Mundesur, only one stage from me, on the road to Saugor and Bhopaul, were one of the greatest beles, or places of murder, in all India; and that large gangs from Hindustan and the Dukhun used to rendezvous in these groves, remain in them for days together every year, and carry on their dreadful trade along all the lines of road that pass by and branch off from them, with the knowledge and connivance of the two landholders by whose ancestors these groves had been planted, I should have thought him a fool or a madman; and yet nothing could have been more true. The bodies of a hundred travellers lie buried in and around the groves of Mundesur; and a gang of assassins lived in and about the village of Kundelee while I was magistrate of the district, and extended their depredations to the cities of Poona and Hyderabad.”

“…in the cantonment of Hingolee, the leader of the Thugs of that district, Hurree Singh, was a respectable merchant of the place, with whom Captain Sleeman, in common with many other English officers, had constant dealings. On one occasion this man applied to the officer in civil charge of the district, Captain Reynolds, for a pass to bring some cloths from Bombay, which he knew were on their way accompanied by their owner, a merchant of a town not far from Hingolee. He murdered this person, his attendants and cattle-drivers, brought the merchandise up to Hingolee under the pass he had obtained and sold it openly in the cantonment; nor would this ever have been discovered had he not confessed it after his apprehension, and gloried in it as a good joke.”

EvX: This is why market-dominant minorities evolved. You’re going to have a hard time shipping goods from place to place if your business contacts keep murdering you for not being part of their ethnic group.

“Many persons were murdered in the very bazaar of the cantonment, within one hundred yards from the main guard, by Hurree Singh and his gang, and were buried hardly five hundred yards from the line of sentries. Captain Sleeman was himself present at the opening of several of these unblessed graves (each containing several bodies), which were pointed out by the “approvers,” one by one, in the coolest possible manner, to those who were assembled, until the spectators were sickened and gave up further search in disgust. The place was the dry channel of a small water course, communicating with the river, no broader or deeper than a ditch; it was near the road to a neighbouring village, and one of the main outlets from the cantonment to the country….

“Accounts of such affairs, as found in contemporary records, might be multiplied indefinitely. Colonel Sleeman’s report of the Thug depredations for a year or two when they were most virulent—1836-37—fills one large volume. On a map which he made of a portion of the kingdom of Oude, showing a territory one hundred miles wide from north to south, and one hundred and seventy miles from east to west, are marked an endless number of spots between Lucknow, Cawnpore, Manickpur, Pertabgurh and Fyzabad, all of them indicating beles or scenes of murders perpetrated.”

EvX: The photo is fuzzy, but I believe the map in this slideshow, or one very like it, is the one Griffiths is referencing. The rest of the slide show is interesting and relevant.

Since Thugs tended to be related to each other, Sleeman also constructed genealogical trees of thuggee families, like the one above.

Back to the book:

Behram, Thug leader responsible for the murder of 931 people, 125 of them personally.

“These places were pointed out by captured Thugs and “approvers” who had been actively present and taken part in the murders. There were some 274 beles in all, or one for about every five miles; the fact was proved by the continual disinterment of skulls and skeletons of the often nameless victims. Each recorded great atrocities and many wholesale murders. The number of deaths for which each Thug miscreant was personally responsible seems incredible. One man, Buhran by name, killed 931 victims in forty years of active Thuggee, and another, Futteh Khan, killed 508 persons in twenty years, making an average of two monthly for each assassin. …

“When and how Thuggee began may not be definitely known, but it is certain that its votaries always attributed a divine origin to the practice. They esteemed the wholesale taking of life to which they were vowed a pious act, performed under the immediate orders and protection of the Hindu goddess, indifferently called Devee or Durga, Kali or Bhowanee. Murder was in fact a religious rite, the victim being a sacrifice to the deity. The strangler was troubled with no remorse; on the contrary, he gloried in his deed as the pious act of a devout worshipper. He prepared his murders without misgiving, perpetrated them without emotions of pity, and looked back upon them with satisfaction, not regret.

“The Thugs gave free vent to some of the worst passions of perverse humanity; they were treacherous, underhanded, pitiless to those they deemed their legitimate prey. But yet they were seldom guilty of wanton cruelty; the pain they inflicted was only that caused by depriving a human being of life. It was a rule with them never to murder women, and they generally spared infant children whom they adopted, bringing them up in their traditions. Even if a woman was doomed to suffer she was most scrupulously preserved from insult beforehand, either by act or word. In private life they were patterns of domestic virtue, affectionate to their own families, fond of their homes; well conducted, law abiding subjects of the state that gave them shelter.”

EvX: To be fair, so are Mafia dons.

The HBD Question:

“General Hervey quotes a curious instance of the heredity of the criminal instinct which showed itself in the descendants of the old Thugs settled at Jubbulpore, in the days of the active pursuit of these murderers by Sir William Sleeman. A generation of young Thugs had grown up around the School of Industry, a kind of reformatory for the offspring of the captured criminals, and the careers of some of these have been followed. Many of the youths found employment with European gentlemen as private servants, and in one particular instance the inherited propensity was curiously illustrated.

“A railway engineer, Mr. Upham, employed in the construction of the Indian Peninsula Railway, was stationed at Sleemanabad near Jubbulpore. Returning home one evening, much fatigued after a long tour of inspection, he lay down to rest on his bed and from his tent, the curtain of which was raised for ventilation, he saw two of his table servants—both of them lads from the reformatory—engaged in cooking his dinner. He presently noticed that they squeezed into the pot on the fire certain green pods they had plucked from a neighbouring bush, and presuming they were herbs of some sort added for flavour, he said nothing, but he was curious and having little appetite he dined very lightly, chiefly on rice and milk. He picked some of the pods, however, and put them in his pocket, where they remained till next day, when he became ill and rode over to see the doctor. He fainted when he reached the doctor’s office. Restoratives being promptly applied, he so far recovered as to be able to produce the pods which the doctor at once pronounced to be of datura. Suspicion thus aroused, the two servants were arrested and brought to trial, when the head cook was convicted and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. This boy was of the old Thug stock, and obviously the desire to destroy human life was in his blood, brought out by greed; for the object was, of course, to rob Mr. Upham while he was unconscious.

“They were apparently irreclaimable, these Thug children. One boy was detained in prison until grown up in the hope that he would prove well-conducted. All his relations had been Thugs; his father (who had been executed), his uncles, brothers and forebears for several generations, and numbers of them had suffered the extreme penalty. He was cognisant of their misdeeds and the retribution that overtook them, but his own inclinations lay the same way, and no sooner was he at large than he embraced the evil trade and was soon known as a jemadar with an increasing reputation as a daring leader of Dacoits. Eventually he was won over to the side of justice and did good service as an “approver.” ”

EvX: “Dacoit” is Indian for bandit; I do not know if it has any other connotations. Among the list of “famous dacoits” on wikipedia is Phoolan Devi, the “bandit queen” and later a member of the Indian Parliament:

Born into a low caste family in rural Uttar Pradesh, Phoolan endured poverty as a child and had an unsuccessful marriage before taking to a life of crime. … She was the only woman in that gang, and her relationship with one gang member, coupled with other minor factors, caused a gunfight between gang members. Phoolan’s lover was killed in that gunfight. The victorious rival faction, who were upper-caste Rajputs, took Phoolan to their village of Behmai, confined her in a room, and took turns to rape her repeatedly over several days. After escaping (or being let off), Phoolan rejoined the remnants of her dead lover’s faction, took another lover from among those men, and continued with banditry. A few months later, her new gang descended upon the village of Behmai to exact revenge for what she had suffered.[2][3] As many as twenty-two Rajput men belonging to that village were lined up in a row and shot dead by Phoolan’s gang.

Since Phoolan was a low-caste woman, and her victims were high-caste men, the press portrayed the Behmai massacre as an act of righteous lower-caste rebellion. The respectful sobriquet ‘Devi’ was conferred upon her by the media and public at this point.[4]

Phoolan evaded capture for two years after the Behmai massacre before she and her few surviving gang-members surrendered to the police in 1983. She was charged with forty-eight major crimes, including multiple murders, plunder, arson and kidnapping for ransom.[5] Phoolan spent the next eleven years in jail… In 1994, the state government headed by Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party summarily withdrew all charges against her, and Phoolan was released.[5] She then stood for election to parliament as a candidate of the Samajwadi Party and was twice elected to the Lok Sabha as the member for Mirzapur. In 2001, she was shot dead at the gates of her official bungalow (allotted to her as MP) in New Delhi by former rival bandits whose kinsmen had been slaughtered at Behmai by her gang.

That’s enough for today. Remember, Hobbes was right. See you next Friday for the next installment.

Book Club: The Code Economy: The DNA of Business

“DNA builds products with a purpose. So do people.” –Auerswald, The Code Economy

McDonald’s is the world’s largest restaurant chain by revenue[7], serving over 69 million customers daily in over 100 countries[8] across approximately 36,900 outlets as of 2016.[9] … According to a BBC report published in 2012, McDonald’s is the world’s second-largest private employer (behind Walmart with 1.9 million employees), 1.5 million of whom work for franchises. …

There are currently a total of 5,669 company-owned locations and 31,230 franchised locations… Notably, McDonald’s has increased shareholder dividends for 25 consecutive years,[18] making it one of the S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats.[19][20]

According to Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser (2001), nearly one in eight workers in the U.S. have at some time been employed by McDonald’s. … Fast Food Nation also states that McDonald’s is the largest private operator of playgrounds in the U.S., as well as the single largest purchaser of beef, pork, potatoes, and apples.  (Wikipedia)

How did a restaurant whose only decent products are french fries and milkshakes come to dominate the global corporate landscape?

IKEA is not only the world’s largest furniture store, but also among the globe’s top 10 retailers of anything and the 25th most beloved corporation. (Disney ranks number one.) Even I feel a strange, heartwarming emotion at the thought of IKEA, which somehow comes across as a sweet and kind multi-national behemoth.

In The Code Economy, Auerswald suggests that the secret to McDonald’s success isn’t (just) the french fries and milkshake machines:

Kroc opened his first McDonald’s restaurant in 1955 in Des Plaines, California. Within five years he had opened two hundred new franchises across the country. [!!!] He pushed his operators obsessively to adhere to a system that reinforced the company motto: “Quality, service, cleanliness, and value.”

h/t @simongerman600

Quoting Kroc’s1987 autobiography,

“It’s all interrelated–our development of the restaurant, the training, the marketing advice, the product development, the research that has gone into each element of the equipment package. Together with our national advertising and continuing supervisory assistance, it forms an invaluable support system. Individual operators pay 11.5 percent of their gross to the corporation for all of this…”

The process of operating a McDonald’s franchise was engineered to be as cognitively undemanding as possible. …

Kroc created a program that could be broken into subroutines…. Acting like the DNA of the organization, the manual allowed the Speedee Service System to function in a variety of environments without losing essential structure or function.

McDonald’s is big because it figured out how to reproduce.

source: Statista

I’m not sure why IKEA is so big (I don’t think it’s a franchise like McDonald’s,) but based on the information posted on their walls, it’s because of their approach to furniture design. First, think of a problem, eg, People Need Tables. Second, determine a price–IKEA makes some very cheap items and some pricier items, to suit different customers’ needs. Third, use Standard IKEA Wooden Pieces to design a nice-looking table. Fourth, draw the assembly instructions, so that anyone, anywhere, can assemble the furniture themselves–no translation needed.

IKEA furniture is kind of like Legos, in that much of it is made of very similar pieces of wood assembled in different ways. The wooden boards in my table aren’t that different in size and shape from the ones in my dresser nor the ones in my bookshelf, though the items themselves have pretty different dimensions. So on the production side, IKEA lowers costs by producing not actual furniture, but collections of boards. Boards are easy to make–sawmills produce tons of them.

Furniture is heavy, but mostly empty space. By contrast, piles of boards stack very neatly and compactly, saving space both in shipping and when buyers are loading the boxes into their cars. (I am certain that IKEA accounts for common car dimensions in designing and packing their furniture.)

And the assembly instruction allow the buyer to ultimately construct the furniture.

In other words, IKEA has hit upon a successful code that allows them to produce many different designs from a few basic boards and ship them efficiently–keeping costs low and allowing them to thrive.

From Anatomy of an IKEA product:

The company is also looking for ways to maximize warehouse efficiency.

“We have (only) two pallet sizes,” Marston said, referring to the wooden platforms on which goods are placed. “Our warehouses are dimensioned and designed to hold these two pallet sizes. It’s all about efficiencies because that helps keep the price of innovation down.”

In Europe, some IKEA warehouses utilize robots to “pick the goods,” a term of art for grabbing products off very high shelves.

These factories, Marston said, are dark, since no lighting is needed for the robots, and run 24 hours a day, picking and moving goods around.

“You (can) stand on a catwalk,” she said, “and you look out at this huge warehouse with 12 pallets (stacked on top of each other) and this robot’s running back and forth running on electronic eyebeams.”

IKEA’s code and McDonald’s code are very different, but both let the companies produce the core items they sell quickly, cheaply, and efficiently.

In The Code Economy, Chapter 8: Evolution, discusses the rise of Tollhouse Cookies, McDonald’s, the difference between natural and artificial objects, and the development of evolutionary theory from Darwin through Watson and Crick and through to Kauffman and Levine’s 1987 paper, “Toward a General Theory of Adaptive Walks on Rugged Landscapes.” (With a brief stop at Erwin Shrodinger along the way.)

The difficulty with evolution is that systems are complicated; successful mutations or even just combinations of existing genes must work synergistically with all of the other genes and systems already operating in the body. A mutation that increases IQ by tweaking neurons in a particular way might have the side effect of causing neurons outside the brain to malfunction horribly; a mutation that protects against sickle-cell anemia when you have one copy of it might just kill you itself if you have two copies.

Auerswald quotes Kauffman and Levin:

“Natural selection does not work as an engineer works… It works like a tinkereer–a tinkerer who does not know exactly what he is going to produce but uses… everything at his disposal to produce some kind of workable object.” This process is progressive, moving form simpler to more complex forms: “Evolution doe not produce novelties from scratch. It works on what already exists, either transforming a system to give it new functions or combining several systems to produce a more elaborate one [as] during the passage from unicellular to multicellular forms.”

Further:

The Kauffman and Levin model was as simple as it was powerful. Imagine a genetic code of length N, where each gene might occupy one of two possible “states”–for example, “o” and “i” in a binary computer. The difficulty of the evolutionary problem was tunable with the parameter K, which represented the average number of interactions among genes. The NK model, as it came to be called, was able to reproduce a number of measurable features of evolution in biological systems. Evolution could be represented as a genetic walk on a fitness landscape, in which increasing complexity was now a central parameter.

You may remember my previous post on Local Optima, Diversity, and Patchwork:

Local optima–or optimums, if you prefer–are an illusion created by distance. A man standing on the hilltop at (approximately) X=2 may see land sloping downward all around himself and think that he is at the highest point on the graph. But hand him a telescope, and he discovers that the fellow standing on the hilltop at X=4 is even higher than he is. And hand the fellow at X=4 a telescope, and he’ll discover that X=6 is even higher.

A global optimum is the best possible way of doing something; a local optimum can look like a global optimum because all of the other, similar ways of doing the same thing are worse.

Some notable examples of cultures that were stuck at local optima but were able, with exposure, to jump suddenly to a higher optima: The “opening of Japan” in the late 1800s resulted in breakneck industrialization and rising standards of living; the Cherokee invented their own alphabet (technically a syllabary) after glimpsing the Roman one, and achieved mass literacy within decades; European mathematics and engineering really took off after the introduction of Hindu-Arabic numerals and the base-ten system.

If we consider each culture its own “landscape” in which people (and corporations) are finding locally optimal solutions to problems, then it becomes immediately obvious that we need both a large number of distinct cultures working out their own solutions to problems and occasional communication and feedback between those cultures so results can transfer. If there is only one, global, culture, then we only get one set of solutions–and they will probably be sub-optimal. If we have many cultures but they don’t interact, we’ll get tons of solutions, and many of them will be sub-optimal. But many cultures developing their own solutions and periodically interacting can develop many solutions and discard sub-optimal ones for better ones.

On a related note, Gore Burnelli writes: How Nassim Taleb changed my mind about religion:

Life constantly makes us take decisions under conditions of uncertainty. We can’t simply compute every possible outcome, and decide with perfect accuracy what the path forward is. We have to use heuristics. Religion is seen as a record of heuristics that have worked in the past. …

But while every generation faces new circumstances, there are also some common problems that every living being is faced with: survival and reproduction, and these are the most important problems because everything else depends on them. Mess with these, and everything else becomes irrelevant.

This makes religion an evolutionary record of solutions which persisted long enough, by helping those who held them to persist.

This is not saying “All religions are perfect and good and we should follow them,” but it is suggesting, “Traditional religions (and cultures) have figured out ways to solve common problems and we should listen to their ideas.”

From Ray Kurzweil

Back in The Code Economy, Auerswald asks:

Might the same model, derived from evolutionary biology, explain the evolution of technology?

… technology may also be nothing else but the capacity for invariant reproduction. However, in order for more complex forms of technology to be viable over time, technology also must possess a capacity for learning and adaptation.

Evolutionary theory as applied to the advance of code is the focus of the next chapter. Kauffman and Levin’s NK model ends up providing a framework for studying the creation and evolution of code. Learning curves act as the link between biology and economics.

Will the machines become sentient? Or McDonald’s? And which should we worry about?

Thou Shalt Not Wirehead: Religion vs Gratification

Humans are just smart enough to wirehead themselves, but stupid enough to do it very badly. For example, over in South Africa, addicts are trying to develop a new variety of AIDS by combining heroin, antiretroviral drugs, and other random crap like “crushed glass” or “cleaning detergent,” injecting it, then drawing their drug-laced blood and injecting that blood into a second person for a secondary high:

Mary Mashapa estimates that one person in every five in this community uses nyaope [the drug] – and she says they will try anything to get a fix. …

An articulate young man called Thabo told us drug users have started to sell – or share – their blood with other addicts in Dieplsoot. The practice is known locally as ‘bluetooth’. …

Thabo inserted nyaope into the vein of his friend Bennet, then immediately withdrew a small amount of his friend’s blood which he re-injected into his arm. “I’ve just bluetoothed, eh,” said Thabo with a look of relief on his face.

“I gave my friend a hit and took one from his blood, you know …”

What about your health, HIV, what about sharing needles? I asked.

“I’ll cross that bridge when I get there,” he replied.

You know, if people are going to try that hard to give themselves AIDS, maybe other people should stop giving them anti-retroviral drugs.

And I thought Siberians drinking each other’s urine to get a psychedelic mushroom high was bad enough. Can you imagine Shaka Zulu witnessing what has become of these Black South Africans? Injecting themselves with pain killers and detergent so they can sway like zombies for a few hours? He would have had them executed.

Drugs aren’t just a Black South African thing. Whites have meth. African Americans have crack. Asians have opium in its various forms. Suburban housewives have wine. Mexicans and Russians have krokodil, which rots off your genitals:

Public authorities in Mexico shared details of a gruesome case of the flesh-eating drug krokodil, the first to be officially reported in the state of Jalisco.

According to José Sotero Ruiz Hernández, an official with Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, a 17-year-old [American tourist] in Puerto Vallarta presented lacerations to her genitals that she said were caused by her addiction to krokodil.

“The young woman who used this drug had an infection that had rotted her genitals…

The woman told authorities that the drug was readily available on street corners. …

Krokodil is a street drug with effects similar to heroin that is made by cooking crushed codeine pills with household chemicals. It is significantly cheaper than heroin, and reportedly ten times as potent. However, the impurities in the drug damage vascular tissue, which causes the flesh to rot.

Repeat after me: don’t inject random crap into your genitals. Nor anywhere else on your body.

Meanwhile in America, librarians are learning how to save the lives of overdosed meth and other opioid addicts:

Long viewed as guardians of safe spaces for children, library staff members like Kowalski have begun taking on the role of first responder in drug overdoses. In at least three major cities — Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco — library employees now know, or are set to learn, how to use the drug naloxone, usually known by its brand name Narcan, to help reverse overdoses.

Their training tracks with the disastrous national rise in opioid use and an apparent uptick of overdoses in libraries, which often serve as daytime havens for homeless people and hubs of services in impoverished communities.

In the past two years, libraries in Denver, San Francisco, suburban Chicago and Reading, Pennsylvania have become the site of fatal overdoses. …

“[Kowalkski’s] not a paramedic,” the guard, Sterling Davis, said later. “She’s just a teen-adult librarian — and saved six people since April. That’s a lot for a librarian.”

I… I need a minute. These articles are kind of heavy. The Portland library, too.

I don’t think librarians should have that responsibility. Like suicide, I’m not sure that trying to stop people from dying when they themselves so clearly don’t care is not necessarily good for them or society.

On the other hand, I have a good friend who did nearly die of alcohol addiction on numerous occasions and is now sober and glad to be alive. People don’t start using drugs because they want to die.

Ironically, most people get into drugs socially–they get a joint from a friend or start drinking at a party–but addiction and death separate you from everyone else and are, ultimately, dealt with alone.

Let’s talk about religion.

One of the features of religion is it generally discourages wireheading in favor of investing in long-term reproduction and growth. Utilitarians might come to the conclusion that wireheading is good, but religions–especially conservative religions–almost universally condemn it:

“Thou shalt not wirehead.”

We can include here not just drugs, but other forms of instant gratification. Promiscuous sex, wasteful status signaling, laziness, etc., are all discouraged by most religions. A great deal indeed has been written on the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth; and a bit less on their less famous cousins, the Seven Virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope and charity. All of these sins fritter away wealth, time, health, or the well-being of others, while the virtues emphasize the benefits of delayed gratification.

In a normal social system, people often feel pressured to imitate others in wasteful or harmful ways, such as by drinking excessively at parties because “everyone else is doing it,” having unprotected sex that leads to unwanted pregnancy or disease because “men won’t date you if you won’t put out,” or spending money they really ought to be saving in order to signal social status, otherwise “people will look down on you.”

Religions provide an alternative social system which solves the collective action problem by top-down dictating that everyone has to stop wireheading or otherwise being wasteful because “God says so.” The religious system allows people to signal “I am a devout person,” sidestepping the normal signaling process. Thus, instead of feeling like “I am a socially awkward weirdo because I don’t get drunk at parties,” people feel “I am good and virtuous because I don’t get drunk at parties,” (and other religious people will see the teetotaller in the same positive light.)

So religious groups feature quite prominently in anti-drug therapy groups (Alcoholics Anonymous, most famously.) Seventh Day Adventists enjoy some of the world’s longest life expectancies because of their religion’s emphasis on “clean living,” (probably most attributable to not smoking, possibly also the vegetarianism.) Islam forbids alcohol; Judaism and Christianity generally encourage people to drink responsibly. When you control for national SES, religious people are healthier overall than non-religious ones.

Religions also encourage people to be thrifty and hard-working, putting their efforts into having more children rather than drugs or fancy cars. Religious people tend to have high fertility rates–the humble Amish are growing at a tremendous rate, having nearly doubled their population in the past two decades–and have been doing so for most of the past century. The Amish are the meek and they shall inherit the Earth, or at least our part of it. (Similarly, Israel is the only developed country in the world with a fertility rate above replacement.)

A sudden religious change can help overturn otherwise sticky, horrific traditions, like cannibalism, human sacrifice, and revenge killing, by suddenly supplanting the old social system whose internal logic demanded the continuance of the old ways. For example, in many areas of Australia/Melanesia, any time anyone died an accidental death, some other person was accused of having used witchcraft to murder them and summarily executed by the tribe. Christianity did away with these revenge killings by simultaneously teaching that witchcraft isn’t real and that murderers should be forgiven.

Religion also helps people cooperate in Prisoner’s Dilemma type situations–“Why should I trust you?” “Because God will send me to Hell and I’ll burn for eternity if I betray your trust.” “Oh, okay then.”

If you signal belief in God strongly enough, then you signal also your trustworthiness. I don’t think it’s just coincidence that Medieval and early modern trade/finance networks depended heavily on groups that all shared the same religion. Religious Judaism, in particular, has some very heavy, costly signaling, from the inconvenient food laws to the easy to spot hats to the burden of running divorce law through both secular and religious authorities. One potential explanation for why people would go to so much bother is to signal their sincerity, piety, and thus trustworthiness to potential business partners who otherwise know little about them.

In times and places places where a much larger percent of the population shared the same religion, this kind of trust, aiding in cooperation with people outside of one’s family or local tribe, probably helped spawn the large, high-trust, organized societies those of us in the developed world enjoy today.

A big difference between conservative religions and progressive religions is the progressive ones tend to say, “Hey, what if God is okay with wireheading?”

The command against wireheading doesn’t always make sense on its surface. What is so bad about smoking pot, especially if I do so in the privacy of my own home? Yet the long-term effects of wireheading tend to be bad–very bad. God (or GNON) favors trust, humility, hard work, and putting your efforts into children, not wires.