Industrial Society and its Future

There goes the Oxygen All right. It took a while, but I have finished reading Ted’s manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future. In case you are unfamiliar with the story, Ted Kaczynski was a precocious math prodigy who was born in 1942 and matriculated at Harvard in 1958, at the age of 16. He went on to earn his PhD in math at Michigan, and in 1967 became UC Berkeley’s youngest ever assistant math professor (up to that point). By 1969, Kaczynski had clearly had enough of the Berkeley hippies and retreated to a cabin in the woods, where, he claims, he intended to live the simple life in peace. Unfortunately, one day he found that someone had built a road through his favorite hiking spot, so he began a terrorist campaign of mailing letter bombs to semi-random people, most of them professors or involved in transportation/technology. (Three people died.)

This resulted in a very long and expensive FBI manhunt that ended when Ted agreed to cease his bombing campaign if the Washington Post printed his manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future. Kaczynski’s brother recognized his writing style in the essay and turned him over to the FBI; Ted is still alive, in prison.

It is unfortunate when the author of a work commits clearly reprehensible or evil acts (like killing people). For all that we attempt not to fall into ad hominens, “Do I trust the author or does he seem like a crazy guy?” remains a reasonable first-pass mechanism for sorting through the nigh-infinite quantity of potential reading material. In this case, we must simply admit up front that the author was terrorist and murderer, then proceed to analyze his ideas as though he didn’t exist. Death of the author, indeed.

Quick overview:

Industrial Society and its Future is 35,000 words long, or the length of a novella. It is long enough to feel long when reading it, but too short to include the kind of explanatory examples and details that it could really use. (My summary will therefore draw, when necessary, from other things I have read.)

You have likely already encountered most of the concepts in Ted’s essay, either independently or because you’ve talked to people who’ve read it; the concepts are very commonly discussed on the alt-right.

Ted asserts that modern technology is making people miserable because:

1. It provides for our basic needs (ie food and shelter) with relative ease, leaving us unable to fulfill our instinctual drive to provide for our basic needs, which leaves us unhappy.

2. It makes us follow lots of rules (like “only sell pasteurized milk” or “get a driver’s license”). These rules are necessary for running advanced technology in densely populated areas, but frustrating because they significantly curtail our freedom.

For example:

A walking man formerly could go where he pleased, go at his own pace without observing any traffic regulations, and was independent of technological support-systems. When motor vehicles were introduced they appeared to increase man’s freedom. They took no freedom away from the walking man, no one had to have an automobile if he didn’t want one … But the introduction of motorized transport soon changed society in such a way as to restrict greatly man’s freedom of locomotion. When automobiles became numerous, it became necessary to regulate their use extensively. In a car, especially in densely populated areas, one cannot just go where one likes at one’s own pace one’s movement is governed by the flow of traffic and by various traffic laws. One is tied down by various obligations: license requirements, driver test, renewing registration, insurance, maintenance required for safety, monthly payments on purchase price. Moreover, the use of motorized transport is no longer optional. Since the introduction of motorized transport the arrangement of our cities has changed in such a way that the majority of people no longer live within walking distance of their place of employment, shopping areas and recreational opportunities, so that they HAVE TO depend on the automobile for transportation. Or else they must use public transportation, in which case they have even less control over their own movement than when driving a car. Even the walker’s freedom is now greatly restricted. In the city he continually has to stop to wait for traffic lights that are designed mainly to serve auto traffic. …

To be fair, when talking about the miseries created by technology, I think we can also include things like “people incinerated by bombs during WWII” and “People whose lives were made miserable by totalitarian Soviet states,” not just people struggling to cross the street because there are too many cars.

Ted believes that this misery is bad enough that we would be happier and better off without modern technology (aside from, obviously, everyone who would die without it,) and therefore we should get rid of it.

This is, unfortunately, the essay’s weak point. Most people who read it probably say, “Yes, modern civilization has its issues, yes, cars pollute and traffic is annoying and I hate paperwork, but it sure beats getting mauled to death by lions.”

To be fair, there’s not a whole lot of research out there about what makes people happy. (I did find some; the researchers concluded that people are happy when they have friends.) Personally, I’ve only ever lived in today’s society, so I struggle to compare it to society of 200 years ago.

But let’s suppose we accept Kaczynski’s thesis and decided that modern life is making people really miserable. We can’t just say, “Okay, we’re Luddites, now. Lets put some clogs in this machine.” The system won’t let you. The system is a lot bigger and stronger than you.

Ted advocates rebellion in the essay, but later he noted that realistically, there won’t be a mass movement of people willing to give up their TVs, so if you want to do something about industrial system, you have to go the opposite direction: make the system worse until everyone is so stressed and miserable that they all snap and the system breaks.

Much like Marx, this is where the essay falters, because the technological system shows no sign of completely breaking down. Even if the US collapses, China will just happily scoop up the pieces and chug right along.

(I find it somewhat amusingly that Ted is essentially using a Marxist approach in his claim that the needs of the society’s economic system dictate the shape and culture of that society.)

A few things are incorrect, (Ted is weak on what life is actually like in primitive societies–clearly he has never lived in one–for example, his claim that crime was lower in their societies than ours. It wasn’t,) but the general thrust is accurate or at least an interesting position that a reasonable person could argue in good faith. The essay is quite interesting in its description of the “power process”:

Human beings have a need (probably based in biology) for something that we will call the “power process.” This is closely related to the need for power (which is widely recognized) but is not quite the same thing. The power process has four elements. The three most clear-cut of these we call goal, effort and attainment of goal. (Everyone needs to have goals whose attainment requires effort, and needs to succeed in attaining at least some of his goals.) The fourth element is more difficult to define and may not be necessary for everyone. We call it autonomy and will discuss it later (paragraphs 42-44).

34. Consider the hypothetical case of a man who can have anything he wants just by wishing for it. Such a man has power, but he will develop serious psychological problems. At first he will have a lot of fun, but by and by he will become acutely bored and demoralized. Eventually he may become clinically depressed. …

35. Everyone has goals; if nothing else, to obtain the physical necessities of life: food, water and whatever clothing and shelter are made necessary by the climate. …

36. Nonattainment of important goals results in death if the goals are physical necessities, and in frustration if nonattainment of the goals is compatible with survival. Consistent failure to attain goals throughout life results in defeatism, low self-esteem or depression.

37, Thus, in order to avoid serious psychological problems, a human being needs goals whose attainment requires effort, and he must have a reasonable rate of success in attaining his goals.

This is all well and good until society gets so good at making food that, poof, the majority of people can no longer actually struggle and attain meaningful goals.

People who do not have real goals to give themselves a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction try to fill the void in their lives with “surrogate activities,” which are basically everything else people do.

I think it is fair to say that modern people do have a lot of surrogate activities, and some of them are pretty embarrassing. Women sometimes become obsessed with dolls and start treating them like real children (eg, “momalorians;”) men become obsessed with movies/ video games in which they pretend to be heroes; and pretty much everyone on the internet thinks that they have something very important to say about politics.

It’s hard to escape the sense that many people obsess about such things because otherwise they would have nothing to say to each other; they don’t derive meaning from their jobs or daily lives, or if they do, nothing that happens to them would make sense to the other people they talk to. At least if I reference Harry Potter, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

That all said, Ted misses one significant way people can still struggle and achieve meaningful goals: by having children. Obviously Ted never had kids of his own, nor did most of the people he knew at university, which is probably why he doesn’t address this in his essay. Nevertheless, having and raising kids is right up there with acquiring food and shelter in the list of basic human drives; evolution guarantees it. And kids, unlike food, are not being mass produced by machines. Raising children is still difficult and, yes, ultimately satisfying.

If raising one child is too simple and doesn’t provide enough difficulty to struggle and overcome, have some more. By kid three or four, you’ll be feeling that sweet, life-enhancing exhilaration of fleeing from an angry tiger. Or you’ll be really tired. No guarantees.

Ted’s next interesting concept is “oversocialization”:

24. Psychologists use the term “socialization” to designate the process by which children are trained to think and act as society demands. A person is said to be well socialized if he believes in and obeys the moral code of his society and fits in well as a functioning part of that society. It may seem senseless to say that many leftists are oversocialized, since the leftist is perceived as a rebel. Nevertheless, the position can be defended. Many leftists are not such rebels as they seem.

25. The moral code of our society is so demanding that no one can think, feel and act in a completely moral way. For example, we are not supposed to hate anyone, yet almost everyone hates somebody at some time or other, whether he admits it to himself or not. Some people are so highly socialized that the attempt to think, feel and act morally imposes a severe burden on them. In order to avoid feelings of guilt, they continually have to deceive themselves about their own motives and find moral explanations for feelings and actions that in reality have a non-moral origin. We use the term “oversocialized” to describe such people. [2]

26. Oversocialization can lead to low self-esteem, a sense of powerlessness, defeatism, guilt, etc. One of the most important means by which our society socializes children is by making them feel ashamed of behavior or speech that is contrary to society’s expectations. If this is overdone, or if a particular child is especially susceptible to such feelings, he ends by feeling ashamed of HIMSELF. Moreover the thought and the behavior of the oversocialized person are more restricted by society’s expectations than are those of the lightly socialized person. The majority of people engage in a significant amount of naughty behavior. They lie, they commit petty thefts, they break traffic laws, they goof off at work, they hate someone, they say spiteful things or they use some underhanded trick to get ahead of the other guy. The oversocialized person cannot do these things, or if he does do them he generates in himself a sense of shame and self-hatred. The oversocialized person cannot even experience, without guilt, thoughts or feelings that are contrary to the accepted morality; he cannot think “unclean” thoughts. And socialization is not just a matter of morality; we are socialized to conform to many norms of behavior that do not fall under the heading of morality. Thus the oversocialized person is kept on a psychological leash and spends his life running on rails that society has laid down for him. In many oversocialized people this results in a sense of constraint and powerlessness that can be a severe hardship. We suggest that oversocialization is among the more serious cruelties that human beings inflict on one another.

I had heard of Ted’s concept of “oversocialization” before reading the essay, but I thought it referred to people who had too many friends, socialized too much, and consequently became too obsessed with what other people think/obsessed with their reputation in other people’s minds.

On the contrary, Ted is taking a rather blank-slate approach to human nature and claiming that the “oversocialized” are people who have been molded by society to be overly restricted in their moral and personal behavior (because it is useful for the system if they act this way). This is “socialized” in the same vein as “sex is a social construct;” like the claim that primitive peoples had lower crime rates than ourselves, Ted at times espouses leftist ideological bits without necessarily realizing it.

Of course people do live in societies and are shaped and molded by them in various ways, but I know many “oversocialized” people, and at least some of them were born that way. Perhaps in a different society that basic tendency of theirs to believe that they are sinners would have been discouraged, but there is still that basic tendency in them; had they been the sorts of people who by nature rebel against authority, our society would give them a great deal to rebel against.

Our society does set the bounds and limits for most people’s morals, however. Our current notion that racism is a great evil, for example, was not shared by our ancestors of two centuries ago.

I’d like to pause and quote Zero HP Lovecraft:

Quoting Zero HP Lovecraft:

Foucault taught that power does not inhere in individuals, but in networks of people, that it is manifest between everyone and everyone else at all times, that it cannot be possessed, only enacted, and that it coerces by manufacturing “truth”

“Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced by constraint. Each society has its regime of truth: the types of discourse it accepts; the mechanisms which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned”

Power is induced by “truth”, which is contingent and socially constructed. This makes conservatives bristle, because they rightly know that there is an immutable reality, but they refuse to understand how much flexion their own minds have with regard to the absolute

The dissident right breaks from the “mainstream” right precisely when realizes, along with Foucault, that “truth is not the privilege of those who have liberated themselves.” Moldbug’s famous dictum is “The sovereign determines the null hypothesis” …

Power is decentralized. If a single node in the knowledge/power nexus flips, the cathedral treats it as damage and routes around it. If a Harvard dean or NYT editor goes rogue, they get ignored or ejected.

Everyone knows more or less what power expressed through truth demands. We can sense it; we know the magic words we can say to give orders to others. “That makes me uncomfortable.” “That’s hateful.” “That could offend some people”. The words sound innocent but they aren’t

If you challenge a person who is enacting power, they can escalate. Your nearest authority knows the “truth”, and will side with power. If he doesn’t, his superior will, or his, and so on. In rare cases, these things go to court, where truth is constituted as law and precedent …

Power is the source of social discipline and conformity. To challenge power is not a matter of seeking some ‘absolute truth’, but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of social, economic, and cultural hegemony within which it operates

In some ways, Foucault’s ideas are quite reactionary, and he drew criticism from his leftist colleagues, because his ideas, taken to their logical conclusion, undermine the idea that any kind of “emancipation” is even possible. This is undeniably true.

(There is no such thing as emancipation. Living in society is submitting to social control. Living away from society is submitting to nature’s control. Nature is a harsher master than society.)

Similarly, while living in a technological society necessitates giving up a certain amount of freedom, it also gives a certain amount of freedom. Certainly there are far more career options. Your ancestors were dirt farmers and if they didn’t want to be dirt farmers, well, they could sign up to be sailors and die of scurvy. Slavery, serfdom, and indentured servitude were widespread, child brides were common in many parts of the world, and many people effectively had no one to protect them from abuse. Today has problems, but so did the past.

In many cases, people did not willingly join the industrialized world, but instead had to be dragged kicking and screaming into it–for example, the Inclosure Acts in England and Wales forced over 200,000 farmers off their land and into the cities in the late 1700s and early 1800s, where they became the early proletarian working class of the Industrial Revolution. For many of these people the process was an absolute disaster as rates of death and disease soared. To quote Spartacus Educational:

In 1750 around a fifth of the population [of Britain] lived in towns of more than 5,000 inhabitants; by 1850 around three-fifths did. This caused serious health problems for working-class people. In 1840, 57% of the working-class children of Manchester died before their fifth birthday, compared with 32% in rural districts. (17) Whereas a farm labourer in Rutland had a life-expectancy of 38, a factory worker in Liverpool had an average age of death of 15. (18)

I have seen similar numbers elsewhere. It was really bad, mostly because most houses in Britain did not have running water or sewers at the time. Poop was either thrown into the rivers (which were most people’s only water sources) or simply piled up until someone came and carted it away. And this was the era of horse-drawn carriages, which meant cities were also full of horse poop. For example, in 1880, there were at least 150,000 horses in New York City:

At a rate of 22 pounds per horse per day, equine manure added up to millions of pounds each day and over a 100,000 tons per year (not to mention around 10 million gallons of urine).

It smelled bad, to say the least. The introduction of the automobile was actually heralded for “polluting” less than horses.

But on the other hand, many people were quite happy to go to the cities. The US had both a wide open frontier for aspiring farmers and nothing like Britain’s Inclosure acts, yet still industrialized nonetheless. Presumably most of the people who moved to American cities in search of factory jobs did so voluntarily, like the Lowell Mill Girls:

The Lowell mill girls were young female workers who came to work in industrial corporations in Lowell, Massachusetts, during the Industrial Revolution in the United States. The workers initially recruited by the corporations were daughters of propertied New England farmers, typically between the ages of 15 and 35.[1] By 1840, the height of the Industrial Revolution, the Lowell textile mills had recruited over 8,000 workers, mostly women, who came to make up nearly three-quarters of the mill workforce…

During the early period, women came to the mills of their own accord, for various reasons: to help a brother pay for college, for the educational opportunities offered in Lowell, or to earn supplementary income. Francis Cabot Lowell specifically emphasized the importance of providing housing and a form of education to mirror the boarding schools that were emerging in the 19th century. He also wanted to provide an environment that sharply contrasted the poor conditions of the British Mills. While their wages were only half of what men were paid, many women able to attain economic independence for the first time…

Similarly, we can cite the Great Migration of African Americans from the agricultural US South to Northern manufacturing cities, and millions of people in third world countries who have left their farms behind in favor of factory work. If the switch left them significantly unhappier, we’d expect to see many of them move back (though it is true that many a labor union strike has expressed deep dissatisfaction with factory systems).

At this point, it seems that problems like “no sanitation” have been solved and mos people in the world are enjoying significantly higher standards of living than ever before.

But let’s get back to Ted, because I’ve gotten very far from the oversocialized:

27. We argue that a very important and influential segment of the modern left is oversocialized and that their oversocialization is of great importance in determining the direction of modern leftism. Leftists of the oversocialized type tend to be intellectuals or members of the upper-middle class. Notice that university intellectuals [3] constitute the most highly socialized segment of our society and also the most left-wing segment.

28. The leftist of the oversocialized type tries to get off his psychological leash and assert his autonomy by rebelling. But usually he is not strong enough to rebel against the most basic values of society. Generally speaking, the goals of today’s leftists are NOT in conflict with the accepted morality. On the contrary, the left takes an accepted moral principle, adopts it as its own, and then accuses mainstream society of violating that principle.

This is, of course, exactly what we see right now, with middle and upper-class white liberals demanding that the government do more to enforce the views of middle and upper class white liberals by rioting in the streets and tearing down statues.

Let’s look a bit at the restriction of freedom:

114. As explained in paragraphs 65-67, 70-73, modern man is strapped down by a network of rules and regulations, and his fate depends on the actions of persons remote from him whose decisions he cannot influence. This is not accidental or a result of the arbitrariness of arrogant bureaucrats. It is necessary and inevitable in any technologically advanced society. The system HAS TO regulate human behavior closely in order to function. At work people have to do what they are told to do, otherwise production would be thrown into chaos. Bureaucracies HAVE TO be run according to rigid rules. To allow any substantial personal discretion to lower-level bureaucrats would disrupt the system and lead to charges of unfairness due to differences in the way individual bureaucrats exercised their discretion. It is true that some restrictions on our freedom could be eliminated, but GENERALLY SPEAKING the regulation of our lives by large organizations is necessary for the functioning of industrial-technological society. The result is a sense of powerlessness on the part of the average person. It may be, however, that formal regulations will tend increasingly to be replaced by psychological tools that make us want to do what the system requires of us. (Propaganda [14], educational techniques, “mental health” programs, etc.)

115. The system HAS TO force people to behave in ways that are increasingly remote from the natural pattern of human behavior. For example, the system needs scientists, mathematicians and engineers. It can’t function without them. So heavy pressure is put on children to excel in these fields. It isn’t natural for an adolescent human being to spend the bulk of his time sitting at a desk absorbed in study. A normal adolescent wants to spend his time in active contact with the real world. Among primitive peoples the things that children are trained to do tend to be in reasonable harmony with natural human impulses. Among the American Indians, for example, boys were trained in active outdoor pursuits—

just the sort of thing that boys like. But in our society children are pushed into studying technical subjects, which most do grudgingly. …

117. In any technologically advanced society the individual’s fate MUST depend on decisions that he personally cannot influence to any great extent. A technological society cannot be broken down into small, autonomous communities, because production depends on the cooperation of very large numbers of people and machines. Such a society MUST be highly organized and decisions HAVE TO be made that affect very large numbers of people. When a decision affects, say, a million people, then each of the affected individuals has, on the average, only a one-millionth share in making the decision. What usually happens in practice is that decisions are made by public officials or corporation executives, or by technical specialists, but even when the public votes on a decision the number of voters ordinarily is too large for the vote of any one individual to be significant. [17] Thus most individuals are unable to influence measurably the major decisions that affect their lives. There is no conceivable way to remedy this in a technologically advanced society. The system tries to “solve” this problem by using propaganda to make people WANT the decisions that have been made for them, but even if this “solution” were completely successful in making people feel better, it would be demeaning. …

119. The system does not and cannot exist to satisfy human needs. Instead, it is human behavior that has to be modified to fit the needs of the system. This has nothing to do with the political or social ideology that may pretend to guide the technological system. It is the fault of technology, because the system is guided not by ideology but by technical necessity. [18] … But the system, for good, solid, practical reasons, must exert constant pressure on people to mold their behavior to the needs of the system. … Need more technical personnel? A chorus of voices exhorts kids to study science. No one stops to ask whether it is inhumane to force adolescents to spend the bulk of their time studying subjects most of them hate. When skilled workers are put out of a job by technical advances and have to undergo “retraining,” no one asks whether it is humiliating for them to be pushed around in this way. It is simply taken for granted that everyone must bow to technical necessity. and for good reason: If human needs were put before technical necessity there would be economic problems, unemployment, shortages or worse. The concept of “mental health” in our society is defined largely by the extent to which an individual behaves in accord with the needs of the system and does so without showing signs of stress.

I would like to note a quick objection, that while this is true to some extent, it is also true that mental illness is a real thing that makes people suffer.

Ted is concerned, of course, that all of this making people conform to the needs of the technological system is inhuman and cruel and transforms people into ants.

Finally, we have the question of what happens to ordinary people when technology advances to the point that the jobs they used to do become obsolete.

I’ve been worrying about the “Robot Economy,” as I dubbed it, for about a decade and a half (not as long as Ted, but I’m not as old as he is.) What happens when machines get so good at doing your job that it’s not longer useful to employ you? I treated this subject at length a year or two ago in my review of Auerswald’s The Code Economy, but here is the short version:

So far, the results have been mixed. Losing your job is painful. Entire industries ceasing to employ people is even more painful, as people also lose all of the time and expense they spent to learn how to do those jobs. Retraining massive numbers of people is not easy and sometimes simply not doable. In the short term, at least, economic disruption is pretty bad.

On the long term, though, humans have so far coped with the disappearance of many professions by simply inventing new ones. Back in the 1800s, about 90% of people were farmers. The invention of the tractor rendered most farmers obsolete; one man could now do the work of many. Today, less than 2% of Americans are farmers.

But this massive shift in employment did not result in 88% of Americans being permanently out of work. 88% of us did not have to go on welfare, nor did we starve. People just do new jobs that we didn’t have back in the 1800s.

If technology keeps advancing (as I think it will) and keeps displacing people from their current jobs, we will not necessarily end up with an enormous lumpenproletariat underclass that is doomed to destitution. Certainly there will be painful periods, but in the end, people will probably just get new jobs (and the more we replace repetitive, physically demanding work with robots, the more pleasant I think those new jobs will be).

So this is a bit of a white pill to Kaczynski’s black: while I don’t think things are going to be smooth, and I certainly don’t have any reason to think that America will continue to economically and technologically dominate the world, and I do agree that modern society has a lot of problems, (many of which Kaczynski accurately describes,) I don’t think the world in general is doomed.

That said, you can’t destroy the system. It’s not going to collapse any time soon, though dysgenics could eventually do it in. In the meanwhile, you can join the Amish, if you want. You can move to New York, if that’s your thing. (I can’t imagine wanting to live in NYC given current circumstances, but clearly some people like it there.) Most people will make a few compromises, deal with the inconveniences, and find something worth living for–usually their children.

Further thoughts on spiteful mutants

I’ve had two requests recently, one for opinions about the spiteful mutant hypothesis, the other about Kaczynski’s work. These are related concepts, of course, in that they both deal with the structure of society.

It took me a little while to realize that the “spiteful mutant” hypothesis has to do with bioleninism, not just studies about mice (clearly I haven’t been reading the right things). Bioleninism is the idea that elites may prefer to hire/promote unqualified people because these people will then be more loyal to the regime because they know they couldn’t get as good a job elsewhere.

The problem with this theory is that the “unqualified” people being hired by the elites are not grateful or loyal at all. If anything, they are resentful, malicious, petty, and greedy, ready to tear down everyone who “gave them a chance,” especially if they think they can promote themselves at the same time.

The difficulty with the mouse models is that they deal with autistic-model mice and their effects on the social structure of a normal mouse colony, but in real life, the people throwing wrenches into society are not autistic–if anything, they are hyper-social. (Or as Ted would say, they are oversocialized.)

Humans, obviously, are not mice. Humans build things. (Mice build things, too, but much less than humans.) We build lots of things, especially those of us in the modern, industrialized world.

I’m sure I’ve harped this over and over, but I still find the modern, industrial world amazing (and slightly disconcerting). I am amazed that our homeless are fat, that ordinary people have toilets, that infant mortality is below 1%. On the scale of human history, we as a species have changed almost everything about our lives in the blink of an eye, and we have yet to see how all of this works out for us. Certainly we are not adapted to it, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad.

Building our modern world has required the development of new mental skills that our ancestors didn’t possess, like reading, writing, and arithmetic. 10,000 years ago, before the invention of the alphabet, these skills didn’t exist; today almost everyone has mastered them.

Language, both oral and written, requires the ability to generalize. Take something as simple as the letter “A”. It comes in three standard forms, A, a, and the little a used in handwriting. It also comes in many different fonts, in sloppy and neat handwriting, in cursive and smudged ink. You can read the letter “a” even when part of the letter is missing.

Even worse than the variability in the mere shape of the letter, “A” does not consistently refer to a particular sound. It sounds like it is supposed to in “apple,” but sounds like a U in “was.”

Now multiply by the whole alphabet and all of the different voices and accents, noisy rooms and distorted audio, and it’s a wonder that we can understand each other at all, much less read sentences like, “Rpie rsapebrreis are delciiuous in the smmuertmie,” and “Gosts luv cookies b_t candy iz b_ttr.”

Our understanding of language relies on a lot of processing to fill in the gaps between what we hear/see and what was meant. A similar effect is at play with optical illusions.

Both of these faces, for example, are red. Your brain takes the raw data from your eyes, does some processing and color-correction to account for the other colors in the image, and ends up concluding that one screamer is actually orange.

Our brains do this because real life has shifting patterns of color and shade, and our brains are trying to figure out the “real” color if you remove those effects.

One of the interesting things about autistic people is that they are less likely to “see” optical illusions. This might turn out to be one of those amusing psychological findings that doesn’t replicate, but assuming it’s sound, it seems to be because their brains do less processing of the raw data the receive. This means they see the world more as it actually is and less as they think it should be.

The advantage to seeing the world as it actually is and not as you want it to be obviously lies in professions that autists or semi-aspie people excel in, like math and engineering. Unlike reading, you can’t just go filling in missing data in mathematical equations. Lewis Carol could write poems by stringing together things that sound like words, but you can’t build a circuit by wiring together a bunch of capacitors into something that looks generally like the idea of a circuit. An equation that is missing a digit isn’t solvable, a measurement with a misplaced decimal is useless (and potentially deadly), and a misplaced image tag in a post’s code once completely messed up my blog’s layout.

If reading and talking require being good at adding information until you get the general gist of what is meant, math and engineering require carefully not adding information. Humans aren’t very good at this, because it’s a very new skill.

Modern industrial civilization is only possible because of precision engineering. You cannot fit a billion transistors on a microchip without precision. You cannot send communication and navigation satellites into space without building complicated rockets that have to not explode on the launchpad (a surprisingly difficult task) and then precisely calculating their trajectories (otherwise they will veer off disastrously. These computations are complex enough that they tax the limits of human abilities–as Drozdov et al wrote in Fundamentals of Computer Technology in 1964:

Assume that we are to determine the trajectory of a guided space rocket. For this purpose we must calculate the points of the trajectory lying far ahead in the direction of motion of the rocket; only in that case can we estimate the deviation of the rocket from the prescribed direction and apply the necessary midcourse corrections. Such a calculation can be made only by an electronic computer, since workers would require tens of days or several months to calculate a single trajectory, while a rocket takes only three days to reach the moon. The computer will calculate the trajectory in minutes or tens of minutes.

Computers allow us to be more precise, much faster.)

Back in the 1700s, sailors faced a daunting problem: they had no reliable way to measure longitude while at sea. In 1707, inability to determine their position led to four British warships crashing and sinking, causing the deaths of over a thousand sailors. The British Parliament subsequently offered a reward of 20,000 pounds (that would be about 3 million pounds today,) to anyone who could solve the problem.

Early attempts focused on old fashioned methods of finding one’s way and telling time: the heavens. The board awarded 3,000 pounds, for example, to the widow of Tobias Mayer for his lunar tables. Just as the shadows cast by the sun or the height of the north star could be used to determine one’s latitude, so, they hoped, could the moon assist with longitude. Unfortuantely, this method is clunky, difficult, and relies too much on being able to see the moon.

The clockwork in Harrison’s H4 watch

John Harrison came up with a radically new solution: a watch. So long as your watch shows Greenwich time, you can compare it to the local time (observable via the sun or stars,) and the difference shows your longitude. Unfortunately, clocks that kept time precisely enough to accurately determine one’s latitude far from land didn’t exist in Harrison’s day: he had to build them himself. The resulting clocks are masterpieces, incredibly accurate for their day:

Harrison began working on his second ‘sea watch’ (H5) while testing was conducted on the first, which Harrison felt was being held hostage by the Board. After three years he had had enough; Harrison felt “extremely ill used by the gentlemen who I might have expected better treatment from” and decided to enlist the aid of King George III. He obtained an audience with the King, who was extremely annoyed with the Board. King George tested the watch No.2 (H5) himself at the palace and after ten weeks of daily observations between May and July in 1772, found it to be accurate to within one third of one second per day. King George then advised Harrison to petition Parliament for the full prize after threatening to appear in person to dress them down. Finally in 1773, when he was 80 years old, Harrison received a monetary award in the amount of £8,750 from Parliament for his achievements, but he never received the official award (which was never awarded to anyone). He was to survive for just three more years. …

Captain James Cook used K1, a copy of H4, on his second and third voyages, having used the lunar distance method on his first voyage.[22] K1 was made by Larcum Kendall, who had been apprenticed to John Jefferys. Cook’s log is full of praise for the watch and the charts of the southern Pacific Ocean he made with its use were remarkably accurate.

Okay, so that was a bit of an aside, but it’s a great story.

Societies with primitive technology have much less need for precision. It is difficult to imagine what a John Harrison would have dedicated his life to in a tribe of nomadic goat herders: they would have no need for second-level time-keeping precision. Primitive people didn’t even need fancy numbers like “12;” our lovely base-10 number system is a recent invention. Primitive people generally got by with tally marks; many had number systems that essentially stopped at 3: 1, 2, 3, lots.

We discussed this back in my review of Numbers and the Making of Us; the author spent much of his childhood among the Piraha of the Amazon, who have almost no words for numbers and no sense of number bigger than three (the first three are instinctual; many animals can count to three).

The author’s parents (missionaries) have actually tried to teach the Piraha to count, but after many years of training they still struggled to grasp concepts like “7” and 1-to-1 correspondence (that is, if I set up a line of 7 cans, can you set up a matching line that also contains 7 cans?)

In short, the advance of technology over the past 200 years has required the development of much higher levels of mental precision than our ancestors used.

Most people, of course, want to be precise sometimes and generalize at other times, and our brains naturally switch between the two modes depending on what we’re doing, but there is obviously a trade-off between being exceptionally good at either variety. (Smart people may have enough brains to do both well, but the rest of us have to pick one side or the other.)

In the “spiteful mutants” experiment, mouse society is inherently social, and the mutants who disrupt it are “autistic” (or what passes for autism in mice). In real life, much of our modern world was built by thing-obsessed people like John Harrison or Bill Gates. Our society isn’t “autistic” by any means, but there is a place for them that wouldn’t exist in other societies. By contrast, the “spiteful mutants” in our society are oversocialized folks like this guy:

No one who was busy trying to get the tolerances on their widget-producing machines down to less than a tenth of a millimetre ever had time to worry about the “liminal space” in which anyone’s identity is made.

In short, these people are trying to make us more social, more hierarchical, more like the original mouse community with all of the mice focused on reading social cues from each other and less like the “mutant” community with its focus on social cues and things.

As for where Ted fits into all of this, well, I suppose blowing people up is pretty spiteful, but he might not have in the first place if people had just left his woods alone.

Industrial Society Now

1. The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.

They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in “advanced” countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world.

Every day, people in Western countries in Australia, Europe and North America diligently separate their household plastic waste to be collected and sent for recycling. But much of it isn’t recycled. Instead it is exported – sometimes illegally – to Indonesia and neighbouring countries, polluting the air and affecting the health of local people. …
Plastic is burned on a large scale to ease Indonesia’s overflowing rubbish dumps…”

The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in “advanced” countries.

Newark, Ohio, September 6th, 2018: Flashing lights from emergency vehicles light up a residence on Elmwood Avenue in downtown Newark. Emergency responders administered naloxone to a 62-year-old man and hooked him up to an automated CPR machine before loading him into the ambulance and rushing to the emergency room.
(Photo: Will Widmer) From A Year in the Heart of the Addiction Crisis in Rust Belt America

2. The industrial-technological system may survive or it may break down. If it survives, it MAY eventually achieve a low level of physical and psychological suffering, but only after passing through a long and very painful period of adjustment and only at the cost of permanently reducing human beings and many other living organisms to engineered products and mere cogs in the social machine.

I don’t have any pithy videos/pictures for this one, but it’s a critique at least as old as Marx; Charlie Chaplin encapsulated the idea of man as nothing more than a cog in the industrial machine back in 1936.

That humans must be physical cogs in an industrial system is obvious enough–an assembly line moves forward at a certain rate and the humans working on it must match the rhythm of their movements to the line’s. Technically they can perform their individual, repetitive tasks faster than the line and then wait a few seconds until the next unit arrives, (if they are physically capable,) but they can go no slower. They certainly cannot work at a varied pace, sometimes faster and sometimes slower, even if their average speed is plenty fast: coordinating hundreds (or thousands) of people onto an assembly line requires that everyone works at the same pace.

The social implications are less obvious. Ted’s critique here is not that the industrial system reduces humans to cogs in the industrial machine, but that it reduces people to cogs in the social machine. Ted, after all, was not a manual laborer but a a university academic, a mathematician. He is, you might say, a spiteful mutant who does not want to play the social game, certainly not at Harvard, Michigan, or Berkeley.

What does it mean to be a social cog? A social cog has to “fit” with others; it has to play its social role (and no more).

Bees come in both social and antisocial varieties. The social varieties, like honeybees, build hives, have an elaborate genetic caste system, and sting (sacrificing themselves to defend the collective). The antisocial bees, like mason bees, live alone, do not build hives, can all reproduce, and do not sting (they have no hive to protect). You can speak of mason bees as individuals, but not honeybees. Honeybees, like the cells in your body, have no individual existence (well, unless you develop cancer. Then your cells can become immortal–but this has the nasty side effect of potentially killing you).

For all our talk of “individualism,” members of a modern society are no more “individuals” than members of a beehive; we do not really mean that they are “individuals” so much as that they are “interchangeable” and that their debts are owed to large corporations owned by strangers rather than family members.

On the other hand, I doubt Ted would have felt any happier in a small, tribal society; if anything, he would have had more people in his business trying to make him socialize in a particular way (theirs). Small tribal societies are not exactly well known for tolerating atheists and other dissidents, after all.

Certainly people who work industrial jobs (what few of them remain in the US) do not seem to be under the most pressure to conform mentally to the opinions of their class (or the ruling class). There does seem to be a conformist social pressure among the white-collar classes: perhaps it is as simple as people who work with ideas caring more about ideas, but there seems to be something deeper in the way certain people relate to each other and try to enforce their way of interacting on others.

U of Maryland

To quote the University of Maryland’s policy on “Binary Assumptive Language”:

These are examples of expressions that assume there are only two genders (a binary system of gender), expressions we recommend to avoid as a universal to refer to people generally — but they might be appropriate if referring to a specific person and you know how that person wants to be referred to.

. Ladies and gentlemen
. Boys and girls
. Men and women of the faculty
. Brothers and sisters
. He or she
. S/he
. Sir/madam

Say what you will about rural, tribal people: at least they won’t get you fired for beginning your speech with “Ladies and gentlemen.”

Ted concludes his second paragraph pessimistically:

Furthermore, if the system survives, the consequences will be inevitable: There is no way of reforming or modifying the system so as to prevent it from depriving people of dignity and autonomy.

I actually do think there is hope of learning to live in peace and harmony with the robots, but I doubt we’ll be doing so here in America. My full thoughts on this were explored back in my review of Auerswald’s The Code Economy, but the short version is that the internet has the potential to allow people to connect directly with consumers, so you are less dependent on a boss or a big corporation for employment and closer to self-employed.

One interesting example of the internet’s potential lies in Ted’s manifesto itself, Industrial Society and its Future. Today, anyone can go to a public library and use their computers to make a blog and post (almost) whatever they want on it. In 1995, getting a message in front of a large audience required convincing some publisher to print and distribute your work. Since Ted’s work was considered the rantings of a crazy terrorist, not many publishers were interested in it.

(I still think he would have been better off if he’d just gone to Kinkos, made 500 copies of the manifesto, and distributed them around local and university libraries, but we can’t escape the possibility that Ted sent a bunch of bombs to people and killed them because he wanted to, not because it was an efficient way to promote his writing.)

Nevertheless, it is certainly possible that had Ted been writing in 2005, he would have been content to express himself via a cranky blog rather than bombs. This would have required a certain ironic concession to the industrial system–no more ironic, though, than using someone else’s industrial printing press to distribute the manifesto. Want to spread your ideas to non-relatives? Welcome to the modern communication system: make your peace with that or don’t talk.

3. If the system breaks down the consequences will still be very painful. But the bigger the system grows the more disastrous the results of its breakdown will be, so if it is to break down it had best break down sooner rather than later.

Ted was an accelerationist. According to Wikipedia:

“In that 1999 interview, he described his loss of faith in the potential for reform. He decided that the “human tendency … to take the path of least resistance” meant that violent collapse was the only way to bring down the industrial-technological system:[46]

They’ll take the easy way out, and giving up your car, your television set, your electricity, is not the path of least resistance for most people. As I see it, I don’t think there is any controlled or planned way in which we can dismantle the industrial system. I think that the only way we will get rid of it is if it breaks down and collapses … The big problem is that people don’t believe a revolution is possible, and it is not possible precisely because they do not believe it is possible. To a large extent I think the eco-anarchist movement is accomplishing a great deal, but I think they could do it better … The real revolutionaries should separate themselves from the reformers … And I think that it would be good if a conscious effort was being made to get as many people as possible introduced to the wilderness. In a general way, I think what has to be done is not to try and convince or persuade the majority of people that we are right, as much as try to increase tensions in society to the point where things start to break down. To create a situation where people get uncomfortable enough that they’re going to rebel. So the question is how do you increase those tensions?

Ted’s primary motivation in beginning his terrorist campaign was the encroachment of modern society (roads, cars, parking lots, etc) onto his favorite hiking spots. If you live near a city, this is probably inevitable: cities have expanded tremendously over the past hundred years because the jobs are in the cities; economic production is now dependent on human proximity. (This is why the Land Value Tax is good: it prevents people from accumulating outsized wealth simply because they own land proximate to city centers.) As central hub cities have expanded, though, many small towns and communities have collapsed. So whether the local countryside is growing or shrinking probably has a lot to do with where you live (but if you live there, the local countryside is probably shrinking).

As for the broader ecological problems like global warming, clearly there really is nothing individuals can do about it. Perhaps the mass global quarantine due to Covid-19 caused a dent in emissions, eg:

Global Emissions Have dropped 17% During Coronavirus Pandemic:

With strict stay-at-home orders in place over the last couple months … there has been a momentous decline in global greenhouse gas emissions scientists reported on Tuesday amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The lack of human activity resulted in a decline of more than one billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions. According to the study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, peak drop in emissions happen in early April, reaching 17 percent.

The study projects that total emissions for 2020 will likely fall four to seven percent compared to last year, an unprecedented drop. Last fall, a United Nations report estimated that global greenhouse gas emissions would need to fall 7.6 percent each year beginning in 2020 to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

So, uh, if we have a global pandemic every year, we can just barely meet our climate goals, (assuming developing countries like India and Nigeria decide that their poor don’t need to ever aspire to middle-class luxuries like electricity).

I have been informed that the solution is nuclear power, but that does not seem to be on the table in most countries.

To be continued…

Gimme that new-time religion

I was recently discussing religion with a friend whose basic position is that religion is predatory and harmful. This is about the same position I took back in college: religions say a lot of untrue things and take people’s money in return.

But if religion is basically harmful, then its nigh-global occurrence (it is as culturally ubiquitous as cuisine) is difficult to explain: atheists ought to have done better economically, raised more children, and replaced theists ages ago. In the stone age. Furthermore, most people who go to church do so voluntarily, in their cars, at a time when they could be sleeping, and seem quite happy happy about it.

One of the early principles developed in the study of biology and human anatomy is that if a feature exists, it is there because it serves (or served) a purpose. Egyptian mummy-makers discarded the brain because they did not think it served a purpose, a move we now see as silly. Even if you haven’t figured out yet what that squishy blob does, clearly nature wouldn’t put so much effort into building it if it weren’t important. Even vestigial parts that no longer do anything offer us a window into the past because they used to be important.

Religion helps organize the rhythms and flows of human lives: it often defines people’s group identities, (“We in our tribe worship Athena. They in their tribe worship Apollo.”) it prescribes moral behavior, (“Thou shall not kill”) and it helps assuage existential angst, especially related to death.

Christianity in particular is set up to facilitate the cycle of sin, guilt, and forgiveness, with the promise of an afterlife in Heaven if you undergo the ritual and try to sin less and the threat of Hell if you do not. (I don’t know other religions as well as Christianity because I wasn’t raised in them, so my focus is Christianity.)

In obviously predatory religious groups (aka cults), leaders actively convince people that they are sinners in order to make them feel bad and coerce them into giving more time/money/sex to the cult. People who are already prone to feeling guilty about themselves are thus probably good marks for a cult; likewise, if you want people to consistently feel like they are sinners, it is probably best to target some instinct (like sexual attraction) that they don’t actually have much control over.

Convincing people that they are bad people who deserve punishment and that you are their only source of salvation is quite effective, at least for some people.

But people commit sins and feel remorseful even in the absence of cults. Non-predatory religions help people work through their guilt and absolve them of their sins, which is especially useful if you’re naturally neurotic and you can no longer find the person you sinned against in order to apologize properly. (Dear 12 grade teacher: I am sorry I cut class. I still feel very bad about it.)

One of the mysteries of the past few decades is why churches–especially Mainline Protestant denominations–have hemorrhaged members so badly. There are a few obvious reasons: technology has increased the visibility of atheists, making the potentially agnostic feel less alone in their lack of conviction; technology has made Bible-contradicting information more widely available; and of course Mainline Protestants don’t have enough babies to fill the pews.

But these trends alone seem insufficient to explain the speed of Mainline collapse. I suggest, therefore, that our idea of sin has changed.

Sexual sin was a very effective thing for people to feel bad about before the invention of birth control/condoms/antibiotics/etc., because people naturally desired a lot of sex that had very bad potential side effects, like disease or children they couldn’t afford to feed. With the advent of these technologies, most of the bad effects of sexual sin could be prevented or avoided, and so sexual sin became much less concerning.

Sexual sin is still a concern for Evangelicals and other low-class denominations, but the higher classes have abandoned this view. There are sensible reasons for this split, but they’re really background to our current moment, so we’ll explore them later. Our focus right now is on the new sin:

Neither slavery nor racism are particularly Biblical sins (slavery was legal in Biblical times and the word “racism” didn’t exist), but nobody really cares: they’re sins now.

When I say that the left is operating like a religion (or a cult), I am not using this metaphorically, nor to shut down conversation. I mean it literally: the modern left operates just like a religion, albeit a polytheistic one with many saints/demigods.

Mainline Protestant churches have been hemorrhaging, I suspect, because their followers have mass-converted to the Modern Religion.

The Modern Religion serves two purposes: it absolves its followers of the guilt of their sin and defines them against their out-group: the evil people who are still guilty of sin, aka conservatives. Since religion and group membership are roughly co-terminous, this defines conservatives who are still concerned with sexual sin as basically pagans and conservatives who object to the notion of racial sin as apostates. Apostates, of course, are worse than mere pagans.

Original Sin in this framework was not committed by Adam and Even in the mythical Garden of Eden, but in 1619 by the Founders of America. Perhaps anti-racism did not have to turn into a distinctly anti-American creed, but it is now:

Reminder that the police kill about as many unarmed black men each year as lightning kills whites.

Spiteful Mutants?

I recently received an inquiry as to my opinion about the “spiteful mutant hypothesis.” After a bit of reading about genetic deletions in rat colonies I realized that the question was probably referring to bioleninism rather than rodents (though both are valid).

Of Mice and Men: Empirical Support for the Population-Based Social Epistasis Amplification Model, by Serraf and Woodley of Menie, is an interesting article. The authors look at a study by  Kalbassi et al., 2017 about social structures in mouse populations. Experimenters raised two groups of mice. One group had mice with normal mouse genes; mice in this group were sensitive to mouse social-cues and formed normal mouse social hierarchies. The other group had mostly normal mice, but also some mice with genetic mutations that made them less sensitive to social cues. In the second group, the mutant mice were not simply excluded while the rest of the mice went on their merry way, but the entire structure of the group changed:

Among the more striking findings are that the genotypically mixed … litters lacked “a structured social hierarchy” (p. 9) and had lower levels of testosterone (in both Nlgn3y/- and Nlgn3y/+mice); additionally, Nlgn3y/+mice from genotypically homogeneous litters showed more interest in “social” as opposed to “non-social cues” (p. 9) than Nlgn3y/+mice from genotypically mixed litters [the latter did not show a preference for one type of cue over the other, “showing an absence of interest for social cues” (p. 9)].

In other words, in litters where all of the mice are social, they can depend on each other to send and receive social cues, so they do, so they form social hierarchies. Somehow,t his makes the (male) mice have a lot of testosterone. In litters where the mice cannot depend on their companions to consistently send and receive social cues, even the genetically normal mice don’t bother as much, social hierarchies fail to form, and the mice have less testosterone.

A “spiteful mutation” in this context is one that imposes costs not only on the carrier, but on those around them. In this case, by changing the social structure and decreasing the testosterone of the other mice.

It’s a good article (and not long); you should read it before going on.

So what is bioleninism? I’ve seen the term kicked around enough to have a vague sense of it, but let’s be a bit more formal–with thanks to Samir Pandilwar for succinctness:

Developed by Spandrell (alias, Bloody Shovel) it takes the basic Leninist model of building a Party to rule the state out of the dregs of society, and shifts this to the realm of biology, wrong-think biology in particular, building the party out of people who are permanent losers within the social order.

I think the term gets used more generally when people notice that people in positions of power (or striving to make themselves more powerful via leftist politics) are particularly unattractive. In this context, these people are the “spiteful mutants” trying to change the social structure to benefit themselves.

We humans, at least in the west, like to think of ourselves as “individuals” but we aren’t really, not completely. As Aristotle wrote, “Man is a political animal;” we are a social species and most of us can’t survive without society at large–perhaps none of us. Virtually all humans live in a tribe or community of some sort, or in the most isolated cases, have at least occasional trade with others for things they cannot produce themselves.

Our species has been social for its entire existence–even our nearest relatives, the other chimps and gorillas, are social animals, living in troops or families.

We talk a lot about “increasing atomization and individualism” in populations that have transitioned from traditional agricultural (or other lifestyles) to the urban, industrial/post-industrial life of the cities, and this is certainly true in a legal sense, but in a practical sense we are becoming less individual.

A man who lives alone in the mountains must do and provide most things for himself; he produces his own food, is warmed by the efforts of his own ax, and drinks water from his own well. Even his trash is his own responsibility. Meanwhile, people in the city depend on others for so many aspects of their lives: their food is shipped in, their hair is cut by strangers, their houses are cleaned by maids, their water comes from a tap, and even their children may be raised by strangers (often by necessity rather than choice). The man in the mountains is more properly an individual, while the man in the city is inextricably bound together with his fellows.

There isn’t anything objectively wrong with any particular piece of this (fine dining is delicious and hauling water is overrated), but I find the collective effect on people who have come to expect to live this way vaguely unnerving. It’s as though they have shed pieces of themselves and outsourced them to others.

Or as Kaczynski put it:

The industrial-technological system may survive or it may break down. If it survives, it MAY eventually achieve a low level of physical and psychological suffering, but only after passing through a long and very painful period of adjustment and only at the cost of permanently reducing human beings and many other living organisms to engineered products and mere cogs in the social machine. Furthermore, if the system survives, the consequences will be inevitable: There is no way of reforming or modifying the system so as to prevent it from depriving people of dignity and autonomy.

(I have not read the whole of his manifesto, but I keep returning to this point, so eventually I should.)

How different are we from the little bees who cannot live on their own, but each have their role in the buzzing hive? (This is where the spiteful mutant hypothesis comes in.) Bees don’t arrange themselves by talking it over and deciding that this bee would be happy visiting flowers and that bee would be happy guarding the hive. It’s all decided beforehand via bee genetics.

How much “free will” do we really have to chose our human social relations, and how much of it is instinctual? Do we chose whom we love and hate, whom we respect and whom we deem idiots? Did we chose who would invent a billion dollar company and who would be homeless?

(We don’t really know how far instincts and biology go, of course.)

Any genes that affect how human societies cohere and the social hierarchies we form would likely produce different results if found in different quantities in different groups, just like the genes in the mouse models. Such genes could predispose us to be more or less social, more or less aggressive, or perhaps to value some other elements in our groups.

One of the most under-discussed changes wrought by the modern era is the massive decrease in infant mortality. Our recent ancestors suffered infant mortality rates between 20 and 40 percent (sometimes higher.) Dead children were once a near-universal misery; today, almost all of them live.

Among the dead, of course, were some quantity of carriers of deleterious mutations, such as those predisposing one to walk off a cliff or to be susceptible to malaria. Today, our mutants survive–sometimes even those suffering extreme malfunctions.

This doesn’t imply that we need high disease levels to weed out bad mutations: the Native Americans had nice, low disease levels prior to contact with European and African peoples, but their societies seem to have been perfectly healthy. This low-disease state was probably the default our ancestors all enjoyed prior to the invention of agriculture and dense, urban living. They probably still had high rates of infant mortality by modern standards (I haven’t been able to find numbers, but our relatives the chimps and bonobos have infant mortality rates around 20-30%.)

That all said, I’m not convinced that all this so-called “autistic” behavior (eg, the mouse models) is bad. Humans who are focused on things instead of social relations have gifted us much of modern technology. Would we give up irascible geniuses like Isaac Newton just to be more hierarchical? The folks implicitly criticized in the “bioleninist” model are far more obsessed with social hierarchies (and their place in them) than I am. I do not want to live like them, constantly analyzing ever social interaction for whether it contains micro-slights or whether someone has properly acknowledged my exact social status (“That’s Doctor X, you sexist cretin.”)

I want to be left in peace.


It’s a form of abuse to constantly tell someone things like “No one loves you,” “everyone hates you,” “you’re so awful, no one would ever put up with you,” etc. It’s worse, of course, if the person saying these things is someone the abused trusts, loves, or looks up to, like a parent or spouse.

What happens when someone starts to believe these sorts of lies? If they think that other people hate them or would do horrible things to them when they actually don’t? Would they come to believe that their abuser really was “they only one you can trust” and “just looking out for you”?

Every time something bad happens, they’d internalize it as yet another piece of evidence that the abuser is right: “Of course bad things happen to me–everyone hates me.” They would be afraid of the world, unable to trust anyone. How would they even begin to realize that they’ve been lied to?

It would be pretty awful if people were going around with incorrect ideas about the rates of police violence against them, too.

How many unarmed people did the police kill last year?

This is the total police killings of unarmed people, of all races, over the past 5 years. Of course, some of the “armed” people really weren’t, but we are still talking numbers similar to the number of people killed by bees and wasps each year:

Deaths by Wasps and Bees per year”

As for race:

This Y-axis is seems like a case of deceptive truncation, but the total number of unarmed Africans killed by the police in 2019 was 9. This is on the same order of magnitude as “killed by lightning” and “drowned in a bucket” (don’t worry, though, if you can read this, you’re too old to fall into a bucket and drown.)

But suppose we zoom out and assume that all of the “armed” suspects shot by the police really weren’t. This is obviously not true, but it constitutes a theoretical upper bound. The police killed about 240 black people total last year. By contrast, over 3,500 people drown each year; over 7,000 black people were murdered by non-police in 2018.

Oh, and these protests are now happening in the midst of a pandemic that has been killing over a thousand people per day. Any argument that police violence is a bigger concern than corona is statistically nuts.

I’ve noticed that, aside from the WAPO article, the exact number of unarmed people shot by the police was not easy to find. Most people want to talk about rates and percentages, rather than absolute numbers. This is understandable if you are trying to figure out if one group is more likely to get killed than another, but bad for figuring out how often something actually happens and whether or not you should be worried about it.

Look, I actually have a fair number of complaints about the police/judiciary/legal system, and there are reasonable arguments about excessive force, over criminalization, and bad prison conditions that I support.

But no one should be told that there is a giant conspiracy out there to kill them when there isn’t.



Conspiracies generally fall into two camps: the secret sort, (which require that people be competent at organizing and not blabbing about what they’re doing) and the right out in the open sort (which only require that you not think of them as conspiracies). 

The secret sort are favored by garden-variety conspiracy theorists, and more easily dismissed because they require actually competent behavior from people with no one defecting and spilling the beans. In real life, large-scale conspiracies are rarely kept secret for long because people either mess up, or because they get in a power struggle and go tell others in order screw over their opponents. People are messy. 

The second sort of “conspiracy” isn’t really a conspiracy at all: it’s just people being people, acting in organized ways to accomplish their goals. They work completely out in the open and are totally honest about what they are doing because they do not think of themselves as part of a conspiracy. (Of course, many organizations–like corporations–take some pains to keep some of their activities private, but we don’t consider this a conspiracy because the organization’s overall goals are publicly stated.) 

Man is a political animal–that is, a social one. Social organization is an instinctual and spontaneous feature of human communities, from remote hunter gatherers to quilting bees. 

But since people generally have trouble keeping up with everything everyone else is doing (most people are busy just trying to keep up with their own affairs) the behavior of other organized groups of people can look to outsiders a lot like a conspiracy. 

Additionally, if you try to explain the organized behavior of other groups of people, it can sound like you are claiming there is a conspiracy simply because the person you are talking to is unaware that there is any organized group behavior going on at all. “Yes,” you try to explain, “They really are doing this–no, it’s not a conspiracy, it’s all out in the open, look I can get you a book about this–wait come back …” 

I’ve seen a lot of people debating whether or not the riots/protests are “organic” or “organized,” but the two categories are not necessarily opposed. Various antifa-type organizations have been around for decades (at least) and most of the people in them joined because they agree with antifa’s aims and want to be there–they aren’t being paid. Antifa makes no secret of its aims: anything you want to know about their objectives is easily found on the internet (if anything, they’re actively trying to convince people that their ideas and goals are good so people will join them). 

That doesn’t mean antifa does everything out in the open. If some antifa cell decides they’re going to lob molotovs into a building, they certainly might not post that publicly.  (By the same token, Apple keeps its plans for the next smartphone under lock and key.) But their goals are public. 

Should a big protest break out, like the one currently rocking the nation, antifa is already organized and ready to go. Whether one calls this a “conspiracy” or not depends, I suppose, on what one considers a conspiracy. 

Of course, antifa are only one sort of organization. Humans organize through churches and schools, social media and gossip chains. They organize when they need to get something done, like clean up a park or sell drugs, and disband when the need no longer exists. 

I heard this morning that certain Mexican gangs have taken to patrolling their neighborhoods in California, protecting local businesses from looters. This is not because gangs are good, but because it is in the nature of people. This is the critical flaw in anarchist, abolish-the-police thought: abolish the police, and you will just end up with something else that does the same thing as the police–but I guarantee you that gangs will not be nearly as polite about it as the police. If one form of order breaks down, another will take its place. Even Somalia, a nation that has endured a long period of almost no national governance, still has local systems of law enforced by feud, complicated feud insurance systems, and judges. You cannot escape the polis.

Of course, all of this does not preclude the possibility of actual conspiracies. 


Stay safe out there.

The Age of Greece

I have been reading recently about “Hellenistic Civilization”–that is, the greater Greek cultural zone that began in Greece proper around 700 BC, then radiated to the rest of the Mediterranean and of course, due to Alexander the Great, all the way to India. Aside from the short-lived empire, Greek civilization was rarely unified under a single military or political entity, making it somewhat difficult to talk about. If I refer to the “Roman Empire” you won’t be terribly surprised to find out that I am talking about somewhere in Gaul rather than Rome proper, but if I refer to Archimedes as Greek, you may be surprised to learn that he lived in Sicily. Herodotus lived in what was then the Persian Empire, but is now Turkey. Euclid lived in Egypt, in Alexander’s famous city of Alexandria.

Here is a map that shows some of the important players in the Greek cultural world. Rome is in light blue and Carthage, which was Phoenician, is lavender. (Thewestern Med and Indo-Greek kingdom are not on this map.)

The Greeks first show up in the history books back in the Bronze Age/Homeric era as the marauding “sea peoples” who attacked Egypt/Israel/Troy/etc. They made a splash even then, but might have also helped trigger a dark age, so -1 for bronze age Greek culture.

Greece returned a few hundred years later with the founding of the Greek city states that we all know and love, like Athens and Sparta. The famous Pythagoras was born in 570 BC; by this point, Greek colonies spanned the Mediterranean, from Egypt to Spain. Plato was born a bit later, around 425 BC; his student Aristotle taught Alexander, and Alexander conquered much of the known world.

I think we hear more about Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle because Aristotle was Alexander’s teacher, and Alexander went around founding libraries (among other things). If Eratosthenes had been Alexander’s teacher, those libraries would have held more of Eratosthenes’s books and fewer of Aristotle’s.

I have yet to see any good explanation for why Greece basically exploded around 700-600 BC, burned like a beacon for hundreds of years, and then faded away around the year 600 AD. The soils in Greece proper are not, as far as I know, the greatest: not soils you’d expect to generate a sudden population explosion, though perhaps gradual degradation of the soils lead people to try their luck elsewhere. Nor do I believe anything so simple as “the sunlight is better in Greece.” The decline of the Greek cultural zone can’t be attributed to the Romans, really, since it survived their arrival by a few hundred years.

Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria lived from 30-70 AD and invented a whole host of marvels, including:

  • The first vending machine … when a coin was introduced via a slot on the top of the machine, a set amount of holy water was dispensed. This was included in his list of inventions in his book Mechanics and Optics. When the coin was deposited, it fell upon a pan attached to a lever. The lever opened up a valve which let some water flow out. The pan continued to tilt with the weight of the coin until it fell off, at which point a counter-weight would snap the lever back up and turn off the valve.[15]
  • A wind-wheel operating an organ, marking the first instance in history of wind powering a machine.[4][5]
  • Hero also invented many mechanisms for the Greek theater, including an entirely mechanical play almost ten minutes in length, powered by a binary-like system of ropes, knots, and simple machines operated by a rotating cylindrical cogwheel. The sound of thunder was produced by the mechanically-timed dropping of metal balls onto a hidden drum.
  • The force pump was widely used in the Roman world, and one application was in a fire-engine.
  • syringe-like device was described by Hero to control the delivery of air or liquids.[16]
  • In optics, Hero formulated the principle of the shortest path of light: If a ray of light propagates from point A to point B within the same medium, the path-length followed is the shortest possible. It was nearly 1000 years later that Alhacen expanded the principle to both reflection and refraction, and the principle was later stated in this form by Pierre de Fermat in 1662; the most modern form is that the optical path is stationary.
  • A standalone fountain that operates under self-contained hydro-static energy; now called Heron’s fountain.
  • A programmable cart that was powered by a falling weight. The “program” consisted of strings wrapped around the drive axle.[17]

You are of course familiar with Greek art (particularly sculpture), mathematics, architecture, and philosophy.

The life of Hypatia shows, perhaps, some of the downfall of Greek culture. Hypatia was born around 360 and died in 415 AD. She was a mathematician and professor at the University of Alexandria. One day, she was set upon by an angry mob of Christians (she was a pagan), dragged from her carraige, stripped naked, and brutally murdered. It was a dark day for academic freedom.

On the other hand, Pythagoras and Archimedes were also murdered, and yet civilization continued unabated in those years.

At any rate, it remains a mystery. It’s late, so just go read about Hero of Alexandria. He’s an interesting guy.


There’s a drama on Netflix based on two books about the 1993 standoff between the ATF/FBI and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. I recommend it.

There is something sad about a cult that grows old. Pretty much every new religion starts as a cult–a small group of people following a charismatic leader–but the ones that last become focused on ritual and theology as they mature. Cults that don’t mature end up facing some kind of crisis of faith, which tends to result in people getting very hurt.

The Branch Davidians began in 1929 when Victor Houteff split off from the 7th Day Adventists. They were in California back then, a good place for wacky cults, but Houteff decided to relocate to Waco in 1934, the middle of the Dust Bowl. Either he got a great deal on some extremely cheap land or he was completely insane.

The cult continued along, doing culty things and expecting imminent apocalypse but not really causing trouble, until David Koresh showed up. (David Koresh isn’t his birth name, btw. His mother named him Vernon Howell, but he changed it to better lead the cult.)

As far as I can tell, Koresh had two obsessive interests: the Bible and sex, and the former was his path to the latter. He joined the cult when he was 20 and started sleeping with its then 60 year old female leader. The cult leader’s son, George Roden, sensed that Koresh was trying to mosey into his inheritance and kicked him and his band of followers out of the compound. Koresh and about 25 others went off and were essentially homeless hippies living in tents and buses for a couple years before he set off on some globe-trotting adventures to raise some more members for his side of the cult, then returned to the power struggle with Roden.

At that point, Roden’s advantage over Koresh was that he was heir to the cult and had control of the compound; Koresh’s advantage was that he was slightly less insane. Roden started digging up dead bodies and challenged Koresh to a raise-the-dead contest, which Koresh reported to the authorities on the grounds that digging up corpses is illegal.

The authorities declined to prosecute because they didn’t have any proof, so Koresh and his followers stormed the compound in search of evidence. This ended in a gunfight and Roden was injured; Koresh and his followers were tried for attempted murder, but basically acquitted. According to Wikipedia:

Even with all the effort to bring the casket to court, the standing judge refused to use it as evidence for the case.[17] Judge Herman Fitts ruled that the courtroom is no place for a casket when defense attorney Gary Coker requested it be used as evidence for the case. During questions about said casket, Roden admitted to attempting to resurrect Anne Hughes on three occasions. The Rodenville Eight were forced to carry the casket down the street to a van awaiting the body.[citation needed]  

While waiting for the trial, Roden was put in jail under contempt of court charges because of his use of foul language[18] in some court pleadings. He threatened the Texas court with sexually transmitted diseases if the court ruled in Howell’s favor. Alongside these charges, Roden was jailed for six months for legal motions he filed with explicit language. 

Roden then removed himself from the conflict by putting an axe through another man’s skull for claiming to be the messiah. Roden became one of the few people to be found not guilty by reason of insanity and was sent off to the psychiatric hospital, while David Koresh and his followers paid off the compound’s back taxes and cleaned out the meth lab someone had built in there.

Koresh then got back to his primary business: having lots of sex with lots of women and teenage girls and making lots of babies. Koresh fathered at least 16 children, (at least 12 of them died in the fire that took down the compound following the ATF raid, but some children he fathered before he joined the BDs may have survived). The Branch Davidians were also stockpiling tons of weapons, a hobby I have never quite understood but I have been told is not that unusual for rural Texans.

The Branch Davidians actually owned a gun shop where they sold weapons to other folks in Waco, (like everyone else, they had to make money to feed their families,) so there may be a fairly mundane explanation for most of their guns.

This is when the government got interested in what Koresh and his followers were up to.

On February 23, 1993, the ATF rolled up with three helicopters and a 100-man SWAT team to execute a search warrant for illegal guns and drugs. (While the raid was probably also motivated by reports of child abuse/polygamy/rape, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, as its name indicates, doesn’t handle such cases.) No one knows who shot first, but a firefight broke out, people were killed on both sides, tanks were brought in, and both sides hunkered down for a protracted siege.

The standoff ended 51 days later when the FBI decided to ram the compound and fill it with (CS) tear gas. The US government is prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention from using CS gas against its enemies in war, but it is perfectly legal for the government to gas American children because they are not foreigners and, crucially, cannot fight back: 

Use of CS in war is prohibited under the terms of the Chemical Weapons Convention, signed by most nations in 1993 with all but five other nations signing between 1994 and 1997. The reasoning behind the prohibition is pragmatic: use of CS by one combatant could easily trigger retaliation with much more toxic chemical weapons such as nerve agents.

At this point, the compound burst into flame. There is much debate about who started the fire (and why). but even in the scenario where the Davidians started it themselves, we have to remember that they were being gassed, tanks were ramming the walls of their compound, people were trapped under the rubble, and they thought that if they left, they would be shot.

According to one of the few survivors: 

When the 51-day siege finally came to a head and the entire compound was on fire, Thibodeau escaped from a hole in the building. He says he could feel his hair crackling from the fire.

“I really thought the FBI was going to kill me [once I left the building], but at that point, I thought it was better to die by a bullet to the head than to die by burning to death. …”

Thibodeau wrote one of the books the Netflix miniseries is based on, along with the memoirs of Gary Noesner, the FBI’s hostage negotiator who manned the other side of Koresh’s telephone line during the siege. Thibodeau disputes the notion that the Branch Davidians started the fire themselves; unless we can listen to the FBI tapes for ourselves (and line them up accurately with events as they went down), we can’t really say, but I’m willing to split the difference and say that even if someone intentionally lit a fire, it doesn’t mean that everyone else in the building agreed with them and wanted to die in a fire. It seems more likely that something resembling Thibodeau’s account (total chaos) is closer to the truth.

76 people died in (or during) the fire, 25 of them children. (10 others died in the initial shoot-out, some ATF and some BDs.)

It is now generally agreed that the Branch Davidians were minding their own business and didn’t pose any meaningful threat to outsiders; they had no intention of going on a shooting rampage nor of committing mass suicide, at least before tanks showed up in their front yard. There may have been child abuse and Koresh was definitely having sex with teenagers, but everyone else in the compound was celibate and not really doing anything objectionable, and the children who burned to death obviously would have been better off had the government left well enough alone.

As far as Noesner’s account is concerned, the ATF/FBI side of the affair was a total clusterfuck of different people with different agendas working at cross-purposes, making it impossible for him to do his job and convince Koresh and his followers that they totally wouldn’t get shot this time if they left the building. I don’t think the government ever officially admitted any culpability, but the case has gone down as “How not to conduct an ATF raid on a heavily armed cult.”

The government’s main case was against Koresh, who could have been easily arrested any time he went to town; other cult members who might have had gun violations also could have been arrested at work or while socializing. There really was no need for the siege at all.

Thibodeau says he expected more people to care about his side of the story. The standoff was televised, but viewers only got the outside view, colored by the ATF/FBI’s allegations against the cult. Liberals tend to appreciate stories of police/state violence against ordinary citizens when they involve obvious minorities like Rodney King or Micheal Brown, but are less concerned when they involve weird cultists from Texas. Mainstream conservatives tend to side with law enforcement; they like stories where the bad guys are criminals.

The Waco siege was interesting enough to make the news, but didn’t cross the right tribal lines for normal people to side with the Branch Davidians. To the mainstream left, religious nuts in Texas were the bad guys, and to the mainstream right, law enforcement were the good guys.

The Branch Davidians themselves were not far-right–

according to the Religious Tolerance website:

A major international recruitment drive was established in 1985; it was aimed at SDA members (in particular those who had been disfellowshipped from the church due to their beliefs). This effort brought in members from Australia, Canada, Great Britain, etc. A number of businesses were created within the compound; guns were purchased wholesale and legally resold at gun shows. There were 130 members living at Waco in the Spring of 1993; they were a multi-racial, multi-ethnic group of whom 45 were black.

Does some quick math… That makes the Branch Davidians about 33% black, while the nearby city of Waco is only 23% black. If they’d lived in California instead of Waco, they probably would have been portrayed as a hippie commune. (Aside from the “David Koresh is a prophet so he gets to have sex with everyone” thing, their beliefs don’t seem that unusual for the area, either.)

–but because of the layout of American tribal identities, the only folks who really cared about their side of their story are far-rightists who think that the government intentionally targets white people. Thus the Branch Davidians were not white nationalists, but white nationalists and their relatives on the far-right are the only people (besides their loved ones) who’ve really cared about their story.

On April 19, 1995, on the second anniversary of the fire that destroyed the Branch Davidians’ compound, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols detonated a bomb at the Alfred P. Murray Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing at least 168 people 19 of them children, and injuring nearly 700 others. The men were motivated, they said, by the events at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and the deaths of the Branch Davidians in 1993.

I doubt any of the Branch Davidians would have wanted their deaths avenged in this way.