Hyperstimulus

A hyperstimulus is a regular stimulus that has been cranked up to 11.

Fruits and vegetables naturally contain sugar, which we use to power our brains. Since fruits and veggies are part of the normal human diet, we crave sugar and find its taste pleasant.

Through selective breeding and technological refinement, we’ve produced artificially concentrated sugars that can be used to produce everything from candy to ice cream.

Fruit is a normal stimulus; ice cream is a hyperstimulus.

Running downhill is a normal stimulus; a roller coaster is a hyperstimulus.

Singing and dancing with your friends is a normal stimulus; a rave is a hyperstimulus.

Tea is a fairly normal stimulus; cocaine is a hyperstimulus.

TV and movies are both, obviously, hyperstimuli. Mediums like Twitter, with their endless supply of short bursts of opinion, are like the potato chips of the information world.

Even things that are not obviously hyperstimulating may be, because we humans are really good at producing more of what we like and more of what people buy. All domesticated foods have been selected for the traits we humans like in our food, not just sugarcane:

(Just look at that wild banana!)

Do people click more often on headlines that say “Doctors recommend avoiding this one food to lose weight?” or “Local Grandma invents miraculous weight loss cure!”? Whichever one they click, proliferates.

What are the most popular novels? Thrillers and romance. (If you want to break into publishing, write a romance–they’re shorter than thrillers and Harlequin needs a constant stream of them.) These genres are fundamentally about producing strong emotions (and as far as I know, barely existed before WWII). 

What’s wrong with hyperstimuli?

They aren’t inherently bad. One piece of candy will not kill you. Neither will one ride on a roller coaster. But a diet that consists entirely of candy will kill you. Even a diet that is merely 20% candy will probably kill you.

It is very difficult to avoid hyperstimuli because they excite stimulus pathways that we evolved to tell us when we have encountered something good, like fruit. It is very difficult to become addicted to something you are not already biologically predisposed to like: if some mad scientist invented jelly beans that taste like raw sewage, most people would have no problem avoiding them. By contrast, it is very easy to become addicted to something that excites all of the “this is good!” signals in your brain, even if that thing is actually nothing more than the specific chemical that signals “this is good.”

Normal stimuli, like fruit sugars, exist in a “whole package” of other things that are also good for you, like the rest of the fruit. Your desire for fruit sugars would normally lead you to eat the rest of the fruit, since most of us don’t have the required equipment for sugar extraction in our kitchens. Sugar, packaged and eaten with the rest of the fruit, is good for you. Your brain runs on the sugar, the fiber cleans your guts, the proteins build muscles, the fats can be burned for energy now or later, etc.

Refined sugar products contain much more sugar, per ounce, than your body is really designed to handle. You did not evolve to eat Froot Loops, no matter what your kids or the toucan on the box may tell you. And if you eat Froot Loops, you effectively crowd out other, more nutritious foods–or you have to eat twice as much to get the same nutrients.

Humans have gotten really good at eating twice as much, but not everything can be so easily doubled. If you watch TV instead of socializing, that time is lost. If you rack up wins in your favorite video game instead of challenging yourself to develop a skill in real life, that time is lost. If you do drugs, well, we all know how that ends.

And I think there is, similar to the tolerance people eventually build up to psychiatric medicines and alcohol, a kind of adjustment that we eventually make to stimuli. We get used to it. The noise we used to find chaotic and distracting, we just tune out. The music that used to excite us grows dull. Spicy salsa becomes bland as we seek the newer, hotter peppers.

I’m not sure the solution is to “cut the hyperstimulus out of your life.” We are basically stimulus-response machines that produce new stimulus-response machines; long-term stimulus deprivation drives us insane. But neither can we thrive, it seems, in high-stimulus environments (I define “thrive” here as an ecologist would, based on how many healthy offspring a community raises to adulthood. First world nations are basically dying by this standard.)

Striking the right balance is tricky. Some things, like heroin, clearly should not be in your life. Others, like candy, are harmless in small quantities–maybe even good. TV/internet/video games are mixed–they’re probably okay in small quantities but unlike candy, it’s difficult to obtain them in limited quantities. At the very least, you probably shouldn’t get cable and should set hard limits to the time you and your kids spend staring at screens every day.

So stop reading this post and go outside.

Fighting the Bureaucracy

Modern civilization is plagued by many evils, but the most common, in everyday life, is paperwork. By “paperwork” I mean basically all bureaucratic overhead, all of the accounting, regulation and compliance enacted in the past century.

Paperwork is the devil.

David Graeber gets it: 

… as early as the 1970s, formerly leftist parties from the US to Japan made a strategic decision to effectively abandon what remained of their older, working-class base and rebrand themselves primarily as parties representing the interests and sensibilities of the professional-managerial classes. This was the real social base of Clintonism in the US, Blairism in the UK, and now Macronism in France. All became the parties of administrators. …

Whereas the core value of the caring classes is, precisely, care, the core value of the professional-managerials might best be described as proceduralism. The rules and regulations, flow charts, quality reviews, audits and PowerPoints that form the main substance of their working life inevitably color their view of politics or even morality. These are people who tend to genuinely believe in the rules. They may well be the only significant stratum of the population who do so. If it is possible to generalize about class sensibilities, one might say that members of this class see society less as a web of human relationships, of love, hate, or enthusiasm, than, precisely, as a set of rules and institutional procedures, just as they see democracy, and rule of law, as effectively the same thing. …

For most care-givers, however, these people are the enemy. If you are a nurse, for example, you are keenly aware that it’s the administrators upstairs who are your real, immediate class antagonist. The professional-managerials are the ones who are not only soaking up all the money for their inflated salaries, but hire useless flunkies who then justify their existence by creating endless reams of administrative paperwork whose primary effect is to make it more difficult to actually provide care.

I call these people “lizards” because they do not seem to have human souls.

Some amount of paperwork, of course, is necessary to keep track of things in a modern, industrial economy in which food for 320 million people has to get from farms to tables every single day. The expansion of paperwork beyond its necessary domain is essentially the auto-cannibalization of society, a metastatic cancer of bureaucrats and paper-pushers.

If we want to fight bureaucracy, we have to know what feeds bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy grows because people don’t trust each other to do the right thing. It grows because people over-graze the commons, because they dump toxic waste into rivers, because they build cheap apartments that turn into flaming death traps, because they take bribes and cover up incompetence, because they discriminate against minorities or hand out sinecures to their friends.

The demands for paperwork are generally demands that you prove that you have or can do the right thing–that you will not pollute, that you have car insurance, that your products are not dangerous or defective, that your medicines aren’t poisons and your experiments don’t involve giving people syphilis.

The more people do not trust each other to do the right thing, the more layers of bureaucracy they institute. If I am afraid that police officers are taking bribes, then I propose more oversight and agencies to ensure that they do not take bribes. If I am concerned that mining companies are paying off the EPA to let them dump toxic metals in the groundwater, then my response is to demand another agency come and clean out the EPA and enforce tougher restrictions on dumping. If I don’t trust you, then I hire someone to watch you.

The problem with this approach is that adding more untrustworthy people to a system doesn’t start making them trustworthy. If I can bribe one person, then I can bribe the person who is supposed to make sure that no one gets bribed. In the end, we just end up with more people to bribe.

And that’s if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, people are “ethical” and the whole thing grinds to a halt. To get your new building built you first need authorization from the wetlands licensing committee, and the lady from the licensing committee wants thirteen forms in triplicate proving that your building won’t impact the mating habits of a rare toad that you are pretty sure doesn’t even live in your state. To get your study on the efficacy of a survey your clinic already hands out to patients approved by the ethics board of your local institution you first have to prove that you will not be collecting personal data from at-risk patients, but you can’t know if they are “at risk” until after you collect their data. Or maybe the guy who is supposed to send you the form you have to fill out simply isn’t returning your phone calls and you can’t figure out from the website where his office is located.

The more you try to fight bureaucracy with more bureaucracy, the more bureaucracy wins, and the bureaucracy does not care if you starve to death, you Kulak.

To the bureaucracy, you are always a Kulak.

There are two ways to break a bureaucracy. One, total system collapse. This happened to the Soviet Union. It takes a long time, it’s not fun, and you can starve to death in the meanwhile. The replacement system may not be much better.

The other is to increase trust so that people don’t advocate for more bureaucracy in the first place. True, this doesn’t get rid of what you’ve got, but at least it contains the spread.

Trust is hard to get, though. You could do a thousand year breeding experiment. You could try to brainwash children. Or you could look at how the incentives are set up in your society and try to align them with the outcomes you want to achieve. (We can try, at least.)

Aligning incentives requires doing something hard: admitting that humans are human. Communism keeps failing because of “wreckers,” aka ordinary humans. Humans will lie, cheat, and steal if it benefits themselves; this is why we have police. Humans will also fall in love, have sex, and make children. We will then cheat and steal to feed our children, if need be, because we love them.

Accept human nature and align incentives accordingly. (Easier said than done, of course.)

Here is an entertaining example:

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll quote the rest:

The mafia backed company actually had good, fresh food! Most of the mobsters’ kids went to those schools (several I went to school with saw their dads go down). The sandwiches were real hoagies on good bread, there was fresh fruit, juice, etc. All local.

Then, overnight, all their food was gone, and their vending machines too. And they were replaced by the corporate equivalent. And we were excited too! National brands, etc! Now the good stuff! Nope.

The corporate food was shite. No more local, fresh ingredients. The portions were smaller. All the food was overly processed and overpriced. It was just nasty. I remember my dad and others laughing bitterly about it.

At the time, I was struck by how these unintended consequences were the most visceral ones. Later in life, I came to realize that this was the norm: that the unintended consequences of any major political change are often the ones with the greatest impact.

But it was also my first inkling that the real world differences between the literal mafia, and the even greater power of modern corporations, were not as black and white, or clear cut, as those who benefitted from the latter would have any of us believe. Fin/

I knew and dreaded Aramark as a kid. When people, whether kids or prisoners, don’t have a choice about the food they eat, the quality tends to suffer. By contrast, when you are feeding your own children (or the children of mobsters), cooking quality tends to be decent.

The same dynamic as at work in children’s electronics. Electronics that are marketed solely to kids, like the LeapFrog system, tend to be bad (often very bad) because the buyer (parents) tends not to be the users (kids), and kids often don’t have enough experience with electronics to realize they’re being ripped off. (Every augmented reality devices I have bought has been similarly bad to awful.) The only good kids’ electronics systems I have encountered also have significant adult fanbases, like Nintendo.

Capitalism, of course, is the classic case of aligned incentives. Invisible hand and all that. It’s not perfect (corporations will eat you for breakfast if they can get away with it,) but it’s pretty good. People are more likely to protect the commons when they have an expectation of future gain from the commons.

Reputation also helps align incentives. People care about what others think of them. The internet has both expanded our ability to interact with total strangers who have no reputations and to create reputations, with interesting effects. Sites like Amazon and Yelp allow small, previously unknown sellers to build up their reputations, making people more confident about what they’re buying.

By contrast, the recent kerflufle over Youtube, trying to make it more kid-friendly via increased regulation, has done nothing of the sort. None of the things parents want to protect kids from have actually been addressed because bureaucracy just doesn’t work that way, but if you don’t like Youtube, you already have the very easy option of using literally any other content service.

Incentives matter.

Capitalism of Place

One of the interesting themes in Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is the role of capitalism in creating community spaces.

Arnade spends most of his time in the book in three places: McDonald’s, drug dens, and churches. Two of these–McD’s and the drug Ds–are capitalist enterprises: they exist to sell you things, legal or not. Churches are not explicitly capitalist, but can be understood using the same model. They are interested in attracting enough members to cover their operating costs, so a church that does a better job of “selling” religion or provides a more enjoyable religious experience will probably attract more parishioners and will do better financially. (A church that can attract no members is, ultimately, dead.)

The lack of good common spaces that do not require spending money is one of the minor annoyances of my life. I like being outdoors, but it rains out there. National parks are lovely, but not near the house. It’s especially difficult to find locations that are attractive to multiple generations, or both children and childless adults (if I want to socialize with friends who do not have kids of their own).

As Arnade notes, for poor neighborhoods, McDonald’s fills that niche. It has a playground and happy meals for kids; it has booths and hamburgers for adults. It is warm and dry in the winter, cool in the summer, and even has a bathroom. The price of admission is low–a cup of coffee.

In Arnade’s telling, the organizations that ought to be providing community spaces, like the local government, really don’t. From a libertarian perspective, if attracting more people to these places doesn’t directly benefit the people running them, then they won’t put effort into making these spaces comfortable and attractive. Since McDonald’s (or the other locations Arnade visits) do make money off customers, even homeless ones who just order a cup of coffee, McD’s has an incentive to make its environs comfortable and welcoming to as many people as possible.

We can find other examples of capitalist enterprises providing communal spaces, like salons, barber shops, shopping malls, bars, and sports bars.

Of course, this inevitably runs up against class issues. McD makes plenty of money selling food to the poor, and Whole Foods makes plenty selling food to the rich, but it is difficult to sell to both markets. Back in our review of Auerswald’s The Code Economy, we discussed his observation that capitalistic markets tends to bifurcate into supplying low and high class versions of products, with a dearth in between. Auerswald discusses the evolution of watch making, from expensive luxuries to common watches to the clock included on your phone. He writes that both the clock-in-your phone and the luxury Rolex markets are doing fine, while sales of mid-price watches have withered.

Community seems to have undergone a similar process. McDonald’s is doing fine, financially, and I’m sure ski clubs in Alta are doing fine, too. It’s in between that we find people who are watching their money and can’t afford to spend $80-$120 a day on trips to the museum/zoo/movies, etc, but don’t want to hang out at McDonald’s, either. In general I think of “let’s avoid the poors” social signaling as a scam–products/services that signal your social class will happily increase in cost until they’ve sucked up all of your money–but sometimes avoiding other people legitimate. Personally, I would go to McDonald’s more often if my children weren’t prone to getting horribly ill when we visit–social class may be socially constructed, but diarrhea is real. Avoiding criminals, drug addicts, diseases, and folks who haven’t bathed recently is perfectly reasonable.

There aren’t a lot of spaces that do this for the middle class. Chick-fil-A comes close, but their playgrounds are designed for kids under 5. The best place I can think of for middle class families to hang out and socialize (which is also a good place for the poor and upper class) is church. And indeed, Arnade meets lots of people at churches across the country. Churches (or other religions’ houses of worship) are generally warm (or cool), hold community events, mark lifecycle events, and generally even have dedicated areas for children. The only difficulty is that churches are structured around belief in a particular religion, which is awkward for the nation’s increasing numbers of atheists, and occasionally use their parishioners’ beliefs in the morality of the church for self-gratification/manipulation. (EG, every cult ever.)

Arnade also visits one other variety of social club in the book, the “Snowshoe Club” IIRC, dedicated not to snowshoeing, but to French Canadians in the US. Like many social clubs, the Snowshoes get together for dinner and social events, costs five dollars to join, and officially you don’t have to be French Canadian to be a member. These sorts of social clubs used to be much more common in the US (See: Bowling Alone), but have been on the wane for decades.

How do you feel about community in your own town? Are there good places to meet people and socialize, or do you feel a dearth? Does capitalism do a good job of filling this role, or would some other structure or institution perform better? Is the bifurcation I have described a real thing, or just an illusion of some sort? In short, what do you think?

Vacation posting: When Capitalism Devours Democracy

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

  1. When Capitalism Devours Democracy

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

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

Watergate, White Water, Monica, Russiagate, etc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And We the People are the suckers.

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

Book Club: The Code Economy: The DNA of Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

h/t @simongerman600

Quoting Kroc’s1987 autobiography,

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

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

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

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

source: Statista

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

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

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

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

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

From Anatomy of an IKEA product:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Auerswald quotes Kauffman and Levin:

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

Further:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Ray Kurzweil

Back in The Code Economy, Auerswald asks:

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

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

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

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

Cultural Marxists are the Real Capitalists: A Critical Critique of Critical Criminology

Critical Criminology claims that:

  1. The legal system was created by and for the ruling class (cishetero white males) in order to keep the rich rich and the poor and oppressed poor and oppressed.
  2. To this end, crimes the poor commit (such as burglary) are heavily penalized, while crimes the rich commit (such as racism or insider trading) are not.
  3. Many of the “crimes” of the oppressed (like rape, assault, mugging, and mass rioting) shouldn’t be considered crimes at all, but are just desperate attempts at survival
  4. The “real crimes” are things like racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., which create the oppressive capitalist society that creates common street crime
  5. When racism sexism, homophobia, etc. are outlawed, then we can create the perfect socialist state which will have no crime.

Creationism is more factually solid than Critical Criminology, but Critical Criminology is taught in real universities alongside real theories about how the world works.

But let’s step back a moment. #1 is at least partially true–the rich do have a disproportionate influence on the legal system and the poor are often at its mercy. Corporations and wealthy individuals do use their money and influence to get legislation written and enforced in ways that benefit themselves.

But which crimes, exactly, are the rich interested in prosecuting? Do they care if a drug addict steals wallets down in the ghetto? They don’t live in the ghetto. They use their money to insulate themselves from violent crime by buying houses in nice, gated neighborhoods with private security forces.

It’s the poor who are the primary victims of crime, and it’s the poor who’d like murderers to be arrested. Only someone who is rich enough not to live with the threat of violent crime could possibly say something as stupendously idiotic and  insensitive as “rape and assault aren’t real crimes.”

If critical criminologists are the wealthy, then wouldn’t they, logically, be trying to reshape the legal system to benefit themselves?

Meanwhile, they accuse the wealthy of  racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., but these attitudes are actually associated with the poor. Rich whites absolutely pride themselves on being open-minded, tolerant, anti-racist, feminist, etc, and are horrified at all of the racist, sexist, Islamophobic bigotry embodied in low-class Trump voters.

So the crimes these wealthy critical theorists are trying to get outlawed are not things that the rich are doing, but things the rich want the poor to stop doing.

Here I could cite a dozen examples, from Hate Speech laws in Britain being more strongly enforced than rape laws to Hillary Clinton’s “Would bringing down the banks end racism?” speech to Piers Morgan complaining about Islamophobia.

Why are the capitalists so intent on smashing bigotry in all its forms?

Simple: Capitalism wants to make money. Capitalism doesn’t care about oppressing brown people, or women, or gays, or Muslims, or foreigners, or anyone. Capitalism just wants the best possible ratio of worker quality : worker cost. If Mexicans can do the same job as Americans for half the cost, then capitalists want to hire Mexicans and they want Americans to stop trying to pass laws limiting the number of Mexican immigrants who can come work for the capitalists. If Europe is facing a labor crisis because Europeans haven’t made enough new workers to fill the factories and finance the welfare state, then European capitalists must import new workers and they want European workers to stop complaining about the terrorist attacks. Capitalism just wants to hire “the best person for the job” or at least the cheapest person who’ll do an adequate job.

The only odd part is that capitalists are wrapping themselves in the Communist flag while imprisoning people for objecting to the importation of cheap, union-breaking labor. We could accuse them of lying–or gaslighting–except many of them seem to really believe it. Perhaps socialism provides the necessary tool for lying to themselves. “Oh, I am not actually screwing over the poor by advocating on behalf of my own profits.” Most people don’t like to think of themselves as nasty, evil, and self-serving, but they will often project those qualities onto others. (“I’m a nice person, it’s everyone else who’s backstabbing cheaters!”) By casting their enemies (middle and working class white males who don’t want to lose economic security)’s concerns onto the cartoonish figure of the evil capitalist, they simultaneously dismiss those concerns and recast themselves as heroic defenders of the “oppressed.”

Wikipedia has an interesting theory on self-deception:

Some evolutionary biologists, such as Robert Trivers, have suggested[6][page needed] that deception plays a significant part in human behavior, and in animal behavior, more generally speaking. One deceives oneself to trust something that is not true as to better convince others of that truth. When a person convinces himself of this untrue thing, they better mask the signs of deception.[7]

This notion is based on the following logic: deception is a fundamental aspect of communication in nature, both between and within species. It has evolved so that one can have an advantage over another. From alarm calls to mimicry, animals use deception to further their survival. Those who are better able to perceive deception are more likely to survive. As a result, self-deception evolved to better mask deception from those who perceive it well, as Trivers puts it: “Hiding the truth from yourself to hide it more deeply from others.” In humans, awareness of the fact that one is acting deceptively often leads to tell-tale signs of deception, such as nostrils flaring, clammy skin, quality and tone of voice, eye movement, or excessive blinking. Therefore, if self-deception enables someone to believe her or his own distortions, they will not present such signs of deception and will therefore appear to be telling the truth.

Capitalism Wins

A recent article in Stanford Magazine highlighted the work of psychologist Richard Lampiere. Back in 1931, Lampiere, a Chinese student of his, and his student’s Chinese wife drove cross-country, visiting 250 hotels and restaurants.

One business refused them service, presumably because of race.

Then Lampiere sent surveys to the businesses they’d visited (plus controls) asking if they served Chinese people. The businesses responded:

235 said NO,

18 said maybe,

and only 2 said YES.

Basically the complete opposite of reality.

Social signalling is cheap; losing actual customers on the ground is expensive.

People today still say whatever they think will gain them approval, though our politics have changed a lot since 1931. For example, 89% of people these days report being willing to marry someone of another race:

PP-2014-06-12-polarization-3-08

but of marriages conducted in 2013, only 12% actually were. By contrast, while a similar number of people said they would be unhappy about a cross-political marriage in their family:

picture-2

but about 30% of (all) married people (in the 30 states that track party affiliation) are in a cross-ideological marriage.

Likewise, recall that much of the poll data coming out before the 2016 Election showed Hillary Clinton winning and Donald Trump losing.

Why are People Poor? A Response to Bishop Camara

“When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor were poor, they called me a communist.” —Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara, Brazilian Roman Catholic Archbishop, 1909 – 1999

c08pnclw8aapot6In Bishop Camara’s case, they might have been calling him a communist because he was an open socialist who advocated Liberation Theology. But leaving the specific case aside, let’s speak more generally: the problem isn’t that people think it’s inherently communist to wonder why there are poor people; the problem is that you are asking the wrong question.

The state that we now call “poor” was the default condition of the vast, overwhelming majority of humans for the entirety of our existence on this planet. Agriculture has only existed for 10,000 of humanity’s 200,000 years; the vast majority of your ancestors were hunter-gatherers with no more wealth to their names than what they could comfortably carry on their backs or construct in a few hours’ time out of grass and sticks. A modern guy living out of his car has more wealth than our ancestors did.

 

The important question is not why most of the world’s people are still poor. The question is why some of the world’s people (or groups of people) have become fabulously wealthy, and if whatever they did can work for everyone else.

The Dramatic Decline in World Poverty, from CATO https://www.cato.org/blog/dramatic-decline-world-poverty
The Dramatic Decline in World Poverty, from CATO

Why are people poor?

Why shouldn’t they be poor?

You want to be rich? Figure out how the rich did it.

Quality of life and human well-being have increased tremendously around the world in the past 30 years. The number of people suffering starvation has dropped precipitously. Why? Did Ethiopia and China introduce some fabulous new welfare program to provide for their poorest citizens? No. Capitalism and technological advances in food production happened. (Caveat: Russia post-USSR had collapsing well-being due to, AFAIK, terribly managed and opportunistic transition to capitalism. As always, don’t be stupid.)

chart2 cu1ko5cwaaeachw

historical-median-male-height-1 picture-2

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A tragedy in three acts
A tragedy in three acts

Before you can make solve problems, you have to understand what the problems actually are–and that requires asking the correct questions in the first place.

Second, you have to answer the question properly.

Addendum to Race: The Social Construction of a Biological Reality

Now I am going to try to express a bit of nuance, staking out a position somewhere between “race isn’t real” and “Derbyshire is a race traitor.”

In the “race isn’t real” department, we have Sarah Zhang’ Will the Alt-Right Promote a New Kind of Racist Genetics?:

In the genomic age, it is now easy to compare the DNA of people from around the world. And it has indeed revealed that our racial categories are fuzzy proxies for genetic difference—an African man may be more closely related to an Asian than to another African.

From there, Zhang basically tries to argue that race doesn’t real even though genetics and medical science sure make it look real, that the differences in the distribution of genetic traits in large, historically isolated populations don’t matter because of a few tiny populations that are the genetic equivalent of the Basque language.

Kyle Field
Kyle Field, population 102,700

Remember, the world’s entire population of Bushmen wouldn’t even fill the Texas A&M football stadium. Combine them with a few other tiny populations, like the Khoikhoi and Pygmies, and you’re still looking at <1 million people.  Meanwhile, there are billions of Europeans, west Africans, and east Asians.

Mundane racial categories work just fine for the vast majority of people, including the vast majority of Americans, who are not drawn from a rainbow of racially-mixed groups like Tuaregs or fringe outliers like the Bushmen, but from distinct populations of West Africans, Europeans (primarily NW Euros,) Native Americans, and East Asians. If I say someone is “black” or “white,” not only do you understand what I mean, there is an actually consistent genetic reality underlying my statements–in almost 100% of cases, a genetic test would in fact confirm that the people I call “black” are actually primarily Sub-Saharan African by ancestry and the people I call “white” are primarily European by ancestry. Exceptions like Rachel Dolezal are quite rare.

Zhang is trying to argue that you can’t make a reasonable argument about the average distribution of traits between whites, blacks, and Asians in the US because there is a handful of tiny, genetically isolated populations over in Africa. A does not follow from B.

On the other side of the coin, we have people who believe it’s morally imperative to only marry people from one’s own race.

Most of the time, people fall in love with people from their own culture and ethnic group. This is what we’d expect, because you’re more likely to meet and share values with people from your own group. (Interestingly, most people are more genetically similar to their spouses than they are to the average person in their community, not because they married a close relative, but because similar genes make for similar people.)

But some people, for whatever reasons, marrying within their own group isn’t a real option. (White men who are under 5’5″, for example.) These people are looking out for their own best interests–really, if you’re considering calling Derbyshire a race traitor, you’re probably thinking too much about other people’s business.

Capitalism works because it self-corrects; it allows consumers to pick the best products at the best prices, and companies to hire the most talented workers for the best wages. Unlike socialism, where companies are told what and how much to produce, consumers are told what to buy and how much it will cost, and ultimately people starve in the streets, capitalism actually works. Self-interest is a powerful organizing principle that has radically increased the welfare of billions of people over the past century.

And capitalism doesn’t care about race.

Cj4IdTTXAAAhBax

Where people live in close proximity to people of other races, some of them will fall in love.

That said, don’t date people for status points or because you’re trying to prove how not-racist you are. Like Obama’s parents, most inter-racial couples don’t stay together; the majority of mixed-race children have parents who are not married–according to one study, 92% of biracial children with black fathers are born out of wedlock and 82% end up on government assistance because their fathers do not bother to take care of them.

picture-6And if you are ever tempted to compare your vagina to the UN because of the sheer number of different ethnicities that have been in it, you need to stop and re-evaluate your life for multiple reasons.

 

Ultimately, real-life decisions should be based on real-life concerns.

What the hell do the terrorists even want?

IRA: Wanted Northern Ireland to be part of Ireland.

Palestinian Terrorists: Want to take over Israel

Ted Kaczynski: Wanted people to stop chopping down his forest

OK City: Revenge for Ruby Ridge and Waco

9-11: Incoherent hate of America

Madrid Train Bombing: None

Anders Breivik: didn’t like communists

Tsarnev Brothers: Incoherent hate of America

Charlie Hebdo: disliked Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoons

Paris attack: ISIS support

San Bernardino Christmas party shooting: incoherent ISIS Support

Oregon Occupation: Opposition to the BLM

Brussels bombing: ISIS Support

Easter bombing in Pakistan: hatred of Christians

Say what you will, the IRA, ETA, and PLO had clear, coherent goals. Goals they were willing to kill babies to achieve, but still goals. You knew what they wanted and could at least hypothetically negotiate with them about it.

Since 9-11, the attacks have been increasingly incoherent. Why would Pakistani-American citizens attack the US in support of one side or the other in a civil war going on in Syria? Why would the children of Chechen refugees attack the country that took them in? Why would a guy living in Afghanistan believe it is anti-Muslim for the US to protect the interests of Muslims in Kuwait? Why move to the EU and then violently object to the laws or foreign policy? For that matter, why the hell would anyone support ISIS?

We may infer a kind of pan-Islamic tribalism which regards the US (and other Western nations) as acting against Islamic interests, but even this is incoherent. Why would Osama bin Ladin feel the need to stand up for Saudi Arabia when the Saudis could do it perfectly well themselves?

In reality, the US prior to 9-11 was pretty agnostic on Muslims. Palestinians were unpopular, due to terrorist attacks against Israel, but countries like Egypt and Jordan attracted the average person’s interest only because of their pyramids and long history. Most US actions in the Middle East over the past 55 years had been motivated by Cold War or “peace keeping” concerns.

The US supported Egypt in the Suez Crisis, keeping the Suez Canal under Egyptian control, an obvious economic boon to Egypt. We have supported, at various times, the Shah of Iran, the King of Jordan, Iraq against Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan against Soviet invasion. We intervened militarily on behalf of Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, and Somalia.

The US gives a substantial amount in foreign aid to other countries every year; in 2013 (the Wikipedia only lists our foreign aid for 2013 and 2012,) we gave 42.829 billion dollars–or $134 from every American citizen–to Muslim countries from Afghanistan to Yemen. (See bottom of post for my list of aid dollars per country.)

It has only been since 9-11 that Americans really become aware of the “Muslim world” as a coherent entity (if such exists) with which “we” are supposedly in conflict.

Before then, as mentioned before, our concerns were largely leftovers from the Cold War era. The “modernizers,” like Kemal Ataturk, King Hussein of Jordan, the Shah of Iran, and Saddam Hussein were “the good guys,” capitalists intent on modernizing their countries and promoting free market economic opportunities.

I recall a conversation I had with a high-ranking US government official in the weeks before 9-11. He pointed out a picture of the King of Jordan he had hanging in his office, and referred to the king as “a good guy” and “one of our friends.”

The “bad guys” were the Communists. If you’ve read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, then you know that the Iranian Revolution was a communist revolution. The triumph of “radical Islam” in Iran was a Communist revolution against Western Capitalism.

Saddam was our guy against the Ayatollah, until he invaded Kuwait (which may be partially our fault due to our ambassador inadequately conveying the idea that we would invade if he did.)

The Palestinians are supported by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Cultural Marxists, and regular Marxists.

Anti-capitalism is anti-colonialism is anti-modernism is anti-Westernism is radical religious fundamentalism.

The Muslim world is split between two factions, modernizers who want capitalism and are happy to work with the West, and radical internationalist who oppose Western influence and want to return to religious fundamentalism through out the Islamic world.

This is why the invasion of Iraq failed and could not help but fail: we took out our own guy, the modernizer, the capitalist. Who would replace him? Another capitalist? No, we got the opposition party, the fundamentalist, the communist, ISIS.

We took out the capitalist and put the communists in power.

We fucked ourselves, to the tun of 3 trillion dollars and thousands of dead soldiers. (And Iraqis.)

 

 

Table of 2013 US Aid to Muslim countries in millions of dollars (I picked Bosnia, on behalf of whose Muslim population the US intervened following the breakup of Yugoslavia, as my “minimum Muslim %” cut-off for inclusion in this list.) My apologies if I’ve missed any.

Afghanistan 5265.95
Albania 298.38
Algeria 207.96
Azerbaijan -63.13
Bangladesh 2669.1
Bosnia 550.04
Burkina Faso 1040.11
Chad 399.33
Comoros 81.9
Djibouti 152.95
Egypt 5505
Eritrea 83.69
Gambia 110.8
Guinea 499.5
Guinea Bissau 103.6
Indonesia 53.3
Iran 131.3
Iraq 1,541.4
Jordan 1,407.9
Kazakhstan 91.3
Kyrgyzstan 536.6
Lebanon 626.4
Libya 129.4
Malaysia -119.4
Maldives 22.9
Mali 1,391.3
Mauritania 291.2
Morocco 1,966.1
Niger 773.1
Nigeria 2,529.4
Pakistan 2174.1
Senegal 982.8
Sierra Leone 443.7
Somalia 991.9
Sudan 1,163.1
Syria 3,626.7
Tajikistan 382.2
Tunisia 713.6
Turkey 2,740.5
Turkmenistan 37.3
Uzbekistan 292.5
Yemen 1,003.5