Angola and Atomization

Quick excerpt from God of the Rodeo: The Quest for Redemption in Louisiana’s Angola Prison:

Before the rodeo [Terry Hawkins] had graduated out of the fields to the position of fry cook. It was better than being A.D.H.D. (A Dude with a Hoe and a Ditch)–after stirring fried rice or flipping hotcakes on a sove ten feet long, he could grill hamburgers, bag them, and stuff them down his pants to sell in the dorm. Sometimes he snuck out with fried chicken under his shirt and cuts of cheese in his socks. Payment came in cigarettes, the prison’s currency. Later he would stand outside the canteen, and trade a few packs for shampoo or soap or deoderant, or “zoo-zos”–snacks of candy bars or sardines. He knew which guards would allow the stealing, the selling. He made sure to send them plates of fried chicken.

While reading this I thought, “This man has, at least, something to offer his neighbors. He can sell them food, something they’re grateful for. The guy with cheese in his socks and hamburgers in his pants is probably a respected member of his community.”

What do I have to offer my neighbors? I have skills, but they’re only of interest to a corporate employer, my boss. I don’t make anything for sale. I can’t raise a barn or train a horse, and even if I could, my neighbors don’t need these services. Even if I had milk for sale from my personal cow, my neighbors would still prefer to buy their milk at the grocery store.

All of these needs that we used to fill by interacting with our neighbors are now routed through multinational corporations that build their products in immense sweatshops in foreign countries.

I don’t even have to go to the store to buy things if I don’t want to–I can order things online, even groceries.

Beyond the economic, modern prosperity has also eliminated many of the ways (and places) people used to interact. As Lewis Mumford recounts (H/T Wrath of Gnon):

The Bible would have been different without public wells

To sum up the medieval dwelling house, one may say that it was characterized by lack of differentiated space and differentiated function. In the cities, however, this lack of internal differentiation was offset by a completer development of domestic functions in public institutions. Though the house might lack a private bake-oven, there was a public one at the baker’s or the cook-shop. Though it might lack a private bathroom, there was a municipal bath-house. Thought it might lack facilities for isolating and nursing a diseased member, there were numerous public hospitals. … As long as the conditions were rude–when people lived in the open, pissed freely in the garden or the street, bought and sold outdoors, opened their shutters and let in full sunlight–the defects of the house were far less serious than they were under a more refined regime.

Without all of the little, daily things that naturally brought people into contact with each other and knit them into communities, we simply have far fewer reasons to talk. We might think that people could simply make up for these changes by inventing new, leisure-oriented reasons to interact with each other, but so far, they’re struggling:

Americans’ circle of confidants has shrunk dramatically in the past two decades and the number of people who say they have no one with whom to discuss important matters has more than doubled, according to a new study by sociologists at DukeUniversity and the University of Arizona.

“The evidence shows that Americans have fewer confidants and those ties are also more family-based than they used to be,” said Lynn Smith-Lovin, Robert L. Wilson Professor of Sociology at Duke University and one of the authors of “ Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades.” …

It compared data from 1985 and 2004 and found that the mean number of people with whom Americans can discuss matters important to them dropped by nearly one-third, from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004.

Researchers also found that the number of people who said they had no one with whom to discuss such matters more than doubled, to nearly 25 percent. The survey found that both family and non-family confidants dropped, with the loss greatest in non-family connections.

I don’t know about you, but I just don’t trust most people, and most people have given me no reason to trust them.


Tesla vs. Edison

... and fight! 220px-Thomas_Edison2

It has become popular of late, especially on the left, to love Tesla and hate Edison. (Warning: that is a link to the Oatmeal, which is very funny and will suck up large quantities of your time if you let it, but if you aren’t familiar with the leftists hate of Edison and valorization of Tesla, it’s a necessary read.)

Edison, (1847 – 1931) was an American-born (son of a Canadian war refugee of Dutch descent) auto-didact, inventor, and businessman who was awarded over a thousand patents. His most important inventions (or inventions produced by his lab,) include the first actually useful lightbulb, the phonograph, the first movie camera and a device to view the movies on, the electrical grid necessary to power the lightbulb, the movie studio necessary to make the films for people to watch, and the scientific research lab.

He was friends with Henry Ford, a community volunteer, deaf, and a general humanitarian who abhorred violence and prided himself on having never invented an offensive weapon.

His worst mistake appears to have been not realizing what business he was in during the “War of the Currents;” Edison thought he was in the lightbulb-selling business, and since he had invented a lightbulb that ran on DC, he wanted everyone to use DC. He also seems to have been genuinely concerned about the high voltages used by AC, but DC just drops off too quickly to be used in non-urban areas; to get the country electrified required DC. Edison not only lost the Currents War, but also got kicked out of the company he’d founded by his stock holders. The company’s name was later changed to General Electric.

His political views were fairly common for his day–he advocated the populist position on abolishing the gold standard, tax reform, and making loans interest free to help farmers. Religiously, he was basically a GNON-believing deist. He preferred silent films over “talkies” due to being deaf, and had six children, three of whom went into science/inventing, one with a degree from Yale and one from MIT.

The idea that Edison was “merely” a businessman or CEO is completely bollocks. He was not only a brilliant inventor, but also understood how his inventions would be used and created the systems–both human and mechanical–necessary to bring them to full fruition.

Edison's lab in Menlo Park
Edison’s lab in Menlo Park


Tesla (1856-1943) was a Serb born in Croatia back when Croatia was part of the Austrian empire. By all accounts, he was exceedingly brilliant. His father was a priest and his mother was the daughter of a priest, but he received a scholarship to the Austrian Polytechnic University, where he burned like a meteor for his first year, earning the highest grades possible in 9 subjects (almost twice the required course load.) In his second year, he became addicted to gambling, then gambled away his tuition money in year three and forgot to study for his finals. He flunked out and ran away.

A couple of years later, his family raised money to send him to university again, which was another fiasco, since Tesla didn’t have training in two of the required subjects and so couldn’t actually attend.

Nevertheless, Tesla managed to get work at a telegraph company and was eventually invited to the US to work under Edison. Here he did excellent work, but quit over a rather stupid sounding misunderstanding about pay, wherein Tesla expected to be paid far more for an invention than Edison had in funds to pay anyone. Edison offered a raise instead, but Tesla decided to strike out on his own.

Tesla attempted to start a business, which ended badly (it sounds like it went south because he wasn’t focusing on the stated goals of the company,) and left him a penniless ditch-digger.

He then hit on a series of successes, including the polyphase induction motor, which ended with him quite handsomely employed by one of Edison’s competitors, Westinghouse, but even here he had difficulties getting along with his co-workers. Eventually it seems he established his own lab and convinced investors to give him $100,000, which he promptly spent on more lab equipment instead of the new lighting system he’d promised. His lab was later sold and torn down to pay off debts.

Tesla received yet another major investment, $150,000 to build a wireless telegraph facility, but appears to have blown the money on stock market speculation. He did manage to finish the project, though without any more funds from his now very jaded investors, but eventually he had to sell the building, and it was demolished.

Many of Tesla’s inventions were clearly brilliant and far ahead of their time. Others are delusions, like his mechanical oscillator. Tesla claimed it nearly brought down the building; Mythbusters built one themselves, and it did no such thing.

There is a kind of brilliance that slides easily into madness, and Tesla’s was clearly of this sort. He was too adept at pattern matching (he could do calculus in his head) to sort out real patterns from ones he’d dreamed up. He never married, but once fell in love with a pigeon at the park, feeding it daily and spending over $2000 dollars on it when its wing was injured.

In his personal life, he was extremely rigid–working and eating at the exact same times every day, eating a very restricted diet, and wearing a fastidiously neat and regimented wardrobe. He was extremely thin and slept very little–perhaps only 2 hours a day. (There are a vanishingly few people in the world who actually do function like this.) He was critical and harsh toward people who didn’t meet his standards, like fat people or secretaries whose clothes he thought were insufficiently attractive. Despite not having any children of his own, he believed the unfit should be sterilized and the rest of the population coerced into a selective breeding program. He also said some unflattering things about Edison upon the man’s death, which is kind of rude.

To prevent him from sinking further into poverty, his former employer, Westinghouse, took pity on him and started paying his hotel bills, (Tesla seems to have not thought of living in a house.) Tesla spent much of his final years claiming to have built a “Death Ray” and claiming that various thieves had broken into his hotel room to steal it.

Upon his death in 1943, the government seized all of his belongings just in case there were actual Death Rays or other such inventions in there that the Nazis might try to steal. The box with Tesla’s Death Ray turned out to have nothing more than an old battery inside. The investigator concluded:

“[Tesla’s] thoughts and efforts during at least the past 15 years were primarily of a speculative, philosophical, and somewhat promotional character often concerned with the production and wireless transmission of power; but did not include new, sound, workable principles or methods for realizing such results.

To be frank, I’ve talked to homeless schizophrenics who sound a lot like Tesla; the line between correct pattern matching and incorrect pattern matching is, at times, easily crossed.


The modern habit of shitting on Edison and glorifying Tesla stems from the tendency to see Edison as a stereotypically American businessman who wickedly and cunningly stole ideas from from smarter people to build up his own wealth and reputation. It feeds into the notion that Americans (white Americans, especially,) have built nothing of their own, but stolen all of their wealth and a great many of their ideas from others. Here Tesla–attractive, urbane, brilliant, and most of all, not tainted by the blight of having been born in America–gets to stand in for the usual victimized classes.

Ironically, Edison’s political beliefs line up with the Progressives of his day–that is, socialists/liberals like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Tesla, at least as far as the Wikipedia describes any of his beliefs, favored Nazi-style forced sterilization and eugenics. In daily life, Tesla may have been a nicer person than Edison (it is rather difficult to tell from Wikipedia articles what people were like personally,) but I question a left that denigrates one of their own Progressives while upholding a man whose political beliefs are, at best, anathema to their own.

Regardless, Tesla’s failures were not Edison’s fault. Edison may have screwed him on pay, but he didn’t gamble away Tesla’s tuition money, make him fail his classes, nor convince him not to marry. Edison didn’t make him blow his investment money on the stock market or wander around NYC at all hours of the night, feeding pigeons.

Edison, deaf since childhood, didn’t have half the advantages handed to him as Tesla. He had all of three months of schooling; no one ever sent him to university or gave him a scholarship to waste. He may not have been as smart as Tesla, but he was still an intensely intelligent man and adeptly capable of carrying out the business side of the operation, without which no research could get done. Without funding, you don’t have a lab; no lab, no research. Humans do not live in isolation; someone has to do the inglorious work of coordinate things so that other people can reap the benefits of a system set up for them to work in.

Ultimately, Tesla was a brilliant man who should not have been allowed to run his affairs. He needed the structure of a boss, a wife, parents, family, etc., to keep him on track and stop him from doing idiotic things like gambling away his tuition money.

Familial supervision during college could have ensured that he graduated and gotten him on the path toward a tenured position. Perhaps he would have rubbed shoulders with the likes of Einstein and Curie at the Solvay Conference. A boss would have ensured that the strategic, business ends of things–the ends Tesla had no great talent for–got done, leaving Tesla to do the things he did best, to reach far more of his full potential. (In this regard, Edison had advantages Tesla lacked–a wife, family, and a country he had grown up in.) But Tesla was too rigid to submit to someone of inferior intellect (real or perceived), and his family back in Europe was too far away to help him. Loneliness is madness, for humans are social animals, and so brilliant Tesla died alone, poor, and in love with a pigeon.

Tesla's wireless telegraph tower, 1904
Tesla’s wireless telegraph tower, 1904

Just imagine what Edison and Tesla could have created had they put their animosity aside and worked together.

Part 2 coming soon.