Monday
Mar142011

An Earthquake Energy Crisis

On Friday, Japan experienced the worst earthquake in its recorded history (in world history, the fifth largest since 1900).

One thing getting a lot of attention is the situation at Japan’s nuclear reactors.  11 plants were shut down in the aftermath of the quake.  However, generators one and three Fukushima I have encountering coolant problems post-shutdown, and hydrogen explosions (from vented coolant) have blown off the roofs of the generator buildings (note: not the reactor containment vessels).   There are also worries of a meltdown at Fukushima I-2 and reported problems with several generators Fukushima II.)

Fortunately, those were not problems with the shutdown procedure itself, all the reactors were brought sub-critical.  However, even with no fusion ongoing, the decay of existent radioactive isotopes releases enough heat to require a functioning coolant system for several days to prevent the fuel rods from melting.  (Which would be a disaster: Newer Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) have tertiary containment designed to contain a full meltdown (a “core catcher”), Fukushima I predates that design.)  Unfortunately, venting of coolant steam during emergency cooling can result in the release of some radioisotopes: Some Cesium and Iodine (byproducts from the fuel rods if primary containment (cover on the fuel rods) is breached, Nitrogen-16 (from the oxygen in the water), Tritium (Hydrogen-3; from the decay of Boron-11 or Boron-12, from the boric acid used to suppress the fission reaction), and Carbon-14).

While some prognosticators are predicting none of the 11 reactors will come back online ever (which would mean really interesting things for Japan’s long-term energy situation), I’d bet that all but Fukushima I (and maybe II) will be up again after inspections and repairs.  But that’s “relatively quickly” in nuclear reactor terms, so that still means that 20% of Japan’s current generating capacity is offline for months at least.

Further reading:  Here’s a lengthy description of the sort of safety devices / procedures implemented at a BWR like the ones at Fukushima I.  And here’s a more detailed analysis of the situation at Fukushima I specifically (I can’t verify the author’s identity or expertise, but the article makes some interesting (and specific) predictions; his assumptions about the worst-case scenario are too optimistic, though the post has now been moved to here and edited for correctness).

ETA: I may yet be forced to eat my words.  Units 2 and 4 at Fukushima I have evidently also had explosions, and those have suffered actual breaches to the containment.  Unit 4 wasn’t running before the earthquake, but it’s still filled with spent fuel.  And unit 2 is probably in the middle of a partial meltdown with a ruptured containment vessel.

(Update again: Word now is that the inner reactor vessel is ruptured, not the outer containment.  The design goes something like this:  Fuel rod, casing, reactor vessel (the inner part of the “double boiler”), containment (the outer part of the “double boiler” and the last layer designed to hold in the core), building (not really designed to keep anything in, mostly there to keep the weather out).  The fuel rods and casings are almost certainly damaged in reactors 1-3, the reactor vessel is damaged in 2, and the building is damaged in 1 and 3.)

The disaster is currently rated at INES Level 4 (“accident with local consequences”). Three Mile Island was 5, Chernobyl was 7. Earlier today, Intrade gave 50%, 38%, and 13% odds that it will be raised to 5, 6, and 7, respectively, before the end of March.  Now those odds are at 95%, 46%, and 20%.

Friday
Mar112011

Transhuman Home Video

Cheap video cameras are useful if you’re a researcher collecting data, a person archiving memories, or a parent directing obsessive focus on the details of their child’s life.  The subject of this TED Talk takes all of those trends to the next level:

The researcher, Deb Roy, wired every room in his house for video and sound, continuously recorded multitrack audio and video, and made sense of it all with some impressive analysis and visualization software.  He doesn’t just list the words his child learned (as my parents also did), he can track the word through past vocalizations to observe how the pronunciation develops.  (I felt like I could almost hear the interaction between the mechanisms of operant conditioning and mimicry!)  He records the abstractions of interactions (socailization represented as two-dimentional motion with the third access for time, superimposed on a quasi-3D view of the room).  Even recording those moments that are the bread and butter of parental home video, his system captures evocative details that would otherwise been confabulated or overlooked.

What hit me when I was watching this video is that this guy is “remembering” things in a way that is simply not normal for human beings.  Since the data belongs to his family personally, perhaps “public versus private” is not the right aspect to look at, though I’d find it odd were I a visitor in his home.  It seems clear at least that his sense of enduring versus ephemeral is wildly at odds with what would be expected in our society.  And none of the technology he’s using to do this is particularly obscure (still on the expensive side, but orders of magnitude cheaper than it would have been a decade ago).

Wednesday
Feb162011

When to Flee: A Guide for Dictators

The events in Egypt are interesting and have not been far off what I’d have guessed at the onset of the protests.  At this point, the Egyptian army has deposed Mubarak, suspended the constitution, disbanded the legislature, and established an interim government.  They’re creating a draft constitutional revision, to be followed (they say) by a constitutional referendum and free elections.  Meanwhile, they’re hoping to disperse the protesters and get trade and tourism back to normal.  The protesters, for the most part, seem happy to clean up and disperse.  This is what you’d expect from a transitional government or a military dictatorship in the making.

The outcome is far from certain, but I wouldn’t rule out all going (approximately) according to the protesters’ plan.  As far as I can tell, the Egyptian military has three priorities:

  1. The general political and economic security of Egypt.
  2. Money for the officials’ families and connections, which mostly comes from tourism and trade dollars.
  3. Future power and influence of the military itself.

The key to that third point is US military dollars, which might explain why the Egyptian military was willing to tolerate Mubarak long after they’d clearly stopped liking the guy.  But borrowing money to give foreign aid to a dictator who can’t even keep order is probably not going to be the most popular policy in America at the moment.  The optimal strategy for the army may be to actually hold free elections.  (And, probably, to (secretly) tell the Americans that they’re ready to take over at a moment’s notice if the wrong people are elected, so long as the money keeps flowing.)

One interesting article I read was this report, which notes (as Moldbug will be pleased to learn) that Mubarak ordered the military to fire on the protesters on January 30 and (as Moldbug will be dismayed to learn?) that they refused.  If that was the case, I’d say that the outcome was more or less settled then.  If you order troops to fire on the crowd and they say no, it’s probably time to pack your bags.

Monday
Jan172011

Reading "The Bow of Ulysses"

(Note: I wrote this ages ago but inadvertantly left it on the draft queue instead of marking it as published.  So here it is.)

In the weeks since my last post (before the time in which I was unduly delayed in posting this), one of the things I’ve done is taken Moldbug’s advice and read Froude’s The English in the West Indies: or The Bow of Ulysses.  The book, published in 1888, is a travelogue.  Froude builds on the work of Charles Kingsley (who published At Last: A Christmas in the West Indies in 1871) and Père Labat (who was living in and writing about the West Indies in the eighteenth century).  Much of the book is typical travelogue stuff (if very erudite; the book is scattered throughout with snippets of Greek and some Spanish and French, little of which Froude bothers to translate), and Froude writes a good travelogue; his descriptions are colorful, interesting, and sometimes funny.  The rest is political musings on the state of the British Empire, the (past) emancipation of British-held slaves, and (present and future) efforts to instate democratic, constitutional governments in the British colonies.

Historical Context

In Jamaica in 1865, the Morant Bay rebellion (Froude points out that this was a riot and not really a planned insurrection) was suppressed and George William Gordon was hanged under martial law outside of ordinary due process, since a speech of Gordon’s was a proximate cause of the riot. (Froude thinks that was questionable, since Gordon did not apparently do anything illegal; it’s not clear that Gordon planned or attempted to incite the riot.  Froude, rather, blames democracy, but in particular democracy with a black majority and white minority.)   In 1866, the Jamaican legislature was dissolved, turning Jamaica again into a Crown colony, and in the 1880s, an effort to return Jamaica to self-government was underway (full self-government was not achieved until 1962).

Haiti faced all sorts of political troubles from the 1789 revolution onwards (brutality on both sides during the turmoil of the revolution and massacres of whites in its aftermath), foreign embargo, coerced reparations, rebellions, civil wars, and all sorts of political turmoil.  Froude was writing his book during a brief lull in the storm of Haitian history (1874-1911), but as far as he’s concerned the Haitians have been busy eating babies and worshiping Satan from the moment they got out from under the watchful eye of white-people government.

Of course Froude, as a historian, tries to keep a sense of perspective when evaluating the veracity of such claims:

[…] Sir Spenser St. John, an English official, after residing for twelve years in Port au Prince, had in a published narrative with many details and particulars, declared that the republic of Toussaint l’Ouverture, the idol of all believers in the new gospel of liberty, had, after ninety years of independence, become a land where cannibalism could be practised with impunity. The African Obeah, the worship of serpents and trees and stones, after smouldering in all the West Indies in the form of witchcraft and poisoning, had broken out in Hayti in all its old hideousness. Children were sacrificed as in the old days of Moloch and were devoured with horrid ceremony, salted limbs being preserved and sold for the benefit of those who were unable to attend the full solemnities.

[…] Yet one had to set one incredibility against another. […] I reminded him of the universal conviction through Europe that the Jews were habitually guilty of sacrificing children also. There had been detailed instances. Alleged offenders had been brought before courts of justice at any time for the last six hundred years. Witnesses had been found to swear to facts which had been accepted as conclusive. Wretched creatures in Henry III.’s time had been dragged by dozens at horses’ tails through the streets of London, broken on the wheel, or torn to pieces by infuriated mobs. Even within the last two years, the same accusation had been brought forward in Russia and Germany, and had been established apparently by adequate proof. So far as popular conviction of the guilt of the Jews was an evidence against them, nothing could be stronger; and no charge could be without foundation on ordinary principles of evidence which revived so often and in so many places. And yet many persons, I said, and myself among them, believed that although the accusers were perfectly sincere, the guilt of the Jews was from end to end an hallucination of hatred. I had looked into the particulars of some of the trials. They were like the trials for witchcraft. The belief had created the fact, and accusation was itself evidence. I was prepared to find these stories of child murder in Hayti were bred similarly of anti-negro prejudice.

However, he seems happy to repeat the same claims without this veneer of skepticism later in the book.

Froude on Race

As a lead-in to the former topic, Froude talks about meeting the Chief Justice of Barbados, which leads to a bit of discussion about Froude’s views on race in general:

Before my stay at Barbadoes ended, I had an opportunity of meeting at dinner a negro of pure blood who has risen to eminence by his own talent and character. He has held the office of attorney-general. He is now chief justice of the island.  […]  Having heard the craniological and other objections to the supposed identity of the negro and white races, I came to the opinion […] that whether they are of one race or not there is no original or congenital difference of capacity between them, any more than there is between a black horse and a black dog and a white horse and a white dog. With the same chances and with the same treatment, I believe that distinguished men would be produced equally from both races, and Mr. _____’s well-earned success is an additional evidence of it. But it does not follow that what can be done eventually can be done immediately, and the gulf which divides the colours is no arbitrary prejudice, but has been opened by the centuries of training and discipline which have given us the start in the race. We set it down to slavery. It would be far truer to set it down to freedom. The African blacks have been free enough for thousands, perhaps for tens of thousands of years, and it has been the absence of restraint which has prevented them from becoming civilised. Generation has followed generation, and the children are as like their father as the successive generations of apes. The whites, it is likely enough, succeeded one another with the same similarity for a long series of ages. It is now supposed that the human race has been upon the planet for a hundred thousand years at least, and the first traces of civilisation cannot be thrown back at farthest beyond six thousand. During all those ages mankind went on treading in the same steps, century after century making no more advance than the birds and beasts. In Egypt or in India or one knows not where, accident or natural development quickened into life our moral and intellectual faculties; and these faculties have grown into what we now experience, not in the freedom in which the modern takes delight, but under the sharp rule of the strong over the weak, in of the wise over the unwise. Our own Anglo-Norman race has become capable of self-government only after a thousand years of civil and spiritual authority. European government, European instruction, continued steadily till his natural tendencies are superseded by a higher instinct, may shorten the probation period of the negro. Individual blacks of exceptional quality, like Frederick Douglas in America, or the Chief Justice of Barbadoes, will avail themselves of opportunities to rise, and the freest opportunities ought to be offered them. But it is as certain as any future event can be that if we give the negroes as a body the political powers which we claim for ourselves, they will use them only to their own injury. They will slide back into their old condition, and the chance will be gone of lifting them to the level to which we have no right to say that they are incapable of rising. [emphasis mine]

One thing that surprised me about the book: Despite Moldbug’s recommendation, Froude is not a reactionary.  He’s very clearly a conservative.  That is, he believes in progress, but thinks that progressives, in their rush forwards, will screw things up.  Froude’s views on slavery follow a similar course:

The negroes who were sold to the dealers in the African factories were most of them either slaves already to worse masters or were servi, servants in the old meaning of the word, prisoners of war, or else criminals, servati or reserved from death. They would otherwise have been killed; and since the slave trade has been abolished are again killed in the too celebrated ‘customs.’ The slave trade was a crime when the chiefs made war on each other for the sake of captives whom they could turn into money. In many instances, perhaps in most, it was innocent and even beneficent.  Nature has made us unequal, and Acts of Parliament cannot make us equal. Some must lead and some must follow, and the question is only of degree and kind. For myself, I would rather be the slave of a Shakespeare or a Burghley than the slave of a majority in the House of Commons or the slave of my own folly. Slavery is gone, with all that belonged to it; but it will be an ill day for mankind if no one is to be compelled any more to obey those who are wiser than himself, and each of us is to do only what is right in our own eyes. There may be authority, yet not slavery: a soldier is not a slave, a sailor is not a slave, a child is not a slave, a wife is not a slave; yet they may not live by their own wills or emancipate themselves at their own pleasure from positions in which nature has placed them, or into which they have themselves voluntarily entered. The negroes of the West Indies are children, and not yet disobedient children. They have their dreams, but for the present they are dreams only. If you enforce self-government upon them when they are not asking for it, you may turn the dream into a reality, and wilfully drive them back into the condition of their ancestors, from which the slave trade was the beginning of their emancipation. [emphasis mine again]

 To comment on those highlighted sentences:

  1. Froude’s spectacles seem to be a particularly high-powered shade of rose on that particular issue.
  2. Okay as a hyperbolic rhetorical claim.  But I wouldn’t take him at his word on that one, Froude (like most people) does not seem like he would actually be happy as a slave under any circumstances.
  3. Since his criticism is directed towards white liberals and he (evidently) doesn’t view blacks as having much moral agency at all, it’s tempting for him to mischaracterize pro-democracy movements as being entirely driven by minorities and outsiders.

Tennyson, Gladstone, and Froude

One bit of the book that caught my attention was the story that frames Froude’s departure:

The morning papers were occupied with Lord Tennyson’s new ‘Locksley Hall’ and Mr. Gladstone’s remarks upon it. I had read neither; but from the criticisms it appeared that Lord Tennyson fancied himself to have seen a change pass over England since his boyhood, and a change which was not to his mind. The fruit of the new ideas which were then rising from the ground had ripened, and the taste was disagreeable to him. The day which had followed that ‘august sunrise’ had not been ‘august’ at all; and ‘the beautiful bold brow of Freedom’ had proved to have something of brass upon it. The ‘use and wont’ England, the England out of which had risen the men who had won her great position for her, was losing its old characteristics. Things which in his eager youth Lord Tennyson had despised he saw now that he had been mistaken in despising; and the new notions which were to remake the world were not remaking it in a shape that pleased him. Like Goethe, perhaps he felt that he was stumbling over the roots of the tree which he had helped to plant.

The contrast in Mr. Gladstone’s article was certainly remarkable. Lord Tennyson saw in institutions which were passing away the decay of what in its time had been great and noble, and he saw little rising in the place of them which humanly could be called improvement. To Mr. Gladstone these revolutionary years had been years of the sweeping off of long intolerable abuses, and of awaking to higher and truer perceptions of duty. Never, according to him, in any period of her history had England made more glorious progress, never had stood higher than at the present moment in material power and moral excellence. How could it be otherwise when they were the years of his own ascendency?

Here’s the poem in question (which, of course, follows this poem; if you prefer your poetry in audio form, you can listen to both here).  Gladstone’s essay is here, and his journal article did indeed get attention in the news at the time.

Froude continues:

[…] I will not despond with Lord Tennyson. To take a gloomy view of things will not mend them, and modern enlightenment may have excellent gifts in store for us which will come by-and-by. But I will not say that they have come as yet. I will not say that public life is improved when party spirit has degenerated into an organised civil war, and a civil war which can never end, for it renews its life like the giant of fable at every fresh election. I will not say that men are more honest and more law-abiding when debts are repudiated and law is defied in half the country, and Mr. Gladstone himself applauds or refuses to condemn acts of open dishonesty. […]

[…] The periods where the orator is supreme are marked always by confusion and disintegration. Goethe could say of Luther that he had thrown back for centuries the spiritual cultivation of mankind, by calling the passions of the multitude to judge of matters which should have been left to the thinkers. We ourselves are just now in one of those uneasy periods, and we have decided that orators are the fittest people to rule over us. The constituencies choose their members according to the fluency of their tongues. Can he make a speech? is the one test of competency for a legislator, and the most persuasive of the whole we make prime minister. We admire the man for his gifts, and we accept what he says for the manner in which it is uttered. He may contradict to-day what he asserted yesterday. No matter. He can persuade others wherever he is persuaded himself. And such is the nature of him that he can convince himself of anything which it is his interest to believe. These are the persons who are now regarded as our wisest. It was not always so. It is not so now with nations who are in a sound state of health. The Americans, when they choose a President or a Secretary of State or any functionary from whom they require wise action, do not select these famous speech-makers.  [Not at that point, anyways.]  Such periods do not last, for the condition which they bring about becomes always intolerable. [paragraph break mine]

I do not believe in the degeneracy of our race. I believe the present generation of Englishmen to be capable of all that their fathers were and possibly of more; but we are just now in a moulting state, and are sick while the process is going on. Or to take another metaphor. The bow of Ulysses is unstrung. The worms have not eaten into the horn or the moths injured the string, but the owner of the house is away and the suitors of Penelope Britannia consume her substance, rivals one of another, each caring only for himself, but with a common heart in evil. They cannot string the bow. Only the true lord and master can string it, and in due time he comes, and the cord is stretched once more upon the notch, singing to the touch of the finger with the sharp note of the swallow ; and the arrows fly to their mark in the breasts of the pretenders, while Pallas Athene looks on approving from her coign of vantage. [emphasis, as always, is mine]

Incidentally, that last, I think, is one of the reasons why Moldbug favors this book:  The Bow of Ulysses is not a metaphor for conservatism.  It is a wonderful metaphor for reaction.

Wednesday
Dec292010

When Labor is Obsolete

What happens when the entire world’s demand for goods and services can be satisfied by a fraction of the world’s population?

What happens when there are many people who can’t do any job more cheaply than a machine or robot?

Do either of the above questions relate to the concept of a “jobless recovery”?

(Musing mostly based on someone linking back to this post.  The title is an overstatement, obviously.)

Friday
Dec032010

The Three Major Factions in American Politics

Keep almost touching on this idea in my posts, so thought this could use a little exposition.  In my view, there are three major ideological factions in American politics:

Conservatives: The loyal opposition.  Tradition is good, don’t change what works.  Major weakness: Can’t decide when, exactly, they want to preserve; agree with Progressives of not that long ago, so Progressives of today assume they can just wait them out.  Very weakly right-wing.

Progressives: “Liberals”, Moldbug’s “Universalists”.  Moldbug enumerates the core beliefs of this faction as fraternalism, pacifism, social justice, and communitarianism, that’s a reasonable summary.  Major weaknesses: Sometimes confuse ideals for reality, ideological blindness leads to self-defeating compromise.  Left-wing.  I more-or-less agree with these guys.

Big Business: “Neoconservatives”, “neoliberals”, “free market proponents” (though not actually in favor of a free market, their policy is more like “Keynes at home, Friedman abroad” or “privatized profits, socialized losses”).  Major weaknesses: Sometimes confuse ideals for reality, ideological blindness (or worse!) leads to global economic collapse.  Left-wing in right-wing sauce.

(I’m still not quite satisfied with that name for the last, but can’t come up with any better.)

Both political parties have been rather significantly captured by the Big Business faction (Republicans thoroughly, Democrats to a very large extent post-Reagan).  The Republicans pay lip service to Conservatives (and some Republican politicians are actually Conservatives), but policy-wise deliver almost nothing to that faction.  The Democrats pay lip service to Progressives (and many Democratic politicians are actually Progressives), but policy-wise deliver little to that faction.

The Progressive and the Big Business faction are both left-wing, but they are two distinct, mutually incompatible ideologies.  Compromises between the two tends to produce perverse results:

  1. Minimum wage and workplace safety standards plus an opposition to “trade barriers”.
  2. Food safety standards plus an insistence that regulation must apply to small, transparent family farms as well as big, secretive factory food-processing operations.
  3. FDIC plus bank deregulation.

None of these ideological factions are centrally organized, so nothing prevents people from trying to set up their tent at both camps and nothing prevents Big Business from appealing to Progressives on Progressive grounds.  Which they have done fairly effectively:  Promoting “free trade” on the basis of brotherhood (framing protectionism as xenophobia) and social justice (“economic development”).  Promoting context-blind regulation as an appeal to fairness.  Selling consumer protections that mostly benefit corporations on the basis of the former aspect (even when it’s the sort of disaster mitigation that makes disaster more likely).

My guesses for why such compromises are so tempting:

  1. Progressives think they are still compromising with Conservatives, though present-day Republicans are anything but.  Progressive/Conservative compromises tend to not be so perverse.  And they tend to be a long-term win for Progressives.
  2. People don’t get the concept of a compromise with perverse results.
  3. “Doing something” is more politically advantageous than “doing nothing”, even if it’s actually worse, in large part because of the previous point.
  4. Progressives believe that talking things out and arriving at a compromise is in general a good way of solving problems and thus are reluctant to notice that this doesn’t work so well in a broad class of situations.
Saturday
Nov062010

On Grades and Unschooling

During my long public school career, I didn’t think much about the structure of public school.  The reasons for this are not exactly flattering for me.  I viewed school as the “one thing” I was good at (though that was not actually true), and I used my focus on academics to avoid paying attention to many of my problems.  If I wanted to do one thing dramatically different with my academic career, that would have been skipping grades, but I didn’t pursue that with any sort of determination, since I was happy to take the path of least resistance.

It wasn’t until college that I began to think about the issue seriously.  I came at it initially from the subject of grades.  I was obsessed with grades during my primary school career (obsessed with getting grades that were just barely good enough to be called “perfect” by some carefully chosen definition (e.g. 90%, “an A”); I told you this wasn’t flattering for me), and that got worse and worse until high school.  When I entered college, I resolved to not look at my grades for any class.

The college I went to was new and we took pride in being “innovative”.  But Olin’s grading system was strikingly conventional.  Evidently, the issue of grading came up during the school’s design process.  A substantial discussion led to a rough consensus favoring a very minimal “Pass/Fail/Excellence” grading system.  But the result was a temporary compromise on letter grades without +/- gradations, followed by a wholesale adoption of the conventional grading system.

The thing is, in my view, the conventional grading system is glaringly flawed.  There’s ample psychological research showing that rewards produce a lasting decrease in intrinsic motivation, long-term recall of information, and lateral thinking, and that to the extent that “good grades” are perceived as desirable, they produce the same effect.  Grades are also only minimally useful as feedback.  They’re not very useful in comparing students from different classes, much less different institutions.  (Concerns about “grade inflation” get some of that, but talk about focusing on the mote and missing the beam!)  To some extent, grades measure how well students conform to the idiosyncratic preferences of individual professors.

In other words, pretty much anything that puts grades less in the spotlight is a win in terms of the nominal goals of academia.

(Another point that would be particularly worrying for Moldbug:  To the extent that people change their behavior for the sake of grades while not believing that “good grades” are inherently worthwhile, that could serve as the insufficient justification that would make any ideological content contained in the lessons far more persuasive than it would otherwise be.  Also worth keeping that effect in mind when people emphasize how useful grades are to graduate schools and employers.)

So grades are interesting for a few reasons:

  1. It’s an example of academia pursuing a policy that doesn’t fit well the the nominal goals of academia.
  2. It’s a policy that promotes things that are very much not the overt goal of academic idealists (rote memorization, obedience, tolerance of pointless tasks, ideological conformity).
  3. It’s an example of academia conforming to an (in my opinion) obviously broken status quo because no one wants to take the cost of defecting first.

And as it turns out, there’s a movement that would apply those three points to many (if not all) of the structural features of the entire “education system”.

The Unschooling movement is heavily influenced by the teacher and educational philosopher John Taylor Gatto.  A good introduction to his view is the essay Against Schooling, originally published in Harper’s Magazine in September 2003.  This one is hard to excerpt, read the whole thing.  But here’s my attempt at extracting the kernel of it:

Do we really need school? I don’t mean education, just forced schooling: six classes a day, five days a week, nine months a year, for twelve years. Is this deadly routine really necessary? And if so, for what? Don’t hide behind reading, writing, and arithmetic as a rationale, because 2 million happy homeschoolers have surely put that banal justification to rest. Even if they hadn’t, a considerable number of well-known Americans never went through the twelve-year wringer our kids currently go through, and they turned out all right. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln? Someone taught them, to be sure, but they were not products of a school system, and not one of them was ever “graduated” from a secondary school. […]

In the 1934 edition of his once well-known book Public Education in the United States, Ellwood P. Cubberley detailed and praised the way the strategy of successive school enlargements had extended childhood by two to six years, and forced schooling was at that point still quite new. This same Cubberley - who was dean of Stanford’s School of Education, a textbook editor at Houghton Mifflin, and Conant’s friend and correspondent at Harvard - had written the following in the 1922 edition of his book Public School Administration:   “Our schools are … factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned …. And it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.”

It’s perfectly obvious from our society today what those specifications were. Maturity has by now been banished from nearly every aspect of our lives. Easy divorce laws have removed the need to work at relationships; easy credit has removed the need for fiscal self-control; easy entertainment has removed the need to learn to entertain oneself; easy answers have removed the need to ask questions. We have become a nation of children, happy to surrender our judgments and our wills to political exhortations and commercial blandishments that would insult actual adults. We buy televisions, and then we buy the things we see on the television. We buy computers, and then we buy the things we see on the computer. We buy $150 sneakers whether we need them or not, and when they fall apart too soon we buy another pair. We drive SUVs and believe the lie that they constitute a kind of life insurance, even when we’re upside-down in them. And, worst of all, we don’t bat an eye when Ari Fleischer tells us to “be careful what you say,” even if we remember having been told somewhere back in school that America is the land of the free. We simply buy that one too. Our schooling, as intended, has seen to it.

One frequent observation of mine is this:

Idea #5: A naive compromise between ideologies can produce worse results than a coherent implementation of either’s favored policy.

But naive compromises are often politically expedient, so they happen anyways.

To put it more cynically, liberals (especially) love half-measures.  (I’m not immune to this, myself.)

Gatto essentially agrees with Moldbug about the purpose of the schools, but Gatto’s description of the present state of affairs misses something crucial when he overstates his case:

The reason given for this enormous upheaval of family life and cultural traditions was, roughly speaking, threefold:

1) To make good people. 2) To make good citizens. 3) To make each person his or her personal best. These goals are still trotted out today on a regular basis, and most of us accept them in one form or another as a decent definition of public education’s mission, however short schools actually fall in achieving them. But we are dead wrong. [emphasis mine]

But I’d say that view of the goals of the education system is in fact not totally wrong, which is what makes it pernicious.  Public schools do teach some about critical thinking, analyzing primary sources, the scientific method, distinguishing fact from opinion and so on.  To the extent that schooling is “education” (to some extent it is) and a diploma is (economically) valuable, schools convince people that education is valuable.  “Good people” believe that education is valuable.  Actually, I do believe that statement if taken at face value: Good people do (correctly) believe that education is valuable.  Convincing someone to agree with a true statement on a technicality, however, does not make them better people in any meaningful sense.

A strategy of “make education a good investment and people will realize it’s intrinsically valuable on its own” also starts having some serious problems when there’s a mismatch between the educational system and the economy.  I’ve read a lot of talk recently about a “higher education bubble” and of a mismatch between the education system and the “21st century economy”.  The former has some talk of unschoolers (it uses the term “edupunks”).  Unfortunately for unschoolers (and for reactionaries like Moldbug), the dominant force among education reformers seems to be the neoconservative/neoliberal/”free market” types (need a better name for that faction, and that probably deserves another post).  Their favored solution, charter schools, is the usual mix of privatized profits and socialized costs.  Charter schools may be more willing to be “innovative”, but I wouldn’t expect them to solve the problems above or defect from educational norms, no matter how counter-productive, when defecting first is costly.

(I wish I had a better way to wrap things up here.  I still need to read more Gatto and Holt and Illich and Llewellyn.  I want to know more about how compulsory education (in particular, as opposed to public education in general) took off—not just what interests that might work well for, but how it was argued and implemented politically.  I read and would recommend Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook to parents, adolescents, and those interested in unschooling.)

Friday
Nov052010

Obama and the FDR Route

I’ve still got a post in the hopper on education and the school system, but I’d like to take the time for a bit of a digression on the 2010 elections.  Mostly because of this interesting comment by Robert Reich:

Some people are going to tell President Obama that Bill Clinton was reelected in 1996 because he moved to the center, and Obama should, too. But Clinton was really reelected because by 1996, the economy had come roaring back to life.

[…]

The relevant political lesson isn’t Bill Clinton in 1996. It’s Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936. By 1936, the Great Depression was entering its eighth year. Roosevelt had already been president for four of them. Yet he won the biggest electoral victory since the start of the two-party system in the 1850s.

How? He shifted the debate from his failure to get the economy moving to the irresponsibility of his opponents. Republicans, he said, stood for “business and financial monopoly, speculation, and reckless banking.” And Roosevelt made clear his opponents wanted to stop him from helping ordinary Americans. “Never before have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today,” he thundered. “They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

The lead of that piece quotes Clinton in contrast to the FDR strategy:

 I want us to forge a partnership to produce results for the American people.

Compare that to Obama’s remarks in the aftermath of the election:

I’m not so naïve as to think that everybody will put politics aside until then, but I do hope to make progress on the very serious problems facing us right now. And that’s going to require all of us, including me, to work harder at building consensus.

In part, I agree with Reich.  I don’t think the “double down on consensus building” approach in 2010-2012 will work any better than the same approach 2008-2010.  However, the Roosevelt comparison is equally poor.  Let me count the ways:

The Democrats gained seats in ‘32 and ‘34 (and were on their way to doing well in ‘36).  They had a strong majority in both houses by ‘32.  Roosevelt’s “New Deal” programs started in ‘33.  So ‘36 Roosevelt was winning in a way that Obama is currently not.  Easy to take a haters gonna hate line when you’re on top.  You might be able to do it if you were selling yourself as a scrappy (but right) underdog.  But Obama hasn’t been selling himself as a scrappy underdog since the election, and even then he was using “we’re all in this together” rhetoric.

A better comparison would be Roosevelt ‘40.  After all, the Democrats took a big hit in ‘38 because the economy was still weak.  Sounds familiar.  Even more familiar (PDF, via Wikipedia):

When the Gallup poll in 1939 asked, ‘Do you think the attitude of the Roosevelt administration toward business is delaying business recovery?’ the American people responded ‘yes’ by a margin of more than two-to-one. The business community felt even more strongly so.

But even then, Roosevelt had quite a few things  going for him that Obama does not:

  1. He had far better access to the media than his opponent.
  2. The Democrats still had control of both houses, whereas Democrats in 2010 don’t have control of the House and only have enough control of the Senate to not do things.
  3. War was looming, when it came to having an external enemy to convince the American people that changing course on domestic policy is not the relevant issue, you couldn’t do better.  (Heck, the guy is still a favorite political distraction.)
  4. People had a negative sentiment for “big business” that they don’t today.  (They felt that Roosevelt ‘40 was “delaying business recovery”, but that didn’t mean a lot of public sentiment behind deregulation or repealing New Deal programs.)  Today, a lot of the same anger is directed into anti-government sentiment.  Among other fears.
  5. The Democrats of today aren’t credible as an anti-Wall-Street party.  Sure, they’re a bit better in supporting higher taxes on the top income bracket, which would discourage some of the reckless compensation schemes featured prominently in the current crisis.  The Republicans were all over deregulation.  But Clinton passed NAFTA and Gramm–Leach–Bliley and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act and reappointed Greenspan, while Obama is all Summers Geithner Bernanke and the best he can get in terms of big liberal reforms is basically the health care plan proposed by Republicans in 1994 and a bit more consumer protection for credit cards.

So Clinton ‘94-96 isn’t the right lesson.  But FDR ‘34-36 (or even ‘38-40) isn’t the right answer either.  And that’s obvious enough that I don’t know why Robert Reich would think so either, except for wishful thinking that Obama will change his strategy completely and start acting like FDR.  Wishful thinking more powered by a positive sentiment about FDR than a reasonable belief that such a strategy would work in this situation.

As for the Republicans, I’ll quote Senator Mitch McConnell:

Over the past week, some have said it was indelicate of me to suggest that our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term in office.  But the fact is, if our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill, to end the bailouts, cut spending and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all these things is to put someone in the White House who won’t veto any of these things.

Sadly, I think Obama’s 2010-2012 strategy will likely be similar to his 2008-2010 strategy, with even more modest results.  And if the 2012 election is a straight-up Obama versus centrist Republican contest, I predict Obama will lose (and that the Republicans will subsequently forget all about ending the bailouts, cutting spending, and shrinking the size and scope of government).  Whether healthcare reform is repealed will depend on how much popularity it has gained by 2012, which I can’t accurately predict.  (If repealed, it will probably not be replaced at all.  If replaced, it will likely be replaced by something rather similar.)

Of course, it’s not at all guaranteed that the 2012 presidential election will be straight-up anything.

Sunday
Oct172010

How I Got Pwned

While perusing Moldbug’s blog, I came across an essay titled How Dawkins Got Pwned (links to all parts of that in this index).  The essay is a response to the book The God Delusion, in which Richard Dawkins argues that religion is a parasitic meme complex centering on one central flaw, an irrational belief in the existence of a god (or gods) and the further belief that one can know god’s will.  In the book, Dawkins claims to believe in “Einsteinian [or Spinozan] religion”, which is non-theistic (or trivially pantheistic).  As Dawkins describes:

Let me sum up Einsteinian religion in one more quotation from Einstein himself: “To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.”

Moldbug argues that Dawkins is mistaken in thinking that ditching “the God delusion” brings him into the realm of pure rationality.  Rather, Dawkins is a follower of the progressive tradition, which in Moldbug’s view is basically a liberal sect of Christianity that has jettisoned a few bits of theological baggage:

So: Professor Dawkins is an atheist. But - as his writing makes plain - atheism is not the only theme in his personal kernel. Professor Dawkins believes in many other things. He labels the tradition to which he subscribes as Einsteinian religion. Since no one else has used this label, he is entitled to define Einsteinian religion - perhaps we can just call it Einsteinism - as whatever he wants. And he has.

My observation is that Einsteinism exhibits many synapomorphies with Christianity. For example, it appears that Professor Dawkins believes in the fair distribution of goods, the futility of violence, the universal brotherhood of man, and the reification of community. These might be labeled as the themes of Rawlsianism, pacifism, fraternism and communalism.  [ed: Taking for granted for now that Moldbug’s assertion that Dawkins holds these specific beliefs is correct.  It certainly seems that he believes something along those lines.]

[…]

My belief is that Professor Dawkins is not just a Christian atheist. He is a Protestant atheist. And he is not just a Protestant atheist. He is a Calvinist atheist. And he is not just a Calvinist atheist. He is an Anglo-Calvinist atheist. In other words, he can be also be described as a Puritan atheist, a Dissenter atheist, a Nonconformist atheist, an Evangelical atheist, etc, etc.

Moldbug, throughout his blog, often refers to this liberal-Christian progressive tradition as “Universalism”, due to, among other things, its relation to Unitarian Universalism.

Now, as it happens, one of my major influences is a sermon by a Unitarian UniversalistAbout Richard Dawkins.  The sermon is in response to an essay Dawkins wrote entitled Is Science a Religion?  (For the sake of chronology, note that these was published in 1997, The God Delusion in 2006.)  In that essay, Dawkins argues that science has “many of religion’s virtues, […] none of its vices”.  He asserts: “Science is based upon verifiable evidence. Religious faith not only lacks evidence, its independence from evidence is its pride and joy, shouted from the rooftops.”  Before reading the sermon, I would have agreed wholeheartedly with Dawkins, and insisted that I was by no means religious.  After reading the sermon, I still thought that Dawkins was technically correct on whether science is a religion per se, but missing a more significant point.  And I would have hardly quibbled with the assertion that I was a Universalist (even though that long predates my awareness of Moldbug’s use of the term).

The sermon, which I found via a search for the titular question, argues:

Dawkins complains that religion bears no relationship to this way of approaching human knowledge and understanding. The line with which he opens the second paragraph of his article is: Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principal vice of religion.

Is that, in fact, what faith is? Oh, I agree with him that this notion of faith is a major feature of bad religion. However, in science, would we let the common understanding of science of the populace at large define what the enterprise of science shall be? Of course not. Yet we have done precisely this with religion and Dawkins buys into it hook, line and sinker. […]

[…]

For Dawkins, the notion that science is a religion is unacceptable because he has bought the narrow and wrong popular notion of what religion is about. […]

In other words, if Dawkins was aware of (Unitarian) Universalism, he’d understand the religious nature of his belief system!

Let’s bring this back to Moldbug.  First Rev. Young:

Dawkins goes on in the article to rehearse, among other things, what it would be like if all religious education were done from the point of view of science. It’s an interesting section of the article because what he is essentially doing is rehearsing the Unitarian Universalist religious education curriculum, as if somehow this never had occurred to anybody before. […]

Dawkins:

Looking now at the various things that religious education might be expected to accomplish, one of its aims could be to encourage children to reflect upon the deep questions of existence, to invite them to rise above the humdrum preoccupations of ordinary life and think sub specie aeternitatis.

Science can offer a vision of life and the universe which, as I’ve already remarked, for humbling poetic inspiration far outclasses any of the mutually contradictory faiths and disappointingly recent traditions of the world’s religions.

[…]

When the religious education class turns to ethics, I don’t think science actually has a lot to say, and I would replace it with rational moral philosophy.

In fact, Moldbug argues, just this sort of “religious education” is a big part of how Universalism thrives (we’re back to that first link again):

Fundamentalist Christianity - I prefer the term “salvationism,” because the belief that only those who are born again in Christ will be saved is essential to almost all “fundamentalist” sects - certainly matches some of the above descriptions. […]

In the contagion department, however, salvationism is curiously lacking. Compared to other successful memetic parasites of the past - for example, Catholicism before the Reformation - its presence in educational institutions is negligible. In fact, under present law, salvationism is entirely barred from the entire mainstream educational system. […]  [emphasis mine]

Given that America enforces a separation of church and state that excludes explicitly theological ideas from the public educational system, a meme complex that includes most of the religious beliefs of many teachers minus any religious beliefs that are explicitly theological has a huge advantage in transmission.  Liberal religious sects are far more likely to generate that sort of meme complex for several reasons:

  1. Liberals are willing to revise philosophical frameworks piece-wise.  Hence liberal religions are more likely to be coherent piece-wise as opposed to all-or-nothing, so they’re easier to revise further.
  2. Actually revising a religious meme complex is the sort of thing that’s more likely to occur in the mind of a liberal.  The whole point of being a conservative is not to revise your traditional beliefs.
  3. Conservative emphasis on liturgical traditions makes it harder to separate theology from anything else.

So while I’m not so quick to buy that liberalism (up to and including the basic concepts of democracy) is a bad idea that leads to complete bureaucratic stagnation, anarcho-tyranny, or worse, I can see Moldbug’s point on the transmission aspect.  It’s extremely plausible that many of the religious ideas from mainstream American Protestantism are transmitted frequently and effectively by the public school system.

Of course, my initial reaction to that agreement was, “so what?”  But I would think that, wouldn’t I.

After all, the process that Moldbug argues happened to Dawkins certainly happened to me.  I had little trouble (though the process took some time) discarding the liturgical elements of Judaism, a process undoubtedly made easier by that fact that my parents, despite their membership in a Conservative synagogue, had beliefs which more closely matched with the Reform movement (which Moldbug would describe as “Protestant Judaism”, mere theological window-dressing away from secular “Universalism”, and I myself described as “the Unitarian Universalists of Judaism”, years before I’d heard of Moldbug).  But the same anti-religious-bias intellectual defenses, quite easily inflamed by Christian “salvationism” or Jewish fundamentalism, were (as far as I can tell) barely activated at all when learning about the causes of the American Revolution.  Or singing “Simple Gifts” in music class.

As Moldbug puts it in part of his Open Letter, imagining an optical device that makes the theological atheological and vice-versa:

[…] More to the point, it [the First Amendment] does not say “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, until that religion manages to sneak God under the carpet, at which point go ahead, dudes.” Rather, the obvious spirit of the law is that Congress shall be neutral with respect to the theological disputes of its citizens, such as that described by Professor Hayes. Um, has it been?

[…]

In the Fundamentalens, Harvard and Stanford and Yale are fundamentalist seminaries. It may not be official, but there is no doubt about it at all. They emit Jesus-freak codewords, secret Mormon handshakes, and miscellaneous Bible baloney the way a baby emits fermented milk. Meanwhile, Bob Jones and Oral Roberts and Patrick Henry are diverse, progressive, socially and environmentally conscious centers of learning - their entire freshman class lines up to sing “Imagine” every morning.

Would it creep you out, dear open-minded progressive, to live in this country?

Imagine a Harvard that, as the Harvard of old, primarily emitted Unitarian and Congregationalist ministers.  Imagine that these graduates, as graduates of the Harvard of today, went by the scores into government and NGOs and the educational system.  (And what applies to Harvard generalizes pretty well to Princeton, Yale…)  Such ministers are scrupulously careful about leaving out the god-talk when performing their secular jobs, of course.

Now, modern Harvard is not (for the most part) training ministers, and I assure you the world in that imagining is nothing like the real one.  But what an odd afterimage the Fundamentalens leaves on the back of your retina!  Especially when you look at the public schools.

(This post is reaching Moldbuggian length (note: actually not even close), so I’ll leave it there for now and pick up this thread at a later time.  And hopefully move this blog back away from being the All Moldbug All the Time channel.  But anything that’s taking up far too much of my mental time is an excellent candidate for discussion here.)

Tuesday
Oct122010

An Addendum to that Last

For those of you who followed my links on that last post, I should point you to this index, and note that the “Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives” is probably a better place to start reading than the Brief (lies!) Introduction.

Of particular interest is Part 6, where Moldbug actually details his plan for his favored new form of government (neocameralism, the “sovereign corporation” as joint-stock company).  It’s rather similar to some of the ideas in crypto-anarchism, it proposes solving the Roman Dictator Problem2 by using strong cryptography.  Significant aspects of the plan strike me as totally unworkable.  For one thing, all the problems that plague DRM schemes would also apply to cryptographically-locked guns.  But it’s still a novel idea.  (As far as I know.)

1. I might call it crypto-fascism, but that phrase already has a different meaning.

2. How do you give someone total sovereign authority but still make that authority temporary or revocable?