Reading a Reactionary

Haven’t posted in a while, but my intellectual fare from the past few weeks has been quite hard to digest.  I’ve been pulled into a fascinating blog written by one Mencius Moldbug.  (Edit: Not “Moldburg”.  Why the misreading?  Must have struck me as more Continental.)

There’s probably no brief way to describe Moldbug’s political views.  Short of a ten-thousand word essay, I could say that he’s a royalist or a formalist or a follower of Thomas Carlyle who sympathizes with Robert Filmer (who is, to quote Moldbug himself, “so right-wing, you need special equipment just to observe him”) and considers Hobbes to be relatively left-wing.

Moldbug distinguishes himself from the typical libertarian fare in a few key ways:

  1. He seems to recognize the obvious problems with libertarianism.
  2. His hypothesis has more to do with decentralized coordination within an extended political structure (including organizations outside of government proper) as opposed to the actions of a monolithic political class
  3. He takes more of a “come to the dark side, we have cookies” approach, as opposed to painting himself as holier-than-thou.
  4. He cites his sources and is damned interesting.
  5. He skips the “wouldn’t anarchist capitalism effectively outsource all the tyrannical aspects of government to businesses?” criticism by suggesting that the government should be turned into a corporation outright.
  6. His endorsement of “passivism” is far more soundly argued than Molyneux’s “just don’t vote” argument, which I criticized earlier.  He doesn’t think that enough people “walking away” will create political change.  Rather, he suggests creating an institution to understand the existing structure of government and create an alternate structure (essentially a shadow government) that is so obviously superior that handing control to the new structure becomes a popular option.  This proposal has two advantages:  It would be extraordinarily interesting to see such a thing attempted, and while I still doubt it’s practicality, I’m not sure I could see myself opposing it in any situation so dire that it actually had a chance of success.
  7. He has a sense of humor.

In short, Moldbug has excellent rhetoric and is an (artillery shell sized1) bullet biter extraordinaire.  Not to say that I’m persuaded, I’m sure he’d still place me firmly among the supporters of Chaos.  But if you like interesting political writing, you’ll find plenty2 to be fascinated, challenged, and quite probably shocked and appalled by.  Start here, probably.

1. Fired with confidence, presumably, by a Carlylean Artillerist.

2. This post probably exceeds my previous “number of words in posts linked to” count by orders of magnitude.


On Risk Assessment

In 2007, the Daily Mail did a human-interest piece looking at one UK family titled  “How children lost the right to roam in four generations”.  At age eight, their child is allowed no further than the end of the block.  At the same age, his great-grandfather was allowed to wander across the town, including walking to a fishing-hole six miles away.

In 2008, Lenore Skenazy, a New York mom, wrote an editorial titled “Why I Let My 9-Year Old Ride the Subway Alone”.  She quickly acquired celebrity status as “America’s Worst Mom”, and has been fighting to defend her views ever since.

In 2010, security expert Bruce Schneier wrote the following:

At a security conference recently, the moderator asked the panel of distinguished cybersecurity leaders what their nightmare scenario was.  The answers were the predictable array of large-scale attacks: against our communications infrastructure, against the power grid, against the financial system, in combination with a physical attack.

I didn’t get to give my answer until the afternoon, which was: “My nightmare scenario is that people keep talking about their nightmare scenarios.”


Worst-case thinking means generally bad decision making for several reasons. First, it’s only half of the cost-benefit equation. Every decision has costs and benefits, risks and rewards. By speculating about what can possibly go wrong, and then acting as if that is likely to happen, worst-case thinking focuses only on the extreme but improbable risks and does a poor job at assessing outcomes.

The parental is political, too.


Compensating for Bias

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”  - Yogi Berra

As a sort of follow-up to my last post, I’ll say that being aware of one’s cognitive biases is a necessary but not sufficient condition for counter-acting them.  Because even if you’re aware of your biases, those biases still apply, both in how you perceive your own bias and how you judge your own counter-action.  To put it another way:

Idea #4: Predicting the future is harder than you think, even if you know why predicting the future is harder than you think.

(With thanks to Douglas Hofstadter.)


Speedily, Speedily, In Our Days, Soon

Predicting significant social or technological changes would be hard enough even for a rational actor.  After all, any individual has limited (and inaccurate) information about the current state of affairs, many of the systems involved appear chaotic, and the time-scales involved can be very short indeed.  For humans, it’s even harder.

So when a Reddit post on this comic led me to this article, I was intrigued.

The relevant bit of the article:

Pattie Maes, a researcher at the MIT Media Lab noticed something odd about her colleagues. A subset of them were very interested in downloading their brains into silicon machines. Should they be able to do this, they believed, they would achieve a kind of existential immortality. […]

[…] her colleagues really, seriously expected this bridge to immortality to appear soon. How soon? Well, curiously, the dates they predicted for the Singularity seem to cluster right before the years they were expected to die.  […]

Joel Garreau, a journalist who reported on the cultural and almost religious beliefs surrounding the Singularity in his book Radical Evolution, noticed the same hope that Maes did. But Garreau widen the reach of this desire to other technologies. He suggested that when people start to imagine technologies which seem plausibly achievable, they tend to place them in the near future – within reach of their own lifespan.

The author of the article, Kevin Kelly, refers to this observation as the “Maes-Garreau Law”.

The most obvious explanation for that observation is probably wishful thinking, especially (but not always), if the change in question seems positive.  Or perhaps the desire for personal significance that comes with messianic or apocalyptic thinking.  Kelly comes up with a slightly different explanation, though:

Singularity or not, it has become very hard to imagine what life will be like after we are dead.  The rate of change appears to accelerate, and so the next lifetime promises to be unlike our time, maybe even unimaginable. Naturally, then, when we forecast the future, we will picture something we can personally imagine, and that will thus tend to cast it within range of our own lives.

If I had to guess, I would say that this is not bound by observations about the rate of change.  Rather, since consciousness is centered around narrative, we expect our lives to have narrative continuity.  Thus, predictions about the future that seem hopelessly alien are more likely placed after the imaginer is dead, and predictions about the future that seem like they could fit into the stories of our lives seem like they could also plausibly happen within our lifetimes.

An interesting logical inference:  If the above is true, than one would expect predictions of the timing of the singularity to differ wildly depending on which side of the singularity one is trying to imagine, and how good a job one does of imagining the alien-ness of a post-singularity world.


Wave Goodbye?

Google Wave is being discontinued as a standalone product.  I’m not sure whether to be surprised.  On the one hand, it seemed like if anyone could solve some of the flaws of email and get people to actually adopt it, it would be Google.  On the other hand, I was tremendously excited about Wave… but I never used it.

It seems that with networks as big as email, there are no good ways to push out a new protocol.  If you let everyone in right away, it doesn’t scale.  If you slowly add users, people’s friends are not on it when it’s fresh in their minds.  If you make it a separate product, it’s an inconvenience.  If you make it part of an existing product, users object to having it foisted upon them.

Still, Wave contained some fundamentally good ideas.  It makes sense to have an email client that can handle scheduling or collaborative document editing or shared to-do lists or threaded discussions; that is, instead of sending an email with a link to a web-app, why not send an email with a webapp in it?  It also makes sense to create open protocols instead of closed systems, especially if you want to build off of something as widely adopted as email.  (Not that open protocols are guaranteed winners.  Many open-source proponents would like to paint the history of the internet as a steady progression away from “walled gardens”, but that’s not necessarily the case.)

Google Wave isn’t dead yet.  It’s already used by at least two sets of enterprise collaboration software.  Hopefully, some of Wave’s features will find their way into GMail and other mail clients.

What do you think?  Will Wave rise again, or sink into obscurity?  Will the email client of some decades hence look much like one today, or will email’s role be filled by something different?  Will it be in FULL 3D?  It’s the future, after all.


The Future in the News

If I listed organizations exemplifying significant near-future trends, Wikileaks would certainly be towards the top.  Wikileaks is a platform for the anonymous submission, verification, and publication of classified or otherwise secret documents.  By operating online, with servers in multiple journalism-friendly jurisdictions, information given to Wikileaks becomes incredibly hard to suppress.  The fact that Wikileaks tries (to whatever extent possible under their journalistic ethics) to publish full documents instead of processed stories allows multiple news organizations to do their own analysis of the raw data.  Wikileaks suffered a funding crisis earlier this year, but after a donation drive, their document submission site and their published archives are back online.

Last April, Wikileaks was rocketed into the headlines when they released a video from July 2007 showing a helicopter gunship attack on suspected insurgents.  Reuters journalists with the group were also killed in the attack, as were civilians who attempted to rescue the wounded.  Two children in the rescuers’ vehicle were also seriously wounded.  The video was leaked by Private Bradley Manning, who was arrested and charged this July.

This week, Wikileaks released tens of thousands of pages of classified documents on the Afghanistan war, launching US strategy in the war back into the news and the political spotlight (or so anti-war politicians hope).

That of course means that the US Government has intensified their efforts to capture and question Julian Assange, Wikileaks founder and spokesperson.  That didn’t stop him from showing up to speak at TED Global 2010 in Oxford, but he didn’t show at The Next HOPE Conference (where he was to be the keynote speaker) last week in NYC.

So, this is one to watch.  It’s not clear to what extent Assange’s arrest would hinder Wikileaks.  It is clear that the Anthony Russos of the world now have far better technology at their disposal than a Xerox machine, that this will be a force for governments and businesses to contend with, since the issues of secrecy, security, and democracy are deeply intertwined.


The Politics of Behavioral Economics

A while back, someone posted this video (talking a bit about some modern research into the psychology of motivation) to the Liberal community on LiveJournal:

They asked:

Is this a liberal or a conservative idea? I mean, if we’re increasing productivity and creating more effective work places, isn’t that basically conservative? But we’re talking about empowering individuals and normalizing pay scales, and isn’t that basically liberal?

Which seemed to me like a silly question.  I wouldn’t attribute political views to the result of research unless making accusations about bias.  The truth itself isn’t ideological; what sort of political policies you promote based on the truth is ideological.

It’s popular for conservatives and liberals to accuse one another of “legislating morality”, but the truth is that both do.  Politics is making value judgments about what the government should or shouldn’t do.  And once you get beyond the sort of pure volunteerism that few (anarchists and hardcore libertarians) think should define the political process, that includes constraints on what people in general can or cannot do.

The morality in question simply has a different focus.  Conservatives tend to focus on deontological ethics, since if you seek to preserve traditional institutions, it makes sense for your morality to flow from the authority of traditional institutions.  Liberals favor teleological ethics, since if you believe that traditional institutions run the gamut from pretty good to hopelessly immoral and corrupt, you’d better focus on an ethical system that can tell the difference.

(That’s not quite the same explanation discussed in the essay Red Family, Blue Family by Doug Muder, which I list as one of my influences.  (That essay is in turn discussing the book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think by George Lakoff.)  However, I think that the “government as strict father” / “government as nurturant parents” and “inherited obligation” / “negotiated commitment” distinctions are related to the deontological/teleological distinction.)

Of course, that doesn’t cover the whole “conservative” / “liberal” distinction, since there’s more to politics than where people stand on traditional institutions in general (for Americans, especially given the way all political difference is crammed into a dichotomy in a two-party system).  A lot of “conservatives” are fine with traditional institutions being substantially reformed (especially when discussing past examples), so long as the government isn’t involved (in my opinion, a tricky distinction to defend).


America Needs Better Places

This TED Talk given by James Howard Kunstler is fascinating because it goes a long way to explain the problems with suburbia outside of the direct issue of energy efficiency:

The problem of impoverished public spaces has several sources, many self-reinforcing.  If people drive everywhere, they don’t spend a lot of time in between-building public spaces, so there’s no incentive to improve those spaces, and thus no incentive not to drive everywhere.  If culture values private space over public space, the resulting public spaces reinforce those values.  If people have hard jobs and long commutes, they might not want to linger anywhere on their journey back to their family, so even the indoor public spaces put convenience and speed over the friendliness of the space itself.  And after a long drive home to the kids (who have no access to any sort of public space on their own), one might prefer playing in the back yard to driving out to the park (if there is one).  On the architectural side, building one nice building won’t rehabilitate an otherwise unpleasant space, so why bother.  And based on the idea that the right thing to do in public places certainly isn’t “hang out”, architectural fashions have risen disproportionately promoting elements that are intimidating, disorienting, or disconcerting.

A digression on that last point:  It seems almost like America’s wholesale rejection of urban design fundamentals gave American architects a form of Stockholm Syndrome.  These are the people tasked with building good spaces, which is often impossible and requires knowledge that has been largely discarded.  That leads them to make horrible design decisions even in places where good public spaces could be created and the resources are available.  Kunstler uses Boston’s City Hall plaza as an example, and I can see why:

Boston City Hall

Wikipedia’s discussion of the critical response highlights that architects rated the building far more highly than the general public.  Seriously, did the architects actually think, “It would be great if Boston’s City Hall looked like an imposing concrete inverted UFO filled with bureaucrats, surrounded by a vast brick buffer zone where people have no reason to habitually linger, that’s what the face of local democracy and civic engagement in Boston should look like”?  Presumably not.  It’s just that it seems like a cool idea, any sort of cube-dwellers can be installed in any sort of building, the wide-open space makes for some dramatic light and shadow and consequently some pretty interesting photos if you crop them right.


On Political Cake and Eating

Political will is an interesting phenomena, to say the least, and America is quite the case study.  Take alternative energy, for example:

Overwhelmingly, Americans think the nation needs a fundamental overhaul of its energy policies, and most expect alternative forms to replace oil as a major source within 25 years. Yet a majority are unwilling to pay higher gasoline prices to help develop new fuel sources.

That’s nothing new, of course.  And I don’t mean in general, I mean on this specific issue.  For decades, across political party lines.

That’s not the only example of such a contradiction.  For example, most Americans want to cut foreign aid spending, but polls that ask for specific amounts find that Americans want to “cut” foreign aid spending to more than it currently is.

What’s the right way to deal with issues like that in a representative democracy?


On the Numbered Ideas

About the ideas I list and number in some of my posts here:

Those are ideas / themes / patterns I keep coming back to in my thought, listed in order of appearance on this blog.  I thought it might be a nifty idea to list them in some pithy way, maybe come back around to ones I’ve mentioned before in future posts.

Don’t know if that structure is a good idea, I’m just winging it.