And the Surfers Shall Lead the Revolution

The central coast of California where I live has been cursed and blessed by sunny weather this winter; it has also been blessed and cursed by unusually high waves. The curse of good weather when it should be raining, known as “drought,” is that it may feed into more horrendous forest fires next summer, same as we had last summer. The blessings of sunny weather are obvious. The curse of very high waves is that they cause some damage to infrastructure and that they sometimes claim lives. The blessing of high waves is that surfing is thriving like never before in “Surf City,” Santa Cruz, my town.

On a Wednesday or Thursday afternoon of January, the beach two miles from my house is crowded like in June (not quite as much as in August). It’s largely covered with family clusters. Look at it in context. Children are not allowed to go to school (although they are almost completely immune); many moms who would otherwise work have been laid off from their more or less precarious jobs. Many dads have been laid off too; others “work from home.”

The kids are restless, the sun is shining, the temperature is better than OK; the beach is within the reach of many. (More on this later.) What are we going to do? Let’s spend the middle of the day at the beach, of course.

I should have have been able to predict it because I am a serious beach social scientist. I missed the boat. Santa Cruz was one of the best small towns I knew only seven or eight years ago. Then, the homeless started drifting in and they never left. Some are in the last stages of a life dedication to drugs; others are rationality challenged; a few are both. For the past five years or so, there have been enough of them to affect the quality of life for everyone else. Their presence determines to an extent where one can take one’s children in town. (Sorry, I call them as I see them; no judgment involved.)

Then, the COVID fell upon us from China. In short order, the authorities, including the local powers, found their authoritarian footing, or they got in touch with their own panic. And panic is often a handmaiden to petty authoritarianism. They began prohibiting this, and that, and that public behavior, this and that kind of work, etc.

Santa Cruz is becoming a ghost town, one restaurant closing at a time, one store closing at a time. The movie theaters are shut down, the biggest one forever. The one large bookstore does remain open though. You can still pick up and return books at the public library but either you can’t browse or it’s fiendishly complicated to do so on-line. Besides, one can only read so many hours a day if one is under fifty, so many minutes if under fifteen.

Just from looking around, I assume that many school-age children have taken the opportunities on-line learning offers to become even more adept at using the internet. Such skills come handy in times of extreme idleness. I believe a good many kids are on TikTok and similar on-line alternate worlds six or seven hours a day, some amassing “followers.” (Don’t ask me why I believe this, it’s very personal; I just know.) But although such games are addictive, they too become tiresome and children crave direct social contact anyway. So, eventually, many kids end up at the beach with their parents and with their siblings and their parents or, with adult neighbors and their children.

In point of fact, many of the family clusters on the sand are further grouped into larger ensembles including some ten or fifteen adults and thirty or forty children. I haven’t yet figured out whether they are grouped on the basis of school, church, or just neighborhood. Whatever the case, it’s pretty impressive. No one is wearing a mask.

On weekends, visitors from far afield join those mostly local people on the beach, increasing again the crowding. There are several ways to spot the visitors. Some play loud music- a sure activator of xenophobia; others send their kids to the water with a life jacket on top of their wetsuits. (Not cool.) Some wear masks.

Speaking of wetsuits, a new thing, something I have never seen before, is that dozens of little kids are in wetsuits. This is a rare sight because in normal times, parents tell themselves: Not worth buying the kid a wetsuit; he is going to outgrow it in months.

The calculation has changed because of a virus. The parents are largely unable to spend money on dining out, other shopping opportunities are limited and inconvenient; for the well-heeled, this year, there has been no winter vacation to spend on; for the least well endowed, there are not even school supplies expenditures. I am saying that under current circumstances, unlike in previous years, almost any parents feel that they can afford to buy one or two children’s wetsuits (at about $125 or less each). This changes everything.

More importantly, perhaps, but I won’t dwell on this because I can’t afford to lose half of humanity as potential friends, for the first time in my experience, you see dozens of mature women in wetsuits. I have to be cautious here because, let’s say that the wetsuit as a garment is not all that flattering to the mature female shape.

The beach I have in mind is a few hundred yards around a point from globally famous Steamer Lane where world surf championships are held most winters. The waning rollers of Steamer Lane land on that beach and they are suitable, the farthest ones for intermediate surfers, and the closest, for beginners. So, almost every family cluster on the beach includes one, two, or three surfers.

Learning a new sport is often wonderful; learning it as a family is terrific. Coming out of the water cold but exhilarated and sharing a sandwich with your kids and with your spouse is like a return to a lovely, simpler past most people today have only heard of, if that.

Downbeach some way, three tiny girls in tiny bikinis chase one another in the small waves. Their squeals gladden the heart. A couple of boys nearby are on the wet sand absorbed by a hydrokinetic project. They ignore the girls as is proper. A smart white egret has figured out that humans are not predators. It picks sand crabs right between the feet of children. At least some creatures are enjoying a new freedom and that’s all good (except for the sand crabs).

Surfing, loosely defined, plus the new pleasant, voluntary family closeness around it, has become the first recourse but also the last recourse of many of the locked-down. It must be pretty much irreplaceable for them under the current circumstances of health-based restrictions, and health pretext-based restrictions on ordinary activities, circumstances of forced idleness and, of unnatural family interaction in a closed space. Surfing is the thin pillar around which some people are building a small, fragile edifice of freedom and joy.

If the local health authorities try – as they did last spring – to restrict parking near the beach, I believe all hell will break loose. (And, I am being polite, I was thinking of fans, not fanatics, air circulation devices.) That’s true, although Santa Cruz is largely a “progressive” town. Every material obstacle to parking is one less family group able to have recourse to the last recourse. The real surfers among them, advanced or not, are tough people. They immerse themselves voluntarily for hours in cold water. (Wetsuits don’t protect faces and hands, and the rest of the body, only imperfectly). They deliberately submit themselves, and often their children, to the dangers of breaking surf. And, I don’t even mention sharks, known to frequent the area because we have many sea lions. (The last fatal shark attack was about 18 months ago, a long time ago or yesterday, depending.)

At any rate, the surfers won’t go meekly. They are not likely to submit to orders to stay away from waves that are extremely unlikely transmitters of viruses. If the authorities even attempt to take away this last vestige of personal freedom, the surfers will proclaim and lead a sort of revolution. Also, if I were the authorities, I would think twice before turning draconian because many law enforcement people (and firefighters) are surfers themselves so, the expected instruments of repression would be somewhat unreliable. And no one, but no one hates surfers except other surfers. So, don’t go seeking allies in repression.

Local tyrants – however well meaning you are – don’t even think about it! You don’t want to face the full anger of barefoot families in wetsuits who have been enduring for a year a bunch of largely ineffectual, ill-explained, and often idiotic regulations.

“Internet villages and algorithmic-speech” (from my inbox)

[Note: this is from Vishnu Modur, and he has been gracious enough to let me share his thoughts with you. – BC]

We find ourselves in an overlap of classical free-speech abstractions, editorialized-media discourse, and algorithmic-social media diatribe. Each of these is a product that cannot reproduce the stability of the system that produced them. And yet, these platforms—print, electronic and social media—represent disruptions that fill in a vacuum felt in the other system.

Besides, we tend to think that the IT revolution’s transformations with our iPhones, Facebook, and Twitter, are without a parallel, but think of what urbanization brought to the rural life, what the railway brought in the nineteenth century or the telephone in the early twentieth. Disruptive innovations that increased transportation speed in the past couple of hundred years have not lowered commuting time but instead increased commuting distances. The size of an average individual’s ‘extended family’ cluster is an approximate invariant—it doesn’t change with city size. In a village, we are limited to a community by proximity, whereas in a city, we are free to choose our own “village” by our likes and dislikes.

Similarly, social media tools have not brought us closer the way we intended it would. Instead, they have allowed us to construct our “internet villages.” These internet villages are scaled-up, combustible derivatives that cannot reproduce the stability of offline, real-world social interactions that produced them. Instead of free-speech, they cater to our preconceived notions by exposing us to algorithmic-speech that makes each of us a volatile, motivated political actor outside the legal institutions born out of civil society. Their extreme negative externalities include conspiracies, real-world riots, and unrest. Nonetheless, in a primal way, internet populism coming out of these internet villages is gesturing at the real-world rifts created by liberal legalism’s parchment antidotes on the one end and lack of upward mobility on the other end.

As Tyler Cowen points out in his book, The Complacent Class, in our digital realm, the word “disruption” is no longer violent but the peaceful label for an ingenious upheaval of an established business order. Taking a cue from this digital paradox, it is not unreasonable to assume that a radical improvement in our physical realm may occur when we volunteer to act with moderation on social media platforms. If we don’t act with moderation, someone else will moderate it for us. Responsible self-regulation can preclude complicated centralized government regulation.

Should we scrap STEM in high school?

STEM topics are important (duh!). Finding the future scientists who will improve my health and quality of living is important to me. I want society to cast a wide net to find all those poor kids, minority kids, and girls we’re currently training to be cute who, in the right setting, could be the ones to save me from the cancer I’m statistically likely to get.

But how much value are we really getting from 12th grade? I’m pulling a bait and switch with the title to this post–I think we should keep the norm of teaching 9th graders basic science. But by 12th grade, are we really getting enough value to warrant the millions of hours per year of effort we demand of 16-18-year olds? I’m skeptical.

There are lots of things that should be taught in school. Ask any group of people and you’ll quickly come up with a long list of sensible sounding ideas (personal finance, computer programming, economics, philosophy, professional communication, home ec., and on and on and on). But adding more content only means we do a worse job at all of it. And that means an increased chance of students simply rejecting those topics wholesale.

Society is filled with science/econ deniers of all persuasions. Anti-intellectuals have been a major constituency for at least the last decade. It’s not like these folks didn’t go to school. Someone tried to teach them. What I want to know is how things have would been different if we’d tried something other than overwhelming these people with authoritatively delivered facts (which seem to have resulted in push-back rather than enlightenment)?

The last 6+ years of trying to teach economics to college kids against their will has convinced me that art (especially literature and drama) affects us much more than dissecting frogs or solving equations. And exposing kids to more literature and drama has the added benefit of (possibly) helping them develop their literacy (which we’ve forgotten is not a binary variable).

Although casting a wide net to find potential scientists is important, ultimately, we only need scientific knowledge in the heads of those who don’t flip through it. But literature can help us develop empathy, and that is a mental skill we need in far more heads. I suspect that replacing a 12th grade physics class 98% of students forget with a literature class where you read a good book would do more to promote an enlightened society.

“A criticism of Indian Americans by an Indian national in the US”

[This is from my inbox, by Vishnu Modur. I reproduce it here with his permission – BC]

This Atlantic article got me thinking. As an Indian national in the U.S., I would like to make a limited point about some (definitely not all) Indian Americans. In my interactions with some Indian Americans, the topic of India induces, if you will, a conflicting worldview. India —the developing political state—is often belittled in some very crude ways, using some out-of-context recent western parallels by mostly uninformed but emboldened Indian Americans.

Just mention Indian current affairs, and some of these well-assimilated Indian Americans quickly toss out their culturally informed, empathetic, anti-racist, historically contingent-privilege rhetoric to conveniently take on a sophisticated “self-made” persona, implying a person who ticked all the right boxes in life by making it in the U.S. This reflexive attitude reversal comes in handy to patronize Indians living in India. They often stereotype us as somehow lower in status or at least less competent owing to the lack of an advanced political state or an ”American” experience—therefore deficient in better ways of living and a higher form of ”humanistic” thinking.

This possibly unintentional but ultimately patronizing competence-downshift by a section of Indian Americans results in pejorative language to sketch generalizations about Indian society even as they recognize the same language as racist when attributed to American colored minorities.

In the last decade, I have learned that one must always take those who openly profess to be do-gooders, culturally conscious, anti-racist, and aware of their privileged Indian American status as a contingency of history with a bucket load of salt. Never take these self-congratulatory labels at face value. Discuss the topic of India with them to check if Indian contexts are easily overlooked. If they do, then obviously, these spectacular self-congratulatory labels are just that — skin-deep tags to fit into the dominant cultural narrative in the U.S.

Words of the economist Pranab Bardhan are worth highlighting: “Whenever you find yourself thinking that some behavior you observe in a developing country is stupid, think again. People behave the way they do because they are rational. And if you think they are stupid, it’s because you have failed to recognize a fundamental feature of their current economic environment.”

A touch of optimism

I remember when Obamacare was first being debated. The political right had so many strong arguments to make and they abjectly refused. Instead, Obama was declared a secret Muslim whose secret plan is to turn the frogs gay.

Here we are with that political tribe having ascended to the White House and now the political Left has so many strong arguments to make. And they’re refusing. Instead, the federal government needs to be made more powerful for the next time a Trump gets elected.

2020 has not been kind to my view of humanity. So I’m listening to The Rational Optimist (finally). And I’ve got to say, it’s just what the doctor ordered. Life is pretty good on balance, even with the bad stuff.

Disruption arises from Antifragility

One of my favorite classics about why big businesses can’t always innovate is Clayton Christiansen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma. It is one of the most misunderstood business books, since its central concept–disruption–has been misquoted, and then popularized. Take the recent post on Investopedia that says in the second sentence that “Disruptive technology sweeps away the systems or habits it replaces because it has attributes that are recognizably superior.” This is the ‘hype’ definition used by non-innovators.

I think part of the misconception comes from thinking of disruption as major, public, technological marvels that are recognizable for their complexity or for even creating entire new industries. Disruptive innovations tend instead to be marginal, demonstrably simpler, worse on conventional scales, and start out by slowly taking over adjacent, small markets.

It recently hit me that you can identify disruption via Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s simple heuristics of recognizing when industry players are fragile. Taleb is my favorite modern philosopher, because he actually brought a new, universally applicable concept to the table, that puts into words what people have been practicing implicitly–but without a term to use. Anti-fragility is the inverse of fragile and actually helps you understand it better. Anti-fragile does not mean ‘resists breaking,’ which is more like ‘robust;’ instead, it means gains from chaos. Ford Pintos are fragile, Nokia phones are robust, but mechanical things are almost never anti-fragile. Bacteria species are anti-fragile to anti-biotics, as trying to kill them makes them stronger. Anti-fragile things are usually organic, and usually made up of fragile things–the death of one bacterium makes the species more resistant.

Taleb has a simple heuristic for finding anti-fragility. I recommend you read his book to get the full picture, but the secret to this concept is a simple thought experiment. Take any concept (or thing), and identify how it works (or fails to work). Now ask, if you subject it to chaos–by that, I mean, if you try to break it–and slowly escalate how hard you try, what happens?

  • If it gets disproportionately harmed, it is fragile. E.g., traffic: as you add cars, time-to-destination gets worse slowly at first, then all of the sudden increases rapidly, and if you do it enough, cars literally stop.
  • If it gets proportionately harmed or there is no effect, it is robust. Examples are easy, since most functional mechanical and electric systems are either fragile (such as Ford Pintos) or robust (Honda engines, Nokia phones, the Great Pyramids).
  • If it gets better, it is anti-fragile. Examples are harder here, since it is easier to destroy than build (and anti-fragility usually occurs based on fragile elements, which gets confusing); bacterial resistance to anti-biotics (or really, the function of evolution itself) is a great one.

The only real way to get anti-fragility outside of evolution is through optionality. Debt (obligation without a choice) is fragile to any extraneous shock, so a ‘free option’–choice without obligation, the opposite, is pure anti-fragility. Not just literal ‘options’ in the market; anti-fragile takes a different form in every case, and though the face is different, the structure is the same. OK, get it? Maybe you do. I recommend coming up with your own example–if you are just free riding on mine, you don’t get it.

Anyway, back to Christiansen. Taleb likes theorizing and leaves example-finding to you, while Christiansen scrupulously documented what happened to hundreds of companies and his concepts arose from his data; think about it like Christiansen is Darwin, carefully measuring beaks, and recognizing natural selection, where Taleb is Wallace, theorizing from his experience and the underlying math of reality. Except in this case, Taleb is not just talking about natural selection, he is also showing how mutation works, and giving a theory of evolution that is not restricted to just biology.

I realized that you can actually figure out whether an innovation is disruptive using this heuristic. It takes some care, because people often look at the technology and ask if it is anti-fragile–which is a mistake. Technologies are inorganic, so usually robust or fragile. Industries are organic, strategies are organic, companies are organic. Many new strategies build on companies’ competencies or existing customer bases, and though they may meet the ‘hype’ definition above, they give upside to incumbents, and are thus not fragilizing. Disruption happens when a company has an exposure to a strategy that it has little to gain from, but that could cannibalize its market if it grows, as anti-fragile things are wont to do.

The questions is: is a given incumbent company fragile with respect to a given strategy? Let’s start with some examples–first Christiansen’s, then my own:

  • Were 3″ drive makers fragile with respect to using smaller drives in cars?
    • In my favorite Christiansen anecdote, a 3″ drive-making-CEO, whose company designed a smaller 1.8″ drive but couldn’t sell it to their PC or mainframe customers, complained that he did exactly what Christiansen said, and built smaller drives, and there was no market. Meanwhile, startups were selling 1.8″ drives like crazy–to car companies, for onboard computers.
    • Christiansen notes that this was a tiny market, which would be an 0.01% change on a big-company income statement, and a low-profit one at that. So, since these companies were big, they were fragile to low-margin, low-volume, fast-growing submarkets. Meanwhile, startups were unbelievably excited about selling small drives at a loss, just so that Honda would buy from them.
    • So, 3″ drive makers had everything to lose (the general drive market) and a blip to gain, where startups had everything to gain and nothing to lose. Note that disruptive technologies are not those that are hard to invent or that immediately revolutionize the industry. Big companies (as Christiansen proved) are actually better at big changes and at invention. They are worse at recognizing value of small changes and jumps between industries.
  • Were book retailers fragile with respect to online book sales?
    • Yes, Amazon is my Christiansen follow-on. Jeff Bezos, as documented in The Everything Store, gets disruption: he invented the ‘two-pizza meeting’, so he ‘gets’ smallness; he intentionally isolates his innovation teams, so he ‘gets’ the excitement of tiny gains and allows cannibalism; he started in a proof-of-concept, narrow, feasible discipline (books) with the knowledge that it would grow into the Everything Store if successful, so he ‘gets’ going from simple beginnings to large-scale, well, disruption.
    • The Everything Store reads like a manual on how to be disrupted. Barnes & Noble first said “We can do that whenever we want.” Then when Bezos got some traction, B&N said “We can try this out but we need to figure out how to do it using our existing infrastructure.” Then when Bezos started eating their lunch, B&N said “We need to get into online book sales,” but sold the way they did in stores, by telling customers what they want, not by using Bezos’ anti-fragile review system. Then B&N said “We need to start doing whatever Bezos does, and beat him by out-spending,” by which time he was past that and selling CDs and then (eventually) everything.
    • Book sellers were fragile because they had existing assets that had running costs; they were catering to customers with not just a book, but with an experience; they were in the business of selecting books for customers, not using customers for recommendations; they treasured partnerships with publishers rather than thinking of how to eliminate them.
  • Now, some rapid-fire. Think carefully, since it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking industry titans were stupid, not fragile, and it is easy to have false positives unless you use Taleb’s heuristic.
    • Car companies were fragile to electric sports cars, and Elon Musk was anti-fragile. Sure, he was up-market, which doesn’t follow Christiansen’s down-market paradigm, but he found the small market that the Nissan Leaf missed.
    • NASA was fragile to modern, cheap, off-the-shelf space solutions, and…yet again…Elon Musk was anti-fragile.
    • Taxis were fragile to app-based rides.
    • Hotels were fragile to app-based rentals.
    • Cable was fragile to sticks you put in your TV.
    • Hedge funds were fragile to index funds, currently are fragile to copy trading, and I hope to god they break.
  • Lastly, some counter-examples, since it is always better to use the via negativa, and assuming you have additive knowledge is dangerous. If you disagree, prove me wrong, found a startup, and make a bajillion dollars by disrupting the big guys who won’t be able to find a market:
    • There is nothing disruptive about 5G.
    • Solar and wind are fragile and fragilizing.
    • What was wrong with WeWork’s business model? Double fragility–fixed contracts with building owners, flexible contracts with customers.
    • On a more optimistic note, cool tech can still be sustaining (as opposed to disruptive), like RoboAdvisors or induction stoves or 3D printed shoes.
    • Artificial intelligence or blockchain any use you have heard of (but not in any that you don’t know yet).

So, to summarize, if a company is fragile to a new strategy, the best it can do is try to robustify itself, since it has little upside. Many innovations give upside to incumbents at the marginal cost of R&D, and thus sustain them; disruption happens when the incumbents have little to gain from adopting a strategy, but startups have a high exposure to positive impact from possible adoption of a strategy due to the potential growth from small-market, incremental/simplifying opportunities, which is definitionally anti-fragility to the strategy.

Now, I hope you have a tool for judging whether industrial incumbents are fragile. Rather than trying to predict success or failure of any, you should just use Taleb’s heuristic–that will help you sort things into ‘hyped as disruptive’ vs. ‘actually probably disruptive.’ A last thought: if you found this wildly confusing, just remember, disruptive innovations tend to steal the jobs of incumbents. So, if an incumbent (say, a Goldman Sachs/Morgan Stanley veteran writing the definition of “disruptive” for Investopedia) is talking about a banking or trading technology, it is almost certainly not disruptive, since he would hardly tell you how to render him extraneous. You will find out what is disruptive when he makes an apology video while wearing a nice watch and French cuffs.

The politics of The Expanse

I am rewatching The Expanse, which is a deservedly popular science fiction show on Amazon Prime. It’s very good. As I said, I am rewatching it, mostly in anticipation of the new season, which comes out next month.

It’s good because I like my science fiction to be science-y. I prefer realistic scenarios. So Star Wars is not really my thing (even Star Trek is a stretch, to be honest, but DS9 is amazing).

One thing that strikes me as wrong in The Expanse is the politics. In the storyline, there are three political units: Earth, Mars, and the Belt. Earth and Mars are sovereign, and the Belt (based out of the asteroid belt) is semi-sovereign with a distinct and viable “nationalist” movement there. This is a sophisticated storyline for television. It’s better than DS9, which bore the standard for great science fiction television until The Expanse came along.

But I can’t stop thinking: why would the political alignment of the solar system be based on planets? If it were to be truly realistic, then Earth would not be a sovereign political unit. Instead, we’d have a dozen or so political units from Earth, some political units from Mars, and several from the Belt. Factions in the form of sovereign political units would dominate the political landscape, not planets.

Now, The Expanse does a good job confronting the issue of faction. Earth’s democratically-elected dictator has to deal with several factions, and Mars and the Belt both have factions, too. And several excellent subplots deal significantly with the issue of faction. But there’s not enough sovereignties in The Expanse. It doesn’t mean the series isn’t the best science fiction television series of all time (it is), but it does leave me wanting more.

You vote is your voice–but actions speak louder than words

On voting day, with everyone tweeting and yelling and spam-calling you to vote, I want to offer some perspective. Sure, ‘your vote is your voice,’ and those who skip the election will remain unheard by political leaders. Sure, these leaders probably determine much more of your life than we probably would like them to. And if you don’t vote, or ‘waste’ your vote on a third party or write in Kim Jong Un, you are excluded from the discussion of how these leaders control you.

But damn, if that is such a limited perspective. It’s like the voting booth has blinders that conceal what is truly meaningful. I’m not going to throw the traditional counter-arguments to ‘vote or die’ at you, though my favorites are Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem and South Park’s Douche and Turd episode. Instead, I just want to say, compared to how you conduct your life, shouting into the political winds is simply not that important.

The wisdom of the stoics resonates greatly with me on this. Seneca, a Roman philosopher, tutor, and businessman, had the following to say on actions, on knowledge, on trust, on fear, and on self-improvement:

  • Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing is ours, except time. On Time
  • Each day acquire something that will fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other misfortunes as well; and after you have run over many thoughts, select one to be thoroughly digested that day. This is my own custom; from the many things which I have read, I claim some one part for myself. On Reading
  • If you consider any man a friend whom you do not trust as you trust yourself, you are mightily mistaken and you do not sufficiently understand what true friendship means. On Friendship
  • Reflect that any criminal or stranger may cut your throat; and, though he is not your master, every lowlife wields the power of life and death over you… What matter, therefore, how powerful he be whom you fear, when every one possesses the power which inspires your fear? On Death
  • I commend you and rejoice in the fact that you are persistent in your studies, and that, putting all else aside, you make it each day your endeavour to become a better man. I do not merely exhort you to keep at it; I actually beg you to do so. On the Philosopher’s Lifestyle

Seneca goes on, in this fifth letter, to repeat the stoic refrain of ‘change what you can, accept what you cannot.’ But he expands, reflecting that your mind is “disturbed by looking forward to the future. But the chief cause of [this disease] is that we do not adapt ourselves to the present, but send our thoughts a long way ahead. And so foresight, the noblest blessing of the human race, becomes perverted.”

Good leadership requires good foresight, but panic over futures out of our control pervert this foresight into madness. So, whether you think that Biden’s green promises will destroy the economy or Trump’s tweets will incite racial violence, your actions should be defined by what you can do to improve the world–and this is the only scale against which you should be judged.

So, set aside voting as a concern. Your voice will be drowned out, and then forgotten. But your actions could push humanity forward, in your own way, and if you fail in that endeavor, then no vote will save you from the self-knowledge of a wasted life. If you succeed, then you did the only thing that matters.

Offensive advantage and the vanity of ethics

I have recently shifted my “person I am obsessed with listening to”: my new guy is George Hotz, who is an eccentric innovator who built a cell phone that can drive your car. His best conversations come from Lex Fridman’s podcasts (in 2019 and 2020).

Hotz’s ideas bring into question the efficacy of any ethical strategy to address ‘scary’ innovations. For instance, based on his experience playing “Capture the Flag” in hacking challenges, he noted that he never plays defense: a defender must cover all vulnerabilities, and loses if he fails once. An attacker only needs to find one vulnerability to win. Basically, in CTF, attacking is anti-fragile, and defense is fragile.

Hotz’s work centers around reinforcement learning systems, which learn from AI errors in automated driving to iterate toward a model that mimics ‘good’ drivers. Along the way, he has been bombarded with questions about ethics and safety, and I was startled by the frankness of his answer: there is no way to guarantee safety, and Comma.ai still depends on human drivers to intervene to protect themselves. Hotz basically dismisses any system that claims to take an approach to “Level 5 automation” that is not learning-based and iterative, as driving in any condition, on any road, is an ‘infinite’ problem. Infinite problems have natural vulnerabilities to errors and are usually closer to impossible where finite problems often have effective and world-changing solutions. Here are some of his ideas, and some of mine that spawned from his:

The Seldon fallacy: In short, 1) It is possible to model complex, chaotic systems with simplified, non-chaotic models; 2) Combining chaotic elements makes the whole more predictable. See my other post for more details!

Finite solutions to infinite problems: In Hotz’s words regarding how autonomous vehicles take in their environments, “If your perception system can be written as a spec, you have a problem”. When faced with any potential obstacle in the world, a set of plans–no matter how extensive–will never be exhaustive.

Trolling the trolley problem: Every ethicist looks at autonomous vehicles and almost immediately sees a rarity–a chance for an actual direct application of a philosophical riddle! What if a car has to choose between running into several people or alter path to hit only one? I love Hotz’s answer: we give the driver the choice. It is hard to solve the trolley problem, but not hard to notice it, so the software alerts the driver whenever one may occur–just like any other disengagement. To me, this takes the hot air out of the question, since it shows that, as with many ethical worries about robots, the problem is not unique to autonomous AIs, but inherent in driving–and if you really are concerned, you can choose yourself which people to run over.

Vehicle-to-vehicle insanity: While some autonomous vehicle innovators promise “V2V” connections, through which all cars ‘tell’ each other where they are and where they are going and thus gain tremendously from shared information. Hotz cautions (OK, he straight up said ‘this is insane’) that any V2V system depends, for the safety of each vehicle and rider, on 1) no communication errors and 2) no liars. V2V is just a gigantic target waiting for a black hat, and by connecting the vehicles, the potential damage inflicted is magnified thousands-fold. That is not to say the cars should not connect to the internet (e.g. having Google Maps to inform on static obstacles is useful), just that safety of passengers should never depend on a single system evading any errors or malfeasance.

Permissioned innovation is a contradiction in terms: As Hotz says, the only way forward in autonomous driving is incremental innovation. Trial and error. Now, there are less ethically worrisome ways to err–such as requiring a human driver who can correct the system. However, there is no future for innovations that must emerge fully formed before they are tried out. And, unfortunately, ethicists–whose only skin in the game is getting their voice heard over the other loud protesters–have an incentive to promote the precautionary principle, loudly chastise any innovator who causes any harm (like Uber’s first-pedestrian-killed), and demand that ethical frameworks precede new ideas. I would argue back that ‘permissionless innovation‘ leads to more inventions and long-term benefits, but others have done so quite persuasively. So I will just say, even the idea of ethics-before-inventions contradicts itself. If the ethicist could make such a framework effectively, the framework would include the invention itself–making the ethicist the inventor! Since instead, what we get is ethicists hypothesizing as to what the invention will be, and then restricting those hypotheses, we end up with two potential outcomes: one, the ethicist hypothesizes correctly, bringing the invention within the realm of regulatory control, and thus kills it. Two, the ethicist has a blind spot, and someone invents something in it.

“The Attention”: I shamelessly stole this one from video games. Gamers are very focused on optimal strategies, and rather than just focusing on cost-benefit analysis, gamers have another axis of consideration: “the attention.” Whoever forces their opponent to focus on responding to their own actions ‘has the attention,’ which is the gamer equivalent of the weather gauge. The lesson? Advantage is not just about outscoring your opponent, it is about occupying his mind. While he is occupied with lower-level micromanaging, you can build winning macro-strategies. How does this apply to innovation? See “permissioned innovation” above–and imagine if all ethicists were busy fighting internally, or reacting to a topic that was not related to your invention…

The Maginot ideology: All military historians shake their heads in disappointment at the Maginot Line, which Hitler easily circumvented. To me, the Maginot planners suffered from two fallacies: one, they prepared for the war of the past, solving a problem that was no longer extant. Second, they defended all known paths, and thus forgot that, on defense, you fail if you fail once, and that attackers tend to exploit vulnerabilities, not prepared positions. As Hotz puts it, it is far easier to invent a new weapon–say, a new ICBM that splits into 100 tiny AI-controlled warheads–than to defend against it, such as by inventing a tracking-and-elimination “Star Wars” defense system that can shoot down all 100 warheads. If you are the defender, don’t even try to shoot down nukes.

The Pharsalus counter: What, then, can a defender do? Hotz says he never plays defense in CTF–but what if that is your job? The answer is never easy, but should include some level of shifting the vulnerability to uncertainty onto the attacker (as with “the Attention”). As I outlined in my previous overview of Paradoxical genius, one way to do so is to intentionally limit your own options, but double down on the one strategy that remains. Thomas Schelling won the “Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel” for outlining this idea in The Strategy of Conflict, but more importantly, Julius Caesar himself pioneered it by deliberately backing his troops into a corner. As remembered in HBO’s Rome, at the seminal engagement of Pharsalus, Caesar said: “Our men must fight or die. Pompey’s men have other options.” However, he also made another underappreciated innovation, the idea of ‘floating’ reserves. He held back several cohorts of his best men to be deployed wherever vulnerabilities cropped up–thus enabling him to be reactive, and forcing his opponent to react to his counter. Lastly, Caesar knew that Pompey’s ace-in-the-hole, his cavalry, was made up of vain higher-class nobles, so he told his troops, instead of inflicting maximum damage indiscriminately, to focus on stabbing their faces and thus disfigure them. Indeed, Pompey’s cavalry did not flee from death, but did from facial scars. To summarize, the Pharsalus counter is: 1) create a commitment asymmetry, 2) keep reserves to fill vulnerabilities, and 3) deface your opponents.

Offensive privacy and the leprechaun flag: Another way to shift the vulnerability is to give false signals meant to deceive black hats. In Hotz’s parable, imagine that you capture a leprechaun. You know his gold is buried in a field, and you force the leprechaun to plant a flag where he buried it. However, when you show up to the field, you find it planted with thousands of flags over its whole surface. The leprechaun gave you a nugget of information–but it became meaningless in the storm of falsehood. This is a way that privacy may need to evolve in the realm of security; we will never stop all quests for information, but planting false (leprechaun) flags could deter black hats regardless of their information retrieval abilities.

The best ethics is innovation: When asked what his goal in life is, Hotz says ‘winning.’ What does winning mean? It means constantly improving one’s skills and information, while also seeking to find a purpose that changes the world in a way you are willing to dedicate yourself to. I think the important part of this that Hotz does not say “create a good ethical framework, then innovate.” Instead, he is effectively saying do the opposite–learn and innovate to build abilities, and figure out how to apply them later. The insight underlying this is that the ethics are irrelevant until the innovation is there, and once the innovation is there, the ethics are actually easier to nail down. Rather than discussing ‘will AIs drive cars morally,’ he is building the AIs and anticipating that new tech will mean new solutions to the ethical questions, not just the practical considerations. So, in summary, if you care about innovation, focus on building skills and knowledge bases. If you care about ethics, innovate.

The Seldon Fallacy

Like some of my role models, I am inspired by Isaac Asimov’s vision. However, for years, the central ability at the heart of the Foundation series–‘psychohistory,’ which enables Hari Seldon, the protagonist, to predict broad social trends across thousands of galaxies over thousands of years–has bothered me. Not so much because of its impact in the fictional universe of Foundation, but for how closely it matches the real-life ideas of predictive modeling. I truly fear that the Seldon Fallacy is spreading, building up society’s exposure to negative, unpredictable shocks.

The Seldon Fallacy: 1) It is possible to model complex, chaotic systems with simplified, non-chaotic models; 2) Combining chaotic elements makes the whole more predictable.

The first part of the Seldon Fallacy is the mistake of assuming reducibility, or more poetically, of NNT’s Procustean Bed. As F.A. Hayek asserted, no predictive model can be less complex than the model it predicts, because of second-order effects and accumulation of errors of approximation. Isaac Asimov’s central character, Hari Seldon, fictionally ‘proves’ the ludicrous fallacy that chaotic systems can be reduced to ‘psychohistorical’ mathematics. I hope you, reader, don’t believe that…so you don’t blow up the economy by betting a fortune on an economic prediction. Two famous thought experiments disprove this: the three-body problem and the damped, driven oscillator. If we can’t even model a system with three ‘movers’, because of second-order effects, how can we model interactions between millions of people? Basically, with no way to know which reductions in complexity are meaningful, Seldon cannot know whether, in laying his living system into a Procustean bed, he has accidentally decapitated it. Using this special ability, while unable to predict individuals’ actions precisely, Seldon can map out social forces with such clarity that he correctly predicts the fall of a 10,000-year empire. Now, to turn to the ‘we can predict social, though not individual futures’ portion of the fallacy: that big things are predictable even if their consituent elements are not.

The second part of the Seldon Fallacy is the mistake of ‘the marble jar.’ Not all randomnesses are equal: drawing white and black marbles from a jar (with replacement) is fundamentally predictable, and the more marbles drawn, the more predictable the mix of marbles in the jar. Many models depend on this assumption or similar ones–that random events distribute normally (in the Gaussian sense) in a way that increases the certainty of the model as the number of samples increases. But what if we are not observing independent events? What if they are not Gaussian? What if someone tricked you, and tied some marbles together so you can’t take out only one? What if one of them is attached to the jar, and by picking it up, you inadvertently break the jar, spilling the marbles? Effectively, what if you are not working with a finite, reducible, Gaussian random system, but an infinite, Mandelbrotian, real-world random system? What if the jar contains not marbles, but living things?

I apologize if I lean too heavily on fiction to make my points, but another amazing author answers this question much more poetically than I could. Just in the ‘quotes’ from wise leaders in the introductions to his historical-fantasy series, Jim Butcher tells stories of the rise and fall of civilizations. First, on cumulative meaning:

“If the beginning of wisdom is in realizing that one knows nothing, then the beginning of understanding is in realizing that all things exist in accord with a single truth: Large things are made of smaller things.

Drops of ink are shaped into letters, letters form words, words form sentences, and sentences combine to express thought. So it is with the growth of plants that spring from seeds, as well as with walls built from many stones. So it is with mankind, as the customs and traditions of our progenitors blend together to form the foundation for our own cities, history, and way of life.

Be they dead stone, living flesh, or rolling sea; be they idle times or events of world-shattering proportion, market days or desperate battles, to this law, all things hold: Large things are made from small things. Significance is cumulative–but not always obvious.”

–Gaius Secundus, Academ’s Fury

Second, on the importance of individuals as causes:

“The course of history is determined not by battles, by sieges, or usurpations, but by the actions of the individual. The strongest city, the largest army is, at its most basic level, a collection of individuals. Their decisions, their passions, their foolishness, and their dreams shape the years to come. If there is any lesson to be learned from history, it is that all too often the fate of armies, of cities, of entire realms rests upon the actions of one person. In that dire moment of uncertainty, that person’s decision, good or bad, right or wrong, big or small, can unwittingly change the world.

But history can be quite the slattern. One never knows who that person is, where he might be, or what decision he might make.

It is almost enough to make me believe in Destiny.”

–Gaius Primus, Furies of Calderon

If you are not convinced by the wisdom of fiction, put down your marble jar, and do a real-world experiment. Take 100 people from your community, and measure their heights. Then, predict the mean and distribution of height. While doing so, ask each of the 100 people for their net worth. Predict a mean and distribution from that as well. Then, take a gun, and shoot the tallest person and the richest person. Run your model again. Before you look at the results, tell me: which one do you expect shifted more?

I seriously hope you bet on the wealth model. Height, like marble-jar samples, is normally distributed. Wealth follows a power law, meaning that individual datapoints at the extremes have outsized impact. If you happen to live in Seattle and shot a tech CEO, you may have lowered the mean income in the group by more than the average income of the other 99 people!

So, unlike the Procustean Bed (part 1 of the Seldon Fallacy), the Marble Jar (part 2 of the Seldon Fallacy) is not always a fallacy. There are systems that follow the Gaussian distribution, and thus the Marble Jar is not a fallacy. However, many consequential systems–including earnings, wars, governmental spending, economic crashes, bacterial resistance, inventions’ impacts, species survival, and climate shocks–are non-Gaussian, and thus the impact of a single individual action could blow up the model.

The crazy thing is, Asimov himself contradicts his own protagonist in his magnum opus (in my opinion). While the Foundation Series keeps alive the myth of the predictive simulation, my favorite of his books–The End of Eternity (spoilers)–is a magnificent destruction of the concept of a ‘controlled’ world. For large systems, this book is also a death knell even of predictability itself. The Seldon Fallacy–that a simplified, non-chaotic model can predict a complex, chaotic reality, and that size enhances predictability–is shown, through the adventures of Andrew Harlan, to be riddled with hubris and catastrophic risk. I cannot reduce his complex ideas into a simple summary, for I may decapitate his central model. Please read the book yourself. I will say, I hope that as part of your reading, I hope you take to heart the larger lesson of Asimov on predictability: it is not only impossible, but undesirable. And please, let’s avoid staking any of our futures on today’s false prophets of predictable randomness.

Three Roads to Racism

Are you a racist?

Anyone can feel free to answer this question any way it/she/he wishes; they wish. And that’s the problem. In this short essay, I aim first to do a little vocabulary house-keeping. Second, I try to trace three distinct origins of racism. I operate from thin authority. My main sources are sundry un-methodical readings, especially on slavery, spread over fifty years, and my amazingly clear recollection of lectures by my late teacher at Stanford, St. Clair Drake, in the sixties. (He was the author of Black Metropolis among other major contributions.) I also rely on equally vivid memories of casual conversations with that master storyteller. Here you have it. I am trying to plagiarize the pioneer St. Clair Drake. I believe the attempt would please him though possibly not the results.

Feel free to reject everything I say below. If nothing else, it might make you feel good. If you are one of the few liberals still reading me, be my guest and get exercised. Besides, I am an old white man! Why grant me any credence?

That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, in these days (2020) obsessed with racism, I never see or hear the basic ideas about racism set down below expressed in the media, in reviews or on-line although they are substantially more productive than what’s actually around. I mean that they help arrive at a clearer and richer understanding of racism.

If you find this brief essay even a little useful, think of sharing it. Thank you.

Racism

“Racism” is a poor word because today, it refers at once to thoughts, attitudes, feeling, and also to actions and policies. Among the latter, it concerns both individual actions and collective actions, and even policies. Some of the policies may be considered to be included in so-called “systemic racism” about which I wrote in my essay “Systemic Racism: a Rationalist Take.”

The mishmash between what’s in the heads of people and what they actually do is regrettable on two grounds. First, the path from individual belief, individual thoughts, individual attitudes, on the one hand, to individual action, on the other is not straightforward. My beliefs are not always a great predictor of my actions because reality tends to interfere with pure intent.

Second, collective action and, a fortiori policies, rarely looks like the simple addition of individual actions. People act differently in the presence of others than they do alone. Groups (loosely defined) are capable of greater invention than are individuals. Individuals in a group both inspire and censor one another; they even complete one another’s thoughts; the ones often give the others courage to proceed further.

This piece is about racism, the understanding, the attitudes, the collection of beliefs which predispose individuals and groups to thinking of others as inferior and/or unlikable on the basis of some physical characteristics. As I said, racism so defined can be held individually or collectively. Thus, this essay is deliberately not about actions, program, failures to act inspired by racism, the attitude. That’s another topic others can write about.

Fear and loathing of the unknown

Many people seem to assume that racial prejudice is a natural condition that can be fought in simple ways. Others, on the contrary, see it as ineradicable. Perhaps it all depends on the source of racism. The word mean prejudgment about a person’s character and abilities based on persistent physical traits that are genetically transmitted. Thus, dislike of that other guy wearing a ridiculous blue hat does not count; neither does hostility toward one sex or the other (or the other?). I think both assumptions above – racism as natural and as ineradicable – are partly but only partly true. My teacher St. Clair Drake explained to me once, standing in the aisle of a Palo Alto bookstore, that there are three separate kinds of racial prejudice, of racism, with distinct sources.

The first kind of racism is rooted in fear of the unknown or of the unfamiliar. This is probably hard-wired; it’s human nature. It would be a good asset to have for the naked, fairly slow apes that we were for a long time. Unfamiliar creature? Move away; grab a rock. After all, those who look like you are usually not dangerous enemies; those who don’t, you don’t know and why take a risk?

Anecdote: A long time ago, I was acting the discreet tourist in a big Senegalese fishing village. I met a local guy about my age (then). We had tea together, talked about fishing. He asked me if I wanted to see his nearby house. We walked for about five minute to a round adobe construction covered in thatch. He motioned me inside where it was quite dark. A small child was taking a nap on a stack of blankets in the back. Sensing a presence, the toddler woke up, opened his eyes, and began screaming at the top of his lungs. The man picked him up and said very embarrassed. “I am sorry, my son has never seen a toubab before.” (“Toubab” is the local not unfriendly word for light skin people from elsewhere.)

Similarly, Jared Diamond recounts (and show corresponding pictures in his book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies. Viking: New York.) of how central New Guinea natives became disfigured by fear at their first sight of a white person. Some explained later that they thought they might be seeing ghosts.

Night terrors

The second distinctive form of racism simply comes from fear of the dark, rooted itself in dread of the night. It’s common to all people, including dark skinned people, of course. It’s easy to understand once you remember that beings who were clearly our direct ancestors, people whose genes are in our cells, lived in fear of the darkness night after night for several hundreds of thousands of years. Most of their fears were justified because the darkness concealed lions, leopards, hyenas, bears, tigers, saber-toothed cats, wolves, wild dogs, and other predators, themselves with no fear of humans. The fact that the darkness of night also encouraged speculation about other hostile beings -varied spirits – that did not really exist does not diminish the impact of this incomplete zoological list.

As is easy to observe, the association dark= bad is practically universal. Many languages have an expression equivalent to: “the forces of darkness.” I doubt that any (but I can’t prove it, right now) says, “the forces of lightness” to designate something sinister. Same observation with “black magic,” and disappearing into a “black hole.” Similarly, nearly everywhere, uneducated people, and some of their educated betters, express some degree of hostility – mixed with contempt, for those, in their midst or nearby, who are darker than themselves. This is common among African Americans, for example. (Yes, I know, it may have other sources among them, specifically.)

This negative attitude is especially evident in the Indian subcontinent. On a lazy day, thirty years ago in Mumbai, I read several pages of conjugal want ads in a major newspaper. I noticed that 90% of the ads for would-be brides mentioned skin color in parallel with education and mastery of the domestic arts. (The men’s didn’t.) A common description was “wheatish,” which, I was told by Indian relatives, means not quite white but pretty close. (You can’t lie too shamelessly about skin tone because, if all goes well, your daughter will meet the other side in person; you need wiggle room.) In fact, the association between skin color and likability runs so deep in India that the same Sanskrit word, “varna,” designates both caste and color (meaning skin complexion). And, of course, there is a reason why children everywhere turn off the light to tell scary stories.

In a similar vein, the ancient Chinese seem to have believed that aristocrats were made from yellow soil while commoners were made from ordinary brown mud. (Cited by Harari, Yuval N. – 2015 – in: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Harper: New York.)

Some would argue that these examples represent ancestral fears mostly left behind by civilized, urban (same thing) people. My own limited examples, both personal and from observation is that it’s not so. It seems to me that fear of the dark is the first or second page of the book of which our daily street-lit, TV illuminated bravado is the cover. Allow a couple of total power stoppages (as Californians experienced recently) and it’s right there, drilling into our vulnerable minds.

Both of these two first kinds of negative feelings about that which is dark can be minimized, the first through experience and education: No, that pale man will not hurt you. He might even give you candy, or a metal ax. The second source of distaste of darkness has simply been moved to a kind of secondary relevance by the fact that today, most people live most of the time in places where some form of artificial lightning is commonplace. It persists nevertheless where it is shored up by a vast and sturdy institutional scaffolding as with the caste system of largely Hindu India. And it may be always present somewhere in the back of our minds but mostly, we don’t have a chance to find out.

The third source of hostility toward and contempt for a dark appearance is both more difficult to understand and harder to eliminate or even to tamp down. Explaining it requires a significant detour. Bear with me, please.

The origins of useful racism

Suppose you believe in a God who demands unambiguously that you love your “neighbor,” that is, every human being, including those who are not of your tribe, even those you don’t know at all. Suppose further that you are strongly inclined toward a political philosophy that considers all human beings, or at least some large subcategory of them, as fundamentally equal, or at least equal in rights. Or imagine rather that you are indifferent to one or both ideas but that you live among neighbors 90% of whom profess one, and 80% both beliefs. They manifest and celebrate these beliefs in numerous and frequent public exercises, such as church services, elections, and civic meetings where important decisions are launched.

Now a second effort of imagination is required. Suppose also that you or your ancestors came to America from the British Isles, perhaps in the 1600s, perhaps later. You have somehow acquired a nice piece of fertile land, directly from the Crown or from a landed proprietor, or by small incremental purchases. You grow tobacco, or indigo, or rice, or (later) cotton. Fortune does not yet smile on you because you confront a seemingly intractable labor problem. Almost everyone else around you owns land and thus is not eager to work for anyone else. Just about your only recourse is temporarily un-free young men who arrive periodically from old Britain, indentured servants (sometimes also called “apprentices”). Many of them are somewhat alien because they are Irish , although most of them speak English, or some English. Moreover, a good many are sickly when they land. Even the comparatively healthy young men do not adjust well to the hot climate. They have little resistance to local tropical diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. Most don’t last in the fields. You often think they are not worth the trouble. In addition, by contract or by custom, you have to set them free after seven years. With land being so attainable, few wish to stick around and earn a wage from you .

One day you hear that somewhere, not too far, new, different kinds of workers are available that are able to work long days in the heat and under the sun and who don’t succumb easily to disease. You take a trip to find out. The newcomers are chained together. They are a strange dark color, darker than any man you have seen, English, Irish, or Indian. Aside from this, they look really good as field hands go. They are muscular, youngish men in the flower of health. (They are all survivors of the terrible Atlantic passage and, before that, of some sort of long walk on the continent of Africa to the embarkation point at Goree, Senegal, or such. Only the strong and healthy survived such ordeals, as a rule.) There are a few women of the same hue with them, mostly also young.

Those people are from Africa, you are told. They are for outright sale. You gamble on buying two of them to find out more. You carry them to your farmstead and soon put them to work. After some confusion because they don’t understand any English, you and your other servants show them what to do. You are soon dazzled by their physical prowess. You calculate that one of them easily accomplishes the tasks of two of your indentured Irish apprentices. As soon as you can afford it, you go and buy three more Africans.

Soon, your neighbors are imitating you. All the dark skinned servants are snapped up as fast as they are landed. Prices rise. Those people are costly but still well worth the investment because of their superior productivity. Farmers plant new crops, labor intensive, high yield crops – -such as cotton – that they would not have dared investing in with the old kind of labor. To make the new labor even more attractive, you and your neighbors quickly figure that it’s also capital because it can be made to be self-reproducing. The black female servants can both work part of the time and make children who are themselves servants that belong to you by right. (This actually took some time to work out legally.)

Instrumental severity and cruelty

You are now becoming rich, amassing both tools and utensils and more land. All is still not completely rosy on your plantation though. One problem is that not all of your new African servants are docile. Some are warriors who were captured on the battlefield in Africa and they are not resigned to their subjection. A few rebel or try to run away. Mostly, they fail but their doomed attempts become the stuff of legend among other black servants thus feeding a chronic spirit of rebelliousness. Even in the second and third generation away from Africa, some black servants are born restive or sullen. And insubordination is contagious. At any rate, there are enough free white workers in your vicinity for some astute observers among your African servants to realize that they and their companions are treated comparatively badly, that a better fate is possible. Soon, there are even free black people around to whom they unavoidably compare themselves. (This fact deserves a full essay in its own right.)

To make a complex issue simple: Severity is necessary to keep your workforce at work. Such severity sometimes involves brutal public punishment for repeat offenders, such as whippings. There is a belief about that mere severity undermines the usefulness of the workforce without snuffing out its rebelliousness. Downright cruelty is sometimes necessary, the more public, the better. Public punishment is useful to encourage more timid souls to keep towing the line.

And then, there is the issue of escape. After the second generation, black slaves are relatively at home where they work. Your physical environment is also their home where some think they can fend for themselves. The wilderness is not very far. The slaves also know somehow that relatively close by are areas where slavery is prohibited or not actively enforced by authorities. It’s almost a mathematical certainty that at any time, some slaves, a few slaves, will attempt escape. Each escape is a serious economic matter because, aside from providing labor, each slave constitutes live capital. Most owners have only a few slaves. A single escape constitutes for them a significant form of impoverishment. Slaves have to be terrorized into not even wanting to escape.

Soon, it’s well understood that slaves are best kept in a state of more or less constant terror. It’s so well understood that local government will hang your expensive slave for rebellion whether you like it or not.

Inner contradiction

In brief, whatever their natural inclination, whatever their personal preference, slave owners have to be systematically cruel. And, it’s helpful for them to also possess a reputation for cruelty. This reputation has to be maintained and re-inforced periodically by sensationally brutal action. One big problem arises from such a policy of obligatory and vigilant viciousness: It’s in stark contradiction with both your religious and your political ideas that proclaim that one must love others and that all humans are at least potentially equal (before God, if nowhere else). And if you don’t hold deeply such beliefs yourself, you live among people who do, or who profess to. And, by a strange twist of fate, the richest, best educated, probably the most influential strata of your society are also those most committed to those ideals. (They are the class that would eventually produce George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.)

The personal psychological tension between the actual and highly visible brutal treatment of black slaves and prevailing moral values is technically a form of dissonance.” It’s also a social tension; it expresses itself collectively. Those actively involved in mistreating slaves are numerous. In vast regions of the English colonies, and later, of the United States, the contrast between action and beliefs is thus highly visible to everyone, obvious to many who are not themselves actively involved. It becomes increasingly difficult over time to dismiss slavery as a private economic affair because, more and more, political entities make laws actively supporting slavery. There are soon laws about sheltering fugitives, laws regulating the punishment of rebellious slaves, laws about slave marriage and, laws restricting the freeing of slaves, (“manumission”). Slavery thus soon enters the public arena. There are even laws to control the behavior of free blacks, those who merely used to be slaves.

Race as legal status

Special rules governing free blacks constitute an important step because, for the first time it replaces legal status (“slave,” chattel”), with race (dark skin, certain facial features, African ancestry). So, with the advent of legislation supporting slavery, an important symbolic boundary is crossed. The laws don’t concern only those defined by their legal condition of chattel property but also others, defined mostly or largely by their physical appearance and by their putative ancestry in Africa. At this point, every white subject, then every white citizen has become a participant in a struggle that depends on frankly racial categories by virtue of his belonging to the polity. Soon the social racial category “white” comes to stand for the legal status “free person,” “non-slave.”

Then, at this juncture, potentially every white adult becomes a party to the enforcement of slavery. For almost all of them, this participation, however passive, is in stark contradiction with both religious and political values. But ordinary human beings can only live with so much personal duplicity. Some whites will reject black slavery, in part or in whole. Accordingly, it’s notable that abolitionists always existed and were vocal in their opposition to slavery in the English colonies, and then in the United States, even in the deepest South. Their numbers and visibility never flagged until the Civil War.

How to reduce tension between beliefs and deeds

There are three main paths out of this personal moral predicament. They offer different degrees of resistance. The first path is to renounce one’s beliefs, those that are in contradiction to the treatment of one’s slaves. A slave owner could adjust by becoming indifferent to the Christian message, or skeptical of democratic aspiration, or both. No belief in the fraternity of Man or in any sort of equality between persons? Problem solved. This may be relatively feasible for an individual alone. In this case, though the individuals concerned, the slave owners, and their slave drivers, exist within a social matrix that re-inforces frequently, possibly daily the dual religious command to treat others decently and the political view that all men are more or less equal. Churches, political organizations, charity concerns, and gentlemen’s club stand in the way. To renounce both sets of beliefs – however attractive this might be from an individual standpoint – would turn one into a social pariah. Aside from the personal unpleasantness of such condition, it would surely have adverse economic repercussions.

The second way to free oneself from the tension associated with the contrast between humane beliefs, on the one hand, and harsh behavior, on the other hand, is simply to desist from the latter. Southern American chronicles show that a surprisingly large numbers of slave owners chose that path at any one time. Some tried more compassionate slave driving, with varying degrees of economic success. Others – who left major traces, for documentary reasons – took the more radical step of simply freeing some of their slaves when they could, or when it was convenient. Sometimes, they freed all of their slaves, usually at their death, through their wills, for example. The freeing of slaves – manumission – was so common that the rising number of free blacks was perceived as a social problem in much of the South. Several states actually tried to eliminate the problem by passing legislation forbidding the practice.

Of course, the fact that so many engaged in such an uneconomic practice demonstrates in itself the validity of the idea that the incompatibility between moral convictions and slave driving behavior generated strong tensions. One should not take this evidence too far however because there may have been several reasons to free slaves, not all rooted in this tension. (I address this issue briefly in “Systemic Racism….”)

The easy way out

The third way to reduce the same tension, the most extreme and possibly the least costly took two steps. Step one consisted in recognizing consciously this incompatibility; step two was to begin mentally to separate the black slaves from humanity. This would work because all your bothersome beliefs – religious and political – applied explicitly to other human beings. The less human the objects of your bad treatment the less the treatment contravened your beliefs. After all, while it may be good business to treat farm animals well, there is not much moral judgment involved there. In fact, not immediately but not long after the first Africans landed in the English colonies of North America, there began a collective endeavor aiming at their conceptual de-humanization. It was strongly a collective project addressing ordinary people including many who had no contacts with black slaves or with free blacks. It involved the universities and intellectual milieus in general with a vengeance (more on this latter).

Some churches also lent a hand by placing the sanction of the Bible in the service of the general idea that God himself wanted slaves to submit absolutely to the authority of their masters. To begin with, there was always to story of Noah’s three sons. The disrespectful one, Ham, cursed by Noah, was said to be the father of the black race, on the thin ground that his name means something like “burnt.” However, it’s notable that the tension never disappeared because other churches, even in the Deep South, continued their opposition to slavery on religious grounds. The Quakers, for example, seldom relented.

Their unusual appearance and the fact that the white colonists could not initially understand their non-European languages (plural) was instrumental in the collective denial of full humanity to black slaves. In fact, the arriving slaves themselves often did not understand one another. This is but one step from believing that they did not actually possess the power of speech. Later, as the proportion of America-born slaves increased, they developed what is known technically as a creole language to communicate with one another. That was recognizably a form of English but probably not understood by whites unless they tried hard. Most had few reasons to try at all. Language was not the only factor contributing to the ease with which whites, troubled by their ethical beliefs, denied full humanity to black slaves. Paradoxically, the degrading conditions in which the slaves were held must also have contributed to the impression of their sub-humanity.

Science enlisted

The effort to deny full humanity to people of African descent continued for two centuries. As the Enlightenment reached American shores, the focus shifted from Scriptures to Science (pseudo science, sometimes but not always). Explorers’ first reports from sub-tropical Africa seemed to confirmed the soundness of the view that black Africans were not completely human: There were no real cities there, little by way of written literature, no search for knowledge recognizable as science, seemingly no schools. What art conscious visitors reported on did not seem sufficiently realistic to count as art by 18th and 19th century standards. I think that no one really paid attention to the plentiful African artistic creativity– this unmixed expression of humanity if there ever was one – until the early 1900s. Instead, African art was dismissed as crude stammering in the service of inarticulate superstitions.

The effort to harness science in service of the proposition of African un-humanity easily outlasted the Civil War and even the emancipation of slaves in North America. After he published the Origins of the Species in 1859, Darwin spent much of the balance of his life – curiously allied with Christians – in combating the widespread idea that there had been more than one creation of humanoids, possibly, one for each race. The point most strongly argued by those holding to this view was that Africans could not possibly be the brothers, or other close relatives, of the triumphant Anglo-Saxons. The viewpoint was not limited to the semi-educated by any means. The great naturalist Louis Agassiz himself believed that the races of men were pretty much species. In support, he presented the imaginary fact that the mating of different races – like mating between horses and donkeys – seldom produced fertile offspring. (All recounted in: Desmonds, Adrian, and James Moore. 2009. Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How A Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution. Hougton: NY.)

Differential persistence

Those three main roads to racism are unequal in their persistence. Dislike for strangers tends to disappear of its own accord. Either the frightening contact ceases or it is repeated. In the first case, dislike turns irrelevant and accordingly becomes blurred. In the second case, repeated experience will often demonstrate that the strangers are not dangerous and the negative feelings subside of their own accord. If the strangers turn out to be dangerous overall, it seems to me that negative feelings toward them does not constitute racism. This, in spite of the fact that the negativity may occasionally be unfair to specific, individual strangers.

Racial prejudice anchored in atavistic fear of the night may persist in the depth of one’s mind but it too, does not survive experience well. Exposed to the fact that dark people are not especially threatening, many will let the link between darkness and fear or distaste subside in their minds. For this reason, it seems to me that the great American experiment in racial integration of the past sixty years was largely successful. Many more white Americans today personally know African Americans than was the case in 1960, for example. The black man whose desk is next to yours, the black woman who attends the same gym as you week after week, the black restaurant goers at you favored eating place, all lose their aura of dangerousness through habituation. Habituation works both ways though. The continued over-representation of black men in violent crimes must necessarily perpetuates in the minds of all (including African Americans) the association between danger and a dark complexion.

The road to racism based on the reduction of the tension between behavior and beliefs via conceptual de-humanization of the victims has proved especially tenacious. Views of people of African descent, but also of other people of color, as less than fully human persist or re-merge frequently because they have proved useful. This approach may have saved the important part of the American economy based on slavery until war freed the slaves without removing the de-humanizing. As many leftists claim (usually without evidence) this was important to the latter fast development of the American economy because cotton production in the South was at its highest in the years right preceding the Civil War. In the next phase the view of black Americans as less than human served well to justify segregation for the next hundred years. It was thus instrumental in protecting poor whites from wage competition with even poorer African Americans.

In the second half of the 19th century and well into the 20th, the opinion that Africans – and other people of color – were not quite human also strengthened the European colonial enterprise in many places. (The de-humanization of colonial people was not inevitable though. The French justification of colonialism – “France’s civilizing mission” – is incompatible with this view. It treated the annexed people instead as immature, as infantile, rather than as subhuman.)

This third road to racism tends to last because it’s a collective response to a difficult situation that soon builds its own supporting institutions. For a long time, in America and in the West, in general, it received some assistance from the new, post-religious ideology, science. Above all, it’s of continuing usefulness in a variety of situations. This explanation reverses the naive, unexamined explanation of much racism: That people act in cruel ways toward others who are unlike them because they are racist. It claims, rather that they become racist in order to continue acting in cruel ways toward others, contrary to their own pre-existing beliefs that enjoin them to treat others with respect. If this perspective is correct, we should find that racism is the more widespread and the more tenacious the more egalitarian and the more charitable the dominant culture where it emerges.

The Revolt of the Baristas

For several weeks, nearly every night, I have a déjà vu experience.

First, I watch Fox News where I see crowds of younger people in dark clothing breaking things, setting buildings on fire, and assaulting police. (I infer they are younger people because of the suppleness of their movements.)

Then, I switch to French news on “Vingt-trois heures.” There, I see young people in large French cities, breaking shop windows, damaging and burning cars, and assaulting police.

The supposed reason for the continuing rioting in several major American cities is police brutality toward Blacks and racial injustice in general.

The rioting on wealthy business arteries of French cities was, as of recently, occasioned by the victory of a favorite soccer club in an important tournament. A week later, the defeat of the same soccer club occasioned the same kind of behavior except worse, by what I am sure were the same people.

No common cause to these similar conducts, you might think. That seems true but the behaviors are so strikingly similar, I am not satisfied with this observation. I have to ask, what do the rioters have in common on the two sides of the Atlantic. Your answer may be as good as mine – probably better – but here is my take:

Two things.

First, both youngish Americans and youngish French people are counting on a high degree of impunity. Both American society and French society have gone wobbly on punishment in the past thirty years (the years of the “participation prize” for school children). Used to be, in France (where I grew up) that you did not set cars afire because there was the off-chance it would earn you several years of your beautiful youth in prison. No more. The police makes little effort to catch the perpetrators anyway. The charging authorities let them go with an admonition, maybe even a severe warning. In the US, the civil authorities often order the police to do nothing, to “stand down” in the face of looting and arson. And they refuse legitimate help. Here, the elected authorities are part- time rioters in their hearts – for whatever reason. The local DAs in Demo strongholds routinely release rioters on their own recognizance. It’s almost a custom.

It seems to me that in any group, from pre-kindergarten on, there are some who will not regulate themselves unless they feel threatened by powerful and likely punishment. Perhaps, it’s a constant proportion of any society. Remove the fear of punishment, it’s 100% certain someone will do something extreme, destructive, or violent. I don’t like this comment but I am pretty sure it’s right.

The second thing the rioting in France and in the US have in common is that they seem to involve people who don’t feel they have a stake in the current social arrangements. In the French case, it’s easy to guess who they are (a strong guess, actually). Bear with me. In the sixties and seventies, various French governments built massive, decent housing projects outside Paris and other big cities (again: “decent”). I was there myself, working as a minor government city planner. The above-board objective was to move people out of slums. It’s too easy to forget that the plan worked fine in this respect. With rising prosperity, inevitably, the new towns and cities became largely occupied by new immigrants.

Those who burn private cars on the Champs Elysees in Paris recently are their children and grandchildren. The immigrants themselves, like immigrants everywhere, tend to work hard to save, and to retain the strict mores of their mostly rural origins. Their children go haywire because the same mores can’t be applied in an urban, developed society. (“Daughter: You may go to the cinema once a month accompanied by your two cousins; no boys.” “Dad: You are kidding right?”) Misery is rarely or never an issue. In the French welfare state, it’s difficult to go hungry or cold. I have often observed that the French rioters are amazingly well dressed by American college standards, for example. Incidentally, the same children of immigrants frequently have several college degrees, sometimes advanced degrees. But, fact is, ordinary French universities are pretty bad. Further fact is that in a slow growing or immobile economy like France’s, few college degrees matter to the chance of employment anyway. The rioters feel that they don’t have a stake in French society, perhaps because they don’t.

Seen from TV and given their agility and sturdiness, American rioters seem to be in their twenties to early thirties; they are “millenials.” I don’t know what really animates them because I don’t believe their slogans. It’s not only that they are badly under-informed. (For example they seem to believe that policemen killing African Americans is common practice. It’s not. See my recent article on “Systemic Racism” for figures.) It’s also that they have not specified what remedies they want to the ills they denounce. An “end to capitalism” does not sound to me like a genuine demand. Neither does the eradication of a kind of racism that, I think, hardly exists in America any more. The impression is made stronger by the fact that they don’t have a replacement program for what they seem bent on destroying. (“Socialization of the means of production” anyone?) Their destructiveness inspires fear and it may be its only objective.

I don’t know well where the American rioters come from, sociologically and intellectually. They are the cohort that marries late or not at all. It is said that many never hope to become home owners, that they see themselves as renters for life. Few buy cars (possibly a healthy choice in every way eliminating a normal American drain on one’s finances). I think that they firmly believe that the Social Security programs to which they contribute through their paychecks will be long gone by their retirement age. (I hear this all the time, in progressive Santa Cruz, California.) I hypothesize that many of those young people have had the worst higher education experience possible. Let me say right away that I don’t blame much so-called “indoctrination” by leftist teachers; leftists are just not very good at what they do. Most students don’t pay attention, in general anyway. Why would they pay attention to Leftie propaganda? Rather it seems to me that many spend years in college studying next to nothing and in vain.

Roughly, there are two main kinds of courses study in American higher education. The first, covering engineers and accountants, and indirectly, medical doctors and vets, for example have a fairly straightforward payoff: Get your degree, win a fairly well paying job quickly. Graduates of these fields seldom have a sense of futility about their schooling though they may be scantily educated (by my exalted standards). The second kind of course of studies was first modeled in the 19th century to serve the children of the moneyed elites. I mean “Liberal Arts” in the broadest sense. Its purpose was first to help young people form judgment and second, to impart to them a language common to the elites of several Western countries. For obvious reasons, degrees in such areas were not linked to jobs (although they may have been a pre-requisite to political careers). Many, most of the majors following this pattern are pretty worthless to most of their graduates. A social critic – whose name escapes me unfortunately – once stated that American universities and colleges graduate each year 10,000 times more journalism majors that there are journalism openings.

As a rule, the Liberal Arts only lead to jobs through much flexibility of both graduates and employers. Thus, in good times, big banks readily hire History and Political Science majors into their lower management ranks on the assumption that they are reasonably articulate and also trainable. Then there are the graduates in Women’s Studies and Environmental Studies who may end up less educated than they were on graduating from high school. It’s not that one could not, in principle acquire habits of intellectual rigor though endeavors focusing on women or on the environments. The problem is that the spirit of inquiry in such fields (and many more) was strangled from the start by an ideological hold. (One women’s studies program, at UC Santa Cruz , is even called “Feminist Studies,” touching candidness!) It seems to me that more and more Liberal Arts disciplines are falling into the same pit, beginning with Modern Languages. There, majors who are Anglos regularly graduate totally unable to read a newspaper in Spanish but well versed in the injustices perpetrated on Hispanic immigrants since the mid 19th century.

Those LA graduates who have trouble finding good employment probably don’t know that they are pretty useless. After all, most never got bad grades. They received at least Bs all along. And why should instructors, especially the growing proportion on fragile, renewable contracts look for trouble by producing non-conforming grade curves? The grading standard is pretty much the same almost (almost) everywhere: You do the work more or less: A; you don’t do the work: B. But nothing will induce disaffection more surely than going unrewarded when one has the sentiment of having done what’s required by the situation. That’s the situation on ten of thousands of new graduates produced each year. And many of those come out burdened by lifetime debts. (Another rich topic, obviously.)

Incidentally, I am in no way opining that higher education studies should always lead to gainful employment. I am arguing instead that many, most, possible almost all LA students shouldn’t be in colleges or universities at all, at least in the manner of the conventional four-year degree (now five or six years).

The college graduates I have in mind, people in their twenties, tend to make work choices that correspond to their life experience devoid of effort. In my town, one hundred will compete for a job as a barista in one of the of several thriving coffee shops while five miles away, jobs picking vegetables that pay 50% or twice more go begging. I suspect the preference is partly because you can’t dress well in the fields and because they, the fields, don’t provide much by way of casual human warmth the way Starbucks routinely does.

Go ahead, feel free to like this analysis. I don’t like it much myself. It’s too anecdotal; it’s too ad hoc. It’s lacking in structural depth. It barely nicks the surface. It’s sociologically poor. At best, it’s unfinished. Why don’t you give it a try?

A last comment: a part of my old brain is temped by the paradoxical thought that the determinedly democratic revolt in Belorussia belongs on the same page as the mindless destructiveness in France and the neo-Bolshevik rioting in large American cities.

The Blind Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs usually make decisions with incomplete information, in disciplines where we lack expertise, and where time is vital. How, then, can we be expected to make decisions that lead to our success, and how can other people judge our startups on our potential value? And even if there are heuristics for startup value, how can they cross fields?

The answer, to me, comes from a generalizable system for improvement and growth that has proven itself– the blind watchmaker of evolution. In this, the crucial method by which genes promulgate themselves is not by predicting their environments, but by promiscuity and opportunism in a random, dog-eat-dog-world. By this, I mean that successful genes free-ride on or resonate with other genes that promote reproductive success (promiscuity) and select winning strategies by experimenting in the environment and letting reality be the determinant of what gene-pairings to try more often (opportunism). Strategies that are either robust or anti-fragile usually outperform fragile and deleterious strategies, and strategies that exist within an evolutionary framework that enables rapid testing, learning, mixing, and sharing (such as sexual reproduction or lateral gene transfer paired with fast generations) outperform those that do not (such as cloning), as shown by the Red Queen hypothesis.

OK, so startups are survival/reproductive vehicles and startup traits/methods are genes (or memes, in the Selfish Gene paradigm). With analogies, we should throw out what is different and keep what is useful, so what do we need from evolution?

First, one quick note: we can’t borrow the payout calculator exactly. Reproductive success is where a gene makes more of itself, but startups dont make more of themselves. For startups the best metric is probably money. Other than that, what adaptations are best to adopt? Or, in the evolutionary frame, what memes should we imbue in our survival vehicles?

Traits to borrow:

  • Short lives: long generations mean the time between trial and error is too long. Short projects, short-term goals, and concrete exits.
  • Laziness: energy efficiency is far more important than #5 on your priority list.
  • Optionality: when all things are equal, more choices = more chances at success.
  • Evolutionarily Stable Strategies: also called “don’t be a sucker.”
  • React, don’t plan: prediction is difficult or even impossible, but being quick to jump into the breach has the same outcome. Could also be called “prepare, but don’t predict.”
  • Small and many: big investments take a lot of energy and effectively become walking targets. Make small and many bets on try-outs and then feed those that get traction. Note– this is also how to run a military!
  • Auftragstaktik: should be obvious, central planning never works. Entrepreneurs should probably not make any more decisions than they have to.
  • Resonance: I used to call this “endogenous positive feedback loops,” but that doesn’t roll off the tongue. In short, pick traits that make your other traits more powerful–and even better if all of your central traits magnify your other actions.
  • Taking is better than inventing: Its not a better startup if its all yours. Its a better startup if you ruthlessly pick the best idea.
  • Pareto distributions (or really, power laws): Most things don’t really matter. Things that matter, matter a lot.
  • Finite downside, infinite upside: Taleb calls this “convexity”. Whenever presented with a choice that has one finite and one infinite potential, forget about predicting what will happen– focus on the impact’s upper bound in both directions. It goes without saying– avoid infinite downsides!
  • Don’t fall behind (debt): The economy is a Red Queen, anyone carrying anything heavy will continually fall behind. Debt is also the most likely way companies die.
  • Pay it forward to your future self: squirrels bury nuts; you should build generic resources as well.
  • Don’t change things: Intervening takes energy and hurts diversity.
  • Survive: You can’t win if you’re not in the game. More important than being successful is being not-dead.

When following these guidelines, there are two other differences between entrepreneurs and genes: One, genes largely exist in an amoral state, whereas your business is vital to your own life, and if you picked a worthwhile idea, society. Two, unlike evolution, you actually have goals and are trying to achieve something beyond replication, beyond even money. Therefore, you do not need to take your values from evolution. However, if you ignore its lessons, you close your eyes to reality and are truly blind.

Our “blind” entrepreneur, then, can still pick goals and construct what she sees as her utility. But to achieve the highest utility, once defined, she will create unknowable and unpredictable risk of her idea’s demise if she does not learn to grow the way that the blind watchmaker does.

The Non-Partisan Movement We Need: Anti-Authoritarianism

Political/ideological debates have a lot of moving parts, and there are a lot of timely issues to address. Given the marginal impact of anything we do in this sphere (e.g. voting, sharing a blog post on Twitter, or being a solitary voter in a vast sea of the entire 6200 people in this country), it’s only natural that we have to economize on information and argument and that results. We can’t help but deplete the intellectual commons.

What are some low cost ways to improve the quality?

  1. Value Intellectual humility.
  2. Devalue the sort of behavior that makes things worse.

It bears repeating: value intellectual humility. It’s not easy. I’m as drawn the confident claims as you are. I’ve got a lot of smart people in my bubble and when they boldly declare something, I tend to believe them. But the “I honestly don’t know” posts deserve more attention and are less likely to get it. Let’s adjust in that direction. I’ll try to write more about things I don’t know about in the future (although I don’t know what that’s going to look like).

It’s a statistical impossibility that, of all of the people burned at the stake for heresy or witchcraft or whatever, nobody deserved some punishment received in an unfair process. Don’t get me wrong, witch hunts are a bad thing in general, but we can’t discount them as entirely (maybe just 99.9%) unjustified. But cancel culture is, like good old fashioned witch hunts is doing a lot of harm to the intellectual commons. I’m they catch more bad guys than 17th century Puritans, but lets not leave cancellations up to Twitter mobs. Particularly when it comes to cancelling ideas.

Bad ideas don’t need to be cancelled. They need to be crushed under good ideas.

Far be it from me to peddle unreplicated psychological research (confirmation bias alert!), but I tend to believe that there’s something to the claim that the extreme poles of the ideological landscape exhibit some unsettling traits: narrow-mindedness, authoritarianism, and apparently Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy.

“Narcissistic psychopath” is not a label I’d like to see bandied about because it’s just too close to ad hominum. But “authoritarian” is a term I’d like to see more widely used as a pejorative, regardless of the position taken by would be authoritarians.

Let’s quit with the shouting, cancelling, flag waving, and blindly taking reactionary positions. Invite debate, and invite holding people accountable. But letting Twitter be the last word is as absurd as letting Helen Lovejoy-esque moral scolding decide how things should be.

But then again, maybe I’m wrong.

Women in my life

So, my granddaughter – 12 – says I am “sexist.” She is not completely sure what it means but she knows it’s pretty bad. So, I drop the two boogey boards I am carrying across the beach for her. I think she gets it.

I don’t know how many of you noticed but the more rights women conquer, and the more recognition of women in all areas of life receive, the more angry the average woman seems to be. I know, I know, that correlation is not causation but it’s a good reason to wonder about causation. And how about the surging number of bad and aggressive female drivers? Is it just me making things up in my mind?

My wife Krishna says women are vaguely unhappy because, even if unconsciously, they miss the animals, the catcalls and the wolf-whistles, and a broad variety of bird sounds.