a taxonomy of ideologies

One for the philosophers, maybe.

An online community in which I participate is currently engaged in a pseudo-periodic paroxysm over feminism as it relates to changing one’s name at marriage or vice versa. I’m generally in favor of feminism and have a vague sense that the idea of “choice feminism” is vacuous inasmuch as it amounts to sanctifying acts based on the genitals of the actor—but there’s much I don’t know about the history of feminism, to say nothing of the history of marriage, changing one’s name thereat, naming in general, and all sorts of things that seem keenly relevant to the astonishing variety in the ways that contemporary (liberal, overeducated) Americans choose to name themselves and their offspring throughout their lives. So I don’t especially want to engage.

In thinking about whether or not to engage, though, I arrived at a way to classify ideologies that may or may not be interesting. The question that arose in my mind was, “Is it feminist to insist that others be feminist?” Internet caricatures of feminational socialism notwithstanding, I think the answer is at least plausibly “no.” It depends on which others, of course, but part of the very impetus for feminism is the fact that lots of women are very badly oppressed and suffer sanctions when they stand up for themselves. Insisting that women court death or maiming in exchange for a negligible effect on such a culture doesn’t seem like a pro-woman thing to do. (The same might apply to men in such cultures as well, but doing something disadvantageous to men is less obviously non-feminist.)

Anyway, it seems strange for an ideology to have such a property, and you could try to view it as a defect. But I’m not sure it is—or if it is, I think it’s widespread. Generalize the question to “Is it X to insist that others be X?” If X is “Christian,” I probably know more Christians who would answer “no” than “yes” (obviously some would answer “yes”). If X is “left-wing” as Americans understand it, I think the answer is almost certainly no—or, at least, the American left tries to make a good show of tolerating some cultures with values that don’t sit well with their (our?) own. Presumably the answer is “no” for any non-evangelical religion; it’s interesting to wonder whether it’s true for “tolerant” or “open-minded.” As for “agnostic,” well, hard to know.

On the flip side, there are ideologies for which this is straightforwardly true. “Fascist” would be the most obvious one, and you could spend a while playing a left/right split here, but I think it’s not quite so clear. “Environmentalist” seems to be a big yes, for example; likewise “vegetarian” and “vegan,” although those bump a bit because they read more as practices than ideologies. “Libertarian” is a minor minefield—it seems like the answer ought to be “no,” but libertarians do in fact proudly insist on less government for everybody, which, when you phrase it that way, magically transmutes it from individualism to paternalism (“If you just *understood* how much better off you’d be with less government, you’d vote for me”).

There’s obviously a bit of wiggle room here. A lot turns on the word “insist” and the unquantified word “others”; changing those would change a lot of answers. But I don’t think I’ve construed them in ridiculous ways above.

In any case, once you’ve got such a classification system, the question is what it’s good for. I suppose the obvious prediction it makes is about memetics: “no” ideologies should be at an evolutionary disadvantage relative to “yes” ideologies, because “yes” ideologies carry a stronger urge to self-replicate. But is this really true? It’s hard to tell in part because it’s hard to make a minimal contrast between “yes” and “no” ideologies; going back to the ur-example, you can perhaps imagine feminisms with different answers, but they’d be different in ways other than the answers, perhaps most notably in that they appeal differently to the self-interest of different groups of women. Putting that aside, though, it doesn’t seem clear that “no” ideologies are all that unsuccessful. Buddhism seems like the paradigm “no” ideology, and it is huge and ancient (acknowledged: there are many Buddhisms, perhaps some are evangelical, I’m not an expert). Fascism is, as I half-joked above, the paradigm “yes” ideology, and it has enjoyed terrifying epochs of dominance—but has it ever been as popular as Buddhism?

I don’t have a great coda here, except maybe this: The urge to self-replicate might not always be the dominant consideration in the success of *any* kind of replicator, memetic or otherwise. This seems like a proof of concept, at least, that there can be other ways to take a firm grip within a population characterized by ceaseless and ruthless competition.

the relevance of prayer

I have seen a couple of posts, these days, intimating that America’s problems—notably the recent mass murder of children in Newtown, Connecticut—are attributable to our rejection of school prayer and our disinclination to refer to the festively decorated conifers that decorate the December landscape as “Christmas trees.”

Presumably the way I’ve phrased these sentiments makes my opinion clear. Like most atheists, I remain in favor of the establishment clause, in part because I believe that prayer and reverence to God are at best uncertain solutions to the problems facing the United States and the world. I would very much like my Christian friends and family to know that we nonbelievers grieve for the dead as much as they do, but, right or wrong, we are not going to accept explanations for the world’s horrors that are rooted in an insufficiency of prayer or reverence to God. We would, for our part, prefer to address the causes of these tragedies directly—for example, by improving America’s approach to mental health, or restricting access to firearms, or reducing the infamy that can be gained from massacre.

And I’m bothering to write because I believe that most Christians, even if they didn’t agree with any of the methods I suggested, would acknowledge the value of that direct address. To my knowledge, no one thinks that problems can really be prayed away. Everyone knows that action and thought are required. And Christian charity has, historically and to this day, been one of the great engines of that action. I’m privileged to have neighbors and countrymen who participate in that great and ancient tradition, who feel that a higher power compels them to sacrifice to ease the suffering of strangers.

But I reject the implication that things would be better if Christians could only coerce the children of nonbelievers to pray at their desks. And I respectfully hope that Christians reject the implication that their God is so weak that he needs human laws to bend before he can do good, or so cruel that he demands they do.

confidence equals knowledge; or, the subtleties of survey design

The Christian Science Monitor publicizes a Pew Forum survey of religious knowledge in the US. First, let me say that I scored 31 out of 32, crushing even my atheistic soul-brethren and leaving the mouth-breathers of Christianity and America in the dust:

On average, Americans got 16 of the 32 questions correct. Atheists and agnostics got an average of 20.9 correct answers. Jews (20.5) and Mormons (20.3). Protestants got 16 correct answers on average, while Catholics got 14.7 questions right.

Second, let me hazard a guess as to why.

The CSM’s quiz is a pretty good reflection of the Pew Forum’s methodology (418K PDF download), which is to say that the questions take substantially the same form. That form is mostly multiple choice, with most questions having four answers and a few six, and one of the options in the multiple choice being “I don’t know.” Now, the Pew Forum is not the Educational Testing Service; they do not penalize you a quarter point for each incorrect answer. Which forces you to decide: How do you answer when you don’t know?

Actually, it doesn’t even force you to decide; I didn’t even think about this issue as I was taking the test — but there was no case in which I wrote “I don’t know” in my handy little emacs file. I took my best guess, which was in at least one case a random guess, each time. I did this because I am hypereducated: When I see a multiple-choice test, my unquestioned goal is to maximize my score. The Pew people report that the strongest predictor of correct answers is “educational attainment.” Remember: Each degree comes with its own standardized test, and you practice more as the stakes get higher. (I practiced about half an hour for the SAT; the general GRE took dainty chunks out of my life for a couple of months, and the psychology GRE took gulps for the better part of a year. Christ only knows what people do for degrees where you make money.)

“That only matters if people are really professing ignorance.” They are. I’m not going to run a histogram, but that Pew PDF linked above puts the number at, depending on the question, somewhere between 4 (“Where, according to the Bible, was Jesus born?”) and 52 (“In which religion are Vishnu and Shiva central figures?”) percent. 52 is not a huge outlier — there are many other questions in the thirties and forties. Look for yourself. Lots of people are punking out when they don’t know, or think they don’t know.

“Fine, but how much could guessing help your score?” Don’t sell yourself long, stud. Let’s work an example: Americans are reported as knowing 16 of the 32 items. If you got a score of 16 without guessing — i.e. all your errors are from professing ignorance — you could have gotten 4-5 more questions right by guessing (16 questions, each with about three answers that aren’t “I don’t know,” fudged down for the three free response questions). Conversely, if you got a score of 16 with guessing, then at least 5-6 of your correct answers were due to guessing. These are back-of-the-frontal-lobe numbers, and it’s certainly fair to fudge them down a little further for the free response questions, but they’re in the ballpark. And that ballpark is about the size of the 4-to-5-question difference between Christians/Americans and Jews/Mormons/atheists.

Speaking for myself, it would be grossly unfair to say [spoiler alert] that I “knew” anything about Jonathan Edwards, Maimonides, or the Supreme Court’s attitudes on comparative religion courses and the Bible as Literature; and if the question on the first four books of the New Testament hadn’t had that helpful hint “(the four Gospels)”, I’d have merrily recited “Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers” (for which you can thank Paul Epply-Schmidt’s eighth-grade unit on INHERIT THE WIND). Someone who knew as much as I know but felt less confident in it, or just had a non-Type-A attitude toward surveys coincidentally framed like the SAT, might have scored substantially lower.

Having said all this, I am not a survey methodologist; there may be overpowering reasons to include a “Don’t know” option in surveys (maybe people are stressed out by guessing and drop out, maybe a dozen other things). I can’t claim excessive expertise here. But the impact of guessing is bigger than you think, and a bit more deserves to be made of the fact that people’s attitudes toward guessing are allowed to vary uncontrolled. Perhaps my fellow Americans are not such mouth-breathers after all — they just don’t want to say a thing if they’re not sure.

life’s barbells (via Nassim Taleb)

132- Life’s Barbells

(Barbells are more robust than monomodal strategies.)

Walk most of the time, sprint as fast as you can on the occasion; never jog.

Fast for long periods of famine, then feast; never diet.

Endorse Nick Clegg & David Cameron, in combination, never labor.

For social life, a linear combination of Fat Tony & philosophers outperforms the frequentation of middle brows.

Go for city-states under loose empires, never nation-states.

Be a flåneur, lounging most of the time; then work as intensely as possible for a maximum of one hour; never work at low intensity –the 4-Hour Workweek.

Do nothing most of the time, then workout like a nut as intensely & unpredictably as possible.

Invest mostly in close to no-risk, (cash inflation protected, 80-90%), and maximal risk securities (10-20%); never in medium risk.

Read trashy gossip magazines and classics or sophisticated works; never the New York Times (or something even more aberrant, Newsweek).

Talk to graduate students or the highest caliber scholars; never, never, never medium academics.

Lose all your money, never half of it.

Respect those who make a living lying down or standing up, never those who do so sitting down.

Separate the holy and the profane.

Do crazy things (break furniture once in a while), like the Greeks and stay “rational” in larger decisions.

If you dislike someone, leave him alone or eliminate him; don’t attack him verbally.

I hope Taleb doesn’t care that I’m reposting this. Even if he does, I figure I have a high chance of being left alone and only a slim chance of utter annihilation.

I don’t follow most of this advice, by the way, although the feast/famine bit may be working — it’s too soon to tell and my famine compliance has been poor in recent weeks. My workouts will start to follow the barbell pattern as I add weight — 3 short sessions of heavy lifting per week, with taiji and walking the rest of the time. I’m adding steadily, but at the weights I’m currently lifting it’s really just form practice. Overall there seems to be good evidence for doing it Taleb’s way at least regarding nutrition and exercise.

complexity and singularity

My dad recently gave me a couple of lectures from John von Neumann on the “theory of self-reproducing automata.” He gave me a print copy, so I don’t have a PDF to repost, but maybe it’s on JSTOR. Anyway, in the fifth lecture, I came across this interesting passage:

“There is thus this completely decisive property of complexity, that there exists a critical size below which the process of synthesis is degenerative, but above which the phenomenon of synthesis, if properly arranged, can become explosive, in other words, where syntheses of automata can proceed in such a manner that each automaton will produce other automata which are more complex and of higher potentialities than itself.”

To an sf reader, this of course evokes Vinge’s technological singularity, that rapture-eschaton that will happen (very quickly, by assumption) when humanity is capable of creating machinery more intelligent than itself. The idea is, of course, that such machinery, being more intelligent than humanity, will also be able to create machinery more intelligent than itself, and the positive feedback loop in intelligence will render humanity obsolete. (There are obviously a number of ways in which this sequence of events doesn’t follow — in particular, you can imagine a machine that’s smarter than a human, and therefore smart enough to create a machine smarter than a human, but still not smart enough to create a machine smarter than itself, which stalls the loop. Also, machines that are smarter than humans might be smart enough not to make life hard for themselves by synthesizing competitors, although in that case humanity might still be screwed. Nonetheless, the Singularity seems to be a popular organizing metaphor in contemporary sf and certain futurist circles, and it’s produced at least one good novel, so it bears some small contemplation.)

Anyway. All I really wanted to point out with this post was that von Neumann seems to have anticipated Vinge and, in his inimitable polymathic way, done him one better. (In fact, Wikipedia cites a conversation between von Neumann and Stanislaw Ulam as one of the first traces of the Singularity in the noosphere.) “Natural automata” have been creating automata smarter than themselves for billions of years. The Singularity is now, says von Neumann — but it’s moving a little bit slower than you thought.

Should my unborn daughter come to avow a preference for vanilla ice cream over chocolate: An imagined conversation


“What color do you think vanilla is?” I dream of asking. This will be a lesson, if it is a lesson, in fact as metaphor, metonymy through field glasses.

“White,” I dream she answers. The color of vanilla ice cream.

In my sage’s dream, I am in the kitchen, or perhaps the dramaturgy admits a period of silent mystery: We are going to the supermarket, I can say, if we are closer to a supermarket than the kitchen, or we can go to the kitchen and I can spend longer than necessary rooting around in the cabinet that holds the spices. In any event, in due time I produce a bottle of vanilla extract. We know what color it is.

“The bottle is dark,” my observant daughter dreamishly protests. At this juncture, the lesson gains texture if we are in the supermarket: I perform a transgressive act, opening the bottle to pour a drop on the floor or on my fingertip (my skin is pale). There may be a digression at this point about the absolutism of values; a pimply-faced minimum-wage employee (“pimply-faced” is lazy shorthand; teenagers take very good care of their skin these days, I think) may bring chastisements only to be brushed off with assurances that the befouled product will be purchased; my daughter may be horrified at my breach of law and protocol, and of course she will be insensitive to the fine pedagogy of it all, her deep skin receptors as yet untuned to the dominant frequencies of the inference that has begun its heavy-footed slouch toward us.

“The vanilla bean is dark too,” I dream of elaborating, “not just the extract. The only additive is alcohol, which is clear.” (The class issue raised here cannot be ignored; inexpensive brands of vanilla extract contain corn syrup, which can be dark, and imitation vanilla, yet cheaper, has nothing to do with the vanilla bean at all. The sage must hold court in the organic aisle.) “Cacao and vanilla both originated in the Americas. They are both derived from beans that grow in fibrous pods; both are difficult to cultivate outside their native territory, although we have found ways. We use them both mostly in sweet foods. Both were imported into Europe by the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, who killed something like 260,000 Aztecs and Tlaxcalans in the siege of Tenochtitlan.” I have brushed up on my Wikipedia for this dream-lesson. I imagine myself leaning back, spent, against a wall of spices, or of randomly collocated organic items, depending on exactly which store I have chosen as my impromptu lyceum.

What next unfurls is hard to imagine, not because there are too few possibilities but the opposite; every ensuing conversation seems to foreclose the others, and yet they all seem worthy, but to enumerate them would be to transmute this charming object lesson into lecture. We are not slaves to metaphor, begins (or ends) one conversation, but we heed its counsel. (Negative portrayals of Spanish imperialism are known as the Leyenda Negra, the Black Legend.) Or, The fantasy books were wrong: Naming is the lowest form of knowledge. (Personally, I couldn’t tell an Aztec from a Tlaxcalan if one or the other embedded a macuahuitl in my culo.) Or, Of course they taste different. They aren’t the same thing, but they aren’t opposites either. (Cortes’ victory in the siege of Tenochtitlan may have depended on his indigenous allies, dominated by Tlaxcalans but including Huexotzinco, Atlixco, Tliliuhqui-Tepecs, Tetzcocans, Chalca, Alcohua and Tepanecs, all of whom had once been conquered by Aztecs — and this alliance may account for the carnage and rapine thereafter.) Or — and perhaps this is most appropriate for my nonexistent daughter, as the entire premise of this didactic dream rests on her being too young to know the color of a basic baking ingredient — Even chocolate ice cream has vanilla in it. (This may not be true of all ice cream, but it is true of Alton Brown’s Google-topping recipe, and so it is true enough for me.)

The reverse is, of course, not true. And after all that, I still feel guilty for observing this asymmetry.

So much for racial politics. What next?


“Vanilla is the color of maple syrup.”

Close enough; I doubt I could do better. What then? There is nothing to correct. But, of course, the lesson was never about vanilla. Is this whole exercise the didactic equivalent of baking spinach into brownies? I want nothing but the best for my daughter, and if Socrates isn’t there to show her that the slave boy always knew the diagonal of a unit square was sqrt(2), I will do my damnedest with what is at hand. But Socrates had a good editor, and I am working ex tempore. (Maple syrup was first collected by the Algonquins, whose relationship with French conquerors and other Native American tribes would seem to be just as complicated as the Aztecs’ with Cortes and other local civilizations. Perhaps all is not lost.)

“Who cares?”

The gurus of the Internet economy claim that attention is a person’s most precious commodity; my daughter would be more than within her rights to deny the importance of the question. If a blight struck all vanilla beans with a true-breeding albinism tomorrow, her ice cream would taste just as good. In the meantime, her concern with the color of a flavoring agent whose name has become a synonym for mundanity competes with such pressing questions as how to amass resources, find love, forge happiness, and face death well. One must pick one’s battles.

“Why do you care?”

This is not the same as the previous question. This is the one that I would hope and fear the most to hear. It is good if she knows the fact; it is better if she knows what she needs to know, or at least is thinking about it; but it is best, it is critical, if she knows when someone is trying to manipulate her. Socrates’ slave boy, to our knowledge, did not profit from his lesson.

But this is not a question children ask, nor is it one whose answer they should credit. If adults are not to be trusted with the best interests of children, still less are children. There is an irreducible conflict at the heart of this relationship, which we maintain even through its nadirs is based on love.

And so I leave the question. Why do I care to force this cunning little parable down the throat of a girl with thoughts and passions of her own? What change am I trying to work in her, and who will benefit the most from it? I could speculate, I could defend, and so I do, in the chambers of my own mind; but, if she should not trust my answer, why should you?

the [hero|startup|explorer] & the [king|giant|exploiter]

Looks like the permalink URL for this post is pretty hilarious. Oh well.

Anyway, I just finished reading THE HERO AND THE KING: AN EPIC THEME, by the late W. T. H. Jackson of Columbia, which basically talks about how most European epics involve a conflict between a king, who’s a powerful guy with a lot of responsibility for and influence over society, and a hero, who’s a powerful, mobile, ambitious guy who threatens the king’s power. Of course, the book immediately starts in on how the various epics complicate this dynamic, especially the ones that are influenced by romance and/or Christianity, and also the ODYSSEY, in which Odysseus is of course both hero and king — but, you know, I don’t know this field, and presumably it’s not ridiculous for the famous works to be the ones that are formally groundbreaking in ways that less enduring ones weren’t, and it’s hard for me to deny that the problems of succession and the trajectory of a king’s power are preoccupations of these works. In any case, it’s a nice way to organize all this important literature that I haven’t read, and there seems to be a sizable kernel of usefulness to it. And, you know, I keep up with Paul Graham, who’s a startup evangelist, and I read this Slate article about how trustbusting of tech companies is basically slower and less effective than Darwinian market forces. And one of the preoccupations of cognitive neuroscience and AI, just to keep the whiplash coming, is figuring out a mechanistic account of action selection — how an agent might allocate its actions to maximize resources. A standard tradeoff in this sort of work is between exploration and exploitation — once I find a source of resources, how long do I sit on it and mine it before I go looking for new ones?

So anyway, all this business about heroes and kings and startups and giant companies got me thinking that these succession dynamics might be a response to natural explore-exploit dynamics. A given king, or a given company, has a certain set of advantages, around which him/it adapts him/itself. That adaptation to exploitation, though, renders it inflexible (famously so in the case of big companies). At some point, the king or company will have mined all the advantage available — or, if not all of it, will have at least mined enough of it that there are greater efficiencies to be gained elsewhere. But the adaptation to exploitation has made the king or company unsuited to do new things. So in comes a usurping hero, or startup, with a new set of advantages tailored to the efficiencies currently available. The actual dynamics in business are presumably just as varied as they are in epic; sometimes the hero unseats the king, sometimes the king co-opts the hero, sometimes the hero screws up and flames out. But the basic dynamic of conflict between establishment and usurper determines succession is a constant.

Put that way, maybe it’s not all that interesting an idea. I guess the interesting part, if there is one, is the idea that it’s hyperspecialization that accounts for the king’s rise and fall, the company’s boom and bust. The weakest part of the analogy, at this point, is the idea that a given king arises because he has a set of advantages that he can mine, and that those advantages run out. You might be able to make the case for a bloodline (or, more easily, for a political party), but the problem with hereditary succession is regression to the mean — it’s unusual that a person is strong and smart and driven enough to usurp a kingship, and so it’s likely (though not certain) that his descendants won’t be as strong or smart or driven as the usurper was. And then you start thinking that, well, the skills necessary for usurpation probably aren’t the same as those necessary for a good kingship anyway, and does the ability to usurp bear any relation at all to the ability to rule…

Well, so the idea’s got some problems. But at least it’s off my chest and on yours now. Ha!

life is long enough

A month of silence and another linkblog; sorry.

Sometimes I forget why I read Tim Ferriss, but this post reminds me: On The Shortness of Life: An Introduction to Seneca. I’m kind of tempted to repost the letter, but he dug it up, so he deserves the hit.

The sentiment is not revolutionary, but it’s well rendered — and it’s been around a while, so to say it’s not revolutionary may be a lot like complaining that Shakespeare wrote in cliché. Ferriss has posted before on Stoicism, and I was intrigued by the similarities to Buddhism and its secular offshoots, e.g. mindfulness meditation; I’m sure I’m not the first person to make that connection, but I might be interested enough to poke around in that literature after I’m done reading the Wheel of Time. (I’m on KNIFE OF DREAMS; it won’t be long — but I also have to get through my loaner copies of the Book of the Short Sun, preferably before I graduate.)