The Taxi Driver

I called for a taxi, looking to get to an airport. The driver was a youngish Hispanic guy. He turned down the radio volume as I entered, but I have a long relationship with talk radio- even the crazier flavors- and I recognized the gravelly voice immediately.

“Was that Alex Jones?”

“Yeah- you know Alex Jones?”

Sort of a trick question. I definitely was not part of the tribe but yeah, I knew of Alex Jones. Although I didn’t want to give a false signal of affiliation, I also didn’t want to alienate my driver for no reason. I decided just to say that I was familiar with him.

I hadn’t spoken in-person with a true believer in plainclothes. I have met them in the places you might expect to find them (protesting things, for instance), but this was not one of those places.

He was a reasonable-seeming guy who admitted to having a rough previous life, who reformed himself and found solace in religion. As we drove to the airport, he related to me the rising trend of alter egos on Billboard charts: Beyonce and Sasha Fierce, Nikki Minaj and her various alter egos. He believed this trend was conceptually related to the concept of demonic possession, and that the powers that be were trying to normalize the idea of possession to the public.

We passed a truck with the Eye of Providence on its back and he pointed it out to me. No further comment was made on the significance of the symbol. I certainly wouldn’t have seen it if he didn’t point it out, but I didn’t have a reason to because it didn’t mean anything to me.

It gave me a new appreciation for conspiratorial thought. Sometimes I forget that it’s not just about believing crazy ideas as an abstraction. It’s also about actively experiencing the crazy, day to day. It’s about seeing and feeling the world around you and, as a result of the lenses of your belief, seeing crazy patterns. And its hard to argue with the mounting evidence of your own colored experiences. Fish-in-water metaphor.

This driver wasn’t an angry or confused-seeming guy. He had ambitions and day-to-day things he needed to do. But these ideas were in his head, and they colored everything. Just sitting back there listening to him and not contesting his arguments, not entertaining the objecting thoughts that automatically interrupted my attention between his assertions, I understood something about it all a little clearer than I did before.

“Game Change”

Yesterday I posted this: “People’s life stories tend to be told as a series of big, “seminal events” and accomplishments that appear to have a direct logic between them. There is a sense of movement and distinct decision points. (I’ve made arguments about this view being fallacious and un-useful, so I had to kind of re-establish this idea- it’s popular).”

From WaPo:

“Game Change 2” has just been published, and horse-race junkies currently feeling the aches and fevers of election withdrawal (Virginia and New Jersey’s gubernatorial races — much less New York’s puny mayoral race — hardly provided a fix) are rejoicing. As well they should. “Game Change 2” — the actual title is “Double Down: Game Change 2012” — is a joyous romp through the seedy underbelly of presidential campaigning. It’s a cure for the off-year shakes.

It’s also a marvel of reporting. Any time three staff members met in a room to badmouth a colleague or a candidate admitted to a moment of stress or self-doubt, authors John Heilemann and Mark Halperin appear to have been sitting in the corner, scribbling notes.

[…]

But when you buy “Game Change 2,” you should also buy its opposite — “The Gamble,” by political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck (you might know Sides from the awesome “Monkey Cage” blog). It, too, is an account of the 2012 election. But it signals its contrasting point of view in its first sentence: “68,” the authors wrote. “That is how many moments were described as ‘game-changers’ in the 2012 presidential election.” The rest of the book is dedicated to proving that almost none truly were.

[…]

The book lays bare news media bias. It’s not in favor of Republicans or Democrats, however, but of volatility and sensationalism. The news media overestimate the effects of micro events (those 68 “game-changers”) and underestimate the relatively stable foundation — partisanship, the state of the economy — on which those events play out.

The day before the 2012 election, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote: ‘‘We begin with the three words everyone writing about the election must say: Nobody knows anything. Everyone is guessing.’’ By that point, reams of data had been collected, and they were clearly pointing to an Obama victory. Noonan and others were simply stumping for the news media’s perennial favorite candidate: excitement.

There’s no better book than ‘‘Double Down” for reliving that excitement. But there’s no better book for understanding it — and the political structures that will continue shaping U.S. elections in 2016 and beyond — than “The Gamble.” For campaign journalism, the book is a game-changer.

 

Not that I didn’t enjoy all of the juicy tidbits of behind-the-scenes moments with our favorite heroes and villains of the 2012 cycle that the book has released into the media. I just can’t take it too seriously as an education tool.

 

Other posts on this issue:

  • Mulling Over (“What you do today is not important”, “What is your water talent”)
  • More Mulling
  • A NYT Bestseller is a book that was selling well because it sold well (Boorstin)
  • A celebrity is someone well-known for being famous (Boorstin)

“Escape Velocity”

In college, my roommates and I developed this idea of an event’s “escape velocity” in a life story.

 

The idea is a simple one:

  • People’s life stories tend to be told as a series of big, “seminal events” and accomplishments that appear to have a direct logic between them. There is a sense of movement and distinct decision points. (I’ve made arguments about this view being fallacious and un-useful, so I had to kind of re-establish this idea- it’s popular).
  • The impressiveness of an accomplishment is a progressive force on its own (it reliably generates new opportunities, some of which may become future Seminal Events)
  • Time is a dragging force that diminishes the apparent significance of an event/accomplishment. (Any resume-writer knows that.)
  • Prior accomplishments tend to be used as platforms to justify approaching newer, bigger accomplishments.
  • There are a limited number of significant accomplishments that you draw a line through in creating your current narrative. (Events can get written out, or even written back in)
  • For the first 2.5 decades of our lives, the distance between major institutional life phases is about 4 fours (~3 years of middle school, ~4 of high school, ~4 of college, etc.)
  • Roughly, an accomplishment that survives as a  uniquely impressive event after four years generally graduates to a seminal part of your life story.
  • To achieve “Escape Velocity” is to be remembered for a longer amount of time than whatever institutional life phase you’re in would normally allow. It occurs when an accomplishment is so clearly relevant and relatively impressive that it becomes part of your identity for a period of >4 years, and perhaps part of an institutional history beyond you as a person. These are candidates for inclusion on your Wikipedia page when you win at life. In a ‘successful’, progressive life story, they’re the events that break “chicken-egg” problems that act as gatekeepers to Better Things (example chicken-egg problem: need experience to get the job/need the job to get experience). In a less ladder-climbing life-story, it’s the story that earned you a nick-name or that defines your role in a social group, or explains that weird scar everyone wonders about. It’s the history you use to paint a picture of yourself to others.

 

Superstars

Superstars are not by accident a conspicuous phenomenon in our culture, but inherently belong to a meritocratic society with mass media, free enterprise, and competition. To make this contention plausible I will use Caillois’s book, Man, Play and Games to compare the mechanisms underlying the superstar phenomenon with a special kind of game, as set out by Caillois.

– Roger Callois, Games of Chance and the Superstar (pdf)

I half-remember listening to a podcast- it was probably This American Life or Radiolab or Freakonomics about the popular singers in various Italian villages before the adoption of radio. I don’t really remember it so I’ll tell a bastard recollection of the story.

Each village had their own singers, and perhaps particularly great singers could travel to neighboring villages to sing there, too. The demand for these singers within the villages were pretty high and there was an ample supply of singers. Costs to listen to a singer were not spectacularly high and people were happy to do so.

The radio, though, connected all of these small pools of talent together, and also homogenized the taste of the radio owners. The first radio-owners were the richer families, and so their taste in favorite singers permeated the neighborhoods.

Superstars were born. Demand for these Great Singers pulled them across the villages, amassing fortunes. The difference in virtuosity between these very few top-tier singers and many of their less popular peers was small (and perhaps nonexistent). But the gap in rewards was extraordinary.

It’s the kind of thing that seems to be true everywhere. The whole top tier of a field does especially well, and the “best” players in that tier, relatively speaking (and by the whimsical judgment of the market), get an especially out-sized gift basket. Holding the market’s judgment in high esteem, we then announce that we found the Best Man For The Job, and of course he has earned whatever he is given because we all have (right?).

When I was consoling a friend recently about not getting into a program, I had to remind her that her competence was not really in question. The pool of exceptional talent was simply larger than the slots available, I’m sure. It must be hard to find a reliable signal that any one candidate is truly the ‘best fit’.

It’s the picker’s game to lose.

Diplomacy with Foreign Minds

In this post, I’m rambling aloud about the human “parliamentary mind” and speculate about the intelligence of other arguably-sentient creatures.

The Parliamentary Mind

“Some years ago, there was a lovely philosopher of science and journalist in Italy named Giulio Giorello, and he did an interview with me. And I don’t know if he wrote it or not, but the headline in Corriere della Sera when it was published was “Sì, abbiamo un’anima. Ma è fatta di tanti piccoli robot – “Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots.” And I thought, exactly. That’s the view. Yes, we have a soul, but in what sense? In the sense that our brains, unlike the brains even of dogs and cats and chimpanzees and dolphins, our brains have functional structures that give our brains powers that no other brains have – powers of look-ahead, primarily. We can understand our position in the world, we can see the future, we can understand where we came from. We know that we’re here. No buffalo knows it’s a buffalo, but we jolly well know that we’re members of Homo sapiens, and it’s the knowledge that we have and the can-do, our capacity to think ahead and to reflect and to evaluate and to evaluate our evaluations, and evaluate the grounds for our evaluations.

It’s this expandable capacity to represent reasons that we have that gives us a soul. But what’s it made of? It’s made of neurons. It’s made of lots of tiny robots. And we can actually explain the structure and operation of that kind of soul, whereas an eternal, immortal, immaterial soul is just a metaphysical rug under which you sweep your embarrassment for not having any explanation.”

-Daniel Dennett, (whom I’m seeing in a lecture in two weeks!)

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UpWing/DownWing and Etherealization

An Overdue Clarification

I should’ve written this weeks ago, to help me outline the direction of my thinking.

 

This article on Aeon Magazine proposed a new political dichotomy based on (as ever) views of human nature and what kind of future we are prepared for.

The new dichotomy: Green (or DownWings) vs Black (or UpWings). [As opposed to Red/Blue (or Blue/Red if you’re American) Left-Wing/Right-Wing]

 

UpWingers (or “Blacks”), above all, anticipate futures of greater energy consumption.They tend towards technological solutionism, their view of the future is in the accelerationism/singularitarian spectrum. Politically, UpWingers tend to follow the American Right’s libertarian view of freedom, and the Left’s view of transcendent humanity. Human potential is unlimited and chaos can be tamed. UpWingers might wave away DownWing concerns as being surmountable. Black is the sky.

DownWingers (or “Greens”), broadly, anticipate futures of reduced energy consumption (through efficiency or destruction, if you’d like). They tend towards localization/resilience thought, their view of the future can range from declinist to hackstability (and even accelerationist in some respects). Politically, DownWingers tend to follow the Left’s view of communitarianism and the Right’s sense of natural order. Human nature is limited and chaos should be avoided. DownWingers might accuse UpWingers as hand-waving away complex problems with the dismissive answer, “We’ll think of something.” Green is the Earth.

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Veillance [Sur- and Sous-]

Damn, it’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) again. I discovered this because I started receiving drafts from old friends that used to do this kind of thing with me in grade school.  I’m too busy <- that’s a terrible excuse and nobody believes you. It’s too late for me to start, I think, so maybe I’ll spontaneously write a novel for December and then never show anybody but I’ll do it. You’ll see. While I’m complaining, the Tesla stock really dampened my mood the last day or so. Okay, that’s it. Sorry you wasted time reading that.

I realized that talking about contemporary technology isn’t necessarily UpWing. I meant to go further into the cost- and energy-extensive future that futurists argue those cars enable, but I only wrote about the state and immediate expectations of the industry. That’s what happens when you don’t respect your own deadlines (and are too stubborn to change your deadlines, evidently). I suppose any future that requires more energy than the current one is a sort of default UpWing future.

DownWing Greer thinks civilizational decline will take centuries. DownWing Spengler believes that technology (instead of science!) flourishes in the Civilization phase of a culture before everything hollows out. Neither of these really conflict with the idea that autonomous cars may seem inevitable in ten years.

I hope to also dig later into the more ecotechnic futures that keep humans confined to a lower-energy future while not being totally luddite about it. Those people also exist, although they’re not as fun/new to me as the caricature of the (often separate) politically reactionary, technoskeptic, or pessimistic crowds. While I’m at it, I guess I should caveat that political “progress” is not the same as technological “progress” and thus, arguably the political reactionaries are not necessarily DownWing. I will defend why I fit them in this way later.

Tomorrow I will get more concise in defining what about these various beliefs are Down- or UpWing, since I’m insisting on using it and I fear I’m coming off as a little incoherent.

Today, though, I wanted to post some more Facebook-based notes on Total Surveillance Societies.

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“Driver Assist” [The Gradual Development of Driverless Cars]

Flipping back over to UpWing for a little while, throwing down some notes while it’s still fresh in my mind from recent conversations.

A lot of these notes are based on your casual tech blog’s impression of the future and so they may be a bit more trite than DownWing thought seems to be. That’s the feeling I get talking the same accelerationist talk that I hear everywhere anyway, when there’s a dark exciting world of dour DownWing cynicism to be had out there. Maybe it’s the novelty that provides the exhilaration. I don’t know.

 

But today, notes on the conventional understanding of autonomous cars. Much of my own text is edited from my own posts on Facebook in conversation.

EDIT: I was mulling through, “what about talking about contemporary technology is necessarily UpWing”? Nothing, really, I’m just being sloppy. I meant to go further into a bizarre, expensive future that futurists argue these cars enable, but I only wrote about the state and immediate expectations of the industry. That’s what happens when you don’t respect your own deadlines (and are too stubborn to change your deadlines, evidently). More on that tomorrow.

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Hollow States (two kinds)

I don’t mean to make much of the Upwing/Downwing dichotomy. They can be understood in existing words but those words have a lot of political baggage. Better to use nonsense words if I’m going to imbue new meaning at all.

And, frankly/uninterestingly, both “teams” will have plenty of objectively significant events to cherry-pick in the near future, as signs of the bend in the road towards their presumed future. Thanks to accelerating wealth inequality,  libertarian triumphalist Diamandis can have his commercial spaceflight while technocrat/institutionalist Gates fights the forces of decay. Meanwhile, infrastructure continues to crumble and distrust in authorities continues to increase. People can and will [and do] go hungry in a world of free(-seeming) internet access.

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More Mulling

 

Chris Matthews on “Up Late with Alex Baldwin”

Something he said spoke to some half-ideas I began fielding in “Mulling Over“, when I was citing “What is Your Water Talent“.

“You know when a small business guy is elected President, because he’s used to doing it all himself. Reagan was a corporate person, he knew he needed a director, a scriptwriter, he knew he needed a PR guy. […]” Reagan knew his limitations, and he needed people to fill the jobs he couldn’t do. Chris Matthews argued that Obama only really did that in the economic sphere. By contrast, Carter the engineer wanted to do it all- he would load up on 80-page memos in the morning.

“Every time you get a job, you turn it into your job. So I [Chris Matthews] would turn every job into a communications job. No matter what it is, I would find a way to turn it into speeches and PR and image […]” Carter turned the Presidency into an engineering job, “how many decisions can I make, how can we reorganize this”. Reagan turned his role into “the Great Communicator”, assisted by index cards and careful, pre-scripted personal appeals.

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