Mulling: “The Media”

My posting has slowed quite a bit. Big changes at work are one reason. The start of a terrifying online game of Diplomacy is another. Also, in my rush to try to find a strategy to save Austria-Hungary from her nearly-historically-correct total destruction, I discovered my unread copy of Kissinger’s Diplomacy and then started reading that. Suddenly my  RSS feeds are clogging and my compulsions won’t let me click “read all” without at least skimming them. Filter failure. Decision paralysis.

What else. I wrote a guest post for newish group blog “Sweet Talk“, bridging some topics I brought up over here with a thread of discussion that was developing over there (that thread: in reverse order). I expect to write quite a few more posts there in short order- as I’m writing this, today is an uneventful “build” phase in the Diplomacy match. There’s some really interesting threads at Sweet Talk and the posts are rapid-fire and structured, altogether a very different tempo from my sprawling collection of scribbles here.

Continue reading

An Aside: The Perils of Uncritical Enthusiasm

A short post this morning.

The problem of the “weak man” is pernicious. It’s incredibly frustrating to carefully craft a position and then to see it conflated with a duller one and summarily dismissed.

Videogame evangelism often feels that way.

While a decade or two ago there were rampant unsubstantiated claims regarding why games of this or that kind were evil or dangerous, in my experience the pendulum has swung fully in the other direction. The industry is strong and capable of defending itself. There isn’t really a stigma behind games anymore, and casual games are mainstream. “Gamer” culture is well-asserted and enthusiastic. People have been talking about the benefits of game-playing beyond immediate enjoyment for some time now. I’m inclined to believe that games can be pretty great, by themselves or as means to particular ends. But that is precisely why I am very careful with claims about the utility of games when I see them. An example discussion of this could be found here without comment from me.

Games and game-like systems can be useful for all kinds of things: to benefit the person through training and tracking, or to benefit some other system through data collection, for example. In my own life, games have yielded all kinds of useful experiences, deliberately or otherwise. I’ve been listening to the conversation on gamification and games studies for a few years now.

A friend of mine who is still in the world of research on matters like these pointed me to the incidental findings in this recent paper, which suggested that while engagement was higher with the award-winning popularly-acclaimed commercial game than with the decidedly less game-like ITS (Intelligent Tutoring System), the ITS taught significantly more than the game did. Which, you know, great. What’s really interesting:

 In fact, the [“award-winning popularly-acclaimed Commercial Game” playing] students did not improve significantly from pre- to post-tests on solving linear equations. 

More later. Maybe.

Flavors of Declinism and Exceptionalism

 

I. Flavors of Declinism

Three speculative flavors of political declinism, in order from most subtle to most immediate. Inspired by an article I can’t find anymore- it was a throwaway line in a conservative magazine (The National Interest?). I ought to find it and credit properly.

Falling Short: Dissonance between ideals and action. Common in mature religious and patriotic sentiment. To be clear, “falling short of ideals” does not require a Golden Age to fall from, or even a necessarily dour outlook. You can be forever reaching and not-quite achieving whatever virtues you’d like. This is why “falling short” can sometimes lack urgency. Also, so long as the virtue is accepted by the audience, this is the most agreeable flavor of declinist rhetoric.”Falling Short” can be subtle and meaningful, but in terms of urgency and drive, approval can be expected to be a mile wide and an inch deep. Falling Short tends to be more rhetorical than objective/factual (shooting bull on the “ideals of the Founding Fathers”)

Falling Behind: Benchmark-making, using others or past selves. Sometimes good for calls-to-action. “The Soviets/Japanese/Chinese are surpassing us in our traditional strength of X.” or “We used to be the best in the world at X, and now we have fallen to number N.” Simple, effective. Beware runaway benchmarks fueled by nostalgia or xenophobia. Good “Falling Behind” rhetoric tends to be loosely based on some metric, but still rhetorically malleable.

Falling Apart: Definite unraveling, destruction imminent. If “falling short” is disappointing/aspirational and “falling behind” is a competitive framing, “falling apart” is an absolute crisis.

Widespread, deeply-ingrained “Falling Short” seems healthy, and is often associated with American “Protestant Work Ethic”. “Falling Behind” is healthy in doses though perhaps not good for morale (every country ought to think of itself as exceptional, as a survival strategy- more below). Widespread “Falling Apart” is rarely good across populations, because large groups of people may share urgency but they likely won’t share diagnoses, poisoning the institution that is concerning everyone to begin with.

Continue reading

Prowess and Cheapening

I.

I had a discussion with some friends in Boston last week that kind of clicked with some ideas that have been in the air around me.

I guess I was the least musically-inclined person involved in the discussion.

Let me sketch out the situation:

One of the songs from Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories starts. One person brings up Daft Punk’s recent interviews showcasing a nostalgia for live instrumentation, and interpreted them as putting down whole genres of electronic music (e.g. Chicago House music) in their praise of “classic”, expensive recording methods. House is an historically accessible genre, ‘cheap’ to develop and rich with its own history and politics (note: I am not deeply familiar with House personally but trust my personal authorities on this).

A little later, as the discussion progressed, another person- a singer, actually- was lamenting the invasion of auto-tune into classical Indian singing- specifically the difficult and ancient art of Raga (Hindustani singing, noted for often fluctuating over what we’d consider to be “unstable” in-between notes) which can be created artificially so that pop stars today can effortlessly emulate what used to take tons of practice.

I must admit that in these particular examples, I did not easily evoke Guardian sentiments about purity and prowess. If I am going to pay $100 to see men compete at ball games, they better be built like monsters and jump 20 feet high. I think for many people, though, the very Olympian sense of “Excellence”, of personal prowess, is easy to understand and is basically a moral sentiment, a purity thing. “Playing Well” is the goal, “Winning” is secondary. “Playing Well” accepts limits and rewards approaching them through struggle- limit breaking is cheating. Transhumanists not welcome.

II.

For insiders in any given activity, really, that search for a more excellence-enabling environment is kind of an ongoing social event surrounding the actual game/activity. Fighting game players denounce “cheese“, the frequent repetition of a sort of dominant move, even when the game rules don’t explicitly disallow it- these are humans basically using social pressure to patch holes unaccounted for in the Official Rules, in order to make the gameplay itself more equitable (and therefore more enjoyable for players and viewers). Strategy game communities have recognized “cheap” strategies that would threaten the honor of the user. Sometimes the game developer will patch the exposed unfairness over, encoding the user’s desires. Other times, experienced “elder game” players may work out and exchange counter-strategies for what might appear to be a dominant strategy used by cheap players.

Rap music (note: I don’t mean to paint myself as a maven on the subject), inspires frequent arguments over the boundaries of the now-sprawling genre. (Here is a fun Radiolab episode on these issues of insiders, social rules, etc with regard to hip-hop). One of my discussants read Daft Punk’s interview as the expression of anxiety for the state of a certain threads of “cheap” music production, (read less charitably, “impoverished” music in maybe more than one sense of the word). The use of auto-tune to emulate an ancient and difficult vocal technique is likewise a “cheapening” that threatens to crowd-out and extinguish its high-end, “all-natural” subject of imitation.

Interstellar Communication

 

I.

I’ve said this before: While it’s not the only reason for my interest in “weird politics”engaging earnestly with more uncommon frames allows for some helpful recalibration on common issues (or, if you’re the trolling type, a new set of arcane rhetorical weapons). I’ve scratched similar itches by reading conspiracy theory sites, reading Weird Fiction, and trying to slog through religious apologetic. Sometimes, the best way to see your world “for what it is” is to go to the moon first, and then look back. Visiting alien worlds could give you a bit more context about what is interesting about your own world.

I started reading Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication and found myself thinking a lot more about terrestrial communication and culture. [Full PDF courtesy of NASA.gov, here]. I’m about a quarter-way through.

Here’s a fun primer to the Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter. If life is even the tiniest bit likely to spawn elsewhere, and if recognizably intelligent life is even the tiniest bit likely to develop, and if interplanetary colonialism is even plausibly an effective civilizational lifestyle, we ought to remember that the universe is pretty big and pretty old. We ought to be confused by the Great Silence. One of my favorite Aeon articles meditated on this Great Filter as well.

Like [as in, “because of”] many others, I don’t find many of the Great Filter candidates likely, primarily because they’d have to be insanely, terrifically effective in order to answer the question of “why isn’t anyone talking?”

If you can’t hear anything, maybe there’s nothing to hear, or maybe you’re deaf. If our priors suggest that there should be plenty of life, but we haven’t stumbled onto anything in our limited screenings over a civilizational blink-of-an-eye, it is possible that our prior is wrong, but we ought to think about our methods a bit.

Those riffs aside, I’m enjoying the book’s meditations on what would happen assuming that we are actually bombarded with signals from alien intelligence. 

 

II.

In standard SETI scenarios, where humans and extraterrestrials are separated by trillions of miles, even a signal traveling at the speed of light may take centuries or millennia to reach its recipients. Thus, interstellar communication may be a one-way transmission of information, rather than a back-and-forth exchange. As we search for analogies to contact at interstellar distances, archaeology provides some intriguing parallels, given that its practitioners—like successful SETI scientists—are charged with reconstructing long-lost civilizations from potentially fragmentary evidence.

Information that SETI might receive will be coming from what may be a long-dead civilization. Some of my earliest posts on this blog were about the alien intelligence of long-lost civilizations: even Greece, a civilization we tie ourselves to narratively, often actually whispered to us through the efforts of civilizations we generally don’t draw lines through (the Islamic empires during the European Dark ages). Egyptian hieroglyphics were mostly a mystery to us until we found the Rosetta’s Stone that gave us enough clues through language comparison. Before that, we weren’t even sure that the Egyptian hieroglyphs represented verbal sounds- they could well have been symbols for broad sweeping ideas with no literal translation.

Unfortunately, we can’t count on Space Muslims to archive messages that we missed due to our own illiteracy. We can’t count on interstellar Rosetta’s Stones, and if we did find one it might not be all that useful (or even identifiable as more than one language…). In encountering extraterrestrial communication, would we recognize it? Would we recognize it as intentional communication? Would we share enough priors with the intelligence to hope to gleam anything from it? Europeans spent centuries mistaking ancient tools for “naturally formed rocks” until they encountered and studied contemporary Native American societies. Suddenly, European archaeologists realized that they had been stepping on stones and grounds rich with alien intentionality even at home.

Are we doing the same with sky?

The difficulty of recognizing the unanticipated, [Archaeologist Paul] Wason suggests, may provide a solution to the Fermi paradox, which asks, “If extraterrestrial intelligence exists, why haven’t we found it?” Wason answers this question by noting that we have been unable to free ourselves sufficiently from our preconceptions of extraterrestrial intelligence to recognize its existence.

Of course, it would be enough to determine that “someone” is saying “something” to be a huge breakthrough. Arguments are also made that a “gist” or an appreciation of the form might be determined- and be highly informational- without actually being able to work out the content of an alien message.

What does their form suggest about how extraterrestrials communicate? And what do the forms of human messages say about us? Might extraterrestrials read the surplus radiation leaking into space from radio and TV transmitters on Earth as an indication that visual and auditory signals figure prominently in human communication? Such a recognition could help message recipients to prepare more intelligible replies, even lacking a comprehension of the specific content of the messages per se. Similarly, the intentional signals already sent from Earth to other civilizations as streams of ones and zeros may highlight the human capacity to think in terms of dualisms. Given that these implicit messages may be more informative than the explicit content, Traphagan encourages additional research on how we might better communicate such tacit meanings to another intelligence

The book is fascinating but it’s hard to shake the pessimistic vibe so far, between the lack of seriousness the public affords the endeavor, the mysterious silence from the sky, and the horrifying challenge we’d be faced with if ever the silence should end.

I may or may not write more on this book later, as I complete it.

 

Apologetic, Association, “Weak Men”, Fnords

I thought that I was going to release some stuff about aliens today, but I didn’t get to write as much as I wanted this week.

These are loose notes relating to an older thread of ideas about apologetic, and our own propensity to use association to empower our own tribe and demonize the other. I was thinking about it when I was writing about the gerrymandering of the sciences done by Creationists to create a comfortable separation of favorable ideas from unfavorable ones.

There is a whole cottage industry of “Conservative” books written by talk radio hosts meaning to explain the liberal mindset. Having skimmed some, it’s apparent that these books are really more like troop-rallying pamphlets than records of earnest attempts at understanding. It is fun to see various distinct opponent causes weaved together into a net: you see, environmentalism […] a Godless worldview where […] much like the goddamn Reds.

Another notable tactic: smaller, more fringe tribes in enemy coalitions can be magnified and made to seem representative of the whole group (a tactic that is called the “weak man” in a recent-ish SlateStarCodex article- requesting a more interesting name, though). These tactics are prevalent in Creationist literature.

SlateStarCodex introduced this other idea to me not long ago, called the “fnord“. It’s a cousin of the Archdruid’s “thought stopper”.

The fnords first appear in Anton-Wilson and Shea’s book Illuminatus. Educators, operating as tools of the titular conspiracy, hypnotize all primary school children to have a panic reaction to the trigger word “fnord”. The children, who remember nothing of the sessions when they wake up, are incapable of registering the word except as an unexplained feeling of unease.

This turns them into helpless, easily herded adults. Every organ of the media – newspapers, books, cable TV – contains a greater or lesser number of fnords. When some information is counter to the aims of the conspiracy – maybe a communist party organizing in a state where the conspiracy wears a capitalist hat – the secret masters don’t bother censoring or suppressing it. Instead, the newspaper reports it on the front page, but fills the article with fnords. Most people read partway through, become very uncomfortable and upset without knowing why, and decide that communists are definitely bad people for some reason or other and there’s no reason they need to continue reading the article. Why should they worry about awful things like that when there’s the whole rest of the paper to read?

According to the book, the only section of the newspaper without any fnords at all is the advertisements.

I also love that last line in my excerpt above. Advertisers will never lie about what they think you think.The rest of the post is about examples and possible mechanisms of modern fnords, and is worth a read. History is chaos, and any given doctrine, really, can be rhetorically tied to another if you tried hard enough.

Titling

I.

The word “Species” means something. When asked “Does a ‘species’ exist?” you might get tripped up: the taxonomy is itself a human invention, and the traditional definition of a species- a group of creatures bound by their capability to breed- is shakier than one might be comfortable with. But, overall, I think the reasonable answer is that a group of creatures certainly exist, and we have created a word to refer to a rough group of them as an entity.

I’ve presented the argument before that creatures are not “instance” of species, but that instead species are averages of individuals, but that point of view does not eliminate the usefulness of the term “species”.

II.

There is a new series being developed at Panda’s Thumb called Understanding Creationism: An Insider’s Guide by a former Young Earth Creationist. In the first part, the author begins to explain how they sketch out their own taxonomies, separate from mainstream science, in order to explain their world:

Creationists artificially classify medicine, genetic research, and agriculture as “operational science,” and believe that those disciplines function in a different way than research in evolutionary biology. They understand the theory of evolution, along with mainstream geology and a variety of other disciplines, as a philosophical construct created for the express purpose of explaining life on Earth apart from divine intervention. Thus, they approach the concept of evolution from a defensive position; they believe it represents an attack on all religious faith.

This defensive posture is reflected in nearly all creationist literature, even in the less overt varieties such as intelligent-design creationism. It dictates responses. When creationists see a particular argument or explanation about evolution, their initial reaction is to ask, “How does this attack the truth of God as Creator? What philosophical presuppositions are dictating beliefs here? How can I challenge those underlying assumptions and thus demonstrate the truth?” Recognizing this basis for creationist arguments is a helpful tool for understanding why such otherwise baffling arguments are proposed.

Some of it I’ve been exposed to before: the “Microevolution vs Macroevolution” framing rhetorically shifts differences in scale into differences in kind. I’ve seen Ken Ham argue that cosmology is also part of this evolutionist scheme. The borders between and within sciences are gerrymandered into totally new shapes in order to fit the worldview. As a result, I’ve found that small turns of phrase will even accidentally give people’s positions away. Here’s a slightly obvious example, paraphrased from a conciliatory remark from a “Bill Nye vs Ken Ham Debate” thread”:

I don’t think anybody really “won” the debate. One team left the debate believing that creationism is true, and the other team left the debate believing that the world was created solely by evolution.

Another predictor, for verification: the author’s hometown. Moving on.

III.

 I stumbled across Slavoj Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology on Netflix last week. I’ve occasionally (sometimes accidentally) pulled Zizekisms into this blog- he was a favorite to quote/pantomime in college. He was my default impression of a Continental, to be honest. It was through him that I picked up one of my favorite quotes, apparently from The Soul of Man Under Socialism:

the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good.

In The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Zizek spends time discussing “The Big Other”, the all-powerful abstraction in totalizing ideologies: e.g. “God”, “The Party”, and “The People”. “The People” is sometimes the trickiest to grapple with until examples are presented- various “People’s” regimes were not very popular at all as they clawed into power, and they would issue statements that rhetorically separate the abstraction of “the people” from the particular individuals who are against the regime. All three groups usually demonstrate a sort of paternalistic, fatalist rhetoric. They love you, of course, but they also hate sin, and they regret that you have chosen to sin.

In service of the near-infinite Good that [God/The Party/The People] can bestow if the right ideals are in place, horrible (but decidedly “finite“) Evils are permitted to take place. The calculus still lands them net-positive. Zizek uses this sketch (and a few others) to demonstrate the opposite of the quote usually attributed to Dostoevsky, that “If there is no God, then everything is permitted.” It is precisely when there is a God (or any Big Other) that everything is permitted, or even fated.

The idea appears to be common in evangelical thought that in absence of God, the Atheist must necessarily fill the God-shaped hole in their hearts by turning to some other totalizing scheme, some other Big Other. This framing could find selective evidence in the nominally “Atheist” 20th century regimes.

Since Marx, Zizek argues, the word “ideology” has become pejorative. Our side is simply reality/”common sense”/pragmatic. Their side is fervent, ideological. Religion is what they have, what have is a relationship with God or whatever. This is a dangerous and common bias.