Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Debugging Politics

I participated in this hackathon, even though I don՚t really believe in hackathons – good software is not something you can create in a rushed weekend, in my experience. Nonetheless, I and the rest of the participants were animated by the feeling that we really need to be doing something to try to fix things. Many somethings were done.

Our team (me and a product person) managed to throw together an Alexa skill to help in contacting your congressperson – not exactly revolutionary, but it was a chance to do a voice app, which was novel. A larger group of young people (they were almost all painfully young) put together a slick looking mobile app to do much the same thing. Other projects were aimed at visualizing or transforming bias in news articles (through browser plugins), or providing sites for organizing opposition activities, or encouraging communication between different factions. One guy wrote something that filters out all the adjectives from Trump's tweets, which was supposed to improve political discourse somehow.

These efforts, most definitely including my own, strike me as kind of lame. They aren՚t going to fix anything, although it felt good to make an effort with other people. Democracy in its current parlous state needs a lot stronger medicine than can be cooked up in a weekend. And while there is a good chance that medicine will be technological, it won՚t be yet another mobile app. [Note: there were also people from ongoing projects like, which are harder to dismiss.]

What could this stronger medicine be? Well, there are some more radical schemes in the air, like Liquid Democracy (similar to an idea I aired here called netarchy). or blockchain-based voting. It՚s hard to see these having a short-term impact on anything, but they offer promising longer-term visions of how the democratic process can get past its 18th-century origins.

And that՚s really the heart of it. Our system of representative democracy was designed for an era without electronic communication or modern transport. If it was working well, this wouldn՚t be a problem, it would just be one of those weird sets of archaic practices common to venerable and beloved institutions (like churches and universities).

But in fact our democracy is in the throes of an enormous and possibly catastrophic failure. It's delivered massive power into the hands of a con man, a sociopathic narcissist, an unread and clearly unserious person who in the best case is going to be corrupt and incomptent and int he worst case unleash destructive political forces and fatally delegitimize the institutions of governance. The consequences are potentially lethal. (And it wasn՚t working all that well even before Trump came along).

It՚s unclear to me whether the existing machinery of government can be fixed at all, or whether it is going to require wholesale replacement. And in the latter case, I have no idea how it happens. It won't be a weekend project, that's for sure.

[Addendum: What Fred Turner said:
I don’t envy engineers or executives at tech firms. They’ve been put in the position of being legislators for our public debates. America’s architecture for such debates — Congress, the courts, the executive branch, and to some degree, the press — was built in the 18th century. But the conditions of public discourse have changed, and the speed at which those conditions are changing has accelerated too. 
This makes engineers reluctant, but necessary, brokers of public discourse.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Picking through the ruins

[random incoherent reactions to the slow-motion in-progress disaster]

Jesus those posts from yesterday about whether “the narrative” changes or not seem so feeble today. Of course the narrative changes, but that is the least of it. People are going to lose heath insurance and their right to get an abortion. Mexicans and Muslims will be subject to discrimination, press freedoms will be muzzled, climate change will be ignored, the supreme court will be packed with authoritarian shitheels. And that՚s just off the top of my head. The Trump administration (gag) is going to be a cesspool of corruption and bad ideas and incompetence (I guess our only hope is that the incompetence beats out the other stuff).

As a parent I feel an extra helping of sadness and pain. The job of a parent is to create a safe and nurturing environment for their children, and our society has just decided to do the opposite. Clinton՚s most powerful campaign message was structured around what a horrible example Trump was for children, girls especially…I really thought that would resonate even with the Republicans, because aren՚t they parents as well? Do they really want for their children the kind of world Trump represents? For whatever reason, we have collectively failed to improve the world and are heading into a new, uncharted, and very dark territory.

I՚ve been lately defending the very idea of politics – on the grounds that it is an essential and inescapable of life and cognition. I still think that՚s true, but I wish it wasn՚t. Right now my impulse is to go off and study category theory or quantum computation or something else that is as far removed from human group dynamics as possible.

Oh yeah in terms of reactions, here՚s the latest hot take:
Donald Trump's presidential election victory has already been cheered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, a constellation of right-wing European populists, a former Ku Klux Klan leader and a Middle Eastern strongman. But there's another curious constituency that seems to be happy about the new American president-elect.
Shortly after Trump was declared the victor, a number of prominent Salafist ideologues linked to jihadist outfits in the Middle East took to social media to cheer the prospect of a Trump presidency…the remarks signaled the militants' apparent belief that the victory of a candidate like Trump, who has suggested potentially unconstitutional blocks on Muslim immigration and advocated torture, undermines the United States' moral standing in the world.
Which in turn reminds me of some stuff I was writing about ten years ago on polarization and conflict and how the real war is between those who incite conflict (because they profit from it) and those who want to make peace.

Here՚s something I wrote last night:
Trying to imagine the future under Trump. Occurs to me that the federal government will be a complete shambles leading to increased importance of state and local gov and devolution of power. No idea if this is right, maybe it's wishful thinking, I'd sure rather Jerry Brown was running my world than Trump.
File under “desperately searching for a glimmer of hope”.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Mismanagement and grief

Well, fuck.

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night. 
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return. 
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again. 
Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong. 
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good. 
The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone. 
From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb? 
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die. 
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame. 
    -- W. H. Auden

Election Day Narrative Special

Here՚s another of my mostly-unsuccessful attempts to engage at SlateStarCodex.

Context: Scott says that the election “shouldn՚t change the narrative”, because whichever way it goes the two sides and interests are still going to exist and be in play. To some extent I agree with this, but it՚s a strawman – nobody expects the other side to go away, quite the contrary, all the liberals I know are worrying about what kinds of havoc the Trump supporters are going to be wreaking after their leader hopefully goes down to an ignominious and crushing defeat.

What he really seems to be arguing for is more quantitative thinking and less narrative thinking – this is kind of a theme of rationalism. And it seems like a good thing, because narrative is emotional and weird and misleading, perhaps it is the real “mind-killer” that underlies politics. Narrative is hot, statistics are cool. (Note he doesn՚t exactly say this in the post, this is my attempt at sketching out his general POV). Narrative is what leads people to label others as heroes or villains, and join together to fight their enemies.

I don՚t want to exactly argue against this, but it seems somewhat wrongheaded, because it is wishing for humans to be other than they actually are. We are creatures of narrative, we tell stories about ourselves and our society to make sense of it, it՚s just part of the package. It՚s not all that we are, but it՚s a major part. And politics, as part of the cognitive system of society in the large, is also going to be based on narratives.

This election in particular offers a stark choice of character and narrative. An America with Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office will have a different character than one with Donald Trump there (spits over shoulder). And the stories we will tell to make sense of this crazy year will also be different.

In short, there are plenty reasons to be suspicious of both politics and narrative, but I don՚t think we can dispense with them and it՚s a mistake to try. But we can get more cognizant of how they work.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Portrait of an Outrage Episode

  • Lena Dunham, an actress and author, is for some reason considered to have important opinions.
  • Lena Dunham makes and posts a weird little video where she interviews her father about “How are you feeling about the extinction of white men?” Aside from the title, it doesn՚t actually seem to be about extinction.
  • Internet shit-fountains like Fox News and Breitbart immediately latch onto this, doing their best to link it to Hillary Clinton:
Milo pointed out the similarity between Lena Dunham’s support for the “extinction of white men” and Hillary Clinton’s goal to import potential ISIS members … announcing “Here’s a taste of Hillary’s America. It’s Lena Dunham talking about the “extinction” of white men.”

Frankly I hate everyone involved in this. I have managed to remain pretty ignorant of Lena Dunham՚s work and character, I assume like many celebrities she is motivated mostly by attention-seeking. Others involved seem to be motivated because outrage feels so damn good. But I՚ll reserve my strongest hate for Dunham, the others have the excuse of being partisans of inherently shitty worldviews. She seems to be doing her best to demonstrate that the other side – my side – is equally shitty, and maybe she՚s right.

I՚ve recently been trying to defend the very idea of politics against people who want to avoid it. Still think I՚m right, but starting to see the merits of their attitude. So much of it is shitty people flinging shit at each other. Why enter into it, all you will accomplish is getting it on yourself?

Friday, October 28, 2016

In Soviet Russia, Internet invents you

This article on the history of Soviet efforts to build something like the internet is absolutely fascinating. They didn՚t manage to succeed of course, but it looks like the nerdy subculture that grew up around the effort was amazingly similar to the US equivalent.

My favorite part was this:
The forces that brought down OGAS resemble those that eventually undid the Soviet Union: the surprisingly informal forms of institutional misbehaviour. Subversive ministers, status quo-inclined bureaucrats, nervous factory managers, confused workers and even other economic reformers opposed the OGAS project because it was in their institutional self-interest to do so….

There is an irony to this. The first global computer networks took root in the US thanks to well-regulated state funding and collaborative research environments, while the contemporary (and notably independent) national network efforts in the USSR floundered due to unregulated competition and institutional infighting among Soviet administrat. The first global computer network emerged thanks to capitalists behaving like cooperative socialists, not socialists behaving like competitive capitalists.
This hints at something I՚ve thought about for a long time but haven՚t really managed to articulate: that the human built-in propensities for both competition and cooperation, for self-aggrandizement and for doing genuine good for others, are more or less constant no matter what the formalized institutional system of society.

We live in an ostensibly capitalist system, but corporations sophisticated methodologies to make their inside feel like a socialist collective farm, with everybody pulling in unison for the team and acheive “alignment”, a little bit of Newspeak that Mao would feel right a home with. And contrariwise, it is certain that even in the deepest and most committed precincts of the communist world, people were quite adept at pursuing their own rational and individual self-interests, even if that could never be publicly acknowledged. This is what killed the Soviet internet and no doubt many other worthwhile initiatives.

It may even be the case that actual cooperation is inversely correlated to how much it is part of official ideology.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

The Quest for Intelligent Trump Supporters

I՚ve indicated in the past that I was looking for intelligent Trump supporters to engage with, and couldn՚t really find any. Well, Scott Alexander at SlateStarCodex has published his own thoughts on the election (advocates voting against Trump), leading to over 2000 comments at this writing, many of them pro-Trump. Scott is very intelligent and draws an intelligent crowd, so there we go. Lots of bright people are engaging with the nature of Trump and politics in general, and they represent a diversity of views on the political spectrum.

Unfortunately it all seems like a waste of effort to me, because it is 100% unquestionably obvious that Trump has no serious policy knowledge or positions, so there is no point debating them. Scott acknowledge this:
Donald Trump not only has no solution to that problem [full employment], he doesn’t even understand the question. He lives in a world where there is no such thing as intelligence, only loyalty.
But he nevertheless goes on to pick apart Trump՚s policy statements in detail, because he apparently has boundless time and energy. I certainly didn't have the time to do the same, nor to read all 2000 comments, but here are a few pro-Trump people and their arguments:

Protest Manager
“President Obama set out to change that, since the only think he hates more than American power and success, is a Republican success.”
This is standard wingnut delusional resentment. The guy is also anti climate science, and eventually got himself banned.


Racism doesn՚t exist, it՚s something invented by Democrats and a threat, and thus
“A vote for Hillary is a vote increasing existential risk!”.
That this is elaborate nonsense should be obvious (indeed it seems obvious to the writer).

SSC people are big on existential risk except they seem to think that the most significant factor is not climate change or hostile AIs, but mean SJWs. Charitably, this means they are very young and overly influenced by their college experiences, or possibly living too much of their lives on the internet.

E. Harding

This guy has the most seemingly-fact-based arguments for Trump. If I wanted to have an argument, I might start with him. But of course most of it is wildly colored, eg:
“Obama created ISIS, almost certainly deliberately.”
This is a ridiculous distortion of the truth, which is that the west had some complicity in the creation of ISIS but it was due to the usual incompetent meddling in foreign wars, not some nefarious plot because Obama likes it when Americans are beheaded.

Luke the CIA Stooge
Trump Is not an existential threat. THE US FEDERAL GOVERNMENT IS AN EXISTENTIAL THREAT.…I support trump [because] He’s most likely to permanently damage the authority, legitimacy and power of the US federal government.”
At least this is consistent. If I was the anarchist hothead I was 30 years ago, I might buy this argument. Trump indeed is likely to do permanent damage to the US government, and if that's what you want he's a good choice.

In summary, I՚m not impressed and at this point I don՚t even feel much of a need to have this debate, because it is obvious based on character alone that Trump would be a terrible president. But – I suppose it must be acknowledged that not all Trump supporters are idiots or racists. They have arguments, just not very good ones.

Finally, I should mention Scott՚s conclusion:
The enemy isn’t leftism or social justice. The enemy is epistemic vice.

When the Left errs, it’s through using shouting and shaming to cut through the long and painful process of having to justify its beliefs. It’s through confusing disagreement with evil, a dissenter who needs convincing with a thought-criminal who needs neutralizing.
First, this acknowledgement is an indication of the fact that to a large segment of Scott՚s audience, the enemy is in fact leftism and social justice. That there is a large body of people to whom “justice” has become a curse word is alarming.

Second, I think this exposes a deep philosophical rift between me and Scott and his fellow rationalists. The idea of “epistemic vice” presupposes “epistemic virtue”, that is, that there is some objective model of the world that if we could all somehow figure out, it would solve these difficult problems like full employment and foreign religious wars.

Regardless of whether objective truth exists, elections are not about figuring it out, they are battles over which alliance of forces will get to rule. In this particular election, the lines couldn՚t be clearer: it is the liberal globalized capitalist elite, with generally enlightenment values including technological progress and human universalism, against whatever it is Trump represents, which is some ill-defined mess of ethnic chauvinism, aggressive nationalism, and anti-rationality.

There is no objective reason to prefer one of these sides to the other. There՚s a lot to dislike about the Davos elite, and there are various reasons people have for being on the side of Trump (or the equivalent in other parts of the world, like the National Front in France). These reasons make sense to them, and I don՚t think there՚s much hope of reason convincing them otherwise. No amount of epistemic virtue can settle what is at its root a radical clash of worldview, a power struggle, not an argument.

BUT, it is glaringly, painfully obvious which side of this someone like me, or Scott, or his readers, should support. If your primary values are reason and fact-based decision making, the choice is obvious. If you put overall human welfare over the interests of your immediate ethnic group, the choice is obvious. If you are repelled by violence, the choice is obvious.

[ update: ok, here is a large list of "scholars & writers" who support Trump. Oddly there are no links to any actual writing, so who knows what the arguments are. The list seems to be a mix of well-known worthless right-wing hacks (Bill Bennett, David Horowitz, John Lott] and unknown academics from places like Hillsdale College. But I guess they count as "intelligent". ]