Archive for September, 2018

Learning to live in ‘liquid modernity’

September 27, 2018

“Liquid modernity” is a phrase I came across a couple of months ago.   It is an expression that makes a lot of things fall into place.   It expresses how things that once seemed solid and changeless are now fluid and ever-changing.

The expression was coined by a Polish philosopher named Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017).    My e-mail pen pal Bill Harvey sent me a copy of LIQUID TIMES: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (2007), one of Bauman’s many books on the topic.   A 2016 interview with Bauman is shown in the video above.

I came of age in the 1950s in a world dominated by big organizations that offered security in exchange for conformity.   Social roles, including sex roles, were well-defined, although starting to change.  Science was regarded as the source of true knowledge.

Today’s world offers no security.  Social roles, including the biological distinction between male and female, are in a state of flux.  Post-modern philosophers tell us that nobody knows anything, and you have to figure things out as you go along.  We are at the mercy of economic forces that we don’t understand.

We are free of many of the constraints that hemmed us in back then.   Instead we constantly have to make choices without having any way to know the consequences of these choices.

Our great fear back then was of totalitarianism.  Now our great fear is of terrorism and the collapse of social order.

Bauman wrote that the great dissolving force is globalization—the ending of  restrictions on international movement of goods, services, information and money. along with unsuccessful attempts to restrict the international movement of people.

Politics becomes divorced from power, he wrote.  Politics is national and local, while the power lies with international corporations and organizations not subject to political control.

Governments are helpless before global economic forces, and turn over their historic functions to private organizations.   Individuals find less support either from government or from communities.  Instead of communities, there are networks.

Responsibility for coping with change is solely up to the individual, Bauman wrote.  But change is unpredictable.   Long-range planning is impossible.

∞∞∞

In an age of liquid modernity, you can be affected by events that happen anywhere in the world.  There are no safe havens.

The present era is not more dangerous than earlier eras—at least not for middle-class property owners in North America and Europe.  The difference is that today’s dangers are unknown and unknowable.

If there are wolves in the forest, you can stay out of the forest or be on guard against wolves when you go in.  But there is no way to guard against disruptive economic change that may wipe out your livelihood, or terrorist attacks or mass shootings.

Bauman said liquid modernity gives rise to free-floating fear, which politicians and demagogues can direct at any plausible object.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that the war on terror would end when Americans feel safe.  That means it will never end.  Each U.S. attack on foreign countries increases the chances of a blowback terrorist attack on Americans.

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U.S. civilian and military budget year-by-year

September 24, 2018

The video above shows the U.S. government’s discretionary spending from 1963 through 2017, in constant 2009 inflation-adjusted dollars.  I thank my e-mail pen pal Bill Harvey for this link

Notice how military spending has increased, while becoming a smaller percentage of overall U.S. government spending.

The video below shows the U.S. government’s discretionary spending in comparison with spending on entitlements.

The videos are the work of a data scientist named Will Geary.   Click on his name for his web site.  He works for CitySwifter, a company that specializes in making urban bus routes more efficient, but he made these videos on his own time.

Below are two videos tracing U.S. arms sales year since 1950.

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Jaron Lanier on addictive social media

September 21, 2018

View story at Medium.com

These are notes for a presentation to the drop-in discussion group at First Universalist Church of Rochester, 150 S. Clinton Ave., Rochester, N.Y. at 9:15 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 23.

Free market capitalism + technological change = addictiveness.

Free market capitalism + technological change + artificial intelligence + behavioral psychology + advertising-based social media = maximum addictiveness.

In 2010, a venture capitalist named Paul Graham wrote an essay entitled “The Acceleration of Addictiveness.”  He said that in a free market, the most addictive products would be the most successful, and technological progress would accelerate addictiveness.

He didn’t have a good answer for this, because he didn’t want to give up the benefits of either the free market or technology, except for individuals to understand this process and shield themselves from it.

This has happened in social media. Addiction is a business model.  Research centers, such as the Stanford University Persuasive Technology Laboratory, perfected ways to use technology to modify behavior. Companies use behavioral psychology—positive and negative reinforcement—to make video games and social networks compulsive. 

Jaron Lanier in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now explains that Internet addiction is a real thing.  It is by design.

A vast amount of data is collected about you, moment to moment, including your facial expressions, the way your body moves, who you know, what you read, where you goes, what you eat, and your likely susceptibility to assorted attempts at persuasion.  This data is then used by algorithms to create feeds of stimuli – both paid ads and unpaid posts – that are designed to boost your “engagement” and increase the effectiveness of “advertisements.”  (The honest terms would be “addiction” and “behavior modification stimuli.” Indeed, Facebook executives have written that they deliberately incorporated addictive techniques into their service.) 

Advertising was previously a mostly one-way street; the advertiser sent forth the ad and hoped for the best.  But now you are closely monitored to measure the effect of what is called an ad so that a personalized stream of stimuli can be incrementally adjusted until the person’s behavior is finally altered.  Most of you are now living in automated virtual Skinner Boxes.

Everyone is susceptible of being influenced on the biochemical level by positive and negative stimuli.

On social media, positive stimuli conveyed might include being retweeted, friended, or made momentarily viral.  Negative stimuli include the familiar occurrences of being made to feel unappreciated, unnoticed, or ridiculed.  Unfortunately, positive and negative online stimuli are pitted against each other in an unfair fight. 

Positive and negative emotions have comparable ultimate power over us, but they exhibit crucially different timing.  Positive emotions typically take longer to build and can be lost quickly, while negative ones can come on faster and dissipate more slowly.  It takes longer to build trust than to lose it.  One can become scared or angry quickly, but it takes longer for the feelings to fade. 

Those who use social media to exert influence – whether human or algorithm – are a little like high frequency traders, constantly watching results and adjusting.  The feedback loop is tight and fast. 

The sour and lousy consequence, which no one foresaw, is that the negative emotions are the most often emphasized, because positive ones take too long to show up in the feedback loop that influences how paying customers and dark actors use these services to manipulate ordinary users and society.

Whatever divisions exist in society are likely to be widened by social media.  The Internet can be a means of bringing people together, but anger, paranoia, xenophobia and conspiracy theories are more engaging.

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Most human beings live in Asia

September 19, 2018

Double click to enlarge or click on Our World in Data

Max Roser’s Our World in Data published a population cartogram map of the world that’s a good corrective to a Euro-centric or USA-centric view of the world.

Some highlights:

More people live in Asia than live in the rest of the world put together.

More people live in Africa than live in North and South America, with Australia, New Zealand and the islands of the Pacific thrown in.  But that’s fewer people than live in either India or China.

As many people live in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area (38.3m) as live in all of Canada (37m)

As many people live on the island of Java (145m) as live in all of Russia (144m).

More people live in Ethiopia (107.5m) or the Philippines (106.5m) than live in any European country except Russia.

More people by far live in Nigeria (195.9m) than in any European country including Russia.

More people live in the Indian state of Utter Pradesh (220m) than in any two European countries put together.

More people live in Thailand than live in France.

More people live in Uzbekistan (32.4m) as live in all the Scandinavian countries – Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland – put together (27m)

More people live in the Palestinian territories (5.1m) than live in Ireland (4.6m)

The USA, with 326.8 million inhabitants, is the largest non-Asian nation.  But the nation that declared independence in 1776 numbered only 2.5 million—fewer than today’s Puerto Rico (3.7m), New Zealand (4.7m), Liberia (3.9m) or Israel (8.5m)

Counting squares on the cartogram, the population of England is more than triple the combined population of the rest of the British Isles put together, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland plus the Republic of Ireland.

Max Roser, using United Nations statistics, has data indicating that the world’s birth rates are falling and that at some point around the end of the century, world population will level off.

There’s a question as to whether that level of population will be sustainable, in the light of soil exhaustion, exhaustion of non-renewable resources and the disruptions caused by global climate change.

There’s an even bigger question as to whether that level of population can enjoy the same level of material comfort that I and other middle-class people in North America and Europe enjoy.

The great fear in 1968 when Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb was mass famine, which he at the time thought was imminent.  But even if that doesn’t happen, a world of greatly unequal populations combined with greatly unequal standards of living will not be a world at peace.

There was a time when we who live in rich countries had the choice of ignoring the more numerous people who lived in poor countries, because they were powerless.  This is no longer true, and will become even less true as time goes on.

LINKS

A Map of the World Where the Sizes of Countries are Determined by Population by Jason Kottke for kottke.org.

The map we need if we want to think about how global living standards are changing by Max Roser for Our World in Data.

World Population Growth by Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Espina for Our World in Data.

Future Population Growth by Max Roser for Our World in Data.

‘Based on a true story…’

September 17, 2018

Jason Kottke of kottke.org pointed out a page on Information Is Beautiful, which goes through movies “based on a true story” scene by scene and rates each scene by how much it is based on fact.

Each movie gets a rating on how many minutes of screen time are fact and how many are fiction.  Interesting.  Here are the ratings.

Selma – 100 percent (!!)

The Big Short – 91.4 percent

Bridge of Spies – 89.9 percent

Twelve Years a Slave – 88.1 percent

Rush – 81.9 percent

Captain Phillips – 81.4 percent

Spotlight – 76.2 percent

The Social Network – 76.1 percent

The Wolf of Wall Street – 74.6 percent

The King’s Speech – 73.4 percent

Hidden Figures – 72.6 percent

Philomena – 69.8 percent

Lion – 61.4 percent

Dallas Buyers Club – 61.4 percent

American Sniper – 56.7 percent

Hacksaw Ridge – 51.5 percent

The Imitation Game – 41.4 percent

Many people, including friends of mine, regard movies of historical events as sources of information.   Information is Beautiful has done a good service by judging the accuracy of that information in recent well-known movies.

Usually when I’m impressed with a movie based on historical events, I read the book it’s based on.  I read Twelve Years a Slave, which showed the movie was largely accurate, and The Free State of Jones (not rated above), which showed many dramatic scenes in the movie never happened, but that the movie accurately depicted the overall situation.

I relied on the movie “Spotlight” for information on how the Boston Globe reported the Catholic pedophile scandal, and I’m glad to be reassured that it was largely accurate.

I understand that in dramatizing complex events, it is necessary to have composite and symbolic characters and to condense events, so I’m willing to cut directors a certain amount of slack.

But if you make a movie using the names of real people, and say it is “based on a true story,” you have a responsibility for a certain minimum level of accuracy—say 75 percent.

Otherwise change the names of the characters and drop the claim to be based on truth.  “The Imitation Game” would have been a fine movie if the hero had not been named “Alan Turning.”

LINK

Based on a True Story? Scene-by-scene breakdown of Hollywood films on Information Is Beautiful.

Seen in a public library

September 15, 2018

I forget where I came across this on the Internet.  For the benefit of non-American and younger visitors to this blog, the numbers are part of the old Dewey decimal system of library subject classifications; that system came into existence before the digital age.

What’s really wrong with Trump’s administration

September 13, 2018

Most of the coverage of President Donald Trump is based on his constant stream of tweets and social media comments, which enables him to dominate the news.

Most of the rest is based in developments of the Mueller Russiagate investigation, which may or may not turn out to be what it’s cracked up to be.

What’s out of the spotlight is reporting about the Trump administration’s actual deeds and policies.

Trump has continued American policy of attempting to dominate the world through military threats and economic sanctions, despite their evident failure.   During the 2016 campaign, I saw some possibility that he, unlike Hillary Clinton, would try to wind down American military interventions.  He was either lying or, what I think is more likely, unable to control the national security establishment—what some of us call the “deep state.”

Trump has continued American policy to risk nuclear confrontation with Russia and North Korea, which puts the whole world in danger.  The national security establishment has undermined his feeble and inept attempts to make peace.  But evidently he has frightened the North and South Korean governments into trying to make peace among themselves, which is a good thing.

Trump does not even pay lip service to trying to avert catastrophic global warming.  Instead his policy is to promote fossil fuels over renewable energy, which will speed up climate change.

Nuclear war and global warming are the main existential threats to the nation and the world.  Trump has failed to address the first and is actively preventing action against the second.

Trump during the campaign promised to do something about the offshoring of American jobs, which is a real problem that the other candidates ignored.  But his threats and tariffs will not help because U.S. industry has become too entangled in international supply chains to free itself overnight.   What’s needed is a long-range industrial policy that will rebuild American industry, which neither party has so far attempted.

Trump during the campaign promised to reform immigration, which is another real issue other candidates ignored.  The cruel treatment of asylum seekers and long-time foreign residents is shameful and does not change the overall situation.  I think there is something to be said for a merit-based immigration system, but I admit I don’t have a complete answer to the immigration question.  But neither does Trump.

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The changing meaning of ‘privilege’

September 13, 2018

The following is from an exchange of e-mails with a friend of mine about an essay by Matthew Crawford, a writer I admire, on the topic of “Privilege.” 

Hello, [Friend]:

    “Privilege” has always been a fraught word for me.  I was brought up to believe that I was a privileged person, and that I had obligations beyond the ordinary to “give back” to society.

    In the high school I attended, a large fraction of students dropped out when they reached the age of 16 because their families wanted them to get jobs.

     In those days, graduation from college was not a universal ambition.  Staying in high school long enough to graduate was considered an achievement.  Very few of us went on to college.

     I was one of the few—predestinated because of the choices of my parents—and therefore in those days (the 1950s) assured of a comfortable middle-class life.  I have been aware throughout my life that I did nothing to deserve having a better fate than my classmates who dropped out of school.

     I was taught from a young age by my parents, teachers and Sunday School teachers that prejudice and discrimination against Negroes (as they were called then), Jews and Catholics was morally wrong.  I came to understand the evils of male chauvinism, homophobia and prejudice against transgendered people about the same time as most liberal education straight white men did.

     I never thought of immunity from prejudice and discrimination as a “privilege.”  I thought of it as something that everyone should enjoy.  The fact that I can drive at night through [a certain suburb] without fear of police harassment does not necessarily mean that some black person has to suffer police harassment in my place.

     It is true that what you call “presumption of competence” is a kind of privilege.  I hadn’t thought of it in exactly that phrase.  But, yes, it true, in competition for scarce resources, such as jobs, I as a straight white Anglo cisgendered male enjoy an unearned advantage over someone who is  gay, black, Hispanic, transgendered, female or some combination.

    Of course such privilege I enjoy is much less than the privilege the privilege of those born to inherited wealth and legacy admissions to elite universities – people such as George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and Donald J. Trump.   They begin life from a position of wealth and power that was out of reach for most people after a lifetime of effort.    The chief means by which people are sorted into social and economic classes are (1) inherited wealth and (2) educational credentials.

     For at least 40 years, a tiny minority of people at the top of the economic and social pyramid have been leveraging their advantages to amass wealth and power at the expense of everybody else.  Most (not all] members of this group are white males, but the vast majority of people, including white males, do not benefit from this group’s privileges.

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The deep state strikes back

September 12, 2018

Image via PJ Media

An anonymous writer wrote an article for the New York Times claiming to be working within the Trump administration to save the American people from the President’s worst excesses.

But those excesses do not include the destruction of protections of health and the environment, tax laws that redistribute income upward or expansion of the already-bloated military budget.

No, the writer regards “effective deregulation, historic tax reform and a more robust military” as “bright spots”.

The threat he and his friends are saving us from is the possibility of peace negotiations with Russia and North Korea.   The national security team supposedly knows better than the elected President.

In public and in private, President Trump shows a preference for autocrats and dictators, such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and displays little genuine appreciation for the ties that bind us to allied, like-minded nations.

Astute observers have noted, though, that the rest of the administration is operating on another track, one where countries like Russia are called out for meddling and punished accordingly, and where allies around the world are engaged as peers rather than ridiculed as rivals.

On Russia, for instance, the president was reluctant to expel so many of Mr. Putin’s spies as punishment for the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain.  He complained for weeks about senior staff members letting him get boxed into further confrontation with Russia, and he expressed frustration that the United States continued to impose sanctions on the country for its malign behavior.  But his national security team knew better — such actions had to be taken, to hold Moscow accountable.

This isn’t the work of the so-called deep state. It’s the work of the steady state.

President Trump reportedly is enraged at the letter writer’s disloyalty in going public with his letter.  What he should be enraged at is the mutiny within his administration that this letter apparently reveals.

There are two issues here.  One is the merit of Trump’s admittedly clumsy and poorly thought out attempts to reduce the threat of nuclear war with Russia and North Korea.  I happen to think this is a step in the right direction, but you may disagree.

The other is the Constitutional question of the authority of the President to determine American foreign policy, subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.

Lawyers say that hard cases make bad law.  I personally think Donald Trump is intellectually, temperamentally and morally unfit to be President, so it is tempting to side with anybody who thwarts his will.

But what’s happening now is a precedent for future administrations.  Allow the national security establishment to set itself up as an un-elected fourth branch of government now, and that’s how it will be from now on, no matter who is in office.

LINKS

I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration by Anonymous for The New York Times.

We’re Watching an Anti-Democratic Coup Unfold by David A. Graham for The Atlantic.

Anonymous Op-Ed From Trump’s White House Shows Danger of Imperial Presidency by Jon Schwartz for The Intercept.

The Anonymous New York Times Op-Ed and the Trumpian Corruption of Language and the Media by Masha Gessen for The New Yorker.

American exceptionalism and the rules of war

September 12, 2018

Professional soldiers regard war as normal.   The best of them adopt codes of honor that define things that you can do and not do in time of war.

Most of us Americans, during most of our history, have not regarded war as normal.  Our major wars have been fought against enemies we regarded as either outside the bounds of civilization, like the Indians, or evil, like the Nazis.

We believed that war is inherently bad and that, in fighting against evil, the means that brings about the surest and quickest victory is the most moral.

That was the justification for General William T. Sherman’s march through Georgia and General Phil Sheridan’s devastation of the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War.  The chivalrous Southern generals were shocked (although they didn’t extend their chivalry to black troops).  Sherman’s reply was the war is hell, and there is no way to refine it.

The same kind of thinking was the justification for the Allied bombing of the cities of Germany and Japan, culminating with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  I remember that era, and I don’t think American public opinion then would have tolerated any limitation on the use of force.

But now the United States is in a different situation.  Our government is committed to open-ended war without any path to victory or any definition of victory beyond avoiding humiliating defeat.

We justified Sherman’s March and the bombing of Dresden and Hiroshima because these were extraordinary situations, after which we could get back to normal.

Now torture, assassination, invasions and subversion of foreign countries are normal, which our government justifies by saying that we Americans are the embodiment of democracy, freedom and the rule of law, and so our enemies by definition are enemies of democracy and freedom and are outside the accepted rules of war.

Insurgents fighting in Afghanistan, Syria and other countries against U.S. and U.S.-backed forces say that, because they are fighting for liberation of their homelands, rules do not apply to them, either.

I don’t foresee us Americans adopting battlefield rules of engagement that cost American lives, nor submitting to the jurisdiction of international agencies such as the International Criminal Court, while we still seek worldwide military supremacy.

My hope is that American leaders can renounce the ambition for the USA to be the world’s only superpower, while that is still a matter of choice, and accept a role as a normal nation among others.

LINKS

Double Standards and the Rules-based Order by Paul Robinson for IRRUSSIANALITY.

Bolton and the ICC by peteybee for Pete’s Politics and Variety.

Thomas Frank on why Obama failed

September 11, 2018

Thomas Frank was recently interviewed by one John Siman, whom I’m not familiar with.  This part of the interview stands out for me.

TCF: …… I had met Barack Obama. He was a professor at the University of Chicago, and I’d been a student there.  And he was super smart.  Anyhow, I met him and was really impressed by him. All the liberals in Hyde Park — that’s the neighborhood we lived in — loved him, and I was one of them, and I loved him too.

Barack Obama

And I was so happy when he got elected.  Anyhow, I knew one thing he would do for sure, and that is he would end the reign of cronyism and incompetence that marked the Bush administration and before them the Reagan administration.  These were administrations that actively promoted incompetent people.  And I knew Obama wouldn’t do that, and I knew Obama would bring in the smartest people, and he’d get the best economists.

Remember, when he got elected we were in the pit of the crisis — we were at this terrible moment — and here comes exactly the right man to solve the problem.  He did exactly what I just described:  He brought in [pause] Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard, considered the greatest economist of his generation — and, you know, go down the list: He had Nobel Prize winners, he had people who’d won genius grants, he had The Best and the Brightest.

And they didn’t really deal with the problem.  They let the Wall Street perpetrators off the hook — in a catastrophic way, I would argue.  They come up with a health care system that was half-baked.

Anyhow, the question becomes — after watching the great disappointments of the Obama years — the question becomes: Why did government-by-expert fail?

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What we know about Trump’s ties to Russia

September 8, 2018

Here’s what is known so far about Donald Trump and his relationship to Russia.

He has had extensive business dealings with rich Russians, including organized crime figures.  He son spoke of how the Trump Organization benefited from Russian money.

President Trump

Like many right-wing Republicans, he admired Vladimir Putin as a decisive, authoritarian leader.

During the 2016 Presidential campaign, Trump expressed a desire to improve relations with Russia.  I personally think that was a good thing, not a bad thing.  There is no conflict of interest between the USA and Russia that justifies risk of nuclear war.

President Putin, in response to questions, publicly said in 2015 and 2016 that he would welcome Trump’s election because he wanted better relations with the United States.

Various Russian agencies tried to aid Trump’s campaign, almost certainly by using social media to campaign and probably by leaking embarrassing e-mails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign.  I’m not sure how significant this was.  It may have been more significant than I thought.

President Trump has weakened the Western alliance against Putin and Russia, not by making concessions to Russia but by breaking up the unity of the alliance.  Trump’s trade war threatens the economic interests of allies.  So does his demand that they participate in sanctions against Iran and other countries.   His insults and threats are damaging in themselves.

What I see no evidence of is the claim that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin made an explicit deal that Trump would ease up on economic warfare against Russia in return to Putin’s help in the election campaign.

I think Putin would have been a fool to make such an explicit deal, especially with someone as erratic and lacking in self-discipline as Trump.  A deal also would be unnecessary.  All that is necessary for him to advance his goals is for Trump to be Trump.

I also think that the various meetings and attempted meetings between Trump’s supporters and Russians in 2016 are an indication that no deal had been made.  If there had been a deal, what need for further meetings?  Trump and Putin would have made sure to keep their supporters apart.

The solution to U.S. problems regarding Russia are in the United States, not in Russia.  Congress should curb presidential power to change tariffs at will and to commit acts of war.  It should reconsider economic sanctions against Iran and other countries that do not threaten us.

Voting systems should be secured against electronic hacking by means of publicly counted paper ballots.  Social media should be protected against robo-memes.  Confidential computer files should be made secure even if it means making FBI and NSA surveillance more difficult.

Unfortunately there is no way to curb Trump’s erratic personal behavior between now and the 2020 election.

LINKS

Interview of Glenn Greenwald for the Huffington Post.  Russiagate skeptic’s new view of what’s proven and not proven at this point.

Manafort, Cohen and why Republicans won’t turn on Trump by Emily Stewart for Vox.

A mock Bugatti Chiron built of Lego parts

September 8, 2018

Lego engineers built a driveable duplicate of a $2.6 million Bugatti Chiron sports car, using more than 1 million Lego parts.

It uses real Bugatti wheels and tires, a steel frame and batteries for power, but more than 90 percent of the car is Lego parts, including 2,300 Lego Technic Power Function motors and 4,632 Lego Technic gear wheels.

It has a fully functional steering wheel, brakes (but no accelerator), headlights, tail lights, speedometer and doors that open and close.  No glue was used in putting the parts together.

A real Bugatti Chiron is made of about 1,800 parts.  It has a 1,500 horsepower motor and a top speed of 261 miles per hour.  The Lego version has a 5.3 HP motor and a theoretical top speed of 18 miles per hour.

But it works!  I bet it was a lot of fun to work on.

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A cartoon history of metaphysics

September 1, 2018

Click to enlarge.

Source: Existential Comics.