20 February 2020

In Extremis

Key quotes from an article by Quassim Cassam in New Statesman entitled "Why Extremism Is a Question of Psychology, Not Politics" and Kevin Dorst at the Stranger Apologies blog.

Is 'extremism' a question of psychology and not politics? This is a question certainly worth asking. Cassam's talking about extremisms on both the right and the left here. His article raises the further question: If extremism is an attitudinal matter, how malleable (or manipulable) are the masses who find themselves emotionally pre-disposed to it? Propaganda, Confirmation bias, Overconfidence, the conjunction fallacy, group polarization, the Dunning-Kruger effect, the base-rate fallacy, cognitive dissonance, and so on all play into its cycles of toxic self-reinforcement.
"A key extremist preoccupation is victimisation – the perception of themselves as victims of persecution. ... 
"Another extremist preoccupation is purity. The purity that extremists are obsessed with can be ideological, religious, or ethnic. ... Extremism’s preoccupation with purity explains one of its key attitudes: its attitude to compromise. Extremists hate compromise because it detracts from purity. Being an extremist is as much a matter of how one believes as what one believes. Extremists see compromise as a form of betrayal, and while extremists may hate their opponents, this is usually milder than their hatred of people on their own side who have, as they see it, “sold out”. ... 
"Another key extremist attitude is indifference to any adverse consequences of one’s actions or policies.  To not be deterred by the practical or emotional damage incurred is the essence of fanaticism, so it follows that extremists are also fanatics. ... 
"Extremists are prone to both utopian and conspiracy thinking. They think in terms of a future utopia to which their policies will lead, and they see conspiracies everywhere. ... 
"...[E]xtremists are also uncommonly angry, and this points to the emotional components of the extremist mindset. Extremist anger is rooted in feelings of resentment about their lot. Another fundamental extremist emotion is self-pity. Anger, resentment, and self-pity are a potentially lethal emotional cocktail. ..." [Emphases mine] Cassam.
Dorst asserts "we are living in an age of rampant irrationalism" which feeds into political demonization, a key component in extremism.
"we are now swimming in irrationalist explanations of political disagreement.  It is not hard to see how these go. If people tend to reason their way to their preferred conclusions, to search for evidence that confirms their prior beliefs, to ignore opposing evidence, and so on, then there you have it: irrational political polarization falls out as a corollary of the informational choices granted by the modern information age.
We refuse to see ourselves and our own opinions as irrational, so we project that irrationalism on the other side. They are the irrational ones. Therefore they are wrong and, what's more, immoral. They are bad, evil, awful. "I hate them because I am _________ (fill in the blank: right, good, moral, rational, pure)." We've made a quick leap to demonization.
"If the problem is demonization—not mere polarization—then part of the solution is to restore political empathy. And if we lack political empathy in part because of rampant irrationalist narratives, then one way to restore it is to question those narratives."
I look forward to Durst's project here and have added his blog to my updating blog roll. You should too.

02 January 2020

Top Ten Top Ten Lists of the 2010s

Let's agree to get past the debate over when a decade (or century) actually ends: --19 (--99) or --20 (--00). [Personally, I'm persuaded that we normally count from one to ten and thus the decade truly ends next year around this time. But that's beside the point. YMMV.] The internet is rife now with lists and listicles of the "Best of" or "Top Ten ____" of the Twenty-Teens, 2010s, etc. Below are some of the more interesting ones I've stumbled upon. I'm not going to claim authoritatively they are the "Best of" or necessarily the "Top" because that's not my style. I've not exhaustively researched every single list across the entire Interverse© and quantitatively or qualitatively adjudged them by some agreed-upon (or even arbitrary) metric—despite the title hype. Nevertheless, for your enjoyment, I present (sans comment for the most part):

10. Magic Mic's Top Ten Magic Cards

9. Top 10 Food Trends

8. Top 10 Tiny Homes

7. Top 10 Memes

6. Listverse's Top 10 Popular Lists [Clickbait! As if this post isn't. Nevertheless, meta- enough for me.)

5. Top 10 Health Scares

4. Top 10 Stock Investments from ten years ago

3. Top 10 Ocean Songs

2. New Scientist's Top 10 Discoveries

1. National Weather Service's Top 10 Weather Events

And, because I love you and because there are so many sports related Top Ten lists, a bonus Top Ten link. You can do your own Movie or TV or Novel or Music lists. They, too, are ubiquitous, so I'll spare you mine.

Best wishes for the New Decade (that actually begins next year).

30 October 2019

The Personal Is the Political

Not one given to overly personal revelations here, nor to magical thinking—after all, I'm a lawyer, a rationalist philosopher—yet I find myself compelled to write this post. Please indulge or ignore, as you will.

On November 9, 2016, I made a private vow: The day the current occupant of the White House was "elected" I shaved my head and stopped trimming my beard. I promised not to let my hair grow back or to shave until Drumpf was out of office whether through electoral defeat or impeachment or coup or assassination. It was my own personal performative, prophetic (you know: mourning, sackcloth and ashes kind of thing—I'm also an erstwhile theologian) form of protest.

I had many reasons for this. I lived in New York during the '80s and '90s and knew what a damaged, mobbed-up con man this person was. I'd seen first hand his assaults on truth and decency, his greed, his amorality, his lust for acclaim and adulation, his narcissism. His evil. I also recognized how charismatic and what a genius at PR (i.e., propaganda) he was (see my pre-2016 election analyses here). I actually knew lawyers who'd represented him—in smaller, peripheral matters. The things they said...

Over the gentle protestations of wife Wisdoc, I kept my vow until Tuesday of last week. Because, you see, my only, my Dearest Darling Daughter (known in these parts as Wisdaughter) got married this weekend, and she wanted me to look presentable (and less like a bald Unabomber) for the photographs. I protested, saying that fifty years from now—long after I'm dead and forgotten—she can boast to her own kids and grandkids about her father's principles and integrity when she shows them the pictures. But she and her mother prevailed—to an extent.

I compromised my personal principles—out of love, mind you. I went to the family's long-time barber and hair dresser and had him trim my beard, shape it up. I did not have time to grow my (less than full) head of hair back.

And here's where we get to the magical thinking part. No sooner did I trim up my protest beard than the Speaker of the House of Representatives decided to submit a formal vote of impeachment to Congress. So, you tell me, which way did the causality run? Post hoc propter hoc? Mere prediction? Serendipity? Or, did my jumping the gun jeopardize any chance of humiliating and shaming this monster by running him out of office and forever blocking his spawn from public office? None of the above?

That being said, the question inevitably rises: should I take off the whole beard and start growing my sparse head of hair forthwith?

18 September 2019

2019 Peace Corps Tanzania Swearing-In Ceremony

A moment of personal privilege—it's my blog after all. This is the Facebook video of a livestream of the swearing-in ceremony for the 2019 Peace Corps Tanzania Education Cohort. There are around 80 in this group. My son, known in these parts as Wesdom, delivers the (English) commencement address beginning at about the 7:00 minute mark. After successfully completing nearly three months of training in country, he begins his two-year stint as a Volunteer (PCV). He will be stationed at a remote mountain village in the south west of the country—no running water, no electricity—teaching Math and Physics in a secondary school. We are incredibly proud of his decision to pursue this particular opportunity of service. It is one of those life choices that affects everything you do thereafter. It takes courage and sacrifice. Congratulations, my Son!

26 July 2019


The pursuit of truth—the attempt to learn and accurately state facts about the real world—is the single most important enterprise of consciousness.

There is a difference in degree, not in kind, between two atoms fusing in the core of a star or two planets smashing into one another or two rocks bouncing off of each other like billiard balls or an amoeba feeling its way through a liquid solution and human consciousness. It is a continuum, a continuum of experience.

A human life is an experience-filled event, just as all human life and in fact all life as we know it itself is an event; we just don't know of what type and in what context or for what, if any, purpose.

The human species is a stage on an evolutionary ladder. We may not know what form or forms of consciousness will come next (if any) or how it or they will manifest (assuming no disruptive extinction event), but it's a good guess that the new being will incorporate some aspects of our technology—AI, for example, or prostheses. Another good guess is that the new being will be able not only to adapt to but make full use of the energy of the planet—solar, tidal, geothermal, wind—to facilitate its own further development. This, of course, is speculative, but at the same time it takes account of our natural history and asks us to anticipate a future for life and consciousness.

War, generally, is a bad thing. Conflict and struggle are fundamental in the state of nature—conflict over such things as survival, territory, and resources. Human beings are creatures of nature and thus conflictual. Some conflicts are thus inevitable given the state of nature. But there are bad reasons for war as well as good reasons. Though there is such a thing as a just war, perhaps even a good war, wars should be avoided if at all possible and by any means available.

The importance of the modern concept of the existence of some fundamental, inalienable, universal human rights cannot be underestimated.
  • Environmental protection is and should be recognized as a fundamental right, not just of humans but all other forms of life.
Linguistic analysis provides an effective model for understanding human thought, though it is by no means perfect.

Emotions are a feature of consciousness, a reactive, experience-processing feature that provides insight into our instinctual natures and personalities.

Art is a type of language. Truth is not a necessary aspect of art. Art is about consciousness, perception, emotion, recognition, reflection, reaction, and attitude.
  • Literature is a species of art. Its primary concern is addressing the profound angst that underlies our being once we recognize and acknowledge the inevitability of our mortality. This includes the ennui (or sense of bored superiority) that consumes us when we realize the futility of this condition as well as the sort of wearying sadness that results.
  • Distraction, entertainment, education, and therapy are the principle modes of literature. Intrigue, mystery, romance, speculation, tragedy, comedy, satire: all are parts of the way in which we come to grips with our existential suffering.
As a logical matter, there is no difference between theism and atheism. Theism asserts 'I believe in x' (where 'x' is "God"). Atheism asserts 'I believe in not-x.' Both are unfounded beliefs: neither relies on observation; neither is falsifiable.

The liberal position on justice— to wit: laws should be made from a 'neutral position' with respect to partisan interests and desired outcomes and applied uniformly and universally without regard to status—is the single most important philosophical social proposition of the modern age.

Morality recognizes not only the possibility but the actuality of other minds and points us toward empathy. Treat others the way you would want them to treat you in the same circumstances. When you choose to do something, act in such a way that you would be happy if everyone else did the same thing when faced with the same choice.

Ethics is different from morality. Ethics involves the means of effectively carrying out a given enterprise, the rules and the necessity of following them: the way to do things the right way. Morality involves the ways in which we interact with others, being good. They are not always coterminous.
  • Morality and ethics in sum: Be kind to others and do your work well.
The concept of 'good enough' is an important component of one's personal philosophy of life.

24 May 2019

Let's Talk about Bitcoin

What is Bitcoin? Well, if you're a coder you've probably read the 2008 eight-page 'Whitepaper' by someone calling themselves Satoshi Nakamoto here. There it is called a "Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System," and that is a clear and precise description. If you haven't read the paper, you should. It is an elegant schema laying out a proposal for an internet of money that avoids the controls of both the private and public banking and monetary systems. If, for example, I am somewhere in the Amazon basin and you are in Outer Mongolia and I know your bitcoin address, I should be able to transfer bitcoin to you (or, at least, transfer to you the permission to use a certain segment of bitcoin I happen to control at the moment) almost instantaneously—without having to go through multiple steps involving various banking systems and clearinghouses, each of which takes an inordinate amount of time and energy and, importantly, an intermediary cut.

The basis of bitcoin lies not in any underlying value or commodity like gold or silver reserves or sow belly futures or even the "full faith and credit" of some government but in mathematical logic. Transactions are bundled together, permanently encrypted or "hashed", and memorialized into a publicly available 256-bit block. Each subsequent block includes within it the hash of the previous block, thus bootstrapping a functionally unalterable chain, i.e., a blockchain. Ultimately, the blockchain is a database or ledger of every electronic transaction. [NB. Clever greedy folks have been trying to hack the math and the code and chip away at the blockchain for over a decade now, and it seems to be holding. So far.]

There are tons of issues with bitcoin that we've all read about. Ethically, all bitcoin transactions are anonymous thus inviting criminality and international laundering beyond the controls of governmental authorities. Politically, of course, this is probably the major issue for the powers that be. Financially, volatility due to bitcoin's lack of underlying "real world" or tangible value—linked to some commodity or so-called fiat currency—makes it a potentially risky investment. Functionally, the irreversibility of transactions can create problems where one party is preying fraudulently on another unsuspecting party. Further, the proliferation of other types of cryptocurrency creates confusion for those not actively involved in the space. Likewise, practically, the necessity of understanding and implementing appropriate digital security measures is a significant barrier to entry for many. And physically, the amount of energy required to digitize the monetary system is daunting. [NB. Cleverer folks than me are working on systematic ways to deal with these and other issues.]

Notwithstanding, there is something profoundly interesting about bitcoin. (And here, I talk only about bitcoin and its blockchain.) First, it stands the current monetary system on its head: trust resides in the certainty of each and every individual transaction instead of in the financial system—Fort Knox, Wall Street, Federal Reserve, government central banks, the IMF, the World Bank, etc. (I only need mention 2008, the year Nakamoto's Whitepaper appeared, to emphasize the importance of this.) Each bitcoin transaction, no matter how large or small, is considered a contract. And the only criterion for the transaction to be memorialized to the blockchain is the validity of that contract as determined by a fixed, public set of protocols. A transaction either satisfies the protocols and is valid, or it doesn't and isn't. Bitcoin democratizes trust. Or, if you prefer, de-colonizes or de-imperializes the international monetary system. Each individual is his or her own bank. Bitcoin empowers individual smart phones to do everything a Citibank or a financial clearing house does. Instantaneously and without intermediation.

Second, and this is what I find most interesting (and promising), ultimately bitcoin seeks to monetize information. It's right there in the name: BIT + COIN. According to Wikipedia, "[a] bit (short for binary digit) is the smallest unit of data in a computer. A bit has a single binary value, either 0 or 1." The world is witnessing an explosion of digitized data as we move from the Googlized web of text searches and cat videos to the internet of things and 5G where, e.g., dumb appliances communicate with each other and with the energy systems that power them without human intervention. It is almost impossible to describe how vast these systems of information transfer are becoming, from driverless automobiles to smart refrigerators, from always-broadcasting, always-interfacing social media to interoperable energy grids, from online voting systems to Mars colonization. And the list goes on. Yet, each bit of data transfer requires a measurable amount of energy to execute. Theoretically, if you can put a price on the energy required for the transfer of a single bit of information—no matter how minuscule the monetary increment—you are creating a potential system of wealth that is, at least for me, incalculable. And this, it seems to me, is bitcoin's great promise.

What's interesting about this is that though the systems of digitial data transfer will proliferate exponentially over time in ways we cannot begin to imagine, there is only ever going to be a fixed amount of bitcoin. For complicated mathematical reasons, there can only exist 21,000,000 bitcoins. That's it. And the last of these will not be mined until sometime around 2140. (Practically, a number of these have been or will be lost due to poor digital hygiene, but that's beside the point.) Twenty-one million is woefully inadequate—by orders of magnitude—to account for each bit of information involved in all these digital transactions, thus Bitcoin has been subdivided into units called Satoshis. Each Satoshi is equal to one hundred millionth of a single bitcoin (0.00000001 BTC). And as a corollary, there will only ever exist 21 quadrillion Satoshis.

The idea here is that instead of an inflationary currency, one which like our own continually prints more money (which devalues and discourages saving: think about the interest you are currently getting on your savings account), bitcoin is deflationary: it's value will only increase as its applications expand because there can never be more bitcoins. This encourages saving and speculation but may disincentivize spending and transactions. Again, bitcoin has no inherent value; its value is entirely transactional, that is to say, its agreed upon value at the time of transaction. Recall that the first "real world" bitcoin transaction was 10,000 bitcoins for two pizzas. Nowadays, such a transaction would be measured in thousandths of one bitcoin. Due to its essentially transactional nature, bitcoin will continue to have, for good or ill, a relativistic and unstable valuation.

The amount of energy required not only to hash and mine each and every transaction (a problem the Lightning network seeks to address by ledgering many transactions off-chain) but to link a monetary value to each and every bit of information transferred would seem to be astronomical, and some amount of abstraction is inevitable. Beyond buying pizzas or clothing or cars or even houses, one can imagine that a user might choose to pay a Satoshi or two to like a Tweet or put a smiley emoji on a Facebook or Instagram post (with the cash going directly to the original poster) rather than having their online personal data surreptitiously mined and sold by social media advertising corporations. Similarly, one can imagine YouTube paying users a few Satoshis for each second they watch an ad or users paying Satoshis per second of streaming music or video. These are literally the simplest sorts of internet transactions imaginable. Or think about putting a precise cost on the amount of energy (down, say, to the milliwatt) a smart refrigerator or HVAC system uses or the exact number of bits of data required to manage a city full of self-driving Übers. The possibility of increasingly precise and timely measurements, i.e., costing, of energy usage and data processing is not negligible. And it's easy to imagine that much of the accounting for these sorts of things could be automated and bottom-lined both to reduce fees and expedite transactions. But the question remains whether the cost of that energy provides sufficient value to make its ultimate, universal application worthwhile. The answer to that question will impact the ultimate viability of bitcoin.

Bitcoin seems to put the lie to the idealism of the early internet attributed to Stewart Brand, to wit: "Information wants to be free." That statement seems as hopelessly naive today as the 'Peace, Love, and Rock 'n' Roll' hippie movement of the Sixties. Information transmittal is rapidly being automated. If it can be automated, it can be commoditized. And if it can be commoditized, it will be monetized. Down to the very bit. This feels like an economic inevitability—certainly in a capitalistic economy, something I don't foresee changing any time soon. And it's not difficult to envision bitcoin as a globalizing force in the current, increasingly fractious, nationalistic mood of the world.

I'll leave off this discussion with a question for mathematicians, physicists, coders, and engineers smarter than me to resolve. Bitcoin is specifically tied to electronics, that is to say binary computing based on base two 0's and 1's. Bits. New and more powerful computing that goes a level below electrons and bits is emerging rapidly though: quantum computing and DNA computing, to name two such. A hundred or so years from now, when the last bitcoin is scheduled to be mined, one wonders whether an economy based on bits and electrons will still be viable. Whether bitcoin might be replaced by, I don't know, a self-ledgering Qubitcoin (NB. Something by that name apparently already exists; I have no idea what it is or does.) or self-replicating RNAcoin is an open question. [Comments welcome.]

Notwithstanding, I believe there's a lot of potential in this whole blockchain paradigm, and bitcoin seems poised best to capitalize on it at the present moment and for the foreseeable future.

[Disclaimer: This is one man's opinion. I'm just a blogger. Nothing herein should be construed either as legal advice or financial investing advice. Bitcoin and cryptocurrency investing is extremely risky in the current climate, and should be undertaken cautiously and with the advice of a trusted professional investment advisor, i.e., not me!]

17 April 2019

Terry Gilliam's Don Quixote

I can't even begin to tell you how down I am for this! Apparently out this week.

Edit: Saw it! Plaza Theater, Atlanta. 9:30 pm, only showing in town. I'd forgotten what it was like for a movie to be fun. FUN! Gilliam does phantasmagoria better than pretty much anyone out there, and there's plenty to be had here. Pryce = Brilliant, wonderful. Made me forget the High Sparrow altogether. Driver = meh. Kinda' wooden which worked wonderfully in Paterson—his best by far. Some subtle allusions to Kylo Ren though—the kind of stuff that made this so much fun. The original story is obliquely identifiable throughout, something else which made this so much fun. Didn't love the twist at the end, but that's mere quibbling. I was mesmerized for the full 2 1/2 hours and plan to see it again. Also, landscapes and castles!!!