Archive for ‘chaos’

February 20, 2017

Spitballing the abyss, part deux

by CarlD

Here’s the text I settled on for my part of the Trump in Fayetteville lyceum. I took out most of the snark and some of the handwaving from the first version. (New readers, I recommend the discussion in the comments there.) This one also includes my contribution to what we’re calling the ‘candy round’, where we go against everything we believe as responsible professional historians and take a crack at predicting the future based on the past. I decided for pretty obvious reasons on Berlusconi. Finally, I’ve appended the PowerPoint slides I’ve synced with my text (numbers in parens) as a running paratext. Mostly it’s selected quotes from the interviews themselves, offering ‘evidence’ and commentary.

I’m putting it below the fold so it doesn’t clutter up the blog’s front page. 

February 5, 2017

Spitballing the abyss

by CarlD

Last year my colleagues Peter and Patrick and I took our university’s community oral history project to the two local rallies for Donald Trump. We talked with a number of the ralliers in what might be described as a naive, unstructured ethnographic style. Recordings led to transcripts (thanks, Patrick!), and then to a proposal to present our findings as this year’s faculty research lyceum (thanks again, Patrick!). We got the gig.

Each of us has his own take on what is, of course, not so much a ‘data set’ (let alone a ‘representative sample’) as a particular interactive assemblage, a massively contingent co-production. We conducted the interviews as interested parties and with leading ideas about what was happening; we interpret them now with those same ideas and all of the resources of partisanship, prejudice, bias, selective perception, agenda, etc. etc. at our disposal. We are not reliable narrators. But as historians we are used to speaking for the dead. And for the living we think talking with people, taking them seriously, and trying to understand them is better than any alternative we are aware of.

The other thing that’s been on my mind lately is my sabbatical project on the history, theory, and pedagogy of complex adaptive systems. So of course what I’m doing with these interviews is to mash them up with the complex systems stuff. The general question I’m asking of the data then is, ‘How do these folks (seem to) think things work’?

We’ve got about 8 minutes each. Here’s the rough draft I just put together for my partners and the commenters. I’ll be filling in citations and interview quotations next, and I can tweak the whole thing until the actual presentation later this month. So, comment is welcome:


I’m interested in what we think about how things work. When I’m not interviewing Trump ralliers, my research is on the history and theory of societies as complex adaptive systems. People have always noticed that social processes do not seem to correspond very well to simple cause and effect explanations, or to respond very well to simple cause and effect engineering. Social processes routinely go sideways and defy prediction and control, much like the weather. Back at the tail end of the Renaissance Machiavelli warned the Prince about this ‘fortuna’, and some kind of ‘fortune’ or ‘luck’ explanation is one of the more common ways of accounting for the wonkiness of social processes.

We now know that with the weather, even short term unpredictability is because there are many systems actually involved in the ‘weather system’, all of them are active and effective but none of them are in control, they are all oscillating and linked and dynamically interdependent, and there’s lots of feedback that can amplify very small causes into very large effects, or dampen very large causes into very small effects. This disparity between causes and effects is called ‘nonlinearity’. It is characteristic of complex systems, as are self-organization (there is no designing hand at work) and emergence (the whole is more and other than the sum of the parts).

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything, Ike Eisenhower remarked. Despite Machiavelli’s early attunement to the issue and the routine awareness by better leaders and strategists that you have to expect the unexpected, getting serious about grappling with societies as complex systems that work a lot like the weather has been slow going. For one thing, we have a species prejudice that our reasons and intentions are different and more effective kinds of causes than ocean currents and snow melt. And for another, our own evolutionary adaptation disposes us to act on simplifications rather than get lost in complexity. In most action windows there’s not much advantage in prediction or control to be gained by sorting through dozens, hundreds, or thousands of oscillating, interacting, feedbacking variables with massive uncertainty factors, so our default is to make a best guess and take a stab at it. Styles and strategies of guessing distribute across the population and this diversity, like our distribution across the political spectrum, assures that for most processes and contingencies, a bunch of them will be good enough. Sub-optimality is also characteristic of complex systems.

So I was not surprised to find that our interview partners had accounts of how things work that, shall we say, left some things out. At a first pass, they all confidently articulated a crudely simplistic, personalized story of current American politics. Crooked politicians messed things up; immigrants abused our kindness and stole our jobs. Trump will toss the bums out and fix everything. They were strongly focused on individual intention and agency, motivated by personal character, morals, and formal ideas, as their primary explanation for political processes and actions. Systems routinely appeared in their accounts as illegitimately powerful, anonymously personal (“they”), generally malevolent intentional corruptors of wholesome individual action.

Fascinating corollaries included Trump’s personal incorruptibility due to his already having plenty of money of his own, and unquestioning faith in their ability to peer deep into Trump’s soul and detect the authentic care and concern for America there. From a complex systems perspective, their anger at the “rigged system” and eagerness to find a powerful leader to overturn it come into sharp focus as perpetually frustrated and frustrating attempts to enforce legible, predictable linearity on irreducibly non-linear processes. They would have just as much luck understanding how politics work if they believed in witchcraft, fate, or a shadowy global cabal of all-powerful dentists.

I have already said, however, that hurling spitballs at the yawning abyss of complexity is pretty much standard operating procedure. It is hardly a unique failing of these folks, or even a failing at all. Good enough is good enough. And complexity can in fact be managed and engineered down to mere complication or even simple linearity in local settings through rigorous organization and massive effort. Our interview partners all had robust histories in these kinds of engineered systems, and the dispositions to match. They were military and ex-military, nurses, librarians, postal and factory workers. They were mostly religious. They were used to other people having more power than them and making things happen. They were steeped in the everyday strategies of complexity management by orderly hierarchy, leadership, function, and procedure.

But in the parts of the interviews where they were not explaining how they think things work but reflecting on what worried them, a powerful countertext emerged. They perceived only too well the unmanageable complexity of things. It frustrated and terrified them. It kept them up at night and troubled their waking. The uncanny complexity of the world was so far beyond their scope, so realistically out of their reach and uncaring of their wellbeing, so stubbornly resistant to every normal effort and procedure in their experience, so unfair and irrational and amoral, that they lived in anxiety and dread. None of the law, rules, discipline, hard work, the nation, the flag, kittens, puppies, authenticity, guns, and ammo, hold up against the infinite confounds of complexity.

And then Trump said he could fix all that. They knew it was a gamble, and said so. But they were going to hurl him at the abyss and hope.

February 2, 2017

Code switching and complexity

by CarlD

There’s sort of a general theme here at the blog and in my own approach to teaching, life, the universe, and everything: that complexity is the rule; and that observant, resourceful flexibility, a disposition to learning and the ability to code switch, is therefore strategically desirable.

But we’ve also often discussed another strategy, which is to engineer systems that gear down complexity into mere complication, or even rigorously simple linearity. Under the right conditions this can work very well and get a lot done, although maintaining those conditions is generally very costly and ultimately unsustainable.

As I dig through our oral history project’s Trump rally interviews (I’m working on a longer post that will provide more framing information on this), one of the things that is gradually coming into focus is that the Trump rallyers we talked to were explicitly not at all comfortable with either code switching or complexity, and that they all had robust histories in systems engineered for linearity (the military, nursing, library science, factory work) with the dispositions to match.

Anecdotally, I don’t think there’s any automatic political valence to this sort of history or disposition. I know plenty of liberals and lefties who are also not at all comfortable with either code switching or complexity. Such folk tend to be in charge no matter what. I sometimes feel like I’m caught in a no man’s land between two armies of essentially similar people, fighting bitterly over the details of a narrow, rigid world that I would hate to live in either way.

January 5, 2017


by dyketheelder

We stir, mix, knead, and blend all the time when we’re cooking (or painting, for that matter). We do it to produce uniformity, homogeneity, smoothness, and so on. If you want your pea soup with lumps of ham, and maybe carrots, in it, don’t put it through the blender. If you want a marbled loaf of bread, don’t stir the two batters together too much; just enough to get the fractal dimension of marbling you want. If you want nice smooth gravy, blend it.

If you want nice scrolls and whorls in your Belusov Zabotinski reaction. don’t stir it. If you want a nice smooth martini, stir (or shake) it.

If you don’t want a uniform sea of blank faces in your classroom, don’t impose a system of homogeneity producers in your prerequisites and in your required assignments.

If you want the distinctiveness of your state to make a difference in a presidential election, elect through an electoral college, not a nationwide popular vote.

Everywhere and always there are reasons and pressures to stir, mix, knead and blend, and reasons not to do so. A humble epitome of the nonlinear dynamics we live by.

November 18, 2016

Ego condoms and possibility fans: Thinking with a Bannon

by CarlD

It’s now pretty much officially understood that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media feeds promote cognitive bubbling, a subset of what Dyke the Elder just called “ego condoms.” In a way that was presumably much harder when there was just the one corner store and no portable screens to displace awkward neighborly interactions, folks get to select (and have selected for them) their feeds of news, commentary, entertainment, and social interaction for narrow, comforting self-confirmation. Folks think small, and defend their small thinking fiercely. When contaminants rudely break through the latex, the threat of contagion meets with a poorly developed intellectual immune system that has to kick into panic mode to repel the invaders. How’s that for some metaphors.

A current example is the liberal / progressive reaction to the appointment of Stephen Bannon as Donald Trump’s Director of Strategy. Consigliere Bannon was most recently a mastermind of the Trump campaign. Before that he ‘ran’ in some sense the clickbaity right wing news and commentary consortium Breitbart News Network, worked mergers and acquisitions at Goldman Sachs, ran a media investment bank, made celebratory movies about heroes of conservatism, and directed Biosphere 2. Ha.

Bannon is a classic self-made man, working class, Irish Catholic, bootstrappy, with the usual disdain for ‘the Establishment’ and whiners who put their hand out rather than working their way up. Like anyone with this trajectory who takes this attitude, he seems to be completely oblivious to the systemic flows, gates, and filters that selectively advantage the efforts of guys like him, even while skillfully navigating them. We all know a bunch of guys like this. You’d like to be impressed and happy for them if they weren’t so poisonous. These are the people who are in charge now.

The obliviousness to the selectivity of system flows is one ego condom. The reification of ‘the Establishment’ is another. He’s well defended against the paralyzing confounds of complexity. Guys like this succeed not despite their selective perception but because of it. They’re hard points driven at the gaps and fissures of moving targets. All of the metaphors of the phallus and its disciplining apply here.

A lot of the left commentary would like this guy to be scary because he’s a bigot. That is literally the no-brainer response, a pure reflex. A guy like this may well be a bigot but also gives two shits about race, gender, sexuality, or any of the other ego condoms of righteous subalternity. You can be as blackly, gayly transwhatsis as you like, as long as you do it on your own time and don’t try to leverage it against him. You’re as free to be any of those things as you earn for yourself. These are libertarians, not social conservatives, although that’s one of the weirder aggregations of the American right at the moment. They’re brought together by the more than plausible perception that progressive identity politics does, in fact, try to leverage against them, whether it be ‘their’ resources and opportunities or their world view. So I take Bannon himself at his word when he says he’s not racist or sexist or homophobic. To him, all of that is (diagnostically, to be sure) beside the point.

Cognitive latexing against complexity ‘works’, in a pointy kind of way, but of course it comes with consequences. On the left it means we’ll go into the next election cycle still not knowing what hit us or having any idea what to do about it. On the right, among lots of other things you get Bannon.

You may not want to watch this whole video but never fear, I’ve done it for you. Why? Because my own defenses against complexity are poor, so I’m easily distracted. Bannon is actually a smart guy and he’d like to be engaged with the big picture. All that latex though means that the big picture can’t be complex, so he’s got to linearize it. Latex linearity is all over this talk. He tells a story about the heroic history of Judeo-Christian values. He grafts capitalism onto that story without even momentary irony. And here comes the apocalypse: the wealth and opportunity afforded the whole world by Judeo-Christian capitalism is catastrophically imperiled by the huge national debt racked up and then foisted on the common man by the rapacity and cronyism of the Establishment.

We’ve heard this all before. Righteous, angry, frightening certainty around a securely linearized narrative is, as Bannon himself says, one of the most profoundly motivating strategies of being in the world. As is so often the case, this version picks out some things that are more or less true. Bannon is right, he’s just not all the way right. As a linearizer he can’t be all the way right (well, none of us can) but he can be the kind of partly right that ends up being super wrong.

In passing, he’s a little right and then very wrong about the Western Judeo-Christian thing for all the reasons that Kwame Anthony Appiah says better than I could. The consequence of that is a severe truncation of the evolutionary resources that the whole process of historical experimentation has made available to us. Extinction awaits the species that locks itself into a single evolutionary strategy. The dinosaurs are gone but the birds are still with us. Bannon is a tyrannosaurus, which is a cool thing to be until it’s not. Evolution is for the birds.

More importantly he’s also a little bit right about the debt, or rather about how the debt has been played by the various loose assemblages of visionaries, fools, and scoundrels who have gradually over the course of centuries but then with increasing speed in recent times worked out how to make money appear and disappear without material mediation. It’s true, for example, that the numbers are now simply mind-boggling. A trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon we’re talking about real money. Except we’re not. None of the money is real except the stuff regular folks are still expected to buy things with and pay back if it’s borrowed. All of the rest of it moves around and pops into and out of existence in computers in whatever numbers are needed to get stuff done from time to time. “Debt” has always been another name for money, but the point of distinguishing them is now functionally obsolete.

Bannon tells the story of the crash of 2008 and its bailout as the story of enormous debt being created that is yet to be accounted for and paid back. What actually happened is that the people who do money finally figured out almost all the way that they could just invent as much of it as they needed to settle things down and get on with being rich. And that’s what they did. Overnight. Several trillion dollars, by fiat. Many more trillions since then, as Bannon says. And it worked. It settled things right down, and it’s still out there being money.

In fact there’s so much money now no one knows what to do with it all. It’s parked in the zeros and ones of offshore computers, waiting for someone to have a bright idea. And still they make more, with no inflation because unlike Zimbabwe and Germany after WW 1, nobody but the latex apocalysts even begins to doubt the robustness of the underlying system. Money that was not borrowed, but flat invented. Money so fungible it makes money pointless. Making people pay for things, and especially making people pay for the money of debt, is at this point just a bad habit. It doesn’t even make the wealthy any wealthier – they can just write themselves on that many zeros and ones any time they like. It’s all counted with machine precision but it doesn’t need to be accounted for, and unless we get really unfathomably stupid, it never needs to be paid back because it was never taken from anywhere it needs to be paid back to.

Unfortunately this is exactly the unfathomable stupidity that Bannon is flogging. We’ve just finally demonstrated conclusively that there’s as much money as we need for whatever we think we need. Right now only ‘the Establishment’ are benefiting fully from that; we can be angry about that together. But we’re literally one evolutionary step from the regime of shared plenty, and the tyrannosaurus wants to collapse plenty into austerity. He wants to haul us back to the horrifying constraints of the gold standard and the poor house.

The problem is that there is literally no way for a linearizer to see this. The new money is an effective abstraction. It’s not causally tied to any material antecedent. It’s not produced by work, or ingenuity, or great stores of gold, or any other tangible whatsis. It’s no longer even indexing the wealth and power of any one nation state. It is enabled by the complexity of the global economy. It is supported by an enormous network of official and unofficial actors, all of them entrained to an accounting regime that completely by accident emerged, first vulnerably in places like Ireland and Greece and then invulnerably in the U.S., into a self-organizing, self-sustaining global guarantor of value. It’s a system that’s big enough and rich enough to effortlessly support a fine standard of living for the kind of global population we’d have if everyone was happy and secure, although right now it’s mostly just driving the left side of the Pareto distribution to ridiculous heights. A Hayek with his market emergence might have been able to wrap his mind around this, although he didn’t buy Keynes’ first rumblings. But it can only baffle and enrage a vulgar fetishist of individual striving like Bannon.

Bannon wants to bring back the jobs and get people working again. Oh for the good old days when America was more separately and tangibly great. This in an environment where our machines have increasingly displaced necessary labor, and where most of us ‘work’ at exchanging optional services in a way that makes the discourses of productivity a cruel joke. Why would we want to bring back jobs? The old folks and historical re-enactors can do whatever jobs they want to while the rest of us figure out what to do with all this time we’ll have on our hands. Make steel, if we like, or not. Learn things and share them with each other. Do one thing today and another tomorrow, hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as we have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

We live in interesting times. The possibility fan includes the worlds of the apocalysts of the left and right, frightened and enraged and weirdly empowered by complexity and change, declaring doom and retreating to a cramped, sustainable austerity. It also includes pushing forward into this new regime that has now fully matured right under our noses. I’d like to think the latter is inevitable but in fact it’s not – the Stephen Effin Bannons of the world actually hold it in their power to enforce their cramped, austere, linear image on the world by decoupling the linkages that make the new order possible. This is now what’s at stake. Everything else is the tail trying to wag the dog.

November 15, 2016


by dyketheelder

In some classroom, at some point twenty or thirty years ago, undoubtedly with the catalytic aid of some students, I invented the concept of the ego condom. Things like that happen when your classroom is relaxed and free flowing.  For instance, in a similar way in a similar setting (with the aid (goading) of Amy and Janelle, as I remember) the concept of the sexual outyowindow emerged. Amy: “Was that a sexual innuendo? Reply: “No, that was a sexual outyowindow.” Far too gross and blatant to be an inyowindow — however unintended.  Not very profound, but I’ll get back to it later. Meanwhile back to the ego condom.

An ego condom is a device for protecting a vulnerable ego from socially engendered damage. When fully understood, and generalized, it turns out that ego condoms are so plural and so ubiquitous that the concept spins off into virtual vacuity. In fact, they’re major staples of human personality. However, the concept was invented in the context of the philosophy of science, and in that context the concept can do some work. That is, the concept fits a particular sort of situation — such as the following:

Carl and I are currently reading Nick Lane, The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life. Without going into the details, the book is a work of advocacy. It proposes to insert chemiosmosis, Peter Mitchell’s theory of bioenergetics, into the core of evolutionary theory, now dominated by replication and information. Mitchell received a (1973) Nobel for the theory, but it has never gained the general ascendancy of the post-Watson and Crick lines of thought. Now, I first ran into Mitchell’s theory in the ’80’s. Bruce Weber, a friend, writing colleague, and biochemist, was a strong advocate for Mitchell. A group of us talked a lot about how Mitchell’s discoveries might find a central place in evolutionary thinking. I remember it being pretty hard going, especially for me at that particular stage of my ignorance. At any rate, at the time, and for a long time, Mitchell’s views remained essentially unnoticed in evolutionary discourse. In reading Lane’s book I thought again, for the first time in a long time, about how and why Mitchell’s views could be ignored.

That sort of question always leads to a plurality of intersecting hypotheses, some subset of which eventually stand as a sort of answer. Within the subset ego condoms insinuate themselves. My own advocacy here is to urge that when confronted with such questions, ego condoms are a profitable component of the search for answers. Hunt for them, and you get a long way toward understanding the dialectical structure of science. They never by a long shot ever give you a full answer, but they help “deconvolute” the tangle of answers you end up with. And it almost always is a tangle, since ego condoms are never orthogonal to more “scientific” factors, but live in these factors like viruses. In Cosmopolitics Isabel Stengers works out these issues very elegantly with respect to the fate of Prigogine’s theories.

Well, then, give us an example of an ego condom.

I’ve hoped that you might have thought of some candidates of your own, by now, but I’ll take a look at one of the most obvious and ubiquitous: dick waving. Of course in these days we’ll have to find another identifying phrase, what with the emergence of more and more high quality women at the forefront of science; and ego condoms turn out to be unisex. (The image of Leslie Nielsen keeps flashing, as it were, into my mind.) “Dick waving”, incidentally, is an obvious example — at least in this context — of a sexual outyowindow. As I said, we’ll get back to that. Meanwhile, one of the most common formulae of dick waving is “We scientists …”. I’m pretty sure that the ego condom first emerged in my Cosmology class, and with respect to Brian Greene, a chronic dick waver. The issue is the reversibility or irreversibility of cosmological dynamical equations — a central issue for Prigogine and Stengers, of course. Greene is a champion of reversibility.  He has lots of company. He also is aware of the sensitivity and instability of his position. So in one of his books (one of the many versions of his book, all re-titled) he defends reversibility by a “We scientists …”.

As Tonto once said to the Lone Ranger, “What do you mean “we”, white man?” Greene is cuddling his ego in an orthodoxy that he deems or hopes is strong enough to protect him in his position; but in my “Prigoginian”view, he’s succeeded in making the instability, hence his vulnerability, more obvious. If you want to understand current cosmological theory, it’s good to see that. It opens questions and problematizes issues that might otherwise be swept under the rug.

Now, as tacitly promised, political correctness: the hegemony of the Puritan constabulary. I think that’s a disease we could all die from. Recent politics confirms me in that judgment. The attempt to sterilize social and political discourse is the ultimate ego condom. The establishment of mutual respect and understanding is a, if not the, major problem we face. I don’t think that mutual understanding and respect can live very long in the face of the sterilization of our available discursive space. I know for a fact that any education that conduces to mutual understanding and respect can’t live under that regime. It may sound trivial to say that we need classroom climates where “sexual outyowindow”, and “ego condom”, and “dick waving as a rhetorical strategy” can emerge, but intellectual freedom and productive pathways to answers depend on exactly that climate. If you think that some people are hurt, and many others made uncomfortable, in that climate, you’re right. In fact, it’s traditional; and the reason the tradition must be promoted and defended, for the alternative is not only painful, but deadly. Ironically, Donald and the millions he has captured show us just that. Matched against a gutless, self-protective alternative, they showed us the result of generations of denial and self-sanctimony that have denied space for converting festering disagreement and resentment into any sort of mutual project of understanding and respect. The prime minister of Malaysia epitomized the election as the rebellion of those who were left behind. Obviously they weren’t just left behind, but also actively excluded by those with a deep grained sense of their own superiority. But that sense of superiority among the educated while elite is hard to defend in the world that’s emerged from colonialisms internal and external, so default to preventive sterilization — intellectual eugenics. Intellectual space has more and more been taken over by ego condoms. As in the case of the sciences, the recognition of these protective devices, and especially their fragility, can be helpful.



October 31, 2016

Let the tool do the work

by CarlD

is my bid for best advice that’s hard to follow.

As an incurable tamperer I have a million instances on mental file, but currently it’s hammers in relation to staples as I tack field wire onto an old post and rail fence to prepare a pasture for the pigs we just got. It’s amazing how well a hammer works when you just let it do its thing; and it’s amazing how many ways wire and staple can get messed up, but also just how much more exhausting the job immediately gets when you don’t.

So the rubric is: best advice that’s hard to follow. Any other favorites?

October 14, 2016

The recombinant DNA of our political discourse

by CarlD

I’m forging slowly and painfully through John H. Holland’s Complexity: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP, 2014). I’m going to recommend it, but it’s tough going for me because Holland comes at complex adaptive systems from an engineering and computer science perspective. The approach is computational, so I would imagine tremendously congenial to Asher and perhaps JohnM. Whereas I can work it out (thanks, John), but it’s way out of my silo. I’m a house painter, not a pigment chemist, Jim. Consider a passage like this, from Chapter 5, which took me about an hour to decode:

To get a more precise view of the routing possibilities for tags, let’s look again at the use of #s to define the conditions for signal-processing rules (introduced at the beginning of Chapter 4). A condition can be set to respond to a given tag by using #s (don’t cares) on either side of the tag; thus the condition #100### … # responds to a signal string with tag 100 at the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th positions of the string. Note that a condition with many #s can accept a variety of tags while a condition with few #s will accept few if any tags (requiring a specific string when it has no #s). Or, looking at tags themselves, short tags satisfy a variety of conditions, while long tags make highly specific requirements on conditions.

“Don’t cares?” Wah? And then he does some tables and stuff to show how the routing and recombination of tags happens, creating emergence. Which normally I’d ignore and wait for the explication in words, only then the words assume I have a basic understanding of how binary works; and although I do, I also kind of don’t. My balls are not making it through the urn gates, if you get my drift.

“If you’re not bringing math skills to the problem [of climate change],” [Bill Gates] said with a sort of amused asperity, “then representative democracy is a problem.”

So as usual I resort to a kind of rough and ready translation, to find enough cognitive overlap with something familiar where I can get a handle on what I’m being told. Which, if I understand correctly (but how could I, given this cludgy workaround), in itself corresponds to what Holland is saying about how information tagging works, and the emergence of something like knowledge. And because of the election and the work I’ve been doing to try to bridge the various discourse communities I interact with, the something familiar I go to is politics.

I’m especially interested in, roughly speaking, the information content of political discourse. I surf a lot of short-form information streams, ranging from domestic and foreign press and commentary (Atlantic, Guardian, Jacobin, Baffler, Breitbart, Red State, etc.) to online affinity groups (Sanford / Lee County Truth Seekers) to Facebook statuses. I interview Trump ralliers for my department’s oral history project. I talk with neighbors and friends. None of this is meant to be scientific or in any way dispositive; I’m just grazing.

What I find is that American political discourse seems like it could be usefully analogized to DNA. There isn’t actually that much divergence or diversity of original information. You can get almost anything said by rearranging and elaborating on a few basic concepts like individual, community, threat, and opportunity. DNA is just four proteins, CGAT. That’s plenty. How they’re arranged is what actually does the work, all the way up to thoughts about Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Analysis of complex systems almost always turns on finding recurring patterns in the system’s ever-changing configurations (Holland).

There’s nothing new about ‘reducing’ political discourse to unit ideas. Recall George Lakoff boiling American politics down to basic orienting metaphors of the family: authoritarian father and nurturing parent. But those are already speciated information complexes, and as the subsequent commentary has shown, highly vulnerable to complexifying analysis. He’s missing the rearrangement step. It’s like if he said, “Over there you have monkeys, whereas here are the humans.” And because the matter is in motion, just about everyone turns out to be a missing link.

It is unusual for CAS agents to converge, even momentarily, to a single ‘optimal’ strategy, or to an equilibrium. As the agents adapt to each other, new agents with new strategies usually emerge. Then each new agent offers opportunities for still further interactions, increasing the overall complexity (Holland).

 So here is a human interaction I wrote about on Facebook the other day:

I don’t suppose I’m hiding my disdain for Trump and (qualified) support for Clinton very well. And yes, I think there is a lot of bad stuff you have to ignore or explain away to be excited about either of them, but so much more so with Trump that there’s no reasonable comparison.

But the world keeps turning. Yesterday I was clearing two big trees that fell across our driveway when two pickups pulled in and spilled out neighbors we hadn’t met yet, equipped with big chainsaws and neighborly fellowship. A job that would have taken me an hour took us ten minutes, and then off they went looking for more people to help.

The conversation made it clear they were Trump supporters – pretty much all our neighbors are – but I liked them very much and not just because they were helping me. They were no nonsense and capable, thoughtful and droll.

It sort of amazes me that good folks like this can’t or won’t scale their sense of helping out to the national level. I know that who needs help, and when, and by whom, and for how long, is a complicated question. Why people need help is even more complicated. Unless it’s a tree across the driveway. On that we can agree.

What does this agreement mean? Holland says that what I’m going to call understanding, which is a transformed relationship to the world, comes from the kinds of overlap that enable exchange, and that change emerges routinely from these swaps.

It has been observed that innovation in CAS is mostly a matter of combining well-known components in new ways (Holland).

So one overlap in my story is “chainsaw,” and it’s actually a critical one for this particular interaction. There’s even political information of a kind in it, since owning your own chainsaw and being usefully skilled with it express a position in and relationship to the world. These guys got a lot more comfortable once they saw me whacking off limbs and logs without a lot of fuss, and vice versa. This overlap then enabled later bantering swaps in which we explored (scant) overlaps in our gender and family systems via their assumption that my hatchback, trapped behind the trunks at the bottom of the driveway, must be my wife’s car. The rescuing the little lady narrative got weird for a second. It got ok again once it was the commute vehicle, and a diesel, and we could talk about retrofitting an electrical fuel pump on old Jettas to improve reliability.

The guys were grandfather, father, and son. Grandpa mostly sat and watched, Dad ran the main saw (he said they had “bar and bow,” which I didn’t properly understand until he pulled out his rig, learning and growing),


and Son sort of puttered around moving cut branches. In the following conversation, Dad talked modestly about a life of extraordinary accomplishment as a builder, mechanic, and entrepreneur. Son had the same easy feel of quality but turned out to be one of the completely useless young men I’ve written about before. He’s got a degree in History, so we overlapped there, and on our assessment that no one in their right minds would go into teaching in the current educational environment. Just a whole lot of overlap there, to be honest. He noticed my Farm Bureau Insurance cap and connected it to his pragmatic pursuit of insurance agent certification. There were no illusions about the redeeming value of this occupation, and here Dad made a crack about getting right with Obamacare and the mirage of “free” insurance, which is one of the branching tags of our current politics.

OK, so this is a blog post and can’t noodle around in anecdote forever. What about the recombinant DNA of our political discourse? The overlapping tags for us were the American classics: community, individual, opportunity, threat. In some sense we agreed on all the basics; that is, our ideas were composed of the same elements. Our political divergence was in those tags’ recombination across different environmental and developmental histories. In the right situation we could get the community and opportunity tags to overlap pretty robustly, but what became clear is that for a whole range of situations, that was not the effective exchange zone, branched especially by where we put the threat tags.

Roughly speaking and allowing for all the partial overlaps, conflations, and plain misses I think this is basically right, but I’m no more sure it’s usefully right than noticing that monkeys, apes, and humans share 98% of their DNA, or whatever it is. As Holland might say the vocabulary needs the grammar to emerge into meaning. On the other hand there’s always that idea of kinship that’s so easy to lose in our biological and political discussions. It’s not that conservatives don’t have the individual tag, it’s that it’s assembled differently with the community and threat tags. We could work with that, maybe. And as usual this is me thinking out loud where, if we can get the tags to overlap, others might be interested to think with me.

September 15, 2016

Philosophy’s Reason Problem

by Asher Kay

There was a decent column on NYT's The Stone blog today. Yeah, I was surprised too. Robert Burton, a neurologist, neuroscientist and popular science author was discussing the problem that Philosophy has letting go of Reason:

Going forward, the greatest challenge for philosophy will be to remain relevant while conceding that, like the rest of the animal kingdom, we are decision-making organisms rather than rational agents, and that our most logical conclusions about moral and ethical values can’t be scientifically verified nor guaranteed to pass the test of time.

Burton makes some good points in the piece, but he doesn't offer a lot in the way of solutions. It might be fun to think about what a solution would look like.

Like so many of the misconceptions that Philosophy can't seem to get past, I'm inclined to lay this one at the feet of Immanuel Kant, who probably did as much to send Philosophy veering off in the wrong direction as Freud did for Psychology.

Without getting long-winded about it, Kant was keen to refute Hume's conclusion that inductive reasoning from experience was the only way we really acquired knowledge. To attack the problem, Kant separated judgements along two axes: the a priori/a posteriori axis and the analytic/synthetic axis. The distinction between a priori and a posteriori is that the former takes place "prior to experience" and the latter are grounded in experience. The difference between analytic and synthetic judgements is that the former work only with information present in the propositions being reasoned about and thus don't create "new" knowledge, while the latter bring new information in. Kant combined these axes to produce four kinds of judgements: a posteriori analytic, a posteriori synthetic, a priori analytic, and a priori synthetic. The kind of judgement which Kant felt would refute Hume, if it existed, was the a priori synthetic judgement. If we could reason, without reference to experience, in a way that would produce new knowledge, Hume's depressing thesis would be wrong.

The fact that of his four categories, one – a posteriori analytic judgements – couldn't exist, and another – a priori synthetic – didn't obviously exist should have been a red flag that he was thinking about it wrong. But maybe we should cut him a break. My sense, after reading a lot of philosophy from this time period, is that the concept of "experience" was not particularly clear or well-formed. The ghost of Avicenna's Floating Man was still pretty regularly rattling windows and knocking things off Philosophy's bookshelves in Kant's time (hell, he's still kicking around today).

A modern, physicalist view would reject the a priori/a posteriori distinction altogether. Avicenna's Floating Man would have a brain with zero input, and we know that such a brain would probably not operate at all, let alone do any predicate logic. Thought itself – including reason – is driven by stimulus, and there is no real way to separate perception from reasoning, except with respect to a rough taxonomy of mental activity. Both reason and perception depend upon the patterned activity of a brain impinged upon over long periods of time by a consistent physical universe that enables it to transcode, record and model its consistencies.

When Burton talks about the "void" that would be left in Philosophy if reason were abandoned, I'm reminded of the fear of nihilism that lurks behind arguments for moral realism. If there is no real foundation for moral truths, it whispers, then the whole ediface falls and we are left with a morality in which "anything goes". It's the same fear that Camus walked right up to and flipped the bird at in his discussion of absurdity. And it was a bird that needed flipping.

It's not really Reason that's losing its footing in Philosophy. It's not just a perception problem. It's realism.

The fact is that the nihilism of "anything goes" is a false fear. Anything doesn't go. Anything hardly even gets started going. Our physical universe constrains us to a knife's edge of possibilities, and our biological structures constrain us even further. We can't escape the survival instinct or our range of tastes any more than we can escape gravity or the temperature range our bodies can withstand.

So the solution to Philosophy's problem is a weaker, less absolute concept of reason, and a weaker, less absolute realism that recognizes that what we wanted to be a foundation is really just a strong, consistent, persistent set of constraints.

August 31, 2016

What the Universal Translator gets wrong

by CarlD

One of the necessary little tricks in Star Trek is a device called the Universal Translator. What it does is something something something, and as a result all of the characters from all of the species and cultures in all of the galaxy can immediately and seamlessly hear and understand each other without having to labor over a lot of language acquisition. Handy!

In one of my favorite episodes of the Next Generation series of the show, the Enterprise encounters folks who speak entirely in metaphors (unless they are allegories, or even better, strategies, as Ian Bogost argues). Because the Universal Translator has no database of the original referents for the metaphors/allegories/strategies, it can render the words and names of the imagery but is confounded on their purpose and meaning. Frank incomprehension ensues. Brilliantly, the alien captain beams himself and Picard down to the local planet, where they are forced to work out an understanding under pressure from a belligerent prop critter (which makes no attempt to understand them, or vice versa). Even though Picard learns only a phew ‘phrases’ of the alien language, it is enough to stand down tension — although not to ground a relationship, so off the aliens go again.

So in effect, they get to the level of ritualized small talk, and like so many of our encounters in real life, that’s as far as they’ll ever get. What the Universal Translator gets wrong is that you could ever advance to understanding of another person or culture or conceptual complex just by translating the words without all of the unarticulated paratexts that give them meaning and purpose. This is also a thing that all of those lists of ‘untranslatable’ foreign words get wrong from the other side. No word is untranslatable, although sometimes it takes more than one word to do it. What’s tricky is all of the stuff embedded in the word that doesn’t come with it in the verbal substitution.

A good recent example is Paul Berman’s takedown of cross-cultural misunderstanding over French banning of Islamist dress and particularly the ‘burkini’, full-cover swimwear for women. Berman focuses on the French word laïcité, which is routinely described in American commentary as an untranslatable mystification justifying all manner of offenses against fundamental values like personal freedom. So Berman notes that the word is not at all difficult to translate, ‘secularism’. But what is hard to convey is the thick concept embedded in the thin word by the long history of the French working through all of its permutations in exhaustive public debates on the way to installing it as one of their fundamental national values. Not secularism, secularismSecularism, get it? Which means those women are not just exercising their personal rights of choice on those beaches, they are directly and explicitly attacking the French nation as such.

Berman does not go on to discuss how this kind of argument works pretty much the same if we’re talking about Americans freaking out over Muslim immigrants trying to get the schools to take Sharia law into account in dress codes and menu options and such, but if he did he might reasonably reply that in this context the fight is over which religious fundamentalism will dominate public spaces rather than its complete removal therefrom. And the profound differences between a liberal conception of serial diversity vs. a republican conception of compelling moral solidarity and a conservative conception of wholesome homogeneity.

What strikes me here is, yet again, that the same words can have not just different meanings, but completely different existential and conceptual underpinnings, different logics of practice to use a concept given meaning via Bogost, Bourdieu, and eventually Marx. Both the United States and France assert secularism as one of their core values. But it turns out that looks very different if you actually mean it. So what we’re seeing with France is an experiment in making secularism a finally deciding principle, rather than a nice bonus as long as nothing else important is at stake. In France, secularism grounds individual rights. When individual rights don’t express secularism, it’s the rights that must lose. In the U.S., individual rights can include secularism, but often don’t. Ours is the liberal secularism of not taking sides, in fundamental contrast to the republican secularism of defining a moral order prior to individual choice or group affiliation. But then, individual rights for us are themselves a fundamentalism.

All of this emerges from evolutionary histories. As Berman notes, France makes a lot more sense if we remember the religious wars that shredded Europe for a couple hundred years. Then the revolutions made the blood flow. Then primitive ethnic nationalism twice mixed blood and soil. Then the empire agonizingly collapsed in the blood rivers of identity politics old and new. France has tried out a whole bunch of extremisms, and is now extremely extremism averse. Well, except for the National Front, who don’t so much miss the lessons of history as proudly embrace their gruesomely formative slaughter. They relish the fight. They don’t want to ban burkinis, they want to throw the Muslims into the sea. To secularism fundamentalists, burkini bans are congenially available as a moderating response to that kind of extremism. Two birds with one stone. To rights fundamentalists, burkini bans are unthinkable, uncanny, horrific. Polluted and polluting. Their range of understanding and response are restricted accordingly.

Oddly, or maybe not at all oddly, I find myself in the same predicament in my sabbatical project, and especially trying to explain my sabbatical project. “A history of theories of complex systems,” I say. Most people know what all these words mean. They can use them creatively in ordinary conversation. After all, complex systems are all around us. I mention examples. It’s easy. A farming colleague has begun teasing me about how everything is a complex system. It reminds me of the old joke about Clifford Geertz, who after writing about ideology as a cultural system, religion as a cultural system, chickens as a cultural system, politics as a cultural system, and your face as a cultural system (ok, I made that last one up, but it’s plausible enough), was supposedly working on his magnum opus, “Culture as a Cultural System.” Haha, Carl and his complex systems.

But no, look, not complex systems, complex systemsComplex systems, get it? The difference is what happens if we start to take this seriously as a conception of the world. It’s not that things are complicated or that they can get unruly. It’s not about adding a variable or two to approximate a more complete analysis. It’s not that there are sometimes multiple factors and causes and motivations, and it can be tough to untangle them. All of that is sort of true-ish, but still completely missing the point. It’s taking complex systems and making them the rule, not the exception. It’s that actually, situations about which you could say the foregoing entirely truly are vanishingly rare and exceptional, and generally require massive inputs of effort and selective attention. The conceptual foundation of complex systems analysis is fundamentally alien and opposite to the way most of us have been taught to think about the world, which is in terms of isolating effective causes, and making shit up when that doesn’t work. God(s) did it, Fate did it, the Jews did it, The Man did it, men did it. Obama did it, Ike did it, Reagan did it, Hitler did it, Lincoln did it, MLK did it, Susan B. Anthony did it. Fertilizer did it, antibiotics did it, free trade did it, rational choice did it, the bourgeoisie did it, Bretton Woods did it, Socrates did it, Kant did it, Helen’s face did it.

Can you change your life by changing your diet? Sure. Will dropping red meat and eating yogurt with probiotics do it? Gosh, where to start. Maybe let’s talk about how we used to eat the stuff that the animals we ate were digesting. How paleo can you go? Yogurt, um. There’s a food system, there’s a culture of food system, family recipes and such, there are politics and economics, markets and climates, there are a lot of habits to talk about, there are billions of beasties doing a whole bunch of interrelated work in the soil you may not want to wash off that produce and in your guts, your guts include your skin by the way so let’s talk about soap and makeup and moisturizer. Will Donald Trump ruin everything, or fix everything? Which everything. Are we starting with checks and balances? Will we talk about the relative advantages and disadvantages of large and aging human populations? How exactly is he going to make the Mexicans do anything? How’d his first two marriages go? You say at least he tells it like it is? Gary Johnson, the candidate of choice! Jill Stein, for moral purity! I can’t even get there from here. Shaka, when the walls fell.

December 29, 2015

Ignorance is a kind of entropy. It can’t be moraled away.

by CarlD

Tossed this off just now in response to yet another righteous refusal of the Sisyphean work of education, re: racism, sexism, etc. There are lots of things that everyone ‘should’ know. But as long as they don’t, there’s a boulder to push up a hill.

September 29, 2015

The Lively Science

by johnmccreery

I have just submitted a book review to Popanth, a slightly modified version of the text I wrote to start a forum on the Open Anthropology Cooperative. Some here might be interested.


The preface to Michael Agar’s The Lively Science: Remodeling Human Social Research begins with the following paragraphs.

“What’s a nice reader like you doing in a book like this? I’m hoping that you’re here because you’re curious about a way to do “behavioral science” or “social science” that will help you figure out a problem you’d like to solve, or maybe you just wonder what those words mean because you’re a curious type. Maybe you’re a student, new or returning, embarking on a course with those names attached to it, or maybe a course in one of the many other areas that make use of them. The point is, I’m writing for readers who are fresh to the concepts, not for colleagues.

“This book has a simple premise to get you started. The premise is, research on humans in their social world by other humans is not a traditional science like the one created by Galileo and Newton . It’s not that the creators were wrong. Far from it. The ones who were wrong were the historical figures who tried to imitate the way the creators worked, neglecting the fact that learning how people make it through the day is different from dropping balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa or getting hit on the head by falling apples. Galileo didn’t have to communicate with the balls. Besides, he didn’t have to worry that the balls might look down 185 feet and refuse to jump and throw him over the parapet instead.”

Two points are vital here. One concerns how we read, the other what the book is talking about. When Agar writes, “The point is, I am writing for readers who are fresh to the concepts, not for colleagues,” he is asking those of us who are or hope to be colleagues to turn off what we think we already know and approach those concepts he mentions with a fresh, innocent gaze that makes no assumption that we know what he is talking about. He asks us to be readers who act like ethnographers, putting aside what we think to attend carefully to the people whose lives we share, looking for evidence of ideas that may be radically different from those we bring to the field. This is no small request, since, as indicated in the second paragraph, the topic sounds awfully familiar.

Anthropology, or at least the anthropology called social or cultural anthropology, is split down the middle. On one side are the “scientists” who see their goal as contributing to the kind of science conceived by Galileo and Newton, a science that discovers mathematical laws that work apply everywhere, regardless of what the entities they describe might be thinking or feeling. On the other side are the “humanists,” for whom the essence of humanity lies in what humans think and feel and insist that thoughts and feelings cannot be understood scientifically. They can only be interpreted, thickly described in ways that make human stories plausible. Our usual reaction to this divide is to pick one side or the other and become fierce advocates for our choice. Agar asks us to question the ways in which we conceive of scientific and humanistic understanding, to challenge the divide and consider an alternative view in which science and humanity are combined.

Stated so baldly, the thesis of the book sounds like a familiar sort of Hegelian dialectic: Thesis=science. Antithesis=humanity. Synthesis=A reconciliation that overcomes the initial contradiction. But there is much more to The Lively Science than is captured in this formula. Agar leads us on a picaresque journey through the thickets of modern social theory. He leads us away from the heavyweights usually featured in brief histories of social theory: Mars, Weber, and Durkheim. Instead he directs our attention to German idealists with names like Dilthey, rarely mentioned except in footnotes, and invites us to consider what they were on about when distinguishing naturwissenschaft, literally “natural science,” from geisteswissenschaft, “spiritual sciences,” a.k.a., humanities, but insisting that both are wissenschaft, i.e. science. Via this journey, Agar leads us to consider a broader view of science, in which Galileo and Newton represent only one variety, and the humanities are human sciences, retaining scientific rigor.

As illustrated by the two paragraphs quoted above, however, this is not a pretentious, ponderous book. Agar is a witty and genial writer well-aware that his mission is not to speak to those already his colleagues, already set in our intellectual ways, but to newcomers, still young and open enough in mind and spirit and still rebellious enough to want to challenge their teachers, to consider thoughts not heard, or heard not nearly enough, in classrooms. If you see yourself in this description, Michael Agar’s The Lively Science is a must-read for you.

July 17, 2015

A Thread from Savage Minds

by johnmccreery

This thread began with a post related to the ending of the Human Terrain System (HTS) program, which many anthropologists saw as a violation of anthropological ethnics. The following is only a branch of a larger discussion.

Thoughts, anyone?


One plausible example of an anthropologist who seems to do what HTS was intended to do pretty well is someone I have mentioned before, David Kilcullen, the author of Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla, which I consider personally one of the most important books that I have read in recent years. The problem is that Kilcullen is a rare bird indeed, an anthropologist with a Ph.D. from, I recall [I could be mistaken], Australian National University, who is also a professional soldier. He is thus equipped to relate anthropological insight to military operations in a way that few, if any, other anthropologists are. The story he relates at the start of the book is a good example.

He is with a convoy returning from a ceremony to celebrate the opening of a regional slaughterhouse and meat-packing plant at the head of a valley in Afghanistan. The convoy comes under attack, a firefight ensues, but the attackers are quickly beaten off with little actual harm done on either side. There are those who instantly wonder what was going on. Have the Taliban returned to an area from which they were supposed to be driven away? Kilcullen suggests a plausible alternative scenario. The valley at the head of which the new facility was located is, like many parts of Afghanistan, controlled by multiple small warlords. The attack on the convoy was a way of expressing displeasure by the warlord who controlled the part of the valley where the attack took place at not having been consulted about where the new slaughterhouse would be located — in another warlord’s territory. Failure to avenge this insult would have seriously undermined his own authority. Kilcullen is careful to note that this alternative scenario is only hypothetical; but it is one that takes into account local political arrangements of which his on-the-scene colleagues were unaware.


Kilcullin is a military strategist, one of the architects of the surge in Iraq. He’s a poster-boy along with Andrew Exum, “Abu Muqawama”, for the new model of competent [sic] imperial management. Their interest is projecting American power. So if you’re interested in asking why we’re in Iraq, or asking why the US vetoed the return of the popular former king of Afghanistan Zahir Shah, in 2002, supporting Karzai and ceding power to various warlords, these are questions neither Kilcullin nor Exum are interested in answering.


Let us suppose for the sake of argument that Seth’s characterization of David Kilcullen [not Kilcullin] and Andrew Exum [of whom I have never heard] is valid. Does this mean that there is nothing to be learned from them? Suppose, for example, that we are interested in how propaganda works, a topic with clear relevance to anthropological studies of myth, ritual and social movements. We may abhor the politics of Joseph Goebbels and Frank Luntz, but they are masters of their dark arts and should be on every reading list. In Kilcullen’s case, I know of no other anthropologist who has pointed out the importance of coastal cities of which large parts are ungovernable for lack of infrastructure overwhelmed by mass population growth, key nodes in international networks of finance and trade, and increasingly threatened by flooding due to global warming—and are thus attractive targets as well as fertile ground for terrorist organizations. And his Malinowskian moment, noticing his colleagues from Papua New Guinea with whom he is on maneuvers employing the fish traps that become his model for organizations ranging from criminal gangs to nation states is both lucid and brilliant. In all these cases the bait is the promise of security — for a price, submission and payment of protection money, a.k.a. taxes — and armed violence provides the barbs that prevent the fish from escaping the trap. Oh, yes, these are, indeed, ugly instrumental factors in how the world is organized. It would be so much nicer to focus instead on cultural logics and poetics, become a Daoist hermit or Candide cultivating his garden. But while these are nice hobbies — I enjoy them immensely myself — it hardly seems fair to complain if taxpayers or other patrons refuse to foot the bill.


I often disagree with Seth, but I do like his being here. His rants often contain pointers to authors I have never heard of. Andrew Exum is a case in point. A Google search brought me to his book This Man’s Army: A Soldier’s Story from the Front Lines of the War on Terrorism. I spent much of last night reading it, being constantly reminded of how ending the draft (something I was once very much in favor of) has alienated those of us who have chosen civilian and especially academic career tracks from those who volunteer to serve in the military. Thus, we find it easy to stereotype them as anonymous automatons without conscience or moral sensibility, destructive robots lacking in what we see as humanity. I find this deeply ironical, given the effort and often self-righteous rhetoric we devote to denouncing discrimination based on race, gender, culture or religion. This is doubly ironical since the anthropological canon contains numerous examples, from Africa, North America, the Middle East and elsewhere of peoples proud of warrior traditions. We are, for example, eager to proclaim the League of the Iroquois as a model for the U.S. Constitution, while avoiding mention of the torture of captives and stoic bravery in the face of torture that were integral parts of the same culture. We are familiar with the controversy surrounding the labeling of the Yanomami as “The Fierce People,” seeing this label as an insult, despite the wealth of evidence, both ethnographic and historical, that human beings commonly enjoy violent conflict. And, yes, we do, too — albeit vicariously in games or fiction or contact sports played by other people. If our job is to render people uncomfortable with cultural stereotypes, perhaps we should start with our own. This Man’s Army is an excellent place to begin.

July 5, 2015

Making work

by CarlD

Among other things, the unfolding drama in Greece is a reminder that in the world today, and for quite some time past, there is not and has not been enough work for people to do. Rather than find some other way to organize and valorize human life, the response to this has been to make work.

In Greece, among many other places, this has taken the form of massive systems of neo-feudal governmental and quasi-governmental employment (farmers of government payments like the defense and health industries, for example), funded through various extractive and inventive strategies ranging from taxation to money printing to ‘public debt’. (Since the fiat currencies of the modern state are essentially circulating debt, there is no essential difference between these strategies except the levels of public confusion and therefore the pseudo-politics caused by each.)

Because countries like Greece are not big and scary enough to control their own narratives, this fabrication of life and value is commonly referred to there as ‘corruption’. In countries big and scary enough to control their own narratives like the United States and Germany, it is referred to as ‘the public sector’. But in all cases most of the work in question deploys the otherwise unemployed to provide each other, at each others’ expense, with ‘services’ the need for which is largely created by their availability.

Clearly this is not ‘gainful’ or ‘productive’ employment, except in the pragmatic and existential senses that life and value are created by it. As the story goes, truly productive employment only occurs in the ‘private sector’, where the work is driven by real market demand rather than corrupt and/or unproductive shenanigans.

Which brings me to landscaping.

versailles gardens

Landscaping might be described as an inherently unproductive modification of land. Farms are not landscaped, they are worked. Lawns without sheep are an ecological monstrosity, and ‘yards’ need only be cleared enough to keep pests and predators from immediate contact with the buildings. Unremarkable local plants do the trick just fine with minimal inputs of effort. Spare land may well become valuable through garden planting, or left fallow. Of course flowers that attract pollinators, fix nitrogen, and the like may add splashes of color and texture. Productive land has its own beauty, as do the lumpy bodies of productive people. Human / land interaction is traditionally labor and attention intensive. Ordinary folks lived like this for millenia.

And yet, in the United States alone landscaping is an $80 billion ‘industry’. Some of this of course is public and quasi-public landscaping like government lawns and highway medians, but most of it is private and therefore market driven. There is a robust demand for landscaping.

The need to beautify commercial/residential property as a place for relaxation, entertainment or work, has long nourished the interest in landscaping. The worth added to the value of property by decorative structures, ponds, patios, and green-winding pathways too cannot be undermined. Keeping in view the growing popularity and importance of landscaping as an art, science, and commercial value proposition, it is of little surprise that landscaping services has now become one of the most important domains in the overall services industry.

From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. Over 800,000 people are employed in just the direct provision of landscaping services such as “sod laying, mowing, trimming, planting, watering, fertilizing, digging, raking, sprinkler installation, and installation of mortarless segmental concrete masonry wall units,” over 15,000 in “death care services” alone. This does NOT include the production of landscaping supplies and equipment, agriculture of sod and ornamental plants, industry and academic study of same, fractions of transportation, water, and sewer infrastructure devoted to moving the stuff and the stuff’s inputs and outputs around, yard ‘waste’ removal, and so on. Taken all together, it would probably be safe to say that private demand for the inherently unproductive modification of land annually generates about a million jobs and about $100 billion dollars. Yay, markets!

As the husband and friend of artists I know that there are all sorts of ways to argue about the nature and value of beauty. As the (hopefully) soon-to-be owner of a farm originally set up for ornamental livestock (horses) that we hope gradually to convert to boutique farm-to-table production, I am aware that there are no clear lines between the production and productivity of aesthetic and alimentary experience. The other thing that folks did for millenia was eat gruel. And horseflesh.

1265 panorama

But this is my point. If we take an old-school approach to productive labor, there’s very little of that left to do after the machines get done. MOST of the work that people do now, especially in the developed world, is makework. My job certainly is, in a way that’s obvious enough to produce real strains at the point of sale, and incredibly vulnerable by the productivity standards that waves of businessy types periodically try to enforce on it. For education (employment: 8 million+) in anything that required real productivity, tech schools and apprenticeships, largely taught by mechanical reproduction, would surely do the trick. The rest is landscaping.

And therefore, makework had better be alright. As much as I’d like to get on my high horse about Greek (or Italian) ‘corruption’, there’s none of my life that doesn’t participate in the same dynamics. I try to pay off, maybe in ways public sector employees give up on or never learn, but given the spread of outcomes that’s not much more than noise in the signal. What does Germany think it’s doing that’s so much better than what the Greeks are doing? For the life of me, I can’t work that out.


June 23, 2015


by CarlD

I try to keep relatively current on science / speculative fiction because of the reading circles I lead in that genre for our accreditation-driven “Quality Enhancement Plan.” So I just finished reading a short novel by Connie Willis (better known for The Doomsday Book, up next), Bellwether (1996). Why did I read this one? Well, it’s what Overdrive offered as immediately available while I waited for any of the other books I had cued up to check back in. An accident. But as it turns out, it was very interesting, because Willis is trying with some success to work with chaos and complexity and the dynamics of scientific discovery.

As a story, there’s not much here. The main character, Sandra Foster, studies the dynamics of fads and fashions for a research corporation called HiTek. One of the running gags in the book is all the faddish corporo-bureaucratic acronymized gyrations “Management” forces the researchers through, complete with “simplified” paperwork in dozens of pages and cryptic, jargony instructions. It’s good for about one giggle for a guy reading the book because of a Quality Enhancement Plan, but is quickly overdone and tiresome, like these gyrations themselves. There’s also a surly, self-absorbed, incompetent millennial gofer named Flip who keeps showing up and driving the plot. Because she’s an actual presence, she’s among the most irritating devices imaginable, even worse than white whales and old bears deep in the Yoknapatawpha woods. Sandy cluelessly circles and then unsurprisingly hooks up with another geeky scientist, Bennet, a biologist who works on group behavior and learning, and yet is personally immune to fads and fashions. “It isn’t that he doesn’t care what other people think. It’s just that he doesn’t see what it has to do with him.” Well that sounds familiar.

And it goes on and on, with Sandy meeting obstacle after infuriatingly gratuitous obstacle in her quest to figure out why hair bobbing became a thing during the 1920s. It’s actually a great cultural studies topic and anecdotally well-researched by Willis, but Sandy’s field awareness and analytical level are somewhere around advanced undergrad, which gets annoying real quick too. She semi-obsessively collects data on fads both historical and contemporary, for some reason trusting Flip to make copies of her clippings over and over again despite impressively comprehensive evidence that it ain’t gonna happen and they’ll probably get lost, trashed, and/or drowned in Coke. Sandy is, in fact, pretty much just as incompetent as Flip, consistently failing to perceive and act on the obvious. “Just because people are experiencing things doesn’t mean they have any insight into them,” she observes. Yes indeedy. At least she’s relatively good-natured about this, unlike many academics I know who this description would fit. In the climax, via corporate trials and tribulations Sandy and her boy combine forces to study the learning behavior of sheep, which act just like the cartoon sheep cynics compare people to. Because Willis is comparing people to sheep, get it?

The slapdash device-mongering of character and story kept trying to throw me out of the book. But alongside all of that crud the book is explicitly and substantively complexity-themed, and that definitely changes the game. I wanted to see what Willis was going to do with that. She’s interested in how science works, and she’s post-Kuhnian in thinking that it works chaotically. How do fads happen? How does science happen? By luck; by accident.

Scientific discoveries are the same way. People like to think of science as rational and reasonable, following step by step from hypothesis to experiment to conclusion. Dr. Chin, last year’s winner of the Niebnitz Grant, wrote, “The process of scientific discovery is the logical extension of observation by experimentation.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The process is exactly like any other human endeavor—messy, haphazard, misdirected, and heavily influenced by chance.

So, the kind of luck and accident that need all sorts of conditions and processes to self-organize into emergent transitions of practice and understanding. As it turns out, every damn irritating thing in the book, all the distractions and confusions and derailments and frustrations, ends up being conditioned through a discovery agenda into a breakthrough:

Scientific breakthroughs involve combining ideas no one thought to connect before, seeing connections nobody saw before. Chaotic systems create feedback loops that tend to randomize the elements of the system, displace them, shake them around so they’re next to elements they’ve never come in contact with before. Chaotic systems tend to increase in chaos, but not always. Sometimes they restabilize into a new level of order.

I especially like this theme of disruptive cross-connecting and field-hopping as the means to creative emergence. She cites all sorts of examples of this, including Newton’s apple, Poincare’s bus, and Feynman’s bongos. In fact, to hear her tell it, ‘normal’ science never discovered anything. It takes a trip outside of the box.

So far so good, if we accept for a second the implicit dissing of field competence and condition-setting in the run-ups to transformations. But it turns out that Sandy and Bennet, despite being able to reel off impressive accounts of complex systems, interaction and scale dynamics, non-linearity, iteration and feedback, and irreducibility, are both committed to the view that emergence requires a single essential catalytic factor, the ‘bellwether’ of the title. This is dramatized first by their discovery that to get the sheep to do anything they need an actual bellwether, a sheep that’s just a little out in front of the herd, that wanders just a little more purposefully than the rest. It is then cemented for the whole discussion by the ‘discovery’ that [SPOILER ALERT] the worse-than-useless FLIP was actually the catalytic agent who, by her ubiquitous bumbling, maneuvered and forced and prompted and enabled the systems breakdowns that so productively brought Sandy, Ben, and sheep together in just the right alignment to figure out how new things happen.

Well. At least this deus ex machina of progress is not an intelligent designer or the Spirit of Reason or the Great Man / Woman or even self interest and the invisible hand, although the latter probably does a better job of defocalizing the dynamics of systems. But it’s still smuggling back in that dream of the single effective variable, right when we finally have the tools to get over that once and for all. It’s so much easier that way though; so much harder to imagine how the dynamics themselves could assemble into outcomes without anything in particular ‘driving’ or ‘causing’ or even in an older sense ‘ordering’ them.

But, I also wonder if this is the genius of the book. What if Willis meant the book itself to be a bellwether? She wouldn’t be able to go all the way to complex systems in one step, although she could gesture at that. The deus ex machina of the bellwether may be about as far as the herd of regular sci-fi readers are ready to go at the moment. As I think about how to teach complexity, I can see how packaging it in familiar forms and pulling its teeth for a second might just be good marketing. A dopey romance? Frustrating workplace bureaucracy? Overworked pseudo-critical geek cliche’s? I can see how this would be just the strategy to move some readers closer to a tipping point of enlightenment. Now, is that how learning and persuasion actually work? The book says so, and maybe also practices so. I’m not so sure, but from the standpoint of complex systems without the deus ex machina, I’m not sure how possible it is to make any kind of change on purpose.

June 6, 2015

conversations with Hesiod

by dyketheelder

Yrjo Haila (a large Finn, but not a white shark) and I are working on (playing with) an ongoing conversation anchored in Hesiod’s WORKS AND DAYS. It wouldn’t hurt to get some Volian commentary if we could. On the not-very-safe assumption that I can figure out how to do it, I’ll send along a short introduction that explains the project; and two short, typical, and connected contributions that you might like. If I fail, I’ll get Carl to provide them.



The house that Jack built

May 1, 2015

The communism of useful accessories

by CarlD

I’m reading papers at the local cafe, and one of the staff is looking around for a leopard print umbrella somebody left behind earlier. I helpfully informed her in my opinion it is a mistake to think one owns useful accessories. Umbrellas, sunglasses, and the like. I think of these as being in common circulation, withdrawn for occasional use and then recontributed when not immediately needed. Every so often we’re all responsible for replenishing depleted supply by buying more, which is probably where confusion about ownership comes from.

This system works so well it’s never clear to me why people think communism wouldn’t work. Umbrellas, cars, books, prom dresses, shovels, cufflinks, what’s the difference? We don’t all need one sitting around idly waiting for us to need it, we just need some to be around for when we do. Then we’d have plenty of resources left over to take care of the things we all do need all the time.

I’m not going to go check where exactly in the “Manifesto” Marx and Engels explain how stupid this all is. Back to reading papers for me.

January 16, 2015

Philosophy of social science, help or hindrance?

by johnmccreery

It may depend on when you took the course, says Daniel Little at Understanding Society.

What think you, Voles?

January 7, 2015

R.I.P. Ulrich Beck [cross-posted from SocNet]

by johnmccreery

Beck has long been one of my favorite sociologists. His description of the Risk Society as one in which invisible risks replace visible wealth as the dominant form of social inequality and only experts can claim to identify and know how to address those risks resonates strongly with the world of Chinese popular religion that was the focus of my Ph.D. dissertation.

One interesting possible application rests on the observation that all forms of consulting are magic. People with problems attribute them to invisible causes. They turn for help to those who claim special powers to diagnose and prescribe, and random chance alone will lead to identification of some who claim such powers as having “It,” that special something that produces desired results. Negative evidence will disappear in a context where most who claim special powers are known to be frauds. The primary question for those looking for “It” to solve their problems is how to find the golden needle in a huge and constantly growing haystack. They turn to to their social networks for recommendations by trusted others, whose trust may, however, be grounded in nothing more than having found someone whose recommendations lie in the apparent success tail of a normal curve. . . .

P.S. I would be delighted if some computational sociologist with greater math skills than my own could build a model around these assumptions.

But, yes. I mourn the death of Ulrich Beck.

January 2, 2015

Funny as a spinal tap

by CarlD

I was muchly impressed by this recent interview with Chris Rock, a comedian and cultural commentator I must admit I hadn’t paid much attention to before. (Mostly, my inattention, because his voice reminds me of the stock overexcited kid cartoon voice that I find so irritating. Sorry Chris, my bad.) Among the many striking points he makes, he talks about how he stopped playing college campuses.

…I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative.

In their political views?

Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.

When did you start to notice this?

About eight years ago. Probably a couple of tours ago. It was just like, This is not as much fun as it used to be. I remember talking to George Carlin before he died and him saying the exact same thing.

Well, you know, college campuses are perhaps uniquely the places where you can talk about things. So, this is a funny development, and by some way of reckoning a self-inflicted wedgie. On my campus some folks are worried about the liberal arts being under attack. By whom, by whom?

Rock talks about how there’s no backstage any more, nowhere or way to workshop ideas without the glare of righteous judgmental scrutiny. Of course we may be glad that cops don’t get to workshop their ideas about authority and power without fear of video capture, and once we grasp that power and authority work through informal systems, and that the personal is political, none of us can in principle claim a free pass on abuses of situated privilege. Where’s Power? Where’s Authority?


When she was almost 7, Rachel had a serious health crisis, ultimately involving (and perhaps resolved by) a series of spinal taps. Click through for details and some amazing reflection. The way the health professionals treated her and her family reminds her of how the NYPD treated Eric Garner. No wonder she’s interested in how doing right can go wrong! I asked her when spinal taps might be available for laughing about. That was a puzzler.

And Dyke the Elder finally just retired this semester, after around fifty years in the saddle. The precipitating event was a kerfuffle over a student who took offense to Rachel’s multimedia art project, the satirical Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies, as a discussion piece in a class about meaning in the arts. It went to the Dean, the Provost got involved, and rather than anyone having a sense of humor or scholarly integrity, sensitivity training was suggested.

Haha! Empowerment.