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link roundup 22



Not long after the Baroque redecoration is begun, the nineteenth-century interest in archaeology notices those arches in the walls, and starts digging, re-exposing the lower layers. Devotees of St. Cyril and lovers of history, like the head of the Vatican Library, begin to flock to San Clemente as an example of Rome’s long and layered history, and so it gains more layers in the 20th century as donations and burials are added to it. Every century from the Republican Roman construction of the Mint to the 20th century tombs is physically present, actually physically represented by an artifact which is still part of this building which has been being built and rebuilt for over 2,000 years. Not a single century passed in which this spot was not being used and transformed, and every transformation is still here. And all that time, from the first sacred spring, to the Mithraism, to today’s Irish Dominicans, this spot has been sacred.

This is Freud’s metaphor for the psyche: structure after structure built in the same space, superimposing new functions over the old ones, never really losing anything.

This is Rome.

San Clemente is exceptional in that it has been largely excavated and is accessible, but every single building in Rome is like this, built on medieval foundations which are built on classical ones. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into a random pizzeria and found a Renaissance fresco, or a medieval beam, or Roman marble. I’ve gone into a cafe restroom and discovered the back wall was curved because this was built on the foundations of Pompey’s theater (where Caesar was assassinated). I’ve gone into churches to discover their restrooms used to be part of different churches. Friends have this experience too. During my Fulbright year in Italy I had a colleague who was studying Roman altars, half of which you could only get at by ringing the bell of strangers’ apartments and saying: “Hello! I’m an archaeologist, and according to this list there’s a Roman sacrificial altar here?” to which the standard response is, “Oh, yes, come on in, it’s in the basement next to the washing machine.” I have another friend who thinks he’s found a lost chapel frescoed by a major Renaissance artist hidden in an elevator shaft. Another friend once told me of a pizza place with a trap door down to not-yet-tallied catacombs. I believe it.

this is the most delightful essay i read this month, and i plan to spend a few weeks reading through some of the backlog of this site.

In 1995, there was a debate at Harvard Law School – four of us discussing the future of public key encryption and its control. I was on the side, I suppose, of freedom. It’s where I try to be. With me at that debate was a man called Daniel Weitzner who now works in the White House making Internet policy for the Obama administration.

On the other side was the then Deputy Attorney General of the United States and a lawyer in private practice named Stewart Baker who had been chief council to the National Security Agency, our listeners, and who was then in private life helping businesses to deal with the listeners. He then became, later on, the deputy for policy planning in the Department of Homeland Security in the United States and has much to do with what happened in our network after 2001.

At any rate, the four of us spent two pleasant hours debating the right to encrypt and at the end there was a little dinner party at the Harvard faculty club, and at the end, after all the food had been taken away and just the port and the walnuts were left on the table, Stuart said, “All right, among us now that we are all in private, just us girls, I’ll let our hair down.”

He didn’t have much hair even then, but he let it down.

“We are not going to prosecute your client, Mr. Zimmermann,” he said. “Public key encryption will become available. We fought a long, losing battle against it, but it was just a delaying tactic.” And then he looked around the room and he said, ”But nobody cares about anonymity, do they?”

And a cold chill went up my spine and I thought, all right, Stuart, and now I know you’re going to spend the next twenty years trying to eliminate anonymity in human society and I am going to try to stop you and we’ll see how it goes.

worth noting this was written pre-snowden.

Sheer speed of capability gain should also be highlighted here. Most of my argument for FOOM in the Yudkowsky-Hanson debate was about self-improvement and what happens when an optimization loop is folded in on itself. Though it wasn’t necessary to my argument, the fact that Go play went from “nobody has come close to winning against a professional” to “so strongly superhuman they’re not really bothering any more” over two years just because that’s what happens when you improve and simplify the architecture, says you don’t even need self-improvement to get things that look like FOOM.

Yes, Go is a closed system allowing for self-play. It still took humans centuries to learn how to play it. Perhaps the new Hansonian bulwark against rapid capability gain can be that the environment has lots of empirical bits that are supposed to be very hard to learn, even in the limit of AI thoughts fast enough to blow past centuries of human-style learning in 3 days; and that humans have learned these vital bits over centuries of cultural accumulation of knowledge, even though we know that humans take centuries to do 3 days of AI learning when humans have all the empirical bits they need; and that AIs cannot absorb this knowledge very quickly using “architecture”, even though humans learn it from each other using architecture. If so, then let’s write down this new world-wrecking assumption (that is, the world ends if the assumption is false) and be on the lookout for further evidence that this assumption might perhaps be wrong.

Through a relatively simple program of meditation, ritual, and behavior I can become a good Buddhist. There is no scarcity of spiritual fulfilment, and my serenity does not prevent yours. Almost anyone with base amounts of discipline, restraint, and social skill can become a good Buddhist, (or Muslim, or Christian, or Sikh). Religious traditions are excellent at diffusing mimetic rivalry, and delivering contentment to a populace. Perhaps this a reason that religious and mythical traditions have accompanied every settled civilization in human history.

Family is another Mimesis Machine. I see a good father pushing a twin stroller in Central Park, and mimetic desire makes me want to become a parent. After finding a willing mate, traditions of parenting, advice from my own parents, and instinct will allow me to become a good father. Akin to religious fulfilment, reproduction has no scarcity value, and children can be created at will, (and by accident), by almost anyone. Once more through the institution of family, mimesis is achieved and conflict is avoided.

But that is not the whole story. Our society contains many institutions that amplify conflict and rivalry. Capitalism is a major Mimesis Shredder. When I see Jeff Bezos, I want his power and his billions. But becoming Jeff Bezos is, just to let you know, extremely hard. It takes a mixture of factors, both internal (intelligence, industriousness, conscientiousness) and external (social network, academic credentialing, luck), to become a successful capitalist. The vast majority of people are not equipped to compete at the highest levels of the global economy. Indeed, the extremely unequal information economy, whose products are produced by dozens and used by billions, has intensified capitalism and arguably worsened mimetic rivalries.

‘mimesis shredder’ is one of those handy terms for a concept that’s been floating around semi-formed in my head for a while – particularly regarding houellebecq’s ideas about sexual marketization since the 60’s.

Indeed, the country’s political and business leaders are betting that AI can jump-start its economy. In recent decades, a booming manufacturing sector—and market reforms encouraging foreign trade and investment—have helped bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, creating business empires and transforming Chinese society. But manufacturing growth is slowing, and the country is looking toward a future built around advanced technology (see “China Is Building a Robot Army of Model Workers”). Applying artificial intelligence may be the next step in this technology-fueled economic miracle. While many in the West fret about AI eliminating jobs and worsening wealth and income inequality, China seems to believe it can bring about precisely the opposite outcomes.

China’s AI push includes an extraordinary commitment from the government, which recently announced a sweeping vision for AI ascendancy. The plan calls for homegrown AI to match that developed in the West within three years, for China’s researchers to be making “major breakthroughs” by 2025, and for Chinese AI to be the envy of the world by 2030.

neo-china arrives from the future.

But the biggest threat is to epistemology. The idea that everything in the world fits together, that all knowledge is worth having and should be pursued to the bitter end, that if you tell one lie the truth is forever after your enemy – all of this is incompatible with even as stupid a mistruth as switching around thunder and lightning. People trying to make sense of the world will smash their head against the glaring inconsistency where the speed of light must be calculated one way in thunderstorms and another way everywhere else. Try to start a truth-seeking community, and some well-meaning idiot will ask “Hey, if we’re about pursuing truth, maybe one fun place to pursue truth would be this whole lightning thing that has everyone all worked up, what does everybody think about this?” They will do this in perfect innocence, because they don’t know that everyone else has already thought about it and agreed to pretend it’s true. And you can’t just tell them that, because then you’re admitting you don’t really think it’s true. And why should they even believe you if you tell them? Would you present your evidence? Would you dare?

The Kolmogorov option is only costless when it’s common knowledge that the orthodoxies are lies, that everyone knows the orthodoxies are lies, that everyone knows everyone knows the orthodoxies are lies, etc. But this is never common knowledge – that’s what it means to say the orthodoxies are still orthodox. Kolmogorov’s curse is to watch slowly from his bubble as everyone less savvy than he is gets destroyed. The smartest and most honest will be destroyed first. Then any institution that reliably produces intellect or honesty. Then any philosophy that allows such institutions. It will all be totally pointless, done for the sake of something as stupid as lightning preceding thunder. But it will happen anyway. Then he and all the other savvy people can try to pick up the pieces as best they can, mourn their comrades, and watch the same thing happen all over again in the next generation.

previously linked – the kolmogorov option by scott aaronson

It’s fair to attribute some of that critique to commie sour grapes, but McAlevey also argues that Alinsky was most successful when he had established CIO-style organizations to draw on. He couldn’t build organizations of his own that were anywhere near effective. Because? Right: his leadership approach was professionalized, top-down. Not organic, bottom-up. The CIO revolution was worker agency, worker power, which is not the case in most modern unions. They’re flabby, soft, with lazy leadership. Compared to the glory days, anyway.

Righties aren’t going to go out and build unions, much less CIO-style ones. But there are some aspects of this organizational approach that could be useful. Building robust communities, where everybody sees their purpose? Righties like that sort of thing. Development of organic leadership, identifying and facilitating the rise of a community’s natural leaders — kings in waiting, you might say? Why, that’s downright neoreactionary!

So that organic leadership concept sounds kind of important. How do you do it? You analyze people’s social groups. Figure out who the unofficial leaders are. The people others look to. They may not be prominent, they may not have fancy titles. What they have is the respect of their fellow workers.

a collection of reviews of books about leftist political organizing, written by a righty.

One of the hallmarks of a mature discipline is its ability to make predictions that can be used to test scientific theories. Scientific predictions do not necessarily have to be concerned with future events; they can be made about what occurred in the past. I illustrate such retrospective prediction with a case study of conversion to Christianity in the Roman Empire. The bulk of the paper deals with the logic and methodology of setting up a scientific prediction in macrosociology. The specific case study I develop is the possible state collapse in Saudi Arabia. The theoretical setting is provided by the demographic-structural theory of state collapse. The starting point is a previously developed model for political cycles in agrarian societies with nomadic elites, loosely based on the ideas of Ibn Khaldun. I modify the model to fit the characteristics of the modern Saudi Arabian state and estimate its parameters using data from published sources. The model predicts that the sovereign debt of Saudi Arabia will reach unmanageable proportions some 10−30 years in the future; the fiscal collapse will be followed by a state collapse in short order. The timing of the collapse is affected by exogenous events (primarily, fluctuations in world oil prices) and by parameter uncertainty (certain parameters of the model can be estimated only very approximately). The generalized prediction of eventual Saudi collapse together with subsidiary relationships specifying how variations in exogenous factors and parameters affect the future trajectory is the “Ibn Khaldun scenario.” A major theoretical alternative is provided by a set of ideas and specific recommendations suggesting how Saudi Arabia can avoid crisis by reforming its economy and liberalizing its political system (the “IMF scenario”). The main purpose of the proposed test, therefore, is to determine which of the two theoretical scenarios will best describe the trajectory of the Saudi state over the next decades.

via razib khan; speaking of whom…

American identity changed because of cultural and demographic forces, not economic ones. To a great extent the 1965 immigration reform act laid the groundwork for contemporary multiculturalism, which in turn spawned the complexity of modern identity politics. This demographic change occurred at the same time that the broader American culture was going through rapid and shocking changes. From civil rights for black Americans, to women’s rights and gay rights, as well as a wholesale challenge to bourgeois American norms, the 1960s was the beginning of the end for the old consensus.

American society had been subject to a very diverse and exotic stream of migration around 1900, with immigrants coming from Southern and Eastern Europe. But during these decades the white Protestant culture of the United States was assimilative. Through various means, both legal and cultural, the new migrants were absorbed into the broader polity (which still excluded blacks on racial grounds).

The post-1965 wave of migrants came into a culture which did not demand assimilation. Rather, American society in the 1960s and 1970s was subject to anomie, with crime waves in the streets, and oppositional ideologies in the universities. Those marginal to the American mainstream were not exhorted to assimilation, they were encouraged to liberate themselves, and affirm their uniqueness and difference from the mainstream.

This environment which celebrates and cultivates difference creates a mindset which is primed to be open to a critical take on the history of the nation which immigrants have chosen to migrate to. It is no surprise that in the wake of the cultural change of the 1960s we have seen the rise of a group of highly educated and cosmopolitan hyphenated Americans who may take a dim view of the white republic and the founding generation. Their assimilation has been toward a counter-culture which discourages broad social conformity, and this has driven a further wedge between Americans of different races and political orientations.

EvX: one theme that comes up constantly in these books–here, in Donnie Brasco’s The Way of the Wiseguy, and eponymousy in Bourgeois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio is respect.

Some people say that North West Europe has a Guilt Culture, while many Asian countries have a Shame Culture. I’m not exactly sure what the difference is, but in a guilt culture, people are told that God is watching them even when they are otherwise alone and will know if they have sinned. God knows if you pick your nose. God knows if you don’t wash your hands after using the toilet. And God definitely knows if you kill someone, even if no one else finds out.

By contrast, high-crime groups (including groups that hail from NW Europe) seem to have what I’m going to call Respect Cultures. In Respect Cultures, one’s social standing is of paramount importance, and disrespect can be grounds for murder.

The danger here is three-fold:

  • People from Respect Cultures are often at the bottom of the American totem pole–cause and effect unclear, but this seems like a bad combination either way.
  • People in Respect Cultures believe in rigid hierarchies in which they do not treat social inferiors as equals.
  • People in Respect Cultures will not hesitate to use violence to secure or increase their position.

More hierarchical societies obviously lean toward Respect Cultures, while more egalitarian societies lean toward Guilt Cultures. In atomized, egalitarian cultures, individual behavior is kept in check via internalized norms that one should not violate the “social contract.” By contrast, in hierarchical societies, your behavior is dictated by your position within the social pecking order. You have certain obligations to the people above you (often monetary) and obligations to the people below you (such as organizing economic opportunities or providing for their safety.)

For criminals, respect is absolutely vital, because respect translates into other criminals staying out of your turf. You respect a criminal because he can kill you; you disrespect him if you think you can kill him.

i’ve become a big fan of the weekly anthropology book reviews on this blog.

no ‘misc’ link subheader this week. in lieu, a recommendation – good time was the best new film i’ve seen this year. i’m a sucker for grimy new york settings.