Wednesday, January 07, 2015

The Romance of Statistical Mechanics

Driving around town a couple of weeks ago, I composed a little poem or rather, since I didn’t set out to compose anything, it simply occurred to me:

Molecule by molecule
The gale that felled the tree
Was not the mighty fist of Jove
But merely tendency.

Later on I gave the verse a title: Things and Events are the Public Relations of Atoms. And then I pretty much forgot about it until I had a dream the other day in which a duplicate me responded:

I really have to call a foul
On your ersatz Emily,
If ever Jove had had a fist
It was also tendency.

Charlie Hedbo

As mystics experience and philosophers deduce, God is a name for the superlative degree of nothingness, the abominable singularity that constantly threatens reason from within. Religion is the accretion disc that forms around the intolerable mystery, the scab that covers the wound that cannot heal. The sane believers renormalize the equations of theology to avoid absurd solutions and resort to idolatry and superstition to protect themselves from the murderous implications of the faith. Since only a suicidal fanaticism is fully consistent with monotheism, it’s literally true: you can’t look on Yahweh face-to-face and live.

Even atheism is not necessarily a perfect defense against this lethal nonsense. It depends on how you gloss the slogan “Nothing is sacred.” Which is why there is such an obvious affinity between the jihadis and the Red Brigade terrorists of the Nietzschean left. Or to make the same point in the other direction, you might say that the real Shahada of the Salafis is “There is no God, and Muhammad is his prophet.” Allah is the emptiness in the middle. There really isn’t anything in the Holy of Holies. That’s the obscene secret.

Perhaps the votaries of the Assassins were being redundant when they said “There is no God. Everything is permitted” since what they based their sect upon was the recognition that God was a way of referring to our terrible freedom. That everything is permitted is God. 

Friday, October 17, 2014


A Year and a Half Later

I certainly attempted not to care.
I studied indifference as if it were algebra.
It didn’t help. It was like drowning a beachball,
Picking a fight with the nature of things.
I still don’t think love is a good thing—

Though softly it arrives, it departs as grief—
But harder than steel, harder than diamonds
Is the heart’s will, something so inhuman
In our humanity, we don’t think it belongs to us.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Small Oppress the Great when the Great aren't that Great 

What worries me is not the prospect that a majority of white Americans will buy into theocratic racism or Randian libertarianism but the remarkable leverage that extremists can have even when they are in the minority so long as political elites lack courage and prudence. The crazies are always with us, and people are always susceptible to demagogic appeals. What gives them strength is the decadence of our political class, the unfortunate fact that our elites just aren't that elite.

Here's an uncomfortable parallel: I've reading Eri Hotta’s book on Japanese politics in the run up to the Pearl Harbor. The majority of Japanese leaders were perfectly well aware that Japan would lose a war with America—even those who subscribed to mystical versions of Japanese exceptionalism were able to count—but they were cowed into an obviously stupid policy by their fear of a rather small number of fanatical army officers. Of course, the fanatics in Japan resorted to assassination to get their way, something that hasn't happened here yet; but the firebrands also imposed to a kind of rhetorical terrorism that made it impossible for leaders to admit in public that Japan wasn't always in the right and wouldn't automatically prevail against any enemy because of the Yamato spirit. The prime minister, cabinet members, and high-level army and navy officers were too cowardly to face up to a rabid minority and ended up signing off on a suicidal war few of them believed in. The Germans and Italians made war at the command of strong, evil men. The Japanese made war because of the vacillation of weak, morally mediocre men. 

The majority of Republicans don't believe in democracy but they aren't nuts. They are weak, however, and afraid of being labeled RINOs or worse by the true believers. Which is why they end up supporting ridiculously jingoistic and counterproductive foreign policies—assuming that bomb, bomb, bomb counts as a plan—as well as domestic policies that weaken the country economically and divide it socially. The Democrats have analogous fears, which is why, among other things, right wing terrorists and militia men are not suppressed and war crimes perpetrated by own brand of renegade Colonels go unpunished while whistleblowers rot in jail. 

Weakness is dangerous. Many people subscribe to the so-called great man theory of history; but as I read the record, the little men theory of history applies more often, especially when it comes to explaining the grand disasters. For example, for the last hundred years people have been trying to decide who are the villains responsible for the massive calamity that was World War I, but that's a question without an answer because the true cause was not a villain but the fact that the nations were governed by moral and intellectual midgets. I'm afraid that a similar explanation holds for our current political crisis. You can’t have a democracy or even a decent oligarchy without responsible leadership.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Ataraxia Nervosa

When cosmic insight
Has filled you with light,
When you’ve beaten the odds
And placated the Gods,
When you’re rested and sated
And recently mated,
When the belch and the fart
Have seen fit to depart,
When the pissing is past
And the shit has been shat,
And the who that was you is a guy with no why,
Nirvana’s a coma
For psyche and soma,
And you don’t even bother to die.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Two Problems in One

In the decadence of the Soviet system the saying was "they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work." Something like that may be happening in our country, though it's hard to quantify. I think the phenomenon is manifesting itself in the lousy morale of government workers and the corresponding mediocre performance by employees in the VA, IRS, and government labs. I've got to believe that the combination of years of wage freezes and non-stop public abuse of government workers—bureaucrats, teachers, scientists—is taking a toll. And why would you expect the people who clean houses and flip burgers to go on trying one iota more than they absolutely must if they have nothing whatsoever to look forward to and everybody keeps telling them that the only reason they haven't risen into prosperity is their own human worthlessness? 

Positive reinforcement works, but it isn't just millionaires who need it. Part of the problem with great inequality is that paying so much to the very top of the distribution leaves little left to reward the efforts of those below.

There are two problems we've got to deal with:

1. The distribution of incomes between bottom and top is too great

2. There is insufficient social mobility.

These are distinct problems, and confusing 'em messes up the debate. It's a good thing if burger flippers can go back to school and rise in the world, but not everybody is going to rise and those burgers still need to be flipped. Not every body is going to be a Horatio Alger hero. After all, the boss has only so many daughters. Considerations of fairness or decency aside, what’s the upside of leaving so many people in a state of wretchedness?

Time was people spoke about the dignity of work, not the dignity of work as a steppingstone to becoming a manager and owning 168 pizza restaurants, but the dignity of doing the job itself. In any case, if you expect people to do their jobs well year after year, you better figure out some way of rewarding them for their efforts instead of treating them with non-stop disrespect. The meritocratic ideology implies that the losers are dreck. Those of us who are doing OK may not notice the implication, but I'm pretty sure that much of the population is very well aware of it—no Protestant ethic without a large and populous hell.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Garden of F****** Paths

The situation in the Middle East is so complex that it is impossible even to come up with a single adequate metaphor: Borromean rings? Russian dolls? the Chinese finger trap? Jenga? Pick up sticks? Evidently, an epic poem on these events will have to written in fractalic hexameter. But I will be told it’s all really very simple when you factor in: 
The energy crisis, fundamentalisms and other versions of reactionary modernism, the injured pride of Islamic nations, the unresolved stress of modernization, sexual politics, globalization, various ghosts of the 19th Century’s Great Game, the desire of the Persians to finally get even with the Arabs, the cyclic struggle of the nomads and the city dwellers (ibn Khaldun!), the mutual hatred of Sunnis and Shias, America’s quest for the mirage of ultimate safety, the forceful imposition of liberal democracy overseas sponsored by people who hate liberal democracy at home, climate change with accompanying drought and environmental degradation, the final collapse of the Sykes Picot agreement as part of the ongoing demise of the Westfalian system of international relations, the clash of civilizations, demographic trends (too many adolescent males), Facebook and Twitter, the covert alliance of the Saudis and the Israelis, the inability of states to control their intelligence apparatuses, irredentist nationalisms (Turks, Israelis, Kurds, and Syrians), the revived Cold War between Russia and U.S., the aspirations awakened during the Arab Spring, the persistence of archaic forms of government (sheiks and kings), the activities of irresponsible plutocrats, political paralysis in America, European disunity and economic stagnation, state breakdown in Pakistan, entrepreneurial terrorism, and whatever else I’m too lazy to write down.
People search for the basic cause of every great historical catastrophe, but the true explanation of such explosions is precisely the absence of a single basic cause. The French Revolution, the outbreak of World War I, the current impasse in the Middle East are crises made out of crises, knots of imbricated contradictions too intricate to unravel except with a sword. Unfortunately, there are always many would-be Alexanders around who are likely to lose patience at the same time. Hence the otherwise inexplicable suicidal stupidities that characterize such conjunctions, mostly committed by leaders trying to be statesmen when the situation calls out for politicians.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Spell Pneumonia 

I’ve been anticipating the counterattack for some time. The media success of Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century guaranteed that the defenders of the oligarchic order of our times would come up with a more effective defense than the purely reflexive preliminary spasms, which pretty well came down to a combination of “He’s a Marxist!” and “Our shit does not stink!” I note that after a series of brainstorming sessions that probably played like a scene from the twenty-third season of Mad Men, the consultants decided to fall back on the same denialist script that had proven so successful in service to the Book of Genesis, tobacco, and fossil fuels. In law, the technique is known as pettyfogging. In war, it is pretty much the strategy used in another bad cause by Kesselring in the Italian campaign. The basic idea is to exhaust the opponent or at least delay defeat by making the contest a series of bitter struggles about trifling technical details or meaningless hilltops. The Creationists claim that evolution is in doubt because there is an overturned stratum in Wyoming. The tobacco lobby points to a misplaced decimal point in a government study. “It’s snowing!” So now we’re going to be treated to a campaign of nitpicking about the statistics in Piketty’s book. The aim is to create the impression that there is some genuine dispute about whether wealth and income inequality is increasing.

That there are errors in Piketty’s tome is quite inevitable. A big book is a big evil, as Callimachus opined a couple of millennia ago and I can assure you is true having served as the editor of a three-semester calculus textbook. Specific errors are of less moment in a work drawing general conclusions from history than in proving a theorem. Unlike many other economists, Piketty’s preferred style of argument is inductive, which is why his book is more reminiscent of The Origin of Species than Das Kapital. Like Darwin, Piketty piled up corroborating data in enormous heaps, an approach whose validity depends on the balance of evidence, not the accuracy of any given data point. In contrast, the patented denialist PR methodology appeals to a Popperian or perhaps pop Popperian epistemology, that is, it depends on the thesis that only negative results really matter in science because of the logic of conditional sentences. If p implies q, q doesn’t imply p. Not q, however, does imply not p. Which would be decisive indeed in a piece of deductive reasoning. The logic doesn’t really apply to empirical work; but for polemic purposes, the focus on falsification is convenient because it means that the critic doesn’t have to worry about the mass of positive evidence. It’s not an accident that creationists don’t know much geology, biogeography, or biology. If all you want to do is cast doubt, all that’s needed is a counter example or two. Why fill your precious mind with irrelevances?

Evidence does matter, and Piketty will have to address any errors discovered in the vast databases that underlie Capital in the Twenty First Century. That’s the normal process of research conducted in good faith. Unlike many other economists, notably Reinhart and Rogoff whose influential paper really did have meaningful errors, Piketty shows his work so as to facilitate both criticism and improvement. Everything has always been available either in the text itself or on the net. Meanwhile, the op/ed writers at WSJ will leap on any imperfection as definitive proof that there’s nothing to the general conclusions of this ongoing work and that we can safely ignore the multiple strands of evidence for a powerful worldwide trend because of technical issues about the proper way to construe a single English time series. Meanwhile, the evidence for a new Gilded Age was overwhelming before Piketty and remains so.

Old joke: a black guy dies and shows up at the Pearly Gates where he finds he’s third in line. St. Peter explains to the first man in line, who's white, that everything seems to be in order but there is the formality of one last test. “Spell ‘cat.’” Same drill with the next person, a white lady, “Spell ‘dog.’” Well, you see where this is going. In economics, it’s slightly different. If you’re furthering the approved politics, demonstration consists of drawing two intersecting straight lines in a rectangle and triumphantly asserting “See!” If, like Piketty, you’ve made an elaborate case for the proposition that everything doesn’t work out for the best in the best of all possible worlds, that there is no working thermostat that automatically prevents the runaway concentration of wealth and incomes, it’s time to spell pneumonia.