Predictability and humor

Some things in life are very predictable, other things are not at all predictable.  When something that we had expected to be unpredictable turns out to be very predictable, sometimes we laugh.  Lenore Skenazy’s column “Obama, Haiti, and Lard” in the March 2010 Funny Times points out that some stories in the news have endings that are a lot easier to guess than the people who decide what goes on the front page want you to think.  For example, what effect will the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti have on attitudes toward that country in the USA?  Well, we know the answer to that already.  At first we’ll all be very concerned and agree that we should stay focused on Haiti.  “Except that the next time the media actually DO focus on Haiti, it’ll be in late December, when they put out their ‘Biggest Stories of 2010’ lists, at which point we’ll think ‘The earthquake!  Wow!  Was it really THIS year?”  That cycle of shock, compassion, fatigue, and nostalgia is as predictable as what American school systems will ultimately do with the  information they are gathering from the standardized tests they’re always giving students.  They will decide to “NOT use standardized tests.  They’ll use student pantomimes or clay figurines or something, but not standardized tests, which will be shown to be not only inaccurate but harmful.” 

The same issue contains a couple of columns and lots of cartoons about Scott Brown, recently elected by Massachusetts as America’s newest and nakedest Republican US Senator.  In addition to the front cover, reproduced above, there’s the back cover, on which Jen Sorenson illustrates the way in which Brown’s victory was utterly predictable.  In one of his cartoons, Matt Bors suggests that Edward Kennedy should have been able to predict that a Republican might succeed him if he died in office.     

Dave Maleckar’s 100 Word Rant opens: “Let’s skip right past the hybrid and electric cars and start believing in magical ones.  The only way to make a green automobile is with a coat of paint.”  The point seems to be the only reason we think the auto industry might surprise us with an environmentally sound product is that we are dominated by wishful thinking.  Look at the facts, and you can predict that their future products  will be as unsustainable as their past ones. 

Curmudgeon has some funny lines about the rottenness of the human race in general.  Mark Twain defined “Man” as “A creature made at the end of the week’s work, when God was tired.”  Oscar Wilde was a bit less charitable to the Almighty, sharing his suspicion “that God in creating man somewhat overestimated His ability.”  The same thought has been phrased in secular terms; Nietzsche said that “The Earth has a skin and that skin has diseases; one of its diseases is called Man.”  I think Edward O. Wilson’s quote qualifies as secular, though he does sound like a Calvinist preacher declaiming on the Utter Depravity of Man: “If all mankind were to disappear, the  world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago.  If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”  Holbrook Jackson wondered why Nature gave rise to us.  “Was it to show that She is big enough to make mistakes, or was it pure ignorance?”  Samuel Johnson declared “I hate mankind, for I think myself one of the best of them, and I know how bad I am.”

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Secular Calvinism?

Adherents of the political tendency known as libertarianism often defend their positions with appeals to economic theory.  They do not often show a high regard for the concerns of environmentalism.  So when a libertarian think tank publishes a book that equates the academic discipline of economics with the environmentalist movement, one may well take notice. 

In The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, Robert H. Nelson of the Independent Institute argues that the forms of academic economics that have influenced policymaking in the US in recent decades, like the forms of environmentalist thought that have begun to play a role in public affairs, are secularized versions of Calvinism.  How so?  To quote the Independent Institute’s summary:

The deepest religious conflicts in the American public arena today—the New Holy Wars—are crusades fought between two secular religions: economic religion and environmental religion. Each claims to be scientific, even value-neutral, yet they seldom state their underlying commitments explicitly, let alone subject them to scrutiny. Environmental religion views wilderness as sacred, seeks salvation through the minimization of humankind’s impact on nature, and proselytizes using imagery meant to stir spiritual longings. In contrast, economic religion worships technological innovation, economic growth (as measured by GDP), and efficiency (as revealed by cost-benefit analysis) and is presided over by a priesthood of Ph.D. economists who communicate in a liturgical language unintelligible to the layperson.

Nelson is himself an economics Ph.D, having received that degree from Princeton University in 1971.  If one of the tenets of the religion of economics is that economics is not a religion, that would make him a wayward priest.  The summary goes on:

Although rarely acknowledged, environmental religion owes its moral activism, ascetic discipline, reverence for nature, and fallen view of man to the Protestant theology of John Calvin. A remarkable number of American environmental leaders, including John Muir, Rachel Carson, David Brower, Edward Abbey, and Dave Foreman, were raised in the Presbyterian church (the Scottish branch of Calvinism) or one of its offshoots. Earlier forerunners of modern environmentalism who were influenced by Calvinism include the American transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who offered a secular version of the fall of man from the original “state of nature [in which] man lived happily in peace.”

That’s an interesting claim, and a list of very diverse people.  Nelson seems to focus on the USA, but it would be interesting to contrast the environmentalisms that have taken hold in countries with histories of Calvinism with the environmentalisms that have taken hold where Calvinism was never ascendant.  Onward:

Economists often rely on assumptions that are better categorized as theological than as scientific. Many economists assume that human welfare is a product of the consumption of goods and services alone and that the institutional arrangements that produce those goods and services can be ignored. Some economists assume that eradicating poverty will end crime and usher in a new era of morality. Also, economists typically assume that psychological stress caused by an economic transition to a more efficient allocation of resources is negligible and not worth factoring in. “If [emotional burdens] were actually given full account, it would be impossible to say in principle whether a market system is economically efficient,” writes Robert Nelson.

Coming from a libertarian economist, the statement that “If [emotional burdens] were actually given full account, it would be impossible to say in principle whether a market system is economically efficient” is as amazing as Luther’s Ninety Five Theses were coming from a Roman Catholic priest in 1520. 

The missionaries of environmental religion have managed to get some of their dogmas implemented in poor countries, often with devastating consequences for local populations. Under the banner of saving the African environment, they have promoted conservation objectives that have displaced and impoverished Africans. This catastrophe has occurred because environmental religion has misunderstood African wildlife management practices and problems.

To the extent that this is true, I suspect it is not because of the intellectual forebears of contemporary environmentalists, but because those environmentalists have come to Africa as agents of Western bureaucracies.  As such, they have been constrained to act and think in the terms those bureaucracies made available to them, terms which often have little connection to the social and ecological realities of Africa. 

There is another, shorter, summary on the same page:

“Economics and environmentalism are types of modern religions.” So writes Independent Institute Senior Fellow Robert H. Nelson, author of The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, an in-depth study of the origins and implications of the conflict between these two opposing belief systems.

“If it makes a reader of this book more comfortable, he or she may think of it as an examination of the ‘spiritual values’ of economics versus the ‘spiritual values’ of environmentalism,” writes Nelson in his introduction. “For me, though, it is a distinction without a difference.”

In The New Holy Wars, Nelson probes beneath the rhetorical surface of economic and environmental religion to reveal their clashing fundamental commitments and visions. By interpreting their conflict as theological, Nelson is able to show why these creeds almost invariably talk past each other and why their conflict is likely to continue to dominate public discourse until one party or the other backs down—or unless an alternative outlook rises to challenge their influence in the public arena.

In addition, by exploring little-known corners of American intellectual history, Nelson shows how environmentalism and economics have adapted Judeo-Christian precepts in ways that make them more palatable in an age of secularism. In many cases, Nelson is able to demonstrate a direct lineage from traditional religious beliefs to tenets held by mainstream economists and environmentalists.

Some readers of this blog have expressed interest in “political theology,” the idea that there are no truly political belief systems, but that all political theories are simply theological doctrines in disguise.  This notion is often associated with the German legal scholar (and onetime NaziCarl Schmitt (1888-1985.)  Say what you will about Schmitt’s detestable activities from 1933 to 1937, he made a powerful case for political theology.  Nor did he originate the notion; it can be traced back to Cicero’s Laws (especially book 1, chapter 8), and back of Cicero to the Stoics, with the idea that a certain memory of the Divine lingers in the human mind and that the various legal codes and religious practices of the world result from the attempts of various peoples to translate  that memory into a guide for action.  If there is truth in political theology, then we would expect both economics and environmental theories to be driven by unacknowledged theological commitments.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. A cigarette, however, is nothing but a little phallus.

When I saw this story in The Independent yesterday, I was sure that Cymast would post about it here any minute.  A day has passed, and she still hasn’t.  So I’ll do it. 

The Independent writes:

French advertising companies are often criticised for using sexual images to sell everything from designer spectacles to sweetcorn. Now, for the first time, a controversy has erupted in France over the use of sexually suggestive posters as a deterrent.

A campaign to discourage young people from smoking shows male and female teenagers kneeling in front of a man, as if being forced to have oral sex. A cigarette takes the place of the man’s sexual organ. The caption reads: “Smoking is to be a slave to tobacco.”

 Later in the story:

Marco de la Fuente, the leader of the project for the BDDP et Fils ad agency, said: “The old arguments – tobacco is bad for you – don’t work any more. The message here is that tobacco is a form of submission. In the popular imagination, oral sex is the perfect symbol of submission.”

Gérard Audureau, the president of Les Droits des Non-fumeurs (The Rights of Non-smokers), the pressure group which commissioned the ads, said health arguments did not reach teenagers. “Young people think that they are invincible, immortal,” he said. “Fear of sexual exploitation worries them more than illness.”

Opposition to the ads – to be shown in bars, clubs and newspapers – has been widespread. Florence Montreynaud, of the feminist pressure group Chiennes de Garde (Guard Bitches), said that it was “inadmissible” that an image implying underage sex should be exploited, even in a good cause.

So according to Messieurs de la Fuente and Audureau, French teenagers have such a horror of oral sex that they would rather abstain from smoking than seem to be performing it.

Left-wing conservatism

I’ve long been curious about the phrase “left-wing conservative.”   It’s a label that’s been applied to Christopher Lasch, for example.  And Jacques Delors once declared that “We have to struggle against the conservatives from all sides, not only the right-wingers, but also the left-wing conservatives.”  Though I’ve never gotten around to any of Christopher Lasch’s writings, I’ve always been under the impression that they were well worth reading.  And of course, any enemy of Jacques Delors is a friend of mine.  So one of my goals in life is to get a clear understanding of what the phrase “left-wing conservatism” might mean and to live up to that idea. 

In the 1 March issue of The Nation, Rebecca Solnit makes some general remarks that might serve as a definition of of left-wing conservatism.  Writing of the traditional Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans, Solnit grants that for some participants those celebrations might reinforce the privileged positions they enjoy in the existing social order.  But even the conservative aspects of Mardi Gras don’t keep it from being something leftists should embrace.  Considering the ways that the African-American “Indians” and other groups use Mardi Gras to assert power against the local elites, Solnit writes:

The Mardi Gras Indians head out on their own without announced routes on Mardi Gras and a few other days every year, but making the costumes and maintaining the communities lasts all year. This is probably the very essence of Mardi Gras and all Carnival as I understand it: maintaining community.

Now, I believe that community is a subversive force. To understand what I mean by subversive, let’s go back to the defeatists. They, like much of our society, speak a language in which everything but a pie-in-the-sky kind of victory is defeat, in which everything that isn’t black is white, in which if you haven’t won, you’ve surely lost. If you asked them, they’d say we live in a capitalist society. In fact, we live in an officially capitalist society, but what prevents that force from destroying all of us is the social aid and pleasure we all participate in: parents don’t charge their children for raising them; friends do things for each other, starting with listening without invoicing for billable hours; nurses and mechanics and everyone in between does a better job than money can pay for for beautiful reasons all their own; people volunteer to do something as specific as read to a blind person or as general as change the world. Our supposedly capitalist society is seething with anticapitalist energy, affection and joy, which is why most of us have survived the official bleakness. In other words, that’s not all there is to our system. Our society is more than and other than capitalist in a lot of ways.

To say that Carnival reconciles us to the status quo is to say that it affirms the world as it is. Now, for people in Rex, their Mardi Gras probably reinforces their world, but for those in some of the other krewes and rites, the same is true, and the reinforcement of the survival of the mutual aid societies that emerged after slavery is not reaffirmation of capitalism, domination, etc. It reinforces, in other words, their ongoing survival of capitalism and racism. Carnival also reinforces joy and ownership of public space and a kind of confidence in coexisting with a wide array of strangers. New Orleans itself is the place where, unlike the rest of the United States, slaves were not so cut off from chances to gather and chances to maintain their traditions. Jazz and jazz funerals, second-line parades and more derive in many ways from this subversive remnant of a non-European tradition. They didn’t bow down. This is something to celebrate, and it is what is celebrated by some of the people in the streets.

To me, these paragraphs make sense of the revolutionary rhetoric and destabilizing policies that have long characterized the American Right.   For Marx and Engels, the wild churning of capitalism was proof that the system would eventually shake itself apart, generating a proletarian uprising and ushering in communism.  For Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, that same wild churning is the proof that capitalism is destined to reign forever and ever. 

And Gingrich and Romney may well be right.  A labor market in which the highest rewards are reserved for people who are willing to move frequently and move across continents will tend to produce a large population of atomized individuals, unconnected to any community of equals, dependent on their employers not only for their income, but also for their identity.  The flux and churn of hypercapitalism dissolve every relationship not based on monetary exchange, smashing every social refuge in which working people might look for shelter.  Isolated from each other, those who do not own capital are helpless to resist those who do. 

Solnit’s words about tradition and community imply a defense, not only of Mardi Gras and of Carnival, but also of narrative.  A tradition allows us to feel connected to people at other times and in other places because we are all part of the same story; a community takes people who share this sense of connectedness and puts them to work together.  Hypercapitalism drains narrative from life.  Narrative concepts like tradition, community, meaning, endings, seem artificial to people whose lives are largely bounded by markets and machines.  Markets fluctuate, and may in time dissolve.  Machines operate, and may eventually stop.  However, neither system reaches a conclusion.   The forces that drive them into action at one moment are the same forces that stop them at another moment.  To the extent that my life is bounded by markets and machines, therefore, narrative seems to me like an artificial convention imposed on experience.  But how do we know that history is not in some real sense a grand narrative, that our lives are not in some real sense narratives nested inside it?  I can’t see why one of these views should bear a heavier burden of proof than the other.     

Perhaps “left-wing conservatism” is not an oxymoron, but a tautology.  If we are to resist the power elite, whether to overthrow them or simply to put limits to the power they wield over the rest of us, we cannot do so as solitary individuals, but only as communities.  Communities need cultivating and defending.  It takes multiple generations to cultivate and defend a community; so, community is an inherently conservative value.  If leftism means opposition to the power elite, it therefore is an inherently conservative project. 

One conservative thinker who would have reacted with horror if he had ever been described as a leftist was Irving Babbitt (1865-1933.)  Babbitt taught French at Harvard from 1894 until his death.  His name is often mentioned these days by American academics of a traditionalist conservative bent.  Babbitt and his friend Paul Elmer More were  the founders and guiding lights of the “New Humanism,” a school of thought that made a splash in 1930 when it protested against the attempt of another, quite different, group of American thinkers to appropriate the same label. 

Babbitt and More identified themselves as fiercely right-wing.  Babbitt’s political testament, his 1924 book Democracy and Leadership, was widely criticised as being all leadership and no democracy; More, as editor of The Nation, responded to the Ludlow massacre by proclaiming that “To the civilized man, the rights of property are more important than the right to life” (in an essay collected in Aristocracy and Justice, page 136.)   Yet I would argue that the emphasis Babbitt and More place on tradition, gentility, transcendental belief, and historical continuity puts them in need of a thoroughgoing critique of capitalism.  These things simply cannot coexist with the demands of the modern market economy.  Tradition counts for nothing against the new new thing; self-restraint and well-curated taste count for nothing against the tides of fashion; transcendental belief counts for nothing against the need to appeal to youthful demographics; historical continuity counts for nothing against the need to impress the shareholders today.  Babbitt acknowledged as much on several occasions.  For example, in Democracy and Leadership Babbitt quoted Henry Ford’s remark that the prohibition of alcohol was a necessary consequence of mass production, that “Liquor had to go out when the Model T came in.”  Babbitt’s responded was that Americans had become so craven a people that they would degrade the Constitution for the sake of mere things. 

Another article in this issue brought Babbitt and More to my mind.  That was William Deresiewicz’ essay about Tolstoy.  Deresiewicz uses a construction that Babbitt and More labored to avoid, what might be called the “Academic We.”  There is of course the Royal “We“, first-person plural pronouns monarchs use to refer to themselves when they are speaking in their official capacity.  And there is the Editorial “We,”  which editorialists use when expressing the official position of their publications.  In a case of the Academic “We,” a college professor uses first person plural pronouns when characterizing the current state of knowledge or opinion among some unspecified group of people.    Deresiewicz’ essay includes a splendid example.  Tolstoy’s later writings are:

Not a body of work the contemporary reader is apt to find congenial. Leave aside the religiosity. We have learned to distrust the story with a message, any message. We disdain the writer who comes to us bearing ideas or ideologies. We don’t like a moralizer, don’t want to be preached at, don’t believe in answers, in endings. We put our faith in ambiguity, complexity, irresolution, doubt. Life isn’t that simple, we think. It doesn’t happen that way. But that is exactly what Tolstoy believes.

The Academic “We,” even when I hear myself using it, always leaves me with a desire to quote Oscar Brown, Junior’s song about the Lone Ranger and Tonto.  “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”  Who is this “contemporary reader” who has learned all these attitudes?  Deresiewicz’ description fits my habitual impulses fairly well, I admit.  But that may just be because living among markets and machines has inclined me to disbelieve in narrative.  Perhaps there are “answers” in the world.  Perhaps there are “endings” to be reached. 

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The labors of Hercules

A painting sometimes identified as a portrait of Hercules the chef and attributed to Gilbert Stuart

George Washington may have been in some ways uniquely admirable as a political leader, but as a slaveholder he was no better than he found it convenient to be.  Today’s Philadelphia Inquirer reports on recently discovered documents that show how brutally Washington could treat even his most favored household slaves.  

When Washington went to Philadelphia to head the federal government there, he took his chef Hercules with him to the President’s Mansion.   Hercules’ talent as a gourmet cook made him famous shortly after his arrival in the reestablished capital, and the president acknowledged his skill by allowing him unheard-of privileges, for example allowing him to earn income by selling leftovers from the kitchen, and to use this income to dress himself in a style that gained him a reputation as one of Philadelphia’s foremost dandies.    

In the spring of 1787, Prince Louis-Philippe of France visited Mount Vernon.  He reports that the Washingtons were upset that Hercules had escaped.  Any thought that Washington might have been a benevolent master loved by his slaves should be dispelled by a conversation his manservant had with Hercules’ six year old daughter.  The servant asked the little girl if she was sad that she might never see her father again.  “Oh!  Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now.”  What could she have seen that would have made a little girl happy that her father had gone away, never to return? 

For many years, it was assumed that Hercules had escaped while in Philadelphia.  The Quaker city was after all the world’s foremost center of abolitionism; it might have been relatively easy for a skilled man who had collected some savings to find his way to freedom there.  Perhaps Hercules had seen freedom ready at hand, and simply taken it. 

With a recently uncovered farm report and a cache of letters it makes intelligible, we now learn a far darker story.  In the spring of 1796, a year before the end of Washington’s second term as president, a woman named Oney Judge, who was Martha Washington’s personal maid,  disappeared from the President’s Mansion.  Washington would employ detectives to hunt for Oney Judge, eventually running her to ground in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  Oney Judge may have been trying to make her way to Nova Scotia, where several fugitives from Washington’s plantation at Mount Vernon had already made homes.  The Washingtons then decided that it was too dangerous to try to keep slaves in Philadelphia.  When they went to Mount Vernon that summer, they took the whole establishment with them.  When they returned to Philadelphia, they returned alone. 

With the president and his lady 130 miles away in Philadelphia, there was no need for a gourmet chef at Mount Vernon.  Hercules and his sons were sent to the fields.  Evidently the demotion came as a shock to Hercules’ son Richmond, who was soon caught stealing money.  Informed of this theft, President Washington saw a plot to escape, and surmised that it might be a father-son enterprise.  He ordered Hercules and Richmond sent to the clay pits, the hardest and most degraded task given to slaves at Mount Vernon.  On 22 February 1797,  as George Washington celebrated his 65th birthday, Hercules disappeared from the plantation.  President Washington’s term was due to expire 10 days later, when John Adams was inaugurated as president on 4 March.  One might imagine that Hercules was afraid of what might happen when Washington came home.  Afraid, perhaps, that his capricious master might find new ways of humiliating him; afraid, perhaps, that he would be unable to restrain his own anger at the thoughtless and unjust treatment he had received, so that if he stayed he might do something that would lead the Washingtons to make life even worse for his children than they would make it in response to his escape.

Higher Education (Look Around You)

A great artificial man

In the introduction to Leviathan, English thinker Thomas Hobbes famously compared the state to a “great artificial man, or monster, composed of other men, with a life that might be traced from its generation under the pressure of human needs to its dissolution through civil strife proceeding from human passions.”  The nerves and sinews of this artificial man, as he is constituted in modern society, are the laws and regulations of a rationalized bureaucracy.  He can function because he acts in accord with these laws and regulations as predictably as automata made of metal follow the algorithms of their programming.  As a being made of rules, the state interacts most smoothly with other beings made of rules.  Whenever possible, the state will tend to reduce everything it touches to a body like itself, a body defined by rules.  

Where the modern state has been established longest, bureaucratization respects the fewest boundaries.   The March 2010 issue of Chronicles carries a piece by a man from Hobbes’ own homeland, Thomas McMahon.  McMahon writes of the policies which the New Labour governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have adopted in the name of protecting children from sex offenders.  After the 2002 killing of 10 year old girls Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, the government introduced plans to require everyone in the United Kingdom who comes “into regular contact with children in any semioffical capacity to register with a national database.”  As McMahon points out, “‘Regular’ could mean mean as little as a few times per year, and ‘semiofficial’ covers everyone from cleaners at sports facilities to a parent who gives lifts to a group of kids in the morning.  Anyone wishing to help out with after-school activities would be required to register.”  How is this registry to be compiled?  McMahon explains:

Upon application for membership on the list, opinions would be sought on the suitability of the candidate.  Acquaintances and workmates may be asked for their comments, internet forums and networking sites may be trawled, “lifestyles” would be examined.  Even the most baseless accusation would be recorded in perpetuity on a central state database.  There would be no investigation to determine whether the accusation was malicious.  There would be no requirement that the accusations be proven in court. 

How closely were these provisions designed to address the case of Misses Chapman and Wells?  Not at all, as it turns out; the man convicted of their murder was not an employee of their school, nor did he fill any other “semiofficial capacity” that might have brought him into contact with them.  He was, rather, the boyfriend of one of their teachers.  He happened to be alone at her house when the girls dropped in to see her.  The law does not require teachers to date only people from the approved list, and so would have done nothing to protect Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells had it been in effect in 2002. 

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Places to go when you can’t stay anywhere

None of the three pieces that I wanted to note were mentioned on the cover. 

The state of Florida has a long list of crimes that require a convict to be registered for life as a sex offender.  Registered sex offenders in the state are prohibited from being close to schools, playgrounds, and other areas where children congregate.  Some Florida towns decree that registered sex offenders must stay at least 1000 yards (914.4 meters) from such areas; most put the boundary at 2500 yards (2286m.)  Since the average town has quite a few child-friendly spaces, the consequence of these laws is that Floridian sex offenders cluster into little ghettoes.  Irina Aleksander spent some time following a man who runs a business that shepherds registered sex offenders into these ghettoes.  The man, himself a registered sex offender whose crime was watching a 19 year old girls perform a sex act on a 15 year old boy, is evidently getting pretty rich.  The neighborhoods where he send his clients tend to get very inexpensive very quickly.  He seems like a good person to know if you are a real estate developer and want to find a way to reduce startup costs for redevelopment projects in Florida…

A person who has a lot of anger might answer the question of where registered sex offenders should go by referring to another article in this issue.  A business in Switzerland has taken advantage of that country’s very lax laws on assisted suicide to offer foreigners an easy death.  Zurich has thus become the world’s capital of “suicide tourism.” 

French playwright and novelist Henry de Montherlant committed suicide in 1972.  Had he asked for assistance, one suspects he would have found no end of volunteers.  (more…)

Conway’s Game of Life

A celebrated Conway Life pattern, the "Gosper Glider"

Years ago, I read a piece in The Atlantic about something demographer Thomas Schelling had figured out:  

In the 1960s he grew interested in segregated neighborhoods. It was easy in America, he noticed, to find neighborhoods that were mostly or entirely black or white, and correspondingly difficult to find neighborhoods where neither race made up more than, say, three fourths of the total. “The distribution,” he wrote in 1971, “is so U-shaped that it is virtually a choice of two extremes.” That might, of course, have been a result of widespread racism, but Schelling suspected otherwise. “I had an intuition,” he told me, “that you could get a lot more segregation than would be expected if you put people together and just let them interact.”

One day in the late 1960s, on a flight from Chicago to Boston, he found himself with nothing to read and began doodling with pencil and paper. He drew a straight line and then “populated” it with Xs and Os. Then he decreed that each X and O wanted at least two of its six nearest neighbors to be of its own kind, and he began moving them around in ways that would make more of them content with their neighborhood. “It was slow going,” he told me, “but by the time I got off the plane in Boston, I knew the results were interesting.” When he got home, he and his eldest son, a coin collector, set out copper and zinc pennies (the latter were wartime relics) on a grid that resembled a checkerboard. “We’d look around and find a penny that wanted to move and figure out where it wanted to move to,” he said. “I kept getting results that I found quite striking.”

Programming computers to play this game, Schelling found that strong residential segregation arose even if he assumed that each member of the set would stay put with only a single neighbor of the same category.  This provided evidence, not only that Schelling might be right about residential segregation, but also that social order in general can arise in ways that do not directly reflect the intentions of any particular member of that society.  All of Schelling’s virtual people wanted to live in integrated neighborhoods, yet it was precisely the actions they took to pursue that goal that inexorably led to the creation of segregated neghborhoods. 

Schelling’s tests reminded me of Conway’s Game of Life, a cellular automaton that mathematician John Conway invented in 1970.  The procedure of Conway is very similar to Schelling’s.  An indefinite number of square cells are arranged in a square grid.  Each cell is in one of two conditions, live or dead.  Each cell is in contact with eight other cells: one directly above, one directly below, one directly to the right, one directly to the left, and one on each of the four corners.  If a cell is alive, it remains alive if and only if it is in contact with two or three other live cells.  If a cell is dead, it remains dead unless it is in contact with exactly three dead cells.    Some very simple initial patterns take a surprisingly long time to stabilize in Conway Life: for example, this fellow (which Conway called the R-pentomino, though others call it the F-pentomino) goes on generating new forms for 1103 generations, and along the way produces a number of spectacular structures:

You can easily test out patterns here; some especially famous patterns are collected here and here.

Conway’s Game of Life came back to mind a couple of weeks ago, when this xkcd strip appeared:

Someone came up with a cellular automaton that could qualify as “Strip Conway’s Game of Life”:

Various commenters tried to put humans in the role of the automated cells, and tried to devise rules based on what the people around each human are wearing that would determine which clothes the human was required to remove.  It occurred to me that a more promising approach would be to have one person start by wearing a great many articles of clothing, leaving those clothes on that were touching either two or three other articles of clothing, removing those that were touching fewer than two or more than three articles of clothing, and putting clothes on bare spots that were bordered by exactly three articles of clothing.  Eventually, somebody might get naked. 

Then yesterday, Alison Bechdel announced on her blog that she’d drawn a comic for McSweeney’s magazine.  The comic represents a modified version of Milton Bradley’s board game called The Game of Life

Bechdel's Life

In the comments on that post, I brought up Conway’s Game of Life.  So, I decided the time had come to post about it here.

Can the USA become a normal country again?

 

He wanted to to return to normalcy

I posted a “Periodicals Note” about The American Conservative‘s March issue a few weeks ago, then realized I’d never put one up for the February issue.  That’s a shame, because there was a lot of great stuff in it. 

I loved this line, a quote from Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute: “Thus far, the approved conservative position appears to have been that Barack Obama is some kind of ruthless Stalinist with a secret plan to turn the United States into a massive gulag—but under no circumstances should there be any additional checks on his administration’s domestic spying powers.”

Ted Galen Carpenter sums up The American Conservative‘s whole worldview with the opening paragraphs of his piece titled “New War Order.”   So I’ll quote them in extenso:

For a fleeting moment 20 years ago, the United States had the chance to become a normal nation again. From World War II through the collapse of European communism in 1989, America had been in a state of perpetual war, hot or cold. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall, all of that could have changed. There were no more monsters to destroy, no Nazi war machine or global communist conspiracy. For the first time in half a century, the industrialized world was at peace.

Then in December 1989, America went to war again—this time not against Hitler or Moscow’s proxies but with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Tensions between George H.W. Bush’s administration and Noriega’s government had been mounting for some time and climaxed when a scuffle with Panamanian troops left an American military officer dead. On Dec. 20, U.S. forces moved to oust and arrest Noriega. Operation Just Cause, as the invasion was called, came less than a month after the Berlin Wall fell, and it set America on a renewed path of intervention. The prospect of reducing American military involvement in other nations’ affairs slipped away, thanks to the precedent set in Panama.

How real was the opportunity to change American foreign policy at that point? Real enough to worry the political class. Wyoming Sen. Malcolm Wallop lamented in 1989 that there was growing pressure to cut the military budget and that Congress was being overwhelmed by a “1935-style isolationism.” But the invasion of Panama signaled that Washington was not going to pursue even a slightly more restrained foreign policy.

That the U.S. would topple the government of a neighbor to the south was hardly unprecedented, of course. The United States had invaded small Caribbean and Central American countries on numerous occasions throughout the 20th century. Indeed, before the onset of Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy in the 1930s, Washington routinely overthrew regimes it disliked.

During the Cold War, however, such operations always had a connection to the struggle to keep Soviet influence out of the Western Hemisphere. The CIA-orchestrated coup in Guatemala in 1954 and the military occupations of the Dominican Republic in 1965 and Grenada in 1983 all matched that description. Whatever other motives may have been involved, the Cold War provided the indispensable justification for intervention. And for all the rhetoric about democracy and human rights that U.S. presidents employed during the struggle against communism, there was no indication that Washington would later revert to the practice of coercing Latin American countries merely, in Woodrow Wilson’s infamous words, to teach those societies “to elect good men.” Thus the invasion of Panama seemed a noticeable departure. Odious though he may have been, Noriega was never a Soviet stooge.

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