Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

In Memoriam, William F. Ryan, S. J.

I attended a memorial service today for perhaps the most important teacher I’ve ever had. Fr. Ryan was not only phenomenal scholar and instructor, but one of the kindest, funniest men I’ve ever had the honor of knowing.

He taught me many important lessons, but one that has stuck with me most keenly has been his warning against the existential vacuum of purposeless life. Man must have meaning in life. We must, each of us, have something towards which we orient ourselves, and for which we strive. I know that for Fr. Ryan, the education, development, and flourishing of his students was one such goal. And for that, I am immensely grateful, and deeply humbled. His dedication to education (along with his charm, wit, and incisive intellect) were incredible to behold.

I say with absolute certainty that the world will never see his kind again, and that we are all poorer for his passing.

But we’re all richer for his having been on Earth.


The Sliding Scale of Strategy vs. Tactics

“Napoleon made the point when discussing the outcome of actions between his own cavalry and the Mameluke horsemen of Asia Minor. These horsemen were so good that two of them would defeat three of his cavalrymen in a minor skirmish. But in a major battle, 1,000 of his cavalry would defeat 1,500 Mamelukes. On the small scale, horsemanship was the predominant factor, but on the large scale victory would be won by the controlled and disciplined application of force. Wellington made much the same point regarding actions between his cavalry and their French opponents.

On both scales of operation skilled horsemanship and cooperative action were ingredient factors, but the balance of importance between them changed with scale. Similarly, in intelligence personal skill may be the paramount factor on the small scale, but the ability to coordinate the skills of many individuals may be predominant in large-scale operations.” – RV Jones

As quoted by the mighty Grugq.

Thought Experiment for Open Immigration Opponents

Bryan Caplan posits an interesting thought experiment for immigration opponents. Like any good thought experiment, I think this one is effective because it’s a clear, succinct analogy and any honest disagreement is likely to come from arguing that the analogy itself is flawed.

This is ideal because the flaws one identifies in the analogy are likely to be the critical features that one considers important in the immigration debate, and so can be revealing about what, exactly, one’s motivations are. This is why thought experiments are particularly useful in ethics. Ethical inquiry has never really been about involuntary organ donation or pushing fat guys in front of trains, but rather about figuring out what the necessary elements are for an act to be ethically permissible.

So I encourage you to read Caplan’s argument and, as he says, “show your work”. In what specific ways are wage-based eugenics different from restricting immigration of the impoverished and/or unskilled?

“Things are not what they seem”

“And also,” the driver said, facing the mirror, “please remember: things are not what they seem.”

Things are not what they seem, Aomame repeated mentally. “What do you mean by that?” she asked with knitted brows.

The driver chose his words carefully: “It’s just that you’re about to do something out of the ordinary. Am I right? People do not ordinarily climb down the emergency stairs of the Metropolitan Expressway in the middle of the day –especially women.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

“Right. And after you do something like that, the everyday look of things might seem to change a little. Things may look different to you than they did before. I’ve had that experience myself. But don’t let appearances fool you. There’s always only one reality.”

Aomame thought about what he was saying, and in the course of her thinking, the Janáček ended and the audience broke into immediate applause. This was obviously a live recording. The applause was long and enthusiastic. There were even occasional calls of “Bravo!” She imagine the smiling conductor bowing repeatedly to the standing audience. He would then raise his head, raise his arms, shake hands with the concertmaster, turn away from the audience, raise his arms again in praise of the orchestra, face front, and take another deep bow. As she listened to the long recorded applause, it sounded less like applause and more like an endless Martian sandstorm.

“There is always, as I said, only one reality,” the driver repeated slowly, as if underlining an important passage in a book.

“Of course,” Aomame said. He was right. A physical object could only be in one place at one time. Einstein proved that. Reality was utterly coolheaded and utterly lonely.

Aomame pointed toward the car stereo. “Great sound.”

The driver nodded. “What was the name of that composer again?”


“Janáček,” the driver repeated, as if committing an important password to memory. Then he pulled the lever that opened the passenger door. “Be careful,” he said. “I hope you get to your appointment on time.”

Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

“The reason for which humans have failed to develop a finely built social process assuring continuity and steady quality in leadership is probably that they did not have to. Most human societies are marked by the existence of a surplus above subsistence. The counterpart of this surplus is society’s ability to take considerable deterioration in its stride. A lower level of performance, which would mean disaster for baboons, merely causes discomfort, at least initially, to humans.

The wide latitude human societies have for deterioration is the inevitable counterpart of man’s increasing productivity and control over his environment. Occasional decline as well as prolonged mediocrity–in relation to achievable performance levels–must be counted among the many penalties of progress. A priori it would seem futile, therefore, to look for social arrangements that would wholly eliminate any sort of deterioration of polities and of their various constituent entities. Because of the surplus and the resulting latitude, any homeostatic controls with which human societies might be equipped are bound to be rough.” – Albert O Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

Minerva blesses the gadflies

This evening, the role of Diogenes of Sinope will be played by Professor Benjamin Bratton.

“The key to wisdom is this – constant and frequent questioning, for by doubting we are led to question and by questioning we arrive at the truth.” – Peter Abelard

Neoteny, Geeks, and Auto-domestication

First things first, read these two blog posts on cat domestication and dog domestication, respectively. There’s a lot of great information in them. Note, but don’t get hung up on, the slight hints of post-modern Internet pidgin used occasionally in both of them, especially the all-caps portion of the intro to the dog post. I’ll circle back to language later in this post, but for the time being it’s worth noting that the author (who is a talented writer in both Standard Modern English and Internet Pidgin1) sprinkles the essays with references to “doges”, occasionally uses the faux-French “ze” instead of “the”, etc.

Now not knowing too much about animal domestication, both of these essays straight up blew my mind. The notion I found most interesting, though, was that of neoteny as a primary mechanism for domestication. Neoteny is the retention into adulthood of juvenile traits. To quote the post on cat domestication:

“There is another big goddamn difference when it comes to meows, too- wildcats will meow as kittens but hardly EVER meow as adults, whereas domestic cats if you hadn’t noticed meow all the goddamn time and never shut up. They have retained the kittenish behavior of meowing into adulthood (similar to the way that dogs retain the wolf puppy behavior of barking into adulthood). This retention of a juvenile trait is known as neoteny and it’s pretty common among domestic animals, particularly pets. You want humans to love you and care for you? BE A BABY FOREVER

Cats have a lot of other neotonic behaviors, like kneading (aka the thing kittens will do to mom’s belly to stimulate more milk production) and high levels of playfulness[.]”

This idea that neoteny can be adaptive in cases of domestication is interesting, because it occurred to me while reading the post that there’s another sort of creature that I interact with that is also extremely neotonic. Geeks.

Look at the two pictures below2 3. One of them is a play-oriented kid’s daycare, the other is a tech office:

Copyright  Ab Rogers Design

Copyright camenzind evolution

If I were to photoshop out the playing children in the first photo, do you think you’d be able to tell the two apart? How long would it take? If the only clues you had to go on in the two photos were primary colors and a slide, how would you tell apart the natural environment of adult technical professionals from children at play?

It’s not accidental that nerds surround themselves with toys, tend to score high on measures of openness to new experience, and have play-oriented hobbies (like video games, board games, ultimate frisbee, etc.) I suspect that in ambiguous, cerebral professions, neoteny might be a strong advantage.

But first, look at some of the other ways in which geek neoteny expresses itself.

Geek speech is extremely playful and inventive. Geeks tend to love word-play and neologism and have built not one, but several overlapping and mutually integrated pidgin languages.4 This sort of perpetual re-invention of speech is unusual in adults, but found commonly in teens and pre-teens.

Geeks tend to be socially oblivious to varying degrees, many of them intentionally so. Most geeks fail to see the point of social niceties and tend to be much more blunt and artless than their ages would suggest. Most older geeks never acquire truly adult social networks and don’t seem to develop the desire for family building. Those geeks I know that have kids tend to treat their children more like peers than the non-geeks I know.

The same guilelessness that marks geeks as having child-like social sensibilities can also itself be a social asset. Geeks are famously low on social skills, partially because of genes, partially because past times like reading, gaming, and coding, don’t give one a chance to develop those skills. In my experience, it’s very common for geeks to go from being strangers to acting like very close friends with someone, based largely on only shared interests. In the absence of practiced, developed social skills, child-like enthusiasm and guilelessness can lead to remarkably thriving and stable communities around common interests. (It’s rare, in my experience, for nerds to have friends with drastically different interests. Regular adults will usually have several such friends and can have interesting and meaningful conversations about topics which are outside the areas of their interest and expertise. This is a characteristic that very few geeks have.)5 And while geek friendships are every bit as awkward as individual geek social awkwardness would suggest, these intense, childlike passions give geeks an avenue to build friendships that many have a hard time building with socialization alone.

More generally, geeks tend to display the sort of wonderment, obsessive passion, openness to new experiences, and playful orientation towards the world that one more commonly associates with children than with adults.

All of this leads me to a hypothesis: this neoteny is going to help the geeks conquer the world. While brain plasticity is a real thing that declines over time, it doesn’t decline at a steady rate and can be reversed. It’s well established that people with active minds and varied habits maintain neuroplasticity better than those with less stimulation. So a group of people who conscientiously stay childlike, with varied interests and an extreme openness to new experiences well into their adult lives might have a decided intellectual advantage over those who don’t, as they adapt to new technologies and new trends. This would account for the many middle-age nerds and programmers who have stayed completely up to date on the sources of culture, eagerly adopting modern social media and self-curated news sources like Reddit. The simple neoteny of being enthusiastic about new experiences and viewing the world as a creative object of play makes one not just resilient to technological and social change, it makes one thrive on it. It makes geeks, to use a term from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, anti-fragile.

Just as neoteny in dogs and cats helped them to adapt the sorts of neural machinery they needed to be integrated into our families6, geekdom might be a memetically advantageous way to preserve neuroplasticity and intellectual curiosity long past the adolescent period in which it traditionally began to disappear.7

So in a way, geekdom is an unintended exercise in self-domestication. Geeks seem to stumbled onto a well-established evolutionary pattern, neoteny, that often produces excellent results in situations divorced from the evolutionary pressure of brutal, violent nature. In the case of geeks, this auto-domestication appears to be successful because of the enhanced neuroplasticity and openness to new ideas it affords them, which is a huge advantage in an environment in which keeping up with evolutionary change can be incredibly adaptive.

As with dogs and cats, it brought with it a variety of other side effects, some positive and some negative, that make for a very particular memetype. Just as cats and dogs are reliably and noticeably different from their wild or feral brethren in certain ways, so are geeks memetically different from your typical adult in well-understood, reproducible ways.

1 Which, contra many naysayers, can actually be extremely expressive if used correctly.

2 Copyright AB Rogers Design

3 Copyright camenzind evolution

4 Hacker slang, l33t, and Lolcat are three that spring to mind.

5 All of this might be true for other sub-cultures. Hipsters might have a strain of this going on, but I get the impression that that’s more conscious rebellion and that hipsters, for all my dislike of their smug self-absorption and self-conscious, intentional iconoclasm, due seem to be more “adult” than geeks, in the traditional sense of social maturity.

6 OMG THIS GIF So fucking brilliant on the part of the dog. I could write an entire essay about how this gif shattered my theory of mind when it comes to dogs.

7 This neoteny may also be way nerds my age seem to be seem to be avoiding the musical and artistic stagnation that previous generations fell pray to. It’s pretty common for baby boomers to still be listening to music from the 60s, but most nerds, even those older than me, seem to still be discovering new music. Non-geeks my age, however, seem to be slowly falling behind the times, with many of them still listening to the music that was popular when we were in high school and college.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Mencken!

In honor of the birthday of this blog’s Patron Saint, who would have been 133 today, I offer the following:

“All the quacks and cony-catchers now crowding the public trough at Washington seem to be agreed upon one thing, and one thing only. It is the doctrine that the capitalistic system is on its last legs, and will present give place to something nobler and more “scientific”. There is, of course, no truth in this doctrine whatsoever. It collides at every point with the known facts. There is not the slightest reason for believing that capitalism is in collapse, or that anything proposed by the current wizards would be any better…

We owe to [capitalism] almost everything that passes under the general name of civilization today. The extraordinary progress of the world since the Middle Ages has not been due to the mere expenditure of human energy, nor even to the flights of human genius, for men had worked hard since the remotest times, and some of them had been of surpassing intellect. No, it has been due to the accumulation of capital. That accumulation permitted labor to be organized economically and on a large scale and thus greatly enhanced its productiveness. It provided the machinery that gradually diminished human drudgery, and liberated the spirit of the worker, who had formerly been almost indistinguishable from a mule. Most of all, it made possible a longer and better preparation for work, so that every art and handicraft greatly widened its scope and range, and multitudes of new and highly complicated crafts came in.” H. L. Mencken, “Capitalism”, as reprinted in A Mencken Chrestomathy

On the Versatility of the Human Voice


The human voice has evolved over millions of years to be a versatile, extensible tool for general-purpose communication. Its facility covers everything from Mr. Thum’s brilliant vocalizations above, to the infinite variety of human linguistic expression. The pattern matching wetware we carry around in our skulls combined with this extremely flexible vocalization apparatus has given us everything from Shakespeare and Richard Hugo to Ellie Goulding and beatboxing.

My mother once espoused (and, I imagine, might still) the theory that what makes us quintessentially human is not just language, but storytelling. I don’t know that she’s right, but suspect she’s not wrong.

Anyone who has heard a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo understands that “storytelling” shouldn’t be narrowly considered. Tom Thum’s presentation tells a story, in its way. It moves from percussive braggadocio to a smoky, jazz-club vignette in the space of eleven minutes, and of the sounds Thum employs, “proper words” are the decided minority.

Whether or not it is the quintessence of humanity, this facility for narrative expression is inextricable from what makes us human, no matter what audible form it takes.

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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.